Best Supporting #2: Anthony Paolucci

Best Supporting is an occasional series about great acting performances by non-star actors. It praises those who are not household names, but could be.

Here is a very short scene from Spotlight, the 2016 Best Picture winner. The film is about the Boston Globe and their reporting on systemic child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. The actor opposite Michael Keaton is Anthony Paolucci.

Background: Keaton plays a senior Boston Globe reporter, Walter Robinson. While investigating priest abuse allegations at Boston-area schools, the story gets personal. Though not a victim himself, Walter suspects a teacher at his old high school — Father Talbot — was an abuser. He travels to Providence to talk with Kevin, an alumnus who seemed close to Talbot, to learn more. Now watch:

What is specifically great about this scene?

Two male professionals — affiliated, but not friends— meet in a sleek downtown restaurant. Both actors artfully convey the stiffness and forced bon homie of that moment. It’s a ritual of the confident bourgeois male: the random business lunch where one’s professional and family achievements must be proudly recounted with a dash of false humility.

Kevin clearly has no idea why he’s here. He’s wary but curious. Perhaps he’s being solicited for donations to the high school, or asked about an internship for some nephew.

Then Keaton drops the pretense: “I need to ask you about Father Talbot.”

Paolucci says nothing for eight seconds. Eight seconds is a long time in film. As an actor, Paolucci makes a smart choice. He chooses not to make a choice. He freezes. You can practically feel the adrenaline and cortisol flooding the character’s brain. Like a cornered animal, his mind is doing a thousand calculations in an instant: “how can I get out of this with the least amount of pain?” Whatever the character did next… sprint for the exit, scream at Keaton, weep, tip over the table, deny, obfuscate, lie… I would believe it. He embodies the first commandment of the Meisner acting school: responding truthfully in imaginary circumstances.

“How’d you find out?”

There is a lot of hard work in that line reading. There’s old school Boston brittleness — “hey, mind your fuckin’ business, guy”. There’s a tiny note of relief, like a burden carried for decades being finally shared. And there’s a wave of thick, tarry, unprocessed shame. “I never even told my wife.”

Paolucci is a part-time actor. He’s a dentist in Providence, Rhode Island, where this scene takes place. He was cast by the production when they came to the city. I doubt he woke up that morning and thought: “I’m going to be cast in a Best Picture-winning film today.” It shows that there truly are no small parts. When opportunity meets preparation, greatness can happen anywhere. This tiny role is one of the emotional lynchpins of the film, and it makes the whole disgusting tale fiercely relatable. Abuse didn’t just happen to “damaged” or “fringe” people. It happened to “ordinary” people — with wives and kids and business suits. People like Kevin. People like you.

It’s not just my favorite scene in the film. It’s one of the director’s favorite scenes too. Here’s director Tom McCarthy heaping praise on the actor at a screening:

So if you’re ever making a film in Providence R.I., call Anthony Paolucci.

He has the goods.