Chemistry is key on screen. You put the wrong group of actors together and it won’t matter how good the script is or how talented the director is. It’s one reason the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture has become such a prestigious honor in just 22 years. Previous winners range from “The Birdcage,” “Traffic,” “Gosford Park,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” to last year’s winner “Spotlight.” 2016 has provided another stellar group of ensembles for the industry’s actors to choose from.
Notable ensembles that deserve the Screen Actors Guild’s attention include “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Arrival,” “American Honey,” and “Love & Friendship.”
There is big screen and Broadway star power in “Fences” with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and relative newcomer Jovan Adepo, who bring August Wilson’s play to life. The struggling residents of West Texas are represented in David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” thanks to the impressive contributions of Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey, Katy Mixon, and Marin Ireland. Mike Mills’ semi-autographical “20th Century Women” features tour de force turns from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and Lucas Jade Zumann. Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” features an all-star prestige cast including Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Isla Fisher, Jena Malone, Andrea Riseborough, and Michael Sheen.
And then there is Ted Melfi’s “.” When Taraji P. Henson signed on to star in the historical drama she knew the movie wouldn’t work without the right ensemble around her. The story of three African-American women who went largely unheralded for their contributions to NASA’s space program, “Figures” is a film where a number of key supporting roles have an impact on the entire story. Cast those incorrectly and the whole movie might fall apart like an unsteady Jenga tower.
“I was still working on ‘Empire’ and every time it came time to cast someone Ted would run it by me,” Henson says. “I got excited when Octavia [Spencer] got attached and then Janelle [Monáe] and then Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst. I was like, ‘Oh, we have a really big movie here.’”
Mahershala Ali, Glenn Powell, and Aldis Hodge eventually rounded out the cast.
“What it meant for me is now we had a thoroughbred movie,” Henson says. “Once they cast me I was like ‘OK, I know what I can bring to the table, but I can’t do it by myself.’ As a producer as well I understand it’s all in the casting.”
Henson’s co-star and Academy Award winner Spencer says what made the cast click was its selflessness to serve the story. “We’re all pieces of a larger puzzle,” she says. “If it were only about Katherine Johnson [played by Henson] then it would not have focused on the outside lives or the relationships between Katherine, Mary [Jackson] and Dorothy [Vaughn]. And the wonderful thing was there were no egos. Everyone knew we were there to service the history of these people. That’s why the chemistry just leaps off screen with everyone. Everyone who encounters Taraji and their relationship and you can feel the camaraderie.”
Monáe and Ali also appear in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” with perhaps the purest ensemble of the year, as there is no true lead. The three-part drama shot over just 25 days in Miami with at least 10 significant speaking roles. Jenkins had some actors, including Harris, on set for just three days or others such as Ali, who filmed his scenes just on the weekends around his TV commitments. And, yes, that meant absolutely no time to rehearse beforehand.
“Literally, you get to work and you look around and are often shooting the first take,” Ali says. “You know, physically showing up and, ‘All right, so this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to walk, blah, blah, blah, blah. OK, let’s try it and action.’ It becomes rehearsal because you didn’t get it in the first take, but, yeah, there’s no rehearsal in film today.”
Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is another example of a sterling group of actors working elegantly together on screen. While Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams are the most heralded performances from the Sundance drama the film also includes superb work from Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Tate Donovan, and Heather Burns.
Hedges, whose young career has included roles in “Moonlight Kingdom” and “Kill the Messenger,” admits he was apprehensive about working with the critically lauded Affleck. Especially as his role as Patrick, the suddenly orphaned nephew of Affleck’s character was essential to the movie’s emotional storyline.
“I think a lot of my intimidation with Casey was that he’s such a classic leading man and kind of a macho leading man and I don’t see myself as one of those even on my best days,” Hedges says. “It wasn’t like my artistic integrity as it was my integrity as a man. I felt intimidated as another man. And as well on top of that I was also intimidated by him because he’s an amazing actor and I wanted to do a good job.”
That’s where Lonergan came in. The director worked with Hedges in making his portrayal of Patrick “tougher.” How did they make that work without making it seem forced?
“Some of it was simply just doing daydreams about Patrick’s life and imagining scenarios where I got into fights as a kid and was triumphant,” Hedges says. “People have memories of intimidating people or they have memories of humiliating or embarrassed. And I gave myself of striking fear into other people’s hearts. That was enough to change my physical chemistry as I moved as Patrick.”
There are two contenders with stories that focus on the leads, but also have vital ensembles. Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is an old-fashioned movie musical centered on a romance between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). But it wouldn’t dance without the contributions of J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt, Callie Hernandez, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott, and John Legend in his film debut. And “Loving” tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a mixed race couple who spent years fighting for their right to have their marriage recognized in their home state of Virginia. Jeff Nichols’ period drama is also filled with memorable work from Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Terri Abney, Alano Miller, Jon Bass and Michael Shannon.
It was the quality of the actors in front of and behind the camera that made the Ethiopia-born and Ireland-raised Negga want to be part of the production.
“The caliber of people involved in this — I knew I wanted to work with people like that on this project, that we would all be supportive of one another in that sense,” Negga says. “When you work with people at the top your game and at the top of their game it makes you a better artist, actor, performer.”
Like many of her peers Negga had no time to rehearse before shooting, but says the cast recognized what it would take to be on point in front of the camera. She notes, “We all had a deep reverence for this couple. We knew we’d have to pull out all the stops. So, we did that.”
Often, films about the industry are embraced by SAG — see “Birdman” and “Argo” in recent years. So while “La La Land” and its tale of struggling artists is likely to resonate, there’s also “Florence Foster Jenkins,” in which Meryl Streep plays a hilariously awful opera singer. The stellar ensemble includes Hugh Grant, Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay, Nina Arianda, and Simon Helberg. Helberg actually stands to land two ensemble nominations this year, as he also stars in “The Big Bang Theory,” which has been nominated for TV Comedy Ensemble the past five years in a row.
Asked what the key to a good ensemble is and Helberg jokes, “Well, clearly it’s me! If both get nominated, I think you’ve found the missing ingredient.”
Joking aside, Helberg credits casting and listening. “Obviously, there’s a million elements: the writing, the directing, the way it all comes together,” he says. “But casting and listening are key. For our show and for the film, the casting choices weren’t necessarily obvious or shiny kind of choices. It was about: Are these people right and are they going to do something with this character that might surprise people? And once you’re in it, you listen to each other and make sure you’re telling the same story.”
Company Players Step Into Focus
A look at some of the film and TV ensembles that could land nominations.
Florence Foster Jenkins
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Patriots Day Mark
20th Century Women
Better Call Saul
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
This Is Us
The Big Bang Theory
The Good Place
Orange Is the New Black
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
What: 23rd SAG Awards
When: Dec. 14
Where: Pacific Design Center,
West Hollywood, Calif.