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Always focused and intense on screen, versatile actor Barry Pepper established himself as one of the more promising young actors to emerge in the late-1990s while working with filmmakers that included Steven Spielberg and Frank Darabont. After debuting in the firefighting thriller "Firestorm" (1998), the Canadian-born Pepper was thrust into the limelight as a member of an impressive ensemble cast in Spielberg's harrowing WWII drama "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). More major productions like "Enemy of the State" (1998) and "The Green Mile" (1999) followed in quick succession, placing Pepper at the top of the in-demand young stars. That is, until the epic box office failure of the reviled "Battlefield Earth" (2000) threatened to derail Pepper's nascent career. He recovered nicely, however, with well regarded turns in projects such as the baseball biopic "61*" (HBO, 2001), "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005), and "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006). By the end of the decade Pepper had regained his hard-earned status with prominent roles in two critically lauded efforts - "True Grit" (2010) and "The Kennedys" (Reelz Channel, 2011), again making him a go-to character actor who elevated all of his...
Always focused and intense on screen, versatile actor Barry Pepper established himself as one of the more promising young actors to emerge in the late-1990s while working with filmmakers that included Steven Spielberg and Frank Darabont. After debuting in the firefighting thriller "Firestorm" (1998), the Canadian-born Pepper was thrust into the limelight as a member of an impressive ensemble cast in Spielberg's harrowing WWII drama "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). More major productions like "Enemy of the State" (1998) and "The Green Mile" (1999) followed in quick succession, placing Pepper at the top of the in-demand young stars. That is, until the epic box office failure of the reviled "Battlefield Earth" (2000) threatened to derail Pepper's nascent career. He recovered nicely, however, with well regarded turns in projects such as the baseball biopic "61*" (HBO, 2001), "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005), and "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006). By the end of the decade Pepper had regained his hard-earned status with prominent roles in two critically lauded efforts - "True Grit" (2010) and "The Kennedys" (Reelz Channel, 2011), again making him a go-to character actor who elevated all of his projects.
Born Barry Robert Pepper on April 4, 1970 in Campbell River, British Columbia, Canada, he was the son of an adventurous, retired lumberjack, who, after completing a 50-foot sailboat the family had been building for years in their backyard, embarked on a journey to the South Pacific with the five-year-old Pepper, his two older brothers and their mother. For the next five years, the Peppers sailed throughout the South Seas, using only the stars and a sextant as guides. Pepper himself was raised and educated via correspondence courses or in local public schools in such exotic locales as New Zealand, Tahiti and Fiji. He credited these early experiences with developing his early love of performance. From the islanders, he learned to embrace music and dance, and his family encouraged him to pass the long hours on board their seafaring home through improvisation and acting games. The Peppers eventually returned to Canada and settled on a small island off the coast of Vancouver, which was home to an artists' colony. Adjusting to a more traditional adolescence, Pepper excelled at both performance and sports, particularly rugby and volleyball. He graduated from George P. Vanier Secondary School in 1988 and briefly pursued a college degree in marketing and design. However, it would not be long before Pepper admitted to himself that his true aspirations lay in acting, and he soon transferred to the Vancouver Actors Studio in pursuit of his dream.
Pepper made his U.S. television debut with a bit part in the based-on-fact murder mystery "A Killer Among Friends" (CBS, 1992). Closer to home, he also landed a recurring role on the Canadian teen drama series "Madison" (GTN, 1993-97). Things began to pick up for Pepper with a string of mid-1990s guest spots on series that included "Sliders" (Fox, 1995-97; SyFy, 1998-2000), "Lonesome Dove: The Series" (CBS, 1994-95), and "The Outer Limits" (Showtime, 1995-2002). There was also work in the direct-to-video comedy "Urban Safari" (1996), and a supporting role in the two-part miniseries "Titanic" (CBS, 1996), one year prior to the release of James Cameron's blockbuster of the same name. He made his feature film debut in the easily forgotten action-thriller "Firestorm" (1998), starring ex-NFL great Howie Long as a heroic forest firefighter. It was Pepper's participation in director Steven Spielberg's riveting World War II action drama "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) that same year that would alter the trajectory of the young thespian's career. Cast as Pvt. Daniel Jackson, an army sharpshooter whose deeply religious beliefs put him at odds with his deadly work, Pepper more than held his own alongside the likes of more established actors, including the film's star, Tom Hanks.
In the wake of the phenomenal success of "Private Ryan," Pepper was quickly cast as earnest, conflicted men in two back-to-back features. In the surveillance thriller "Enemy of the State" (1998), directed by Tony Scott and starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman, he played an ethically-challenged detective. Reteaming with Hanks the following year, Pepper effectively portrayed a hot-headed prison guard in the adaptation of Stephen King's metaphysical drama "The Green Mile" (1999), directed by Frank Darabont. His string of films were all critical and financial hits, earning Pepper three nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and an Online Film Critics Society Award as part of the ensembles in "Private Ryan" and "The Green Mile." That winning streak, unfortunately, would come to a screeching halt with the release of his next major motion picture, the infamous disaster "Battlefield Earth" (2000). Based on the science fiction novel of the same name by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and starring John Travolta as a member of a brutal alien race, the film was met with nearly universal derision by critics and audiences alike. Pepper's co-starring role - his most prominent up to that point - earned him a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor. In a display of good natured humor, the actor claimed that had he known of the impending win in advance, he would have gladly accepted the award in person.
Pepper's next project was the original film "61*" (HBO, 2001), in which he played clean-cut and determined baseball legend Roger Maris. Directed by Billy Crystal, the film earned him more positive notices and nominations as Best Actor from the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Broadcast Film Critics Association. He worked steadily over the next few years in a variety of genres, including the gangster comedy drama "Knockaround Guys" (2001) and a return to the military battlefield in Mel Gibson's gritty Vietnam War film "We Were Soldiers" (2002). That same year, he also turned in a strong performance alongside Edward Norton in Spike Lee's overlooked drama "25th Hour" (2002). He then returned to his native Canada to co-produce and star in actor Charles Martin Smith's "The Snow Walker" (2004), a 1950s drama about a pilot struggling to survive in the frozen Canadian tundra with his ill Inuit passenger (Annabella Piugattuk). He garnered further praise back in the States for his role as racing legend Dale Earnhardt in the made-for-TV biopic "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story" (ESPN, 2004), which he also co-produced. Pepper next gave a particularly powerful performance as a violent and confused rookie patrolman who unwillingly accompanies Tommy Lee Jones across the Mexican border to pay final respects to a friend in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005).
Pepper next took over a character previously portrayed by the likes of Matt Damon and John Malkovich when he played the amoral Tom Ripley in Roger Spottiswoode's largely unseen "Ripley Under Ground" (2005). Another barely noticed project came the following year with the thriller "Unknown" (2006), starring Jim Caviezel and Greg Kinnear. More notable was his co-starring role in Clint Eastwood's World War II historical drama "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006), which focused on the U.S. servicemen who raised the American flag during the costly battle for Iwo Jima. The actor portrayed Marine Sergeant Michael Strank, one of six soldiers captured in the iconic picture that was used by the government to rally a weary public behind the war effort. While Strank and his two comrades who died on the island were memorialized as heroes, the three surviving soldiers (Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford and Ryan Phillippe) struggled with their unwanted celebrity and the nightmarish memories that haunted them upon returning home. After a two-year hiatus, Pepper returned to the screen, once again alongside Will Smith, in the redemption drama "Seven Pounds" (2008).
Next for Pepper were two low-profile independent features, the first being the docudrama "Princess Kaiulani" (2009), depicting the plight of Hawaii's last days of independence before being colonized by the United States. That same year saw him co-starring with Mira Sorvino in the little-seen but critically praised "Like Dandelion Dust" (2009). In the film, Pepper portrayed Rip Porter, a recovering alcoholic who, upon his release from prison, learns of the existence of a son born during his incarceration. More television work included another biopic alongside Winona Ryder, who portrayed the founder of the relatives of alcoholics support group Al-Anon in "When Love is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story" (CBS, 2010). Staying within the realm of based-on-fact material, Pepper appeared in theaters in the political satire "Casino Jack" (2010), starring Kevin Spacey in the title role as Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist at the center of one of the largest corruption scandals in the history of the White House.
Pepper ended that year and began the next on a high note when he picked up a supporting role in Joel and Ethan Coen's re-envisioning of the classic Western revenge tale "True Grit" (2010) that starred Jeff Bridges as U.S. Marshal 'Rooster' Cogburn, a character originally immortalized on film by John Wayne. Pepper played outlaw 'Lucky' Ned Pepper in the critically hailed film, which received an impressive total of 10 Academy Award nominations. Continuing with his hot streak of lauded productions, he next co-starred with Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes in the biographical miniseries "The Kennedys" (Reelz Channel, 2011). The eight-part series, which initially struggled to find a distributor, chronicled the legacy of the powerful American political family - in particular the stern patriarch Joseph, Sr. (Tom Wilkinson), assassinated President John F. Kennedy (Kinnear), and loyal brother and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Pepper), who would also be slain by an assassin during his own election campaign in 1968. Although heavily criticized for several historical inaccuracies and oversights - in particular, the failure to include brother Sen. Edward Kennedy in any portion of the story - the production went on to garner several nominations, including one for Pepper as Best Actor in a Miniseries. Although he was a no-show at the Emmy Awards, he beat out co-star Kinnear to win the Emmy in 2011.
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On the differences between boot camps for "Saving Private Ryan" and "We Were Soldiers", Barry Pepper told Louis Hobson of the Calgary Sun (March 2, 2002): "The one for Ryan was much more intense because we were out in the forest sleeping in tents, eating rations, trudging through mud. At Fort Benning, we ate in the mess hall, slept in barracks and trained with the recruits."
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