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Perfect Together

Matching the right actor with the right director may seem easy, but it takes a degree of alchemy. The results can be magic on the screen.

January 31, 2007|John Horn; Susan King; Gina Piccalo; Mark Olsen

HOLLYWOOD accounting isn't terribly trustworthy, but when it comes to great actor-director pairings, the usually unreliable show business math can actually make sense: One plus one often totals a lot more than two.

Consider some of these combinations: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Clint Eastwood and ... Clint Eastwood.

Combining the right director with the right actor may seem obvious -- who else other than Peter O'Toole could play the aging British actor in Roger Michell's "Venus"? -- but it's not always that simple. Eddie Murphy wasn't initially inclined to star in Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls" and at first Paramount didn't want Jennifer Hudson; Greg Kinnear was on the fence for Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's "Little Miss Sunshine"; and Leonardo DiCaprio -- not Matt Damon -- was penciled in as the lead of De Niro's "The Good Shepherd."

But when the stars -- and the filmmakers -- ultimately do align, the results can be spectacular. Here's a look at some of the year's most fruitful actor-director partnerships:

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Penelope Cruz: An article in Wednesday's The Envelope section about the working relationship between Penelope Cruz and director Pedro Almodovar said the pair had worked on the film "Talk to My Mother." It was called "All About My Mother."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 07, 2007 Home Edition Special Section Part S Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Collaborations: An article in the Jan. 31 Envelope section about the working relationship between Penelope Cruz and director Pedro Almodovar said the pair had worked on the film "Talk to My Mother." The film is called "All About My Mother."

John Horn

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HELEN MIRREN AND STEPHEN FREARS: A CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT

AT one recent awards show in which "The Queen" was honored, the evening's organizers projected some footage of Queen Elizabeth II. "I was looking at it, and wondering, 'Why did I put that shadow in there? That doesn't look very good,' " director Frears says. Then he realized it wasn't Mirren whom he was watching. It was Her Majesty herself.

That Frears himself was fooled -- if only for a moment -- is testimony to Mirren's miraculous transformation. Soon after Mirren was cast as "The Queen's" title character, she went through a wardrobe and makeup test. "And she came out just looking like the queen," Frears says.

But any director or actor will tell you that simply having a performer look the part won't get you much beyond a good movie poster. You need first to understand, and then somehow communicate, the character's inner life.

When you're dealing with an intensely private person such as the English monarch, the acting-directing challenge can be monumental. "I was terrified of getting these things right. I don't do mimicry," Mirren says. "I was incredibly terrified about the whole preparation."

Frears knew she was up to the challenge. "She's very formidable," the director says of the monarch. "She makes you nervous. And everybody says they collapse in front of the queen -- they are so gobsmacked by her. It's like when Clint Eastwood rode into town, you knew you were beaten."

But Frears and Mirren, who have been nominated for Oscars in their respective directing and acting categories, realized that just making Queen Elizabeth daunting -- and getting the hair and makeup spot-on and nailing the accent -- wouldn't make for a very interesting movie. The audience needed to connect with her emotionally. And yet the monarch couldn't wear her feelings on her sleeve.

"You have to let the audience in," Mirren says. "But how do you let the audience in? There's only a certain amount actors can express on their face."

Mirren, Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan looked closely at the queen's dialogue, making sure she didn't come across as too introspective. "She was very conscious of that," Frears says of Mirren. "She knew the queen didn't analyze herself. She didn't go on about her feelings."

And then the director let Mirren wander about in the world he and Morgan had created. He didn't offer Mirren line readings; he encouraged her to try scenes again, but with little guidance.

"Impersonation is a large part of the role, but in that impersonation, you have to feel free," Mirren says. "Stephen is the most liberal of directors. There's a feeling of lightness, and wit. And that's very liberating, because you otherwise would get tense and self-conscious."

-- J.H.

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PENELOPE CRUZ AND PEDRO ALMODOVAR: MATURING RELATIONSHIP

PENELOPE CRUZ was an ingenue when she and Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar collaborated for the first time on "Live Flesh."

Now a decade and two films later -- "Talk to My Mother" and the current Academy Award-nominated "Volver" -- Almodovar says their relationship hasn't so much changed as evolved into something deeper.

"She's now an adult woman," he says. "She's more conscious of herself, of her career and her capacity of working. When I am directing Penelope, I can ask her to go further."

Cruz, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role, describes their collaboration as akin to riding a roller coaster. "It's like being in Disneyland for an actor," she says. "You never know what's going to happen because he's always honest, which is a little bit scary. But I would much rather have somebody who can intimidate me, but guide me with the truth."

Almodovar says that's crucial. "She only feels safe if she knows I am telling her the truth," he says through an interpreter, "and if I tell her everything, especially things that don't work."

Lengthy rehearsals were the key to their collaboration on "Volver."

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