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First-timers mix it up with veterans

Non-pros used widely in Oscar noms

It’s safe to say that Ben Sliney, national operations manager at the Federal Aviation Administration, did not seek out the role of Ben Sliney, national operations manager in “United 93.”

Yoshi Ishii, a Japanese publisher and broadcaster in Los Angeles, had no aspiration to play a sympathetic military postman in “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

Some long-suffering actors might wish it weren’t so, but several Oscar-nominated films banked on non-pros who possessed qualities key to their stories.

Arguably, Paul Greengrass’ directing nom for “93” rests upon the kind of vision that moved him to replace the actor originally cast to play Sliney with Sliney himself.

“I wasn’t inclined to be involved with the movie at all,” says Sliney, who originally signed on as an adviser. “I did not want to participate in the sensationalization of 9/11. But the filmmakers impressed me by reaching out to all of the victims’ families and getting their consent, and in most cases active help, making the film.

“From my own point of view, I was impressed that they wanted to present the air traffic control portion as accurately as possible. I had a keen interest in that.”

Obviously, the role wasn’t a stretch, but that doesn’t mean playing one’s self will be natural. Sliney did have to perform.

“The difference, I would say, is a matter of amplification,” Sliney says. “(Greengrass) was always, in his words, telling us to ‘amp it up.’ And of course, we would oblige him. We’d just step it up a little bit. It’s not hard to step it up at all because that’s a demeanor I could have easily taken on that day.”

Recruiting the myriad soldiers in “Letters,” casting associate Yumi Takada renewed previous attempts to pry Ishii away from Bridge USA, the L.A.-based Japanese media outlet he founded and owns.

“She had been asking me to audition for other TV commercials and other programs before, but I kept refusing, because I didn’t want to be an actor, and I was so busy with my work here,” Ishii says. “But this audition, I happened to have a business appointment very close to the audition place. So I decided to go, just to be (a) good (friend) to Yumi.”

As laissez-faire as Ishii was about getting the part, he says he became “kind of nervous” when the cameras rolled. That his lines were in Japanese was a comfort.

“He has a really good face, and (he) is always, always interesting, so I always thought he would be good for one of the roles,” Takada says. “Clint loved him.”

Faced with the challenges of helming the first major film in Uganda in decades, director Kevin Macdonald of “The Last King of Scotland” made casting nonprofessionals something of a habit.

“When you tried to get them to do something that was outside their experience,” Macdonald says, “it was really, really hard, but when you asked them to do something that they really knew about … they were absolutely phenomenal, and it was always a way of telling for me whether we were doing something truthful in a scene. (Even) the extras, if they felt real, the whole thing was working. If they felt like a disaster, then the scene wasn’t right.

“You can get good performances in quite sizable roles from people who have never been in front of a camera, people who maybe have never been in front of a movie theater.”

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