Films are rich with ensemble casts

A-list + acolytes = accolades

What: 13th annual SAG Awards
When: Sunday; cocktails 3:30 p.m.; dinner 4:45 p.m.; show 5 p.m.
Where: Los Angeles Shrine Exposition Center
Wattage: Presenters include Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening, Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sandra Oh, Kyra Sedgwick, Dick Van Dyke and Forest Whitaker, among others.

* * *

As in sports, films must take great care in finding the right mix of players to find success. A multitude of big names and fat paychecks does not necessarily a winner make — just ask George Steinbrenner — and the same is true in films. Take for example, the late Robert Altman, whose storied ensembles in “Nashville” and “The Player” represent an actor’s dream, while “Pret-a-Porter” and “Quintet” never quite got the chemistry right.

As Philip Seymour Hoffman noted in his SAG acceptance speech as best actor for “Capote” last year, “Actors have to watch each other’s backs.” And this past moviegoing season was particularly rich for casts that were greater than the sum of their parts.

The past year kicked off with Oscar wins for the panoramic “Crash,” and the Cannes Film Fest followed that by bestowing actor nods on two foreign casts, the women of “Volver” and the soldiers of “Days of Glory.”

This embarrassment of ensemble riches continued through the holidays with “Bobby,” “Dreamgirls,” “Babel,” “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine” scoring SAG nominations for best ensemble and top critics awards for such group-theater efforts as “United 93” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

If ensemble movies tend to level the playing field between A-list stars and lesser-known acolytes, not all ensemble casts are created equal. In the case of “Little Miss Sunshine,” the six-person troupe spent most of the shoot together on a bus. “Babel’s” shoot, on the other hand, was spread across three continents. So while Brad Pitt, Gael Garcia Bernal and Rinko Kikuchi may all be “connected,” their paths never intertwined during production.

“I believe this was Alejandro’s original intention, but I was only given part of the Japanese script,” says SAG nominee Kikuchi. “I’m very happy that I’m sharing credit with these incredible stars and talented actors, but what I was most concerned about was the Japan part.”

Large casts also allow audiences to pick and choose their favorites, as evidenced by the attention Kikuchi has received over her big-name co-stars.

Anika Noni Rose of “Dreamgirls” has also found a support group, despite sharing the screen with Beyonce, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy. “This MySpace thing is out of control,” Rose explains of the myriad emails she’s received about her character, Lorrell. “When somebody … follows your emotional arc enough to cry about it themselves, … it’s an amazing honor.”

Casting a name actor in an ensemble may be as easy as Hollywood insider Emilio Estevez calling up Anthony Hopkins or Demi Moore for “Bobby.” But the overall task of finding unique talents for supporting roles lies with casting directors.

Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis-Wagner cast “Bobby” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” and in the case of the latter, that meant doing and redoing cast lists for the three-plus years the film was trying to get made.

“On ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ because there were so few parts, that family really had to work,” Baddeley explains. And while Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell have become household names, it is newcomer Abigail Breslin who cements “Sunshine’s” appeal. “(The other actors) all knew we wouldn’t have had the movie if we hadn’t had the right Olive,” Baddeley says.

Davis-Wagner describes casting an ensemble as “a puzzle,” though she’s quick to add: “It’s the director who ultimately has to meld those relationships.”

It’s a sentiment one hears from actors as well. Rose says “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon, in mixing Grammy winners, Oscar winners and “American Idol” contenders, made sure “the energy on the set was really wonderful and fun.”

Vera Farmiga credits Martin Scorsese with finding the right mix in “The Departed” — “He’s so patently attached to his actors,” she says — though she also notes that “you have to be aware of the ensemble and what their parts are because their actions will affect yours.”

In a film loaded with splashy star turns, Farmiga’s scenes are two-handers with either Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio, and she says they were equally committed to making sure her character wasn’t just the token female. “Madolyn could have completely withered,” Farmiga says of her character. “It was really their concern for, not only their performance, but also my role in the film.”

It’s not just the bigscreen where ensembles flourish. “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Deadwood” and “The Office” have all found small-screen success, and SAG Award nods, by adopting large casts and multiple storylines.

Kudos stalwart “The Sopranos” has long prided itself on a lineup that’s strong and deep. It’s a group that mixes classically trained actors like James Gandolfini and Edie Falco with “regular guys” like Joseph R. Gannascoli, who says he learned acting by “riding the subways of Manhattan.”

Gannascoli started out as a bit player on the HBO show, but found himself the center of season six’s major storyline as a gay mob captain. “You don’t want to embarrass the show,” Gannascoli says. “If they don’t like what you’re doing, they don’t give you much to do and maybe even get rid of you.”

It was Gannascoli’s idea for his character to be gay, and he gave the writers the book “Murder Machine” as a jumping-off point.

This give-and-take between cast and writing staff is integral to the evolution of successful shows, says “Grey’s Anatomy” casting director Linda Lowy. “You’re banking on the fact that these actors are going to help lead you down the road as well,” she explains. “Their characters are going to change according to who you cast.”

Lowy, who — along with partner John Brace — mixed familiar faces like Patrick Dempsey with new ones like Chandra Wilson, says casting a TV show is a different challenge than a film because “on a pilot, you only have that little story and you could possibly have seven more years.”

Ultimately, it is the camaraderie an ensemble cast offers that makes it attractive to actors, whether they’re huge movie stars like Jack Nicholson or Cate Blanchett, theater mainstays like Rose, new faces like Breslin or just “regular guys” like Gannascoli.

Says Baddeley: “The thing about an ensemble cast is, it’s lovely for actors, because the movie isn’t resting on one person’s shoulders.”

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