Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life: In praise of unknown actors.

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life: In praise of unknown actors.

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life: In praise of unknown actors.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 27 2011 7:09 AM

In Praise of Unknown Actors

Jessica Chastain's graceful turn in The Tree of Life and other amazing performances by newcomers and nobodies.

Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The Tree of Life.

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When Gabourey Sidibe appeared on The View following her Oscar nomination for Precious, Barbara Walters issued an important clarification: "There are people who feel that the reason perhaps that you were so wonderful in it is that this was the story of your own life. But it isn't! ... Precious is not you!" As tin-eared as Walters' comments were, they did suggest the great divide between the mumbling monument of human suffering Sidibe played in Lee Daniels' Precious (2009) and the ebullient charmer promoting the movie on the talk show circuit. If we had met sunny Gabourey before we met Precious, this fumbling, illiterate, horribly abused girl might have seemed like a stunt. But we met Precious first, and so she seemed like herself alone.

Emilie Dequenne in Rosetta

There's a fine tradition in international art-house cinema to hire not only unknowns but nonprofessionals. For example, in one of last year's most highly praised movies, Andrea Arnold's council-estate drama Fish Tank, novice Katie Jarvis got the lead after a casting director saw her arguing with a boyfriend on a train platform. (Stroppy aspiring actors, take note!) The underrated British-Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, who gave Emily Blunt her breakthrough role as a posh miscreant in My Summer of Love (2004), may have crystallized the appeal of the amateur when he told the Village Voice, "I have a slight phobia about working with actors whose bag of tricks I've seen before in other films." Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and other renowned Iranian directors may share the same phobia, given their casting habits; likewise brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, two of the most beloved filmmakers on the festival circuit, who find many of their actors through newspaper advertisements. For their Palme d'Or winner Rosetta (1999), first-timer Emilie Dequenne won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her unforgettably relentless and kinetic portrayal of an undersocialized Belgian teenager whose desire to get and keep a job is so ferocious that it sabotages itself.

Reductive as it may sound, inimitable performances like Dequenne's can make one wonder, if just for a moment, if acting should be less a lifelong vocation and more like a bat mitzvah or losing your virginity or being born: something that can only happen for the first time.