Year in Film: Breakout Performances

Four actors and their very good year

Year in Film: Breakout Performances
Fox Searchlight
Mila Kunis

1. RONALD BRONSTEIN
Daddy Longlegs
“I’ve been dreading this interview all day because I don’t know how I feel about it, man,” admits Ronald Bronstein, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker who recently grabbed bigger attention as an actor thanks to his loopy, lovely lead performance as an irresponsible dad in Josh and Benny Safdie’s shaggy dramedy Daddy Longlegs, which earned him a Spirit Award nomination. “The last thing I want to come across is being cynical or bitter, or I have some ax to grind. I know that as soon as I shared the [awards] news with my mother, instantly I had annexed it and it became something laced with anxiety.”

Bronstein wears his neuroses nakedly and speaks a mile a minute, further clarifying that he’s thankful but not desperate to win, that his nerves come from not knowing how to monetize the opportunity, and wondering whether it would crassly go against his values to do so. He finally and humbly points to it all as “complete gross self-absorption” that would “ultimately just cauterize any joy I might take from it.”

As one witnesses the hamster wheel in his brain spinning furiously, it’s tempting to compare Bronstein to his onscreen counterpart, Lenny Sokol—a brash, volatile, frazzled but still strangely charming father to twin boys, with whom he only spends two weeks at a time due to divorce. Though Bronstein has no prior training and says he was bullied into taking the role, he admits to always having a facility for relating to children.

“I know that sounds creepy,” he says, the hamster frantically running again. “My particular way has always undermined my position, in the sense that I can get down on my knees and relate on that level, but then when it’s time for me to stand up and reprimand, I no longer have the authority to do so. The only way to retrench and gain that respect is through anger, and that’s something I brought to the project that I think works.”

At work on his next directorial project—“another wretched character study,” but “completely different” from his uncompromising 2007 debut Frownland—Bronstein resolves that he would definitely act again, if only because the experience was liberating.

“I can only liken it to being an athlete, which I’ve never been. I’ve always been petrified of dancing and I’m not particularly good at sports.”

Favorite Film of 2010: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 sci-fi thriller World on a Wire. “The rep circuit was strong and [that] scratched the itch with the most gusto. Batshit baroque and sort of knowingly dopey, too. Like gourmet junk food.”

2. MILA KUNIS
Black Swan
After eight seasons on the ensemble sitcom That ’70s Show, Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep on acting. Ultimately, she decided to give the big screen a go, nabbing roles in comedies Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Extract. But it wasn’t until Darren Aronofsky’s sinister psychodrama Black Swan that Kunis was able to fully spread her proverbial wings as ballerina Lily—the tattooed, wily, sexually liberated foil to Natalie Portman’s chaste and haunted workaholic Swan Queen. We spoke to Kunis by phone about her professional (and physically painful) transformation.

You dislocated your shoulder and tore two ligaments while filming. Since this is partly a film about process, what was yours like in learning ballet and building your endurance? I did ballet when I was five [through] 10, but it’s not like riding a bike. As great as you are when you’re a kid in a tutu and pink ballet slippers, it doesn’t translate to the age of 26. So I started from scratch and realized quickly that it’s not a sport that you can just pick up. I trained seven days a week, five hours a day, and went on a strict diet to lose as much weight as I possibly could without killing myself. By the end of training, I lost 20 pounds, got on pointe, and was able to [perform a] barre and cross the floor. It was incredibly exhausting and excruciating, and every day I had to come home to take an Epsom salt bath and put on a heat pad. I’m aware it sounds sadistic, but it felt great.

In the film, you play a frenemy to Natalie Portman’s character Nina. Besides looking similar for the purpose of the film’s doppelgänger motif, are you two at all alike? We’re friends, so we have a lot in common. I feel a little strange discussing my friendship with somebody, but I can tell you we like Top Chef, we used to watch Project Runway together, and we like to go antique shopping together. It sounds so mundane!

You’ve probably been asked plenty about your risqué scene with Portman, but what’s more uncomfortable: having sex with your friend onscreen, or discussing it later with complete strangers like me? That’s a toss-up. The thing about doing any sexual scene is that you do it, and then it’s over with. You almost forget about the fact that you’re going to have to discuss it for months on end after it’s all done. So I would say talking about it endlessly would be the harder part. Leading up to the scene, you’re like, “Ugh, here we go, it’s going to happen.” To make it real and authentic, you’re not judging, so you just throw yourself into it. But discussing it feels like prodding into something very personal and private in a weird way, even though it’s onscreen for everybody to see.

Have you had any particularly creepy questions from any journalists? I did have one, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I’m not going to say where it came from, but it was international press. This really tall, beautiful woman comes in the room, sits down, and the first thing out of her mouth is: “So, you play lesbo. You lesbo real life?” I said, “I’m sorry. At the very end of the movie, you think my character’s a lesbian?” She goes, “Yes.” I was like, “Well then, you and I saw two different movies. I can’t even answer your question—I don’t even know what to say.” That was my favorite to this day.

Favorite Film of 2010: Winter’s Bone. “I knew nothing about the movie going in. For me, I like watching them fresh instead of having everyone tell me about it. Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic, and the simplicity was just so beautiful. I was completely captivated.”

3. HAILEE STEINFELD
True Grit
The movie poster for Joel and Ethan Coen’s beguiling new adaptation of True Grit (from the same Charles Portis novel that became the 1969 Western starring John Wayne) features no cast photos—only a wanted list of household names: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin. Noticeably absent is Hailee Steinfeld, the now-14-year-old actress from Southern California who, despite having never acted in a theatrical film before, handily steals the show as Mattie Ross, the steely nerved young protagonist seeking vengeance for the murder of her father in the wild 1880s. Her competition? Only 15,000 or so other auditionees.

“When I first found out that I got the job, I was immediately jumping up and down, screaming, calling all my friends and letting everybody know,” remembers Steinfeld. “Then on the plane ride there, I was so nervous. It finally hit me, ‘OK, I actually have to do the job.’ ”

Onscreen and even now, however, Steinfeld never displays anything less than confidence and, well, grit. Since being pulled out of the sixth grade to pursue independent study, a way for her to focus on acting and “take school wherever I go,” she had only worked on a few student thesis graduate films, a couple of guest-starring TV spots, and some commercials. She credits the Coens and her co-stars for putting her at ease on such an enormous, career-launching project, and her coaches for helping with the chewy, colorful dialogue and its specific rhythms that remain faithful to Portis's pages.

“One of the first scenes, where Mattie goes to get [Jeff Bridges’s eye-patched marshal] Rooster in his bedroom in the back of the grocer, she’s talking about a coon hunt. She’s just spitting these words out, and my problem was I would run my words together. They didn’t do that then.”

Though the shooting experience was clearly eye-opening, most revelatory to this precocious new star was the collaborative on-set connection between the Coens. “I have an older brother who is 16,” she says. “I love him to death, but I don’t know that I could ever direct a film with him.”

Favorite Film of 2010:The Social Network. “The dialogue in that, too, is intense. The opening scene with Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg is amazing.”

4. STEPHEN DORFF
Somewhere
OK, true: 37-year-old actor Stephen Dorff has worked steadily since he was a kid, and with auteurs like Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, and John Waters. But it took a quiet art film to prove that he’s more than just the go-to guy for nightclub-running vampires and other shady characters (not that we’re knocking his MTV Movie Award for Best Villain in Blade). Brilliantly internalizing like some long-lost Antonioni character, Dorff stars in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhereas Johnny Marco, a hard-living Hollywood celeb who has become bored by his decadent lifestyle. Dorff called from L.A.’s Chateau Marmont, where most of the film was shot, to discuss what has been called the “anti-Entourage.”

You’ve been acting since the ’80s, but your performance as Johnny still seems worthy enough to be called a “breakout.” I’ve worked with so many great directors, but Sofia was the one it took to vouch for me, to show other things I can do besides bad guys and the edgier parts. She saw a quality in me that my mom always saw: “When will you start playing guys with a bit more sensitivity and vulnerability?” I’ve wanted those leading man parts for a while, and I look at this as a completely humbling experience, the way Sofia embraced me. To me, it’s a performance that I haven’t gotten to do yet in my career, so it probably is a breakout. I’m not threatened or upset by that.

Having lived an L.A. showbiz life for so long, how do you avoid being jaded like Johnny? Most people aren’t from here that then come to Hollywood. I’ve been in L.A. since I was six months old, and this city’s been really good to me. It confused the hell out of me when I was young, and as I got older, I had my ups and downs. God knows I partied and took it to the edge in the ’90s, but I never got arrested or into dangerous things that would’ve led to more problems. My family has been protective of me, and that's maybe why you haven't seen an E! True Hollywood Story on me or why I haven't fallen to the curb. [Laughs.] The truth is: The town is screwed up. It’s a hard place, no matter how smart you are.

Does celebrity mean anything to you?I feel very fortunate to have my job. I hate when actors complain, because the truth is, we’re pretty damn lucky to be able to create. There are a lot of talented people who don’t get one opportunity, no less all those that I’ve had. But there is an alienation and loneliness that comes with being a performer, like if you’re in a band and on tour all the time. Being an actor is like being a gypsy. There are incredible ons and offs, and what I mean is there’s an immense amount of attention and family when you’re making a movie, and then that ends. You’re left without the rhythm of what the normal folk do. I don’t go to The Village Voice and write a news story. I give it all in my movie, and then when there’s no movie, I’m sitting and waiting. It’s a trying thing, and I understand Johnny completely, I’m tapped into that isolation.

Had you ever before spent time at the Chateau Marmont? When I was 19, I finished a movie called Backbeat, and I was doing my first photo shoot with Bruce Weber at the Chateau. I remember thinking, “This is the coolest place ever.” Around my 21st birthday, I came back from a movie in Europe and checked in here because I didn’t have an apartment. I stayed for six weeks and then my business manager called and said, “Stephen, you can’t really afford to live here forever.” I said, “What do you mean? I just made all this money.” He said, “No, no, you spent it at the Chateau.” To come back years later and have Sofia offer it up for me during the film was the ultimate creative experience. I’d leave my room, walk down one flight of stairs, and enter Johnny’s bed.

Favorite Film of 2010:The Social Network. “I thought that was a cool script, and Andrew Garfield is really talented. I hadn’t seen his work before, and he stood out for me. But my favorite part was Trent Reznor’s fantastic score.”

For the 2010 film poll results, go to villagevoice.com/filmpoll

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