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Indie Spirits breathe life into smaller films

Award Season Focus: The Actor & The Actress

Demian Bichir has been a household name in his native Mexico for the past two decades, but his rise to prominence in America has been more of a slow build.

Bichir’s patience has been rewarded this season, thanks to his despairing portrait of an illegal immigrant gardener in “A Better Life,” a performance that won the 48-year-old a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for male lead.

“The Spirits are very important, something I’ve always paid attention to,” says Bichir, who subsequently also received a Screen Actors Guild nom for “A Better Life.” “For a movie like this, one where we’re giving voice to people who are largely invisible, it means a lot. It keeps the movie in the conversation.”

Film Independent’s 27th annual slate of acting awards boasts a signature blend of familiar names, plus veteran and fledgling newcomers.

Nominations were spread among performances from high-profile films such as “The Descendants” and “The Artist” to smaller-scale productions like “A Better Life” and “Think of Me,” a single-mother drama that won great reviews but no distribution deal out of September’s Toronto Film Festival.

“Movies in the indie world have become polarized between the micro-budgeted films and the films that come from the remaining specialty divisions,” says producer Gail Mutrux, a Film Independent board member who chaired this season’s American Narrative nominating committee.

“I feel like this year we covered both ends, recognizing a lot of different movies and not just giving a bunch of attention to only a few films,” Mutrux says. “And that’s good, right? It means we had a lot to choose from.”

In the male lead category, previous nominees Ryan Gosling (“Drive”) and Woody Harrelson (“Rampart”) join Bichir, along with French actor Jean Dujardin, who plays the silent film star in “The Artist” and critics-group favorite Michael Shannon for “Take Shelter.”

“It’s a really cool thing,” Harrelson says of his nom for playing a corrupt LAPD officer in Oren Moverman’s “Rampart.” Harrelson won the supporting actor Spirit Award two years ago for Moverman’s previous pic, “The Messenger.”

“I love the Indie Spirits because that’s mostly what I do, indies,” Harrelson adds. “I believe in them. These guys show love toward some movies that don’t get much appreciation.”

The female lead category illustrates Harrelson’s point. Lauren Ambrose’s “Think of Me,” as mentioned, has yet to secure U.S. distribution. Rachael Harris received a nom for the offbeat comedy-drama “Natural Selection,” which debuted last spring at South by Southwest and will be seen in theaters next March, thanks to a pickup by Cinema Guild.

Joining them are five-time Spirit nominee Michelle Williams (“My Week With Marilyn”) and Sundance sensations Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Adepero Oduye (“Pariah”).

“Sean Durkin wrote a script that challenged both the audience and the actors and it’s because of his strengths as a director that it worked,” Olsen says.

The supporting categories feature work from some of the same films, but, as Mutrux notes, cast a wider net as well. Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”) and Albert Brooks (“Drive”) share space with last year’s winner, John Hawkes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), four-time nominee John C. Reilly (“Cedar Rapids”) and Corey Stoll for his hilarious Hemingway in “Midnight in Paris.”

“Woody wanted me to make it as simple as possible, just as if I was reading if it off the page,” Stoll says. “There were definitely some moments where we took it too far, where it was just boring. We found there was a fine line between how simple and pared down you can get before you just erase yourself.”

For female supporting, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain won a nom, but for a different role — the beleaguered wife in “Take Shelter.”

She’s joined by newcomer Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”), past nominee Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”), transgender actress Harmony Santana (“Gun Hill Road”) and Anjelica Huston (“50/50”), a two-time Spirit winner for “The Grifters” and “The Dead.”

“I’ve always liked the Spirits because it’s a coming together of like-minded sentiment,” Huston says. “Making ’50/50′ was such an honest, heartfelt experience that I’d have to say, for me, it’s the best of what indie films have to offer.”

What: Spirit Awards

When: 1:30 p.m. PT Feb. 25

Where: Santa Monica Beach

Web: http://www.spiritawards.org

INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARD NOMINATIONS FOR ACTING

LEAD ACTOR
Demian Bichir , “A Better Life”
Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
Ryan Gosling , “Drive”
Woody Harrelson, “Rampart”
Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”

LEAD ACTRESS
Lauren Ambrose, “Think of Me”
Rachael Harris, “Natural Selection”, above
Adepero Oduye , “Pariah”
Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”
Michelle Williams, “My Week With Marilyn”

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Albert Brooks, “Drive”
John Hawkes, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”
Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
John C. Reilly, “Cedar Rapids”
Corey Stoll , “Midnight in Paris”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain, “Take Shelter”
Anjelica Huston, “50/50”, above
Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
Harmony Santana, “Gun Hill Road”
Shailene Woodley , “The Descendants”

Award Season Focus: The Actor & The Actress
Young actors bring fresh approach to roles | Does evil equate to an Oscar shortcut? | Indie Spirits breathe life into smaller films | Feel-good pics make strong showing for SAG | Globes more in line than in year’s past | Critics choices might foretell Oscar chances

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