Emerging thesps and helmers benefit from exposure

Celebrities are usually counted on to give film festivals a touch of glamour, and provide a lure for paparazzi always on the lookout for splashy photo ops. But at the Sundance Film Festival, the event and the filmmakers in attendance act as the real stars, while the A-list glam quotient is simply window dressing.

If anything, Sundance helps fashion stars out of emerging directors and actors, although the careers of more than a few veteran celebrities have occasionally been revitalized by appearing in a hit fest title.

For example, Harvey Keitel — who cooled off after experiencing early heat in Martin Scorsese films — suddenly became red hot after a key role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” Nick Nolte, in the doldrums through the mid-’90s, went on to an Oscar nomination for his role in 1997’s “Affliction,” which screened at Sundance; while Janet McTeer (“Tumbleweeds”) made her Sundance winnings pay off with an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globes win.

Blonde ambition

In 2000, Laura Linney — used to playing supporting parts in major releases — rode her performance in “You Can Count on Me,” which won the Sundance grand jury prize, all the way to the Academy Awards as an actress nominee, not to mention laurels from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle.

This past year, Sissy Spacek, one of the more revered stars of the ’70s and ’80s but relegated to low-profile roles in recent years, has been given a huge boost with her part in last year’s special jury prize winner “In the Bedroom,” while her “Bedroom” co-star Marisa Tomei — all but missing-in-action for years — is suddenly being given the credibility many thought she lacked after copping a controversial Oscar for her supporting role in 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny.”

In the current lineup, the star presence of actors normally associated with mainstream studio fare or bigger budgets is particularly high. The list includes Nicole Kidman (“Birthday Girl”), Jodie Foster (“The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys”), Robin Williams (“One-Hour Photo”), Matt Damon (“Gerry”), Andy Garcia (“The Man From Elysian Fields”), Jennifer Aniston (“The Good Girl”), Matthew McConaughey (“Thirteen Conversations About One Thing”), and Andie MacDowell (“Crush”), who might credit Sundance and Steven Soderbergh (“sex, lies & videotape”) for her high profile.

Kidman, who’s never attended the festival, is planning to go for “Birthday Girl,” but it’s contingent upon how busy she’ll be preparing for Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” “I’d love to go the festival,” says Kidman, who associates Sundance with “snow, skiing and cell phones.”

“And also, I think really good films come out of there from filmmakers like Todd Haynes, and that sort,” she adds. “They’ve got good taste.”

It’s this perceived taste that lures many of the bigger stars looking for street credibility and the opportunity to work with more challenging material and more nuanced characters.

“Obviously, when you’re working in independent films, the movies have to be made a lot cheaper, but generally the subject matter tends to be a lot more fulfilling for an actor,” says Garcia, who will also be attending his first Sundance as a producer and star of “Elysian Fields.”

“The subject matter is fresher and not geared toward any large demographic, so from an actor or producer or a directorial point of view, you have a fresher canvas to work from,” he adds.

Foster home for ‘Boys’

Foster, also sharing acting and producing credits on Sundance Premieres entry “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” was planning on attending last year when “Altar Boys” was slotted to be unveiled at the fest, but the film was yanked at the 11th hour when its animation component couldn’t be completed in time.

“Geoff Gilmore was just so great with us,” says Foster of the Sundance co-director. “He was such a champion of the film. He just kept saying, ‘OK, we’ll wait; I’ll see it without the animation; I’ll see it with pencil tests! And we almost got it ready.”

Unlike Kidman and Garcia, Foster has a history with the fest.

“I have a special place in my heart for Sundance, because I was on the jury a long, long time ago and it was really one of the great moments of my life,” she says. “It was just like one of those great college experiences where you have 15 people in the snow all arguing about why you like a certain movie and why they didn’t. That’s before the masses came.

“And so the place has that feeling for me, where people genuinely look at movies for their storytelling value and not necessarily for how many theaters it’s going to open in, or how it got financed. It’s just very pure.”

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