Thesps attracted to pic's quality, not quantity

Being part of a crowd is usually not an actor’s goal. They usually want the most lines, the most scenes, the biggest part, right? Wrong, at least in the case of “Crash,” this year’s Hollywood Awards honoree for ensemble cast. For once, quality trumped quantity.

“There were no huge roles in the film at all,” says writer-director Paul Haggis, winner of the Hollywood Awards’ breakthrough director honor. “If we’d been smart, we would have written something that had focused on three or four characters. Then we could go to somebody and say, ‘Listen, this is a pretty good role, like in “Magnolia” where there’s five great scenes, six great scenes, to sink your teeth into.’ But we didn’t do that. Some of these roles had only two, three scenes.”

Haggis paraphrases the old cliche about no small role, only small actors: “The actors understood that the ensemble work itself was more important than the individual role.”

It’s downright shocking in the self-involved world of Hollywood. But such thinking, not to mention the sublimation of ego for the good of the show, has paid off big time for every thesp, be they big star, character actor or newcomer:

For the first-tier crowd — Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, Ryan Phillippe — the good press they received for taking on unexpected characters helped them escape their normal boxes. Dillon went on to play Charles Bukowski in “Factotum,” Bullock to the drama “Have You Heard,” Fraser to the dark thriller “Journey to the End of the Night” and Phillippe to the war drama “Flags of Our Fathers.”

But it’s the lesser-known faces in the ensemble that “Crash” landed somewhere in the stratosphere. “I don’t know if our movie was a catalyst or not, but boy!” says Haggis. “They all ended up doing some good work right afterwards.”

Terrence Howard broke out with “Hustle and Flow,” Jennifer Esposito snagged the lead in the new WB television series “Related,” William Fichtner is doing “Invasion” for the same network, and Michael Pena has one of the lead roles in Oliver Stone’s untitled 9/11 project. The big cigar, however, goes to Bahar Soomekh, who first made “Syriana” opposite George Clooney and now stands shoulder to shoulder with Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible III.”

“It’s been exciting to see how well everybody’s doing off the movie,” says Sarah Finn, who cast “Crash” with Randi Hiller. “Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s always the intention going in.”

Hiller recalls those many actors who passed on the project. “But now we can’t imagine it with anybody but the people who are in it,” she says.

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