And folks are right — he IS the best thing in it, giving a preposterous summer effects movie the gravitas and emotional anchor it desperately needed. When Gadson walks in on his prosthetic legs, audiences sense an immediate change — in the midst of an artificial effects spectacle, here is something REAL.
It's a technique that movies have always dabbled with, but recently it has accelerated and taken on the shape of a movement. A few years ago, it figured prominently in the Oscar-nominated corporate-downsizing movie "Up in the Air." As you watched the sequence featuring the testimony of fired workers, you realized they were real people, talking about actually losing their jobs.
In the new Jack Black movie "Bernie," director Richard Linklater arranges his true-crime story as a portrait of a small Texas town, illustrated with interviews of colorful local residents. Where did he find such authentic types? He used the townsfolk he found there, and blended them with stars like Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey shares a screen credit with his mom, a Texan.
In the indie sports movie "Crooked Arrows," producers decided not to waste time teaching actors how to convincingly play lacrosse — they used lacrosse players and asked them act. This week sees the DVD release of "Act of Valor," a combat movie that used real Navy SEALs instead of actors.
"My pitch was this: Imagine ‘Top Gun,' then imagine taking out Tom Cruise and putting in the real guy," said co-director Scott Waugh. "What was most important was to make an honest depiction of the SEAL community. No better way than to make it with the real guys."
Persuading Hollywood to make a movie with no "stars" was tough. Persuading the SEALs was even harder.
"Everybody said ‘no,' " said Lt. Cmdr. Rorke Denver, one of the real SEALs in the movie. "It's so counter to our culture and our history, the way we operate and think about the nature of our work. But [Waugh and co-director Mike McCoy] spent a lot of time with us, we got to know them, and at one point it became clear to me that the movie was not going to be a gunfight. It was about the families, and that's when we knew we could identify with the story they wanted to tell."
That's one of the strange things about the nonactor phenomenon. Even in today's celebrity-obsessed age, there are people — believe it or not — who don't really want to be in pictures.
Like Denver, and Gadson. The latter was called, out of the blue, by "Battleship" director Peter Berg, who'd seen his motivational speeches and knew him as head of the Wounded Warrior program.
"I had no idea why he was calling," Gadson said. "I thought they wanted an adviser. Pete starts talking and I realize he wants me to be IN the movie. I said sure, but halfheartedly. I'm thinking they'll eventually figure out that I can't act, and that will be the end of it."
But he met with Berg, read a few lines from the script and was hired.
"At that point, I got cold feet. I was concerned with how it would be perceived. I wanted people to know I didn't go looking for this thing," Gadson said.
His Army buddies were a lot more gung-ho. They immediately started conducting Google searches for Brooklyn Decker, the supermodel who is Gadson's co-star in the movie — their story thread has the two battling aliens on a Hawaiian mountaintop. It worked so well that Berg ordered reshoots late last year to make Gadson's role, his story arc, even larger.
Gadson said the glamour shock of working with a supermodel/actress dissolved quickly on set, working long hours on a sometimes tedious job.
"You find you want somebody who's good to work with. Brook and I became good friends. She's my buddy. My supermodel buddy."
Linklater, who mixed "real" people with actors very liberally on "Bernie," said that combining Hollywood antimatter with the matter of the average Joe isn't as explosive as you might think.
"It's something I started doing kind of early on, kind of out of necessity, and just kept with it, because I find that it works for me," he said. "And I've never really had a problem blending the two. For one thing, it's very easy to get somebody like Matthew to mingle. And as a director, you have control over everything, and I find it's very easy to set boundaries, so that people know what's expected of them."
The verisimilitude that works for Linklater is doubly important for Waugh. He uses the phrase "in camera" to describe the world he presents to his audience — they see only what the camera captures, not what some computer-generated effects artist adds later, in the lab.
He thinks audiences appreciate it, even crave it.
"I think our audiences have a lot of CG fatigue. I think there is a growing audience for movies like ‘Act of Valor,' where the ‘actors' are the real deal — SEALs who do their own stunts, with live fire and real bullets. It's all in camera, and the audience can sense that," Waugh said.
Television, he noted, has been riding the reality-TV wave for a decade. Nonactor shows are replacing scripted dramas. Now, a version of that is hitting movies.
"There's this pulse happening," he said. "It's already happened in TV, and now it's happening theatrically."
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at philly.com/keepitreel.