While there was no quintessentially “Texas” movie or TV series for us to hang our hat on in 2019, the year was still filled with commendable performances from actors who got their start here. While some of them came from established names like Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, many more were from newer up-and-comers (ones who didn’t already get their big break in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation). Scattered across an increasingly fragmented media landscape of broadcast TV, cable, and streaming, as well as arthouse movies, these Texans gave us something worth watching no matter where we turned.
Edi Patterson, The Righteous Gemstones
On HBO’s televangelist satire The Righteous Gemstones, men get all the glory—from John Goodman’s family patriarch down to his rival peacocking sons played by Danny McBride and Adam Devine. But it’s their sister, Judy, played by the Texas City-born Edi Patterson, who walks away with the whole show. As on McBride’s last HBO comedy, Vice Principals, Patterson excels at playing unpredictable types with zero filter, their desperate need to be noticed causing them to act out in increasingly unhinged ways. At first, Judy seems like just another one of these—a perpetual middle child who jockeys to be as crass as her brothers, when she’s not trying to wheedle her dad into loving her. But Patterson, who’s also a series writer, gives Judy’s frustrations a real sense of dimension, turning her into the show’s most unexpectedly empathetic character. Patterson also cowrote the show’s breakout musical hit, “Misbehavin’,” and she scripted its absolute funniest scene: a nearly three-minute monologue that Judy delivers in an Outback Steakhouse, which becomes a raunchy, disturbing tour de force for Patterson’s uniquely deadpan depravity. All told, it’s been a breakout year for Patterson, who also landed a crucial role in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.
William Jackson Harper, The Good Place
As Chidi Anagonye, William Jackson Harper plays the most tormented of all the souls trapped inside The Good Place’s vision of the afterlife. He’s a morality and ethics professor who’s so obsessed with finding perfect solutions, he turns everything into an all-consuming problem. Yet the Garland-bred actor has turned this anxious, stomachache-prone nebbish—a character who’s been dubbed a “human sweater vest”—into the NBC sitcom’s unlikely heart. Nowhere was that more apparent than in this year’s Chidi-centric midseason finale, an episode that forced him to grapple with his entire life and his hundreds of afterlives while finding a way to the maddening contradictions of it all. As Chidi’s myriad existential crises crescendo into a moment of pure and emotional clarity, the half-hour of TV offers a microcosm of all the funny, nuanced work Harper has done over the show’s four seasons. It’ll be a shame to say goodbye to Chidi when The Good Place wraps next spring. Fortunately Harper, who also popped up this year in Midsommar and Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters, is only just beginning to reveal his own multitudes.
Renée Zellweger, Judy
In Judy, Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland at the end of her rainbow, when the Wizard of Oz star was at her most fragile: broke and homeless, exploited by the Hollywood system, and beloved mostly by people who only know what they read in magazines. Zellweger has noted some parallels between Garland’s and her own story: in 2010, the Katy native began a six-year break from acting, disillusioned by the way that every cosmetic surgery rumor and her every fleeting romance had become endless tabloid fodder. But her performance in Judy is more about transformation, one of those feats of old-school, actorly immersions that finds Zellweger channeling Garland’s spirit, while also bravely scaling her songs. It’s the kind of bravura turn (and showbiz biopic) that naturally invites Oscar talk. But even if the academy somehow goes against conventional wisdom and snubs her, Judy still marks a pivotal moment for Zellweger, who this year also starred in her first TV series, Netflix’s What/If, and—again setting herself apart from Garland—seems to have entered an even more rewarding stretch of her career.
Jesse Plemons, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
For much of the past decade, it’s often seemed like Jesse Plemons has been in everything. From blockbuster sci-fi movies to Drunk History, big studio comedies to Black Mirror, the Dallas native has come a long way since Friday Night Lights, creating a body of enviable work that should finally, probably put an end to the Crucifictorious jokes. Compared with some years, Plemons’s 2019 was relatively quiet, in that it saw him starring in only one movie from a filmmaking titan (Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman), in addition to revisiting his other breakout role in a prestige TV drama with Netflix’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. The film sequel to the AMC series draws most of its tension from the queasy relationship between Aaron Paul’s Jesse and Plemons’s Todd, a meth-cooking, white-supremacist sociopath with a softer side—the kind of guy who’ll drag someone out to the desert to help him bury a body, but offer to pick up pizza on the way home. Like he did on the show, Plemons gave this cold-blooded character dimension, mostly by virtue of his own natural charms.
Allison Tolman, Emergence
Sugar Land’s own Allison Tolman saw her first starring vehicle, ABC’s Downward Dog, canceled after just eight episodes. It was a heartbreak of a false start for the actor, who had walked away with so many accolades and an Emmy nomination for her breakout turn in FX’s Fargo, and who turned down myriad other offers to find something unique. But she rebounded and then some with this year’s Emergence, the twisty ABC thriller that quickly overcame rote comparisons to Lost largely due to Tolman’s performance. As a small-town police chief watching over a mysterious young girl who’s the sole survivor of a plane crash, Tolman’s character is smart, assured, and blessedly free of Troubled Career Woman tropes. She also gives everything—even the robot dogs—a down-to-earth authenticity, grounding any outlandish sci-fi stereotypes by playing it like any other naturalistic family drama. Thanks to her, unlike all the failed Lost-alikes that arose in its wake, Emergence is the kind of show that resists easy categorization—even though, given its ratings, that very quality also may end up killing it. Still, this would be no reflection on Tolman, who continues to make everything she appears in worth taking seriously.
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Waves
Waves is a family drama of almost operatic intensity, even as it remains rooted firmly in the small, sharply observed interactions between characters who are suffering through an all-too-real trauma. Trey Edward Shults’s film would easily tip over into melodrama were it not for its ensemble cast led by Sterling K. Brown and Kelvin Harrison Jr., and anchored by a quietly powerful Renée Elise Goldsberry. The Houston-bred Goldsberry plays the loving stepmother to Harrison’s high-school wrestling star, whose teenage invincibility turns swiftly to tragedy and leaves his family in a tailspin. Waves deals heavily in questions of identity, most of them black and masculine, yet it’s women who bear most of the emotional weight. And it’s in Goldsberry’s performance in particular where the family’s struggle to hold together most reveals itself, culminating in a wrenching scene with Brown where her character is forced to confront their deteriorating marriage. Coupled with her Tony-winning turn in Hamilton, it offers even more evidence of Goldsberry’s impressive range.
Owen Wilson, Documentary Now!
The Dallas-born Owen Wilson has had a quiet couple of years, spending most of it, strangely enough, hawking British sofas on the internet. But he managed to get off the couch long enough to make a rare TV appearance on IFC’s mockumentary series Documentary Now!, in the process turning in one of his funniest comic performances in years. Wilson starred in the show’s third-season spoof of Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, playing Father Ra-Shawbard, the cocaine-snorting, orgy-loving cult leader who takes over a small Oregon town. As Wilson himself has acknowledged in interviews, he “didn’t have to dig that deep” to get to Ra-Shawbard, mostly drawing on his own proven charisma and the power of his hypnotically twinkling eyes—not to mention the New Age idiot mysticism of his iconic Zoolander character, Hansel. Nevertheless, good casting is good casting, and Wilson’s turn in this two-parter was enough to remind us that his uniquely chill brand of silliness has been sorely missed.
Tig Notaro, Star Trek: Discovery
At first brush, comedian Tig Notaro is not the most obvious addition to the Star Trek franchise. Her deadpan demeanor and low-key energy seem at odds with the outsized, extraterrestrial-blastin’ excitement of science-fiction’s most venerable franchise. But Notaro’s turn in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery has been hailed as a revelation, primarily because of that offbeat juxtaposition. The Spring native’s role as engineer Jett Reno brings some much-needed levity to the often deathly serious space opera, with Notaro offering just enough of her usual ironic detachment to deflate some of the bluster and techno-babble that’s always threatened the Enterprise. Notably, Jett is also Star Trek’s first openly lesbian character (a widow who lost her wife in the Klingon war), a progressive milestone that the show treats without any special fanfare. As Notaro (who’s old friends with Discovery showrunner Alex Kurtzman) prepares to return for the third season in 2020, it’s notable how what might have come off as a gimmick now feels like one of its most crucial elements.
Gabriel Luna, Terminator: Dark Fate
Among the collateral damage from the box-office failure of Terminator: Dark Fate is that we’re unlikely to see Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 again. The Austin-born actor brought a new, eerily human sense of menace to his android antagonist, one that diverged significantly from both Robert Patrick’s stoically chilling T-1000 and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original killing machine. Luna’s Rev-9 has something of a personality upgrade, and is able to mimic human behavior and use his charms to lull people into a false sense of safety. Luna has said he approached his performance as a killer cyborg spin on Ted Bundy, and it’s all there in the way he’ll flash a disarming smile before shoving a liquid metal spike into your body—taking more than a hint of sadistic pleasure in his work that, according to the other characters, makes the Rev-9 the most lethal Terminator ever invented. It’s a shame the franchise’s apparent end means Luna will also find himself on the proverbial scrap heap, but surely there will be many more opportunities for him to plumb that dark side.
Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum
A film with Matthew McConaughey as a pot-smoking, margarita-swilling hedonist who’s determined to just keep livin’ borders on documentary, given how closely it mirrors the Austin cultural minister’s own nude-bongo-banging mythos. But there’s slightly more to Harmony Korine’s stoner odyssey than McConaughey bouncing around Key West, getting high with Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett, and generally behaving like an airbrushed-T-shirt caricature of himself. (Not much more, granted: The Beach Bum is as ambling and self-indulgent as McConaughey’s lapsed poet protagonist, Moondog). Yet you couldn’t ask for a better marriage of performer and material since, well, the last time McConaughey played a charming pothead, and there are moments when his Moondog achieves a transcendently naive bliss, something Korine posits as an alluring response to a world that’s dead set on harshing everyone’s mellow. This is Peak McConaughey, in other words, at a time when everyone could use a hit.