Character thesps get their day in the sun and a shot at the moon

The night Hollywood honors its biggest stars will this year be dedicated to celebrating actors traditionally considered its strongest supporting players. Passing over the usual contingent of A-listers, the Academy has nominated more than a dozen tried-and-true character actors in serious dramas, including six in the lead categories. That kind of attention can transform an actor’s career, say industryites.

Consider “Capote.” According to producer Caroline Baron, for a year and a half nobody wanted to finance the project with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead and first-timer Bennett Miller at the helm. Then Chris Cooper came aboard in a supporting role, and United Artists greenlit the picture. The magic ingredient: Cooper’s 2003 Academy Award win for “Adaptation.” “As an Oscar-winning actor, attaching himself to the project when he did was tremendously helpful,” Baron says.

“Now I suspect Philip Seymour Hoffman by himself is enough to get the financing,” says casting director Jane Jenkins, who, among other projects, works on all of Ron Howard’s films at the Casting Co. “That’s what a nomination can do.”

“The impact is phenomenal,” explains Victoria Wisdom, a manager-producer who worked for years as an agent at ICM, APA and Becksey Wisdom Kalajian. “One day you’re just a character guy, and suddenly, the next day, your name is being pitched in meetings. You’re in the room at the development level. During these months, Terrence Howard is someone you could probably finance a picture with.”

For actors such as Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Spacey, Oscar wins (for “The Fugitive” and “The Usual Suspects,” respectively) propelled them from steady supporting work to leading-man status. “‘American Beauty’ would not have been within Spacey’s reach by any stretch of the imagination unless he had that Oscar win,” says Wisdom. “The win clenched him as an actor to be reckoned with.”

But an Oscar win can also make things more difficult for a working character actor.

“It’s very interesting representing an actor who wins an Academy Award,” says Michael Lazo, head of talent at Paradigm, whose clients include both Hoffman and Cooper. “I think the independent film companies that are telling the interesting stories your clients gravitate towards (can be) intimidated in approaching that actor for various projects, mostly because they think they’re not good enough or they don’t have enough money.”

When Emma Thompson won the Oscar for “Howards End,” she complained that she didn’t work for a year because casting directors considered her too serious for comic parts in films such as “Groundhog Day.” More recently, John C. Reilly, who was making three or four films a year before his “Chicago” nomination, has only appeared in three significant roles since.

Asking prices often do go up, but so does audience recognition and a willingness on the part of studios to hire serious actors in more significant roles.

“When you’re making some of the initial lists for the leads in movies, the people putting up the money want (names) that nobody can turn around and question,” explains the Casting Co.’s Janet Hirshenson, who cast Paul Giamatti in his Oscar-nominated role in “Cinderella Man.” (While Giamatti hadn’t been Oscar-nommed before, he’d collected numerous critics awards and other prizes for “American Splendor” and “Sideways.”)

The distinction of an Oscar win, adds Jenkins, “raises everybody’s cachet, so now (the execs who approve casting) have actors they can advertise as being ‘certified’ by people in the know.”

A win could also revive the careers of one-time leading men, such as William Hurt and Matt Dillon, who might have fallen into the routine of settling for smaller supporting parts.

“It still all boils down to the subsequent choices you make once you’ve achieved a certain amount of notoriety,” Lazo says.

The fact that Oscar winner Judi Dench and “Gladiator” nominee Joaquin Phoenix continued to play character roles after attracting Oscar attention suggests the importance they place on material, even though the recognition has allowed both thesps to command leading roles.

One agent remembers an “enormous offer” to play a franchise character coming from a studio the day after his client won the Oscar. But it wasn’t the kind of part that would have interested the thesp before the award, so they passed on the project.

“All great actors want to be character actors,” says Lazo. “If you’re that good an actor, you want to inhabit different bodies.”

The proof can be seen in the year’s other acting noms.

“Just look at George Clooney,” says Wisdom about the star’s supporting role in “Syriana.” “That’s fascinating because that’s a leading man playing a character role. He’s a huge sex symbol and action hero, and he puts on 30 pounds and goes gray and plays a man who gets double-crossed.”

As a helmer, Clooney cast veteran character actor David Strathairn in the lead role of his film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” earning that thesp a best actor nod.

“Most of the actors in the Academy are not stars,” notes New York Times critic Manohla Dargis. “They’re working actors who have to take a lot of crappy roles along the way, and I think it must be very heartening to see one of their own pushed to the forefront and get that acknowledgement.”

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