The Unsung List: Actress Michelle Forbes

There is so much content out there that sometimes, things just get lost in the mix, and great participants don’t always get their due. 

I’m beginning an occasional series focusing on the most under-appreciated talent in Hollywood. There are no firm criteria here, other than my feeling that the work of great talent deserves to be elevated, in the hope that readers will seek it out.

Today’s gem is from the acting world: actress Michelle Forbes. I can almost guarantee you’ve seen her.  Here’s a list of the projects she’s appeared in.

Actors often get a bad rap, enduring endless criticism both within Hollywood and from without. As with anyone in any profession, sometimes that criticism is deserved, sometimes it isn’t. I happen to love actors--smart actors--the ones who truly understand their craft, and are constantly seeking to elevate and transform it. The best actors have a unique ability, which is to access an emotional plane on demand and deliver it to us truthfully. It is the truth of these moments on screen that will break or make our emotional connection to the story.

Think about the characters you’ve fallen in love (or hate) with, particularly in television where you develop a long-term relationship with that individual. There are two reasons you care--because of how the character has been written, and the work of the actor to bring that character to life.

Forbes brings this truthfulness to the screen in everything she does. The cornerstone of this ability rests with the degree to which she commits to a role. The best actors fully commit to their roles. They must engage every part of themselves--mental, emotional, psychological, physical--with the character they portray.

Forbes is just such an actor, and that’s rare in television, where the speed at which a program is produced does not always allow for an actor to prepare fully for a scene.

Forbes first appeared on my radar when I saw her in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The reason she caught my attention is because she exhibited a quality that she still exhibits today, and it’s actually a quality that too few actors possess. She completely committed to her role. If that sounds like it should be standard practice for an actor, you’ll be surprised to hear how infrequently it really happens.

I’ve found this to be particularly true of science fiction programming. Some actors cannot wrap their heads around the concept that drama is drama regardless of genre and venue. I’ve seen capable actors totally fumble the ball in sci-fi. Forbes also engaged with her presence. She held the screen with Patrick Stewart, he of distinguished Shakespearean pedigree. That’s not easy.

To me, she built on that presence in what I think is her defining role, as Dr. Julianna Cox on the great crime series, Homicide: Life on the Street. Over the course of the two seasons, we were treated to Forbes’ terrific work as a robustly professional medical examiner who also walked an edge outside of work.

Forbes had an opportunity to show she could hold the screen with the outstanding actors from the series including Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor, and Melissa Leo. She offered us a rich character in a performance that felt as real as viewers can find on television. It showed us a woman who was smart, professional, and sexy while grappling with the kinds of challenges one might expect from a medical examiner. The writers allowed her to demonstrate her range, and she didn’t let them down, as we can see in this scene from her first episode.

It’s a shame Peter Berg’s dark mental hospital drama Wonderland had a short life on network television, which pulled it after two episodes. Maybe you caught all eight on DIRECTV’s Channel 101 in 2009. If so, you got to see Forbes expand on her work in Homicide, portraying a doctor in the hospital with typical aplomb.

There’s an enormous amount of work to highlight in Forbes’ career, so I’ll just mention three other appearances that were particularly impressive. Back in the sci-fi realm, Forbes appeared as Admiral Helena Cain of the Battleship Pegasus in the Peabody Award-winning series, Battlestar Galactica. The series remains the definitive sci-fi television series of the modern era. Forbes portrayed a ship commander who always kept us guessing as to just how insane she may (or may not) have been. Alternatively stubborn, tough, and willing to bring the remaining humans to the brink of civil war, she went toe to toe with the great Edward James Olmos, delivering an unforgettable character who epitomized the sacrifices of one’s own humanity that are necessary in service of a grander cause.

We saw an entirely different side of her in HBO’s In Treatment, appearing as Gabriel Bryne’s wife, Kate. Here she played a woman relegated to the fringes of her husband’s interior world of psychotherapy. Although she is often cast as a strong, tough woman, In Treatment allowed her to portray a woman wounded by her subservience to her husband’s work. Several episodes just had her and Byrne in marriage counseling with therapist Dianne Wiest. For anyone who has ever been in couples therapy, every moment of these scenes rings true, due in no small part to the work of all three actors.

Finally, we have Forbes portrayal of grieving mother Mitch Larsen in AMC’s The Killing. Grief may be the second most difficult emotion to portray next to fear. Grief goes beyond “sad.” Anyone can play sad. Grief requires digging into places nobody wants to go, and it often requires multiple layers of emotion to be expressed along with it--anger, resentment, frustration. The series was not one to revel is histrionic set pieces, so it required an exceptional actor to deliver the constant overhang of grief while engaging in everyday activities. Forbes completely delivered in this regard, and perhaps it’s way she earned an overdue Emmy nomination.

I sincerely hope we see more of Forbes. She’s shown tremendous range across genres, is able to effortlessly exude a compelling sexuality, has no qualms about burying her beautiful features in the frumpy costuming of a grieving mother, and completely commits to every role she takes on. I'll close with this interview, which I think demonstrates the intelligence she brings to the table.


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