The Thomas Vinterberg Danish comedy-drama “Another Round” has one of the most talked-about endings of the year, in which actor Mads Mikkelsen embarks on an exhilarating freestyle dance on a pier amongst his friends and former students. And while that scene was difficult for the former gymnast and dancer, who admits he was sore for days, it was actually the beginning of the movie that Mikkelsen cites as being his biggest challenge in making the film.
Mikkelsen stars as Martin, a teacher who finds his life, career and marriage in a rut. He and his three fellow teachers and friends discuss the work of psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who theorized that humans naturally have too low a blood alcohol content, and embark on an experiment to raise theirs. In short, they agree to be drunk during the day. This is discussed at the 40th birthday party of their friend Nicolai, a moment when Martin begins to grasp how low he feels.
“During the scene my character, Martin, realizes that he has blown it, he missed his chance in life, he is standing on the platform and watching the train leaving. It was a situation where we wanted this to dawn on him in that very moment, together with the audience,” says Mikkelsen. “He has a small breakdown within 19 minutes of the film as opposed to at the end, which would be the normal approach, and that was a challenge. Could we make the audience enter this character through his breakdown, or was that too early since we didn’t know him yet?”
Mikkelsen, who previously worked with Vinterberg on another acclaimed film, “The Hunt,” notes they were trying to figure out how to make it work.
“To pull it off, we placed Martin in his own bubble and slowly moved the camera closer and closer to him and his state of mind,” he says. “Every sound was still there, but the surroundings were no longer part of his world. He takes a shot and feels overwhelmed by life. He takes another and life becomes way too heavy. I believe we pulled it off thanks to the camera work and the other actors who acknowledged Martin’s situation at the exact right moment , and caught him when he was about to fall.”
Many actors this season took on unique challenges, both physical and emotional. Some had to learn new skills — Riz Ahmed spent seven months learning sign language and how to play the drums for his role as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” Sacha Baron Cohen literally put himself in danger to pull off the gun rally sequence in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” From Tom Hanks riding horses and battling the elements of nature in the 1870-set Western “News of the World” to Daniel Kaluuya bringing Black Panther Illinois chairman Fred Hampton to vivid life and re-creating some of his impassioned speeches in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” actors ran the gamut of compelling performances.
John David Washington faced the unique challenge of shooting “Malcolm & Marie” early on in the COVID pandemic. Written and directed by Sam Levinson, the two-hander features Washington and Zendaya as a couple who return home from Malcolm’s movie premiere and proceed to engage in a real-time argument after Marie points out she wasn’t thanked in his premiere speech, despite the fact that his film’s heroine bears a striking resemblance to her own story.
Aside from the logistical challenges — the cast and crew essentially quarantined together and lived at the house where they shot the film — the material itself is wrenching, often requiring the actors to perform pages of dialogue each day, including lengthy monologues. And throughout it all, they convey the love that keeps this couple bonded.
Asked about his biggest challenge and Washington says, “The bathtub sequence,” referring to a scene in which Marie is taking a bath after telling Malcolm he is “mediocre.” After pitching a physical fit, Malcolm storms into the bathroom and proceeds to, as he promises, “Hurt you 10 times worse.” Over the next few minutes, he screams, rants and even breaks down in tears.
Says Washington: “I don’t like to push for emotion, and I didn’t have to because Sam’s words had me under a spell. I wasn’t myself.” But the scene ultimately ends with him declaring his love.
“In that poetic moment where he confesses his love to her, I tapped into the true, unconditional love I’ve seen in my grandparents and parents relationships,” he says.
“The Mauritanian” star Tahar Rahim also cites a monologue in the film as his biggest challenge, but for different reasons. Based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s 2015 memoir, “Guantanamo Diary,” and directed by Kevin Macdonald, the film details Salahi’s arrest and imprisonment for 14 years at Guantanamo Bay detention camp without ever being formally charged with a crime.
Playing Salahi, Rahim knew he would have to take on physical and emotional challenges, but two days before filming was set to begin, he learned co-star Jodie Foster wouldn’t be able to start on time.
“The whole schedule shifted and Kevin told me, ‘I’m sorry but we’re going to have to start the shooting of this movie with your end-scene monologue,’” Rahim says.
“That moment was extremely challenging because I had to have already lived through Mohamedou’s whole experience as it comes at the end of it. I wasn’t sure how to tackle it.”
In the scene, Salahi finally gets to state his case. “So I focused on one line from the scene: ‘For eight years, I have dreamed about being in a courtroom. Now that I am here, really I am scared to death.’”
Rahim applied this to his own situation. “For years, I had been dreaming of being there, and now that it was happening, I truly was scared to death. I dug deep into the emotions I was feeling in that moment, the stress, the fear of failing and I used them to serve my character.”
For Oscar-winner Jared Leto, the biggest challenge can come before shooting even begins. In “The Little Things,” Leto plays Albert Sparma, a man who may be a serial killer, but certainly enjoys toying with the police, played by Denzel Washington and Rami Malek, who suspect him.
“I would say the most challenging and intensive part was the research and preparation,” says Leto. “I don’t really consider it challenging because I was so excited about the prospect to bring his character to life.”
He worked closely with writer-director John Lee Hancock. “We went through a lot of trial and error when it came to building the character,” he says. “It was a transformative and transformational experience and I feel really lucky to have been given that opportunity.”
Describing a challenging moment, he cites a scene in which Sparma is interrogated by the two officers. “It was the first day that Rami, Denzel and I were in the same scene together, so the stakes were high, and it was intense. But there was a lot of support and mutual respect in the room and I think we were all excited to be a part of it.”
As for how he prepared for that day, Leto says, “I approached that scene as I do most things which is by working as hard as humanly possible and coming in really prepared. I like having various ideas and options in case something may not work in the moment. It’s also very important to throw away all of the analysis and intellectual work and staying as free and open as you can to the possibilities in the moment.
“Ultimately you want to be compelled to a place where you have a bit of abandon and hopefully some magic happens. It is certainly easier when you have people like Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in the room.”