If it’s fair to say that falling in love and saving the world are forgiving pursuits in moviegoers’ minds, a character chasing money and/or success often needs something extra to win an audience’s sympathy.
This year, a handful of actors faced that dilemma: Kevin Spacey as notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff in “Casino Jack,” Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner as bank robbers in “The Town,” Michael Douglas reprising the iconic Gordon Gekko for “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” 2″ and playing disgraced car salesman in “Solitary Man” and Jesse Eisenberg realizing tech genius Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.”
For Douglas, business stories are ultimately portraits of power.
“Power is seductive, and power sometimes makes us forget our moral values,” says Douglas, who won an Oscar playing Gekko the first time around. “Plus, there’s a dark side in all of us, and I think people enjoy the machinations, whether it’s how sophisticated and brilliant Gekko is, or it’s Ben Kalmen in ‘Solitary Man,’ acting out your dark side but not thinking very clearly.”
The one thing he can’t allow himself to consider, though, is whether an audience will be with him or not.
“You have to commit yourself,” he says of taking on such roles. “You can’t do it cautiously.”
In Spacey’s case, bringing to life a scheming Washington insider who symbolized the corrupting effects of money on politics is just as important is leaving out bias.
“I’m always afraid that if I end up judging a character I’m playing, that I’ll wear it on my sleeve,” explains Spacey. “So I try to put myself in that person’s shoes and have some empathy about how they got into a situation.” On “Casino Jack,” that meant establishing the fast-and-loose lobbying culture Abramoff was once part of, while emphasizing personality traits an audience could warm to.
“What was most surprising was how charming and funny he was,” says Spacey, who met with Abramoff in prison as part of his research. “I think the fun part about this movie is that maybe against the better judgment of people who think they’ve already decided what he’s like, that they kind of like him, then don’t like him, then they like this, but not that. Every day George (Hickenlooper, the director) and I tried to put that on film, that area was more contradictory and gray.”
Eisenberg’s portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, was less about somebody chasing a windfall than somebody nurturing a creation, and dealing — at times ruthlessly — with perceived roadblocks.
“His motives are very pure,” says Eisenberg. “When he squeezes his friend out of the company, it’s because his friend became an impediment to the best way to create, maintain and expand the website. Mark doesn’t have a good gauge of the effect he’s having on other people.”
Interactions with moviegoers bear out the movie’s dramatization of Zuckerberg’s motivations, says Eisenberg. “The most common response is people telling me, ‘I thought your character was right,'” says the actor, “but they always say it under their breath, as if they feel dirty for saying it. It’s a testament to the sophistication of the movie, because it presents a guy with a very complicated set of circumstances and an even more complicated set of responses.”
Douglas, meanwhile, has endured plenty of drunken businessmen calling Gekko their hero, while he just shakes his head. He doesn’t claim to understand why he’s gotten a free pass from auds for doing less-than-honorable things in movies.
“Certain things people are good at, and for some reason, people forgive me,” he says, laughing. “There’s something that allows them to believe there must be some goodness in this guy, that makes them think, ‘I’ll find it. It’ll be there.’ ”
The buck goes there
Leonard DiCaprio | Robert Duvall | Jesse Eisenberg | Colin Firth |James Franco | Ryan Gosling
Lead actors in the mix
Andrew Garfield | Jeremy Renner | Geoffrey Rush | Mark Ruffalo | Christian Bale | Sam Rockwell
Supporting actors in the mix