Oscar nominees

Bradley Cooper, Barkhad Abdi and Jonah Hill are among the supporting actor nominees. (Los Angeles Times / Associated Press / January 16, 2014)

Actors who portrayed men driven by desperation, greed, hate and opportunism received Academy Award nominations for best supporting actor Thursday in an intense spectrum of films that ranged from exposing Wall Street’s financial sins to the battle against prejudice and death during America’s AIDS epidemic.

The nominees are: Jared Leto, a graceful, hard-bargaining transsexual in "Dallas Buyers Club"; Barkhad Abdi, a tenacious, rail-thin Somali pirate in “Captain Phillips”; Michael Fassbender, a pathological plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave”;  Bradley Cooper, a frenetic, ego-driven FBI agent in “American Hustle”; and Jonah Hill, a con-man drenched in perversity and excess in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

A number of the roles spoke to America’s darker impulses, from the cruelties of the antebellum
South to capitalism’s ingenuity and the illicit designs it evokes. But Leto’s AIDS-stricken character, Rayon, was a study in compassion, humor and creativity. And the nomination of Abdi, who spent his childhood as a Somali refugee before moving to Minnesota and working as a limo driver, is a real life testament to the art of possibility.     

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Hill, a surprise nomination, said his portrayal of Donnie Azoff, a swindler with blinding veneers who epitomized Wall Street’s egregiousness, showed “me that excess leads to a bad road, a bad ending. It taught me about balance.” Hill, who was nominated as best supporting actor for his 2011 role as a baseball statistician in “Moneyball,” said "Wolf" director Martin Scorsese created an artistic temperament on the set in which “no holds were barred, no punches held.”

Abdi has had a string of awards nominations this season but said “this is a big one. It’s just unbelievable. I’m humbled and honored to have nominations on my first movie. I was handling it just fine but the Oscar has me a bit crazy. My phone died but I got to talk to my sister and my mom.”

Abdi's character, Muse, is a desperate Somali fisherman turned pirate out of circumstance. His portrayal is at once ferocious and empathetic, adding a complexity to America’s interests in the shipping lanes around the dangerous Horn of Africa, where economic hardship and extremism collide.

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“The film is the story and I had to be the character of Muse," Abdi said. "I left Somalia 15 years ago but I understood Muse’s desperations and motivations. It’s a lot of work. Director Paul Greengrass really helped and seeing Tom Hanks become his character was an inspiration.”

Talking by phone from Los Angeles, Abdi, who has put aside a directing project about Somali-Americans to concentrate on acting, said he’d calmly approach his first Oscar ceremony: “It’s going to be a fun day for me. I’m not going to worry about winning. I’ll just celebrate that day.”

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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