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Supporting actor: subtle perfs.

Jeff Bridges

Always modest and still boyish at 51, Jeff Bridges is clearly not a power-seeker. But the role of the affable U.S. president in DreamWorks' political drama "The Contender" appealed to him the instant he read Rod Lurie's script.

"It's exciting to find a great part," says this Hollywood scion, son of Lloyd, brother of Beau. "You read so many scripts that don't ring a bell, but when I read this I ran through the house calling to my wife, `I think I've got one here.'

"Most of my character was on the page, already very rich, but what was great was when I thought I had him figured out I'd find I'd put him in a cubbyhole too soon, and some wonderful new surprise element about him would leap out."

Playing the chow-downing prez has already earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor. And though the thrice-nommed (best actor for 1984's "Starman," and supporting actor for "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" (1974) and "The Last Picture Show" (1971)) Bridges has never won an Oscar, awards season is something he looks forward to.

"Being at the awards I find is like a dream. Sitting there in the first or second row watching the big show is all very exciting," he says. "Of course, you sort of hope you get up there to get one of the gold guys, but for me there is always an element of embarrassment in winning anything. So when you lose it's bittersweet: `Oh shucks,' but at least I don't have to get up there and gush."

Expressing admiration for Lurie's dialogue and pleasure at the chance to work again with Joan Allen, with whom he costarred in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," Bridges says he doesn't know what attracts the interest of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters. He just knows "what I like is surprise. I like work by filmmakers who are ahead of the audience, so we can't figure it out."

Lurie, a fan of Bridges' performance in "The Big Lebowski," describes the quietly handsome actor as a great "dude" who is true Hollywood royalty but extremely grounded with no movie star pretensions, someone who brings a sense of joy to acting.

"I doubt in his entire career he's done anything just for the money. He's a tough guy to get to come to the dance," says the writer-director, delighted that Bridges took on a role which he had originally written older with Paul Newman in mind. But Lurie knew Bridges would nail it.

"He has that combination of affability and dignity. He's disarming. He looks like a man we'd like to have in office," Lurie says.

-- Bridget Byrne

Benicio Del Toro

There is a scene in "Traffic" in which the character Javier Rodriguez, played by Benicio Del Toro, exclaims to his policeman partner, "They stole our handcuffs!" The significance of the remark may not mean much to most moviegoers, but to Del Toro, it added richness to the scene and the film.

"I went to Tijuana before making the movie and spent some time with cops down there," he explains. "I learned a lot about the police, and how difficult things are for them. For instance, they have to pay for their own bullets. If they crash their car, they have to pay to get it fixed. That line came from research. I asked (director) Steven (Soderbergh) if I could say that in the film, and he agreed.

"By doing background on a character, you might not see certain things in the film, but it makes you as an actor feel secure in the character you're playing."

Del Toro's devotion to craft is evident in every frame of his nuanced performance in the critically lauded "Traffic," a penetrating examination of the drug trade. Playing Javier, a policeman who tiptoes the line between integrity and corruption, Del Toro was grateful for the challenge of the role, and the opportunity to work with a talented ensemble cast and a director at the top of his game.

"He's very disciplined," Del Toro says of Soderbergh, "and yet at the same time he collaborates very well. Every actor has a different process. He gave me freedom so I could do my best. He knows every aspect of film-making, he knows what he wants and he'll allow an actor to grow. He listens. He's not afraid of being challenged by an actor. He wasn't afraid to be challenged by me. And I don't know anybody who works harder than he does."

Del Toro will soon be seen in "Snatch," directed by Guy Ritchie, as well as Sean Penn's "The Pledge."

For now, he's trying to take the kudos from "Traffic" in stride.

"My performance is not completely ... I need time to look at it again," he says. "I'm taken aback by compliments. You're only as good as the film, and as good as the other actors in it. That's the case in `Traffic."'

-- Michael Ventre

Morgan Freeman

A veteran of stage and screens both big and small, actor Morgan Freeman plays against type with his portrayal of Charlie, a poetic and courtly hit man, in "Nurse Betty," Neil LaBute's dark comedy of errors and amnesia.

Freeman's Charlie becomes romantically obsessed with his quarry, off-kilter runaway housewife Betty (Renee Zellweger). In addition to playing a rogue character, Freeman brings a fresh spin to the oft-seen hit man archetype.

"I was interested in the role because the kind of stuff I get offered are dignified, upstanding men -- `Trust me, I know what I'm talking about, I wouldn't lie to you' type guys," laughs Freeman. "The idea of doing something off-the-wall is always attractive when you find yourself boxed in. And I'm definitely typed to a certain extent."

That typing has come from well-respected perfs in such films as "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Shawshank Redemption," both of which were Oscar nominated. A third bid came for his performance in helmer Jerry Schaztberg's "Street Smart." Being cast in another type of film is what attracted Freeman to the unconventional talents of director LaBute.

Says Freeman of the director: "He's a guy who thinks differently, writes differently and does things differently."

However, the actor had some reservations about the project, especially its darkly comic aspects.

"I was very excited about having a shot at doing something unusual, different with `Nurse Betty,'" he says. "There were a number of factors. I had some trepidation, for instance, I wondered how Chris Rock (playing Freeman's hit man partner) and I were going to connect, but that was just a joy. I had the most terrific time working on the film."

-- Nicole Panter

Albert Finney

The son of a bookmaker, Albert Finney grew up in Manchester and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. He first grabbed filmgoers' attention as a cheeky working-class bloke in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1960) and then "Tom Jones" (1963). He's always exuded star power, but always followed his own star, eschewing the Oscars all three times he was nommed.

Still sparky at 64, the in dependent-minded British veteran popped back into the mainstream this year with his performance as crusading American lawyer Ed Masry opposite Julia Roberts in Universal's smash hit "Erin Brockovich." As a result, Finney has garnered a Golden Globe nominee for supporting actor.

"He's better looking than the real Ed," producer Stacey Sher points out about the star many women still think of in romantic terms, though his "Two for the Road" (1967) days are well behind him.

She describes Finney as an actor who is totally "committed to the work" but brings a light-hearted enthusiasm to the set.

Co-producer Michael Shamberg concurs: "He shows up on time and is fun to work with."

Both producers note that Finney's American accent was spot on and his chemistry with Roberts delightful.

"Albert's genius is that he listens better than any other actor I've ever worked with," says Shamberg, describing various moments when "just the way he looked at Julia or the shift of his head" are the subtle moves of an actor skilled in the art of creating truth, with sufficient star power not to be outdazzled by Roberts.

After all, Finney still has that dazzling Tom Jones grin.

-- Bridget Byrne

Joaquin Phoenix

Three films in 2000 put Joaquin Phoenix on the awards radar.

First out of the gate was "Gladiator," Ridley Scott's Roman epic in which Phoenix stars, alongside Russell Crowe and Connie Nielsen, as the wicked Emperor Commodus. Then, in fall, came James Gray's New York-set corruption drama "The Yards," in which the actor's devious Willie Gutierrez terrorizes Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron.

But just when you think he's on a baddie trip, Phoenix renders the kindly priest Abbe de Coulmier in Philip Kaufman's Marquis de Sade costumer "Quills," co-starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Michael Caine.

He's already picked up a National Board of Review prize for his work in all three films and a Golden Globes nomination for "Gladiator."

"It's amazing the experience I've gathered over the year," says Phoenix of the rich mix of screenplays and co-stars the roles brought him. "I couldn't have made one movie without the other(s)."

"The Yards" was shot first and Phoenix was on the set of "Gladiator" when his mom called with the news that he got the "Quills" part.

"With `Gladiator' it was a major process: a screen test and weeks of waiting," he says. "With `Quills' I got so wrapped up in `Gladiator' that I had forgotten it was a possibility."

Phoenix was particularly taken with "Quills"' screenplay.

"It's brilliantly written, with poetic dialogue and words that you don't see very often," he says, calling from Germany, where he's filming "Buffalo Soldiers."

That makes three back-to-back pics shot in Europe: "Gladiator," "Quills" and "Buffalo Soldiers." And Phoenix looks to be extending his European sojourn with a role opposite Claire Danes in Thomas Vinterberg's "It's All About Love," which will be shot mainly in Scandinavia.

"I'm just moving to Europe," he jokes.

-- Sharon Swart

RELATED ARTICLE: Willem Dafoe

In a career of off-beat characterizations ranging from Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" to the sleazy, dangerous Bobby Peru in David Lynch's "Wild at Heart," Willem Dafoe's performance as mysterious German actor Max Schreck in helmer E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" may be the strangest.

At the very least, playing Schreck -- a fictionalization of the lead in F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" and a man who may or may not be a vampire -- provided Dafoe with unique opportunities and challenges.

"One of the greatest pleasures," says Dafoe, "is that it's a role that's allowed me to approach it from a very physical place to find a physical language that wasn't necessarily naturalistic at all, so it could be danced and sung. ... That's very fertile ground for pretending and it addresses a poetry in performance that you can't always tap because we're usually very wrapped up in psychology and naturalism."

The result is a performance that jumps between the terrifying and the comedic, with Dafoe's appearance providing fodder for each emotion: rheumy eyes, rodent teeth and filthy, long fingernails that he rhythmically clicks.

"I was starting from a place of imitation using the original as a model because I knew we were going to be cross-cutting and I was also very excited about being in that make-up, in that costume," says Dafoe.

It's an image familiar from "Nosferatu," and Dafoe says the trick was to both pay homage to Schreck and take the character beyond where the first film left off.

"It's very rare that when you approach a role, you'll know exactly how you'll look, and somewhat also what the physical language is going to be," he says. "But then there were huge parts of the story that had to be invented so the original was really a jumping off place."

-- Nicole Panter

RELATED ARTICLE: Bruce Greenwood

While much of the attention paid to John F. Kennedy focuses on the scandals of his affairs or the circumstances of his assassination, the Kennedy found by Bruce Greenwood for "Thirteen Days" is of a far more serious mindset.

"I thought of how a situation Dike this would weigh on a man. Not a great man -- a man," Greenwood says of the film, a dramatization of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly escalated to nuclear war. "It would be ludicrous to imagine that he cruised through this with the offhand aplomb of the prince of Camelot.

To prepare to play JFK, Greenwood immersed himself in books, video and audio recordings of the president. His portrayal was of a quieter and more intelligent JFK than has been seen in other screen incarnations.

"I made some pretty distinct vocal choices," Greenwood says. "I discovered his speaking voice behind closed doors and one on one was significantly lower than his public speaking voice. I dropped it down to that register, which not; a lot of people are as familiar width.

"I was also struck by what a voracious intellect he had and his ability to draw upon the musings of obscure poets to obtain a frame of reference for a political situation," he adds. "The more I read, the more I found how serious he was."

Greenwood and Steven Culp, who plays the president's brother and attorney general, Robert Kennedy, worked together on making their characters' close relationship convincing.

"We had a tendency to drift into one another's cadences and pitch, so we spent time to find ways to separate ourselves vocally," Greenwood says. "We were harassing each other from the moment we met ... picking on each other, like brothers do."

Eventually, they had to move on. Culp to other projects and Greenwood to an A&E remake of "The Magnificent Ambersons," which was shot in Ireland. But still, he couldn't shake the ghosts of "Thirteen Days."

"I found myself cruising around there and finding gravestones of Kennedys," he says. "It's hard to shake that association,

-- Thomas J. McLean
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Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 15, 2001
Words:2342
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