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

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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.

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life. Click image to expand.
Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's domestic tone poem The Tree of Life has several would-be breakout stars, including three adorable boys (they play the sons of bullheaded striver Brad Pitt) and a pair of somewhat less adorable CGI dinosaurs. But the most intriguing of these newcomers may be Jessica Chastain, who portrays matriarch Mrs. O'Brien. Often as placid and usually as silent as a plaster saint, Chastain has an aura of housewifely beatitude enhanced by her glowing pale skin and glossy titian hair. Tree of Life producer Sarah Green has said that the film needed "someone who just exudes love, who is the embodiment of grace, and so ideally, she would be someone who didn't bring a lot of public history" to Mrs. O'Brien. Love and grace, it seems, may be incompatible with red-carpet chitchat, grocery runs immortalized in Us Weekly, and other constants of fame.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

Hollywood runs partly on star power; it wants a recognizable name and face in the frame. But playing a character might require something else: a vanishing act that subsumes the actor's persona. It's easier to pull off this legerdemain if the actor has no persona to speak of. And if the actor does succeed—and then lands on the cover of W magazine as Chastain did, or scores an out-of-nowhere Academy Award nomination as Jennifer Lawrence did for Winter's Bone this year—it will be harder for her to disappear ever again, because disappearing the first time made her a star.

An actor only gets one breakthrough role, and as we'll see below, the more flashy and technically demanding and Oscar-friendly the part, the more it benefits from an actor who's more or less a blank slate.

Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive

The role that put Watts on the map is double: She is can-do Betty, an aspiring actress (and amateur detective) just arrived in Los Angeles, and embittered Diane, a woman on the verge of a vengeful breakdown in Mulholland Drive(2001). But before the toxic Diane shuffles out of the shadows and David Lynch's movie turns itself inside out, Watts has clued us in to her dual-engine gifts in the justly famous audition scene, in which the sweet, perky naif shape-shifts into a smoldering femme fatale under the least promising of circumstances (a terrible script, a lecherous and leathery romantic interest, etc.). Part of what's so thrilling about the revelation of Betty's acting talents is that, at the time, the audience wasn't yet fully aware of Watts' acting talents either.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry

Hilary Swank wasn't a rookie when she was cast in Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry (1999): She'd been in the flop The Next Karate Kid and had a brief stint in the post–Shannen Doherty Beverly Hills, 90210. Still, she was recognizable to few viewers when she cropped her hair short and carved her body down to sinew and bone to play Brandon Teena, an anatomical female who passed as a man—and quite a ladies' man at that—in the small town of Falls City, Neb., in the early '90s, before he was raped and murdered by local thugs who found him out. In her winning, wounded, and uncanny performance, Swank conveys both the fear and the exhilaration of living a secret life in public, at once concealing and crafting one's true identity. Because Swank was more or less a tabula rasa, she was all the more poised to anchor a tale of self-invention.

Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Like Swank, DiCaprio was hovering near the radar when Lasse Hallström's dramedy hit theaters, having already appeared on TV's Growing Pains and in the Tobias Wolff adaptation This Boy's Life. But his emerging celebrity wasn't yet bleeding into the picture when he played a mentally handicapped teenager opposite Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). The WashingtonPost praised DiCaprio for "a marvelous, completely unself-conscious performance." The megastar DiCaprio likely couldn't pull off such an inevitably award-baiting role today, not even after his Scorsese-abetted resurgence as a major thespian—it would come across as look-at-me acting calisthenics. It would, in other words, come across as Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001). (Which raises an interesting point: If Sean Penn had given that same performance as a developmentally disabled adult before he became Sean Penn, would we see it differently?)

Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

No name-brand actor should ever play a Nazi. If the audience knows who you are—i.e., knows you're not a Nazi—then you're stuck in a kitsch-evil universe where the lingua franca is a bad Teutonic accent. Better for Nazis to serve as Oscar-nominated audition tapes for fledgling film stars (Fiennes in Schindler's List, 1993) or Oscar-winning advertisements for well-regarded European character actors (Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, 2009).

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Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

Speaking of Nazis, Lars von Trier directed Emily Watson in her first film role, which she won after Helena Bonham Carter dropped out late in pre-production. Notwithstanding the challenge of working with the notorious von Trier, Watson was undertaking a nearly impossible task: The Bess of Breaking the Waves (1996) is a saucer-eyed holy fool who performs two-way conversations with a gruff and scolding God and prostitutes herself in the deranged belief that it will help her husband recover from life-threatening injuries. It's no knock against HBC that it was likely easier for audiences to accept the anonymous (and brilliant) Watson in the part than the corseted princess of the Merchant-Ivory empire, somehow transformed into a Scottish church cleaner with a direct line to heaven.

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious

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