Actors branch increasingly drawn to the personal and controversial

A cynical advertising executive who seduces women for sport lectures his nephew about “winning time” at a latenight party as they zero in on their prey. An insecure actress allows a self-absorbed lover — also an actor — to critique her body in detail as she stands before him stark naked. A newly hired legal secretary whose typos infuriate her boss subjects herself to a spanking, and appears to enjoy it.

Played by Campbell Scott (“Roger Dodger”), Emily Mortimer (“Lovely & Amazing”) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Secretary”), respectively, these characters reflect more than just variations on the war between the sexes; they highlight some of the year’s most indelible portrayals. More important, they have aroused debate in a way that underscores the medium’s role as the lingua franca of American society.

They join a number of big performances in small films seen throughout the course of the year that include: Paz Vega as an incurable romantic in “Sex and Lucia,” Bebe Neuwirth as a latter-day Mrs. Robinson in “Tadpole,” James Nesbit as civil rights leader Ivan Cooper in “Bloody Sunday,” Edie Falco as a lovelorn motel proprietor in “Sunshine State” and the trio of actresses (Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk) who form the core of “Personal Velocity.”

Role playing

These features might not be the kind of thing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences normally embraces in the best picture category, but increasingly, performances from such films are being singled out by Oscar voters. In the most recent example, last year Sissy Spacek and Halle Berry vied for best actress for “In the Bedroom” and “Monster’s Ball,” respectively — two films that polarized critics due to their incendiary subject matter. Likewise, in March of 2000, Hilary Swank pulled off a major upset by beating out Annette Bening (“American Beauty”) as best actress for 1999′s “Boys Don’t Cry,” an unflinching examination of a male-dressing lesbian who becomes the victim of a hate crime.

In fact, the ’90s alone points to a predilection of the actors branch to stray off the beaten path, from nominated turns by Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game”), Brenda Blethyn (“Secrets and Lies”), Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”) and Nick Nolte (“Affliction”) to Oscar-winning performances by Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin (“The Piano”), Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”), Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) and Frances McDormand (“Fargo”).

These citations have been for highly personal, sometimes controversial work, which is what often draws the actors to the material in the first place. In Campbell Scott’s case, the part of Roger — an inveterate cad with a rapier wit that sometimes cuts a little too deep — comes precariously close to losing the audience’s empathy. But writer-director Dylan Kidd’s script was so strong in the actor’s mind that he couldn’t resist.

“I don’t get to play that part very often,” says Scott, “someone who gets to say anything they want even if it’s cruel. Hopefully, the funny part of the movie is how he continues to flail regardless of the fact that he’s losing his effectiveness and that his 16-year-old nephew from Ohio is more engaging with women than he is.”

In many ways, an actor is only as good as the roles he or she chooses, and these performers happen to lean more toward challenging, often provocative material than commercial viability. It’s an approach that has worked for thesps like Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, but has hindered the visibility of others like Samantha Morton and Billy Crudup — actors admired by their peers but often obscured by arcane material or eccentric choices. Nevertheless, an actor like Scott — who says his brush with Hollywood in such vehicles as “Dying Young” and “Singles” wasn’t “that much fun” — continues to carve out his own path as an actor and filmmaker.

Despite the relative youth of Emily Mortimer, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Paz Vega, these actresses all appear to be driven by material that might not be deemed safe by career standards but challenges their gifts as artists.

Gyllenhaal was well aware that her title character in “Secretary” — who finds true love in a dominant-submissive relationship with her lawyer boss — might elicit the wrath of the PC police. “The movie and the character I was playing have not been dealt with much in the world right now,” says the 25-year-old actress. “There were rules set up by feminists 100 years ago that were totally necessary that we, as educated, thinking women followed because it was a way of achieving real equality.

“But my mother’s a screenwriter and my grandmother was a doctor and I feel like the rules that were set up aren’t totally accurate or helpful right now. What happened with ‘Secretary’ is that we were questioning some of those rules.”

Feminine ways

Much of the criticism leveled against “Lovely & Amazing” also has to do with what many considered to be negative female role models. The film stars Mortimer as a borderline anorexic actress, Catherine Keener as a terminally unfulfilled housewife and Brenda Blethyn as their mother who takes solace in liposuction. But despite co-starring with two Oscar-nominated actresses, it was Mortimer who attracted the most attention from critics.

For the Brit actress, overcoming her accent was the hard part; but the film’s uncanny sense of realism came naturally. “It all started with the script,” says 32-year-old Mortimer of writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s blueprint. “The finished product is almost a carbon copy — mostly every line was written. The agony and the humor was all sort of there.”

Even the film’s most vivid scene — when Mortimer allows her naked self to be placed under the microscope by Dermot Mulroney’s narcissistic leading man — allowed the actress to draw on her own experience.

“I sat down and went through all the things I was paranoid about myself with Nicole. I remember sitting in the bed with Dermot…I went from being totally outside myself and outside my character, thinking about how embarrassing it would be. When I walked to my spot and turned around and he started talking, I was just as exposed, vulnerable, stupid and brave as the girl I was portraying.”

Vega’s title role in Julio Medem’s “Sex and Lucia” gained as much notice for the 27-year-old Spaniard’s dynamic emotional range as for the considerable nudity the part demanded. The actress, who played the aggressor in a relationship with a tortured writer, says she works with intuition. “I let the moment carry me,” she says. “We had three months of rehearsal, so when we were in front of the camera, there was a lot of concentration and that led us to display emotions that even surprised us when they came out.”

Vega downplays the explicit nature of the film, one of the few movies released in the U.S. that also displayed male genitalia. “Nudity and sex in Europe are seen with more freedom,” explains Vega. “Of course, this movie has a high content of nudity, more, actually, than what we usually see in Europe, which is why it’s been controversial in Spain.

“What counts is that the movie has been accepted by the critics and the public. Audiences have come out very emotionally because what surrounds the sex scenes is more important than the sex itself.”

And the fact that audiences have truly supported this year’s less-than-orthodox fare validates what these actors do with their eclectic choices.

“You could spend a lot of energy fighting how you are perceived as opposed to where your energy should be going, which is getting roles that are interesting to you,” says Campbell Scott, who co-directed “Big Night” with Stanley Tucci in 1996 and whose “Off the Map” will appear at Sundance. “In the last six or seven years, I’ve tried to take even more control of my career by directing or producing,” he says. “When you get older, you tend to think, ‘What am I going to spend eight months doing now, something I really love or just a job?’”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more