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Sometimes, Sundance can change a TV actor's image

Published January 17, 2014 9:07 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Michael C. Hall spent eight seasons as television's best-known serial killer. He won a Television Critics Association Award, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his portrayal of Dexter Morgan, along with five Emmy nominations as best actor.

"I will never have a role like this again," Hall said. And it's hard to argue with him — how many actors get to play a serial killer who kills serial killers, a guy who you root for even when he is exacting the ultimate vengeance?

But long before he filmed the final episode, Hall was already looking ahead.

"I know I'm going to be identified with this role for the rest of my life," he said. "But all I can do is try to make people forget Dexter when they're watching me in something else."

What better way than to land a role in a movie that lands at the Sundance Film Festival, which opens Jan. 16 in Park City? Hall certainly isn't the first to take that route toward changing his image a bit.

He's starring in "Cold in July," playing a man whose life unravels after he kills an intruder in his home. Yeah, he is once again killing somebody. But under very different circumstances than Dexter Morgan's unending string of murders.

Which is not to say that starring in a Sundance movie is always a way to reshape an actor's image. "Saturday Night Live" veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play estranged siblings in the big-screen comedy "The Skeleton Twins." Ty Burrell ("Modern Family") and TV veteran Joanna Gleason co-star.

But Hall isn't the only TV actor looking to change things up. Here are a few more who will be seen, but not always recognized, by Sundance audiences:

• As a kid, Tyler James Williams starred as the younger version of comedian Chris Rock in the sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris." In "Dear White People," Williams (now 21) plays one of four black students who lead a protest against an African-American-themed party thrown by white students at his college.

• "Mad Men" star John Slattery doesn't appear in "God's Pocket," which he co-wrote and directed. But this drama about a guy trying to cover up the accidental death of his stepson features his "Mad Men" co-star Christina Hendricks.

• Lena Dunham, creator/writer/producer/director/star of HBO's "Girls," is just an actor in "Happy Christmas," with a supporting role in this comedy about an offbeat family.

• Where do you go from "Breaking Bad"? Aaron Paul went to "Hellion," where he plays a long-absent father who must finally accept responsibility for his children.

• Molly Shannon ("Saturday Night Live"), Cheryl Hines ("Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Suburgatory") and Paul Reiser ("Mad About You") are all TV comedy veterans — but the zombie comedy "Life After Beth" is definitely a change of pace.

• TV veteran David Cross ("Mr. Show," "Arrested Development") makes his theatrical directorial debut with "Hits," a comedy about a town filled with people who have unrealistic expectations in the age of the Internet. The cast includes a number of TV regulars, including Jason Ritter ("Parenthood"), Amy Carlson ("Blue Bloods"), Wyatt Cenac ("The Daily Show") and a cameo by Cross' "Arrested Development" co-star Michael Cera.

• Steven Yeun is best known for fighting zombies on "The Walking Dead"; Archie Punjabi investigates criminals in "The Good Wife." They have supporting roles in "I Origins, which is about a molecular biologist and his brilliant lab partner who uncover "startling evidence that may fundamentally change society as we know it."

• Sitcom star Jeff Garlin ("The Goldbergs," "Curb Your Enthusiasm") co-stars in "Laggies," which features Keira Knightley as a 28-year-old who refuses to grow up.

• John Lithgow ("3rd Rock From the Sun," "Dexter") and Alfred Molina ("Monday Mornings," "Law & Order: L.A."): They star as a gay couple in "Love Is Strange." The supporting cast includes Darren Burrows, who, two decades later, is still best-known for his role as American Indian dude Ed in "Northern Exposure."

• Nick Offerman ("Parks and Recreation") has been in a number of Sundance films, but none like "Nick Offerman: American Ham." It's him doing his stand-up comedy act.

• A year ago, Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men," "The West Wing") was at the film festival as the star of the Sundance Channel series "Top of the Lake." She's back this year as the star of two films. In "The One I Love," she's half of a troubled couple, opposite Mark Duplass ("The Mindy Project"); Ted Danson ("Cheers," "CSI") co-stars. In "Listen Up Phil," she's the girlfriend of a frustrated writer, opposite Jason Schwartzman ("Bored to Death"); Krysten Ritter ("Breaking Bad," "Don't Trust the B—— in Apartment 23") co-stars.

• Felicity Huffman ("Desperate Housewives") has a supporting role in the drama "Rudderless," which co-stars and is directed by her husband, William H. Macy ("Shameless").

• The romantic comedy "They Came Together" is a virtual smorgasbord of actors who are (or were) prominent on TV — Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation"), Paul Rudd ("Friends"), Ed Helms ("The Daily Show," "The Office"), Cobie Smulders ("How I Met Your Mother"), Max Greenfield ("New Girl") and Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order: SVU").

• The drama "White Bird in a Blizzard" is also filled with faces familiar from TV —Shailene Woodley ("The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), Gabourey Sidibe ("American Horror Story," "The Big C"), Thomas Jane ("Hung") and, again, Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order: SVU").

• Zach Braff ("Scrubs") returns to Sundance as the writer/director of "Wish I Was Here" — nine years after his directorial debut, "Garden State," premiered at the festival. He's starring in his own film, along with Mandy Patinkin ("Homeland," "Criminal Minds"), Josh Gad ("1600 Penn"), Ashley Greene ("Pan Am") and Joey King ("Bent").

spierce@sltrib.com

Twitter: @ScottDPierce