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Looking to Indie and Genre Performances in the Best Actress Oscar Race

This year’s race for lead actress could yield some surprising nominations, outside of some clear front-runners including Renee Zellweger (“Judy”), Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”), and Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”). It’s been a terrific year for female performances, with a wide selection of talent taking on challenging roles spread over various genres. The recent societal demand toward getting more films made with female protagonists seems to be paying off. And even if some of the better performances of the year are contained in smaller films, that doesn’t diminish the quality that’s on display.

Julianne Moore delivered one of the best and most soulful performances of her career in “Gloria Bell,” from Chilean director Sebastian Lelio. The emotionally resonant film examines painful and harsh truths about intimate relationships and the trust that people put into one another. Moore stars as a divorced mother charting a new course for her life, and when she meets a freshly single prospect in the form of scruffy John Turturro, sparks fly amid obstacles.

“It’s an honest story that reflects upon the real world,” Moore says. “Life is complicated so I’m always interested in characters that have to deal with complication.”

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“Gloria Bell” is a snapshot of a woman in personal transit, and serves as a remake of Lelio’s 2013 Spanish-language effort. “The script made a big impact, and I’d seen Sebastian’s original version, which I loved. At first, he was under the impression that I wasn’t interested, but I’d do anything with him,” Moore says.

She adds that it’s the “human touch” that she looks for when deciding on what material to occupy her time with. “Here’s a woman of a certain age, whose story we might not normally see on the big-screen, and she’s a complex person going through something very universal and empathetic. This film was very important to me.”

Another character going through a challenge is Sienna Miller’s single mother Debra in “American Woman.” When her daughter goes missing, Debra tries to pick up the pieces. “It felt like a fully formed and intricate character – with the kind off arc and growth that I had rarely seen as a woman in film,” Miller says of the role. “I loved how authentic she was – I loved focusing on the life of a kind of woman who is rarely seen by society, let alone examined in this way. It was a character study, beautifully written with an extremely talented and empathic director at the helm, and I was desperate to do it.”

But it wasn’t easy. “It required me to go to places in myself that were agonizing to imagine, let alone sit with,” Miller reveals. “The idea of losing a child is a nightmare. Being a mother to a daughter myself, it just hurt very deeply. But it’s astounding how
resilient the human spirit is and to study that was inspiring.”

The Academy has normally been on the fence in terms of embracing full-on comedic performances, but in this year’s raucous high school comedy “Booksmart,” rising stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein delivered performances that broke some traditional rules and warrant further conversation. The pair play best friends who realize they’ve spent too much time studying and not enough time having fun, and embark on a night of debauchery and self-discovery.

“I absolutely loved the script, which was filled with so much compassion for the two main characters, and I really connected with the role of Amy in a special way,” says Dever.

The progressive values that the story embraces further piqued Dever’s interest in the project, which was helmed by Olivia Wilde in her feature debut. “There’s so much representation in ‘Booksmart’ and that’s what spoke to me the loudest,” Dever says. “Everyone has a very specific voice in this film, so it was important to remain authentic in every instance.”

She adds: “Amy’s sexuality doesn’t define her as a person, and that’s incredibly important. It’s just a regular part of who she is.”

Still to hit theaters is Alfre Woodard in “Clemency,” a hard-hitting and powerful drama from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, which centers on Woodard’s prison warden who is tasked with overseeing executions of death-row inmates. The years have taken their toll on her, and she begins to unravel on both a personal and professional level, with the past coming back to inform the present.

“I know it’s time to go to work when I get emotionally attached, and this project hooked me immediately,” Woodard says. “You shouldn’t separate yourself from the experiences of other human beings, so by taking on this role, I knew I’d learn something new about myself as a result.”

The overwhelming yet cathartic process of finding the inner strength that her tormented character demanded led to conversations among Woodard, female prison staff members and male prisoners, and challenged her perception of America’s penal system. “Working on ‘Clemency’ took me further outside of my own universe than I’ve ever been, and after the shoot, I found myself carrying a sense of sadness and helplessness that I had to learn how to let go of.”

When an actor goes full-throttle intense the way Elisabeth Moss did in the rock drama “Her Smell,” it doesn’t seem fair if people don’t pay attention. Playing a live-wire character required Moss to lose all inhibitions as a performer.

“I felt a lot of pressure making this movie and I knew I just had to go all-in and not look back for a moment,” Moss says. The experience was “exhausting and exhilarating because we were taking so many chances, and that’s what my career has been based on — taking chances.”

Moss wasn’t nervous about playing such a potentially unsympathetic character for writer-director Alex Ross Perry, with whom she’s now worked with three times. “There’s something about his work that I really respond to, and I wanted to see how far he could push me as an actress,” she says. Moss clearly reveled in the opportunity, despite the harsh edges to her character. “It wasn’t the easiest shoot, having to remain at that energy level, and to have to be that cruel to people. It wasn’t always pleasant. But that was the intention, and then to show another side to her humanity later in the story.”

Outside the indie film scene, critics singled out Lupita Nyong’o for her two-for-one work in Jordan Peele’s twisty “Us,” which features a subversive, home-invasion-by-doppelgangers scenario that ramps up the psycho-logical tension.

“This film stretched me in ways that I’ve never been stretched before,” Nyong’o says. “I’d always been interested in this genre, and the script was so great because Jordan gives you so much to chew on.”

And then there was the challenge of playing dual roles, which Nyong’o says, “was never on my bucket list of things to accomplish as an actress. I didn’t fully understand what it was going to take when I accepted the challenge, as you’re essentially playing two parts to the same person.”

But the effort clearly paid off, as the performances complemented each other in clever and creepy ways. “I really value the creative process, and it’s always a delight when you hit that sweet spot and audiences latch on to something you’ve helped to create.”

Other contenders include previous nominees Felicity Jones in “The Aeronauts” and Saoirse Ronan in “Little Women” as well as Dever’s “Booksmart” co-star Feldstein. There is also buzz for Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet,” Awkwafina in “The Farewell,” Kristen Stewart in “Seberg,” Jodie Turner-Smith in “Queen & Slim” and Florence Pugh in “Midsommar,” though she’s also plays a supporting role in “Little Women.”

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