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No Bit Players Here

Tip your hats to the 'who-was-that-guy' actors who make their movies feel true.

January 30, 2008|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

WITH all this focus on awards, isn't it time to thank the little people? No, not the agents. The actors who play small roles and manage to create whole worlds out of them. This isn't about the cameo, that bright and often distracting walk-on for a star. And it's not about the larger, secondary roles. It's the support that gets no notice, the kind that, when done well, can help make a good film great.

It's rare that any of these roles attract critical attention, and when they do it's usually when a big name is involved. The always-incandescent Vanessa Redgrave was hailed for her single shining scene in "Atonement." Hal Holbrook's brief but heartbreaking appearance in "Into the Wild" garnered an Oscar nomination.

But other lesser-known actors also deserve acclaim, even if they don't have a shot at Oscar gold. Ciaran Hinds was the perfectly named Dick Koosman in "Margot at the Wedding," as an adulterous jerk who wasn't above publicly humiliating his lover. In his role as a Dylan-baiting journalist in "I'm Not There," Bruce Greenwood matched Cate Blanchett barb for barb. To follow are a few actors from the last year's film roster who created moments that linger, even if their names do not.

Brian Dierker 'Into the Wild'

In addition to Holbrook, "Into the Wild" featured fantastic work by Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone and Kristen Stewart. But for the role of Rainey, Keener's gentle partner, director Sean Penn tapped a man who'd never acted before. Brian Dierker was working on the film as the camera boat operator, figuring out the logistics for the river shoots. But Penn saw Rainey in him, or perhaps saw him in Rainey. "He threw it at me a few times, and I kind of just brushed it off," said Dierker by phone from Flagstaff, Ariz. "It was flattering, but I never had fancied myself as an actor. But he can be pretty persuasive."

An avid filmgoer, Dierker was a fan of Keener's work. "I've always really liked her kind of down-to-earth feel on the screen, and it was thrilling to get to work with her," he said, although he worried about her having to work with him. But on screen, he's a natural as Rainey; with his hippie drawl and his walrus mustache, he lends a loping grace to the proceedings. "I was kinda nervous about getting through it without 'effing' it up, and I'm glad it turned out pretty well," said Dierker, 52.

He credits both Penn and star Emile Hirsch with helping him prepare for the role. Before filming began, he had taught Hirsch how to kayak the whitewater, serving as his river coach. When it came to acting, the reverse was true. "He took me under his wing," said Dierker of the young actor. "He's a really intelligent guy; he's very serious about what he's doing, and he was very generous." Dierker's open to acting again if a role comes up that isn't too ambitious. "It does whet your whistle a little bit," he acknowledged. But in the meantime, he's busy working on the river.

Peter Friedman 'The Savages'

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins saw a number of actors for the role of Larry, the adulterous lover of Wendy Savage in "The Savages." But as Peter Friedman recalled, after he won the role, "Tamara told me she had said, 'No, I like the old guy.' That's how I got it." Friedman, 58, laughed. Along with Wendy stealing office supplies and lying about her health and career, her affair with Larry is a sign of how very wrong her life is going. Using his geriatric dog as an entree for their trysts, Friedman's Larry is a weaselly wonder. And it was all in the script, he says. "It read pretty funny to me. I was so enamored of the wit." As a longtime stage actor, based in New York, "the script is really important to me. I've been on movies where the star will look across the table after a reading and say to me, 'So what do you want to change?' I swear to God, I don't want to change a thing. My job is to make what's here work. I'm not a creative artist, I'm an interpretive guy." As for how he approached the role, "it's merely following Tamara's bleak little human view," he noted of the Oscar-nominated script. "It's just true, nobody's bad, nobody's wonderful, we're all trying our best. I just love that."

Garret Dillahunt 'The Assassination

of Jesse James . . .'

Garret Dillahunt did double duty last year. In "No Country for Old Men," he played the doofy Deputy Wendell opposite Tommy Lee Jones for a few much-needed comic moments. And in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Dillahunt played Ed Miller, a hapless member of the James gang. About halfway through the film, a dangerously paranoid James (Brad Pitt) visits him in his hovel of a cabin, and Ed's white-lipped terror is pitiful to behold. Ed is a simple man, but he knows, as we do, that the visit isn't going to end well for him.

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