The parade of real, live and not-so-live people passing across the screen this season range from the beloved to the infamous, from the totally anonymous to Abraham Lincoln, whom Daniel Day-Lewis makes as familiar as a five-dollar bill. Escorting a reality-based individual from the real to the reel presents a conundrum: Does a filmmaker treat the characters as if they are fictional — and therefore subject to interpretation — or base them on research?
John Hawkes, John Goodman and Tommy Lee Jones are just a few of the actors faced with that choice this season; British actor Ricky Sekhon even took on the daunting task of playing Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s secrecy-shrouded “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Jack Black decided to base his performance as Bernie Tiede, the charismatic mortician-cum-murderer in “Bernie,” on extensive research.
“I did my best to be as real as possible,” says Black, the star of Richard Linklater’s dark comedy, “and I didn’t embellish any of his mannerisms or the way he walked or talked. It was all based on my research; I watched videotapes of him in church leading congregations, and I met him in prison. We didn’t take many liberties.”
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It’s important, Black says, to be faithful, “especially when there’s such sensitive subject matter involved” — and when, as is the case of “Bernie,” survivors of the victim might actually see the movie.
“Argo,” the fact-based rescue story about the rescue of Americans in Iran during the revolution of ’79, is full of actual personalities, from the six escapees hiding in Tehran to Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who gets them out. None of those characters had a public persona, though, so performers had to find their own inspirations — or stumble upon them, as did Goodman, who plays the late makeup artist and provisional con man John Chambers.
“One of the people who knew John well, Bob Sidell, who was one of the people Alan Arkin’s character was based on, was really pleased at how I captured (Chambers),” Goodman says. “Bob was wondering how I knew about his limp. But it was just a coincidence: I happen to have one of my own.”
Chambers, who did the makeup for “Planet of the Apes,” among other pics, is still known by many in Hollywood. “I felt had a responsibility to get it right because he was very popular guy and he was pretty important in his craft,” Goodman says. “I wanted to do some kind of honor to him because he was so interesting: He made a living out of disguising things, and had a secret life serving the CIA.”
Sasha Gervasi decided to split the difference in “Hitchcock,” a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins.
“We could have had prosthesis that would make Tony look exactly like Hitchcock,” says Gervasi, “but we wanted it to be clearly Anthony Hopkins playing Alfred Hitchcock because that would be in spirit of Hitchcock — fun in the way he would approach it. I think he looks pretty amazing but it’s a bit like Meryl Streep in ‘Iron Lady’ — she looks remarkably like Thatcher, but you still know it’s Streep. And that was what we were after. An interesting balance.”
Aside from the iconic president, “Lincoln” is filled with a mix of well- and lesser-known figures, including Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a Civil War era congressman mostly known by historians; awareness of more contempo figures such as Mark O’Brien, the character Hawkes plays in “The Sessions,” is also limited to certain circles, giving those actors latitude if they wanted it.
The actors in “Zero Dark Thirty” don’t have as much luxury. The movie, about the secret mission to kill bin Laden, has been controversial throughout its production, drawing charges that Bigelow and producer-screenwriter Mark Boal had access to classified material. Actors such as Sekhon and James Gandolfini (who plays then CIA chief Leon Panetta in the movie) will likely be closely watched by both sides of the aisle for verisimilitude. The filmmakers aren’t eager to talk about their methods yet.
“I can’t address how we portray specific characters at this point without spoiling the movie so I hope people will go see it and decide for themselves,” Boal says. But “all the characters are based on deep research, culled from the public record and from my reporting and first-hand accounts.”
Thesps discover damaged good | Thesps weigh reel-life choice | Great performances in genre movies | Minors show their pluck in grownup fare | Seniors grab center stage | Roles all over the map in this ‘Atlas’ | Repeat contenders