Small roles, powerful performances

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Great films are filled with memorable performances of all sizes, from the lead to the maid. During this season of big attention to big roles, here are a few actors who worked small moments of magic on screen in films that have received great acclaim — and multiple nominations — during awards season.

Ato Essandoh: D’Artagnan, “Django Unchained”

It may not be every actor’s dream to get ripped apart by dogs. But as D’Artagnan, the runaway slave in “Django Unchained,” actor Ato Essandoh was in heaven. “Quentin Tarantino and Sam Jackson are the reasons I’m an actor,” he declares. Essandoh had graduated from Cornell with a chemical engineering degree when he saw “Pulp Fiction,” starring Jackson. “For the first time, I thought, ‘I wonder what it’s like to be in the movies?’” He’s been finding out ever since.


Essandoh’s D’Artagnan suffers a gruesome fate, yet the atmosphere on the set was so relaxed, Tarantino cracked jokes between takes. “I’m like ‘Quentin, I’m about to die here, I need to get into this.’ ‘Oh, OK, sorry, sorry, sorry.’ And then he’d make another joke.”

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Acting opposite Leonardo DiCaprio (with whom he had previously worked on “Blood Diamond”) helped Essandoh focus. “From the first take, I’ve got the tears going, everything’s going, and I see the look in his eye as he’s delivering the lines, and I’m like, ‘Aww, Leo is not playing right now,’” he says of DiCaprio’s evil slave master. “That really helped me a lot.”

Finally meeting Jackson later — and having his hero compliment his work on the BBC America series “Copper” — made the experience complete. “I can die right now,” Essandoh jokes. “I’m good.”

Sheila Vand: Sahar, “Argo”

As Sahar, an Iranian maid at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in “Argo,” Sheila Vand had few lines, all in Farsi, but she kept the tension wound tight. Director Ben Affleck didn’t want the audience to know whether Sahar would betray the hostages until the moment she lies to an Iranian official to protect them. “You can’t, as an actor, play a narrative device,” Vand explains. “So I integrated it by thinking that maybe she didn’t even know herself what she was going to do.”


Vand, who originated roles in the play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” is also a performance artist. The morning after LACMA debuted her first commissioned piece, “Sneaky Nietzsche,” she was on a 20-hour flight to Istanbul. At 5 the next morning, wearing a hijab, surrounded by a Turkish crew and ‘70s cars with Iranian license plates, she shot her first scene in a studio film, walking away from the official she had just deceived.


“Even with all the preparation I did,” she notes, “all I ultimately had to do was surrender to my surroundings.”

She left such an impression that test audiences who didn’t know what became of Sahar worried about her fate. A scene was added showing her safe escape into Iraq. “To me that’s such a beautiful outcome to the film,” that even after revisiting the hostage crisis, “people cared about the Persian girl.”

Gina Montana: Miss Bathsheba, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Gina Montana had never acted professionally before playing Miss Bathsheba, the foul-mouthed, loving teacher in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” “In real life I don’t yell and scream at people, I hardly use profanity,” she says. “But I grew up deep in the hood of New Orleans, and when I was a teenager I used to have to scrap a little bit.”


Director Benh Zeitlin helped her recall those emotions. “He really worked with me and he got me to go deep, to bring out that fierce spirit of Miss Bathsheba.”

One scene put that spirit to the test. When Miss Bathsheba left Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) behind, alone, at the schoolhouse, “I kept asking Benh, ‘Could I do that scene differently?’ I cry just thinking about it, because in real life, I would never leave a child.”

She cried again when watching the film last year at the Sundance Film Festival. “You’ve got children taking care of other children, and in the neighborhoods, these things go on,” she says. “I developed coping skills, like Hushpuppy. It went full circle for me when I saw the finished movie.”

Moon Bloodgood: Vera, “The Sessions”

Moon Bloodgood may be familiar to audiences for starring roles in “Terminator Salvation” and TNT’s “Falling Skies,” but in “The Sessions,” she’s almost unrecognizable — and she couldn’t be happier. As Vera, the caregiver for polio-stricken Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), the stunning actress is stripped of all glamour, “hair pulled back, wearing funky clothes, and I tried to walk in a really frumpy way,” she says.

“It was so nice to play someone who didn’t have to look pretty in front of the camera. You get to be loose and real and relaxed.”


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In the background throughout much of the movie, Bloodgood estimates she said no more than 30 words. “It’s the first time I said so little, and that was so much fun. I’m one of those actors who thinks less dialogue is better.” She found it easy to portray Vera’s quiet confidence, even though she doesn’t share it. She modestly declares that anything good about her performance should be credited to Hawkes and Helen Hunt. “I learned so much by watching them.”

Johnny Simmons: Brad, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

As Brad, the football star secretly in love with Patrick (Ezra Miller) in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Johnny Simmons had his work cut out for him. “I had to learn how to throw a football,” he says with a laugh. Growing up in Texas, where football was king, he tried throwing one once. “It was so embarrassing; if I could witness it now, I would cry for myself.”

Compared to that, the furtive love story was easy. “Whenever you’ve got somebody across from you who is going for it the way Ezra goes for it, it just makes it so much fun,” Simmons notes.

Sadly, the onscreen relationship doesn’t go as well. Caught making out with Patrick, Brad is beaten deep into the closet by his father. Back at school, Brad taunts Patrick with a homophobic slur and a bruising fight ensues.


Simmons was surprised that audiences saw Brad as a villain. “I felt like he was a victim in many ways, and this was a reaction to society and his upbringing — that his own people, the people who are supposed to love him the most, would be willing to literally beat him up because of who he is.” It’s an all too common story, “and one of the reasons I wanted to play the role.”


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