Oscar nominees revel in newfound glory

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Not long ago, Lee Daniels received a phone call out of left field: George Lucas had seen his film “Precious” and wanted the director to come to his Skywalker Ranch for a visit. Daniels flew up north, had lunch with Lucas and even spent the night in one of his cottages.

Oscar statues lie under plastic on the red carpet during preparations for the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 21, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

“I was nervous and intimidated at first,” recalls Daniels, who brought along his leading lady, Gabourey Sidibe. “Then we just kicked back and talked about life and about how the film affected him and his girlfriend. We also talked how sound can help me on my next movie, because I have limited funds. It was a really chill conversation.”

Daniels says he now has a new friend whom “I can feel free to call for further advice.”

Having Lucas as a mentor is just one of the doors that have opened for Daniels as a result of “Precious.” And he’s not alone: For many of this year’s Oscar nominees, the success of their films has resulted in unimaginable job offers, higher paychecks, more respect within the industry and incoming phone calls from Hollywood power players.

Daniels, who is nominated in two categories -- best picture and best director -- says he’s been offered up to $2.5 million to direct everything from a Western to a musical. That’s a far cry from the roughly $600,000 he received for “Precious,” which he also produced.

Thanks to the film, he’s now in discussions with Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson and Robert De Niro on different projects, while working on his next movie, “Selma,” a civil rights movement drama for Pathe Films and an untitled pilot which he’s directing and executive producing for HBO, about a black millionaire and his dysfunctional family in Philadelphia.

“Before, I complained that I would only get considered for a specific type of film, but now they’re all over the place,” he says. “It’s liberating to be looked at as filmmaker, not an ‘African-American’ filmmaker. That’s career-changing for me.”

The unpredictable nature of the business has meant best actor nominee Jeremy Renner has had a side job for the past eight years: He and business partner Kristoffer Winters develop property in Los Angeles, renovating and then selling the homes.

In fact, while Renner is attending all the black-tie events for “The Hurt Locker,” by day he and Winters are busy refurbishing Preston Sturges’ old home in Hollywood. (Sturges bought the house in 1936 from Lois Weber, the first woman to produce, direct, star in and co-write a feature film, a nice coincidence considering his “Locker” filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has a shot at becoming the first female director to win an Academy Award.)

“I make more money doing that, which allows me the freedom to choose the projects I want to do,” says Renner, who recently sold a restored house for about $4 million. “I’ll always act, but I’ll never be forced to do it because there are bills to pay.”

Renner is in talks with Universal and director Peter Berg about taking the lead role in “Battleship.” He’s also had no fewer than five meetings to star in another project, which he declines to reveal. Both films are expected to shoot in the summer, so Renner will be choosing between the two.

But first he’ll squeeze in indie “Raven,” a period thriller with Ewan McGregor in talks to co-star. “(‘Locker’ has) allowed me to exhale and go, ‘OK, now I can really start,’” Renner says. “Maybe it’s a form of arrival, maybe it’s a type of beginning.”

Speaking of beginnings, “Precious’” Sidibe says she has found her calling. A former psych major at Mercy College in New York, who had thought of becoming a psychotherapist, she says she’s found her “calling” and has left school to pursue her craft.

Despite the “Precious” frenzy, Sidibe has found time to go on two auditions, both of which she booked: The Sundance lab feature “Yelling to the Sky,” and a Bill Condon-directed pilot, “The Big C,” which was picked up by Showtime. Sidibe says she’s had many meetings, not because she’s “that girl in ‘Precious,’” but “because I’m not that girl in ‘Precious,’” as she’s made clear in her bubbly appearances on the talk-show circuit.

Mark Boal has also shifted plans, to some degree. The “Hurt Locker” writer, who spent years as a journalist writing for Rolling Stone and Playboy, is now pretty much a full-time screenwriter and producer, though he admits “I still have a toe in the door at Rolling Stone.” His next project carries him further into the film arena: He’s writing and producing “Triple Frontier” for Paramount, with Bigelow to direct.

“I have a lot of ideas for movies and ‘The Hurt Locker’ has given me the opportunity to have access to talk seriously about them to people I admire,” says Boal, nominated for best original screenplay and, as producer, best picture. Thanks to his recent success, he’s met with such actors as Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Denzel Washington and Christian Bale about possible collaborations.

Supporting actor nominee Christoph Waltz has also been meeting with pretty much everyone. Since “Inglourious Basterds,” he has been offered the part of Chudnofsky in Columbia’s “The Green Hornet” and he’s met with David Cronenberg to star in “The Talking Cure” with Keira Knightley.

“The interest and the enthusiasm that’s coming my way is overwhelming,” he notes. “I’m so happy that finally we can discuss WHAT we want to do, not HOW to pull it off. The path has cleared for me to discuss ideas with interesting and open people who can make it happen.”

Waltz also has made a deal to direct his feature debut, a German film for Fox’s European division. After directing a 2000 German TV project, he’ll now segue to the comedy “Up, Up and Away” --- but it has no start date as he is focusing on all his new acting opportunities.

Another oversees film star is seeing her stock rise in the U.S. thanks to her Oscar-nominated performance in “An Education.”

“Before I had trouble getting parts because I wasn’t enough of a name,” says “An Education’s” Carey Mulligan. Case in point -- when she heard that one of her favorite books, “Never Let Me Go,” would become a movie, “I was desperate to be in it,” says the actress. Even though she auditioned and the producers were interested in her, things were not looking promising since, “I wasn’t ‘financeable,’” Mulligan says.

All that changed when the film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and Mulligan’s stock rose. She found herself cast in the film, which also stars Knightley.

Things only got better from there. Filmmaker Oliver Stone saw “An Education” and personally called Mulligan to ask if she’d consider playing Michael Douglas’ daughter in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” No audition necessary.

“Oliver Stone rang me on my mobile,” says a still-incredulous Mulligan. “That’s not normal. That’s the most surreal thing to have happened to me.”

Despite not having to read for Stone, Mulligan says of the future, “I hope I still have to go in an audition for roles.”

It may sound like a strange statement now that she’s in a rarified world where most of her Oscar-nominated peers are “offer only” hires. For Mulligan however, it’s about proving her worth.

“I’m scared NOT to audition because then it feels like I haven’t earned the job,” she says. “It’s nice to have done the audition and say, ‘I passed the exam,’ rather than have people hire me and then hope that I can play the role. I feel very unqualified, otherwise.”