Peter Sellers played three roles in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 “Dr. Strangelove.” In December of that year, Variety reported that Columbia was mounting an Oscar campaign for lead actor, but was also considering three supporting-actor campaigns, for each of his characters. (They settled on one campaign, and Sellers’ nomination as lead actor was one of the four bids for the film.)
Over the decades, Hollywood has delighted in making films showcasing one actor in multiple roles. Five of them resulted in Oscar nominations: Aside from Sellers, there were Charlie Chaplin, “The Great Dictator”; Lee Marvin in “Cat Ballou” (who won the Academy Award); Meryl Streep, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”; and Nicolas Cage, “Adaptation.”
That lofty group could be joined this year by Lupita Nyong’o, who plays both Adelaide and Red in Universal’s Jordan Peele-directed “Us.”
The technology has gotten much more sophisticated, but ultimately it comes down to the actor.
To get into a character, Nyong’o tells Variety, “I always have rituals, and for this it was vital to do that. I created precise rules for each of them, of physical movement as well as mental and emotional ones, to switch from one to the other. It was a mix of things. I did specific physical exercises and vocal warmups for each role. I also had visual and musical cues that helped me with each.”
There were subtle challenges, she adds.
“When you’re playing one character, you are the advocate for one perspective. You throw the ball to the other character and are challenged and inspired by the ball thrown back at you. With this film, I was both thrower of the ball and receiver. I had to work hard to understand each person’s perspective, and to imagine what the response would be. The toughest thing was to be both myself and the other person.”
There were also practical considerations: “I had very few days off!” she laughs. “When one character was resting, the other was working.”
When the film opened in March, the actress got rave reviews. She also got some grief over the revelation that part of Red’s speech pattern was inspired by spasmodic dysphonia, a condition of involuntary movements of the muscles in the voicebox.
She clarifies, “I was influenced by the condition but in no way is Red a representative of spasmodic dysphonia, and I think that got lost in the reporting.
“I was not doing a representation of spasmodic dysphonia. I was inspired by meeting Mr. Kennedy [environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has that condition], and I opened my imagination about the human vocal box. That led to all manner of discovery.”
In the clickbait world, the actress’ explanation got reduced to a tweet of a few words that distorted her work.
Nyong’o was asked if it was difficult to enter that dark world that affects both Red and Adelaide. “In the end, each character I played was almost the antidote to the other,” she says. “I experienced empathy for both sides. I found when playing one role, the other perspective was a healing.”
Oscar voters may take notice of her work but there are no guarantees. Though multiple characters are challenging, some memorable acting was ignored by Oscar voters.
That includes Alec Guinness (playing nine roles) in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and Eddie Murphy (seven characters) in “The Nutty Professor,” plus, in double roles, Murphy in “Bowfinger,” and Armie Hammer as the indelible Winklevoss twins in “Social Network,” to name a few.
And, for the record, Academy Awards went to Fredric March for the 1931 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Ronald Colman for “A Double Life” (1947) and Joanne Woodward for “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957), but those were about one person with split personalities.
In theory, Universal could run two Oscar campaigns for Nyong’o — lead and supporting. It was a fun idea in 1964, but maybe not so great now. In 2019, there is enough confusion in the world without Oscar adding to it.