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This Year’s Oscar Actor Races Could Provide a Lot of First-Time Nominees

There are a number of universal constants every awards season. There will always be at least one upset. There will always be at least one major snub. And, assuredly, there will always be a number of talented contenders knocking on the door trying to break through for that first Oscar nomination.

This season, Sam Rockwell, who has been awards worthy in “Moon” and “Frost/Nixon,” among other films, finds himself a frontrunner his work in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Armie Hammer was buzzed about for “The Social Network,” but should have better luck with “Call Me by Your Name.” Adam Sandler is best known for broad comedies, but has earned acclaim for his dramatic work in “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Funny People.” He has his best shot at a nomination in years with his role in “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).”

But they certainly aren’t alone.

Since first gaining serious worldwide attention in “Animal Kingdom,” Ben Mendelsohn has delivered one knockout performance after another in films such as “Starred Up” and “Mississippi Grind.” In Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” he plays the pivotal part of King George VI, a monarch who isn’t entirely thrilled with the ascension of Winston Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, to prime minister. Mendelsohn immediately saw the potential of the role when it was offered to him.

“I was conscious of it when it came my way and I breathed, ‘I wasn’t going to let the opportunity go to waste,’” he says. “And look, if you’re going to make a film about Churchill and Gary Oldman’s going to be playing him, damn, I want to be there. I mean that’s pretty major. In my cultural lifetime, that’s an event. I was more motivated by that than the not playing a bad guy theme. I was very grateful. Also, playing a member of the English aristocracy? I’m a suburban Australian boy so that’s a certain delight itself.”

Mendelsohn has earned praise for portraying the monarch, recently portrayed in “The King’s Speech” and Netflix’s “The Crown,” as a man who confidently went toe to toe with one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century. “Darkest Hour” is actually the beginning of a potential career turner for the Aussie actor who will be seen next year in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” and Nicole Holofcener’s “The Lady of Steady Habits.” “It’s been an intense period and for someone who was roughly getting by several years back, it’s something that makes me smile when I’m driving around,” Mendelsohn says. “I get very, very grateful about it. I think, there’s more places that I’d like to go and things that if I get the time to try, I’m going to have a tilt at.”

For Ray Romano, being a part of Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” which is based on the true story of screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s romance, is simply the most “creatively fulfilling project” of his career since his Emmy-winning TV series “Everybody Loves Raymond.” He found out about the dramedy when producer Judd Apatow, whom he’d known since they appeared on a comedy special together 20 years prior, sent him the script.

“My first thing was I really didn’t know Kumail,” Romano says. “I kind of maybe peripherally might’ve heard of him or known him. I didn’t watch ‘Silicon Valley’ so I wasn’t really aware of him. My kids kind of give their opinion on the scripts before they even read them. When they heard Kumail was in it they told me, ‘You’ve got to do this, dad.’

“I read it, and I was interested right after I read it. I did not think this was going to happen,” he says. “I thought this is a nice movie,” he continues. “It’s Judd. It’s Kumail. Seems like a funny guy. It’s got some heart. Holly Hunter’s attached.”

“The Big Sick” focuses on an unexpected romantic relationship that is interrupted when Emily (Zoe Kazan) is struck by a serious illness. Romano and Hunter play Emily’s parents, who aren’t quite sure what to think of their daughter’s ex-boyfriend Kumail (Nanjiani) who waits by her bedside. Even though the movie was partially based on true events Gordon didn’t want either Hunter or Romano to feel as though they couldn’t come up with their own interpretations of the characters; they didn’t need to be influenced by meeting the real parents before shooting began.
In fact, they never met until the New York premiere.

“I think in the first screening,” Romano recalls, “One of the questions was, ‘Did I ever meet them?’ Kumail says, ‘Emily, tell Ray what your mom said.’ She said her mom watched the screening of it and said, ‘You know, Holly is prettier than me, but your father is much more handsome than Raymond.’”
After appearing in HBO’s “Vinyl” last summer, the New York native is reuniting with Martin Scorsese on his Netflix feature, “The Irishman.” The always-humble Romano says his chances for a nomination are not as great as some of his co-stars, but he’s rooting for them.

“Here’s what I’m hopeful for,” Romano says. “I think it has a chance to get nominated for screenplay and I think there’s a pretty good chance that Holly will be nominated. When people toss my name into the thing? No. You’re not going to convince me of that. … But the fact that we’re even having this conversation, you and me, is the best thing. It’s the best decision I made was to get involved with this movie, you know?”

Jason Mitchell has been down this road before. Two years ago his portrayal of Eazy-E was the breakout performance in “Straight Outta Compton.” As with the film itself, there was a lot of awards chatter around the film and Mitchell earned a SAG Award nomination in the ensemble category. It was Mitchell’s first major professional role and he saw the bright side of not making the Oscar cut after just stepping into the spotlight.

“A lot of people don’t know the business. The action of it, the grind of it,” Mitchell says. “And, I think part of not getting the Oscars sort of made me more [hungry] than getting one at the time. Because I felt like I was kind of in a safe place, because you come out and hit a home run on the first swing, they want you to hit a home run every time.”

In Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” Mitchell plays a young soldier returning to his family in the Mississippi countryside after serving his during World War II. His character has seen the world and fought with honor, but finds that doesn’t matter much back home in the deeply segregated South.

Mitchell based his performance on his own grandfather, who served in the war, returned home to Louisiana with just a fifth-grade education, but still ran his own business for 68 years. That’s one reason the film is so special to him, no matter the awards outcome.

“A hundred years from now, they’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow. OK,’” Mitchell says. “We nailed something to history that’s going to be there forever. Make it that art, and express it like that, it’s going to move people forever. That’s just f—–g dope.”

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