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THR Panel: 6 Breakthrough Performers on Difficult Directors and Working Without a Script (Video)

A conversation with Barkhad Abdi ("Captain Phillips"), Adele Exarchopoulos ("Blue Is the Warmest Color"), Greta Gerwig ("Frances Ha"), Kathryn Hahn ("Afternoon Delight"), David Oyelowo ("The Butler") and Olivia Wilde ("Drinking Buddies").

The Hollywood Reporter's inaugural Breakthrough Performers Panel (shot at The Warwick in Hollywood) was comprised of Barkhad Abdi, 28 (the Somali pirate Muse in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips); Adele Exarchopoulos, 20 (the young lesbian Adele in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color); Greta Gerwig, 30 (the lost soul Frances Halladay in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha); Kathryn Hahn, 40 (the sexually reawakened Rachel in Jill Soloway's Afternoon Delight); David Oyelowo, 37 (the butler's oldest son, Louis Gaines, in Lee Daniels' Lee Daniels’ The Butler); and Olivia Wilde, 29 (the romantically confused Kate in Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies).

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These performers' 2013 breakthroughs all are different: One is an actor's first credit (Abdi), another is an actress' 50th (Hahn); one came from an American in an American movie (Gerwig), another from a foreigner in a foreign-language movie (Exarchopoulos); one is in a summer blockbuster (Oyelowo), another in a microbudget indie (Wilde). In all cases, these actors have given performances that merit more attention than they have been receiving.

Over the course of an hourlong chat the actors discussed getting their start (one brought coffee to her future co-stars as a casting assistant and another escaped a Civil War), landing their breakthrough roles and what it's like when the director won't give you the script.

How did you get your start in the business?
GERWIG: I kind of always wanted to be an actor. I wanted to go to a BFA program, but my mom wasn’t so keen on it, so I went to Barnard College and just did regular liberal arts. But while I was there I realized how hard it was to be an actor. [I decided] I really wanted to be part of theater or film or television, just storytelling with actors, and I didn’t care what job I was going to do, I just wanted to be a part of it. So I was writing and stage-managing. I had done a tiny part in a Joe Swanberg movie called L.O.L. I didn’t even do a part; the guy I was dating at the time used my voicemail messages in the movie. (Laughs.) So I really was not hired to act. But then I went to South by Southwest because it fell on my spring break, and I met Ti West and Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski and all these people who were so amazing and I was such a fan of their films. And Joe asked me, “Do you want to come live in Chicago and make a movie and live in a house?” And I said, “Yes.” I still had day jobs, and I was applying and getting rejected from graduate schools. And then, eventually, someone paid me to act on a regular basis.
OYELOWO: In terms of Nigeria [where Oyelowo's father is from], generally, or certainly my dad’s generation, the idea of the arts is just so alien. It’s [all about] academia. [My father] had three sons: He wanted a doctor, a lawyer and an engineer. So I came in and said I wanted to be an actor and he just kind of laughed. And then, as it became more and more serious, the panic kind of set in of the reality of it. But I got a scholarship to go to the London Academy, and that was my in! [Imitating his father] “Oh, a scholar? We can tell everybody back in Nigeria you are a scholar.” So that was the way I whittled my way through that.
EXARCHOPOULOS: When I was 8 I got a lot of energy, so my parents say, “You have to put this on something.” And I was like, “Maybe I should [take] improvisation class.” And one day I got the chance that, at 12, a casting director came and it started from there. I realized how much I wanted to be involved in it. And the deal with my parents was, “If you had pretty good marks at school, you can make a movie.”
WILDE: I was a casting assistant, so I’ve brought coffee to almost everyone I’ve now worked with. (Laughs.) But I started out slowly and did TV and did movies, some big, some small. And it’s funny, I was telling Kathryn just now that I’ve been working for 12 years professionally, but I feel like I just started. That’s a weird thing that can happen in this business. You can have a lot of experience and then do something you’re really proud of and say, “OK, now I feel like I can call myself an actor and I’m doing what I want to do.”

BarkhadCaptain Phillips is your first movie. Your journey to the movies has probably taken you further than anyone here.
ABDI: I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and by the age of 6 years old the civil war started, so we were stuck in that city for about a year. And after that, my mom found a way to get us out of Somalia and we went to Yemen. I started a new life there and lived in Yemen for about seven years. And then we found the lottery visa to the U.S., and we came to Minneapolis. One day, the auditioning call came on the local TV channel, so I went there for the audition. It was a huge crowd of people. I met some friends there. We created a group of four and we practiced. We finally got called to L.A. and we got the part.

Kathryn, you went to the Yale School of Drama. Were you envisioning a future as a theater actor or were you hoping for film?
HAHN: I didn’t get to Yale until much, much later than most. I started when I was 27, which is kind of late in the game. I grew up in Cleveland -- we’re both Midwesterners [gesturing to Abdi] and I always, always wanted to do it. I did a children’s television show in Cleveland called Hickory Hideout, on which I talked to two squirrel puppets, Nutso and Shirley Squirrely. I later worked at the Williamstown Theater Festival forever and ever -- tore down sets and made no money at all -- and then accrued more debt with Yale. (Laughs.) So yeah, it took a really long time, but I feel the same way as Olivia,I feel weirdly brand-new, even though I’ve been doing it my whole life, really.

David, before The Butler you had worked with Lee Daniels on The Paperboy. How did you two connect?
OYELOWO: He was going to do a film called Selma -- this was in 2010 -- and he had cast me as Martin Luther King, and we spent maybe a year-and-a-half trying to get that film off the ground. And in that time, when, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t coming together, he sent me the script of The Butler. And to be honest, I did not want to like this script at all because I was like, “No, no, no, we are doing Selma! I’ve been studying Martin Luther King, and that’s what we’re doing.” (Laughs.) And then he sent me this script and it just blew my head off. The Butler was really tough to get off the ground -- it’s a big hit now, but no one wanted to make it -- so, in the meantime, we went off and made The Paperboy.

Kathryn, Jill Soloway had never written or directed a feature film before Afternoon Delight. Did you have any doubts that she could do it?
HAHN: I trusted her voice and her gut. It’s such a specific script. It’s just such an amazing picture of a time in our culture, and this weird little subculture of Silver Lake right now and these new parents. And, oh, I just begged, borrowed, and stole. I just trusted her, I really did.

Adele, what was your first encounter with Blue director Abdellatif Kechiche like?
EXARCHOPOULOS: I was 18. And it was really not cool because he doesn’t speak a lot; he really just observes you, asks you to eat something because he loves watching people eat, so, you’re like, “OK ...” After this meeting, I was like, “I’m not going to [get] it.” And they told me, “Abdellatif wants you to come again.” During two months he was testing me and also he was making me participate with the casting. I was playing the role of Lea Seydoux, but she was already picked. But I wasn’t asking nothing because it was too weird to ask. And one day he told me, “You’re free. It’s you.”

Now a slightly less circuitous way to a part would be to write it yourself. Greta, you had previously worked with Noah Baumbach on Greenberg and then you two co-wrote Frances Ha.
GERWIG: I had been acting a lot, but I hadn’t been finishing anything I was writing and I sent him all this material -- of just scenes, snippets of scenes or moments of things I thought belonged in a movie -- and he thought they were interesting and good, and we started writing it. It was a year of writing, off and on. I don’t know that I thought that we would ever make it into a film. I’ve had plenty of projects where I’ve written whole scripts with people and, you know, it doesn’t happen. Once the script was done, I almost wasn’t thinking about acting in it. I’m glad I did, but I had a moment of feeling like I wasn’t sure that I wanted to, because I was so proud of it and I didn’t want to, like, mess it up or anything. But I messed it up so good! (Laughs.)

One of the things with which Greta is very associated is the Mumblecore era. And a big part of that was Joe Swanberg. Olivia, what was it like making Drinking Buddies with Joe?
WILDE: We had an outline that for a while Joe wouldn’t show me. He kept saying, “Once you get here, we’ll figure it out based on who you guys are and what your relationship to each other is.” And this [sort of thing] had never come my way before because I don’t think anyone would’ve thought I was capable of it; I’m not sure what made Joe think that I could, but I’m so glad he did. Because I was familiar with Joe’s work and had seen Hannah Takes the Stairs and L.O.L., I was like, “Oh, we’re all going to live in a house, and no one’s going to get paid, and we’re going to eat together and live together and that sounds so fun and we’ll just like, roll out of bed and shoot a scene, or whatever happens, happens!” I’d say the biggest challenge was learning to really trust myself to say something that was not funny or smart or relevant and have it be totally fine.
GERWIG: When we made Hannah Takes the Stairs, and we all lived in a house together, there was this list by the door of things we needed, like, “eggs, milk” -- and then finally someone put “script.” (Laughs.)
WILDE: I was panicking that we didn’t have a script. And then I heard that there was a secret script on set that Joe had and I was like, “There’s a script? We’ve got to find the script!” The funny thing is, people who know me watch the movie and they’re like, “Oh, it’s you! You’re just you!” And people who don’t know me are like, “You’re a great actor.” (Laughs.) But you being you is actually harder than it sounds.

Kathryn, a lot of people saw Anchorman and Step Brothers and began to think of you suddenly as a comedienne.
WILDE: My fiance [former SNL castmember Jason Sudeikis] calls her the Meryl Streep of comedy.
HAHN: Costumes, fake noses, fanny packs. (Laughs.)

But I would imagine it felt nice to be given the opportunity to do something different …
HAHN: I really didn’t come out here and start in this world of cameras until I was like 30. And it was always a small part in a big, huge studio machine. So I spent most of my 30s feeling like a guest on somebody else’s set. When I did that small part in Anchorman, that really cracked something open for me as an actor, not just in comedy. There was something so anarchic about it, something lawless and just so rock and roll about the way [co-writer/director Adam McKay] approaches comedy. There’s something about the comedy world. I can’t believe I’m invited to that party in any way. But there is something in [Afternoon Delight] that I always knew was in there. It was different. It revealed itself to be a little darker than we anticipated.

David, in The Butler you play someone who ages from 17 to 68. Was that daunting?
OYELOWO: No, it was the opposite, actually. I think initially Lee had conceived it as maybe two or even three actors doing it. I said to Lee, “Look, I want you to trust me with this. I think I can do it.” And he went, “Oh, OK? OK.” To the point whereby we were in New Orleans and we were doing camera tests to see if I could pass for 17 and all of that. And at the end of a day of camera tests, he goes, “David, you are lucky!” I said, “What? What?” “Because I had cast the young version of you and he is -- I have got to go and make a phone call!” (Laughs.) It always takes me out for a moment when you go from a young version of someone to another actor playing them. And I just felt if we could do without it, then let’s give it a go.

What is Lee like as a director?
OYELOWO: He is not a respecter of persons at all. I mean, there were so many huge stars in that film and he was like, “You are effing up my movie! You better get it right!” He will take you to the monitor and go, “David, look at this: Fake! Genius! Oh my God, if you do that again in my movie, I will ...” But he is as hard on himself as he is on his actors.

Greta, why was it important for Frances Ha to be a black-and-white movie?
GERWIG: I didn’t really know how limiting black-and-white was until we were trying to sell it. But shooting in black-and-white was sort of part of the spirit of the whole thing when we were writing it. I think Orson Welles said, “Black-and-white is an actor’s best friend. It makes you look like everything you’re doing is important.” And I was thinking about [La Strada and Nights of Cabiria star] Giulietta Masina, and her clown-face, and it’s so big. I feel like black-and-white responds to almost a clownishness that you can’t get away with in color film.

Adele, with Blue a lot of attention has been paid to the fact that there’s a lot of sex in the movie. Was that something that gave you any pause?
EXARCHOPOULOS: Not really because I knew that he wanted to make a love story between two girls, but just as a love story -- something common. He told me, “I want to treat the sex scene like the other ones, like the food scene, like the school scene.” We laughed a lot during this sex scene because it was the first scene we were making together. So, introduce yourself naked, it helps, because there was no, like, shaking hands. You’re just naked and vulnerable. I think it was easier for me, because for me it was supposed to be my first relationship with a girl, a sex relation, and she was supposed to drive the act. So I was just like, let her do!

And that scene, which lasts six or seven minutes, took 10 days to shoot, right?
EXARCHOPOULOS: But [not] 10 days [straight]; just some days, “OK, today is the sex scene.” We wanted to show how a sexuality can evolve. People pay a lot of attention for this sex scene, and I don’t understand why because this is just sex. You’ve got the impression during this scene that you are in the bedroom of two girls who love each other, and I can understand that sometime it’s kind of real because you’re really seeing two people eat each other, and it’s also about skin. But it’s like this.

Barkhad, you get the part in Captain Phillips, and you know Phillips is going to be played Tom Hanks. How was the first meeting?
ABDI: When we first got there, we did some training and we were all excited to meet Tom. That was the main reason that I went to audition to begin with. So when we finished the training, it was like, “OK, now I want to see Tom.” And Paul [Greengrass] was like, “You guys are not seeing Tom until the first scene you actually see in the film.”

Where you raid the ship.
ABDI: He said he doesn’t want us to be intimidated by Tom, so the first time in the movie we see each other, that’s [going to be] the first time we [the Somali actors] are seeing him. Looking back at it now, it was a great idea. We just had to forget about Tom and focus on the scene.

Adele, prior to this May, the Cannes Film Festival had never awarded its Palme d’Or to anyone but a film's director, but this year a Steven Spielberg-led jury gave it to you and Lea Seydoux as well as Kechiche. What has life been like for you since then?
EXARCHOPOULOS: Sometimes I’m on the subway and I’m like, “What?!” (Laughs.) It’s strange to come from shadow to light in one year, everything changes. People change with you. You’re under lights and it makes you more fragile because you feel that people are going to judge you so much after your next movie. And I think it’s too bad because it’s important to fail, too, and to make a small movie, a big movie, a movie that’s not going to be seen. And so that’s strange. But the Cannes Festival was huge for the three of us.

Barkhad, what has it been like for you, like Adele, being thrown into the deep end?
ABDI: Well, it feels good. (Laughs.) People recognize me on the street now. And as far as people back home, everybody’s shocked by it and I’m just trying to take it slow. I have an agent now and I’m trying to pursue this and see where I can go.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg