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Supporting actor / how we got here

Robbins got Globe win, but category still open for Oscar

Perhaps the most eclectic list of Oscar hopefuls is the supporting actor category.

Tim Robbins, who won a Globe for his role in “Mystic River” and was previously nommed as a director, says he’s more interested in a good role and smart co-stars than in gold statues. He got both of the former with “River,” working under the direction of Clint Eastwood and alongside Sean Penn and Marcia Gay Harden.

“It’s incredibly fulfilling to do a good, well-written drama. You get a lot out of it,” says Robbins. “I’m always looking for that well-rounded, specific role: a character that has a defined path, history and a complexity of emotion. Those are great parts. So when those come along, I relish the opportunity.”

Working with actors who have directed, such as Penn and Kevin Bacon, also helped.

While playing a samurai in “The Last Samurai,” Ken Watanabe found out that his most formidable opponent was the English language.

Remember when . . . 1983
The Academy was open this year to new actors and comedy in this category. James Mason was the only nom with previous Oscar experience, notching two slots prior to his nom this year for legal thriller “The Verdict.”

Charles Durning (“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”) and John Lithgow (“The World According to Garp”) each had their first of two noms so far for comedic roles, while Robert Preston got his only nom for Blake Edwards’ musical comedy “Victor/Victoria.”

The Acad eventually stuck with drama, giving the hardware to Louis Gossett Jr. as the sergeant who shapes up Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

“It was difficult,” acknowledges the Japanese actor, who matches Tom Cruise’s megastar presence with a heavyweight performance of his own as Katsumoto.

“English is a very expressive language,” Watanabe says, with a little help from an interpreter. “But samurai are not expressive. I felt as if my mind and body were being torn apart. After shooting, I understood that this was a fight inside my own body between East and West.”

Alec Baldwin’s casino owner in “The Cooler” was a career standout and could get votes. He has never been nominated for an Oscar, so it seems fitting that his first nod may very well come for a role perfectly suited for him; if ever there were an actor needed for an intense, chain-smoking, gravel-voiced money grub, Baldwin’s the man.

As for inspiration, Baldwin leaned toward the usual suspects. “We were stuck in a hotel for the entire shoot and, since I’m not a gambler, I had very little to do,” he says. “Reno is full of gaming and strip clubs. That’s why I rented a VCR and watched ‘Casino.’ ”

The nomination of Djimon Hounsou was a surprise, in light of strong performances from the likes of Chris Cooper, critics’ darling Peter Sarsgaard, Jeff Bridges, Paul Bettany, Albert Finney, Sean Astin and Bill Nighy. Hounsou anchors the plot of “In America” and is a symbol of diversity and tolerenace whom the kids look up to.

Given the way Benicio Del Toro seamlessly stepped into his part in “21 Grams,” it’s hard to imagine that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu considered casting him in the role ultimately played by Sean Penn, and vice versa.

“(Penn) often plays that edgy part, so in a way Jack was the obvious role for him,” the director says. “But then I thought the opposite would be very interesting, and I’m glad that I did that.” Del Toro’s talent at playing intense, resolute characters has served him well with the Academy, which gave him the supporting actor trophy for “Traffic.”

“There’s something there with Benicio, he’s a guy who’s always contemplating,” Gonzalez says. “His silences are very powerful.”

Oscar pedigree

This is the category that rewards both talented newcomers and veteran actors whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences might feel deserve the recognition.

That should be good news for Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”), a veteran who has never been nommed for an acting trophy. He also turned in the sort of the serious performance that AMPAS voters prefer. Combined with a Golden Globes win, this could make Robbins a front-runner.

Benicio Del Toro won this category on his first nom three years ago. He brings the same fierce intensity to “21 Grams” that he did to “Traffic.” “Grams'” low profile in this year’s noms is a possible factor that could swing votes Del Toro’s way to make sure the film gets its due.

African native Djimon Hounsou is a first-time nominee, but has several bonuses on his side: He played an upbeat role at the heart of a sentimental film and that was enough to win the trophy for Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Jerry Maguire”).

Alec Baldwin has found renewed success by taking on more comedic roles. For “The Cooler” he combines comedic and dramatic talents to create an over-the-top character who is still threatening. That’s the sort of chutzpah that worked for Robin Williams and it could work for Baldwin.

A veteran actor in Japan, Ken Watanabe’s role in “The Last Samurai” was an eye-opener for many. With growing acceptance of Asian films and being the film’s most visible nominee, Watanabe might break out of the pack.

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