Bar none, the most competitive acting race this season is for best supporting actor. The number of ensembles with multiple standout portrayals, as well as films with scene-stealing turns, makes for a dense category that could easily stretch to 10 nominations. This year, a lot of fine work is going to be left on the sidelines.
Let’s start with the ensembles. “Spotlight” — by any measure a strong best picture contender and likely the year’s Screen Actors Guild winner for best performance by a cast in a motion picture — is filled to the brim with prospects. Indeed, the entire cast will compete in the supporting category. Michael Keaton, fresh off last year’s best actor circuit, is probably out front in “Spotlight” as the conscience of the movie. But Mark Ruffalo sparks with a fiercely mannered portrait of a beat journalist; Liev Schreiber’s dialed down editor-in-chief simmers on a different level; and Stanley Tucci, as a forthright, noble attorney, got perhaps the biggest applause at the film’s official Academy screening.
The “Hateful Eight” ensemble could end up being “Spotlight’s” biggest SAG competition. Samuel L. Jackson will be the only actor campaigned as a lead, leaving Walton Goggins’ showy sheriff-to-be and Kurt Russell’s rowdy, raunchy bounty hunter most likely to pop among a supporting cast that also includes Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth.
As for other ensembles, Joel Edgerton, as complicit FBI agent John Connolly, is the stand-out in an organic and finely calibrated cast that supports Johnny Depp’s possessed portrayal of Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass”; Christian Bale is typically enigmatic as a hedge fund manager/savant in “The Big Short”; Robert De Niro could score points in David O. Russell’s “Joy”; and Jason Mitchell is getting the most buzz among the “Straight Outta Compton” crew so far.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of arguably lead performances in play– the sort that are always formidable when relegated to the supporting ranks. Jacob Tremblay, for instance, is in virtually every scene of “Room” and brings an incredible innocence to the picture that heightens emotion. And as Beach Boy Brian Wilson (younger version), Paul Dano is going the supporting route in “Love & Mercy,” with John Cusack (older version) in the lead. Dano could be the film’s best shot at recognition from the acting branch.
Among roles that get screen time more in line with the supporting category, Mark Rylance brings dry wit to his performance as a captured Soviet spy in “Bridge of Spies”; Benicio Del Toro coolly slithers through most of “Sicario”; Idris Elba is a primal, seductive force in “Beasts of No Nation”; and Tom Hardy tears into “The Revenant.”
But voters might want to wade farther afield, as there is great work out there beyond the usual names that dominate prognosticators’ discussions. Kyle Chandler, for instance, is underrated as Cate Blanchett’s soon-to-be-ex-husband in “Carol.” Emory Cohen is a delight as one of Saoirse Ronan’s love interests in “Brooklyn.” Both of Josh Brolin’s performances, as a swaggering climber in “Everest” and a mystery man in “Sicario,” merit voters’ love. There’s a lot out there: Michael Shannon’s unscrupulous broker in “99 Homes,” Forest Whitaker’s crusty trainer in “Southpaw,” Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.”
Still, one performance to really keep an eye on is Sylvester Stallone’s emotional turn in “Creed.” Like Harrison Ford in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the 69-year-old actor brings a beloved character from ’70s cinema back to life. It might be his finest on-screen work to date, and if the movie can catch an awards stride rather than merely be a commercial success, he could even find himself in the conversation for the podium.