The awards race in the best actress and best supporting actress categories is brimming with real life protagonists getting the big screen treatment. From Nicole Kidman’s Lucille Ball (“Being the Ricardos”) to Lady Gaga (“House of Gucci”) and Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”), these women were tasked with preserving and presenting the legacy of flesh and blood icons, telling their stories truthfully and without judgment.
“I think everyone wants to be seen as a fully realized human being, not as just a caricature,” notes Kidman, who took home the Golden Globe for her lead turn in the Aaron Sorkin biopic.
Being entrusted with someone’s life story is a big responsibility, and these actresses took great care in their prep work. For her role as Tammy Faye Bakker in Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Jessica Chastain immersed herself in research. To play mother and coach of Serena and Venus Williams in “King Richard,” Aunjanue Ellis dug up articles about Oracene “Brandy” Williams online, listened to interviews and took a few tennis lessons. Stewart queried royal advisors to portray Diana Spencer, watched documentaries and trained with dialect coach William Conacher, who worked with Emma Corrin for “The Crown.” Kidman keyed into Ball’s voice with dialect coach Thom Jones.
As for Gaga, she went full-on method to play Patrizia Gucci, speaking in an Italian accent even after the cameras stopped rolling. The Oscar-winning singer-cum-actor also retained a psychiatric nurse on the set to ensure that her own mental health wasn’t at risk while playing the “dark” role.
But it was Jennifer Hudson who had the rare good fortune of knowing Aretha Franklin, who died in 2018. Hudson’s audition song for “American Idol” was Franklin’s “Share Your Love With Me,” and she then met the music icon through record executive Clive Davis. Years later, Franklin cherry-picked the Oscar-winning “Dreamgirls” star to play her in “Respect,” Liesel Tommy’s filmic adaptation of Franklin’s life.
A Grammy-winning recording artist, Hudson could relate to Franklin’s challenges as a woman climbing her way up the professional ladder in the music industry.
“Aretha is at a table full of men,” recalls Hudson of a scene in which Franklin meets with a room full of male record executives. “This feels like my life, you know? It’s still a male dominated industry, but it wasn’t until Ms. Franklin took ownership of her own voice that we got our Queen of Soul. She used to always say, ‘use your voice,’ and the film shows her arc of allowing men to take ownership of her voice and then eventually taking ownership of it for herself.”
Per Ellis, one personal challenge was letting the audience know her character was more than just a coach.
“People look at films of Venus and Serena’s tournaments and matches. And Ms. Oracene is always there. She’s always in the stands, but people don’t know what she really was,” Ellis says. “We know that she was a mother and that she was devoted to her girls, obviously, because she’s always there, but they don’t know she was their coach. They don’t know that she trained herself so that she could teach her girls how to play. In some ways she was just decor on the wallpaper of Venus and Serena’s life. But no one knew how instrumental she was in making them who they were.”
Kidman, who pored over the many stages of Ball’s life, reveals that it took a while for the enormity of the role to truly set in.
“I did not realize what I was taking on,” Kidman admits. “Once I started I was like, ‘oh gosh, this is going to be hard’. I didn’t realize prior how much I was taking on. And the only way through is to look forward, and hope for the best. There’s a certain amount of ‘I’m just going to throw it up to God right now, and also probably to Lucy herself. Javier [Bardem] and I would both do that. We would talk to Lucy and Desi pretty much each scene. We’d go, ‘Help us. Please come down, speak to us,’ asking for their blessing and trying to also just honor their essence in all of its flaws and virtues.
Emmy-winning actor and “Free To Be…You & Me” producer Marlo Thomas, who worked with Lucille Ball in the 1960’s, notes that Kidman had a difficult task of portraying Ball, both the onscreen personality (“Lucy”) and the behind-the-scenes person, “Lucille.”
“She really had [down] the difference between Lucy and Lucille,” says Thomas. “When she was Lucille Ball at the table, she was tough and smart and sarcastic, but certainly could make you laugh, not the same kind of funny as she was as Lucy Ricardo. “I didn’t know that Nicole could do either one of them but she did. I was really impressed by her.”
“I really felt for Lucille Ball more for her marriage than I had before, even though I knew that he cheated on her and it was all very much a scandal,” Thomas continues. “I never really thought about it in terms of how it must have hurt her. That is what Nicole gave us, and what Aaron gave us, to see the pain that she had, and that the only place she really had her husband was on the set and that really got to me. I found that heartbreaking.”
For Kidman, one of the challenges was embodying Ball’s character throughout various eras of her life and career.
“[Lucy] was tough, but she was the smartest person in the room,” says Kidman. “She was razor sharp, and I love that Aaron didn’t pull punches with that. He didn’t try to say she was sort of a delicate thing. She was formidable, but she was also a lover and she loved Desi, and she was vulnerable and complicated and she was beautiful in her soul. She wanted to entertain and make people laugh and fit in. She didn’t want to be misunderstood.”
As for the decision to portray Lucy in costume solely for the television flashback scenes–like the famous grape-smashing scene and Bardem’s iconic “Lucy, I’m Home!” line–Kidman says that it was “all Aaron.”
“All he said to me was ‘I want to show the emotion in your skin and your eyes,’” Kidman says. “When you see me sweat, you see sweat, because I’m not wearing prosthetics and when I cry tears, they run down my face, and I do think that comes through. That’s vibrating for me. I feel that through the screen. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Chastain, who also exec produced “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” worked with prosthetics and makeup artist Linda Dowd to flesh out the famed televangelist (and wife to Jim Bakker) in her later years.
“I didn’t know how to play someone so open while being physically encased,” says Chastain. “In some way it freed me. How can I express myself through my eyes? How can I express myself through my voice? How can I express myself through my mannerisms, the way I move my shoulders and my fingers and the makeup in some way. Sometimes you have what you think is an obstacle, but it absolutely frees you up in a way that you never really thought was possible.”
Chastain also reached out to Bakker’s children, learned to sing in the same pitch as Bakker and consulted with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, directors of the documentary on Tammy Faye Baker, also titled “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
“I knew what perfume she wore from this year to that year,” says Chastain. “I talked to everyone I could meet that knew her. I read all of her books. I listened to all of her albums. The documentary filmmakers gave me hundreds of hours of unused footage of them just following her around and talking to her. I had about seven years from when I got the film rights to when I ended up on the set. In all of my downtime, I was just constantly studying Tammy Faye.”
“I need the voice to be as accurate as possible, her laugh to be as accurate as possible, her tears to be as accurate as possible, her mannerisms,” Chastain continues. “Because I knew that I was setting myself up for ridicule and for someone to do side by side comparisons. I also wanted to make her more than just a character. I needed to understand her inner life, desires, fears, hopes, dreams and insecurities. So, in addition to all of the exterior work and creating her, I needed to also fill in the interior.”
To illustrate Bakker’s humanity and not reduce her to a cartoonish stereotype, Chastain worked closely with screenwriter Abe Sylvia. They made sure not to exploit various parts of Bakker’s life, namely the Jim Bakker-Jessica Hahn affair.
“We hired Abe Sylvia as the writer who also wanted to showcase the side of her that the media kind of ignored and all the incredible things she stood for,” says Chastain. “I was absolutely involved in the development process. [I thought] why am I making this movie? It wasn’t to profit off trauma and gossip. We already had the tabloid story. That’s what we all grew up with. What was the story behind the gossip and trauma? How can I tell Tammy’s story without retraumatizing others? That was very, very important to me.”
Ellis, too, felt a responsibility to tell Price’s story as the “architect” of her daughters’ tennis careers.
“I had to do a portrayal that showed the breadth of who this woman was,” says Ellis. “At the same time as being their coach, she was working jobs to put food on the table when there were gaps in employment. She was doing all this and being a seamstress. I knew that was the truth of who this woman was, and I had some co-conspirators in this fight to do justice to Ms. Oracene.”
Oracene Price’s oldest daughter, Isha, was on the set to offer insights. Ellis also makes note of the “gift” of research compiled by director Reinaldo Marcus Green, screenwriter Zach Baylin and star Will Smith.
“They interviewed Ms. Oracene for hours. In lieu of meeting her, I just studied those,” says Ellis. “I would wake up and go to bed listening to her voice and trying to get as much of a feel for who she was, but also who she wanted to be, what her desires were, what she wanted as a child, how she imagined herself. That was the clay that I used to create what I did in the movie.”
Ellis was also careful to avoid cliche sports “tropes” in the way of her character dishing out upbeat, Pollyanna-ish pep talks. Her mission was to truthfully convey Williams, to make certain that there wasn’t one false note.
“We had the family represented by Isha on set every day who was also insisting that we tell the truth about her mother,” says Ellis. “You cannot tell this story and do that marginalized version of the wife.”
Hudson, shortlisted along with Carole King and Jamie Alexander Hartman for the Academy Award for best song for “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” calls working with King on “Respect” “a blessing.”
“To have Carole King come in and to help write the title track was the cherry on the top to putting the bow on the ribbon of the gift to Ms. Franklin’s legacy,” says Hudson. “I’ve always been a fan, and it changes when you are now looked at to play someone, a character versus being a fan of their music, which took a whole other department, a dialect coach, acting coaches, and a lot of research diving into where she grew up to understand her circumstances, to understanding her dynamic and her relationship with her family. I would wake up in the morning and study her and go to sleep at night watching her. I still do now.”
Hudson was also tasked with heavy moments such as recreating the moment wherein Franklin sang a tribute to Martin Luther King at his funeral.
“[She was] standing there and singing at his memorial to lift everyone else up and be the light when she was in mourning herself from suffering such a huge loss at a time like that,” says Hudson.
Staying true to Franklin’s faith and her roots in Gospel was deeply important to Hudson.
“[I] wanted to make sure that I was present throughout the entire project, and approach it in the most honest, authentic, vulnerable place I possibly could whether it was in depth, emotional scenes, raw things, reality scenes or performances, because that’s what she gave us,” Hudson says. “What made it most challenging is I sang everything live and in character. With those layers happening at the same time, I had to really channel in and stay focused to be able to deliver it.”
Delivering a performance that is honest and raw was key for Chastain, who cites one of her more challenging scenes as the one in which she recreated Bakker’s landmark interview with pastor Steve Pieters, who was undergoing treatment for AIDS. Chastain calls that moment a “huge responsibility.”
“When you’re playing a true person,” she says, “you want to be as authentic as possible.”