Actors challenged themselves in year's top performances


Instants after his motorcycle crashed, as he went flying through the air, knowing at any moment he might die, the second thought Josh Brolin had was of Miramax's "No Country for Old Men."

The first thought, understandably, was of his family. But now, propelled from his bike, Brolin regretted that the role he had fought so hard to obtain, which he was due to start shooting in a matter of weeks, in all likelihood would not be his.

"It was two days after I got the part," he recalls, noting that he had already enlisted Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino to help him shoot a screen test. "I was driving from one wardrobe fitting to another, and a woman turned left in front of me at Highland and Hollywood. I'm lucky I hit her when I did, because if I had hit her a nanosecond before, my body would have hit her car. But I hit the back of the car and flew over the trunk."

As he flew, "I was in the air long enough to have some clear thoughts. I was contemplating working on this film, and it was too bad because now I knew I wasn't going to do it. I knew something would snap when I landed. And I remember trying to turn around. I thought, 'If I land on my back, that is the best-case scenario.' And next thing I knew, I couldn't see anything. I just remember thinking, 'My kids!' and then, 'Fuck, I really wanted to work with the Coens!' And then I heard a 'snap' and sat there and felt a rush of heat in my shoulder."

Luckily for Brolin, he wasn't dead; less luckily, he had broken his collarbone. Only when his lawyer forced him to do so did he tell director Ethan Coen that he had "a hairline fracture." Mercifully, Coen said it would work with the part.

"He called me and said, 'What side is it?' I said, 'My right side.' He said, 'He gets shot in the right shoulder on page 18; we'll be fine.'"

An element of luck and an element of hard work go into any role. But few parts are without challenges for the actors who play them.

For James McAvoy of Focus Features' "Atonement," the main challenge was learning to walk and talk as he might have done in England in the 1930s, the era when the first part of the picture is set -- harder than it might seem, given that the actor speaks with a naturally thick Scottish brogue.

"I've done a lot of English accents, but in this one it was important that we all sounded the same," he recalls. "We worked with a coach and read passages from books and studied phonetics and watched a lot of movies -- especially 'Brief Encounter' (1945). I watched that five or six times!"

For Tommy Lee Jones, playing a Vietnam veteran searching for his son in Warner Independent's "In the Valley of Elah," the challenge involved immersing himself in the world the movie deals with, watching documentaries about soldiers in Iraq and spending time with the real-life soldiers who play supporting roles in the movie.

"Those kids who played the buddies of my character's son, they were all veterans of the war," he says.

It also involved coping with the pragmatic side of shooting a low-budget movie in Albuquerque. "Albuquerque, nice as it is, is one of the noisiest places in New Mexico," he laughs. "There are freeways and trucks and these crows that land on the telephone poles and wait till they hear 'Speed!' and only then start howling and quacking."

For Ben Foster, there were two principal challenges in playing the psychopathic gunslinger Charlie Prince in Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma." First was figuring out his character's psychology.

"You read the script 100 times, and eventually the character begins to reveal itself to you," he explains. "The most important element for me was finding something I could identify with, and this is someone who on the page is ferociously violent. The only way that I could rationalize that was love: He's the second-in-command to his boss, and he really does most of the dirty work; and once his boss is kidnapped, he goes on a killing spree to get him back. Love is an amazing experience; it is almost a state of mental illness. When you fall in love with someone, and when you are in that ecstatic state of love, one is capable of things that would ordinarily be outside their moral capabilities."

Second was something that had nothing to do with moral capabilities: learning to handle a large gun.

"Working with the Scofields was like trying to operate two fire hydrants," he says. "The two guns I had were large pistols -- they are big guns, with maybe a 7 1⁄2-inch barrel. The shooting part was fun, but what was hard was getting them out of the holsters (skillfully enough) where you don't have to think about it. A great friend of mine who's a Vietnam vet said, 'In the military, if you want to have a gesture perfect, you have to repeat the gesture 2,000 times.' That's what I did."

Max von Sydow had to practice something else: French. That's the language of Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and even though the Swedish actor lives in Paris, he says the language is difficult for him.

"If you are used to speaking a language -- like English, which I am -- I don't think I force my facial muscles very much. But speaking French, I had the feeling I really had to work my muscles to get the right sounds. That can be very tiring," he says. "You have to pass that stage, where you don't force your body. And if you are lucky, and if you have lots of time, you should be able to say the lines so many times that you don't remember them with your brain -- your facial memory should remember."

This was easy compared to the challenge facing Mathieu Amalric, who plays von Sydow's character's son, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was paralyzed following a stroke and can only communicate by blinking one eye.

Amalric prepared for his part by speaking to the hospital staff who had worked with Bauby and studying a documentary made by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix -- something Bauby had wanted as proof that he was writing his own memoirs.

Physical aspects were challenging. "I had a dental prosthesis and would put it in my mouth," Amalric says. "There was no makeup; I had only an island with some blood in it and some wax on the face, because he was always sweating -- that's what the medical crew told us. It is like that with locked-in syndrome; you are sweating all the time."

After one of Bauby's eyes is sewn shut in the movie, "I had my eye bandaged all day and would never take it off. You can keep your other eye open quite a long time without blinking, and I tried to stay like that as long as possible. If it itched, I tried not to scratch it; I was waiting for other people to be aware of it. But people end up forgetting you. You become an invisible man."

Ultimately, that invisibility helped him tap into the emotional aspects of the role. "I had this feeling -- it was quite exciting -- I could see everybody work, and you sort of observe everything and nobody takes care of you. I understood after that why he had this desperate sense of humor."

That kind of humor was something Michael Sheen also wanted to convey when he played Art Honeyman, a brilliant victim of cerebral palsy, in MGM's "Music Within."

"I anticipated the biggest challenge would be to represent physically someone who is living with cerebral palsy," Sheen notes. "But in retrospect, the biggest challenge -- as always -- was to play a real, specific human being and bring out his qualities that were completely separate from his cerebral palsy."

He adds, "Because it affects the motor system, it means messages that come from the brain to the limbs are completely scrambled, so your whole body is in revolt against your intentions. It is an extreme physical thing, but it's not a mental thing. The problem for outsiders is, you associate the physical appearance with what is going on mentally, and the prejudice that comes with that is inevitable in a society where we are still very much segregated by our appearance."

To overcome his own prejudice, Sheen spent time at a day center in Santa Monica, attending classes for people with cerebral palsy.

"I thought I was just going to go and stand at the back of the class, but when I first got there, someone said, 'Everyone is waiting for you!' There were about 50 people, all in their chairs, with various forms of CP, waiting for me to do a big speech!" Initially, Sheen felt alienated. "But within about 15 minutes, I noticed myself no longer being aware of people with CP. I had gone through that first barrier of my own prejudice."

Hal Holbrook had no prejudices to overcome before he could play an elderly rural man in Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild," largely because he found the character similar to himself. But he did have to access deep and personal memories.

First was his recollection of climbing Mount Shasta alone as a young man and spending days coping with the wild animals and the cold. Second was his memory of his own son, who had embarked on a journey into the wilderness very similar to that of Christopher McCandless in the film.

"When my son was in his early 20s, he went on the road by himself," Holbrook recalls. "He lived in the wilderness and covered the whole country. He was a loner, and he backpacked, and when he came to L.A., he lived outside, wouldn't come indoors. He was two years doing that. Trying to reach him and bridge the gap that had developed -- that was a big part of my life. We have bridged the gap now, but the memory of it remains there. We worked a long time on it. You put forth a great deal of yourself to bridge that and have to really work at it for years."

Richard Gere had to bridge a larger gap between himself and Clifford Irving, the writer who forged Howard Hughes' autobiography and whose story is told in Miramax's "The Hoax."

There was a physical gap between the charismatic Gere and the less prepossessing Irving. Gere experimented with makeup and -- like Amalric -- had his own prosthesis, creating a bump on his nose similar to Irving's.

"When I started looking at him, there was something about this large forehead and this melanoma on his nose that was removed and left a kind of bump," he explains. "It was a Richard III manifestation -- a physicalization of the lies. (Having the prosthesis) toughened up my face; it was just the kind of flaw that I liked."

Gere went further in bridging the gap, researching Irving and Hughes extensively and working to capture their voices.

"I worked with a vocal coach to get the Howard Hughes thing. There's a lot of material on him, a wealth of recorded material on radio, on telethons, in various newsreels and biographies. I studied that. I was doing what Clifford was doing: researching everything I could on Howard because I wanted to be Howard in the movie, in the same way Clifford wanted to be Howard in the book."

Like Irving, Gere never met Hughes, who died in 1976. Curiously, even though he could have met Irving himself, he chose not to do so.

"I didn't want to be manipulated," he says. "He is a very manipulative personality, and I wanted to be clear: This is not a biography. We were making a movie of things well beyond Clifford Irving."

Brad Pitt felt the same way when he came to play Jesse James in Warner Bros.' "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." In contrast to Gere, he had sparse source material, and what little there was left some key questions unanswered.

"Jesse gave the gift of the gun that would kill him to his would-be assassin, pretty much knowing what he was up to," Pitt notes. "All the indications say he knew something was amiss. And the second curious incident, the moment of the assassination, was him taking off his gun belt and turning his back on the Ford brothers. There are debates among historians: Either he was taunting the Fords and giving them the proverbial finger, only to take them out later -- and if so, it's a gamble he lost, thinking they weren't capable of (killing him); or it was a self-constructed suicide, whereby he used the Fords as his instrument."

Rather than use research to resolve the question, Pitt concentrated on playing it in different ways during the shoot itself.

"I tried distinctly different tacks on this thing," he says. In the end, he refused to make up his mind, leaving the interpretation to someone else.

"Ultimately," he says, "that is what you leave up to the director."