As it turns out, the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Awards have a much tighter bond than their respective pedigrees suggest.
In the past decade 14 actresses with films that debuted at the Park City, Utah, indie showcase have gone on to Oscar validation in the lead or supporting category.
And it’s not just such veterans as Holly Hunter (“Thirteen”), Patricia Clarkson (“Pieces of April) and Annette Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”). A slew of previous unknowns including Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”), Amy Adams (“Junebug”), Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) and Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) have received boosts from the fest that resulted in making the final cut at nominations time.
This year is no different. Performances from a previous Academy Award winner, a scream queen and a non-pro have all broken out of the indie box and received widespread recognition.
“The Sessions” marks a resurrection of sorts for 49-year-old Helen Hunt, who triumphed on Oscar night 14 years ago for her performance in “As Good as It Gets.” By portraying a sexual surrogate opposite John Hawkes, Hunt says she appreciated the film’s refreshing, shame-free, “unadorned” take on sex.
“(The film exposed) this part of life that lives in the shadows and under mean jokes and weird lights and horrible, painful body images,” Hunt says. “Watching what happens if you take all that away is pretty wild.”
Known primarily for her roles in horror films including “Final Destination 3” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 27, exhibited some serious acting chops in James Ponsoldt’s “Smashed.” Her emotionally complex take as a rock-bottom alcoholic catapulted her from popcorn-pic actress to indie drama screen queen.
“This role was by far the biggest challenge that I’ve ever faced as an actor,” Winstead says. “Playing drunk was daunting, but once I determined how I relate to this woman, by figuring out what, in my own life, is my alcohol, it became much easier for me to inhabit the character.”
Sundance also served as a platform for discovery when it came to Louisiana native Quvenzhane Wallis, who played Hushpuppy, an intrepid 6-year-old who survives extreme hardship, both economic and natural, in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
According to Wallis, the role of the burdened, wise-beyond-her years Hushpuppy, which the 9-year-old began auditioning for at age 5, was “fun because I was a kid playing a kid.”
When it came to being slapped by Dwight Henry, her on-screen father, Wallis describes the scene as “kind of funny.” Her mother, Qulyndreia Wallis, says a stunt teacher showed Quvenzhane how to turn and fall without ever having to be hit, which might have added to Wallis’ sense of protection despite filming in physically trying circumstances.
Despite their age difference, each performer agrees that Sundance 2012 was a momentous career occasion.
“It was huge,” says Winstead, who grew up in Salt Lake City. “It was simultaneously nerve-wracking and exciting. I started to cry before our movie even came on the screen.”
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