Actor spotlights


Michael Sheen

It's not every day one gets the opportunity to play one of the most powerful men in the world, let alone the leader who happens to be running one's own country. But Michael Sheen has taken on the identity of British Prime Minister Tony Blair twice -- first in the 2003 telefilm "The Deal" and now in "The Queen."

In researching Blair, Sheen was surprised to discover that he didn't know all sorts of things about the politician who is ubiquitous in the U.K.

He was intrigued to learn that Blair had started a rock band called Ugly Rumors after graduating from university. He also discovered that Blair had been educated in Scotland rather than England, which he said accounted for Blair's distinctive accent, and that the politician was a devout Christian.

Sheen strove not to do a direct impersonation. "I am trying to get the essence of his character," he says. "You need to do enough to make an audience believe you (can) play that character without focusing their attention on how much you look like him or not."

He adds that with a character like Blair: "I start by building from the inside, trying to work out why they do what they do, why they have those physical characteristics. Eventually, as you build up from the inside, everything you do is there for a reason rather than (artificially) put on. Then I keep listening and watching them. This is all before filming, and at that point I try to leave (the research) completely behind and concentrate on doing what you do when you act: Listen and react."

Sheen says he was continually fascinated by Blair and by the small things as well as the big ones -- like Blair's teeth, for instance.

"When you watch very early footage of him, he obviously was quite conscious that he had weird-looking teeth because he tries to cover up the smile," Sheen says. "Someone must have told him, 'You look like an idiot with that Cheshire Cat grin.' I think he must have had a bit of work done."

At the other end of the spectrum, Sheen says he found Blair more youthful and naive as he is seen in "Deal" and worked to convey an extra gravitas when he played a slightly older Blair in "Queen."

And while some actors might be afraid of being typecast, Sheen says he hasn't ruled out playing Blair again.

"Chances are we will probably make a third Blair film to round off the story -- something about his downfall," Sheen adds. "Whether it would cover the Iraq War, I don't know; but it would certainly be about the relationship between Blair and America. We have talked about it, but I think I'd have to get a little bit older. It would be nice to put a few years on first."

-- Stephen Galloway

Rinki Kikuchi

Above-the-title stars Brad Pitt and Oscar winner Cate Blanchett deliver moving, emotionally charged performances in Paramount Vantage's October drama "Babel," but the cast member who is arguably generating the loudest awards-season buzz is Rinko Kikuchi, a 25-year-old Japanese actress making her Western film debut. As Chieko, a deaf, mute 16-year-old in Tokyo dealing with the loss of her mother and a strained relationship with her emotionally distant and often physically absent father (Koji Yakusho), Kikuchi's raw, nuanced performance embodies the film's central theme about humans' struggle to communicate.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu auditioned Kikuchi on his first casting expedition to Japan in January 2005. He was impressed by her take on her role, but he was determined to cast a deaf actress.

"We told Rinko, 'We're sorry, but we're not ready to make a commitment,'" the film's producer, Jon Kilik, recalls. "So, we asked all the casting people to keep looking. We went to deaf schools. We had them search everywhere. It wasn't until just before we started shooting in October that we finally gave her the part. And between January and October, she just kept working."

"There was a coach who taught me sign language, but I also spent many hours with students at a high school for the deaf," Kikuchi explains through an interpreter. "We'd go out and eat together, and I tried to live this life in a hearing-impaired world. I learned to try to use senses other than my hearing -- touch and smell and sight -- and to communicate in a more physical way."

Desperate for emotional and physical contact, Chieko acts out sexually. In the film's most heart-wrenching scene, she presents herself to a visiting police officer, completely naked, in an attempted seduction that quickly devolves into an emotional breakdown.

"It was a very hard thing to do because I had to expose not only my body but all the emotions, just like an animal," Kikuchi says.

"I thought that nudity was actually (an) important part of the scene, as well as exposing myself, sobbing and crying."

Although Kikuchi and Inarritu (a native of Mexico) do not speak a common language, communication was not an issue on the set.

"During the audition process, he gave me directions (through an interpreter)," Kikuchi says. "But by the time filming started, I knew what he wanted from me. So, there was no difference between my idea of Chieko and his idea of Chieko."

-- Todd Longwell

Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson has carved out a nice little acting career over the past dozen or so years, doing the occasional feature film (2000's "What Women Want"), TV movie (2002's "Path to War") and recurring roles in episodic television -- most memorably in the series "American Gothic" and "Jack & Jill." She even played the lead in 2002's short-lived comedy series "Leap of Faith."

But nothing prepared Paulson for the loud reception that has greeted her portrayal of Harriet Hayes, the devout Christian castmate in the sketch-comedy ensemble show-within-a-show on NBC's freshman drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." A right-wing stranger in a left-wing strange land, Harriet is a living dichotomy who has drawn significant reaction from viewers thanks to Paulson's layered, unpredictable performance.

"It's the greatest job I've ever had, the most terrifying job I've ever had, the most fun, the most critiqued and the highest profile by far," Paulson says. "Mostly women come up to me, and they just love the character. And the good news is, we'll be on the whole season -- because I'm loving this job so much, even as we've had to work so under the microscope."

The fact that "Studio 60" was created and is executive produced by "The West Wing" legend Aaron Sorkin has made every plotline on the show the subject of unusually intense scrutiny.

As a result, Paulson's performance has been high on the radar since the show's September launch.

"I can't possibly complain because I'm playing a character whose life is really important to her -- someone whose heart is hugely involved in the show she's doing," Paulson says. "And besides that, Harriet is very much tied to her faith and God. She's a living, breathing person, at least to me."

And, it seems, to some other prominent people in the industry. "I ran into a very prolific TV and movie director and series creator -- I won't say who -- who came up to me at a party and told me how much he now wanted to work with me after watching me on 'Studio 60,'" Paulson marvels. "There is suddenly this awareness of me and my work that never happened before."

That, she says, justifies the sacrifice of having to routinely put in 14-hour days and feel kind of exhausted all of the time. "I'd rather be tired saying Aaron Sorkin dialogue than anyone else on the planet," she says.

-- Ray Richmond

Masi Oka

Masi Oka's overnight success just might supply further proof that the geeks shall inherit the Earth. The 31-year-old Asian-American actor has won rave notices for his portrayal of a nerdy Japanese office worker named Hiro Nakamura who possesses the ability to stop time on NBC's breakout hit drama "Heroes." As November wound down, Oka was making the rounds on the talk-show circuit, appearing on ABC's "The View" and NBC's "Today" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." Now, he's being talked up for SAG Awards consideration.

"It's amazing, all of this attention," admits Oka, who moved with his family to Los Angeles from his native Japan when he was 6 years old. "It means there really is hope for the geeks of the world -- because that's me."

Oka actually might be the only actor starring in a series today who holds math and computer science degrees -- he graduated from Brown University -- and who has spent years working for George Lucas' special effects house Industrial Light + Magic on projects including 2005's "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" and Buena Vista's summer boxoffice blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." He even moonlights there in his spare time.

"It's important to me as an artist to stay connected to that," Oka emphasizes. "They also have supported me and were very tolerant of my acting career."

While it might seem strange that a digital artist would wind up starring in a hit TV show, Oka has been working toward that goal for some time. He earned his SAG card by performing in industrial videos and had done a slew of TV episodic work, including a recurring role on the NBC comedy "Scrubs," before landing the part of Hiro.

Oka believes that the persona he evokes on "Heroes" is an exaggerated version of himself in terms of his ability to represent geekdom in a positive light. "That's what I take such pride in," he says. "I'm able to do the yin and yang of comedy and drama in this role and maintain the dignity of my character all the way through."

The actor has won praise for his ability to play funny without allowing Hiro to become the butt of a joke and the way in which his character is helping to break down Asian stereotypes. Ultimately, though, Oka hopes that through "Heroes," he can do something to change conventional opinion about the brainier folks in the world. "If a geek means being passionate about something, then it's a great thing," he says. "I'd rather be a human being who is passionate about something than apathetic about everything."

-- Ray Richmond

Toby Jones

Toby Jones had shuttled between commercial TV work, avant-garde stage projects and smaller, character roles in productions like HBO's "Elizabeth I" for years before director Douglas McGrath approached him about taking on the lead role opposite Sandra Bullock in "Infamous," about Truman Capote's experiences in Kansas writing about the murders at the center of his famous nonfiction novel "In Cold Blood."

A graduate of Paris' prestigious Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School, Jones understood at once that it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and the actor immediately immersed himself in Capote's life, reading almost everything that had been written about the author and watching old videotapes of his TV appearances. "The research never really stopped because there is so much (material)," Jones says. "It is quite possible to read everything that has been written about him, but the TV stuff is endless."

Of course, the most difficult part about believably playing Capote involved mastering his unique, high-pitched voice. "It requires so much work to get, so much analysis just trying to understand what on earth is going on in his jaw and mouth, anatomically," Jones says. "Then you try to understand what factors have created it, why he might talk at that volume. And after that, with Capote, there is the more physical work, to link the voice to a body so it doesn't become just a voice on a stick."

But perhaps the greatest challenge Jones faced was something entirely out of his control. Although McGrath had been working on his film for years, it was Bennett Miller's 2005 drama "Capote," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, that actually made it to the screen first -- meaning that Jones' performance would inevitably be compared to Hoffman's, which happened to earn almost every prestigious acting prize, including the best actor Oscar.

What's even more interesting, though, is the fact that Jones is one of the few actors alive who actually has never watched Hoffman's portrayal. "They wrapped two months before we started shooting," he says of "Capote."

"So, there was no opportunity to see it then, and I haven't seen it subsequently."

Critics who have seen Jones' performance seem largely impressed by his interpretation of the flamboyant, troubled figure who is emotionally drawn to Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), one of the killers who slayed four members of the Clutter family in a robbery attempt gone awry. McGrath's script gave Jones the opportunity to express Capote's devastating wit and his internal conflict -- in scenes in his native New York social circle and in the center of the heartland.

"Two years ago, there's no way I'd have imagined ever being compared to (Hoffman)," Jones says, noting that he feels "very flattered by the comparison."

-- Stephen Galloway

Eric Dane

Eric Dane knows what you're thinking. He knows that because he's a pretty boy, a sex symbol -- the guy known on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" by the frivolous handle "McSteamy" -- you probably think he's on the series because he's great to look at and that if there's an actor inside that body and face, too, it's more of a bonus than a necessity.

Yes, he understands all of that. And he doesn't much care.

"If you think you'll hear me complaining about not getting taken seriously, forget it," says Dane, 34, who began playing hunky plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Sloan this season. "There are no negatives here as far as fallout over what this show does for me. It's all a gift. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced, for sure -- crazy but great."

Dane has received plaudits for doing far more than simply showing up at work and looking hot. His "McSteamy" is something of a bed-hopper, to be sure, ratcheting up the show's soap opera drama yet one more notch. He's a home-wrecker, a smooth operator, but Dane finds a way to make the character sympathetic, making Sloan something far more complex than a run-of-the-mill soap villain.

"I'm having the time of my life with this guy," Dane admits. "You're only as good as the writers, but fortunately it's tremendous on this show. I mean, I stepped onto a huge hit show. I'm super grateful for that. When you've lived in the unemployed-actor world as I have, this is utter nirvana."

Since making his TV debut on "The Wonder Years" in 1993, the San Francisco native has worked consistently over the last 10-plus years, with guest spots on series including "Married ... With Children," "Roseanne" and "Silk Stalkings" and recurring roles on such shows as "Charmed" and "Gideon's Crossing." But there's no question that landing his part on "Anatomy" -- the actor's first regular high-profile gig -- has taken Dane to a new career plateau. And that has taken some getting used to.

"When someone my age approaches me, my first instinct is still, 'Do I know you from somewhere? Did we go to high school together?'" Dane says. "And it's like, 'Oh, you know me from TV.' It's taken a little while for me to put two and two together and realize the unbelievable number of people who watch this show."

-- Ray Richmond

America Ferrera

America Ferrera isn't saying that she necessarily was born to play Betty Suarez, the title character whom she portrays with such charismatic charm in ABC's breakout hit "Ugly Betty." But she feels strongly that this alter ego is a perfect fit, even if the actress herself doself says he does not drink), he found refuge in acting.

"It was an escape," he explains. "I found acting made me run away from who I was and what I had to deal with."

Now, that "escape" has paid off. Not only has Beach landed plum roles in CBS' upcoming miniseries "Comanche Moon" (based on a novel by Oscar-winning scribe Larry McMurtry) and HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," he is garnering considerable Oscar buzz for his performance in "Flags."

Looking back, he says that no matter what terrible experiences he went through, they don't compare with the sufferings of the character he portrays in Eastwood's film, which is about the soldiers who raised the American flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

"The loss that Ira experienced, of watching his friends die in a horrific battle of war -- that's something my life can't compare to. The best I can do is try to emulate it."

-- Stephen Galloway