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Friday at TIFF: Clooney makes a surprise appearance; a 'Breaking Bad' reunion

Last Updated Sep 12, 2015 at 9:00 am PDT

TORONTO – The Toronto International Film Festival officially kicked off Thursday, launching a 40th anniversary edition packed with 399 movies. The star wattage ramped up on day 2 of the fest, with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain speaking at press conferences, and Emily Blunt, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Colin Farrell, Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul dressing up to walk the red carpets.

Here’s a look at some of the festival highlights from Friday:

Clooney made a surprise appearance to promote a film he helped produce. “Our Brand Is Crisis” is a fact-based story about rival American political strategists who work to fix a Bolivian presidential election. Clooney described the wry drama as an old but timely story.

“I think we’re laughing at the system, but we’ve been laughing at the system for a long time. I think it’s an interesting time where we sort of focus on how we actually elect our officials because I think that’s as interesting our elected officials.”

Academy Award winners Billy Bob Thornton and Sandra Bullock star as the rival strategists. Bullock told reporters the film’s message about manipulation goes far beyond just politics.

“It exists in every big business — there’s manipulation in the business that you guys do, the business that I do, it’s not just politics, it’s everything. It’s good that we’re able to uncover it and show everyone what it actually looks like so people can step back and maybe make better decisions.”

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Quebec director Denis Villeneuve delves back into the darkness with “Sicario” — a gritty thriller grounded in the trenches of the Mexican Drug War.

Villeneuve said he couldn’t imagine not bringing his film to the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Every movie, it’s like having a kid. It’s always an experience that is, in a way, new. And every movie you expect that the birth of the film will be done in the best conditions. And Toronto, for me, has always been part of those conditions — I mean it’s a very, very, very important film festival.”

Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and a reluctant Emily Blunt are the U.S. agents who traverse the U.S.-Mexico border to bait a brutal drug lord into revealing his location.

Del Toro said he was immediately drawn to the story and to Villeneuve’s vision for the film.

“It was an original kinda take as fiction, but is grounded in reality. And then there was Denis Villeneuve the director, how he explained his vision and what he wanted to do, you know made it a very appealing to me.”

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Damon felt like an alien as he promoted his space thriller “The Martian.”

“I literally just met most of the cast right now,” the Oscar-winning star told reporters at an afternoon press conference.

“Fifty-five actors were wrapped by the time I started working on the movie, so it was a very different kind of movie for me.”

Damon, who plays a NASA astronaut who’s stranded on Mars waiting to be rescued, performed most of his scenes alone.

Ridley Scott directed Drew Goddard’s script, which is based on Andy Weir’s novel. Co-stars include Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels.

Chastain, who called herself “such a nerd when it comes to space exploration now,” visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in preparation for her role. She also consulted with astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who stressed “how important it is that when you’re in space, to keep your ties to Earth.”

“So things like (wearing) your wedding ring, or sometimes they’ll surprise you with your favourite food. If you like M&M’s, you’ll get a surprise thing of M&M’s when you’re up there.”

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The morning after celebrating the world premiere of “Demolition,” the cast and director Jean-Marc Vallee did their best not to look bleary eyed at an 8:30 a.m. press conference.

You could forgive Gyllenhaal and company for not being exceedingly chipper as they faced a half hour of questions from reporters. Gyllenhaal, known as a studious actor who typically speaks thoughtfully about his craft in interviews, did his best to politely avoid a softball question on his favourite spots in Toronto and where fans might spot him in the city.

“You want a shout out, is that what you’re asking for? For a restaurant or a hair salon,” joked Gyllenhaal, as he tried to swat the query away.

When pressed for a real answer, Gyllenhaal blanked.

“I really feel like, being an American, that’s not appropriate for me to be recommending, but I’ll give it my best shot,” said a stalling Gyllenhaal, who after a few seconds of “uhh”-ing, was mercifully bailed out by the press conference moderator, who took the next question.

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At “Demolition”‘s inaugural screening, Vallee described the film — in which Gyllenhaal plays a widower who struggles to get on with his life after his wife’s sudden death — as his most “rock ‘n’ roll” to date.

“By nature, this film, its energy, its spirit, its rhythms, its themes, what it offers, it’s rock ‘n’ roll,” Vallee elaborated Friday.

“It makes noise and it provokes and makes you think.”

Vallee is hoping to move people with music on Sunday night.

He was selected as the guest DJ for a Canadian Film Festival/Directors Guild of Canada party, billed as the “ultimate, unapologetically Canadian” festival bash, where Atom Egoyan, Don McKellar, Tatiana Maslany and the Trailer Park Boys were expected to make appearances.

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Two stars of “Breaking Bad” had an impromptu reunion Friday morning.

While Bryan Cranston was sequestered in one hotel room to discuss his epic new film “Trumbo,” former onscreen adversary Dean Norris was cheerfully cruising the halls in anticipation of his own press duties.

Norris, who played DEA agent Hank Schrader opposite Cranston’s drug dealer Walter White, is in Toronto to promote his role in Atom Egoyan’s thriller “Remember.”

“I was walking down the hall and saw the ‘Trumbo’ (sign) and said, ‘Oh is Bryan there?’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah.’ So I just kind of surprised him,” Norris said afterwards.

“I acted like I was another journalist coming in to do a TV interview so it was great to see him. I hadn’t seen him in about six months, we usually end up seeing each other for various things in L.A., you know. It’s always a pleasure to see Bryan.”

In “Trumbo,” Cranston portrays the titular screenwriting great who was jailed and blacklisted in the 1950s over his supposed Communist ties.

Norris noted each of their films premieres Saturday night at the same time so the former co-stars won’t get a chance to catch each other’s screenings.

The TV star sidestepped questions about the possibility of joining the “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul” now that his CBS/Global series “Under the Dome” has ended.

“I was doing this other show so I was unable to even have any conversations about that,” he said. “We just found out we’re not (on anymore) so we’ll see. I don’t know. It’s a long way away.”

Norris said he’s eager to try his hand at comedy, noting he did an episode of Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”. He begins shooting the big screen comedy “Fist Fight” at the end of the month.