Sunday afternoon, Maria Bello was steaming down the third-floor hallway at the Hotel Intercontinental, making for the elevators, when she was accosted by a burly, bearded man. "Maria! I love you!" he called out, and kindly, she slowed down to listen. "I'm a director," he boomed. "I'd love to work with you. What are you doing next week?"
"Wow, you get right to it," she said, patting his shoulder before accelerating again. As she punched the elevator button, she said to her publicist, "Believe me, if his script was any good I'd probably do it."
I've been hearing this kind of thing all over TIFF this week, from really strong actors who you imagine are successful enough to be beyond hustling for roles. Instead, many seem to be plugging harder than ever to get meaningful work.
For example, Melissa Leo. Though not a household name, she's a fantastic actress, well regarded in the industry for always being completely real, and she received a best actress Oscar nomination for her role in the 2008 film Frozen River. At a press conference for her TIFF film Conviction (she plays a cop who puts the wrong man in prison), someone asked her what her next project was, and at first she demurred.
"I'm just going to go see all their movies," she said, pointing at cast members Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver and Juliette Lewis.
Later, at the Fox Searchlight party at the Thompson Hotel, Leo said that she actually does have a lot going on, including Welcome to the Rileys, co-starring Kristen Stewart and James Gandolfini; The Fighter, for director David O. Russell; and the next season of the HBO series Treme. Getting the Oscar nod "made some people more willing to take a chance on me," she said.
"But I'm honestly not used to having this much going on. Until very recently, my answer at that press conference would have been, 'I'll be looking for work tomorrow.'"
This is why we still need film festivals
At this point, Leo's handler literally grabbed her by the neck and yanked her head to face the man on the other side of me, a powerful film financier. It was a living metaphor: Don't pay attention to discussing your work, pay attention to the money.
And P.S. - not all of Leo's work is glamorous. Though she's gorgeous in person, petite, with beautiful skin, she's often cast as older than her age, 50. So it must be noted that in The Fighter, she's playing mom to nine actors - a few of whom are almost her own age.
Also at the same party, I ran into Barbara Hershey, who plays the mother of all stage mothers in the TIFF film Black Swan, and she, too, said she has to fight for good work. "I auditioned like crazy for this," she said. "[Director]Darren Aronofsky is an artist, so if he needs me to audition, I audition." Three times, in fact: Once at a read-through, once for Aronofsky, and a third time with other actors. "I'm at that point now," she said, smiling a little sadly.
What I'm realizing is, anybody who wants to work regularly on thoughtful material is at that same point. Scott Speedman flew himself to New York City at his own expense to read with Paul Giamatti before landing his role in Barney's Version. "My agents had to fight to get me in there," he said in an interview on Monday.
As well, director Nigel Cole - whose TIFF movie is the true-life story Made in Dagenham, about a walkout by British female Ford workers in 1968 that escalated into a battle for equal rights - told me in an interview on Saturday that his options are limited because he doesn't want to make movies about guns or violence. Then, chuckling darkly, he added that he's a good pal of Paul Greengrass, a former indie director who shot into a new income bracket by making two of the Bourne movies.
"Let me put it this way," Cole said. "The amount of time that Paul was given for reshoots on Green Zone was longer than our schedule to shoot our entire film." Maybe if Cole had sent Dagenham's striking workers into the factory packing heat, he would have gotten more time.
In an interview on Saturday, Dagenham star Miranda Richardson (who plays the real-life minister who helped pass Britain's equal pay law in 1970) summed it up with her typical astringency: "I don't think there's such a thing as a career any more," she said, referring to the kind that starts small and blooms steadily upward and outward. "Certainly no one has ever known what to do with me. I'm like mercury - I do a bit here, then I'm over there, you can't grasp me."
Her assertion was proven brutally true on the red carpet outside the Elgin theatre that night - twice. First a BBC reporter had no idea who she was: "Are you the producer or writer or something?" he asked her. Then another reporter mistook her for a member of the Richardson/Redgrave family (she isn't). "You should do your homework," she replied lightly. Astoundingly, he stuck to his mistake. "I have! I know all about your family!" he said. She would have had every right to walk away, but the attention was important enough to her that she didn't. "All right," she said evenly, "we're going to start again. What do you want to ask me?"
This is why we still need film festivals. As speedy and junket-clogged as TIFF has become in recent years, it also still makes room for the mid-range film. And if the actors are willing to fight as hard for press attention as they lobbied for their parts in the first place, those films can still get some PR momentum here - from the right reporter, that is.
"I hear audiences complain all the time, where are the Kramer vs. Kramer's, the real stories about people?" Conviction star Hilary Swank said at a presser on Monday. "There's a place for comic book and vampire movies, but there's also a forgotten audience of adults. I've been in this business half my life, and it's changed so much in that time alone. We just have to keep pushing the rock up the hill."
Swank's costar Minnie Driver nodded her agreement, but a minute later she also revealed that she's a pragmatist. Asked if she'd ever been offered a vampire movie, she replied, "No." She paused, then added, "But I would do one."