LOS ANGELES -- Most actors would kill for Patrick Dempsey's credits. The 45-year-old performer not only stars in the highly rated television series "Grey's Anatomy" but also boasts the movie hits "Valentine's Day" and "Enchanted."
Yet when Dempsey -- Dr. McDreamy to his TV admirers -- looks at the trajectory of his career, he fears being pigeonholed as the likable, romantic comedy hunk who can't play anything else. "If you're typecast, you really have to take the initiative and change people's opinions about you," Dempsey said. "You have to be very proactive."
So this weekend Dempsey will fly to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, where his movie "Flypaper" will have its world premiere. While Hollywood movers and shakers go to Sundance for any number of reasons -- the parties, the swag, the skiing, the deals -- any number of actors and filmmakers now head to the nation's top showcase for independent movies with a distinct professional goal: to reinvent their image.
The brainchild of actor and director Robert Redford, Sundance is best known for putting great film artists on the map. It's where directors Steven Soderbergh ("Sex, Lies, and Videotape") and Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs") were discovered, as well as actors Brad Pitt ("Johnny Suede"), Carey Mulligan ("An Education") and Ryan Gosling ("The Believer"). But because so many show business eyes are focused on so few films, Sundance also can facilitate resume rewrites. As the received wisdom goes, an appearance in a well-received Sundance movie can reestablish a performer as a serious actor -- not mere movie star -- leading to more meaningful parts.
"It can be a great place to change your image," said John Cooper, the festival's director. But he cautioned that if the movie isn't well made, any career switch can be torpedoed. "It has to be about the movie first and the agenda later," he said.
After years of playing James Bond, Pierce Brosnan reinvented his career with the Sundance titles "The Matador" and "The Greatest" (he appears in the black comedy "Salvation Boulevard" at the festival this year). Katie Holmes, who was acting in the teen TV romance series "Dawson's Creek," used the Sundance movie "Pieces of April" to establish herself as a legitimate film actor (and she's back at the fest on Friday with "Son of No One").
Tom McCarthy, best known as a character actor in shows like "Boston Public," made his directorial debut with the Sundance feature "The Station Agent" and is now among Hollywood's top independent filmmakers, with "The Visitor" and this year's "Win Win."
As for Dempsey, he not only stars in "Flypaper," a dark comedy about two criminal gangs trying to rob the same bank simultaneously, but he also produced the film, helping raise funds and hire a director ("The Lion King's" Rob Minkoff, also out to rebrand himself). Dempsey plays an unstable man -- picture a high-functioning idiot savant -- who helps solve the film's central mystery.
"I'm taking a little bit of a pivot, career-wise," Dempsey said. "I knew I couldn't play the romantic comedy card again. I was starting to get pigeonholed, and I started to get frustrated with that. I need to show other people what I can do -- or you get stuck in a corner that you can't get out of."
Because many of these low-budget movies are made without a theatrical distributor in place, their producers often turn to recognizable stars in the hopes that their presence might expedite a sale. The actors, usually working at a fraction of their typical salary, are in turn allowed to play parts considered outside their wheelhouse.
Dempsey is hardly alone in showcasing his versatility at this year's festival, which opened Thursday and runs through Jan. 30. Ray Liotta similarly heads to Utah's mountains with two Sundance premieres: the New York cop potboiler "Son of No One" and the suburban drama "The Details."
"I don't know if having two movies at Sundance screams out that there's heat on me," Liotta said, "but it sure helps."
The star of "Goodfellas" -- as well as more than a few straight-to-DVD titles and make-the-mortgage movies (see: "Operation Dumbo Drop") -- Liotta calls himself a "journeyman" with an "up-and-down career." But the 56-year-old veteran knows how a Sundance movie can open up job prospects, having traveled to the festival in 2002 with "Narc," the gritty thriller in which he co-starred and produced.
"There was a bit of bounce after 'Narc,"' Liotta said. "From a career standpoint, it's all about getting more and more opportunities. With these movies, I'm hoping the same thing happens again."
Director Lee Tamahori's first feature, 1994's "Once Were Warriors," was a film festival favorite. But in recent years, the New Zealand filmmaker's movies were critical and commercial duds -- the nadir coming with 2007's Nicolas Cage bomb "Next."
With his new Sundance movie "The Devil's Double," a violent glimpse at Saddam Hussein's notorious son Uday and his unwilling body double, the 60-year-old Tamahori hopes he can prove once again that he can direct visually compelling dramas -- without breaking the bank.
"I've become quite adept at taking a little money and making it look like a studio film," Tamahori said. "My hopes are always to do high-end dramatic films."
Tamahori assumes he's always going to be seen in the same light. "No one is going to offer me comedies or musicals," the director says. "But if you make a good film, people will keep employing you."
Ellen Barkin, the star of "The Big Easy," "Diner" and "Sea of Love," has been starring in an array of independent movies recently. She plays the lead role in the dark comedy "Another Happy Day" -- "It's like 'Ordinary People' with belly laughs," Barkin said -- which will have its world premiere at Sundance.
The 56-year-old Barkin also produced the movie, working closely with first-time director Sam Levinson (the son of "Diner's" Barry Levinson) over two years to land actors and financing. Barkin knows that a good Sundance reception will only help bring her better options.
"I don't ever want to be talked about in a specific way," Barkin said. "But it's hard for any actor to work. I am a believer in the idea that work begets work. Unless you're in a very rarefied position of movie star status, you have to keep working in order to keep working."
Two established performers -- "Up in the Air's" Vera Farmiga and "Cop Land's" Michael Rapaport -- will try to use Sundance to move into new careers as filmmakers. Farmiga directed (and stars in) the spiritual drama "Higher Ground," while Rapaport directed the music documentary "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest."
Outside of the powerful career-changing mojo the festival can exert, to hear Liotta tell it, Sundance also provides myriad networking opportunities -- thanks, in part, to its insular location near three ski resorts.
"If there's a director you like, if you saw their movie, you go up and congratulate them, 'If you have an opportunity, keep me in mind,"' Liotta said. "You can make connections. It's all upside. There are no downsides I can think of. Except maybe breaking your arm skiing."
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