Small but mighty roles
It takes talent, passion and commitment to craft a performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination. But sometimes, even if an actor gives his all to a role, the character just might not enjoy enough screen time to grab Oscar’s attention. What follows is our annual roundup of compelling performances that were maybe a little too brief to make the awards cut. In “The King’s Speech,” Eve Best made her Wallis Simpson both sympathetic and loathsome; Barry Pepper brought real frontier spirit (and a lot of spittle) to “True Grit,” and Dale Dickey’s fierceness in “Winter’s Bone” still scares people.
LUCKY NED PEPPER
When Barry Pepper first read Joel and Ethan Coen’s script for “True Grit,” it “was like music to me,” he says. In the film, Pepper plays outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper, and he drew on his own family history when it came time to approach the role. The actor, who gained early notice as Pvt. Daniel Jackson in “Saving Private Ryan,” was born and raised in Canada, and he counts pioneers among his people. His familiarity with blacksmithing, woodworking and hunting helped him relate to the concept of a hardscrabble frontier existence.
In terms of his appearance, though, Pepper went back to Charles Portis’ novel about the adventures of Mattie Ross as she seeks to avenge her father’s murder, and he learned that Rooster Cogburn had shot Ned in the face. He wanted to match that description, and the Coen brothers supported his filmic disfigurement. “They could have so easily dismissed it because it wasn’t explained in the film,” he says; instead they hired Oscar-winning makeup artist Christian Tinsley to spend an hour scarring Pepper daily.
The script also informed his physicality. In one line Ned says to Mattie, “We do not have buttermilk, we do not have bread, we are poorly supplied,” which led Pepper to make himself lean and sinewy. “That’s just a testament to how the brothers unconsciously motivate you.”
The Coens’ actual direction was subtle. They would make suggestions to the actors like “pious” or “unctuous,” Pepper says. “The cast and crew are laughing, thinking that you’re a genius for this quirky, oddball moment that you just delivered, but really it’s something that Joel or Ethan whispered in your ear.”
One odd moment was all Pepper’s, though. Foot planted on young Mattie’s face, hollering at Rooster, he starts frothing at the mouth like a madman, spittle flying in all directions. “With the mouth prosthetic, and the false teeth, it just came naturally,” he notes. Lucky indeed.
“THE KING’S SPEECH”
In “The King’s Speech,” Wallis Simpson is more talked about than seen, but when she does show up, she more than justifies all the commotion. Eve Best, an esteemed stage actress, might be familiar to American audiences as the likable Dr. O’Hara on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” She’s made of flintier stuff as the scandalous divorcee who beguiles King Edward to everyone else’s distress.
Best, vacationing in India, was unreachable for comment on the challenges of playing an icon, so her director stepped into the breach. Tom Hooper first met Best when they were studying at Oxford, and he directed her in a student production of “The Trial.” Even then, he says, “she was an extraordinary actress.”
He’d wanted to work with her ever since but hadn’t found the right role. When considering Simpson, Best’s face popped into his head. The physical resemblance is striking, but that’s just where it began. “You want an actress who can somehow give us a sufficiently vibrant sketch of her that it satisfies our immediate curiosity without making us feel angry at the film for not showing us more,” he says. “That was something she did brilliantly.”
In a party scene with the once and future kings, Best has an outsized effect. In quick succession, and only a few lines, she exhibits flapperesque vivacity, pain at being snubbed by Elizabeth, disdain for the servants and total domination over her slavish lover the king.
“Eve came with a whole architecture to this character, which was fantastic, because even though you meet her briefly, you have to believe that she’s the real person,” says Hooper. “That’s incredibly demanding. One foot wrong and you’re thrown out of the story.”
Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, “Winter’s Bone” is a cold slice of life in the Ozarks. When Ree Dolly’s father disappears after putting his house up for bail, the teenager must find him before the family is thrown into the street. Her quest leads her to an extended family of criminals and to prying into areas that could prove fatal. As Merab, the wife of the family patriarch, Dale Dickey first tries to scare Ree off, then turns to far worse methods.
Dickey, a character actress for more than 25 years, jokes that she’s been playing women older than 50 since she was an ingénue. “Now, being one of the few un-Botoxed people in town, I look 70, so I have something to look forward to. Somebody’s got to play those roles.”
She’s often been recognized for playing Patty the Daytime Hooker in NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” and as a meth addict in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” “I’m like, ‘Really? After three hours of meth makeup?’” she says of the latter with mock chagrin. “Hookers, drug addicts, homeless people, prisoners, insane asylum inmates, barmaids, mountain people. I love those gritty roles.”
As with Pepper, her background informed her character. Raised in eastern Tennessee, “I’m very at home in that kind of locale. I had a sense of the history and who these people were,” she says. “My heritage is Scotch-Irish. A lot of those immigrants settled in the hill areas of Appalachia, because it was what they were used to — rural, isolated, private.”
She credits director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini with giving the film its epic feel. Dickey describes Merab as a gatekeeper, and it’s easy to see her as a sort of Cerberus, guarding the very entrance to Hades. “It feels mythological and ancient, and so wrong,” Dickey says of the family’s twisted code, “but it’s a way of life.”
Now as people have begun recognizing her for the menacing “Winter’s Bone” role, she says, “they all get this look of horror on their faces!”
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