Acting Contenders From Alana Haim to Andrew Garfield Learn New Talents for Films

SAG Awards Actors New Skills
The Novice: IFC; King Richard: Warner Bros.; Tick Tick Boom: Netflix

Many SAG Award winners and nominees speak about how the award is special because it comes from their peers, who understand the nuances of the job better than anyone. The skills that actors attain throughout their careers have the ability to change their lives in ways both expected and unexpected. Every year, some of the best acting talent prepares for their roles by undertaking time-consuming lessons in a particular trade, craft or sport, in order to believably portray those actions onscreen because it has to be seamless, and you have to believe everything you see in a film in order for it to be fully effective. Oftentimes, it’s very evident when someone has taken the pains to do the required research, and put in the dedication, so that every part of their performance feels true to the cinematic world in which they live.

In writer-director Sian Heder’s touching family drama “CODA,” Emilia Jones delivers a sensational central performance, with the film’s delicate narrative centering on complicated family dynamics that feel honest at every turn. Jones plays the one hearing member of her family, with her deaf parents and brother relying on her to serve as their translator as they run a fishing business in Gloucester, Mass. But she’s got dreams of her own, and an incredible singing voice to back it up, so what will become of her life?

“This film was very special to make, and it felt like this big warm hug that we all need right now. Everything I learned while making ‘CODA’ was new to me, and we wanted every aspect to feel authentic,” says Jones.

In addition to mastering ASL, Jones also learned to believably navigate a fishing trawler by operating the boat and understanding the process of open-water fish collection, while cementing her singing abilities.

“I did nine months of training with both ASL and singing, and I went out on a fishing boat every day, for two weeks, at 3 in the morning, so I could completely understand that life,” she says. “I’d never had a singing lesson before, and to this day, I’m still learning sign language. I’ll continue with it for the rest of my life.”

Few performances this past year have been as intense as the one dished out by Isabelle Fuhrman in Lauren Hadaway’s “The Novice,” which takes a sobering, clinical view of what it takes to operate at the collegiate level in the sport of competitive rowing. Fuhrman, who turned heads back in 2009 in the hit thriller “Orphan,” displays mile-wide confidence in her role, with the fully dedicated performance scaling the depths of on-screen personal obsession. “I was intoxicated by the idea of this challenge, and I wanted to bring humanity to a character who can be unlikable,” she says. “My goal as an actress is to keep transforming myself with each role.”

The film explores subject matter that will be new to many viewers, while showing the dangers of rowing. It was new to Fuhrman as well. “This was a completely foreign sport to me. I got up at 4:30 a.m. every day for six weeks before the shoot in order to train, and I gained 12 pounds of muscle. I got completely obsessed with playing the role.”

Andrew Garfield hadn’t done any public singing before working on Lin Manuel-Miranda’s fiercely energetic musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” So the actor, playing the “Rent” and “Boom” creator Jonathan Larson, spent a year learning how to sing from several voice coaches, including industry legend Liz Caplan. The project was also workshopped like a true Broadway musical, with group screenplay readings, and over a week of learning the songs. Garfield also had to learn to play enough piano where it would convincing to see him in medium shot, getting his full musical groove on. “For a long time, I’d been interested in singing, and I was always curious to see how far I could take it. I’m drawn to the potential for failure, and what we’re all able to achieve, and I think that’s a good fear to have as an actor. I felt like this was where I had to go,” says Garfield.

“This project was one of those weird and wonderful ones where there was magic around it, simply because of who Jonathan was as a person, and how Lin directed it. Stepping outside of my comfort zone as an actor is something I’m always interested in doing.”

When Paul Thomas Anderson offered Alana Haim one of the leading roles in his latest Los Angeles opus, the 1970s-set “Licorice Pizza,” the new-to-the-craft actor knew that she’d have multiple learning experiences on the horizon — one of which included reading a screenplay.

“I had never read a script,” Haim says. “Paul and I talked about this, but even reading the words ‘exterior’ and ‘interior,’ things like that, I felt — oh my God, this is a real script! I don’t think there’s an art to reading a script. I just read it as if it was a book. It was a page turner.”

But one of her biggest life lessons was learning how to drive a truck for the production.

“I went to truck driving school, because I had to learn how to drive a stick shift,” she recalls.

Still, when it came time to shoot, not everything went as planned. “It was day two, and I was so nervous getting in that truck for the first time with cameras and lights. It was night time. I put the truck into first gear for the first time, and it was next to a curb. Everyone was watching me. And it immediately stalled. I looked at Paul, and I had panic in my eyes. Because of course I don’t want to let him down. And this is a very important part of the movie. And he looked at me and he kind of did a breathing motion, and once I got that signal of, ‘you’re OK, you’re OK,’ I put it into first again, and we were off to the races. I was so nervous, but that’s me free-driving the streets of Tarzana.”

Fifteen-year-old Saniyya Sidney never looked back after accepting the iconic role of Venus Williams in “King Richard,” with the young actor learning how to play ace-level tennis in order to make all the on-court action feel totally authentic.

“Playing tennis was completely foreign to me, as I’d only done track and field in the past. But by the end of the production, Demi [Singleton, who plays Serena Williams] and I got really good, and about 50% of what you see on screen is us really playing,” says Sidney.

She started training in 2019 in order to meet the demands of portraying an international superstar. “It got very real very quickly on the set, and when we filmed Venus’ second pro match, I was very nervous. I wanted to do it justice.”

When production was shut down due to COVID, Sidney was able to get more involved in learning all the ins and outs of the game.

“I changed everything, from my diet to my sleeping habits to the way I walked. My overall daily mindset had to be adjusted. But I fell in love with tennis as a result of making this film, and now it’s a skill I can definitely say I’m comfortable with,” she says.