When Jennifer Lawrence skinned a squirrel in “Winter’s Bone,” she proved she wasn’t just another ingenue. And while she got a lead actress nomination for that backcountry role (and a ticket to “The Hunger Games”), she won for “Silver Linings Playbook” two years later. Her path follows a pattern of early breakthroughs in independent films that mark a future Oscar contender: Reese Witherspoon in “Election,” Julianne Moore in “Boogie Nights” and Mark Ruffalo in “You Can Count on Me.”
As these performers have become Oscar contenders, they open a door for a new crop of actors who may not get an Oscar nomination this year but could call 2014 a breakthrough year in their careers thanks to indie success. This group ranges from unknown Tony Revolori (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) to Ellar Coltrane (“Boyhood”), multihyphenate Jenny Slate (“Obvious Child”) to Chadwick Boseman (“Get on Up”) and Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) to “Whiplash” star Miles Teller, who arrives with a massive YA following from “Divergent” and “The Spectacular Now.” Add in David Oyelowo (“Selma”), and “Unbroken’s” Jack O’Connell, whose breakthroughs come via Oscar-worthy studio pics, and there’s a lot of talent in the pipeline.
To get ahead of the curve, we asked producers and casting agents to pinpoint indie performances that could launch the next Lawrence, Witherspoon and Ruffalo.
“Lawrence continues to amaze in almost everything she’s done,” said Peggy Rajski, head of producing studies at the NYU Tisch School graduate film program. “Another young woman that crossed over like Lawrence is Jenny Slate; she’s a great comedic presence, I wouldn’t hold her in the same light, yet she hit so many beautiful notes.”
Teller was tops for producer Juliet Blake (“The Hundred-Foot Journey”).
“The first time I saw him in ‘Rabbit Hole,’ I remember thinking this boy has the potential to be a breakout star,” she says. “Seeing him in ‘Whiplash,’ there’s so much character in his face. I’m bored with all those young beefcake actors, the buff six-pack boys. I’m not saying Teller can’t be or play that, but he has a much deeper quality.”
Another actor on the verge of a breakout is Oscar Isaac. The Juilliard alum scored a Golden Globe nom for 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” while this year the National Board of Review awarded Isaac (“A Most Violent Year”) and Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) best actor kudos. He also just scored a role in “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
“He’s got the chops,” says Rajski, “but many great people who are knock-out onstage don’t break out on film. Billy Crudup took my breath away in ‘Arcadia’ at Lincoln Center, but he never quite comes across onscreen. Oscar holds the screen really well. He’s got talent, but the real thing will be: Does he get the right parts?”
These performers bring more to the table than a pretty face or the trappings of celebrity.
“When there’s more contour in terms of the performance and the range, that’s how they break out,” says Blake. “They allow themselves to go so deeply into their characters. There’s something fearless about Teller and Oyelowo and O’Connell. Jack cut his teeth on ‘Skins,’ a harsh slice of English TV drama. When he’s onscreen I just can’t take my eyes off him.”
O’Connell also received high praise from casting agent/producer Bonnie Timmermann: “He was brilliant in ‘Starred Up,’ (as was) Australian Ben Mendelsohn. The performances transported me right out of my skin watching these ignitions. … For stardom, you’re at the whim of everybody and anybody. Look back historically: Philip Seymour Hoffman went up against everything because he looked wrong, but he looked right for what they put him in.”
Another name that slinked in under the radar: Ben Schnetzer (“The Book Thief,” “Pride”). The New York-born actor got a call from casting agents Pat Moran and Susan Shopmaker.
“His agent sent me a promo for ‘The Book Thief’ and an audition he did for another movie,” says Shopmaker. “Suddenly, I found myself saying: ‘Who is that guy?’ And now he has been nominated for two BAFTAS for ‘Pride’ — and he is not even British.”
What happens next for these actors will involve talent, luck and savvy.
Considering last year’s biggest breakout, Rajski says, “Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in ‘12 Years a Slave’ was terrific, but I’m curious about the way in which she has used that opportunity to launch awareness in a smart, sophisticated way. Damn that woman has played this right.”