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They're there to lift and support

The character actors in the courtroom thriller 'Runaway Jury' find their own ways to stand out in a crowded film.

October 22, 2003|Steven Rosen | Special to The Times

"If you ask me what 'Runaway Jury' is about, it's about this guy named Doyle who runs around and bugs people's apartments," says actor Nick Searcy who, not so coincidentally, plays a guy named Doyle in the new movie. "All this other stuff, I'm not interested in," he adds, then chuckles.

All this other "stuff" is a movie that's a veritable employment act for character actors. Searcy is one of a crowded court docket's worth of supporting actors in a film with more than two dozen character roles.

But while "Runaway Jury" has a large cast, it's no ensemble film. Rather than give all the characters equal time to make equal impact, this courtroom thriller -- adapted from a John Grisham novel -- is layered like a hierarchical corporate flow chart. Two of the four leads, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, are revered veterans appearing together for the first time. The other two, John Cusack and Rachel Weisz, are younger and provide romantic intrigue and conspiratorial intent. All four are crucial to the outcome of the complicated, ever-twisting story, which involves jury tampering during a suit against a gun manufacturer in New Orleans.

Below them are supporting actors both familiar and unknown, in roles that range from substantial to quick cameos. They are all fighting for the space to thrive and make a personal impact on a busy film. And for reliably entertaining actors like Searcy, Jeremy Piven (who plays a jury consultant) and Bruce McGill (the judge), there are different strategies and coping mechanisms. One way is to see the entire movie through their own character's prism.

A showcase scene

"Certainly, you have to participate in the whole world of the piece, so you have to be familiar with it. But my focus is on my little story line," says Searcy, who plays a surveillance-expert assistant to Hackman's malevolent jury consultant for the gun company, over lunch at a tavern in Toluca Lake, to which he has ridden from his Burbank home on a motorcycle. "Questions about how I fit in with all the other cast members and story lines I don't have any control over are irrelevant."

Searcy grew up in western North Carolina and attended the University of North Carolina, where he acted in plays. Movie parts came once he reached his 30s, most notably as an abusive husband in 1991's "Fried Green Tomatoes" and as Tom Hanks' best friend in 2000's "Cast Away." Today, the 44-year-old actor, who still has a gentle baby face, works regularly. He lives in North Carolina with his family, but he keeps a second home in Burbank.

Searcy appears in "Runaway Jury's" showcase action scene, where he's being chased by Cusack, the possibly crooked jury foreman. "I'm definitely grateful for that," Searcy says. "I was surprised how much I was in it. When I was looking at the script, I was thinking, 'Thank God, I'm not on the jury,' because that would be very difficult -- little moments here and there, vignettes, atmospheric sorts of roles. I'm very thankful Doyle is the character Gary [director Fleder] saw me as."

Another pivotal supporting role is that of the younger, idealistic jury consultant to Hoffman's crusading Southern lawyer. It's played by Piven, who has been friends with Cusack since childhood; his parents ran the Piven Repertory Theatre in Chicago, where they both acted. Yet while he has appeared in several Cusack movies ("Say Anything," "Gross Pointe Blank"), Fleder hired him for "Jury" because he appeared in the director's "Kiss the Girls."

While he admits he's ready to step up from his frequent "best friend" roles to become a lead, he took his role in "Runaway Jury" for another reason: the chance to work with Hoffman. "To have the shot to go toe to toe with him, I'll take that over anything," says Piven, 38. "You're proving yourself to the character and the man at the same time.

"So, to be honest with you, it's not about how much can I get into this movie, it's really just about learning. I knew if I did my job and we were at all interesting to watch, it would round out the movie. My character wasn't in the original draft, so it's only going to add a little flavor to it."

'A class of one'

Sometimes, a supporting actor can have a small, seemingly peripheral role that nonetheless becomes crucial during a cathartic scene. McGill, 53, had one in 1999's "The Insider," as a district attorney who suddenly becomes explosively angry in a courtroom.

After studying drama at the University of Texas, McGill started acting in the 1970s; perhaps his best-known early role was as frat brother D-Day in 1978's "National Lampoon's Animal House." Like Searcy and Piven, he's a busy working actor on TV and in the movies; he's currently appearing with Nicolas Cage as the target of a con in "Matchstick Men."

"There's a difference between small parts and crummy parts," says the garrulously authoritative McGill. "I never get the main role and I know why -- it's my own doing. I never got the part and broke through.

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