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The 35th Starz Denver Film Festival: An Actor’s Perspective

Stars Denver Film Festival

200+ films over 11 days is a concentrated opportunity for an actor to see a wide variety of performances. It is also an opportunity to see films and performances that otherwise might not be available; films that likely would not play commercially, locally; films one might not even be aware of.

Moreover, seeing a film with a communal audience is a different (and better) experiences that sitting alone on your couch in front of a TV and your DVD player.

And, while some of the films screened at the Starz Denver Film Festival are non-narrative films (documentaries, etc.) there is still much to see and from which to learn.

Actors learn by doing but also by watching: what choices are being made by the actor; what chances is the actor taking by making certain choices; is that a choice I would have made in the same role? This is not about judging the ‘rightness’ or efficacy of a choice, it is about pondering and learning.

This year’s Festival had a wealth of interesting acting performances, many from foreign-language and low-budget features. In fact, they were some of the best.

However, there was also a documentary that every actor should have seen. Because for actors, this is also a business; it is our job; it is what we try to do for a living.

Casting By is a documentary by Tom Donohue. It focuses on casting directors, particularly Marion Dougherty and the process (and how it has changed) of casting motion pictures and television.

The great director, John Huston, famously said that 90% of directing is casting. However, many actors, in fact, many film professionals really have no idea about the process of how a film is cast. And, what you don’t know can hurt you; the more you know about the process the better off you are. For an actor casting is everything – if you don’t get cast, you are not working.

Dougherty, who started in live television in New York in the fifties, really changed the way movies got cast. In the old “studio system”, contract players were assigned roles in motion pictures based on their type. Dougherty, working primarily with New York stage actors changed that. Her success in casting such successful television series as Naked City and Route 66 eventually brought her to motion pictures and Hollywood.

I was actually cast by Daugherty and Wally Nicita in Escape From Alcatraz, so it had special meaning for me. As scenes in the documentary featured Marion surrounded by hundreds of actor photos, I realized that at some point, my photo was among those.

Two outstanding fiction films from an actor’s perspective:

In Starlet, Dree Hemingway plays Jane, a 21 year-old - flaky in a Legally Blonde kind of way - Porn Queen living on the edge in the 'beautiful' west San Fernando Valley. She and her Chihuahua named Starlet, share an apartment with a drugged-out fellow sex worker, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa's porn-promoter, wannabe boyfriend, Mikey (James Ransone).

Dree Hemingway, the daughter of Mariel, niece of Margaux and great granddaughter of Ernest, is wonderful in this low-budget ($250,000) SAGIndie film, as is Besedka Johnson in a debut performance. The 87 year-old Johnson was 'discovered' at a YWCA and thought the casting was a joke. Her performance is no joke.

The acting here throughout the cast is terrific. It is so natural; the film almost has the feel of a documentary. It is also a testament to the value of the SAG low budget agreements and what creative talent can do with an extremely limited budget.

Another film with astonishing performances is I, Anna. Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne captivate us. This is an acting-class in understated portrayal. Their maturity and maturity of talent make the film work wonderfully. Rampling is still breathtakingly beautiful and imbues Anna with an enigmatic, other-world quality.

Some other films and performances worthy of note:

Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer
Nina Hoss (with incredible eyes) in the German film Barbara
Francisca Gavilan in the Chilean film Violeta Went to Heaven (about Chilean singer Violeta Parra)
Marcin Dorocinski and Agata Kulesza in the Polish Film Rose (Roza)

There were more but these are some of the performances that most engaged me as an actor.

The Starz  Film Festival may not have the drawing power of Telluride or Sundance, but it does provide Colorado audiences and Colorado actors the opportunity to see great film. It is not always about the red carpet films, it is often about all those other films that make us love to watch and work in motion pictures.


Denis Berkfeldt
Actor, member SAG-AFTRA, Actors Equity Association