Finding the identity, the heart of a character can be an enormous task for an actor, whether depicting a real person or creating an individual out of whole cloth. The obstacles actors face can often be intellectual or emotional, forcing them to find ways of getting inside that character’s headspace and perspective to make their behavior seem believable. But just as frequently, those actors must muscle through any number of unexpected, unusual or flat-out uncomfortable scenarios that audiences will never know tested their concentration or jeopardized their ability to find the truth that ended up on screen.
Many of the nominees for Oscar’s 2018 acting awards found themselves intimidated, distracted, caught off guard, left vulnerable, exposed (in one case, literally) and overwhelmed by the prospect of bringing the humanity of their characters to life.
For “Bohemian Rhapsody” lead actor nominee Rami Malek, the challenge was trying to uncover the relatable individual hiding beneath the persona of a musical icon.
“It was a process of demystifying him, because he’s a deity — he’s a rock god,” Malek says. “And so looking at him from the perspective of just being a human being sometimes as Farrokh Bulsara rather than Freddie Mercury was extremely helpful to me.”
The actor indicates that filming the Live Aid sequences first forced him to summon a belief in himself and his own talent that he sometimes worried wasn’t there.
“That was probably the most daunting aspect of portraying him,” he notes. “For the month leading up to that, there were moments where I did look at myself and say you’re just not going to be able to accomplish this.”
Malek says he eventually found those reserves by placing his trust in himself, in his collaborators, and perhaps most of all, in the journey that Mercury himself had gone through. “I relied on that ensemble of actors throughout; I truly couldn’t have done this without everyone involved.
“But it was being able to muster that type of courage from deep within, and perhaps channel some of what he was able to do, to remind himself that anything was possible throughout his career was helpful.”
Conversely, lead actress nominee Olivia Colman says her co-stars were sometimes an obstacle to her role as Queen Anne in “The Favourite.”
“The main thing to overcome was laughing,” Colman says. “Everyone was in such a good mood, and having such a nice time. I kept wanting to bubble over into giggles.”
At the same time, Colman says the unique challenge for her in the role was transforming herself physically, both before and after working on the film.
“I’d never had to put weight on for a job before,” she says. “That was I suppose the biggest challenge, but also one of the most fun things. Actually, trying to get rid of it AFTER was probably the biggest challenge.”
In “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Richard E. Grant similarly found himself stifling laughter while on set with fellow nominee Melissa McCarthy, in spite of some particularly distasteful tasks the two had to perform in character.
“I was trying to keep a straight face while clearing piles of cat ‘litter’ from underneath Lee Israel’s bed, which mercifully wasn’t the real thing,” Grant says. “That’s the beautiful ‘penalty’ of working with Melissa McCarthy, trying not to laugh all day long. I stuffed toilet paper up each nostril in an attempt to hide my smile!”
Meanwhile, the details and responsibilities of nude scenes are a typically laborious process to lay out between a performer, his or her director, and the production itself. But Grant says he proposed the idea of his character racing around bottomless in the scene in which he’s briefly exposed on camera. “It always bothers me when people wake up on screen after having sex and they’re pajama’ed up,” he says. “So I suggested that when I got up to feed Lee Israel’s cat, I should be butt naked — with the proviso that the lighting be dim and the action quick as I was 60 years old! This prompted the producers to scramble a legal document together pronto-presto, giving my written ‘consent’ for two nano-seconds of nude screen time. Hilarious!”
“At Eternity’s Gate” star Willem Dafoe thought he knew what he was getting into when he agreed to play Vincent Van Gogh for director Julian Schnabel. But the well-traveled actor says that he got more than he bargained for when he arrived in some of the film’s beautiful locations and discovered that those picturesque landscapes — and the weather conditions that accompany them — are only seasonally friendly.
“We were shooting in the South of France, in Provence. I mean, granted it was wintertime, but I just assumed it would be nice,” Dafoe says. “But we went down there and the Mistral, this legendary cold wind, is a killer!”
Dafoe says the bitter cold forced upon him a secondary consideration in addition to inhabiting Van Gogh’s restless creative spirit: ignoring the elements. “You’re dressed in period costumes and you’re just freezing your ass off all of the time,” he says.
But Dafoe says overcoming those conditions helped him better understand Van Gogh, his life and his art. “It was a challenge to make an adjustment in my head, because you think of the famous light in Provence and you think of sunflowers and these fields of wheat and all of these kind of lush weather images,” he notes.
“Well, when we got down there, the sunflowers were all dried up. The wheat was cut and it was cold. But for the film I think it had a nice effect, because it dealt with and guided us towards an aspect of Van Gogh’s life and his work that isn’t often seen.”
“BlacKkKlansman” offers a different sort of unseen world via the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Supporting actor nominee Adam Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, the man who went undercover in Stallworth’s place. He says none of his previous roles prepared him for the things he would have to say and do for the film, even knowing that audiences would understand that his character, like he himself, was pretending.
“Because it’s centered around infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, on paper you kind of get that, but then when you’re faced with people wearing Klan garb, then suddenly it becomes very real in a way that’s absurd and unexpected and just sickening,” Driver says. “There were lots of moments like that, like when they’re all watching ‘Birth of a Nation’ and we’re having to cheer — things that you know they’re coming and are giving it so much thought until suddenly you’re confronted with it. But then it’s also [allowing] the minutia of filmmaking to take over and you don’t really think about it until in retrospect.”
“We had a lot of time in rehearsal to talk about it and there wasn’t really much to articulate other than how uncomfortable it felt, but that’s what the story was. But we had a conversation about how weird that felt that you’re really trying to not think about the gravity of what it is you’re doing and try to tell the story and make it make sense.”
Making sense of a dramatization of an historic situation, even in a deeply uncomfortable context, seems at least manageable with a script to consult. But Marina de Tavira, who earned a supporting actress nomination for her extraordinary work in “Roma,” says she relied on Alfonso Cuaron’s deeply personal connection to the material rather than the blueprint of his screenplay. “We never read it,” de Tavira says.
“We were learning day by day what the scene was about and what our character was going through, as if it was real life.”
Perhaps ironically, newcomer Yalitza Aparicio says Cuaron’s technique allowed her to lock in immediately on the role that has deservedly earned her industrywide accolades. “From the moment Alfonso spoke to me about Cleo, I understood who she was, how important she was to him, and what role she played within the family, so I therefore understood what it was that I needed to do,” Aparicio says.
But for de Tavira, the only trained actor in the cast, this process marked a big change from the way she traditionally worked. “Alfonso would talk separately to each actress and then he would play the scene and always played tricks on us so it would feel like life would appear. It had to do with reacting in the moment to what we were hearing or listening to.”
Though that unpredictability caught her off guard, it ultimately forced her to express her character’s complex emotions in more understated if also more powerful ways. “There was a lot of emotional content, but Alfonso wanted me to have it always hidden, so we would work on the emotions of Sofia before he would say action, and I would have to really get under them and then pull them back.”
“We did that a lot of times, so it was a little tiring emotionally,” de Tavira says. “But I think it was worth it.”