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Foreign Actors Break Barriers

Dec. 6 felt a bit like déjà-vu for one director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose German film “Never Look Away” landed just one of five berths in the Golden Globes foreign-language film category, along with fellow nominees “Shoplifters” (Japan), “Capernaum” (Lebanon), “Girl” (Belgium) and “Roma” (Mexico).

“We’re not even five hours from the announcement, and I’m getting emails and calls from all over the world,” he marvels. “A film can remain invisible without help like this from such a powerful organization. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. gives it a voice.”

Von Donnersmarck knows what a Globe nomination in that category can mean for good reason: A dozen years ago, his film “The Lives of Others” also earned a Globe nomination, then went on to win the Academy Award for foreign-language film. But such nominations and wins tend to spotlight directors. Actors are relegated to the background — because barring the rare performance that manages to get recognized in an all-purpose acting category, there are no specific ways to honor those stars.

Yet directors know their films’ real strengths come from those actors — and understand implicitly what a film’s nomination means to a budding acting career. “When a film gets selected, it’s because every part of the filmmaking speaks to people — and of course part of that is the actor’s work,” says “Girl” director Lukas Dhont. “It highlights the whole team.”

In “Girl,” cisgender lead actor Victor Polster plays a trans female ballerina, giving a debut performance that earned him the lead actor award at Cannes. Dhont says accolades like that will open doors for the actor if he wants them, though he may not.

“He’s trained to be a classical dancer, and it’s difficult to combine dancing professionally with a career in acting,” says the director. “But if there are roles that represent characters like [in ‘Girl’], I think it could be of interest to him.”

“Girl” isn’t the only Globe-nominated film to use untrained actors; director-writer-actor Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” cast is almost entirely non-professionals. But teen actor Zain Al Rafeea has given a critically admired performance that has earned an acting prize from the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

“A nomination allows people to get to know the actors, and consider working with them,” says Labaki. “I’m sure he will have many offers to work in the film industry, because he’s so talented. People will be interested in Zain even if he doesn’t get any awards.”

Along with Labaki, Al Rafeea already has received much affection from Lebanon, whose tiny film industry takes pride in being recognized internationally. “Lebanon has never been nominated for a Golden Globe, and the movie industry here is very shy,” says Labaki. “We spent decades without any real cinema, so now we’re having a renaissance.”

“It’s an honor, and those countries wear these nominations on their sleeves as a badge of quality,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed “Capernaum” and was also behind the Oscar win of “The Lives of Others.”

Even in countries where the Globes don’t resonate quite as strongly — like Japan, where they are rarely shown on television — the nomination for “Shoplifters” was headline news, says producer Matsuzaki Kaoru. “It’s been 28 years since the last Japanese director — Akira Kurosawa — was nominated for the Golden Globes,” she says through a translator. “That headline definitely increased the visibility around the actors.”

Two of Japan’s bigger names, Lily Franky and Sakura Ando, have both been nominated for their performances by American and international film critics’ organizations. And they’ve also earned acclaim from at least one peer. “At Cannes, Cate Blanchett talked about how impressed she was with Sakura’s performance, and how she wanted to take some tips from it,” says Kaoru. “Once a film is seen and evaluated overseas, people notice them.”

This year, there’s at least one film with high-profile acting performances that did not earn a Globe nomination: “Cold War,” whose stars Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot have each received festival nominations and awards. Both big stars in Poland, Kot and Kulig have also crossed over to big pan-European projects. Meanwhile, “Roma” does have a Globe nomination — but the performance by debut actress Yalitza Aparicio is generating nearly as much buzz. No fewer than eight critics’ associations have put Aparicio on their nomination lists; she’s already won a Hollywood Film Award and been on the cover of Mexico Vogue.

Still, it’s up to the actor to figure out how to handle international success, says Barker. “The best performance in a nominated film is a big deal — and it’s not just about the Oscars and the Golden Globes; some of these critics’ awards have weight as well. What the actor does with that nod — that’s a different story.”

If you want a great example for what a top-level international award or nomination can do for a career, look no further than Sebastian Koch, who co-stars in “Never Look Away” — and was one of the key leads in “Lives of Others.” Back in 2006, once the film started its Globes-Oscars trajectory, “all of a sudden the whole English-language market opened,” he says. “I had far better choices to get good stuff, and special projects. It changed my career, my life, everything.”

Since that film’s Oscar win, Koch has appeared in films like “Bridge of Spies” and on TV shows like “Homeland,” making him a regular European presence in some of Hollywood’s more prestigious productions — even though he waited two years before choosing an agent for English-language projects.

“Still, even after two years I could do what I wanted,” he says.

The road from international acclaim to more acting jobs, or even Hollywood success, is a rare thing. So far only a handful of actors have received Academy Awards or nominations for their performances in foreign-language films, including Roberto Benigni, who earned a best actor Oscar in 1999 for “Life Is Beautiful,” which he also directed; and, more recently, Isabelle Huppert, who won a Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination for 2016’s “Elle.”

But as Von Donnersmarck notes, the strength of performances shines through even if the only award received is for the film itself.

“If an actor makes it onto the Golden Globes’ radar, it means that actor has become a global phenomenon,” he says. “From an audience perspective, both a Golden Globe or an Oscar award are massive, and stand alone in their power and reach. And if something speaks the film language of the world — then an acting performance can transcend boundaries.”

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