10 Actress Contenders on Their Biggest Challenges

9:30 AM 11/18/2016

by Craig Tomashoff

Octavia Spencer, Leslie Mann Jessica Chastain and more on the pressures of getting into character and “dealing with the embarrassment of being naked” on set.

Greta Gerwig, Octavia Spencer, and Leslie Mann
Greta Gerwig, Octavia Spencer, and Leslie Mann
Courtesy of Merrick Morton/A24; Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox; Alison Cohen Rosa/Sony Pictures Classics

  • Jessica Chastain

    'Miss Sloane'

    Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/EuropaCorp

    "My character, [gun control activist] Elizabeth Sloane, is someone whose rhythm in life is very different from mine. She's constantly running a marathon. In particular, I had to work on my dexterity with my speech. I had to speak at a fast pace and had to work at it in a way that she always does.

    There's a scene with her in the congressional hearing, where she has to say the same paragraph [about the Fifth Amendment] six times. So as an actor, you have to ask what's different each time. She can't communicate verbally, so I did it with my eyes and my facial expressions and body language. Maybe this time I'm bored. Maybe this time Elizabeth is more like a robot. The next time, she's waking up a little bit to what's going on. Then she's angry and threatening. Or insecure. I wanted to make sure each line she delivered in that moment would come across in new ways."

  • Jennifer Connelly

    'American Pastoral'

    Courtesy of Richard Foreman/Lionsgate

    "I'm playing a pretty complex character in Dawn, and you end up meeting her at very different stages of her life. We start with her young and leave her when she's in her 60s. Capturing those changes a person goes through as they age is difficult, but that's also why I wanted to play the role. There were some more difficult things to deal with, although they weren't [specifically] related to this character.

    First, there was filming the scene where she goes to her husband's office wearing nothing but her Miss New Jersey sash. So there was dealing with the embarrassment of being naked like that and worrying that after the shoot, it's out there and the director and editor can present it any way they choose to. Oh, and I had to work with a bull. That was tough. He was a surprisingly technical creature, and standing next to him I was surprised at his size. Still, he was great, and I'd definitely work with another bull again."

  • Greta Gerwig

    '20th Century Women'

    Courtesy of Merrick Morton/A24

    "I felt nervous about the fact that this character — Abbie — was based on [writer-director] Mike Mills' sister. I was able to talk to her a lot about her experiences going through cancer. That presented an extra layer of me wanting to honor her life experience, but at the same time, I had to create something outside of it, too.

    There is something about knowing the real person that helps shape the performance, and that's the only person you are worried about liking what you're doing. You're not as concerned with yourself. You're more concerned with this other person. You just want them to say, 'You got it right.' And Mike's sister liked the movie, so I like to think I did my job in a good way."

  • Nicole Kidman

    'Lion'

    Courtesy of Long Way Home Productions

    "With a supporting performance like this, you have a limited amount of screen time. You're limited in the time you have to put through many ideas and layers of a character. You almost have to do more hard work as a supporting actor because you want each of your scenes to vibrate.

    I've never gotten to play a woman like this either, a real person I could get to know. I've never been able to show that type of maternal love onscreen before. That gave me an incredibly strong connection to Susan Brierley. And I walked away from the movie with the strength of maternal love that she showed me. This role is a love letter to my children, showing how important strong mothering is. We all know that, but when you see a story like this play out, it really has impact."

  • Leslie Mann

    'The Comedian'

    Courtesy of Alsion Cohen Rosa/Sony Pictues Classic

    "My biggest challenge with this movie was to show up to work with these people I've worshipped my entire life and not fall apart mentally and physically. This was Robert De Niro. It was Harvey Keitel. And it was directed by Taylor Hackford. I quickly learned they are all very passionate artists who are wise enough to create a safe place for everyone who was involved in the production. There were a lot of thoughtful, if sometimes heated, debates and conversations during the rehearsal process that allowed me and all of us to take risks and feel comfortable on set once the shooting began."

  • Margo Martindale

    'The Hollars'

    Courtesy of Jonny Cournoyer/ Sony Picture Classics

    "I'd met John Krasinski years ago and was crazy about him, so I really wanted to be in a movie he directed. I also loved the idea of getting to work with Richard Jenkins. Plus, I hadn't played anyone nice in a while so that appealed to me. I knew this was a woman who is in control and who loved her family but didn't want to be a burden to anyone. My one worry was that I might make her too emotional. I knew I could probably break emotionally one time during the film, although I ended up doing it several times, like when John's character came to me to talk about being scared. It was supposed to be a mother giving the most loving advice to her son, but I just wanted to sob and leave the room."

  • Lupita Nyong'o

    'Queen of Katwe'

    Courtesy of Edward Echwalu/Disney

    "I was drawn to the role in part because of the challenges it presented to me, the greatest one being representing the specific woman and mother I was portraying, Nakku Harriet. Harriet was a young mother of 30 with four children, living in abject poverty in the slums of Katwe in Uganda. I loved the beautiful message of seeing her journey from fear of failure for her daughter to becoming a champion and provider of hope.

    Every detail, from learning the specific Ugandan accent of English to seeing the way she would sit while selling maize in the market, to creating a bond and a sense of trust with the children who were new to acting, was vital to telling her truth. I felt every day a unique pressure to get every detail right."

  • Octavia Spencer

    'Hidden Figures'

    Courtesy of Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox

    "None of us knew this story when we started. I thought it was fiction. But to learn that these women we were playing [female African-American mathematicians at NASA during the 1960s] existed and contributed to the space race and helped create technology integral to our space program — they were real people, but there was very little information about them that isn't archived at NASA.

    As actors, we are also detectives, and our job is to find out all we can about the people we become. So when that person is real, you have to get it as right as possible. I was grateful for Margot Lee Shetterly's book, which the movie was based on. The manuscript hadn't been published when we were filming, but our director [Theodore Melfi] didn't betray Margot by showing us the book before it was released, so he only showed us the chapters that had our characters in them."

  • Rachel Weisz

    'Denial'

    Courtesy of Laurie Sparham/Bleeckers Street

    "It wasn't easy embodying Deborah [Lipstadt], who is a larger-than-life character in reality. She is very much an extrovert and is on the front foot in every way. How she walks, talks, deals with problems … this was a very new kind of character for me, and getting her right was important. I wanted to honor the specificity of her Queens, New York, accent and honor the way in which she carries herself. All the scenes in the courtroom were tough because Deborah wasn't allowed to speak at her trial. She was perturbed and frustrated by this, and so was I as the actor playing her. So in all those scenes, I had to express the frustration without speaking, which was challenging but ultimately rewarding."

  • Michelle Williams

    'Manchester by the Sea'

    Courtesy of Calire Folger/Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

    "I must have done something good in a past life because I have wanted to work with [director] Kenny [Lonergan] for more than 10 years now. When he came to me with this, I was like, 'Wow, if you just wait long enough …' He could talk to you in depth about any one of his characters. I've been doing this for such a long time, more than 20 years, and when I was younger, I would work with a good director, and they would hold a key and unlock something inside of me. The more that I've worked and the older I've gotten, I've realized that directors want me to have the key. They hire me because they're hoping that I'm going to unlock something.

    Now I really make it my work and my job to come to the set really prepared and with a lot of ideas and to not depend heavily on direction. But I'm also very open. I love being directed. I love serving a vision, especially when it's someone like Kenny. I thought a tremendous amount about the accident [at the heart of Manchester by the Sea], how my character changed and why she changed, how she feels different and how she would look different."

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