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Sean P. Means: At Sundance, actors break out of their Hollywood molds
Actress Melanie Lynskey arrives for the opening night premiere of "Hello I Must Be Going" at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Bill Hader (left) and Kristen Wiig play Milo and Maggie, dysfunctional twins in the comedy-drama "The Skeleton Twins." Courtesy Sundance Institute
Melanie Lynskey (left) and Joe Swanberg play a married couple in the comedy "Happy Christmas." Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Aaron Paul plays a father trying to reconnect with his troubled teen son in the drama "Hellion." Courtesy IFC Films
An anthropologist (Anne Hathaway, left) and a musician (Johnny Flynn) strike up a tentative romance in the drama "Song One." Courtesy Sundance Institute
A young drummer (Miles Teller, left) and a hard-driving teacher (J.K. Simmons) are engaged in a battle of wills in "Whiplash." Courtesy Sundance Institute
Aaron Paul, a cast member in "Hellion," is interviewed at the premiere of the film at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
This photo provided by the Sundance Institute shows, from left, Imogene Wolodarsky, Mark Ruffalo, Ashley Aufderheide and Zoe Saldana, in a scene from the film, "Infinitely Polar Bear." The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 16-26, 2014, in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Sundance Institute, Seacia Pavao)
Cast member Mark Ruffalo poses at the premiere of the film "Infinitely Polar Bear" during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)
(Trent Nelson  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Bill Hader at the premiere of  "The Skeleton Twins," part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, Saturday January 18, 2014 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City.
(Leah Hogsten  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Imogene Wolodarsky, from left, Zoe Saldana, director Maya Forbes, Mark Ruffalo and Ashley Aufderheide at the premiere screening of ìInfinitely Polar Bear,î  about a manic-depressive father who tries to win back his wife. It made its premiere Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, at the Eccles Theatre during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City.
(Rick Egan  | The Salt Lake Tribune)   

Melanie Lynskey at the Library Center, in Park City, for the premiere of “Happy Christmas,” at the Sundance Film Festival, Sunday, January 19, 2014.
(Steve Griffin  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  

Anne Hathaway talks to the press as she attends the premier of the movie “Song One,” directed by Kate Barker-Froyland at the Eccles Theatre during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 20, 2014.  The movie is about an anthropologist who returns to her estranged family after an accident leaves her brother comatose.
Cast member Anne Hathaway poses at the premiere of the film "Song One" during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

At every Q-and-A session at the Sundance Film Festival, or at least every one where a famous actor is backing the movie he or she made, someone asks The Question.

The Question takes many forms and phrasings, but boils down to this: If you’re such a big star, why are you slumming in an independent movie?

It was a polite variant of The Question that an audience member tossed to Anne Hathaway after the first screening of “Song One,” in which the Oscar winner plays an anthropologist who comes home when her musician brother winds up in a coma.

Hathaway, who is also one of the film’s producers, answered as sweetly as anyone could.

“I like beautiful movies, and I think they come in all shapes and sizes,” she said.

Sometimes, actors will defend their indie choice by finding a similarity between the independent work and his or her well-known role in a blockbuster.

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That’s what happened when Mark Ruffalo talked about his role as a manic-depressive father in Maya Forbes’ semi-autobiographical drama “Infinitely Polar Bear.”

Ruffalo, one of the stars of Marvel’s “The Avengers,” described his bipolar character as “the low-budget indie version of the Hulk.”

The main reason actors flock to the sorts of indie films that play Sundance is because that’s where the interesting roles can be found.

Blockbuster movies are, after all, exercises in minimizing risk — and there’s nothing riskier to a producer or casting director than picking an actor who doesn’t already fit the audience’s preconceived notions. That’s why Ray Liotta always plays a mobster or a dirty cop, or why Drew Barrymore always plays winsome romantic interests.

But indie films let actors break out of those cocoons and take chances, because they’re not betting with the house money. In many cases (like Hathaway in “Song One” or Aaron Paul in “Hellion”), the actors are also producers, so they have skin in the game.

Every year at Sundance, particularly in the U.S. Dramatic competition, there are notable performances from actors who wanted to show Hollywood there’s more to them than just the expected. Here are three great ones from this year’s festival:

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