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Sundance Discoveries

The Sundance Film Festival has always been an exciting arena in which to discover new talent. This year was especially promising in terms of actors about whom filmgoers will hopefully hear more in the near future. These include Vera Farmiga, who walked away with this year's Jury Prize for Acting for her harrowing performance as a drug addict in Down to the Bone; the Salt Lake City–based actor Jon Heder, star of the comedic film Napoleon Dynamite, which delighted audiences and was picked up by Fox Searchlight; and Shane Carruth, who came out of nowhere to win the Jury Prize for Best Drama for Primer, which he starred in, wrote, directed, and produced. I was particularly impressed by the acting in two films, Maria Full of Grace and Mean Creek, which have been picked up for distribution by Fine Line Features and Paramount Classics, respectively.

Morgan Gets 'Mean'

Mean Creek tells the story of a group of teens faced with a moral dilemma when a prank on a school bully goes terribly wrong. Although all the leads in this ensemble are excellent—including Rory Culkin (You Can Count on Me), Ryan Kelley (Smallville), Scott Mechlowicz (upcoming Eurotrip), Carly Schroeder (The Lizzie McGuire Movie), and the talented Josh Peck (Spun, Max Keeble's Big Move) as the bully—I was struck most by the understated work of their co-star, Trevor Morgan, whose look and demeanor are reminiscent of a young Sean Penn.

"I get that a lot," says Morgan. "Not so much the way I act, but more that I look like Sean Penn. I'm not sure what it is, but people keep telling me that, which is great."

Morgan is indeed not new to acting. He's been at it since age 5, when a commercial casting director discovered him at a mall in his native Chicago. "At the time there was a lot of commercial work that you could be doing as a kid in Chicago," says the now 17-year-old actor, who eventually moved with his family to California, where he continued to get work. His many film roles include appearances in The Sixth Sense, The Glass House, Jurassic Park III, and The Patriot, in which his work as Mel Gibson's son garnered him a Hollywood Reporter Young Star Award nomination. He is most often recognized for his portrayal of the young cancer victim Scott Anspaugh in the 1998–99 season of ER, for which he shared a Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Cast Award and another Young Artist Award nomination for both his work in ER and the Disney Channel film Genius.

Mean Creek's writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes tells BSW that he was not very aware of Morgan before casting the young actor. He credits the film's casting director, Matt Lessall, with steering his attention to Morgan. "Honestly, I wasn't very familiar with anyone's work [except that of] Rory Culkin, whom I had seen in things, and I knew his history," says Estes. "Matt brought Trevor to my attention, and he mentioned a few of the movies that Trevor had been in, including [screenwriter] Mike Rich's The Rookie, and I very distinctly recall his performance in that [as a young Dennis Quaid]. The good news is that I didn't recognize him or know him, because he just slips into his characters and does it. He's not flashy, and that's the best quality."

Morgan has never formally studied acting. "When I act, it's [about relying on] all my instincts," he explains. Still, he says he has studied his craft in depth. "I watch a tremendous amount of movies, and I always try to look for great acting. That's my school. That's how I study acting: watching older movies and watching great films and great actors."

To my surprise, the cinema heroes whom he names are all over 40, and many are well above 50: Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer (who, Morgan says, "is such an amazing actor, and he's never really commended for it"), and, of course, Sean Penn. What Morgan may lack in formal training, he perhaps makes up for in his earnest fascination with his craft.

When asked whether he could offer advice to his fellow young actors, Morgan cites two pieces of advice that he was given and that he continues to follow: "Cross the line sprinting, which means always do your best no matter what. And don't prove it; be it. Don't prove to everybody that you're the character. Just be the character."

Expect to see much more of this fine young actor. Next up for him: the comedy Empire Falls, in which he goes to bat opposite heavy-hitters such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, Estelle Parsons, Aidan Quinn, and Robin Wright Penn.

Graceful Debut

Catalina Sandino Moreno didn't just impress audiences at Sundance with her debut film performance in Joshua Marston's first feature, Maria Full of Grace; she blew them away as the title character, a Columbian woman who becomes a drug mule for heroin smugglers. Through Moreno's eyes, we watch as her character's desperation leads her to risk her life for the sake of money and a chance to break out of the limitations of her small-town life. The film, like last year's Whale Rider, won the Audience Award at Sundance.

The American-born and -based Marston held a massive search for the right actor to carry his film, holding open calls in Queens, New Jersey, Long Island, Miami—anywhere known to have a strong Columbian community. He also had casting directors scout in Columbia and in Ecuador, where the film was shot—due to political strife in Columbia that prevented Marston from getting the film insured. Several months passed as more than 800 young women auditioned for the part, to no avail. The decision had been made to postpone the start of production, when Marston received a videotape from Columbia. "I was barely looking at the TV as I hit 'play' on the VCR," he recalls. "Catalina was the first person on the tape, and literally within 30 seconds I knew. She was captivating. And she was Maria; she looked like the character I had written, she acted like her, and she had this amazing freshness to everything she did. Every time she did an improvisation, it was interesting; and every time, it was different."

Moreno admits that she initially had a hard time finding similarities between herself and her character. "Maria was a challenge for me," she says. "She lives in a little town outside of Bogotá [the capital city of Columbia]. I live in Bogatá. She has no education. I went to college. There's a big gap between us." The 22-year-old actor did hands-on research before filming began, including volunteering to do manual labor on a flower plantation to familiarize herself with her character's plight. The physically demanding experience humbled Moreno. "I appreciate everything that [women like Maria] do now," she says. "I'm grateful for what they do. I'm more human."

Moreno has her mother to thank for pushing her to go to the open call for this movie, as the actor had never tried out for a film before and was reluctant to show up. Her only acting experience consisted of studying theatre in high school and college and auditioning for commercials, for which she was never hired. Moreno tells BSW that before working on Maria Full of Grace she never imagined she'd have a future in acting. The most steady work in her country for actors is soap operas, of which she says, "I hate soap operas. It's all about being beautiful, and you have to show too much. Theatre was a relief for me—a hobby. I liked acting because it let me forget everything and release my energy into doing something that I really liked."

Having had such a positive experience on her first movie, Moreno decided to take her acting more seriously, although she's still not sure what her future will bring. Right now she just wants to continue growing as an actor. She has been living in New York, where the film took her, for the past year and taking classes, and she was even cast in a production of Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John. "It was amazing to be in front of an audience in New York and to be able to perform [a work by] Shakespeare," she says.

Moreno admits that she was not prepared to be suddenly thrust into the spotlight, as she was at Sundance, where strangers approached her, sometimes in tears, wanting to thank her or even hug her or to inquire about representing her. It was, she says, overwhelming. "It's kind of scary. I didn't know that you have to have a lawyer and a manager [on top of an agent]. To know who is [reputable] is hard," she says, adding that fortunately she has a good filter. "Thank God for Maude Nadler. She's the vice president of HBO Films [which financed Maria Full of Grace], and she's like my mom in New York. She's been great to me. She's going to help me get an agent." BSW

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