Bryan Cranston, Eddie Redmayne and 18 Others Share Secrets for Getting Lost in Character

9:55 AM 11/19/2015

by Thelma Adams and Scott Feinberg

Awards season stars — including Ian McKellen ('Mr. Holmes'), Joseph Gordon-Levitt ('The Walk') and Emily Blunt ('Sicario') — talk movingly about how they inhabited fear, love and nerves onscreen.

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    Emily Blunt

    Kate Macer, an FBI Agent, in 'Sicario'

    It was a completely alien world to me. I don't have the guts. I spoke to four women in the FBI — I based Kate on one of the women that had the innate toughness and cool essence to her personality, and yet she was quite shy.

    My character goes through an extremely difficult experience: She is highly skilled, but she's thrown into a world she finds incoher­ent. The most challenging part of playing Kate was trying to show a character who is not naive but has a pure moral compass, who is tough but also over her head.

    She is not one thing. It is a film about the gray matter of the war on drugs — and humanity.

    The toughest scene was when Jon Bernthal's Ted attacks me in my apartment: There needed to be a desperate struggle that was not over-choreographed.

    The adrenaline and the reality of feeling very overpowered by some­one bigger and stronger than you seeps through your skin, whether you want it to or not. I have never been an actor to take my work home with me, but after that physical conflict, I got home and didn't sleep for two nights.

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    Abraham Attah

    Agu, a Child Soldier, in 'Beasts of No Nation'

    Courtesy of Netflix/Venice Film Festival

    I decided to read the script to remember my lines before going on set. I watched a movie called Johnny Mad Dog because it was about child soldiers.

    Shooting our movie, all of the violence did not feel real — it felt fake. But I did feel frightened when I was walking in the jungle alone. I was afraid of snakes, and the camera was far away.

    From [co-star] Idris [Elba], I saw that on set, when he had free time, he would be reading the script, reciting it aloud so he would be able to recite the script without sounding like he was reading a book.

    Yes, I will continue acting. Now I know where to look at the camera, and if they tell me to find the light, I know how to find the light.

    When I had to be sad as Agu, I thought of the story from a boy named Justice who was in the movie. Justice, who was about 15, told us he found out that his mother had died. He went to find his father. His father said he wasn't the boy's real father — he kicked him out of the house. So sad.

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    Blythe Danner

    Carol Petersen, a Widow, in 'I'll See You in My Dreams'

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    That love glow at the movie's center is in my muscle memory. My husband died 15 years ago, so I have to say life prepared me.

    Then there was the attraction, of course: Sam [Elliott] was divine. And I liked my character, Carol, so much more than myself. She's rooted in a quiet place that I'm not — her center is much more at peace. I like her little bit of snarky veneer that's built up.

    She's the wisenheimer of her group of friends, speaking out of the corner of her mouth — a Barbara Stanwyck throwback to a former movie era. She was gutsy; she faced the last chapter of her life without fear or trepidation. And then there were the bridge lessons — none of us knew how to play bridge. We all were unhappy with the older guy, the bridge expert. You can't say no to actors; we're children.

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    Bryan Cranston

    Dalton Trumbo, a Blacklisted Screenwriter, in 'Trumbo'

    'Trumbo,' Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

    If you're playing a character who is nonfictional, there is an added respon­sibility: Lyndon Johnson, say, or Dalton Trumbo.

    There is a plethora of source material, and Trumbo's two daughters, Nikola and Mitzi, are still alive, and even though they were children at the time, I would ask them a bunch of questions.

    For instance, an earlier iteration had Trumbo tell his kids to hop in the car, and he takes them for ice cream. Nikola and Mitzi giggled — that was Cleo, their mom, especially during the blacklist years. Cleo clearly was the emotional foundation and kept the fires burning at home.

    As much of a vulnerable, noble battle that Trumbo was embroiled in, there was also some selfishness. We had really honest exchanges about how irritable and angry and impatient he could be. It is important to know that the families of these blacklisted writers and directors paid a price and suffered as much as the men themselves.

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    Paul Dano

    Young Brian Wilson, in 'Love & Mercy'

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    The music was the soul of my preparation: I listened to the music, the studio sessions, and learned to perform Brian Wilson's songs. Singing and playing Brian's music literally puts it in your body, and you feel it move through you.

    I think he is at home when he is at the piano — music is him. He's giving you everything in his music. There's a lot of other stuff that circled around that, but the music is when you catch Brian's true spirit. I tried to feed off the music as much as I could. I found inspiration in a lot of songs, particularly "You Still Believe in Me."

    Also, Brian's such an open, honest, raw person — he didn't build up layers of skin that most of us do to survive. It's what brought great music and is painful. I had to open myself up to be in the most open, raw space: to experience the seesaw of making music and creative joy one second and then struggle and pain the next.

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    Ian McKellen

    Sherlock Holmes, in 'Mr. Holmes'

    Courtesy of Rodside Attractions

    When you play Hamlet, you can't worry that you're the thousandth actor of the century to play Hamlet. When I was playing Hamlet in London, some critics said: "We can't see Hamlet again — I'm sorry. There have been 10 Hamlets this year already; we can't see another."

    That didn't really apply to Holmes because our script was a new take on him. The idea of this ver­sion is that Sherlock Holmes is a real person, not a fictional one. So it didn't worry me at all that,

    I think, it's 130 actors who've played Sherlock Holmes. I did say to [director] Bill [Condon], "I'm not working with bees." He said, "You are," and I said, "You can CGI them later." He said, "This is an independent movie — we can't afford special effects like that."

    So I went to bee school. A man taught me how to attend to them: You dose them in a bit of smoke, talk to them nicely, and they're fine.

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    Saoirse Ronan

    Eilis, a 1950s Irish Immigrant, in 'Brooklyn'

    Photofest

    It's an incredibly emotional piece, and initially when I read it, to me it was my mum and dad's story. They had moved over to New York in the '80s, and I was born in the Bronx — myself and Jennifer Lopez are both from "the block."

    Initially that was the telltale sign for me that this was the perfect first fully Irish project for me to be involved in.

    There was a year or so from when I signed on to when we actually made it, and during that time I moved away from home to London, and I experienced that homesickness.

    It's a very daunting thing, the realization when you do leave home that you can't go back. That you can never go back to how things were, and you sort of have to adapt to that.

    I was still adapting, and to go home in the middle of that process to make a film about home and about homesickness was overwhelming.

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    Alicia Vikander

    Gerda Wegener, a Young Artist, in 'The Danish Girl'

    Photofest

    It was wonderful to have Gerda's art — her personality came through. She was successful in her own time, experiencing that struggle any artist undergoes trying to find their own voice and be true to it. Other people will start to appreciate the work once you find your own voice.

    Gerda started to become very successful when she found her muse in Lili [Eddie Redmayne's transgender artist]. It's pivotal in the beginning with Gerda starting to paint Lili — both of them go on the journey of allowing Lili to step forward and see her true self. 

    Gerda goes on a journey, too. People forget the wife was on a transition as big as her partner's — they were a couple going through a big change together. I was privileged that my emotions, that are my tools, were employed to portray such an extraordi­nary woman.

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    Elizabeth Banks

    Melinda Ledbetter, Brian Wilson's Girlfriend, in 'Love & Mercy'

    Photofest

    It was all about meeting the real Melinda Wilson — she held the keys to the character. I had to put aside my own biases about mental illness and relationships. She reminded me about patience, about never playing the whole movie, the whole life, but being present in the moment.

    When you meet Brian Wilson, he's such a gentle spirit. He brings you in, and he requires slowing everything down to the wavelength on which he operates.

    This is a great love story. They are still married — they have five kids, 12 dogs. They did it! They won! They were two people dreaming about their second act. She had given up on love, children and marriage.

    People tell me my character saved Brian, but they saved each other.

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    Eddie Redmayne

    Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a Transgender Woman in the 1920s, in 'The Danish Girl'

    Courtesy of Focus Features

    The most complex side of it was finding Lili's inner life and her emotional story, and that was from meeting transwomen of different generations.

    A friend of mine described the early part of her transition, this phase of what she called hyper-feminization — which is when you come out and you're sort of entering the world, and she would wear perhaps too much makeup and dresses that were hyper-feminine.

    She related it to teenage girls' adolescence and trying things before getting rid of some of those things she found herself shedding. And that was interesting — that was something I wanted to bring.

    This wasn't about me convincingly being a woman; it was more about being Lili.

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    Joseph Gordon-Levitt

    Philippe Petit, the Wire Walker, in 'The Walk'

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures

    There was more preparation than my average role. One part was physical: how to walk on the wire.

    I began with Philippe himself — he set up this elaborate eight-day workshop. Not everybody that is good at doing is good at teaching, but he is a great wire walker and also an excellent teacher. We spent a ton of time together walking on wire. We all have some measure of fear of heights.

    There's an instinct: If you put someone up high, the body instinctually pumps adrenaline. When we shot, I was not 110 stories in the air, but I was on a wire 12 feet in the air, high enough to pump adrenaline through my veins — that was what I needed my body to do. I didn't have to fake that.

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    Patricia Clarkson

    Wendy, a Book Critic and Divorcee, in 'Learning to Drive'

    Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs

    The prep was the life I'd lived — the pain, agony, rejection and acceptance. Even though I have not lived Wendy's exact life, I have suffered in ways women do and women of a certain age do. 

    I realized Wendy made mistakes in her self-centered life. Playing a woman who was not necessarily sympathetic but had great humor at the core — juxtaposed with abject despair — challenged me. It was like lightning rounds — split-second emotional shifts.

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    Michael Shannon

    Rick Carver, a Real Estate Broker, in '99 Homes'

    Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

    Carver is a broker in the Orlando area. When the foreclosure crisis hits, he was assigned the task of doing evictions — assigned to do a lot of them. I had likened it to the bubonic plague: Somebody had to go scrape the bodies off the streets.

    He receives a lot of animosity from people because he's the one who shows up and kicks them out of their house, but he's dealing with a very complicated situation, and he's doing the best he can. [Director] Ramin [Bahrani] is quick to point out that I can't help but feel empathy for my characters — it's my way of looking at things, I guess.

    I met a guy who was in the same position as Rick, and I felt very sorry for him. He has a hard life and has a lot of angst.

    I don't judge people — the world is a horri­fying place, and it's full of people that are trying to do the best they can. The only way I've ever looked at a character I've played is as a person, a citizen of the world.

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    Tom Courtenay

    Geoff Mercer, a Longtime Married Man, in '45 Years'

    Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

    The part felt like it was written for me.

    The preparation is in the script. I like to learn the words of the part; when they're in you, they do things with your imagination if they are good words, which I thought they were. I like to get the glasses sorted, the spectacles. I'm very keen on sending a picture of me in spectacles to the director — I get an extra pair in my prescription.

    Alec Guinness said he always started with the shoes; I like to start with the spectacles. Working opposite Charlotte Rampling, we're both pretty naturalistic. Sometimes I have a lot to say; she's a good listener. And then I listened to her like you're supposed to listen to each other. My wife says I don't listen to her, but that's how wives feel.

    As for the sex scene, I had no trouble what­soever — and not many lines to learn. You can't take it too seriously. I was much more ner­vous about the dance scene. Charlotte and [writer-director] Andrew [Haigh] were making fun of me. They said, "It doesn't matter if you aren't very good."

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    Julie Walters

    Mrs. Kehoe, a Boarding-House Landlady, in 'Brooklyn'

    Photofest

    I loved Mrs. Kehoe when I read the book. When they asked me to play her, I was thrilled.

    My mother was Irish; I was a child in the '50s. I remember my mother's Irish friends — it did not feel like a strain. The challenge was looking at my reflection in that wig in the morning.

    She feels part of me but not part of my personality. I wouldn't run a house like that, and I did not run a house in 1952. She has such a different life, ruled by the Catholic Church. She's living through these girls, and that's what those scenes are about.

    At the dinner table, she just comes out with, "Now, Eilis, you have greasy skin." That kind of thing might have been said to me — abrupt, without concern it might offend.

    It rang so many bells, reminding me of my mother's friends. Mrs. Kehoe is not my mother, but she reminds me of that tone when I was around as a child.

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    Jason Segel

    David Foster Wallace, the Late Author, in 'The End of the Tour'

    Courtesy of A24 Films

    I rented a house in a little town where I could just read and I could practice the voice and things like that, and I could start wearing a bandana — so when I got to set, it didn't feel like I was wearing a superhero costume.

    Then I started a book club in the local town to read Infinite Jest. I went to the local bookshop, and they offered to do a book club with me, and it was the best part of the experience. We would read 100 pages a week on our own and get together on Sundays and talk about it.

    It really informed the performance. The book is so honest, in a very funny way, but it resulted in four grown men in their 30s sitting around on a Sunday night. I was a stranger to them, and they didn't know why I was doing it either — I didn't tell them that.

    Talking about feelings like loneliness and where we place our value, and seeing that the book had that effect on people, was really an important part of the process.

    I also had to gain a bunch of weight — we had photos to match. We were like three weeks out of shooting, and I did a hair and makeup test. I looked too thin for this particular four-day period, so I put myself on this terrible Hot Pocket diet of two Hot Pockets every three hours. You go with the ham and cheese every time; pepperoni and cheese is so good, too.

     

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    Chiwetel Ejiofor

    Vincent Kapoor, a NASA Exec, in 'The Martian'

    Peter Mountain/Twentieth Century Fox

    As the head of the Mars mission, I didn't have to do the physical astronaut preparation, although I was trying to understand the kind of pressure you would be under in an interplanetary operation.

    I had previously worked on American Gangster with [director] Ridley [Scott]. He has such a wonderful process with actors, creating an immersive world for you to operate in. He also casts really well, so you are always playing with people at the top of their game and on top of the material.

    It was, in fact, a very straightforward process, from meeting up with Ridley to discuss character to space agencies, then on set and working with Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong and Sean Bean.

    I definitely want to play an astronaut at some point. This is the closest I've got, so maybe next time.

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    Sarah Silverman

    Laney Brooks, a Self-Destructive Mother, in 'I Smile Back'

    When [screenwriter] Amy Koppelman sent me the book and wrote the adaptation with Paige Dylan, they wanted to attach me to the script. I didn't think twice — it didn't occur to me it would ever get made.

    Two years later, I got a group email saying we got the funding. I replied all then sank, coiled in a ball. I had a full-body panic attack. I realized that is the state of mind Laney is always in.

    As for coming from comedy, almost all comics come from a dark place — they became funny as a means for surviving childhood. We are all trying to survive our childhoods. And you realize your mother is a person, and she is just trying — that never ends.

    Even in my comedy I like to talk about things that are taboo and shine light on things in darkness. It's like that joke: People think when they hate themselves, it's self-deprecating. But it's not modesty, it's self-obsession. Mother Teresa didn't walk around complaining that her thighs touched — she had shit to do.

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    Edgar Ramirez

    Tony Miranne, the Lead Character's Ex-Husband, in 'Joy'

    Photofest

    Tony is a struggling nightclub singer. I went through vocal preparation for the first time — I never sang before. [Writer-director] David O. Russell and I worked closely finding the tone. The musical style is intimate, and that word describes the collaboration with David.

    It was a beautiful experience, intense and revealing, discussing the songs and returning to the classics. David always challenges you: Everything he says is so intimate and personal, and he is very involved every step of the way.

    Tony is a musician — a good, tender, flawed guy. He truly loves Joy. He ends up living in her basement. They are best friends and allies. He is the sweetest and most tender character I've ever played.

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    Rachel Weisz

    Lena Ballinger, a Musician's Daughter, in 'Youth'

    Photofest

    I have a father, so I kind of lived the prepa­ration. I didn't have to go and investigate having a father. He's not a musician like Michael Caine's character, but he is suc­cessful in his own right, in his own field.

    I loved this idea of a daughter that loves her dad so much that she's her father's assistant. She still shares a bed with him — no big deal with it. She's clearly got some daddy issues, and I found that amusing. The screenplay taps into what it is to be a parent and what it is to be a child. Everyone is a child of someone.

    Working with Michael, we meshed. Both of us, we're doers; we don't want to analyze. We're happy to chat about life experiences, and Michael is a keen sto­ryteller who has acted opposite everyone, but he doesn't want to analyze the scenes — he just wants to do them. We were similar in that respect, not taking them apart verbally between takes.

    The director, Paolo Sorrentino, is like that, too. There were lots of takes. We played around and enjoyed ourselves and got lost in the material.

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