Actors Revel in Playing Real Life People in This Year’s Crop of Oscar Hopefuls

Biopics have been a staple in global cinema for decades, but have seemingly become more prevalent over the past few years.  In fact, it’s gotten to the point that established actors who haven’t played a real person at some point early in their career are few and far between.  And here’s a news flash: based on this sample, most actors seem to really enjoy it.  Will Smith has already earned two Oscar nominations for his portraits of real people, first with Muhammad Ali in “Ali,” then as Chris Gardner in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” And he’s back in the race this year as Dr. Bennet Omalu, who battled the NFL to expose a football-related brain trauma in “Concussion.”

Another case in point, Kate Winslet. The Oscar winner has portrayed five historical figures to date and could barely contain her enthusiasm describing the research that went into playing Joanna Hoffman in “Steve Jobs.”

“I really enjoy having those references or that person to turn to,” Winslet says. “In many ways when I did ‘A Little Chaos,’ that Alan Rickman directed a couple of years ago, I was the only invented character in that entire thing and I was so frustrated because everyone else had a history book to refer to.”

She adds, “I don’t really know.  It’s hard to describe. And there is nothing worse than reading about an actor and their process because no matter how carefully you try to word it you still sound like an a–hole.”
Yet, for a film whose principal character had passed away fewer than four years before filming commenced, Winslet says the real Hoffman became an invaluable resource not just for herself but also for co-star Michael Fassbender.

“She’d come into the rehearsal room and spend time with all of us and talk about her time at Apple,” Winslet recalls.  “It was amazing to hear her describe these working environments, but also to hear her describe her affection with Steve, because Michael and I were able to build some of that stuff in. The closeness, the physicality between them. Y’know they fling their arms around each other.  They hug. And all that stuff? It came from Joanna. None of it was in the script.”

Elizabeth Banks was also lucky enough to meet Melinda Ledbetter, the character she plays in “Love & Mercy.”  Over a number of years, Ledbetter helped legendary musician Brian Wilson (portrayed by John Cusack and Paul Dano in the film) escape from the domineering control of his former psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy.  According to Banks, the pair bonded quickly, but what she took away from their interactions was much more important than any specific recollections Ledbetter could share.

“There is nothing worse than reading about an actor and their process because no matter how carefully you try to work it you still sound like an a–hole.”

“I got a sense of the life she has now, which pulled me through. I suddenly knew that there was a crazy happy ending to this whole story that no one else knew about,” Banks says.  “They did it. They have 12 kids and five dogs and a beautiful house off of Mulholland and they are still into each other. Just knowing that helped. That answered a huge question for me.”
For Dano, who plays Wilson prior to his mental breakdown in the early ’70s, meeting the former Beach Boy before filming began would probably have been a mistake.

“I sort of knew he was a different person in the ’60s than he is now,” Dano recalls. “He also immediately sort of struck me as such an open sort of vessel that I really didn’t want to be tempted into mimicry right away. When you meet a person you might immediately start thinking about the external things and really, I think, it’s just got something raw and childlike in his spirit that was sort of the first thing to work towards before meeting him.”

Of course, most actors don’t ever get a chance to meet the historical people they play. But Eddie Redmayne has experienced both situations. He’s met Stephen Hawking, whom he portrayed in last year’s “The Theory of Everything,” for which he won the Academy Award for lead actor in February. But transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, whom he portrayed in “The
Danish Girl,” died in 1931.

Redmayne says, because the entire Hawking family would see the film that an “almost documentary-like scrutiny” was important in how he prepared for the role. He notes, “Meeting Stephen, obviously, he would be the ultimate judge. And so one approaches that in getting every document and piece of information  you can get your hands on. Whether it was films, documentaries, his books, people’s opinion pieces on him or when he’d appear on [a program such as] ‘The Simpsons,’ where his humor and his willingness to poke fun at himself [is evident].  But you’re also representing a disease and so for Stephen it was also about meeting people living with ALS and their families to make sure it was depicted accurately. You just wanted to make sure you got it right because people were absolutely living with this disease.”

In the case of Elbe, Redmayne had a number of books to reference including David Ebershoff’s original “Danish Girl” novel, a fictional interpretation of her story, and Elbe’s own autobiography that many question as a reliable source because of editorial involvement in its publication following her death in 1931. Unlike Hawking, however, it didn’t help that Redmayne and Elbe didn’t resemble each other.

“I suppose what was most important to me was an inherent truth in her experience,” Redmayne says.  “With Lili it was about meeting contemporary transwomen of this generation and hearing their stories and their experiences and trying to relate that to our script.”

Alicia Vikander, Redmayne’s co-star, first turned heads playing Caroline Matilda, an 18th century queen of Denmark, in 2012’s “A Royal Affair.” This year she not only portrayed Elbe’s wife, Gerda Wegener, in “The Danish Girl,” but also British icon Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth.” The role allowed Vikander the opportunity to meet Brittain’s daughter and other family members who actually remembered her. As with Redmayne and the Hawking family, she felt a responsibility to try and include their insights “because you want them to feel it’s real.” That being said, ultimately the film has to come first.

“I think with all three films it’s about trying to find the emotional essence of a person and get that right,” Vikander says. “And I think you need to have an artistic freedom to focus on the story that’s being told.”
Bryan Cranston also believes there is added responsibility in taking on a real person who has relatives still living. Plus there are probably even more people who actually knew the person still alive.  That was the case in “Trumbo” where the five-time Emmy Award winner portrayed Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Both daughters of the Oscar-winning screenwriter were on hand to consult with the production, but avoiding an impersonation was key for Cranston.

“Fortunately for me, there was a lot of source material,” Cranston says. “There were video and audio tapes and pictures and first-hand accounts of people who knew him and knew his temperament and irascibility and whatnot. But he wasn’t known well enough to have a lasting indelible impression on people’s minds or memories. So, I was able to play within a pretty large sandbox.”

Sometimes playing a real character provides an unexpected bonus or two. Jason Mitchell had a few minor Hollywood credits on his resume, but bringing beloved hip-hop artist Eazy-E to life in the summer phenomenon “Straight Outta Compton”? That sort of adulation moves him very quickly into the A-list ranks with the likes of Winslet, Cranston and Redmayne.
Mitchell says, “To have a first role where like a lot of people remember you as your character’s name, as an actor, for the rest of my life? That’s kind of a great thing.”

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