SAG Awards Preview: What I Did For My Role

Summit Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan in "The Ghost Writer."

In Contention: Top actors open up about their memorable roles and what you still don't know

Pierce Brosnan

When Brosnan began work on The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's movie version of the best-selling novel by Robert Harris -- a former British political columnist whose story centered on a scribe hired to help a shady politician with his memoirs -- it was inevitable he'd start thinking of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"Look, am I playing Tony Blair?" Brosnan asked.

"No, of course not," Polanski responded.

It was the kind of unexpected twist that makes any actor's work difficult. Brosnan's concept of the character was further shaken on the first day of shooting, when Polanski challenged him to play up his laughs "from the genitals," then got out his laptop and brought up a clip of Italian comedic actor Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) joyously walking down a street.

"F--- this, Roman. I don't know," Brosnan said. "That was my first day. It was baptism by fire."

Javier Bardem

Upon reading the dark script for Biutiful, about a father of two on the verge of death, Bardem, an Oscar winner for No Country for Old Men, called director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, full of doubt.

"What he was proposing was not just a job," Bardem says. "This was about life experience. We knew it was significant. 'If only I can do it,' I said."

For Bardem, committing to do it meant spending three months with his acting coach, Juan Carlos Corazza, poring over the script and hashing out each scene. This didn't just mean the two discussing the existential vantage point of his character, Uxbal; it also meant Bardem needed to resolve lingering personal conflicts in his own life.

"It was the only way to get through this experience," he says.

Naomi Watts

When Watts decided to play Valerie Plame in Fair Game, an account of how Plame was exposed as a CIA agent by the Bush administration, the two exchanged phone calls and e-mails, then Watts proposed that they meet halfway between Watts' New York home and Plame's base in Santa Fe, N.M. They chose Chicago.

Watts was surprised when Plame targeted a Chicago airport as a meeting place.

She remembers thinking: "In the airport? Who meets in airports? Oh yeah, of course! Spies do. The process of getting close to Valerie meant learning these things about her that are obviously very different from how my life works."

Michelle Williams

The semi-nude sex scene that earned Blue Valentine an NC-17 rating was relatively easy; far harder was a level of improvisation that nearly forced Williams to become the person she was playing.

Indeed, one of the movie's most memorable moments, when she dances for co-star Ryan Gosling as he sings to her, came out of director Derek Cianfrance's decision to get his leads a living space and have them pretend to be married. He then followed his actors around for a night as if he were documenting their real-life behavior.

"Derek would make us take out the trash, throw a birthday party for our kid, figure out our monthly expenses," Williams says. "He also made us do fake fighting. He would leave the room, and I would have to pick a fight with Ryan. Then we would have to get into a minivan, drive with our kid and pretend everything was OK."

Williams says the experience gave her the confidence to feel her character's plight more intimately.

Robert Duvall

Duvall at first wasn't sure he wanted to take on the role of a crotchety old man who stages his own funeral in Get Low. He thought the script was unique and admired its premise but wasn't sure the part of Felix Bush was right for him.

Then he took a trip to Argentina to visit family and, looking at the Andes Mountains from his hotel room, felt a sense of solitude that helped him connect with the life of a hermit.

What also helped, he says, was the need to be as workmanlike as possible once he got on the set. Duvall only had 25 days to film all of his scenes, not much time to get mired in details and distracted by what he terms the extravagance of a Hollywood soundstage.

"Sometimes when you have to hurry and do things quickly, it turns out better," he says. Certainly, it's less painful.

The SAG Awards
Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
Sunday, Jan. 30

The 17th annual SAG Awards nominations, selected by the guild's eligible members via online balloting, will be announced at 6 a.m. PT Thursday, Dec. 16, from the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. For the first time, the awards ceremony will be simulcast live in all time zones at 5 p.m. PT Sunday, Jan. 30, allowing West Coast viewers their first opportunity to watch the event as it happens. Ernest Borgnine will receive SAG's 47th Life Achievement Award for his career and humanitarian accomplishments.

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