Performers share insights into memorable characters

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The women

Toni Collette, "United States of Tara"
"There is a familiarity and openness that comes from time spent with the same folks each year -- you just don't get it to the same extent in film. And I feel it gives me a freedom, a willingness to be vulnerable. The more open you are to each moment, the more enjoyable and exciting they become. Having said that, the greatest challenge is keeping things from getting stale. But with the potential for variety in this story and character, I don't think this will be a real issue."

 
Zooey Deschanel, "(500) Days of Summer"
"What I liked about Summer is that everything is so effortless with her -- everything except falling in love, which is the opposite of everyone in real life. My challenge was to keep her grounded. The film contains so many stylized elements, and that's great, but it also took it out of reality at times. It made me very diligent about making sure that she stayed real. I used myself constantly as a gauge. 'Can I relate to this?' It was crucial that it be sincere. I guess the parts I remember most are the breakup scenes. Those were the most difficult. All that stuff was hard to play. But breaking up is always awkward, isn't it?"

Jane Lynch, "Glee"
"What makes Sue (Sylvester) so much fun is that she says whatever she thinks. Unlike most people, she doesn't filter what comes out of her mouth. She lives to shock people. The toughest part of the character is getting the words in the right sequence. It will take Sue 17 words to say something that someone else would say in just a few. But she is so beautifully written that I want to make sure I say it the way the writers intended."

 
Jill Scott, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency"
"I wanted to work with Anthony Minghella. I had seen 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' and said to myself that here's someone who really knows how to bring out the best in actors. Then I read the script and I saw what a wonderful character she (Precious Ramotswe) is -- intelligent, articulate, confident, a special light. Learning the accent was challenging, but the most physically demanding task was portraying her endless enthusiasm. She is always up. This character is always on the balls of her feet. And after 14 or 15 hours of shooting, it took a lot to maintain that energy. My light isn't on 24 hours a day; hers is. But I knew enough of her lived inside my heart to play her, and I knew as an actor there was enough of her that wasn't me that made her a challenge.

I especially remember the scenes with the Bushman and the granddaughter. Listening to them speak in a language that not too many still use was humbling and powerful for me -- Jill. For my character, it was dealing with the loss of her child. I was pregnant at the time. She had lost a son and I was having a son. I had to believe it for the character, but did not want to believe it for myself."

 
Sophia Loren, "Nine"
"Growing up in Italy, I was always mesmerized by Hollywood musicals. During wartime, I would take refuge in the warmth of our village cinema and lose myself in the arms of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Being a part of 'Nine,' which aligns itself perfectly in the grand tradition of Hollywood's golden age of musicals, was a dream come true. The most challenging (part) was rising to the expectations of the filmmaker. Rob Marshall actually wants you to be a great singer and dancer. He will accept nothing less of you. Needless to say, I am neither a singer nor a dancer, so having to closet my anxieties and trust him unconditionally was quite frightening -- but also very freeing."

Samantha Morton, "The Messenger"
"I had played Michelle in 'Jesus' Son,' which was Oren's (Moverman) first produced screenplay. So when he was going to direct 'The Messenger,' he contacted me and told me he really wanted me to read the script. And after I did, I could tell it was a really important piece. I immediately related to this character: My brother is a Royal Marine. He's been in the forces for many, many years and has been in Afghanistan and Iraq. So it was something very close to my heart to play Olivia. What was really challenging about the character was the conflicting feelings she has about the military. On one hand, she wanted to be supportive of her husband, her country and the war; but on the other hand, she is angry at the military for what it is doing. The scene I remember the most is the scene in the kitchen with Ben (Foster) where our characters nearly do it. It's a long, tough scene without any breaks. People say it's a standout scene in the film. But Ben was terrific. He was kind and he was patient. He really made it a lot easier to get through."


The men

Sam Rockwell, "Moon"
"Time was a big factor in this shoot. It was a 33-day shoot with a lot of special effect shots and we often only had time for three takes. The ping-pong scene we did in one take.

The story is about clones, so a lot of the time I was playing opposite myself. I'd either be playing to my double -- Robin Chalk, he looked like me from the back -- or a tennis ball. Because of that, timing was very important. It was like a chess game. I always had to be thinking ahead what my 'other self' would be doing in the scene. We tried to shoot the scene with the dominant character first, but sometimes, because of the schedule, if I was in makeup for the secondary character, we'd shoot that. So I had to think what the 'other me' was going to do. I also had to be very careful about not doing too much improvising. I had an iPod my girlfriend had given me and the sound guy put all the sounds from the first takes onto it. I'd listen to it when I was in makeup, and when we'd shoot the scene, I'd have those sounds in my head, reminding me of what was happening the first time around.

It was very schizophrenic! But it was also a lot of fun, and probably the toughest acting challenge I've ever had."

Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"
"It was an ongoing process from the year of preproduction right up until the last day of the shoot. There were about a thousand things that informed the character. The scope of the film was so big, but the dialogue was so minimal, that I had to find who he was through actionable moments. He's a cowboy and a thrill junkie, but that's on the surface, one-dimensional. I had to go beyond that and find ways to expose as much of James as I could. The scenes with the boy (Renner's son), his calls home when he hangs up, they were so important to who this character is. There were so many subtle things I was doing and I'm just amazed that Kathryn (Bigelow) picked them up. Half the time we didn't even realize she was getting what she was getting."

 
Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock"
"When I was first approached about playing Jack Donaghy on '30 Rock,' I had all of the typical fears that actors have of television. A young man or woman who could be writing scripts in a possible fifth season was just graduating high school right about now. He/she hadn't even walked into the Harvard Lampoon yet, let alone worked for Chuck Lorre or Max Mutchnick.

But that turned out to be the least of my worries. The writers that showed up here, and continue to show up here, to write with Tina (Fey) are the funniest writers in show business. Performing the role is a joy, simply because it is so well written.

The drawbacks? Having to do scenes with Salma Hayek, Jennifer Aniston, Isabella Rossellini, Emily Mortimer and Padma Lakshmi and watch them walk out of my life, forever, in a matter of weeks. Sometimes days! Jack just can't hold onto a woman. Can we fix that? Maybe a spinoff? Is Anne Heche available?"

Colin Firth, "A Single Man"
"Tom Ford's script (set in Los Angeles in 1962) is about a man who wakes up having lost the will to live -- and then, in a single day, goes through just about every emotion I can think of: despair, love, rage, terror, serenity and joy. An embarrassment of riches for an actor. One of the most challenging moments was having to appear heartbroken in a scene at the moment the news broke that Barack Obama had won the election."

Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"
"The most challenging -- terrifying may be a better word -- part of it is keeping the whole thing up, keeping it interesting and keeping people involved. Ideally, we have created a rich enough world and populated it with characters who have enough dramatic possibilities in their lives that we can continue to tell these stories and not fail our audience's or our own expectations. It certainly doesn't get any easier though."

 
Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones"
"Particularly difficult was the scene where he commits the heinous crime. We shot it toward the end of shooting, for logistical reasons, and therefore I had to live for months waiting to shoot the scene I most feared doing. Peter (Jackson) and all were very sensitive to Saoirse (Ronan) and me as they knew only too well the delicate nature of what we were doing. I will no doubt say it was one of the hardest scenes I have ever done and was most relieved when it was over. I can only imagine she felt the same way. Yet as painful as it was, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything."
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