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'Fruitvale' to 'Llewyn Davis': Small parts, huge performances

In a season of outstanding performances wrapped up in awards possibilities, the little gems can too easily be overlooked. So once again, it is time to appreciate some of the actors whose gifts have shone bright in big films this year, even if only for a few moments of screen time.

Chris Chalk

Clemens Ray, "12 Years a Slave"

When Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is kidnapped and thrown onto a boat heading South and into years of slavery, his fellow victim Clemens advises survival at all costs. In his scenes, Chalk had to embody that instinct. "Clemens is very much like, 'Let's be smart about how we go through this thing. Don't let them know you can read or write or you're going to end up dead.'"

But Clemens admits a hard truth when their murdered compatriot Robert (Michael Kenneth Williams) is dumped overboard, saying bitterly: "Better off. Better than us."

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The scene gave the actor his own moment of crisis. "I just was not present. I was a mess," Chalk recalls. "I halted production with those two lines. Steve [director McQueen] got up, came over and said, 'Chris, just say the words.' That's the beauty of him, he's just so sweet and loving, but he makes his point."

When the boat docks and Clemens' master is there to claim him, as it were, he runs away without turning back, despite Solomon's cries for help. "It was so heartbreaking," Chalk says of shooting the scene. "He's bellowing, screaming at the top of his lungs and I was like, 'Don't turn around, just don't turn around.'" He notes that later, Solomon makes a similarly wrenching move in leaving slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) behind when he finally regains his freedom.

McQueen has a gift for capturing terrible stories beautifully, Chalk notes. "Steve's whole goal is just to be honest, and he loves actors, so it's this entire environment of care and freedom."

Brooke Smith

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Evelyn, "Labor Day"

The Dec. 27 release "Labor Day" follows the unlikely love story between Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict, and Adele (Kate Winslet), the troubled woman he forces to shelter him. But the most shocking moment of all may belong to Smith.

As Evelyn, a neighbor, she badgers Adele into watching her son Barry (a terrific Micah Fowler) for a few hours, not realizing that the fugitive Frank is in Adele's home. The wheelchair-using Barry has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak clearly, but he doesn't miss much. That can't be said for Evelyn. A confrontation between mother and son when she returns to pick him up is a stunner — at a recent screening, the audience collectively gasped in response. (But no spoilers here.)

"When I saw it, the audience gasped too, which was kind of cool," says Smith, an actress who has worked steadily since playing Catherine Martin, a very different kidnap victim, in "The Silence of the Lambs."

She found her way to Evelyn through the clothing, with help from friend and costume designer Danny Glicker. "I definitely don't look good in this film," Smith acknowledges. "And yet the sneakers and the little white socks and that big denim skirt did something to me."

Smith was so freaked out by her character's behavior that she tried to get out of it. "But Jason [Reitman] was very convincing, plus he's the director, so I had to listen to him." She adds that his method of shooting in long takes gave the film the feel of a play. "It felt like you were entering that world. So I just had to leap and do it."

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Sylvia Kauders

Ginny, "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Kauders has been acting professionally since she understudied for Harvey Fierstein's play "Torch Song Trilogy" in 1982, yet she may be the only actress on the Internet who has managed to avoid revealing her age — and she won't start now. In the Coen brothers' tale of folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who's his own worst enemy, Kauders plays his agent's secretary, Ginny. In two short, hilarious scenes, the tiny veteran actress comes off like a comedic giant. "I lost myself in that part, and you don't very often get that kind of opportunity," says Kauders, who calls the writer-directors "the Coen boys."

She notes that although it's hard work creating a role with only a couple of scenes, Ginny was a joy. "They had written that role so well, as far as I'm concerned, it just talked to me, it told me how to do it." When asked how she prepared for the part, she offered up the advice that Fierstein gave her: Trust the material. "I have followed that all of my career."

Of working with the brothers, she says, "They were very specific about what they wanted. I make it sound like they mini-managed. They didn't do that; they really left it up to you. You knew when they were satisfied." She has heard that the auteurs often like to use the same actors over and over again. "I only hope that it's true, because that was like playing tennis with Billie Jean King. It raises your game."

Ahna O'Reilly

Katie, "Fruitvale Station"

"Fruitvale Station" takes the audience through the last day of the life of Oscar Grant III, the young man who was fatally shot by a BART officer in 2009. As tragic as the story is, the film is filled with sweet moments as well, as Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) interacts with friends and family — and even strangers. O'Reilly plays Katie, a woman Oscar comes across in the supermarket he used to work in. He helps her with a recipe, even putting her on the phone with his grandmother. "It gives the audience an opportunity to fall in love with Oscar, even more than we already are," says O'Reilly.

She was invited to play the role by her friend Octavia Spencer, who portrays Oscar's mother, Wanda. O'Reilly took two quick breaks while filming "CBGB" in Savannah to work four days on "Fruitvale" in Oakland.

Katie reappears near the end of the movie, a horrified witness to the shooting. Filming the scenes at the actual station where Oscar was shot was such an intense experience, she says, "It was the first time I really became aware as an actor of being taken over by adrenaline." She was banging her hand on the train door so hard, in character, that she fractured her wrist. "I didn't even realize I was hurting myself until the next morning, when I couldn't move my hand."

From the way she talks about director Ryan Coogler, the injury was worth it. "He is such an inspiring person to be around," she says. "I'll be an extra in the background to be around him."

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