Five actors who gave their all to smaller roles in 2014

Lola Kirke in 'Gone Girl,' Keith Stanfield in 'Selma' and other bright acting in shadowed roles

Amid all the attention paid to lead and supporting actors and their award chances this time of year, it's time for The Envelope's annual look at a few of the performers who shined just as brightly in their far briefer moments onscreen.

W. Earl Brown,

Frank, "Wild"

As Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) begins her arduous hike up the Pacific Crest Trail in "Wild," she realizes she brought the wrong stove fuel and must eat cold mush for every meal. Frantic, she hitches a ride into town from a farmer named Frank. Played by veteran actor W. Earl Brown, Frank is initially terrifying, with a steely, creepy gaze and a gun under the seat. But soon he turns into an ol' softie, taking Cheryl home so his wife can cook her a hot meal.

Having grown up on a farm, Brown notes, "that could have been my life had I not been bitten by the actor bug." His daughter agreed it was the closest role to himself that he'd ever played: scary at first glance, but then a lovable goofball.

At that crucial moment, Cheryl's about ready to quit. "She has felt so defeated by life and by the hand she was dealt, yet she has this moment of grace," Brown says. "Like the fuel that allows her to cook her food from now on, her encounter with me and my wife gives her the fuel to get back on the trail and keep going."

Lola Kirke,

Greta, "Gone Girl"

Amy Dunne gets her wicked way at almost every turn in "Gone Girl." Except when she's mugged at her motel hideout. Lola Kirke plays Greta, the mastermind behind the theft, and she thoroughly enjoyed beating the woman who beats everyone else. "You just want Amy to be punished, and I'm happy to get to do that in some way," Kirke says. "She still prevails, though. She is powerful."

Greta was powerful too, and a joy to inhabit. "I loved being directed by David Fincher because he would give me really specific actions that informed the character in an amazing way. I don't think this got used, but at one point during the scene where you first meet Greta, he was like, 'All right, now scratch your stomach.' I did, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, what an in to this person.' Somebody stands there in Daisy Dukes and a bikini top with a busted lip, and then itches her stomach like Homer Simpson. That's so cool."

Brandon Mychal Smith,

Little Richard, "Get On Up"

At 25, Brandon Mychal Smith has been working for 20 years. Yet even though Little Richard only figures in two scenes in "Get On Up," Smith considers it the biggest role of his career, for which he thanks divine intervention and director Tate Taylor.

In the first scene, Little Richard sets a club alight with his singing and personality, before a young James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) jumps onstage to steal the show. In the second, working at a fast-food joint, he gives Brown some sage advice about the business that's about to engulf them both. The exchange gives us a hint of the preacher in Richard.

Smith prepared intensely, practicing piano five hours a day and researching every aspect of the role — before he even landed it. "It was an eight-month audition process," Smith says, and laughs. "Much longer than the shooting."

And while he was dispensing wisdom on film, the reverse was true in life. "Chad Boseman is, to this day, my brother and my guiding light. I go to him for so much advice."

Maxine Peake,

Elaine, "The Theory of Everything"

Elaine meets Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) when applying to be his nurse. She would go on to become his second wife, and the appeal is clearly there in their first moments over a letter board. As Elaine, actress Maxine Peake is smart, direct and just, well, saucy. Well known back home in England, she had worked with director James Marsh before, so when he sent her the script for "The Theory of Everything," she jumped in. "Sometimes with the vanity of the actor, you go, 'Oh, it's not a big part,' but on that set, it didn't feel like a small part. Eddie, Felicity [Jones] and James made you feel like part of the team."

When Elaine meets Hawking, he can no longer speak. "But that's the essence of acting, it's reacting. It's not always in the dialogue, is it? You get a lot from just looking in somebody's eyes, and obviously when someone's as skillful as Eddie is, you do get a heck of a lot coming back your way — from those big beautiful blue eyes. He made it very easy."

Keith Stanfield,

Jimmie Lee Jackson, "Selma"

Keith Stanfield, 23, has been acting professionally for two years but has already made his mark. He received a supporting actor nomination for his role in "Short Term 12," from Film Independent, and met Ava DuVernay at the Spirit Awards in 2013. "She came up and said she was a fan of my work, and I said, 'Thank you. Would you like a picture, darling?' A little while later I was invited to audition for the part in this movie called "Selma," which I was excited about. I walk in the room and see her; I'm, like, what the … ? And she's, like, yeah, I'm directing this."

Fortunately, first impressions didn't keep DuVernay from hiring Stanfield to play civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. He has few lines, but his presence burns with both hope and terrible suffering. Even though "Selma" is a historical drama, "things are going on around us now that sort of speak to the same thing," he says. "I hope that people can walk away from this film with the feeling that I had, which is one of supreme inspiration and confidence moving forward, knowing that we can make a change. There's a certain way we need to go about doing that."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
63°