Warner Bros./Getty Images; Colleen Hayes/NBC
Samantha Highfill
March 16, 2016 AT 03:55 PM EDT

Lauren Graham has made a career out of finding perfection in imperfection — taking character flaws and making them lovable, using even the smallest moments to her advantage. That’s not to say that her characters aren’t flawed. Quite the opposite actually. It’s simply that she makes them impossible to root against.

Take Lorelai Gilmore, the single mom who loves coffee almost as much as she loves her daughter. For seven seasons on Gilmore Girls, Graham was so much more than a vessel for the writers’ words. She gave Lorelai heart (and an unforgettable spirit). She took a character who easily could’ve become a caricature — what with her 100-words-a-minute speaking speed — and grounded her. Lorelai was flawed. She was not the perfect mother, nor was she the perfect daughter. But in Graham’s hands, her flaws became part of her charm. All those quirks? Suddenly, they meant something.

At every opportunity, Graham made more of what was on the page, and no relationship illustrated that better than the one between Lorelai and her mother, Emily. Quite often, the story, on a base-level, was about Emily and Lorelai butting heads, but Graham utilized every look, every moment to show the underlying complexity of that relationship. (And the same can be said for the great Kelly Bishop.) Together, they gave those scenes a backbone, ensuring the viewer would feel annoyed, heartbroken, or even giddy, depending on the intention.

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Shifting gears almost completely, Graham took on the role of another single mother, Sarah Braverman, in Parenthood, which ran for six seasons from 2010 to 2015. But Sarah wasn’t the fast-talking, upbeat woman we were used to seeing from Graham. When we met Sarah in the Parenthood pilot, she was lost. She was a single mother with an alcoholic ex, a troubled teen daughter, and a painfully shy son. And to top it off, she was returning home to live with her parents. 

Graham took Sarah, who had the potential to be over-simplified by viewers as the screw-up of the family, and made her relatable. She gave her an admirable soul and an underlying confidence that made you cheer her on, no matter what decisions she made. And you better believe that when she cried, you did too.

It may sound silly say that an actor humanizes a character considering they’re literally the character’s human form, but it’s a skill not every star can achieve. As Sarah, Graham was as joyous and confident as she was gloomy and vulnerable. She took all of the “bad” things about Sarah and made sure those were the things that made her interesting, made her worthy of a viewer’s empathy.

Both Lorelai Gilmore and Sarah Braverman were well-written, solid characters before Graham came along. But when Graham takes on a role, she doesn’t simply inhabit a character, she breathes life into it. And along the way, what was great in print becomes extroadinary in execution.

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