Fresh faces seek recognition

Wide-open race leaves room for rookies

WES BENTLEY

Wes Bentley’s rise at age 21 to acclaim and the cusp of stardom for his quiet performance as Ricky Fitts, the eccentric camcorder-wielding new teen on the block in “American Beauty,” may strike some as amazing. But that’s nothing compared to his account of what he terms “the turning point of my life.”

Raised in Little Rock and other burgs of Arkansas, Bentley had been leaning toward acting but his parents — he especially credits his mother — urged him on. “They were both for it, but she knew what steps to take. They drove me in our van up to Chicago for an audition for (the Juilliard School in New York). There were auditions around the country, but Chicago was the closest place from Arkansas.

“I had two monologues to memorize, one classical, one modern, and I was having a hard time remembering them. I fell asleep in the van, and had a dream in which Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams sat in a room with me, convincing me that I’m an actor. Robin Williams did most of the talking, but Kevin made his point, too. I woke up, and everything came to me — I memorized the monologues right away, and right then, decided to be an actor.”

It’s one thing to dream about Spacey; it’s another to have that dream and then end up acting with the thesp in “Beauty.” Bentley won a breakthrough performance honor from the National Board of Review.

“I guess it was meant to be in some way,” says Bentley.

— Robert Koehler

KIMBERLY BROWN

Moviegoers in the past year saw an impressive crop of young talent showcased, including Natalie Portman in “Anywhere but Here,” and the young casts of “American Beauty” and “American Pie.” Another young actress gaining attention is 15-year-old Kimberly J. Brown, who portrays Ava Walker in the fact-based “Tumbleweeds.”

Though the Maryland native is a newcomer to the bigscreen, she is a seasoned performer; she played the role of Marah Lewis on “Guiding Light” for five years, for which she received a Daytime Emmy nom. At the age of 7, Brown took her first Broadway bow in John Guare’s “Four Baboons Adoring the Sun,” with Stockard Channing. A yearlong stint as young Cosette in “Les Miserables” and a role in “Show Boat” soon followed.

Despite the lure of film, Brown, who also has done extensive modeling, refuses to choose a favorite medium. “When I perform live onstage, I love to feel the audience’s immediate reaction, while film is a more concentrated craft, which allows you numerous takes.” she says.

The actress describes “Tumbleweeds” as a film that explores the love between a free-spirited mother — played by Tony Award- winner Janet McTeer, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role — and her teen daughter.

Brown speaks fondly of the 24-day shoot; as for her relationship with McTeer, she responds: “Wonderful. It was hard to tell where the acting began and finished.”

“The important message behind the story is that Ava and her mother, Mary Jo, will always have one another, despite the obstacles they may encounter,” Brown says.

Next big project for this young thesp: Finishing up at the L.A. private high school she attends, and eventually more stage and screen roles.

— Jill Feiwell

HARRY LENNIX

“We shot for five months,” says Harry Lennix, who plays the unrepentantly evil Aaron the Moor in “Titus.” “If they had told me that the shoot was five years, I’d have signed on just as quickly.”

Aaron is one of Shakespeare’s most heinous villains and a role that director Julie Taymor describes as “the most disturbing and yet contemporary of all the characters.” Scholars see in the Moor early versions of the Bard’s Iago and Richard III.

Aaron, the play’s sole black character, schemes (on his own and with fellow conspirators) to blackmail, rape, mutilate and murder. Even when confronted with his evil deeds and about to die, he avows: “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” Explains Lennix: “That’s a religious statement.

“Why does he do all these things?” Lennix asks. “An equally good question is ‘why not?’ They brought him into Rome in chains. He is, for lack of a better term, a slave. In his own way, Aaron believes it’s his amoral duty to screw up anything he can.”

The 35-year-old actor was the only holdover from Taymor’s New York stage production of “Titus Andronicus.” But, he says, he had to “rethink” the part because of the high-powered cast that surrounded him, notably Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange.

“It was much more physical,” Lennix says. “The kernel of who Aaron is the same, but some of the external flourishes were quite different.”

Lennix admits he was a little cocky on his first day of rehearsals in Rome: Having done the play, he knew his lines, so he’d spent the previous two months at the gym, pumping up for a very physical shoot.

Better known in the stage world than for his film work, Lennix has done two Spike Lee movies — “Get on the Bus” (1996) and “Clockers” (1995) — and, three seasons back, a six-episode run as a doctor on “ER.” He will star in “A Raisin in the Sun” at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, his stage home, in the spring.

— Jon Burlingame

JANET McTEER

The screening of “Tumbleweeds” at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival was packed and the reaction enthusiastic. But the film’s star Janet McTeer had a surprise for the applauding crowd.

“I went up to the podium with the director, Gavin O’Connor,” McTeer says, “after the audience has seen me be this North Carolina woman. When I opened my mouth to say ‘Thank you,’ in my British accent, a gasp went up in the cinema. I was terrified they were all going to laugh, but I realized that they were shocked that this British actress had sort of fooled them, I suppose.”

O’Connor, who had written “Tumbleweeds” with partner and then-wife Angela Shelton, had seen McTeer being interviewed on PBS’ “The Charlie Rose Show” during her Tony-winning Broadway engagement as Nora in “A Doll’s House.”

“Gavin sent me the script,” McTeer recalls, “but I wasn’t sure how he had put me, this classically trained London actor, together with Mary Jo Walker — who’s bouncing around the States with her teenage daughter, getting in and out of bad relationships, just a step out of total poverty. He told me that when he saw me on television, he saw that I had Mary Jo’s free-spirited energy.”

So, like many British actors before her, McTeer applied her wealth of technical training to learning a specific American accent — in this case, western North Carolina.

“I learned like you learn the piano,” McTeer explains, “bit by bit, by rote, the technical side, and once I had that down, my only concern was Mary Jo’s character. You can have a good technical grasp, but the voice has to be linked to the character. We speak the way we do because of where we grow up, so the voice is like the behavior.”

McTeer won the National Board of Review best actress kudos for the film and has been nominated for a Golden Globe. But her move into the American indie scene comes after a steady British stage career, which led from Royal Academy of Dramatic Art training to the Royal Shakespeare Co. (“I was with them at the Barbican Theatre in London, and hated it there; it was not very actor-friendly, so I left”). Then she did new plays at the Royal Court, with television work and small film roles in between.

“In all of my work, I hadn’t done a lot of improv, but that was something that became important working with Gavin and Kimberly (Brown, who plays Mary Jo’s daughter, Ava),” she says. “Luckily, Kimberly and I got along magnificently. It’s pure luck when you click with another actor.”

— Robert Koehler

SAMANTHA MORTON

When Samantha Morton found out she would be co-starring in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” her first reaction was, “So who’s Woody Allen?” Though that response might seem a bit far-fetched for the average American moviegoer, for a 22-year-old actress from rural England, it’s not as surprising.

“I’m from a small town and had not seen any of his films,” says Morton, who plays a mute in Allen’s latest opus. “People told me, ‘Look, this guy has made 50 films. He’s a legend.’ ”

But Morton didn’t go directly to the video store and rent “Annie Hall” (1977) or “Sleeper” (1973) to get a handle on the director’s body of work; rather she let the filmmaking experience speak for itself.

“People’s work fluctuates,” she says. “I don’t like to be opinionated in that way. I didn’t want to see any of his stuff.”

Allen spotted Morton in the 1997 pic “Under the Skin” and wanted her for the role as Hattie, Sean Penn’s eager girlfriend. Though she doesn’t speak, Hattie is as communicative as any role she’s undertaken, Morton says.

“I don’t feel she’s bottling up any emotion at all. She’s an incredibly kind and wonderful person, almost pure and angelic. She’s not a quiet person. She just doesn’t have the ability to speak,” Morton says. “When I first met Woody he told me that she was a mute and I thought that was amazing. I think he wanted to see what I would do with the role. He gave me such freedom with it.”

In 1999, Morton also starred in “Dreaming of Joseph Lees,” set in 1950s rural England. Morton plays Eva, a woman torn between obligations and unbridled passion.

Eva is in constant conflict, forced to succumb to society’s values but not wanting to let go of her lust. Toward the end of the film, Morton, who said the filming was not a pleasurable experience, brings her emotions to the surface in a few powerful scenes.

“I took the part because the character was so tightly wound,” she says. “Parts I’ve played in other films were very young women who were very expressive: verbally and emotionally. For me, Eva’s emotions were all underneath.”

Morton has a busy schedule ahead, with possibly three pics to be released Stateside in 2000: “Pandaemonium,” “Jesus’ Son” and “The Last Yellow.” But despite being in demand, she tries to remain selective about her roles.

“I’m very fussy about what I do and what I put my heart into,” she concedes. “Life isn’t a rehearsal. If I don’t get any heart or soul from a script, I won’t do it.”

— Stuart Levine

FRANCES O’CONNOR

In essaying the role of Fanny Price in the latest adaptation of a Jane Austin novel, “Mansfield Park,” Australian actress Frances O’Connor has found herself in the midst of a controversy.

Writer-director Patricia Rozema mixes material from the novel with Austen’s early fiction and the writer’s own life. Austen purists cried foul over the liberties taken with Fanny’s character.

“It’s kind of an amalgam of Jane Austen and Fanny Price,” says O’Connor, since Rozema transformed the character from a weak, impoverished woman at the mercy of her rich uncle and his snobbish family into a willful, would-be novelist with a strong mind of her own.

In preparing for the role, O’Connor studied Austen’s life and read a lot of her early literature.

“It gave me insight because here’s someone who wasn’t quite fully formed,” says the Perth native.

“Her storytelling is a kind of survival mechanism,” says O’Connor of Fanny. “It keeps her inner life alive by writing; it gives her a sense of joy in the world, because otherwise there isn’t a lot to keep her going, which must have been the case with a lot of women of that era because of servitude and the rights women had.”

O’Connor studied for three years at the West Australian Academy for Performing Arts before becoming a member of the Melbourne Theater Co. She was introduced to international audiences in Emma-Kate Croghan’s comedy “Love and Other Catastrophes” (1996) and Bill Bennett’s neo-noir “Kiss or Kill” (1997); she recently completed Gerard Stembridge’s Irish film “All About Adam” before tackling the title role of another cinematic version of a literary tome, “Madame Bovary.”

— Steve Chagollan

HALEY JOEL OSMENT

M. Night Shyamalan’s summer hit “The Sixth Sense” proved a surprise mega-hit at the box office, and much of the praise for the pic focused on the performance of Haley Joel Osment, as the gifted Cole Sear.

The 11-year-old’s work isn’t the result of chance or good luck. “He’s superintelligent,” says Shyamalan. “He understands the craft of it because of his father (actor Eugene Osment). He’s learned the discipline involved. He takes it very seriously: He studies the script and asks questions about each line, what the character’s feeling. You don’t have to talk down to him in any way.”

Osment has TV and screen credits that stretch back to 1992 (including Forrest Jr. in the 1994 “Forrest Gump”), but nothing prepared him for Cole.

“Usually when I do a role I look for experiences in the character’s life that have occurred in my life,” Osment says. “So when I went to analyze the character and try and prepare to do the scenes, it was hard and I had to invent these feelings within myself, I had to bring out emotions that I’d never felt before, I had to feel what the character was doing at the time — I had to go deep into his heart and really understand what’s driving him to make the actions that he does in the scene.”

Osment, a big fan of Anthony Hopkins, adds that “whenever I read a script I always look not for how big the part is or if it’s exciting enough; I read for the story content and how rich it is.”

— Paul Power

MENA SUVARI

Mena Suvari may have burst onto the bigscreen last year as everybody’s favorite virgin, but inexperience had nothing to do with it.

The thesp, who plays the object of Kevin Spacey’s obsession in “American Beauty,” at age 20 is an acting vet, cutting her teeth from 1993-97 playing juicy guest roles on TV’s “Chicago Hope,” “ER,” “Boy Meets World” and “High Incident” before segueing to film in “Nowhere” (1997) “The Slums of Beverly Hills” (1998), “The Rage: Carrie 2” and “American Pie” (both 1999).

But it is the complex role of Angela in “Beauty” that allowed her talents to ripen. Her portrayal of the trash-talking cheerleader who flirts with her best friend’s father has earned Suvari critical acclaim.

She credits “Beauty’s” true first-timers with bringing her character to the screen: writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes.

“We had a TV writer and a director coming from theater and yet they put this amazing piece together. It worked so well,” Suvari says. “I was very very fond of the script and I really identified with that role.

“I hadn’t ever really seen a role like that, somebody who had so many ranges and layers to her. In a lot of instances, Angela was really funny, yet she was pathetic. I really loved that. It was liberating in a way, playing a more powerful and sexy role, whereas in ‘American Pie’ I was more of a sweet innocent.”

The actress says she could relate to her character’s feelings, though their lives share few similarities. She does, however, share with her character an ability to relate to older men. Her cinematographer boyfriend is 37; her father is 76.

Whether the Academy will focus on Suvari’s breakout performance in a film packed full of potential acting noms is anyone’s guess. Suvari’s just grateful to have been on set with such powerhouse talents as Spacey, Annette Bening and Peter Gallagher.

“It’s all a very surreal experience right now. I never thought I would be in the same room with all those people,” she says.

— Jan Lindstrom

HILARY SWANK

Few performances in 1999 drew the kind of attention and critical response as Hilary Swank’s work in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Little in the young actress’ performing experience prepared her for the role of gender-bending Brandon Teena-Teena Brandon, though she’s been acting since her teens.

She has acted in several films going back to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992) and “The Next Karate Kid” (1994) as well as the soon to be released independent film “The Way We Are” (1997). On television, she’s been a regular on “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Camp Wilder.”

While realistically passing as a boy may have been a challenge for her as an actress, Swank also felt pressure from playing a real person. “I felt an obligation to be as honest as I could in this story, to be truthful,” she says, “because this was someone’s life.”

When she was approached for the role, Swank decided “if I couldn’t pass for a boy on the street, then I wasn’t going to do it.” Having only four weeks to prepare for the role meant a rigorous — and fast — transformation, both physically and emotionally. The actress cut her long hair, worked at lowering her vocal register and then “packed a sock and taped my breasts.” She read books about transgendered people, transcripts from the Teena Brandon murder trial and worked with an acting coach.

Then came the all-important emotional change: “seeing what it feels like having people think you’re a boy but not really knowing what you are.” Walking the streets trying to pass, she says, “was a very intense experience. I learned a lot about myself and about humanity.”

There were times during the shoot, however, when she found herself overwhelmed by the reality she was depicting. The explicit stripping scene and the rape scene were difficult to do, she confesses. “The way she was treated when they found out Brandon was actually a she was very difficult to deal with.”

Her performance in “Boys Don’t Cry” earned her best actress nod from the New York Film Critics Circle, a breakthrough-perf honor from the National Board of Review and a Golden Globe nom. It also has opened a lot of doors for her, but she has still not decided on her next step.

“Doing something like that was both humbling and fantastic,” she says. “It’s difficult to find something that you respond to both as an actor and a human being. ‘Boys’ was an important story and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”

— Richard Natale

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