Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores some of the best performances in Ted Lasso.
There’s a bittersweetness to the end of Ted Lasso that makes me happy-sad it’s reached its conclusion. When it premiered three years ago, the soccer–sorry, football–comedy-drama took the world by storm. It delivered a comforting message about empathy at a time when we really needed that message affirmed. It was an archetypal story, sure–the underdog athletes and those that love them. But it also focused on how transparency and accountability dismantle rigid societal structures, both in football and in life.
However, as the series progressed, Ted Lasso began to slowly sink into didactic quicksand. The aspects of the show that felt so organic and unstressed came to feel performative and predetermined. Almost like a glossy after-school special for Apple TV+. We know by season three, all conflicts will resolve themselves with a nice bow at the end. But it was this lack of certainty over the team’s success that made the first season such a triumph. This is the well that springs my bittersweetness. The show, without question, has been a joy to watch. But it never really surpassed the high point achieved in the electrifying first season.
Be that as it may, even when Ted Lasso mucks around in an abundance of cloying sentimentality, the show’s humor and heart are still difficult to deny. If “comfort watch” was in the Dictionary, the mustachioed mug of Ted Lasso would no doubt be there. It’s what will give the show eternal longevity, whether or not new seasons, spin-offs, or Christmas specials come to light.
To honor this new classic’s streaming finale, let’s revisit some of the award-winning performances of the ensemble cast. The list remains concise, yet there are still numerous honorable mentions deserving of recognition. The multilayered complexities of Sarah Niles’ Dr. Sharon are fascinating. The understated poignancy of Toheeb Jimoh’s Sam Obisanya and the pitch-perfect comedic timing of Phil Dunster’s Jamie Tartt is also noteworthy.
Suffice it to say everyone delivers a great performance in Ted Lasso, but here are six of the most standout moments.
6. Ted “Talkin’ About Practice”
Jason Sudeikis’ Ted is the driving force of positive energy that infects the Richmond team like the greatest contagion known to man. So when we see a dark cloud cast over Ted’s sunshiney optimism, and he explodes in anger, it creates a profound impact on the audience. These moments become the meat of Sudeikis’s performance, and we get our first glimpses of it midway through season one.
Jamie and his cocky personality are already on thin ice with Ted, but he falls into frigid waters once he feigns an injury and says he can’t practice. This sets Ted off on a riff of an infamous Alan Iverson speech. “You’re sitting in here. You’re supposed to be the franchise player. And yet here we are, talking about you missing practice. We’re talking about practice. You understand me? Practice…You know you’re supposed to be out there. You know you’re supposed to lead by example. You’re just shoving that all aside. And so here we are, Jamie. We’re talking about practice.”
But while Ted may be expressing something to Jamie, is he not really expressing something about himself? Sure, Jamie does deserve the scolding, but Ted’s frustration is really coming from the dissolution of his marriage. This makes his line “You know you’re supposed to be out there. You know you’re supposed to lead by example” become as much about the game as it is about his own personal failures. It’s a moment that encapsulates everything that made Ted Lasso such a rewarding watch. It’s constantly pushing you to consider every layer of emotion that ignites conflicts within our lives.
5. When Keeley Meets Rebecca’s Oldest Friend
Chances are someone out there has lived the age-old cliche of “work best friend” meeting “college best friend”. What awkward hijinks may ensue as they discuss who knows who better? Will close bonds make new friends feel jealous of old ones? This scenario subtly plays out when Juno Temple’s Keeley meets Sassy (Ellie Taylor), one of Rebecca’s (Hannah Waddingham) oldest friends. The magnetism of Sassy instantly enchants Keeley, if for nothing more than the fact that she is Rebecca’s oldest friend. But in Temples’ face, as her eyes dart between the two, we see Keeley’s quiet recognition of the history Sassy and Rebecca have together. A history Keeley does not yet have herself with Rebecca.
Keeley’s feelings of vulnerability are practically imperceptible on the page. The story never brings it into true focus. But we can still sense it in the moments between her dialogue, as she watches the two banter with an open and receptive face. She may want to interject into the conversation, but she also wants to give deference to two old friends rekindling a relationship. She’s purposefully making space for Sassy rather than vying for Rebecca’s attention, as you may expect from lesser sitcoms that play with this dynamic. It’s a choice that Temple intentionally doesn’t call attention to–and that’s the magic trick of her perfectly realized portrayal of Keeley. She can move mountains with her performance without making you even realize it.
4. Roy Realizes He Misses Football
As both one of the show’s lead actors and writers, Brett Goldstein has been able to make Roy Kent his own in a very singular way. He’s volatile but vulnerable, as hot-headed as he is level-headed. Watching his steely emotional barricades come crashing down under Ted’s leadership is one of the most satisfying turns of any character on the show. But Goldstein’s performance also rarely rises above a low roar. He’s like rolling thunder, always on the verge of a lightning crack that never comes. It’s that sense of control that informs his Emmy Award-winning performance.
After an injury forces him into retirement, Goldstein’s Roy relinquishes his life’s central focus and loses his sense of direction in the process. But after Ted coerces Roy into coaching Isaac (Kola Bokinni), he reaffirms his love for the game and the crack of lighting finally comes.
Except rather than an implosion of Roy Kent Rage™ we see on Goldstein’s face all the stars in Roy’s life align once again. And it sends him racing out of a television studio and back to the Richmond pitch. Because–to borrow a rom-com cliche to go with the many that are referenced in this episode–when Roy realizes he wants to spend the rest of his life with some team, he wants the rest of his life to start as soon as possible.
3. Nate’s Pump-Up Speech
By the beginning of the second season, we can clearly see Nick Mohammed’s turn from underdog to villain coming from a mile away. We are all aware that this character shift is coming well before it does. Season one certainly waters the roots for this twist. But they are subtle, like easter eggs pointing out that the team’s volatility extends into Nate the Great.
One of these moments comes when Ted makes Nate give a pre-game speech before a match with a decades-old rival. In the speech, we begin to see the cruel Nate we’ll come to know later, full of blunt truths spiked with pent-up venom. His burns sting with the strength of radiation, but like Ted’s “practice” speech, Mohammed gives us the sense that Nate’s words aren’t just coming from a place of encouragement. They’re bubbling out of the pains of his own personal history. Everyone, from Jamie to his own father, has made Nate feel inferior throughout his life. And he unleashes that rage onto his teammates.
But it’s when he is speaking to Roy that we get a sense of truly what’s happening inside of him. “But your speed and your smarts were never what made you who you are. It’s your anger. That’s your superpower” Nate says, staring up at an imposing Roy. “But that anger doesn’t come out anymore when you play. But it’s still in there. And I’m afraid of what it’s gonna do to you if you just keep it all for yourself.”
The anger Nate speaks about isn’t just Roy’s–it’s his own. And because Nate never felt the confidence to confront his feelings of frustration and isolation as the Ted Lassoian way of life spread across the team, his anger blew up in his face. Nate lets his rage get the best of him, and Mohammed brings this sad reality to life with an effective turn at the end of season two.
2. Rebecca Sheds Her Steel
Hannah Waddingham is a force to be reckoned with, full stop. The energy and magnetic charisma she conveys in her performance is palpable. Whenever she’s in a scene, it’s difficult to tear our eyes away from her. She also gets to have one of the biggest transformations over the show’s three seasons. From the very beginning, the show establishes this transformation, so despite Rebecca’s initial portrayal as a foil, we all know she won’t remain that way for long.
The first instance of Rebecca lowering her guard happens unexpectedly during a charity gala she’s hosting. It’s the first event she’s organized without her ex-husband Rupert (Anthony Head)–or so she thinks. Midway through her introductory speech, Rupert barges in, winning the crowd over with incorrigible charm that oozes out of Head’s slimy performance.
This intrusion pushes her off-balance. But as she centers herself outside the ballroom, Ted is there to selflessly catch her. At Rebecca’s lowest moment, Ted simply asks if she’s ok. This opens a floodgate in Rebecca as she explains how Rupert has made her feel, both in their past relationship and in the present moment. The flint skin exterior she’s fortified around herself drops as Ted pulls her into a hug. We see Rebecca’s face over his shoulder as this cascade of pain cycles through her expression. She’s grateful for Ted’s kindness, but in a flash, we see this recognition in her eyes. Ted does not deserve to be a pawn in her own battles. And it’s this that begins Rebecca’s reformation from enemy to champion of Ted’s way of life.
1. Just Higgins Doin’ Higgins Things
Of all the actors in Ted Lasso, no one has had a better grasp on the show’s tone than Jeremy Swift’s Leslie Higgins. He’s always had a firm grasp on the show’s mix of comedy, drama, and cartoonish hijinks–even before that humor crystallized in the noticeably sillier third season.
Yes, he kills us with those corny dad jokes and nerve-induced gagging noises he makes in tense situations. But his strength comes in the earnest, straight-faced approach to the jokes, all of which make the punchlines land even harder. We wouldn’t laugh so hard at a line like, “It makes me feel the way I look: chill” if Swift didn’t play the preceding moment with emotional weight. Rather than hamming it up or projecting the joke, he lets the humor come naturally out of the situation. He doesn’t get as many opportunities to flex his handling of the show’s brand of comedy as Jason Sudeikis himself. But Swift is still pitch-perfect at executing the style of humor that is foundational to our appreciation of the show.
But the strength of Swift’s performance goes beyond Higgins’ zaniness. As the show begins, his character is instrumental in Rebecca’s quest for revenge against Rupert. But not because of the help he gives her–but through the pain he caused her. Higgins knew that Rupert was being unfaithful but intentionally concealed it from Rebecca. Rebecca thought they had a friendship, but in actuality, it was just a cover to hide an affair. This cuts Rebecca to the bone, and at the end of the first season, she explosively expresses this to Higgins, “Where were these morals when you were having lunches with me so Rupert could have sеx in our house? I thought we were friends. You had every opportunity to do the right thing, and you never did.”
But rather than pushing his character back into his unassertive shell, Higgins chooses accountability. “You’re right. I deserve to carry that around. I should’ve been braver, and I’m sorry for that.” In an instant, we don’t see a bumbling stooge but a man with convictions that extend beyond himself. This is a keystone to Swift’s performance as Higgins that ripples across the rest of the show. He’s someone who recognizes the game they’ve dedicated their lives to revolve not around one person or one personality. It’s about an entire team working towards a singular goal. And whenever he’s given a chance to help others on his team, Swift plays it with the warm reassurance we all hope to hear from someone with a lot of love to give.