Acting newcomers enjoy sudden attention

Dev Patel, the young actor who plays the lead in “Slumdog Millionaire,” recalls a recent ride on the London Underground the day after he won most-promising newcomer at the BAFTA Awards.

“I was just sitting there, like a normal person,” he says with a laugh. “There was a woman to my left, a man to my right and a woman sitting across from me. They were all reading a free newspaper they give out at the station. All three of them were opened to the same page. There was a big headline — ‘Boyle Wonder!’ (referring to director Danny Boyle) — and a picture of me. I couldn’t help but giggle. It was such a weird experience.”

It’s understandable if the 18-year-old Patel is feeling a bit like his outhouse-to-penthouse character in “Slumdog,” even though the film has yet to open in the U.K., where he resides. The buzz on the picture has become a din, and Patel, who had only had one acting role before this — a small part in the British television series “Skins” — is preparing for his life to change.

The same can be said of several actors this awards season who are experiencing a noticeable spike in hubbub surrounding their careers. Not only are they relishing the present, but they realize casting directors will have an eye on them for years to come.

The list of relatively unknown thesps making waves includes, but isn’t limited to, Elsa Zylberstein of “I’ve Loved You So Long,” Sally Hawkins from “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Viola Davis of “Doubt” and Freida Pinto, also of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

While these actors and others have had varying degrees of experience in the business — indeed, some have been working for years without fanfare — the success and attention from their most recent efforts figure to alter their personal universes.

“When I felt that it could be something in America was at Telluride,” the 40-year-old Zylberstein says from her home in Paris about the late-summer film festival. She has been working in the biz since 1989, but mostly overseas. “That was the best festival ever. People were crazy about the movie. They were coming up to me in the streets and stopping me and crying, saying how moving it was. That’s when I felt something happening.”

Since then, she’s been poring over scripts, answering the phone, doing publicity for the film and, when she has time, hosting dinner parties.

“Yesterday I got phone calls and was smiling for hours,” she says.

Hawkins, 32, has been working steadily since 2005. Among her credits are parts in Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream” and two previous Mike Leigh films, “All or Nothing” and “Vera Drake.” Playing the buoyant schoolteacher in Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” represents a career climb to the next level, especially after she won the Silver Bear for actress at the Berlin Film Festival.

“Getting that Bear changed my life,” she says from her home in London. “I’m looking at my Bear now. He’s quite beautiful. I couldn’t quite breathe when I got it. It was overwhelming.”

She has also been warmed by the reaction to her work and the movie.

“It’s really nice. I’ve had people come up to me genuinely sort of delighted by the film and coming up and saying so,” she says. “That’s wonderful.”

Davis, who plays the mother of the boy at the center of the conflict in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” the film adaptation of his play, has been a working actress since 1996. She has appeared in features such as “Antwone Fisher” and “World Trade Center” as well as TV series such as “Law & Order: SVU” and says she is occasionally recognized at local L.A. hangouts, including Farmers Market, but not for always the right reasons.

“Sometimes they mistake me for Alfre Woodard,”the actress, 46, says.

Her performance in “Doubt,” however, could soon change that. Hers was recently tabbed as top breakthrough performance by an actress by the National Board of Review.

“I’m hoping it translates into more work and more fabulous roles,” Davis says. “I really mean this: I don’t need to be a big star. I just need to work and make a living. I’m still in realism land in terms of what it means to be an actor, to audition, to study a script, to do the best work you can.”

Still, there are subtle reminders that her appearance in “Doubt” is anything but run-of-the-mill. “My sister has her moments of freaking out,” Davis reveals. “There’ll be maybe 10 seconds where she’ll flip out and say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to you!'”

“Slumdog” takes place in Pinto’s home city of Mumbai, but the film has yet to open there. “I can still take public transportation and be quite safe,” she says.

A 24-year-old model who made her acting debut in “Slumdog,” Pinto recently signed with CAA and is touring with press junkets.

“My immediate family (who live in India) hasn’t seen it yet, but my extended family saw it in Toronto and went berserk. I walked out of the house in Toronto and they were all standing there taking pictures. I said, ‘Why are you taking pictures of me? You have pictures!'”

Perhaps Patel, whose first TV interview in the U.S. was on “Late Show With David Letterman,” sums up the mood of all the awards-season newcomers when he described doing publicity for “Slumdog”:

“I take each day as it comes. I just keep on smiling, because I can’t help but smile lately. I’ve been doing a lot of photo shoots where they ask me to do a really intense pose, but I keep breaking out into massive geeky smiles.

“I can’t help it. I’m elated.”

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