EDITOR'S NOTE: indieWIRE will be reporting from the Gotham Awards later this evening.
Last night at the Director's Guild Theater in New York City, Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum sat down with the six nominees of the Gotham Awards breakthrough actor category: Pedro Castaneda from "August Evening," Rosemarie DeWitt from "Rachel Getting Married," Rebecca Hall from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Melissa Leo from "Frozen River," Alejandro Polanco from "Chop Shop" and Micheal J. Smith, Sr. from "Ballast." indieWIRE was taking notes.
"I'm fascinated by how we define a breakthrough," Schwarzbaum said to the panel. "I mean, it's talent clearly but is the luck of finding the right role at the right moment?"
Melissa Leo certainly thought so. The veteran actor laughed at Schwarzbaum's suggestion that this was first "starring role." "First starring role that's gotten to be seen," Leo she corrected sweetly. "There's a few films sitting on shelves in cans that haven't been seen. That's a lot of what the great event of 'Frozen River' is for me. After close to thirty years of acting, it really is this thing of the right role at the right moment. I'm hard pressed to say anything but 'yes' when anyone offers me the opportunity to act... I love acting, I love all the aspects of acting and all the ways in which it happens."
"Frozen River" was a chance opportunity for Leo. She met director Courtney Hunt one evening at an afterparty for "21 Grams" (in which she had a supporting role in). "She expressed an interest in working with me because she was very moved by my performance in that film and that led us to doing a short together," Leo explained. "And it was three years later that we actually got to doing ['River']. I'd call her every six months or so: 'Hey, we gonna make that movie?' I knew that it was an opportunity of a lifetime for me, on the page. That was very apparent... It's unusual to read a script in which the woman is carrying the story. It's very unusual to see a script written that way. And when you do read scripts that are written for big, big stars they tend to have a very different quality of being vehicles for the stars. Which doesn't make for the most interesting scriptwriting. ['River'] is just a damn good story."
Like Leo, Rosemarie DeWitt has been working for quite some time, but says in regard to "Rachel" that "it was definitely the best job I ever had." "Working with Jonathan Demme is a dream," she said. "He gives his actors so much freedom and trust. The whole movie is made with enormous heart."
"I've done a lot more theater than I have film, and in theater you kinda know if its working or if it isn't," DeWitt continued. "With film, I feel like as long as it's alive, something's happening. There's some magic going on but it's so out of your control how the director puts it together. And I knew we were doing something special and I thought we were in good hands with Jonathan. But he would never allow us to go behind the monitor because he wanted us to live in the roles rather than be aware of the characters. So it was still a real surprise that it worked."
For DeWitt, it was a deserved change of pace. "Some things, you get the script and you're like 'That's my part,'" she said. "And then, you know, Cate Blanchett gets it."
Someone who has never had that problem is DeWitt's fellow nominee Alejandro Polanco, a elementary school student when "Chop Shop" was casting. "So talking about breakthrough," Schwarzbaum said when introducing him, "is breaking through from doing to your homework to coming here to being in a film that's gotten tremendous acclaim."
"Ramin, that's the director, he came to my school and he was looking for Hispanic kids to act in his film," Polanco said about how he came to the project. "A staff pointed me out [saying] 'he speaks Spanish, and he does pretty good.' And I'd never acted before. He made me audition with other kids and see how we worked together and how we were and if I had the attitude of a best friend or the person that was the meanest person in the world... It was really hard because I had to wake up in the morning and do a whole day of shooting and it was in the heat wave. But I still stuck through it."
While Polanco said he wants to continue being an actor, "Ballast"'s Micheal J. Smith isn't so sure. Prior to the film, Smith had been a delivery driver for the Public Service Commission for seventeen years. "Lance [Hammer] was in town looking for people who lived in town to have a role in the movie," he explained. "My wife called me and asked me if I'd come. I had no idea that this would be something that I could get into. I mean, I really didn't want to do it. "
But Smith went, and Hammer asked him to come back and read a second time. When he did, Hammer offered him the role. "When he told me I had the role I told him I had to think about it because I really had no knowledge of acting," Smith said. "So it wasn't something I really wanted to do. But after giving it some consideration, I thought I'd maybe just give it a try... Never did I think what we were doing was going to excel into something as it did."
Perhaps the most unusual resume of any of the panelists was "August Evening"'s Pedro Castaneda. "Well, I've been a contractor, carpenter, pilot, doctor, computer systems analyst, geologist," Castaneda listed off, smirking. "And a couple of other things I can't remember."
Like Smith, Castaneda was hesitant to embark on acting. "I was working as a computer systems analyst," he explained. "And [director Chris Eska] was auditioning at a dance studio. And I was working at the computer system there. He turned around and said 'Hey, you look like one of the characters I want to put in my movie.. and I like your boots.' And I said, well, I'm not auditioning. I'm working on some computers here. He insisted that I would read some lines for him and I did. I'm pretty sure I did a pretty bad job. And I told him I didn't want to do it. But he gave me the script and said to take it home and read it."
The script's relevance to Castaneda's history made him change his mind. "The script pretty much had to do with migrant workers and my parents were migrant workers," he said. "He didn't know that, I didn't know that. And it just pretty much fell into place. I read the script and it was touching. Because of that, I decided I'd give it a shot. "
For Rebecca Hall, it was her director that took the chance. "He takes a lot of gambles and a lot of risks," Hall said of Woody Allen when asked how they "connected." "I wouldn't even call my audition connecting with him. I just walked in the door and said 'hello.' And he asked if I could do an American accent. And I said 'yes.' And he went 'okay, bye.' I mean if you can connect from that it's kind of special... It was a kind of insane risk. He casts people on instinct, which I think is actually a relief because the amount of times you walk into an audition room and you see the look on someone's face when they know that you're wrong for the part... So I have a lot of respect for someone that after thirty seconds can say 'yes' or 'no.'"
"I'd heard a lot of stories," Hall said of her director, inarguably the most legendary of all the filmmakers represented on the panel. "The iconography that surrounds him is pretty extreme. I heard a lot of extreme stuff. I heard a lot of 'don't look him in the eye' or 'don't shake his hand' or 'don't say anything about acting.' But I found for the most part that that was all rubbish. I found him chatty during filming. He was friendly and warm and he gave me a lot of freedom. And that's quite empowering when someone like Woody Allen says 'okay, I trust you to do your job.'"
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