Eleven Actors Who Rocked Sundance

Photo: Victoria Will/AP, Chris Pizello/AP, Andrew H. Walker/AP

At the Sundance Film Festival — where sleep-deprived attendees watch five movies a day, searching for kernels of greatness among 118 films — hyperbole spreads like infectious disease. After screening for the first time, the John Hawkes drama The Surrogate sparked frantic tweets predicting a sweep at next year’s Oscars, then sold overnight to Fox Searchlight for $6 million. But just because critics and studio heads get loopy in Utah’s mountain air doesn’t mean the high praise for 2012’s films and performances is undeserved. This was a year without a Sundance “It” girl (like Elizabeth Olsen in 2011, or Jennifer Lawrence and Carey Mulligan before her), but instead, the spotlight was shared by veteran supporting actresses like Lizzy Caplan and Ari Graynor, who got their leading-lady moments; a ridiculously charming 8-year-old girl from Louisiana named Quvenzhané Wallis, star of the rapturously received and award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild; and several other actors whose fine work will be burned into our brains even after we return to sea level.  

John Hawkes has spent the last two Sundances lending support to festival “It” girls Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olsen (in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, respectively). This time, the 52-year-old is getting well-deserved attention for his funny, touching portrayal of Mark O’Brien, a real-life journalist and poet confined to an iron lung who decides to hire a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt, in a welcome comeback) to help him lose his virginity. Hawkes learned to type with a “mouth stick” and invented something he calls “the Torture Ball” to stick under his back to curve his spine. “It turned out not to be very good for me,” he says. “My chiropractor was telling me that my organs were migrating.” As for the prolonged standing ovation he got at the premiere, he was too uncomfortable to look up and see it. “It just feels like it’s all kind of downhill from here,” he says, laughing, “because things can’t get better.”
Spitfire 8-year-old Wallis (who was 6 when she shot the film) gives a remarkable performance in this magical-realist look at a little girl who must learn to be tough when her daddy (non-actor Dwight Henry) gets sick just as a storm comes to their ramshackle village on the flood planes of the Louisiana Bayou. Wallis hammed her way through the festival, making snow angels for the first time and whipping her hair like Willow Smith on the dance floor. “I didn’t even know about acting,” she says. “That was just me. Bored. Happy. Sad. Mad. Everything just popped out of me.”
Rock is more accessible and appealing than he’s ever been onscreen playing the straight man in Julie Delpy’s very funny follow-up to 2 Days in Paris, in which his character meets his new girlfriend’s wacky French family for the first time. “I was just happy to get a good script,” says Rock. “He’s a real character and he has real issues. It’s weird. I’m 46 but the parts I get offered are not grown-ups … Most black comedies, you’re a cop or you’re in drag. You’re the funny cab driver. You’re the funny coat check guy. I just want to act.” Photo: Michael Parmelee/2007
At 74, Frank Langella can do whatever he wants. (He’s Frank fucking Langella.) And what he wanted to do, apparently, was to play an aging, forgetful ex-thief who befriends his robot caretaker and turns it into his partner in crime. “You come to a point in your life and your career when all you want to do is [small movies],” says Langella, who spent much of the shoot acting opposite an empty robot suit. “It’s like going back to when you left college and you were willing to do anything and go anywhere.” Plus, he adds, “They’re certainly not gonna give me a part that says, ‘Mr. Langella now slips into bed with Scarlett Johansson.’ That’s not going to happen anymore, unless it’s, ‘He slips into bed with Scarlett Johansson and dies.’”
When director Ira Sachs was casting his stand-in for this autobiographical, decade-spanning relationship epic, American actors weren’t interested in the movie’s explicit gay themes, and so he hired Thure Lindhardt, a star in his native Denmark but completely unknown in the U.S. The handsome, gap-toothed Dane gives a sensitive, open performance as the steady, sweet Erik, whose relationship with Paul (Zachary Booth) begins as a casual fling before blossoming into the central romance of their lives, albeit one that crashes constantly thanks to Paul’s drug addiction.
Gere gives one of the best performances of his career as a hedge-fund magnate who has to keep secret both his financial misdeeds and the accidental death of his mistress in this smart potboiler about a very, very bad week. There’s a perverse thrill in watching Gere expertly stay one step ahead of the law, but what’s more remarkable is his ability to add subtle, vulnerable glimpses into a man who has had to sell his soul in order to gain a fortune. Photo: Myles Aronowitz/(C)2011 Myles Aronowitz
Sundance has proven itself to be an essential launch pad for young Latina actresses (Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight, America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves). Add to that list Gina Rodriguez. The 27-year-old actress plays a consciousness-raising rapper in Los Angeles trying to find enough money to get her mother out of prison, while fending off label big shots who want to make her a sexed-up Nicki Minaj type. Rodriguez — who had never rapped before but is now pursuing a career in music — can spit rhymes and project glowering defiance, but when she softens and smiles, it’s contagious.
Graynor is a loud, hilarious, surprisingly vulnerable dervish in her first lead role, after many memorable supporting roles such as the drunk girl in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. (She also shined as Rashida Jones’s best friend in the breakup comedy Celeste and Jesse, which also premiered at Sundance this year.) In the raunchy comedy For a Good Time, which Focus Features bought for a little over $2 million, Graynor and Lauren Miller (an acting newcomer — and Seth Rogen’s wife — who co-wrote the script with Katie Anne Naylon) play two broke and mismatched roommates who start a phone-sex business. Graynor, who is currently appearing Off Broadway in Woody Allen’s segment in the one-act collection Relatively Speaking, improved many of the film’s calls. “It was just me in a sound booth coming up with about ten different, bizarre options of weird fetishes that people might be having on the other line,” she says. All the yelling and fake orgasms did, for a while, wreck her voice, but, she says, “We figured a little roughness to the voice would be okay in the world of phone sex.”
As an ex-con trying (and failing) to go straight while his 12-year-old nephew watches in Sheldon Candis’s LUV, Common has a tough task: to show the kind of dignity that would make a young boy idolize him, while also allowing his dark side to slowly take over. Instead of going for the easy histrionics, the rapper turned actor achieves this in a uniquely submerged way, bit by imperceptible bit. He takes what could have been an ordinary crime drama and turns it into something of a grand tragedy. Photo: WILLIAM GRAY/GRAY PICTURES llc
Alternately repressed and aggressive, Corbet was the mesmerizing lead of what may well have been Sundance’s most divisive film, Antonio Campos’s troubled, troubling, emotionally brutal drama about a lovesick American in Paris who shacks up with a prostitute. The 23-year-old actor notes that his experience of acting has always been primal, citing as his main influence the great (and intensely physical) French actor Denis Levant, star of such films as Lovers on the Bridge and Beau Travail.
“I like to think of the characters I play as shades of myself, sans therapy,” says Lizzy Caplan, and that should raise some eyebrows, given her remarkably different turns in the sensitive relationship comedy Save the Date (where she plays a brooding bookstore manager going through a bad breakup) and raunchy gal comedy Bachelorette (where she plays a bitter, coke-happy party girl). Whether it’s just sheer acting range, deep personal identification, or both, Caplan scored with both of these wildly varied roles.
Eleven Actors Who Rocked Sundance