Steady, satisfying roles worth more than celebrity and shine of kudos glow

One feel-good perk of Oscar season is the praise often bestowed upon actors with solid resumes and familiar faces who often toil without immediate name recognition.

This year, performances by Clifton Collins Jr., Richard Jenkins, Peter Sarsgaard and Terrence Howard, among others, are once again alerting audiences to the gifts of the everyday working actor.

For Collins, whose intense portrayal of killer Perry Smith in “Capote” has generated Oscar buzz, the spotlight is appreciated, but he admits there’s a peculiar comfort to his 15-plus years of under-the-radar work, which includes parts in “Traffic,” “The Rules of Attraction,” “Tigerland” and “The Last Castle.”

“If a fan recognizes me, it’s because they really love movies and they really pay attention,” says Collins, who is shooting upcoming FX series “Thief.” “I haven’t done a whole lot of press, either. I know things will probably change a little bit, but I’ve been really content being the underdog.”

While he still has to contend with being typecast as a bad guy or a cop, he likes the hustle of proving himself in an audition. “I want to go in and perform,” Collins says. “I think a lot of actors focus so much on getting the gig as opposed to actually doing the gig. If you love it and you did your homework, have a great time and you’ll walk away happy.”

Collins might relish the audition and rehearsal process, but it can be far from a lucrative undertaking. The astronomical paydays for above-the-line talent have resulted in what some Hollywood veterans say is a lack of financial compensation for a whole tier of established actors that consistently does good work but might not be box office draws.

“There’s a huge inequity in this business,” says casting director Mali Finn. “The major stars are getting so much money that the supporting actors, character actors, working actors who have invested years in this business are being paid scale plus 10.”

Talent agent Susan Smith, a veteran of 36 years, begrudgingly calls some of her clients, including many award winners, “character actors.” “I hate the term. It’s a way to marginalize people,” Smith says.

She says it’s never been harder for such performers. “Like what happened in the U.S. with the middle-class squeeze, there’s a squeeze in the middle-level actor. And by middle level I mean name recognition. The Screen Actors Guild has admitted way too many people. The studio can say, ‘If we can’t get Sam, we’ll get Harry over here.’ And nine times out of 10 Harry will do it because he wants to be able to work.”

How then does an actor with newfound recognition parlay it into something bigger? Howard was a scene-stealing dynamo for many years, able to turn a juicy character part, as in “The Best Man,” into something memorable. In the wake of his lead turn in “Hustle & Flow,” his agent wants him to leave supporting roles behind.

Is that the correct move? Smith believes that a talented actor shouldn’t rule out anything. “Beatrice Straight won an Oscar with a one-day role (in ‘Network’),” she notes. “I would tell any actor to go for what the part is and with whom you’re doing it, not the size.”

Jenkins (“Flirting With Disaster,” “Changing Lanes”) has been one of Hollywood’s most tried-and-true character actors for nearly two decades, and found new fame as the patriarch in HBO’s recently deceased “Six Feet Under.” Now in “North Country,” as Charlize Theron’s narrow-minded miner dad, he turns in a commanding bigscreen performance.

“North Country” casting director Finn says actors such as Jenkins are often undervalued by the public but envied by filmmakers because their focus is more likely to be on the creative process than other celeb-related pressures. “They don’t rise and fall as much because they are continually and steadily working.”

For “North Country,” Jenkins was asked to meet with director Niki Caro, but instead chose to audition. “He said, ‘No, I want to read. I like this role and I’m going to go for it.’ I’m sure he didn’t have to, but I admire people who have that spirit.”

While reading scripts, Jenkins often looks for roles through which he can contribute something to a film’s collaborative effort. “You don’t want to be a hired gun that comes in,” says Jenkins. “You want to be part of a project, whether it’s small or large. You’d like to have a stake in the film.”

For Sarsgaard, who turned in notable performances in “Shattered Glass” and “Kinsey,” and continued this year playing a gung-ho Marine in “Jarhead,” it’s also about being a part of something great, not just standing out. “I don’t like being singled out by a reviewer who didn’t like the rest of the movie,” he says. “I try to pick good movies to be in, not just good roles.”

Is A-list status appealing to Sarsgaard?

“Yeah, it interests me to have power as an actor and be the lead in good movies,” says Sarsgaard, “but not the way it is now. It’s actor heavy. People say, ‘I’m going to see the Tom Cruise movie.’ And I go, ‘By the way, Steven Spielberg directed it.’ You don’t put the cart before the horse.”

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