A striking number of Oscar-nominated acting talent from 2021 got their start at a young age, with the power and excitement of performing for the screen grabbing them early and never letting go. Kristen Stewart began acting at age 8, and just received her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Princess Diana in “Spencer.” She recently spoke to Nicole Kidman, who landed her fifth nomination with her portrayal of Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos” for Variety’s “Actors on Actors,” about their youthful careers. Stewart spoke of discovering fame with “Twilight.” “When I started doing that movie, I was 17 and I was just a little inside-out person,” Stewart said. “I was walking around with all my blood on the outside of my body.”
Kidman replied: “I was 14. I remember Anthony Minghella saying to me, ‘You are skinless.’ I think that’s what you’re describing. Vulnerable, exposed, everything you are going through is for consumption.”
So much happens to actors when they grow up in front of cameras, and it influences their outlook on the world, and how they view their own industry, to say nothing of the roles that they pursue and accept. The confidence gained from working at an impressionable age can never be underestimated, while their maturity levels, in all likelihood, expanded at a faster rate as a result of working in such close proximity with adults and within the context of an adult-dominated profession.
“I didn’t have a traditional entrance or initiation into the industry,” says Kodi Smit-McPhee, supporting actor Oscar nominee for his work in Jane Campion’s Western “The Power of the Dog.” “I’ve always enjoyed film and entertainment, but it was my father, who was an actor, who really got me into it when I was eight years old.”
What started “as a hobby” for the rising star quickly escalated into bigger productions, with the Australian film “Romulus, My Father” earning him notice and awards, which paved the way to roles in Hollywood fare including “The Road,” “Let Me In” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
Throughout his career, he’s remained level-headed about what it takes to succeed in the industry. “I haven’t had too much control of the direction my career was taking me in,” Smit-McPhee says. “My approach to the filmmaking process and meeting people of a higher stature in the industry is to remain grounded, and I always try to stay very present and in the moment. My dad drilled into me that awards are a token of appreciation, and that they shouldn’t define you.”
Kirsten Dunst plays Smit-McPhee’s mother in “The Power of the Dog” and has landed her first Oscar nom for supporting actress after years in the business. Dunst had one of the most memorable starts that an actor could ask for, appearing in Woody Allen’s “New York Stories,” Brian De Palma’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Neil Jordan’s “Interview With the Vampire” and Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women” in rapid succession, establishing herself as one of her generation’s finest talents.
“I was never in awe of the process because I was just having so much fun doing it. When you’re a kid, you want to try new stuff, which is why when kid actors really have it inside of them, they aren’t self-conscious in any way,” says Dunst, who cites both “Annie” and “Beetlejuice” as films that left a lasting impression on her at a young age.
In “The Power of the Dog,” Dunst’s alcoholic Rose Gordon is a key thematic thread to the multilayered narrative, with her character’s downward spiral affecting not only herself but those closest to her, with the actor projecting a sense of inherent sadness that feels palpable in all instances.
“My taste in material really developed as I got older,” Dunst says. “I’m very director-driven. They are the captain of the ship, and if their taste isn’t in line with what you like, nothing will matter, because you won’t be in the hands of someone who gets you. I’m less role-driven, but I’d love to do a musical one day. That’s something I’d really like to do.”
She also takes nothing for granted. “I’ve not always been on top. I’ve ebbed and flowed in my own career, so I can appreciate things very deeply and I don’t think I’m doing anything more important than anyone else. It feels amazing to be recognized by my peers.”
Javier Bardem comes from a long line of screen talent dating back to the earliest days of Spanish cinema, with his uncle, screenwriter and director Juan Antonio Bardem, being recognized as one of the premier Spanish filmmakers. At age 6, Bardem made his first big-screen appearance, in Fernando Fernán Gómez’s “El Pícaro” (“The Scoundrel.”)
“I was raised by my mom, who was and still is so well-respected in Spain for her acting craft,” Bardem says. “She was very active in theater, and I grew up on stages as a kid. My first serious job was on a TV series when I was 14 years old, called ‘Second Learning,’ and it was the first time I had to sacrifice something very important to me, which was rugby. I had to decide between doing the program and playing the sport I loved. Also, I’d never lived alone before, so when I went to shoot the show, I spent a month and a half on my own, but I felt very natural in front of the cameras, and I had so much fun, that it was worth it to me to continue.”
Already an Oscar-winner for his iconic turn as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” and a nominee for “Before Night Falls” and “Biutiful,” Bardem’s performance in “Being the Ricardos” as Lucille Ball’s husband and creative/business partner, Desi Arnaz, was recognized by the Academy with a lead actor nomination, further cementing his stature as one of cinema’s best and most versatile of performers.
“My mother told me that I had to be ready to learn, at all times, and to keep working and defining your voice. My surname comes from four generations in the industry, so it was very important to take everything very seriously. Having her approval was very important.”
Jesse Plemons, a supporting actor nominee for “The Power of the Dog,” made lasting impressions on television (“Friday Night Lights,” “Breaking Bad,” “Fargo”), while recently becoming a go-to-casting-selection for prestige-level filmmakers including Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Adam McKay, Scott Cooper, Charlie Kaufman and Martin Scorsese.
He got his start at 2½ in a Coca-Cola commercial, while logging many hours of extra work in the Dallas area. But it was his youth spent around horses and his love for the influential miniseries “Lonesome Dove” that triggered his desire to work further at his craft. “When you’re acting, you always feel you’re being transported to another world, so the idea of putting on costumes and playing around with your imagination was very enticing to me,” says Plemons.
In “The Power of the Dog,” Plemons collaborated with Campion, and delivered a low-key and sensitive performance of a man caught between the two major loves of his life — his wife and his brother.
“What struck me first was how incredible the script was, and I know some actors don’t pay much attention to stage direction, but that’s where you can really tell whether or not the filmmaker has fully envisioned the world. The script was so vivid and alive, and it quickly became one of my favorites,” he says.