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Samuel L. Jackson flips through the TV with a remote in this image from Screen Gems.
Samuel L. Jackson has a distinct way of doing every little thing. (Image: Screen Gems)

We’ve watched and taken note of incredible actors out there — as well as the not-so-incredible ones. Oftentimes, it’s the littlest details that can make or break a performance, like how convincingly and in-character an actor does mundane activities, like driving a car or reading a book. The very best actors are well-known for the micro details of their performances, while other popular actors frequently fall short in casual moments, breaking the immersion.

Here’s a look at popular actors who have a distinct way of performing small activities, with my rating on how convincing they are on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being a perfect performance and one being utterly unconvincing.

Check out the video version of the article:

Johnny Depp — 9

Johnny Depp eats an apple in this image from Walt Disney Pictures.
Johnny Depp includes even the smallest actions in the physical comedy of his characters. (Image: Walt Disney Pictures)

Whether it’s the way he flicks his cigarette holder in the corner of his mouth in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” or the caring way he puts a Band-Aid on his disabled brother in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” Johnny Depp is a perfect example of someone who enriches his performances through micro-moments. What’s great about the small movements and gestures in Depp’s performances is that they’re never exactly the same in any of his roles. It’s clear that he spends time thinking about his character’s back story and why they might move or act in a certain way, and he weaves those expressions into every moment he has on screen. His ability to do this earns him one of the highest rankings on this list.

Margot Robbie — 7

Margot Robbie lies on the floor smoking a cigarette in this image from Paramount Pictures.
Margot Robbie adds her own flair to the smallest of tasks in her best roles. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

When it comes to the small moments in her performances, Margot Robbie has a somewhat checkered history. While she’s a serious actress with undeniable talent in her most celebrated roles, she has also done some films, like “The Legend of Tarzan,” where she clearly didn’t connect with the director or character very well and did more uncomfortable blinking than impressive acting. It seems like she excels at big personalities, like her characters in “Suicide Squad” and “I, Tonya.”

Robbie also plays well off of talented co-stars, like in her breakout performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street” opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. When Robbie really connects with a character, she’s as good as any celebrated actor in including micro-gestures and small actions into the fabric of the role. But when she’s playing the straight man or doesn’t deeply connect with her character, she has a tendency to be awkward, earning her a good but not amazing score.

Ben Affleck — 5.5

Two men drink beers in a garden in this image from Appian Way.
It can be hard to decide whether Ben Affleck feels entirely natural when he’s doing the small stuff. (Image: Appian Way)

One of Ben Affleck’s greatest strengths is choosing roles he knows he can perform well — in other words, he almost always plays himself. While you certainly wouldn’t call his performances bad, he does have a tendency to recycle the same jaw-tensing and open-mouth expressions in many of his roles. The Boston native does great at characters from his home state, and, somewhat opposite to Margot Robbie, excels at playing the straight man more than highly emotional roles.

Examples of this include “Good Will Hunting” and “Chasing Amy.” Compared to the tense emotions of his role in “State of Play,” it’s clear that cool comic timing and boy-next-door charm are Affleck’s best assets as an actor. It works for the roles he chooses, but it does require less forethought in his smallest moments on screen, since he mostly does things as he naturally would himself, earning him a lower rating.

Michelle Yeoh — 6.5

A woman carries a stack of old books in this image from Universal Pictures.
Michelle Yeoh can be more or less convincing based on how nuanced her role is. (Image: Universal Pictures)

For an actress who got her start in over-the-top martial arts films in the ‘90s, Michelle Yeoh has grown into a titan of a performer. It’s hard to count her earlier work against her. She wasn’t exactly natural in films like “Tai Chi Master” while doing standing flips onto a table, but she does look cool in those ridiculous fight scenes. Later in her career, she took on more subtle roles that really showcased her skill as an actress, such as her natural grace and ability to turn instantly cold in “Crazy Rich Asians” and her measured intensity and emotional performance in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

She excels at playing graceful characters and using careful, measured body movements from her martial arts days — as she showed in her role in “Memoirs of a Geisha.” However, slightly exaggerated martial arts movements, like an overdramatic turn, still show through occasionally, knocking a couple of points off her score.

Samuel L. Jackson — 7.5

Two men look at a newspaper in this image from Phoenix Pictures.
Another nuanced and convincing performance of everyday actions by Samuel L. Jackson. (Image: Phoenix Pictures)

For an actor who has been in films as ridiculous as “Deep Blue Sea” and “Snakes on a Plane,” Samuel L. Jackson manages to maintain realism even in his most surreal movies. Sure, he’s often typecast as the tough guy, but if anyone is a believable tough guy, it’s him. Jackson has had a positive working relationship with iconic director Quentin Tarantino over the course of his career, producing some of his best, darkest, and most humorous performances in films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained.”

We don’t often get to see his softer side, but he does surprisingly well in everyman roles, too, as he proves in more subtle performances like the harried, chain-smoking chief engineer in “Jurassic Park” and the obsessively philosophical disabled superhero in “Unbreakable.” While he can’t compete with dramatic actors in the basic activities department, he’s surprisingly good at adding a cool flair through expressions and small actions, especially for a bada** action star. His ability to stand out as a subtle actor through his performance of everyday activities, often in melodramatic films, ups his score.

Marilyn Monroe — 7

Marilyn Monroe poses in a car in this image from 20th Century Fox.
Despite being typecast as ditsy characters, Marilyn Monroe was very deliberate in each small thing she did. (Image: 20th Century Fox)

Marilyn Monroe spent much of her career fighting the reputation of being a wooden actress who was cast for her looks rather than her talent. While it’s true that several of her roles are very similar characters, the actress managed to enchant audiences with her surprisingly clever physical comedy and timing, often shown in moments like walking through a door, getting out of a car, or having a casual conversation.

Training her acting skills intensively, Marilyn moved on to more dramatic roles in films, like her complex and emotionally wounded character in “The Misfits,” written by her then-husband Arthur Miller. It’s clear that Marilyn was a smart woman looking for opportunities to show off her abilities as an actress and was able to do that best when she was intellectually invested in a role.

While comedy was clearly her forte, she was actually more natural in her small gestures when she took on other roles. Her work in “Niagara” showcases her abilities in moments as small as getting out of a shower or making a phone call. Taking into account the acting style of the time, Marilyn was surprisingly convincing, earning her a respectable rating.

Arnold Schwarzenegger — 5

Arnold Schwarzenegger rides a motorcycle in this image from Blackjack Films Inc.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is known for his robotic acting, but is it poor skill or comedy genius? (Image: Blackjack Films Inc.)

Like Ben Affleck, Arnold Schwarzenegger benefits from his choice of roles that serve to mask his repetitive acting. Playing an actual cyborg in “The Terminator,” his iconic robotic acting was nothing short of comedy genius. It worked less well, however, when the acting style was repeated in almost all of his most famous roles, even when he was meant to be playing a more expressive character like the heartbroken father in “Commando.” In all fairness, he got his start as a champion bodybuilder and was usually cast for his impressive physique rather than his acting ability.

Unlike the subtle performances of fellow action star Michelle Yeoh, his movement training doesn’t show through in his basic activities and expressions nearly as much. He may not be the most natural and therefore doesn’t get a higher rating here, but Arnie is still a beloved icon despite — or maybe because of — his wooden acting.

Is there anyone else we missed on this list who you think performs — or doesn’t perform — basic activities well? Let us know in the comments!

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