Awards Watch: Actors

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Encased inside a sweltering bomb disposal suit, Jeremy Renner stood in the Jordanian sun on the set of Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," stared through his helmet and found himself dealing with an unexpected element -- silence.

"You hear nothing but the sound of your own breath," Renner remembers. "You want to pass out because it's so hot, but there's something kind of peaceful about it. About being alone. There were a lot of things that informed (my performance) but the suit was a big one. You couldn't prepare for that."

And there's the rub. After more than a year of preparation, the process of inhabiting Sgt. William James -- of finding ways to personally identify with the character -- was still deepening on a daily basis.

From a demolitions expert in Iraq to a pair of grieving fathers to a larger-than-life film icon, finding that element of identification has provided the key to unlocking characters across a broad spectrum of performances this awards season.

"I was really affected by the character and curious as to what made him tick," Renner says of his initial take on the script, adding that it wasn't difficult to see himself in James. "He maybe takes risks he doesn't need to, but I never saw him as reckless. It's exactly how I think. It's like, 'Let's just get it done.' It may not be pretty. It may not be sexy. It may not even be 'right.' But let's just get it done and get on with it."

For Clive Owen, his own real-life role as a parent provided a point of entry for tackling Joe Warr in "The Boys Are Back," Scott Hicks' emotional tale of a father forced to bond with his sons after his wife's death. It also provided an opportunity to flex some muscles that hadn't been on display recently.

"A lot of people have said to me since the making of the film that they think it's quite a departure for me," Owen says. "The weird thing is that a lot of it felt quite familiar. I think that's mainly because I'm a parent and it's something I've never really explored through my work."

Owen says that his relationship with his own daughters played a major role in how he approached the performance. "I'd always thought, I go off and make movies; I come home and I'm a father," he says, "but suddenly here I was exploring a big part of my own life."

While Owen admits to a bit of initial trepidation at working with kids, playing opposite 6-year-old Nicholas McAnulty turned out to be something of a revelation.

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"There's something about acting with kids that's very exciting, because they're so reactive," he explains. "You can't go into a scene with too strong an idea of what you want to achieve because it's going to be more unpredictable than that. It's not a refined skill that they've got, it's an instinctive, very real thing, and it kind of demands that you're the same with them."

A world away from Owen's South Australia set, "Creation" star Paul Bettany was working through his own feelings of loss in his portrayal of Charles Darwin. Set just before the publication of his groundbreaking "On the Origin of Species" and after the death of his daughter Annie, the film finds Darwin in a state of mental and even physical anguish, unable to move beyond his grief and fearful of the consequences of the book's thesis.

For Bettany, the performance presented a distinctly personal element as well as a dilemma. How do you portray someone who may have come up with the single biggest idea in human history?

"You have to let go of the idea of trying to present somebody that bright -- because I'm not," Bettany says. "But what I do know about is loss. And madness. So you hopefully cling to the bits that you can understand and bring your own life to."

As shooting approached, his own life intruded in a way he couldn't have imagined. "We'd just had a loss in the family," he explains. "(Wife and co-star Jennifer Connelly's) father had just died. So all of those scenes about the loss of Annie were so invested with our own personal sense of loss that they were genuinely moving and even healing for Jennifer and I. It was an amazing time for both of us, I think."

While Bettany and Connelly met on the set of 2001's "A Beautiful Mind" -- they wouldn't become a couple until later -- "Creation" marked their first opportunity to work opposite one another, something that presented advantages the actor instantly recognized.

"There are some things that you're conscious of and some things that you're not," he says. "We got a lot of things for free because we're in a relationship together," he says. "The way that you are with each other physically comes so naturally, so you don't have to present a relationship, we have one."

The dilemma for "An Education's" Peter Sarsgaard, meanwhile, was of a different sort -- turning a predatory male into an empathetic, even likable character. As it turns out, that's not as hard as one might think.

"It's so funny how harsh people are in there assessments of (David)," Sarsgaard says of Carey Mulligan's much older paramour. "When 'Boys Don't Cry' came out, everyone talked about how charming I was. But now with this role, people have condemned this character more than any other I've played."

But for Sarsgaard, the key to unlocking David didn't lay in his perceived sins; it lay in what he felt were very universal desires and weaknesses.

"He always just felt like me, honestly," Sarsgaard says. "I think I could identify with David because the feelings he has are common. It's very normal to not want to face the reality of your life every moment. So it's not as if I had to play all the negative stuff. I just played someone who was looking to escape reality.

"And I don't just say (he feels like me) because actors always say that," he adds. "There have been characters I've played that absolutely did not feel like me, where I've felt like that scene that Ian McKellen did on 'Extras' where he says, "I'm Ian McKellen. NOW I'M A WIZARD! I'm Ian McKellen."

Performing opposite Mulligan, who delivers a star-making turn as a high schooler swept up in a whirlwind romance, provided another layer of motivation. "The audience isn't the only person who falls in love with her," he says. "David has the same feelings about her that an audience does, watching her and learning from her."

Christian McKay, by turn, was tasked with bringing to life a man whose detractors might have accused of being in love with himself: Orson Welles.

McKay, who transported the larger-than-life Welles of his one-man show to Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," found that connecting with the iconic actor-writer-director -- particularly the brash incarnation of his youth -- involved more than research.

"I had to reference my own life and my own arrogance, my own youthful confidence and ignorant mistakes as my focal point for playing him," McKay says. "And of course at that youthful age, at 22, you're going to make your mistakes aren't you? You're going to seem a bit arrogant or boorish.

"I was like that myself, unfortunately," he admits. "There's a wonderful quote from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He said, 'I'd rather be what I was, arrogant and lost, than what I am, humble and found.' And I think that's very true, especially as an artist."

McKay's ability to empathize with Welles manifested itself on the very first day of shooting. "The first day was one of the happiest days of my life," he says. "I wasn't scared. I'd done my work and I was ready to go. But as I walked onto the set and saw (cinematographer) Dick Pope directing the lights and Richard directing the actors, an extraordinary sadness came over me."

As McKay explains it, his empathy for Welles, particularly the struggles of his late career, suddenly became almost too much to bear. It ultimately provided one of those rare moments when the last brick in the wall between actor and character simply falls away.

"My wife, who also plays my wife in the movie, asked if I was all right and I said, 'Yeah.' But I went to have a private moment and I burst out crying. And I suddenly realized: This isn't me, it's the old man."
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