Whether it’s playing a determined soldier in World War I, an enterprising hustler in a strip club, a polarizing television reporter, or the representative of Christ on Earth, authenticity was a crucial component in the actor’s performance. Some of the performers at the forefront of this year’s awards conversation went to extraordinary lengths to prepare for their roles. By learning new languages, mastering new abilities, and perfecting portraits of real-life personas, these thespians epitomize dedication.
Jennifer Lopez, whose showstopping introduction as a stripper in “Hustlers” is a character-defining moment, says her journey began with that first scene in writer-director Lorene
“I thought of Ramona as a siren — seducing not only the people in the club, but the home audience,” she says. “When you see that entrance, she’s literally inviting you, challenging you, luring you into her lair.”
Jonathan Pryce felt his likeness to the real Pope Francis made his casting in “The Two Popes” an inevitability.
“The starting point was the script, which told me everything,” Pryce says. “Anthony McCarten had culled that from everything [Pope] Benedict and Pope Francis had written or said.”
Charlize Theron, who takes on a transformative role as real-life newswoman Megyn Kelly in director Jay Roach’s “Bombshell,” says, “I took my time when I got the script to really try and process this character and story, and consulted a lot of my close confidants in the process, including Jay.”
Despite having played real-life people previously, she was a little intimidated. “It’s tough to take on a character who is so well known, because aside from having to replicate the physical aspects and stay true to the natural rhythms of the person, everyone has a preconceived opinion on the character going into it, including me.”
Unlike Theron, Pryce didn’t have to resolve any preconceptions playing his real-life figurehead. “To take on the mantle of him was easy for me to do,” he notes. “He was the first pope that I felt sympathetic and empathetic towards. I liked him.”
To begin his metamorphosis, Pryce turned to the internet in order to perfectly capture Pope Francis’ voice and comportment. “I looked at a lot of video of him — the way he moved, the sound of his voice and how softly spoken he was.” He also enlisted the help of a co-star. “Because the majority of what [Pope Francis] says is in English, I wanted to do it with a kind of genuine Argentinian accent while speaking English. Juan Minujín, who plays the young Francis, put things on tape for me, so I could get the speech rhythms right and get the Argentinian sound, which is very specific.” He also had to learn Spanish, Latin and Italian. “I had a very good coach, Sandra Frieze.”
As she was piecing together her controversial character in the months prior to shooting, Theron relied heavily on her dialect coach, Carla Meyer. “Carla never wavered in her commitment to helping me get the voice right,” Theron says. Posture, bearing and gestures were also critical. “This is probably one of the most, if not the most, research-intensive roles I’ve taken on because this is a true public figure who has very distinct mannerisms a lot of people are familiar with. So everything — from the voice down to the hand movements — I studied for hours on end.”
For George MacKay, who plays a soldier sent on a death-defying mission in the Great War, wardrobe was integral to his learning curve. “Almost every day of the rehearsal process began with getting into our webbing, boots and elements of our costume and training with the production military adviser Paul Biddiss and the armory team,” says MacKay.
He also underwent period-specific basic training including saluting, rifle safety and bayonet drills. “The biggest thing for me was just to get our fingers and thumbs used to everything.”
Similarly, for Lopez, who is already an incredibly skilled, seasoned dancer, her preparation for “Hustlers” was her greatest challenge. “I trained for almost six months with the amazing Johanna Sapakie. I had a portable strip pole in every city I went to while I was touring around the world this summer, so I never missed a session.”
The training pushed her body to its limit. “With pole dancing, I was using a completely new group of muscles and every session I did, I walked away with new bruises. I’m still in recovery for my shoulder and back.”
In order to center herself, Theron saved clips of Kelly’s broadcasts on her cellphone. “There were times on set when I would whip out those recordings just to get a quick refresher on the cadence, especially the speed at which she talked. I could never be an on-air reporter, they talk so freaking fast.
“The phrase ‘Just got back from a weekend at the beach with my husband and my three kids!’ is forever ingrained in my memory from practicing it about 10,000 times.”
MacKay found that his new military discipline serviced his character on a practical and emotional level. “Schofield is focusing on the task at hand throughout, as well as to get through the war itself; and this pinpoint focus that came from marksmanship was something I felt was applicable.
“The way you listen to your breath and fire on an exhale became relevant for one scene, particularly for me, when Schofield is trying to master his body and mind to get himself back under control,” he says.
Lopez was inspired by interacting with actual pole dancers. “Creating Ramona was not only a physical challenge but also an exposing journey that required me to get into a head space that was very different from my own life in terms of moral motivations and consequences,” she says. “In preparation for the role, I went to strip clubs. I not only watched the ladies do their routines, I talked to them about what it was like to have a career as a dancer. I think it would surprise people — although it shouldn’t — that most of these women are students, or young moms, just trying to get by in a world that doesn’t offer those on the fringe many chances. The film is a homage to the power of women and, in part, a reflection on the socioeconomic inequities in the world.”
For Theron, being able to mimic Kelly’s behaviors instinctually was only one of the components at play. “The character always comes first for me,” she says. “I had to find a way to make it my own while honoring the truth of the story, and Jay was really helpful in helping me dial into components of her that I could connect with and develop into something that’s more surprising to people than just watching a direct imitation.”
As for Pryce, he relished the chance to learn new tools for his craft and for life. “The whole thing that you’re taking on these different skills and talents just added to my complete enjoyment.”