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Sunday, October 27, 2013
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Made for the Part: Oscar Isaac and the History of Utility Actors

By Mark Pinkert


In a recent interview with A.O. Scott of the New York Times, Joel and Ethan Coen admitted they first auditioned only “real musicians” for the part of the eponymous 1960s folk singer in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis (CBS Films). The role was to be heavily performance-based, so casting a proven guitarist/singer seemed only logical.

The Coens realized quickly, though, that it would be difficult to marshal an inexperienced actor through an entire movie, regardless of his musical proficiency, telling one outlet: “It’s often possible — sometimes it’s even easy — to get somebody like that through a scene or two scenes or three scenes or whatever, and it’s great, it’s fine. But this character’s literally in every scene in the movie, so we realized we were going the wrong direction, and we just started seeing actors who could play, as opposed to musicians who could act. And there are more of those, by the way.”

The Coens eventually found Oscar Isaac, a young actor who inhabits this latter category. Isaac had already cultivated a respectable, though modest, resume with several minor roles — most notably those in Drive (2011) and The Bourne Legacy (2012) — but his more native skills seemed to be in music. A Juilliard graduate and lifelong guitarist, Isaac assured the Coens that he is unlike most actors who, “if you ask them if they play guitar, they’ll say they played guitar for 20 years, but what they really mean is they’ve owned a guitar for 20 years.” If the Coens weren’t already sold on Isaac after hearing him sing, they sent his tape to their legendary executive music producer, T-Bone Burnett, who reaffirmed their instincts. “This guy’s actually a better musician than a lot of the studio guys I work with,” Burnett told them.

Perhaps more comfortable with guitar in hand, Isaac could be identified as a “utility actor” — one not widely know, but attractive for a certain role based on his unique characteristics, talents, or assets. When he signed on to play Llewyn Davis, Isaac was certainly not a household Hollywood name. But his musical skills won him this role, he knocked it out of the park and it might well put him on the path to stardom.

Isaac, as a leading man, will be introduced to the general public on Dec. 6, when the film finally goes into limited release. (It debuted in May at Cannes, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and has also screened at this fall’s Telluride and New York film festivals. The Los Angeles Times’ pop music critic wrote last month, “Isaac’s portrayal succeeds because he’s such a talented musician.”) What will be even more interesting to follow than the immediate reaction to Isaac’s performance will be the trajectory of his career in the coming years. If his role as Llewyn Davis does propel him to other notable leading roles and, perhaps, some degree of stardom, it will be a great win for the under-appreciated class of “utility actors.”

Utility casting is often overlooked by film critics, but has actually been an integral part of the movie business since its beginnings over a century ago. After all, someone has to play the overweight loner, the chiseled warrior, the little person, the extremely tall person, the child, the amputee, the contortionist, the musician, etc. And because these are roles not easily faked by special effects or make-up — at least without risking cinematic authenticity and candor — they are often filled by people who possess the apropos qualities in real life.

One memorable utility role of recent cinema is from the 2009 film, Precious. Gabourey Sidibe was cast to play the film’s eponymous lead, an obese African-American teenager who endures Harlem poverty, illiteracy and family dysfunction. This part, her acting debut, brought her a best actress Oscar nomination, as well as best actress wins at the Hollywood Film Awards, National Board of Review and Independent Spirit Awards.

Nearly five years later, Sidibe is by no means “off the map,” but she has not played any roles of comparable quality to Precious and she has largely faded from the public’s memory. Apart from a fairly prominent role on Showtime’s The Big C (2010), her biggest credits have been glorified cameos in Tower Heist (2011) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). Her publicly-announced upcoming parts look no more promising.

Sidibe is undoubtedly a talented actress: despite her confidence and charisma in real life, she transformed brilliantly into the sorrowful and isolated Precious Jones. The grim reality, though, is that she was cast as Precious specifically because of her appearance, which is not conducive to many other leading roles in Hollywood. (But an unconventional physical appearance does not automatically preclude a long and fruitful career: just IMDB the name Linda Hunt, an actress and little person who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her work in the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously and has managed to work quite steadily as a character actress ever since.)

An example of utility actors who have managed to go on to promising opportunities comes from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), which featured moving performances by Quvenzhane Wallis as the film’s lead character, Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy’s father, Wink. The film is a mythical tale set in the Louisiana Bayou about this father-daughter duo as they prepare for an imminent storm of biblical proportions. To infuse this film with magical realism and colloquial honesty — and probably to meet his low budget — director Benh Zeitlin cast Wallis and Henry, both Louisiana natives without any acting experience.

Wallis auditioned for the part when the film crew came to town, but Henry’s story is even more fortuitous. While scouting the location, Zeitlin ate at a local bakery owned and operated by Henry. The two had a few brief, candid conversations, after which Zeitlin realized Henry would be perfect for the film. Zeitlin had to track Henry down later, as he had not taken down his contact information, and implore him to join the cast, which he agreed to do provided that it wouldn’t impact his time at his place of work.

As a result of the film’s success — which included numerous Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director (Zeitlin) and best actress (Wallis) — Wallis and Henry have been jettisoned into other great projects. Both pop up briefly in 12 Years a Slave, a film shot by Steve McQueen shortly after Beasts began screening, and while their roles are very small, their association with another high-quality film — and likely Oscar contender — is significant. Wallis also scored a major coup by winning the title part in a remake of the beloved film Annie that is now in production. Henry, meanwhile, seems to be easing into the role of a go-to character actor, playing Marvin Gaye Sr. in the Marvin Gaye biopic Sexual Healing (now in production), a variation of the archetypal African-American patriarch that brought him success in Beasts.

Interestingly, not all utility actors want to go on to bigger and better things after their time in the spotlight. The most famous example of this is Jaye Davidson, a complete unknown who was cast as Dil, the ex-lover of Forest Whitaker‘s character and the love interest of Stephen Rea‘s character, in Neil Jordan‘s The Crying Game (1992). Toward the end film, Dil — spoiler alert — Rea and the audience discover, however, that Dil is actually a transgender male!Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax studio marketed the film as possessing a shocking secret, which helped it to generate a considerable audience. Moreover, Davidson scored a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.

However, after The Crying Game‘s awards season, Davidson all but entirely disappeared from the film business — he has only two other credits, for minor roles — having told some journalists that he was uncomfortable with life in the public eye and wanted to be a private citizen again. Reports suggest that he now lives in Paris and works in the fashion industry — and is very happy.

Which of these paths will the future hold for the likes of R.J. Mitte, the young actor with cerebral palsy who just finished play Walter White’s son on AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013); or Laverne Cox, the transgender actress who plays a prominent part on the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black (2013-); or Barkhad Abdi, the frail, Somali cab driver from Minnesota, whose path improbably led him to a supporting role alongside Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips (2013)?

Needless to say, only time will tell.

But one thing is for certain: Hollywood, just as it always has, will continue to employ some people to play parts primarily on the basis of appearance, accent or talents — and there is no shame in that for the contracted utility actor, many of whom make the best of their opportunity by delivering memorable performances that won’t soon be forgotten, regardless of what they themselves go on to do.

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