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Big impressions in brief roles

February 04, 2009|Lisa Rosen

In this season of academy accolades, it's easy to focus on the glitterati, the actors whose faces we know, whose names top the credits, who get back-end deals with the studios. We rarely stop to consider anyone else on screen. But those big-name nominees depend on their compatriots, even those with just a line or two in their movies, to help create the fictional world in which the stars can shine bright. So, as the Kate Winslets and the Sean Penns prepare to stroll the red carpet, we pay a minor -- but heartfelt -- salute, on this page and the next, to those actors whose names you can't place but who have nonetheless contributed memorable moments in film this year.

Octavia Spencer,

"Seven Pounds"

"Seven Pounds" is a heavy movie about loss, love and the ultimate sacrifice. And yet in a completely unexpected moment, a character played by Octavia Spencer jumps out. She is Kate, home healthcare nurse to Rosario Dawson's character, Emily, who is dying of a heart ailment.

We are introduced to Kate as she sits at Emily's table, looking askance as she pushes away her plate and tells her patient, "I don't like the eggs you buy." A dying woman has just cooked for her and she's complaining? Who is this person?

Spencer says the role initially included Kate stealing medication from Emily and drinking. So she played that scene as if she had a hangover. Her research into the role was helped by the fact that her sister is a home healthcare nurse. "I basically just thought of her sarcastic attitude, and what it might be like for her to work for somebody she really didn't like," Spencer says explaining Kate's awful behavior.

"It was probably one of the smallest things that I've done in a very long time, but it was one of the most gratifying work experiences," she adds of the role. "I've never openly wept leaving a project before."

When the actress was first called in, she hesitated about even trying out for a role with only six lines (subsequently cut to three). Then she found out Will Smith and director Gabriele Muccino were making it, and quickly changed her mind.

Spencer started out in the business as a casting assistant. But directors kept asking her to read for roles. She got one line in the film "A Time to Kill," and she was hooked.

Now 36, she's been working steadily for the last 10 years, often making an impression with brief appearances, such as a scene in "Coach Carter," a guest role in ABC's "Ugly Betty," plus a recurring role in the short-lived Comedy Central series "Halfway Home."

She usually writes thank-you notes to producers after a job; this time she wrote to every department head. "It was like, I'm probably going to spend more money on thank-you notes than I've earned on the project," she says, laughing. "It was such a pleasure and honor to go in there and do a line or two with those guys."

Mather Zickel,

"Rachel Getting Married"

Mather Zickel has a New York theater background that includes "many plays in many basements" and a few years with a sketch comedy group. That led to his being cast as Bill Murray in "It's Always Something," a 2002 television movie about Gilda Radner. Since then, he's shuttled between New York and Los Angeles for work. "Rachel Getting Married" reminded him of his theater days. There was a lot of improvisation and little idea where the cameras were, requiring an immersion into the characters' lives that most films don't demand. The rehearsal dinner scene was shot in two takes of 40 minutes each. "That kind of stuff is a wonderful way of working for an actor," he says.

The film focuses on the wedding of Rachel, whose sister Kym (Anne Hathaway, who is nominated for lead actress) has emerged from rehab, blinking against the light, for the event. Kym's narcissistic behavior unnerves everyone except Zickel's Kieran. A fellow addict, he meets Kym at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting; each is unaware that they're both attending the wedding. In the sea of dysfunction that engulfs the family, Kieran is an island of calm and good sense.

"It's so great to have a scene partner like Annie," he says of Hathaway. "She was very emotionally available and present, and I think that's why she gives such a raw performance."

He admits he was spoiled by getting "Married." "It's a very actor-friendly way of working," he says, adding, "it really is my favorite movie of the year. Not that I'm biased."

Richard Easton,

"Revolutionary Road"

Every coach knows that it isn't just the star players who make the team great, it's also the depth of the bench. In directing "Revolutionary Road," Sam Mendes filled the bench behind Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio with a wonderful group of New York theater actors, including Richard Easton.

Easton began acting at the age of 15 in Montreal, his hometown. He was invited to study in London by Alec Guinness, played Edgar opposite John Gielgud's King Lear, and was invited to Broadway by John Houseman. In 2001, he won a Tony for Tom Stoppard's "Invention of Love."

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