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Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon and the risks, rewards of going small

In watching Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon’s nuanced performances as working-class lovers in “Sunlight Jr.” this week, it struck me how often these actors test themselves with small roles in small films.

That might not seem worth noting, and yet.... By most measures, neither Dillon, nor Watts – well established and much admired -- need another risky art-house project in their portfolio. Been there, done that.

That’s not to disparage “Sunlight Jr.” or its prospects. Laurie Collyer’s new drama about love and life on America's economic margins is very well-crafted. It is also a classic indie film, which means low-budget and limited exposure. In L.A. that translates into a short run in a single theater. The film will probably make its way into a few other cities, then quickly slip into the on-demand, online streaming world, which is increasingly easy to get lost in.

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What does either actor have to gain?

Watts has two Oscar nominations, including one this year for “The Impossible.” She has a slew of major movie credits like Doug Liman’s spy thriller “Fair Game” and of course 2005’s “King Kong." There are enough upcoming projects to keep her busy though 2015. More, no doubt, are being sorted through, with details hammered out, schedules shifted, contracts signed as I write.

Dillon, with an Oscar nomination in 2006 for “Crash,” has been working his way through cult hits and high-profile films since he was a teen. It’s hard to believe that his breakout in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” was 30 years ago when he was 19.

The actor shifts easily between dramas and comedies – from Gus Van Sant’s dark “Drugstore Cowboy” to the Farrelly brothers’ zany “There’s Something About Mary,” for example. And the strong-jawed tough guy’s got a new “Twin Peaks’ian” drama series set to premiere on Fox TV next year.

So why do they do it?

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I’m sure, like a lot of things, there are countless reasons for saying yes to spending time in the indie trenches, which do not usually come with a tricked-out trailer. But I like to think it is mostly for the love of the craft, the way any good creative challenge feeds the soul of a true artist.

Sometimes the risk pays off, as it did for both in "Sunlight." Other times, the movie is a minor embarrassment, like "Diana" for Watts earlier this year. Either way I applaud them for doing it. I know they aren’t the only ones to go indie on occasion, but this week they've turned in a couple of stellar turns. So props to Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon for going small -- and doing it so very well.
 
betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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