Few directors would have the temerity to throw lines at Robert De Niro. Then there’s David O. Russell.
Russell, the writer and director of “Silver Linings Playbook,” which stars De Niro as an obsessive but caring father, had a loose interpretation of following the script: He shouted bits of dialogue for his actors to repeat as the cameras were rolling.
“It had a certain chaotic, frenetic kind of energy, a spontaneity,” De Niro said. “And people would say that they didn’t know where it was going, which is a good thing. It’s a very interesting, good way to work.”
His performance as Pat Solitano Sr., a Philadelphia Eagles die-hard who must contend with an even more obsessive, unstable and lovelorn son (played by Bradley Cooper), has earned him some of his most glowing reviews recently and made him a front-runner in the crowded Oscar race for best supporting actor. Even De Niro, who has been nominated for six Oscars and won two — the last in 1981, for “Raging Bull” — didn’t feign indifference to the trophy hunt.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said, with his customary reserve. “It’s better to be acknowledged by your peers than not to be acknowledged. Anybody who says differently, I don’t know what it means.”
The actors vying for a nod for their supporting turns this season range from cinematic legends like De Niro to first-timers like Dwight Henry, a career baker who rehearsed his part as the dying father in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” while rolling dough. Matthew McConaughey is familiarly shirtless in “Magic Mike,” but also unexpectedly grimy.
For “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino employed his rogue’s gallery of regulars, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz, and pushed Leonardo DiCaprio to play a flamboyant baddie with rotting teeth.
John Goodman popped up in not one but two memorable roles this year, as a Dr. Feelgood-type drug delivery guy in “Flight” and as John Chambers, the Oscar-winning makeup artist who sets the Hollywood plot spinning in Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”
“I got a phone call, ‘Mr. Ben would like to see you,’” Goodman recounted. “So I went down to his office, we chatted, talked about baseball, all kinds of junk. And we finally got around to the film — ‘Here’s the script, see what you think.’ And I was nuts about it.”
Unlike some of his castmates in “Argo,” which pivots around the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, Goodman did not have to do much research for his role.
“I knew people that knew of him, that were kind of grand descendants of his training,” he said of Chambers, who died in 2001. “He was probably the first big plastic prosthetics guy. He had this big laboratory in his garage where he made stuff. Apparently he was really mean to interns and people like that — he was a perfectionist.”
Before makeup design was a category, Chambers won a special Oscar for “Planet of the Apes,” and he designed Spock’s ears in “Star Trek.” He also received a commendation from the Central Intelligence Agency for the disguises he created for operatives.
Goodman started out onstage in New York, then became a beloved figure on big and small screens and a mainstay in Coen brothers movies since “Raising Arizona.” But he has never been nominated for an Oscar, not even as the ever quotable Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski,” still the role fans clamor for the most.
(He was nominated for seven Emmys for “Roseanne” and lost every time, although he did win one for a guest spot on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”) And so far this season, it’s his “Argo” co-star Alan Arkin who has received the lion’s share of precursor nominations, for playing a bombastic — and fictional — studio executive.
Perhaps no star traveled further — emotionally if not geographically — this season than Henry, making his acting debut in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the story of a little girl and her father in a bayou community.
The filmmakers’ production office was across the street from Henry’s New Orleans bakery, and he met them when they came in regularly for pastries, chatting and leaving casting notices. On a whim, Henry decided to audition, he said in an interview in the Buttermilk Drop, his thriving shop in the Seventh Ward. It’s now decorated with “Beasts” posters, and scripts are occasionally sent there, but he still makes the signature buttermilk-drop doughnut by hand.
Henry was reluctant to leave the bakery for even a few months to do the movie.
“To sacrifice a business that I’m working so hard to pass on to my kids, for a possible movie career?” he said, pausing to greet a policeman. (“Hey, Sheriff!”) To accommodate him, the director, Benh Zeitlin, and production staff kept bakers’ hours.
“They decided, ‘OK, Mr. Henry, we’re going to come in at midnight, we’re going to work on the script with you while you’re working at night at the bakery,’” he said.
Acting coaches arrived in the wee hours; revised scripts grew dusty with flour and sticky with jelly. Still, before a single frame was shot, he had to pass muster with his co-star, Quvenzhane Wallis, who was then 6 years old. Henry, whose own daughter was about the same age, knew just what to do.
“I packed all kinds of buttermilk drops, brownies, cupcakes — I had like six boxes,” he said. “ I put a big ol’ smile on my face, and handed her them boxes. She looked at them, eyes bust open, smile got on her face. I knew I had the part then.”