Ben Shenkman & Justin Kirk give one of the year's Great Performances
For a young actor looking for a high-profile project, few decisions are easier: If Mike Nichols offers you a part in his $60 million adaptation of Tony Kushner's masterwork Angels in America for HBO -- also starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep -- hell yes, you say yes. Only later do you start sweating how you're going to pull it off. ''I never suffered so much self-doubt as an actor,'' says Justin Kirk (TV's Jack & Jill), who struggled to connect with his Prior Walter, an AIDS-stricken would-be prophet. Ditto Ben Shenkman (Requiem for a Dream), who portrayed Prior's boyfriend, Louis, a word processor prone to long-winded left-wing rhetoric. Despite having played the character in regional theater, Shenkman felt self-conscious about performing Louis' elevated orations for the cameras. ''Personally, Angels never really worked until the audience was there. Until then, it felt like a stretch,'' he says. ''Making the movie felt like that a lot of the time.'' Blissfully, that's not the experience watching it: Kirk and Shenkman infuse their men with humanity, humility, and humor. ''I knew it doesn't get any bigger,'' says Kirk, who, like Shenkman, is still searching for his follow-up. ''The words don't get any better. The people that you're in the room with don't get any better.'' Jokes Shenkman: ''It will be, in fact, impossible to find anything as fulfilling. It's basically over.'' Nah. With performances like these, their careers have only just begun.