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How Acting Nominees Found Their Connection to Historic Characters

Harriet Bombshell Richard Jewell Best Actress
Courtesy of Focus Features/Lionsgate/Warner Bros

They’re the scenes that get us talking. They’re the moving moments in which a film comes into focus not only for the audience, but also for the actors. While they may not necessarily be the clips chosen by the Academy to showcase their nominees, these sequences hold something special within.

This year’s moments that made an impact on the performers involve a famous performer in the spotlight, a mother making an emphatic plea for her son’s innocence, three women debating their careers after horrific events and an ordinary woman challenged to do the extraordinary. All three of these films in awards contention this season seek to restore luster to the legacy of history makers who have either been revered, such as Harriet Tubman, or reviled, including Richard Jewell and Megyn Kelly.

Few icons are as beloved as Judy Garland, and Renée Zellweger not only took on the challenge of playing the legend, but also did her own singing. “Judy” tells the story of Garland’s attempt at a comeback by performing a cabaret show called “Talk of the Town” in London. That involved re-creating moments from the show. “ ‘The Talk of the Town’ nightclub moments were foundational in the story, so we began focusing there and with the music,” Zellweger says. “Those scenes seemed to be centrifugal in the process, and because they are built around Judy as a public person, many of the parameters are well-defined.”

Though the challenge was high, Zellweger didn’t think of it that way. “It took some time to collect the necessary information and to physically build toward that week at the Hackney Empire Theatre, but I didn’t think of the experience in terms of difficulty,” she says. “The time spent with music and exploring and sharing the materials of Judy’s legacy with all the different crew departments every day was joyful, and when it came down to it, felt like everyone was there on the stage together. It was celebratory. One of the most special collaborations I’ve ever experienced.”
Oscar winner Kathy Bates, who stars in “Richard Jewell” as the titular character’s mother, Bobi, genuinely valued how her character’s big moment came together, from the writing stage to the final cut.

“I knew my most difficult scene would be the press conference when Bobi has one last chance to save her son’s life,” Bates says. “If convicted, he would face the death penalty and would likely be executed. It was important to play the character of Bobi I had lived in and not mimic the real Bobi. Otherwise the performance would have been robotic.”

To get to the heart of the mother’s dedication, vulnerability and strength in this exacting sequence, Bates did her research.

“I met with Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, authors of ‘The Suspect,’ who told me the weekend before the conference, [Jewell’s lawyers] Watson Bryant and Lin Wood worked with Bobi, but she couldn’t get through it without crying,” Bates says. “Finally, she realized no matter what, she had to get through it. That was an important clue for me.” In addition, she studied video of the heart-wrenching appeal.

“We added Watson’s line that I found so powerful as he introduced Bobi as ‘the 113th victim of the Atlanta bombing.’”

Bates also took inspiration from another historical event. “When we shot the scene, I focused on her appeal to [President] Clinton despite the cameras and the press, all the people who had ruined her son’s life. Lin Wood wrote a speech that had a final line like Reagan spoke to Gorbachev, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ Bobi’s final sentence was a plea to President Clinton, ‘Mr. President, please clear my son’s name!’”

Having an actor as her director proved an invaluable asset. “Clint [Eastwood] understood I needed my space to stay quiet and focused. I remember when someone came up to me, he called out, ‘Leave her alone, now. Leave her alone.’ In 50 years of doing this job, that has never happened to me. His wisdom … well, I can’t put it into words. We made that scene together with no other words. We got it on the first take.”

For “Bombshell” stars Margot Robbie and Charlize Theron, it was their shared scene set in an elevator with co-star Nicole Kidman that crystallized the film’s quiet gravitas. The conversation between the trio remains fairly hushed on the ride to Fox chairman Roger Ailes’ office, but their energy is kinetic. Considering the weight of the world rests on these ladies’ shoulders, it’s astounding the elevator can move at all.

“It’s the only scene in the film where all three of us are onscreen together, and that in itself was a dream come true,” Theron says. “I mean, if there are any two people I’d want to be stuck in an elevator with, it’s Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.”

Robbie says it’s her favorite scene as well because of the challenge of conveying the palpable emotions with very little dialogue.

“It was so symbolic of where the women stood at that time in the company,” she says.

Theron elaborates: “Jay [Roach] and our DP Barry Ackroyd really got to the heart of depicting the complicated dynamic between these three women. It was a pivotal part of the story and it really demonstrated how women working in such a toxic environment are isolated from one another — and how this contributed to such a pervasive and somewhat claustrophobic sense of distrust and skepticism. It’s a heartbreakingly powerful scene to me, as I think it really captured how alone each of these women truly were in the moment and how much they risked in coming forward.”

Robbie also felt blessed to be in the company of these powerhouses. “Personally, I never thought in my career I would have the chance to share the screen, let alone at the same time, with Nicole and Charlize whom I admire tremendously, so it was quite a surreal experience.”

Theron concurs: “There was such an innate sense of collaboration and understanding of what this scene should be. We fell into such a rhythm with each other from the very first take.”

A similar character drive pushes director Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” a heroic tale of a slave turned abolitionist. Soul-stirring sequences showing the iconic figure, played by Cynthia Erivo, overcoming fear and self-doubt envelop the narrative.

In one searing scene, as Harriet faces a torturous life on a plantation, she’s forced to say goodbye to the person she loves.

This moment spoke the loudest to the Tony winner: “The scene with John [her husband] when he leaves her. I felt it got to the heart of her humanity. It showed she was someone who wasn’t invincible, which I think helps dilate how fierce she was to do the work she was able to do.”

The common thread is the visceral connection each of these Oscar nominees felt to their character.

Bates sums it up best: “The work is in the stomach, the head and the heart. All are sensory connections that light up when reading the script for the first time. If there’s no lightning, I know the role is better left in other hands.”