Worldly women entice

Often less expensive and more available, foreign actresses are landing plum roles -- sometimes at the expense of Americans

Any given Oscar season is bound to sport a host of international contenders in the acting ranks. Foreign actresses, in particular, have made big impacts at the Oscars for decades, but that number is increasing in droves now, as 2006 presents a certifiable glut of global talent.

Overseas names such as Cate Blanchett, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet continue to dot the awards season landscape.

This influx of top thesping is certainly a good thing for audiences, but what about actresses here in the States? Are Americans being crowded out as filmmakers look overseas more and more for their casting decisions, or is the indication far less noteworthy and alarming?

Some might say actresses born outside of the States are presumably more “worldly,” and therefore have advantages in gaining roles over domestic talent. The line of nationality can often blur, in fact, giving ample opportunity to this actress or that based on what could be construed, at least on the surface as versatility.

Oz native Blanchett, who gives three diverse performances this season in “The Good German,” “Babel” and “Notes on a Scandal,” experienced a similar reaction following the success of her Oscar-nominated portrayal in 1998’s “Elizabeth.”

“It was odd,” she says. “People assumed I was English, having played an English monarch, no doubt, and I followed up that film by playing a character from Long Island. So before I even really ‘arrived,’ my nationality was obscured somewhat.”

Producer Lindsay Doran has often worked with international talent, having served as the producer of such films as Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” and Kirk Jones’s “Nanny McPhee.” Four-time Doran collaborator Emma Thompson, British-born, is herself a contender in the supporting actress ranks this year for her work in one of Doran’s films, “Stranger Than Fiction.”

“It has a lot to do with balancing the cast in terms of international appeal,” Doran comments. “Some of it has to do with availability, but some of it has to do with price. Sometimes you can get one of the greatest actors in the whole world for less than one of the greatest actors in America.”

Also possible is the notion that international actresses are seemingly given more permission by filmmakers and moviegoers to age than they are here in the States, sometimes finding more stardom later in their careers than in their youth. Doran notes that many European thesps, for instance, seem to hit their strides in their 50s and 60s. It would follow that older parts would go to the actresses most accepted in those roles.

But, perhaps, 2006’s spike in foreign dominance is nothing more than a passing trend.

“In a way, sometimes it’s just fashion,” actress Judi Dench remarks, “what happens to be very opportune for a certain group at a certain time. Sometimes it’s all Americans (in the Oscar race).”

Blanchett, who co-stars opposite Dench in “Scandal,” agrees: “Most cultures have a fascination for the exotic, the foreign, but the way this translates to employment of actors in film can often be faddish. The challenge is how to sow the seeds for longevity in the U.S. industry.”

With that in mind, it might be worth pointing out that breaking into that “U.S. industry” can be a significant challenge for foreign actresses. Opportunities to leap formal barriers can often be few and far between. Many of the names in play this year are, after all, oft-mentioned, well-established thesps when it comes to the awards-season discussion.

In “Babel,” however, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu speckled the majority of his ensemble with an array of domestically unfamiliar global talent, including Adriana Barraza, who’s earning buzz for her role in the film.

“The North American industry is very formalized,” she says. “It can be very difficult to enter that marketplace without having an international role.”

Barraza’s “Babel” co-star Rinko Kikuchi concurs, noting the significance of seeking success on the Western front.

“It’s very difficult to imagine what kind of career path you can have as an actress in Japan,” she says, “but there are directors, like Alejandro, who overcome those barriers. Regardless, just as I learned sign language for this film, I look forward to taking on any such challenges that might come my way in the future.”

In the final analysis, despite cultural discrepancies and the challenges that come with breaking into the American market, thesps of all cultures share the commonality of acting. And it is that bond that draws them to Oscar polls each year to distinguish the best in cinematic portrayals, peers voting for peers.

“There is a language actors speak, regardless of what we are,” Dench asserts. “It’s about the luck of the draw. After all, you’re lucky if you get the job.”

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