The contenders for acting honors at this year’s Academy Awards are largely a collection of well-branded commodities known to millions of Americans by first name alone: Kate. Meryl. Heath. Even the consolidated Brangelina. But there are others you wouldn’t know if you met them on an elevator.
“I met this woman on the elevator,” actor Richard Jenkins said one recent morning in Los Angeles, “and she kept saying, ‘I know you, I know you, I just don’t know your name.’ When I told her she seemed to get angry. I was like, ‘Lady, what did I do?’”
Oscar nominees like Richard Jenkins may look familiar
One thing Jenkins did last year was star in “The Visitor,” Tom McCarthy’s bittersweet drama about a lonely academic and the new lease on life he’s given by a couple of illegal immigrants. But behind Jenkins’ best actor nomination is a lengthy career playing every imaginable role in movies and on television, something that has made him a widely recognizable face, if something of an unknown name - much like best actress nominee Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”), supporting actress nominees Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and Viola Davis (“Doubt”), and supporting actor nominee Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”).
“I’ve always done just about whatever has come along,” said Leo, who plays a reluctant smuggler of illegal immigrants across the New York-Canadian border. “And I tend to still do that. But, of course, I get things that are both better suited for me, and less so. I did a play a while ago up in Vermont in which I was incredibly miscast. That is a hard thing to do.”
Leo, who has had hundreds of roles, including a memorable 1993-97 stint on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” was discussed as an Oscar possibility for her supporting role in “21 Grams” (2003), which helped her profile, although in the end she wasn’t nominated. “People told me ‘You were robbed,’” Leo said. “But you can’t be robbed of something that isn’t yours to begin with.”
Like Leo, Henson, who plays Brad Pitt’s foster mother in “Benjamin Button,” and Davis, whose nomination is the result of one riveting scene with Meryl Streep in “Doubt,” have done their share of “Law & Order” and “CSI” episodes. Henson’s most prominent screen role before “Benjamin Button” was “Hustle & Flow,” which brought her to the 2006 Oscars - she helped perform what would be the evening’s winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”
“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” she said with a laugh, when the Oscar buzz began around “Benjamin Button.” At that point no one had even seen the movie.
Shannon, who plays Kathy Bates’ schizophrenic son in “Revolutionary Road,” has been nominated, much like Davis, for essentially one powerful scene. And like Davis, he has a long list of credits (including “Law & Order”) and a string of independent films such as William Friedkin’s “Bug,” co-starring Ashley Judd. He has also appeared on the New York stage, something else he shares with Davis, who has won two Drama Desk Awards and was Tony-nominated for “King Hedley II.”
One of Davis’ favorite roles, though, was the title character in Thulani Davis’ “Everybody’s Ruby.” “Black women on stage and TV and movies have become very predictable,” the actress said. “They’re strong, they’re the voice of reason, they’re self-assured, they’re sassy - yes, I said sassy, I threw that out there. My character in ‘Everybody’s Ruby,’ you couldn’t figure out what she was. And that’s what being a human being is all about.”