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Sundance makeover: TV actors work to transform their image via indie films

Published January 23, 2012 12:16 pm

Sundance • Sitcom stars get to play drama; youngsters get new roles on big screen.
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Megan Mullally is best known as the shrieking, over-the-top Karen on the long-running TV sit-com "Will & Grace," which ended in 2006. And she's back on TV in the sitcom family in the second season of "Breaking In," returning soon to Fox.

But she's also got a supporting role in "Smashed," a drama that delves into the lives of alcoholics that's playing at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's a major departure from Mullally's over-the-top comedy roles, but it's right in line with an ongoing Sundance story-line — TV actors working in indie movies to let Hollywood know they're capable of more than just the small-screen roles that made them famous.

"I had a really good time doing that movie because I would like to do more dramatic stuff," Mullally said. "I think it's something I have a propensity for. Independent films are a way for me to do that. And Sundance is a way for people to see those films."

Even an Oscar-nominated brand name like Julianne Moore underscores the opportunity Sundance provides. "Isn't that what Sundance is all about? Putting yourself out there in new roles?" Moore asked. "I think the films I've had at Sundance have changed people's perceptions of me." Moore stars as Sarah Palin in an upcoming HBO film, which appropriately enough for this story, is titled "Game Changer."

On the other hand, TV actors often look to Sundance to turn them into film stars. Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother") wrote his first Sundance film, "happythankyoumoreplease" because he wanted "to give myself a great film role." He ended up directing the 2010 film as well. And at this year's festival, he's in the triple-threat category, as the writer, director and star of "Liberal Arts."

"Josh is great on our show," said "HIMYM" executive producer Craig Thomas. "But he has so much talent that people don't necessarily get to see. We're thrilled he has another movie at Sundance."

Radnor's new film also features Zac Efron, who's still trying to get people to realize there's more to him than "High School Musical."

Then there's AnnaLynne McCord, who plays the rich and pampered Naomi on "90210." In the Sundance film "Excision," her character "picks scabs, dissects road kill and fantasizes about performing surgery on strangers." "I'm freaking out!!" McCord tweeted last month. "It's official! I'M GOING 2" Sundance.

By the way, Ariel Winter — who plays teenage brainiac Alex Dunphy in "Modern Family" — co-stars in this year's Sundance film "Excision," one of the Midnight movies. And Winters' TV father, Ty Burrell, is in "Goats," about a 15-year-old whose father figure is Goat Man. But the title character, "a goat-trekking, marijuana-growing sage," is played by David Duchovny ("The X-Files" and Showtime's "Californication.")

Duchovny's "X-Files" costar, Gillian Anderson, has gone on to award-winning acclaim in a series of roles in her adopted home in England, but she's also in this year's Sundance film "Shadow Dancer." "Most Americans still act surprised that I can act," she said. "Maybe they'll get a chance to see this film."

Anderson, of course, has been around for a while, but young actors who are making a name for themselves on TV are also looking for a career pop from appearing in low-budget films. First-time director Jonathan Kasdan's teen romantic comedy "The First Time" features a cast of TV regulars who aren't exactly household names— Dylan O'Brien (MTV's "Teen Wolf"), Britt Robertson (The CW's "The Secret Circle") and Victoria Justice (Nickelodeon's "Zoey 101").

"The Office" star John Kracinski has tried this route before — without much success. He was at Sundance in 2009 as writer/director/star of "Brief Interview with Hideous Men," which sank without a trace. This year, he's back as the star of the drama "Nobody Walks," which also features Jane Levy ("Suburgatory") and Dylan McDermott ("American Horror Story").

"Of course I'm excited about having a movie at Sundance," Levy said. "I'm just trying to do as many different things as I can."

But not all TV stars are at Sundance to change their images. "I just thought this was a great role," said Dylan McDermott of his part in "American Horror Story." "It's not like I haven't gotten great roles on TV. This was just something I wanted to do."

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" isn't a great leap from "Tom Goes to the Mayor" and "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job," which aired in the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. Their "Movie" isn't necessarily going to play to an audience that isn't already watching their TV shows.

Laura Prepon plays a stripper-turned-cocktail waitress in the Sundance film "Lay the Favorite"; she's also playing a barmaid in the NBC sitcom "Are You There, Chelsea."

"That is kind of a weird coincidence," she said. "But they're different roles. And I love that this movie is at Sundance so that people will get a chance to see I'm not just the girl from 'That '70s Show.'"

Mullally and her husband, Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation"— who both appear in "Smashed" — have both run into kind of type casting as well.

"I'm not Karen. Nick isn't Ron Swanson. It's nice to remind people of that sometimes," she said.


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Sundance: A 'work wanted' ad for TV stars?

Here's a selected list of actors, known for their TV work, who are expected to attend Sundance this year: Lake Bell, Robert Carlyle, Charles S. Dutton, Dan Futterman, Joshua Jackson, Rashida Jones, John Krasinski, Sharon Lawrence, Melanie Lynsky, A Martinez, Danny Masterson, Aaron Paul, Eric Mabius, William H. Macy, Mary Kay Place, Jason Ritter, Keri Russell and Andy Samberg.