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10 Indie Actors on the Verge of Mainstream
In all aspects of the arts, there are countless dedicated actors and artists who will tirelessly toil away at careers that never quite take them to the top. Unfortunately for some actors, Hollywood is a unique land where the most talented people are not always the most successful, or the most recognized. Some actors accept this fate, or even embrace it, while others are still waiting for that one “big break.” Either way, the world of independent cinema will always be filled with surprising and unknown gems.
Below are ten actors and actresses -- some more recognizable than others -- who represent the best and brightest currently working in film. Their differences are vast: they are men and women of various ages, representing many different backgrounds. So what do they all have in common? For starters, none of them have ever won an Academy Award, though several have been nominated at least once. Further, when it comes to the mainstream Hollywood career path, each one has diverged in slightly left-of-center directions.
Indie, underground, foreign -- whatever you want to call them -- here is just a sampling of the many great independent actors of today.
10. Melanie Lynskey
Casual television observers may know Melanie Lynskey’s name (and face) from her role as nosy neighbor Rose on the long-running sitcom Two and a Half Men. However, despite the fact that her appearances in the mainstream have been supporting -- and forgettable-- at best, Lynskey has been an independent leading lady since she was just a teenager.
In 1994, the New Zealand native won raves for her performance alongside another budding young actress, Kate Winslet, in the Peter Jackson drama Heavenly Creatures. Since then, Lynskey has appeared in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go, Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, just to name a few. Her resume is certainly impressive, but will this self-proclaimed character actress ever receive the true recognition she deserves? Perhaps. Lynskey’s lead role in the upcoming comedy-drama Hello I Must Be Going was a favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is already generating some pretty strong pre-awards season buzz.
9. Michael Shannon
If you didn’t know Michael Shannon is an actor, you’d think that he really is as crazy as he seems (and that’s actually a compliment). Shannon, who began his career as a stage actor in Chicago, has since developed a particular penchant for portraying troubled men. Take, for example, his breakout role in Revolutionary Road, for which he garnered his first Academy Award nomination. Fierce and fiery Shannon was a scene stealer, and that’s high praise when in the company of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. His all-too convincing performance in Take Shelter is also worth noting. It’s shocking that Shannon’s role as a husband and father plagued by apocalyptic visions didn’t amass more attention.
Currently, you can find Michael Shannon among the star-studded cast of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, in which he portrays -- you guessed it -- a bit of a nut job.
8. Gael Garcia Bernal
Fans of foreign cinema already know and love Gael Garcia Bernal, the young Mexican actor who has appeared in countless Spanish-language films. Blessed with a deep, steely gaze and the talent to match, Bernal became a telenovela heartthrob while still in his teens, but quickly moved on to higher aspirations. He’s starred as a young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, appeared in the Oscar-nominated Amores Perros, and been at the center of a surreal murder mystery in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education.
However, Bernal’s transition into English language film has not been without its missteps. Recently, he starred opposite Kate Hudson in the critically panned romantic comedy A Little Bit of Heaven and in the ambitious, yet ultimately silly, Will Ferrell vehicle Casa de mi Padre. Thankfully for Bernal, his recently acclaimed thriller The Loneliest Planet looks to be far more promising.
7. John Hawkes
John Hawkes is a rare type of bird: an indie actor who is often celebrated by the mainstream. He earned his first Academy Award nomination in 2011 for the dreary yet superbly acted Winter’s Bone, also starring one-time independent starlet Jennifer Lawrence. Hawkes’ gritty portrayal in that film is a sharp contrast to his next project, The Sessions, for which another Oscar nomination is essentially a sure thing.
In the more light-hearted The Sessions, Hawkes plays a quadriplegic who aims to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). It’s the unflinching heart Hawkes brings to each role that makes him so appealing, and that’s exactly what keeps the Academy -- and audiences -- coming back for more.
6. Catherine Keener
Catherine Keener receives acclaim for essentially each and every role she chooses; despite this, the casual movie-goer may not even know her name. You may have first seen Catherine in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and said to yourself, “Hey! What else do I know her from?” As it turns out, a lot. Keener’s two Academy Award nominations came from Being John Malkovich and Capote, the latter of which found her portraying author Harper Lee. Into the Wild, An American Crime, and Synecdoche,
Keener told The New York Times, “I like being a supporting actress. I like to come and go in the film. The interesting characters are very few if you want to be the lead, and they depend on you being beautiful.”
5. Naomi Watts
Naomi Watts , a classic “icy blonde” in the vein of Hitchcock muses Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, has glamorous silver screen looks, but thankfully, a lot more, too. The English-Australian beauty could easily have created a comfortable career as a romantic lead; however, instead of becoming a romantic comedy starlet or a butt-kicking action star, Watts has always preferred grittier, more interesting roles.
Her breakout performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was what first made her a star, and Watts has continued on that same dark path throughout her entire career. She’s played a drug addict in 21 Grams, earning herself a Best Actress Oscar nomination in the process, and a woman terrorized by a home invasion in the truly frightening Funny Games. See Watts’ next film, The Impossible, if you dare; the story of a family separated by Thailand’s 2004 tsunami has been met with high critical acclaim, but is apparently a real tear-jerker.
4. Mark Ruffalo
He’s an appealing actor with good looks and charm to spare, and now thanks to his role as the Hulk in The Avengers, his fame and fortune are just as big as his talent. Mark Ruffalo may have “sold out” to make a big summer superhero blockbuster, but it’s no skin off his back. His indie cred is as freshly intact as ever.
Ruffalo’s breakout role in the 2000 independent drama You Can Count On Me earned him comparisons to a young Marlon Brando, an association both flattering and fitting for the star. The list of low-budget, underground films graced by Ruffalo’s magnetic on-screen presence is practically endless; among them are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, In The Cut, and We Don’t Live Here Anymore. His funny, heart-breaking, Oscar-nominated turn in The Kids Are All Right was so brilliant, it almost makes up for 13 Going on 30 (almost).
3. Parker Posey
It’s simply impossible to discuss the topic of indie actors without mentioning Parker Posey -- it’s an unwritten rule of the world of cinema. Known as “Queen of the Indies,” Posey broke onto the scene in the early 90s and quickly gained a reputation for being the coolest chick in the ‘biz. Throughout her lengthy career, she’s consistently foregone big-time studio roles for smaller, more challenging fare, such as the films Dazed and Confused, Party Girl, and Best in Show.
Now in her 40s, Posey is still going strong with no signs of quitting. You can next see her as the lead in the quirky comedy Price Check.
2. Jessica Chastain
It was only a matter of time before Jessica Chastain broke through as one of Hollywood’s best new stars, but it finally happened in 2011 when she appeared in not one, not two, but seven critically acclaimed (many of them independent) films. Among them were Take Shelter, The Debt, and The Tree of Life.
Chastain’s subtle charisma and simple, ethereal beauty mean that she’s not only talented, but also bankable, and that’s a winning combination not often achieved. Next up for the Juilliard grad is the lead role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty. When it comes to Jessica Chastain’s ever-expanding career, it’s not if she gets her Oscar, but when.
1. Bill Murray
Profound, enchanting, and most of all, funny, Bill Murray is the quintessential -- yet totally unexpected -- independent leading man. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. During his time on Saturday Night Live he was known for his zany, screwball comedic styling, and his film choices reflected this. A turning point came in the form of colorfully quirky director Wes Anderson, who cast Murray in his 1998 comedy Rushmore. The two would continue to collaborate in five more films, including the recent commercial and critical success Moonrise Kingdom.
Murray has always had the potential to be a mainstream star -- in fact, in previous films like Ghostbusters and Caddyshack, he has been -- but lately, his signature brand of quirky, deeply affecting, deadpan charm has served him far better. In the past several years, Murray has evolved into an indie hero of sorts, particularly (and surprisingly) for those who weren’t even alive during his days on SNL. Murray’s best shot at winning an Academy Award, his nomination for Lost in Translation, was lost when Sean Penn nabbed the statue instead. There’s a good chance that Bill Murray may never win an Oscar, but hey, that’s okay. Some actors -- or rather, icons -- transcend such things.
Loren DiBlasi is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.