Oscar Nominees Learned New Skills and Forgot Old Ones for Their Roles

Florence Foster Jenkins
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

If great acting is all about slipping on a mask and completely inhabiting a character, it also often brings with it diverse challenges. Some of which entail quickly learning demanding new skills — or even unlearning old ones.

And while most actors are quick to say that they love a challenge, some of the preparation and training they’re asked to do for a specific part can be quite daunting, especially when it involves something as familiar and visceral as music and dance.

Pretty much everyone recognizes a good hoofer or pianist or vocalist when they see or hear them. Which is why Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the stars of Oscar frontrunner “La La Land” — neither of whom are natural dancers, singers, or musicians — had to spend months learning to sing and dance for the musical. In Gosling’s case, he also had to learn to play jazz piano.

“Ryan could play a little bit of basic piano stuff and he’s definitely musical,” says writer-director Damien Chazelle. “And he was very adamant right from the start that he’d learn all the pieces and then play them himself, and he did. He practiced intensely for four months before the shoot. By the time we shot he could play. There’s no cheating, no hand double. They’re his hands, even on the close-ups. That’s how committed he was.”

Chazelle says that learning the dance routines was equally demanding for both stars. “They both had a little dance experience — him more than her, I think. But it was fairly minimal and in different styles than what was needed for this. So it was a lot of hard work, and they had to do a lot of rehearsal and training. Mandy Moore is also a great dance instructor as well as a choreographer, so she did both at the same time — training them and building the choreography out of that and what suited each actor and each character. It was all very organic and designed and tailored specifically for them.”

At the other extreme, Mahershala Ali says he had to “unlearn technique” when he co-starred as the menacing drug dealer and unlikely mentor Juan opposite young newcomer Alex Hibbert in “Moonlight.”

‘Manchester’ star Casey Affleck and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan are both nominees.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“I’m a trained professional, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and we usually try and work so much out ahead in terms of approach, but he was a born actor and so comfortable in his own skin, that I had to go back and do less [in a scene], every time I found myself ‘acting,’” he says. “I didn’t want all my training and experience to get in the way of his natural authenticity. He basically dictated the tone, as he didn’t really have any technique, and it was just so truthful.”

Ali also co-starred opposite another newbie, singer- songwriter Janelle Monáe, in both “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures.” “But that was different, because she was already a very accomplished, experienced performer,” he says. “Even so, she was very nervous at first, understandably, but she really relaxed once Barry [Jenkins, the director] explained that there were ‘no mistakes, just different takes.’ And by the time we shot ‘Hidden Figures,’ she’d grown so much, and had a far better understanding of film and how to deal with her role.”

Like Streep, a lot of actors  — Ruth Negga, Natalie Portman, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Octavia Spencer, and Andrew Garfield — played characters based on the lives of real people, and with that comes an added sense of responsibility, says “Hidden Figures’” Spencer, “because you know that there are lives and legacies that extend beyond your work on the screen. And, because it took fifty years for these women to be recognized for their work, it’s imperative that the first time they are seen on the world stage, that we do them justice.”

To that end, the star researched the woman she plays, Dorothy Vaughn, as well as the other primary female characters on the internet, and found very little about them. “So, I had to approach [author] Margot Lee Shetterly who had copious notes from her various interviews of the women and their families. We were given the first few chapters of her book ‘Hidden Figures,’ a comprehensive, non-fiction document about the female computers,” she says. “I also watched several hours of archival footage about NASA and supplemented that with the documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’ to put me right back in the psychology of the era. I rounded out the prep by training with an IBM consultant, a mathematician, and mechanic to help me in the scenes where I worked on the computer and the car.”

But the main challenge for Spencer was the time period itself, “as that era and the preceding were unkind to people of color. So, for me knowing that Dorothy was of an elite group of highly intelligent and educated people who were still seen as second-class citizens within their own country was difficult. It definitely permeated every aspect of Dorothy’s life and my portrayal of her.”

For Garfield, the star of Mel Gibson’s harrowing war epic “Hacksaw Ridge,” the main challenge “was attempting to capture and embody the essence of this mysterious man, Desmond Doss. Not just outwardly — his physicality and voice — but his inner essence that was so pure.”

The actor prepared by travelling to Doss’ hometown. “I walked where he walked, handled the tools he used, read love letters between him and his wife, watched the fantastic documentary ‘The Conscientious Objector’ by Terry Benedict on loop, and researched the period,” he says.

He also worked with a former U.S. Army vet and personal trainer, “who took me through the type of training an American serviceman would have undergone during WWII, and I learned as much of the medical skills as possible that Desmond would have learned.”

Like Spencer, Garfield felt an added responsibility to be as truthful as possible to Doss’ memory. “He was such a beautiful person, someone whose story has the power to change and inspire other people,” he says. “Desmond was that person. A man that makes you look at yourself and the world and your duty to the world and other people in a new and deeper way. A man who puts you in contact with your own yearning to be more truly who you are. Uncompromised.”

Sometimes a role is so polarizing that the first challenge is simply finding an actor willing to take it on. Such was the case with “Elle” for director Paul Verhoeven, who’s always been a natural born provocateur and unafraid to go where most other directors fear to tread — especially in the thorny areas of sex, violence, and gender politics. “We’d originally planned to cast an American actress and make it in America, and we tried about six A-list actresses and they all refused to do it,” he says of his film, which opens with a brutal rape scene. “But Isabelle [Huppert] really wanted to do it and was fearless, so we moved it back to Paris.”

“When I read the book I immediately saw the potential of the role,” says Huppert. “A fearless woman, a survivor, a kind of integrity in her behavior that makes you feel empathy for this strange journey into the most un-confessable depths of her psyche. I trusted Paul Verhoeven, I had total confidence in his approach, and I never considered it a challenge to be as true as possible in these situations that the film describes.”

“He practiced intensely for four months before the shoot. There’s no cheating, no hand double. They’re his hands, even on the close-ups. That’s how committed he was.”

So what’s her view now of her character? Is she a victim, a strong woman surrounded by fools, or a contradictory mix of both? “Michelle is undoubtedly a little bit of all that,” she says. “She is not a victim, because she does not want to be a victim. She is strong, but is not the caricature of the avenger behaving in a male pattern like taking the gun and shooting the guy. All of this is more like an experiment for her. She is cool enough to create this amazing distance from the darkest events of her life. She also has a great sense of humor, which is more like self-protection for her — a weapon against too much compassion.”

Healing and wounds — of the emotional variety — are also at the core of  “Manchester by the Sea” in which Lucas Hedges stars as a teenage boy whose uncle (Casey Affleck) is forced to take care of him after his father suddenly passes away. His “big challenge” was learning to fully inhabit “Patrick’s assertiveness,” he says. “He’s constantly, openly fighting, whereas I tend to retreat and even give up. I’m by nature very different and far more introspective, so it was very strange at first. But [director] Kenny Lonergan is such a great writer that, even though it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, it was also the easiest, as it was all on the page.”

For Viggo Mortensen, playing the title role of unconventional father of six Ben Cash in Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” presented many challenges. “There were the technical and physical challenges that young actors playing my children and I faced together — the musical sequences, the rock climbing, the martial-arts training, and the overall fitness work,” he says. “We worked hard as a team during our preparation, and learned to rely on one another.”

There were also some “delicate individual emotional transitions” required of the character. “The moments of loss and helplessness that eventually lead to Ben finding a new balance as an individual and within his family had to be acted in a way that was credible, neither overly underplayed nor pushed too hard,” he says.

“With Matt’s help, my goal was to allow those moments to follow naturally from the story’s previous events. In my opinion, there are few things worse than grandstanding in such situations. Actors are sometimes tempted, if not well-intentioned or directed, to overdo emotional work, drawing inordinate attention to a character’s inner turmoil through excessive external shows of grief or hysteria. While actors sometimes receive praise for standing out from the rest of the movie and the work of their fellow actors through displays of overwrought emotion, such stand-alone flourishes are almost never as helpful to the overall story as the kind of work that is free yet stays ‘in the pocket’ of what any particular scene actually requires.”
Mortensen admits: “It’s hard to determine exactly what sort of discretion is required at any given time, where the line is between truthfully serving the story and simply showing off unnecessarily as an actor.

For the specific journey that Ben was on, Matt and I felt it was important to be relatively subtle, for the character to seem genuinely stymied, sincerely at a loss. In retrospect, I suppose that trying to get those transitions just right, without over-thinking them, was one of the more important challenges I faced.”