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Four actors leave big impressions with small roles

Four actors leave big impressions with small roles
Jenn Murray in Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 2015. She had a small but effective role in the movie "Brooklyn." (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Notable movies are fueled by great performances, from the lead on down. So every awards season, as the news swirls around front-runners, dark horses, nods and odds, The Envelope likes to take a moment to celebrate some of the actors who create living, breathing characters out of a few lines. Even in the smallest moments, their work has the power to break our hearts.

Jimmy LeBlanc

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Patrick McSorley, "Spotlight"

Jimmy LeBlanc has one of the most wrenching scenes in a wrenching movie. In "Spotlight," about the Boston Globe reporters who broke the Catholic Church abuse scandal, he plays Patrick McSorley, one of the first victims to speak to a journalist. The story he tells Mark Ruffalo's character is horrifying, but LeBlanc's eyes convey even more suffering than his words.

Hailing from South Boston, LeBlanc's last film role was in "Gone Baby Gone." He's been a boxer and still takes the occasional fight. "Whatever pays the bills, right? I'm trying to break into this business. I'm in the sheet metal union back here in Boston, swinging a hammer every day, and I can't wait to get rid of that."

For his one other scene, wordlessly pushing his toddler on a swing, he recalls thinking, "'I'm on drugs, and depressed, and I have nothing going for me. I should be happy that I'm pushing my kid on the swing here, but I've got all this other weight on my shoulders.' I just went with that." With his thousand-yard stare, he took us with him.

Jenn Murray

Dolores, "Brooklyn"

Jenn Murray has been acting for seven years, and her role in "Brooklyn" is smaller than many she's had, but she didn't mind. Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name is a favorite. Like the protagonist, Eilis, who journeyed from Ireland to America, Murray herself moved from Northern Ireland to London to act but has always wanted to come to America to work on Hollywood movies. "It's what dreams are made of."

Dolores has come fresh off the boat to the same boarding house as Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Dolores doesn't fit in with the other girls. She's poor, she's naïve, she doesn't know how to put on makeup, and she announces to anyone who will listen — and nobody will — that she wants to find a man to take care of her.

"I loved her honesty," Murray says. "I felt like she represented so many women that were either sent to America or went for a dream. She was strong. Even though there's so little on the page, I really resonated with her — someone who knew what she wanted and was very open about it."

Turns out, the tiny part helped her land a key role in the big Harry Potter spinoff trilogy "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." Casting director Fiona Weir worked on both films and championed Murray for "Beasts." Dolores would be proud.

Tom McCamus as Leo in "Room."
Tom McCamus as Leo in "Room." (A24 Films)

Tom McCamus

Leo, "Room"

Canadian stage and screen actor Tom McCamus first auditioned for the role of Old Nick in "Room." Or "the awful guy," as he puts it. But instead, he was cast as Leo, Joan Allen's character's special friend. After watching what Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) have suffered through, our first sight of Leo raises suspicions. Is he yet another awful man?

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Thankfully, no. In one sweet scene, Leo pretends to look around the empty house for someone to play with, or at least have breakfast with, in an effort to draw Jack out. "There was a certain amount of improv on that," McCamus says. "We had the script, but we got to move all around at the beginning and the end of stuff like that, so we got to play just how we felt. That was a joy to do." Their simple interaction gives the audience a glimmer of hope that Jack might be OK after all.

McCamus notes that his job was to be part of a loving family, "so you draw on all the warm things you know of in your own life. The crew was lovely, all the actors were warm, and it was kind of a family feeling, so it wasn't hard to actually achieve that."

Noni Hazlehurst

Nicki Burkett, "Truth"

"Truth" takes a hard look at the fallout from the "60 Minutes" report about President George W. Bush's military career. One casualty was an initial source, Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacey Keach), who was drilled by Dan Rather (Robert Redford) on camera. In a surprising scene, Burkett's wife, Nicki, lashes out at the reporters for promising to protect him before laying the blame at his feet.

As Nicki, Noni Hazlehurst is electrifying as she takes producer Maria (Cate Blanchett) to task for her betrayal. "It was a lovely speech, and it is rare to get something like that in a small role, but it's also rare for a female, and of my age. It was a little golden moment for me, so I grabbed it." Hazlehurst may not be known here, but she's a star in her homeland Australia, where the film was shot.

She was especially pleased to speak Nicki's words, because "she's calling out pretense and artifice and manipulation and is saying — as is the woman's role in life — 'Can we just be human beings, please, who care about each other?' That's central to the work that I look for, work that has a positive message. It's an important thing to try to stamp on people's consciousness, particularly now, when we are so divided."

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