The TV and Movie Line Readings We Can’t Get Out of Our Heads

Great dialogue doesn't just come down to how a line is written but how it's said.

A graphic about interesting movie and TV show line readings.
Photo: Art by Chloe Lewis

A lot goes into a good performance – from research to blocking to facial expressions and beyond. But at its core, an acting performance comes down to reading lines of dialogue on a piece of paper. Many actors do their level best to read the lines as written. Some other actors, bless them, like to get a little more creative.

Television and film are filled with fascinating line readings from actors. Whether it’s an emphasis on an unusual syllable or just an outright scream, certain performers are able to make dialogue feel particularly vibrant. As pop culture travelers ourselves, we’ve come across many interesting line readings over the years. What follows are some of our favorites. Be sure to share yours in the comments as well!

“There were a lot of…fatalities.”

Jonah Hill in This is the End 

It’s hard to pull off the “actors-playing-themselves” gambit in a way that is not too winking or masturbatory. Thankfully, 2013’s This Is the End gets around that problem by leaning into actual masturbation humor and having six comedic stars of the time play the most heightened versions of themselves as the world goes to shit around them. This movie is hilarious and filled with some of the most distinct line readings you’ll ever hear spoken by verbal luminaries like Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson. The one that’s been rattling around in my brain ever since I heard it, however, comes from Jonah Hill. 

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As Jonah attempts to deliver the news that the world has ended to Danny McBride (who slept through the whole thing), he speaks delicately. “Some really messed up stuff happened and there were a lot of fatalities,” Jonah says, hitting every consonant in the word “fatalities” particularly hard just to illustrate the seriousness of it all. The line is delivered so wonderfully distinctly that Danny has to recite “fatalities” back to Jonah. And my brain still recites it itself – seemingly hundreds of times a day regardless of context. – Alec Bojalad

“This is what we do in the FBI!”

Agent Headley (Jay R. Ferguson) in Twin Peaks: The Return

As the main plotlines in Twin Peaks: The Return slowly begin to converge, we are gifted with this scene in which David Lynch’s Gordon Cole asks the FBI’s Las Vegas field office to trail the mysterious Dougie Jones. What could have easily been a forgettable expository exchange is made memorable by the timid Agent Wilson wondering how they will ever find Dougie Jones before Agent Headley informs him “This is what we do in the FBI” in the most gloriously unhinged way possible. 

The joke itself is fantastic. An FBI agent wondering how they are expected to find a person before being reminded that is the primary purpose of their job is a great gag. The fact it is implied that Agent Wilson has had to be reminded of this duty numerous times in the past makes it that much better. But what really elevates this moment is whatever it is that actor Jay R. Ferguson is doing here. Was the line scripted to be so unnecessarily manic? Was this a joke take that made it into the final cut? Did they somehow combine separate reads and rewound footage to pull this take from the uncanny ether? In any case, it’s the perfect reminder that even Twin Peaks’ seemingly smallest moments find a way to burn themselves into your brain. – Matthew Byrd

“I have never, EVER been happier!”

Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney) in Euphoria

The entire scene that takes place in the girls’ bathroom of Euphoria episode “Ruminations: Big and Little Bullys” is worthy of a spot on this list, in my opinion. Sure I may be a little biased because this scene is probably the most I’ve ever heard my home state of Oklahoma mentioned on screen within the span of two minutes, but nevertheless, it’s hard to choose just one line from this bizarrely hilarious scene that I like more than the others. From Cassie’s (Sydney Sweeney) shocked “Oh my God, do I look like I’m in Oklahoma?” to Kat’s (Barbie Ferreira) matter-of-fact “Oklahoma’s not like a play you read.” to Maddy’s (Alexa Demie) iconic “Bitch, you better be joking,” everyone here delivers their lines incredibly.

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But, the line that takes the cake is Cassie’s dramatic spiel about how she’s sleeping with Maddy’s ex-boyfriend Nate (Jacob Elordi) behind her back. Sydney Sweeney delivers the perfect level of unhinged in her performance as Cassie insists through hysterical tears that, even though she clearly feels some level of guilt for betraying Maddy’s trust, she’s “Never, ever, been happier.” And what makes this even better is that this reveal doesn’t actually happen in the plot of the show, it’s an imagined moment brought on by Rue’s (Zendaya) narration of events.

No matter what you think about Euphoria, there’s no denying that the cast delivers, especially Sweeney in this case. Whether this scene was intended to be as funny as it is is yet to be seen, but it never fails to bring a smile to my face when I watch it. – Brynna Arens

“It’s your bebe Jocelyn and an artistic cradle robber I am not!”

Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) in Schitt’s Creek

Almost everything Catherine O’Hara says as Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek is funny. It’s the accent, a mix of British, Canadian and more. (“What you’re getting when you hear her speak are oral mementos of her world travels.” O’Hara told Variety). So we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to line delivery. But we’d be remiss to pick a line that doesn’t include the word “baby” or more specifically “bebe.” There are many – here is a montage (you’re welcome).    

We’ve picked this one because it doesn’t refer to an actual baby (bebe) but Jocelyn’s production of Cabaret. It’s a great line and the delivery of “I am no-ot” is another Moira classic, but particularly because we know she absolutely is! Joce is tired and frazzled but always kind and by the series end she has taught the Rose family so many things about being humble, and human and understanding that being who you are is no bad thing. So it’s a perfect line delivery that sums up Moira’s fakery, but her desire to fit in, growing. Plus, it’s just really funny. Bebe. – Rosie Fletcher 

“I’m shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling’s going on here!”

Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) in Casablanca

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If you’re reading this, you have never heard Claude Rains’ real voice. For those with even a passing familiarity with classic Hollywood, this may be a surprise since the perennially gifted character actor appeared in more classics than Leo the Lion. He was Caesar to Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra; the limp-wristed Nazi in Hitchcock’s in Notorious; a werewolf’s daddy in The Wolf Man; and the cooing voice of British imperialism itself in Lawrence of Arabia. He even got his break into Hollywood because that rich, regal cadence drove James Whale crazy enough to cast an unknown as the Invisible Man.

All of which makes the fact that the real Rains was a cockney with a speech impediment from East London something of a shock. Everything about his deliberate effect is a carefully crafted affectation. It might also be why he is able to so indelibly lacerate the absurdity of dignified intonations in the greatest Golden Age Hollywood movie of them all, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. In a movie stuffed to the gills with delicious lines and tastier line-readings, it is perhaps Rains’ self-effacing comic timing where he plays a purchasable French police officer and bureaucrat (nonetheless with his faux English vocal fry) that has lived on all the way to internet memes 80 years later.

In the scene in question, Rains’ thoroughly corruptible Louis Renault is commanded by his Nazi occupiers to close a popular nightclub after a sudden burst of French patriotism. For what reason he asks? It’s left to his discretion to find one. So after a stiff drink, he summons his indignation and announces “I am shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling’s going on here!” His voice rises with each emphatic word only to be cut off at the knees when the roulette dealer approaches and says, “Your winnings, sir.” Without missing a beat, Rains follows up, “Ah, thank you very much.” The last bit really seals the deal in how Rains throws it away. The actor doesn’t belabor the punchline about his character’s staggering hypocrisy, greed, or nonexistent ethics. He steamrolls through the put-upon sanctimony like it is to be as expected as the rising of the sun. It’s never not hilarious upon rewatch, nor anything less than a testament to one of the best actors who never got his full due. – David Crow

“Then maybe you shouldn’t be living heeeeeeeere!”

Mark Taffin (Pierce Brosnan) in Taffin

I’ve never seen Taffin. I don’t know who Pierce Brosnan plays in it, or why his character is wearing sunglasses indoors in this scene, or who the lady is that he’s shouting at, and nor do I care to know. Taffin has already given me so much joy without any of this knowledge that to ask more would be greedy.

Comedians Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish are to thank for the cult status of this line-reading. They brought Brosnan’s inexplicably intense delivery of an essentially undramatic sentiment to the attention of fans of their XFM and BBC 6 Music radio shows in the early 2000s. It took on a life of its own and now, a search for this clip is more likely to bring up one of several doctored versions extending the already-lengthy “heeeeere” to a full minute or longer of Brosnan-bleating.It’s not just funny, but to me also feels like a comforting arm around the shoulder. More than any of the other screen phrases continually circling my brain’s rocky outcrops, this one tells me that I’m part of something. I’ve never seen Taffin, but I know the codes and I’m in the gang. STEPHEN! – Louisa Mellor

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