BAFTA contenders recall Oscar campaigns

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As a girl, Kate Winslet practiced accepting an Oscar in front of the bathroom mirror with a shampoo bottle, while Tilda Swinton says the only race she dreamed of winning was the Cheltenham Gold Cup — as a horse.

Each year, a bunch of Brits are flung into the dizzying whirlwind of the film world’s awards season. Some are more prepared than others and more eager to seize the opportunities on offer.

For months they shuttle to and fro across the Atlantic, pressing the flesh, attending screenings and answering the same questions a hundred times. The successful ones walk the red carpet from the Golden Globes to SAG, then back home for the BAFTAs — a crucial moment that often reveals whether they have enough momentum to make it all the way to the Kodak Theater.

The British actors being pushed in this year’s race are a mix of campaign veterans, sophomores and rookies, including Colin Firth, Lesley Manville, Helena Bonham Carter, Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson, Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Jim Broadbent, Kristin Scott Thomas and Swinton.

Manville, like Firth last year and Swinton the year before, is the latest Brit to be swept suddenly into the Oscar spotlight after years of achievement just beyond Hollywood’s mainstream eyeline. That’s something of a British tradition: The likes of Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Broadbent all got their first Oscar nods relatively late in their careers.

With her performance as the desperate, boozy Mary in “Another Year,” Manville is following in the footsteps of Hawkins, Imelda Staunton, Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who were unknown to American audiences before a plum Leigh role propelled them into the award race.

At age 54, Manville is embracing the experience with gusto. She’s got herself a new American manager and is throwing herself wholeheartedly into her promotional chores. With her son now grown, she regards it as perfect timing to raise her profile in Hollywood and embark on a new phase in her career.

She’s being cheered on by her fellow pros in Blighty. “We would all love Lesley Manville to win every prize going,” says Swinton generously.

Leigh, of course, is Manville’s biggest fan. “I desperately want Lesley to get what she deserves,” he says. “To see an actor getting her reward who really has earned it by going to hell and back, I derive great parental joy from that.”

Geoffrey Rush, back on the stump with “The King’s Speech,” found himself in a similar position to Manville back in 1995, when “Shine” transformed him from a respected Australian theater actor into an international film star.

“I must have been 45,” he recalls. “It came at a point in my life when I thought, ‘You know what, there’s nothing to lose here.’

“For nine months, you’re on a whirlwind trajectory. Everything was new. There’s no handbook to tell you how to behave. Billy Bob Thornton said to me, ‘I’m from Arkansas, you’re from Queensland, we should turn up to the Oscars in a pickup truck.’ ”

Rush’s Academy Award opened a fresh chapter in his career. Swinton, by contrast, says winning didn’t change much for her, because she wasn’t looking for Hollywood roles.

“Everything I’ve done since winning an Oscar, I was going to do anyway,” she says. “I haven’t taken up any offers that I wouldn’t have got otherwise. In fact, I haven’t really been available to look at them, so I don’t even know if I’ve had any.

“In a way, winning an Oscar was wasted on me,” she muses. “I feel it’s a red herring on my trajectory, but maybe it’s not. If it could be scientifically proven that it has helped ‘I Am Love’ or my work with Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lynne Ramsay or the 8 1/2 Foundation, then great, I’m very grateful, and I’m not going to mess with it.”

Hawkins is a contender again for “Made in Dagenham,” two years after she won a Golden Globe as an unknown for Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” but missed out on BAFTA or Oscar nods. She’s just finished a Broadway run in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” and says she would never have got that part without her Globes win.

Nonetheless, she admits to finding the demands of award season overwhelming.

“I’m not very good at dealing with being in the limelight,” she says. “It’s wonderful, exciting, completely bewildering and a bit scary, because it’s a world you don’t know. You don’t know how to be in those situations and what’s expected of you.”

It can be hard to keep a grip on reality, she says. “Because there’s so much hype in order to get a film sold, you don’t know what’s self-generated and what is genuine excitement from an audience seeing a film,” she notes. “I don’t think you can ever be fully equipped to deal with it, because it’s such a weird world, that side of the business. You just have to keep grounded and remember it’s not really about you at all, it’s about the film.”

Her co-star Miranda Richardson, tipped for a supporting actress nod, says the whole business of awards has become far more intense since her first experience in the early ’90s, when she got Oscar nods for “Tom and Viv” and “Damage.”

“There was a lot less heat and a lot less drive back then,” Richardson says, “but once Miramax came on the scene, it became really like a horse race.”

Yet Bonham Carter, another supporting actress candidate for “The King’s Speech,” is taking a more relaxed approach than when she was first nominated 13 years ago.

“I’ve been over to L.A., but I haven’t done much,” she says. “On ‘Wings of a Dove,’ I did a lot. It was ridiculous — you get totally hijacked by it.”

Bonham Carter is surprised about the fuss around her performance in “King’s Speech.”

“I thought it was a boys’ film,” she says. “Sometimes you get nominated for the wrong things. I’m not knocking it, because I want the good roles, so if it helps me get another really good part, that’s great. For that moment, when you’re nominated, you get offered parts you wouldn’t otherwise be offered. After ‘Wings of a Dove,’ I got ‘Fight Club.’ When you are up for awards, they remember you’re still alive.”

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