Melissa McCarthy, Keira Knightley and 12 More Actors Reveal How Far They Went to Play Real-Life Icons

8:00 AM 11/29/2018

by THR Staff

These thespians reveal the leaps they took (45-pound weight gains, piano lessons, painting classes and even meeting a Supreme  Court justice) to re-create well-known faces: "I live vicariously through others."

Melissa McCarthy in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
Melissa McCarthy in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Taking on a role that's based on a real person can be one of the most challenging pursuits for an actor. If it's an iconic figure, such as a politician like Dick Cheney or a Hollywood star like Stan Laurel, the public will have a certain level of expectation that the actor's performance matches how they view the real person. And even if it's not a well-known person, the actor is still tasked with telling a story that belongs to someone else.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to 14 actors about how they brought their characters to life, from the physical transformations (ranging from fantastic costumes and wigs to Christan Bale's neck exercises) to the emotional work of getting to know the real people they'd be playing.

As told to Tara Bitran, Lauren Huff, Rebecca Ford, Katie Kilkenny, Evan Real and Tatiana Siegel. 

  • Christian Bale

    'Vice'

    Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures

    Bale is known for extreme physical transformations for his roles, and to play Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s movie about the vice president’s rise from his days in the Nixon administration to his eight-year reign in the White House, he gained 45 pounds. But to Bale, it wasn’t just the overall weight gain that helped him find the character.

    The actor, 44, performed special exercises to thicken his neck and speaks of “a feeling of an unstoppable force because I had such neck strength. I was lifting total stacks of weight, and it just gave that feeling of an immovable object. That was immensely helpful.”

    Bale, who stars opposite Amy Adams, admits that he’s not sure if his physical transformation was “entirely necessary”: “I spoke with actor friends of mine who said, ‘completely unnecessary.’ But I found it helped me immensely psychologically in that respect, that when you get that no-neck, you equally feel like nobody can change your mind. Like no matter what attacks you get, you can take them. You can take all the hard strikes.”

  • Steve Coogan

    'Stan & Ollie'

    Aimee Spinks

    To play half of one of the most iconic onscreen duos ever, Coogan needed a partner whom he could count on just the way that Stan Laurel counted on Oliver Hardy.

    “The only thing that would seal the deal for me was that John C. Reilly would play Oliver Hardy,” says Coogan, 53. They spent one month rehearsing, working with a clown adviser on mastering their physical comedy routines and gestures. “The one constant throughout their lives had been each other,” adds Coogan. “And in my period I had rehearsing with John, we got to know each other and needed each other.”

    When director Jon S. Baird came down with appendicitis, delaying the shoot a week, Coogan invited Reilly up to the north of England to visit Laurel’s birthplace. “We spent a few days together, walking in the hills and trying on all the hats at the Laurel & Hardy museum, like the tourists,” says Coogan. “The film is a love letter to comedy and a love story between two men whose friendship really grew on this European tour, and you have to believe that. John and I have great affection for each other, and that’s evident onscreen.”

    After attending the London premiere of the film with her son, Stan Laurel's great-granddaughter told him, "You got it right." Coogan remembers, "It got me a little choked up." One of his favorite parts about delving into the "treasure trove" of riches that comprise Laurel's life was spending a long time listening to recorded phone calls of Laurel's from his retirement after Ollie had died.

    "He was in the phone book, and he lived in an apartment in Santa Monica. You could pick up the phone, call him up, and have a conversation with him where he'd talk to people about Stan and Ollie. Those calls were quite revealing about who he was, a man who was very gentle and kind, but quite serious and thoughtful. Dick Van Dyke once rang up Stan Laurel as a child, and he was calling from the other side of America. So, Stan said, 'What, does your mother know you're calling? This is an expensive call to make.'"

  • Willem Dafoe

    'At Eternity's Gate'

    Lily Gavin

    To portray painter Vincent van Gogh, Dafoe took lessons from director Julian Schnabel, who is an avid painter. “Julian was very generous in spending a lot of time with me, teaching me how to make marks, how to paint light and, ultimately, how to see differently,” says Dafoe, 63. The actor had painted before, coming of age as an artist in downtown New York, and has many artist friends. “But to actually do it was very important to root the character,” adds the three-time Oscar nominee. “The painting was a concrete thing I could learn, and that creates a shift of understanding that I then can apply to inhabiting the character.”

    While he enjoyed painting, Dafoe plans to stick with acting for now. “I loved it, but it’s like any role: When the circumstances for the role to emerge go away, so does the character. It goes back inside of you,” he says. “I would love to paint more, but I like to work. I like to do movies. I like to do theater, and I have a pretty nomadic life. To paint the way I was painting, I would need daily practice, and I would need to have a studio and my materials. That’s just not practical.”

  • Marina de Tavira

    'Roma'

    Courtesy of Netflix

    When Alfonso Cuaron approached de Tavira to star in Roma — which recalls events of his own childhood in Mexico City and the women who raised him — he didn’t outright say she would be portraying a fictional version of his own mother. De Tavira, 44, says she just knew. “He was giving such specific details of her life, of how she met her husband. The way he talked about her, you can’t just create that out of your imagination,” she says, adding that Cuaron wanted her to understand his mother — but only to an extent. “After that conversation, he said: ‘Now I want you to forget all that I said. I know that who Sofia is, you have that within you.’”

    De Tavira says she is “really, really sad” that she didn’t get the chance to hear Cuaron’s mother’s thoughts on the film (she died earlier in 2018). “She’s a woman of her generation that [was] left alone with [her] motherhood, which is something that my own mother went through,” she notes. “So I really hope I could give a voice to her, to my mother and to all women who have to raise families by themselves.”

  • Claire Foy

    'First Man'

    Daniel McFadden/Universal Studios

    To prepare for playing the role of Neil Armstrong’s first wife, Janet, in Damien Chazelle’s astronaut biopic First Man, Foy began by reading the book upon which the film is based (James Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong), as well as speaking with loved ones who knew Janet (she died in June). “Those personal anecdotes and memories are the things that round out a person and give them life and soul, so it was enlightening to hear them from people who actually met her,” says Foy, 34. She says she learned that her character was “the force that drove the family engine” and someone who deserved to have her story told. “So many women of that time have been portrayed as one-dimensional ‘wife waiting at home’-type characters, but all those women deserved to have their story and their voice heard,” she says. “Janet was unbelievably courageous and resilient. She had such a strong sense of what was important in life and spoke up when a lot of people wouldn’t — and that’s something that I hugely admire.”

  • Jonas Strand Gravli

    '22 July'

    Erik Aavatsmark/netflix

    Setting out to play real-life shooting survivor Viljar Hanssen in Paul Greengrass’ drama, Gravli read One of Us, the nonfiction book (upon which the film is based) by journalist Asne Seierstad on the terrorist attacks that claimed 77 lives in 2011 in Norway. The actor also spoke with Hanssen several weeks before the start of filming, and he says the survivor’s insights on what Hollywood often gets wrong were invaluable to his process. “He told me that when you’re watching other films where people get shot, they always die right away or they have a really big, emotional pain kind of thing, but he told me that it wasn’t that painful,” says Gravli, 27. “But it was a really strange feeling because he was awake, and he couldn’t understand that he was shot as many times as he was. He had to check where all his wounds were.” He also reveals that Hanssen still has a bullet fragment lodged in his head. “He’s never sure if he’s going to live or die,” says Gravli, “and we talked about this insecurity of not knowing if you’re going to die the next minute.”

  • Lucas Hedges

    'Boy Erased'

    Courtesy of Focus Features

    While the Joel Edgerton-directed drama about a boy whose parents send him to a gay conversion camp is based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, Hedges felt like his character, Jared, was a combination of Garrard and himself. “Garrard’s not Abraham Lincoln, in that people don’t have a personal relationship with the idea of him,” says Hedges, 21. “So I could do anything. I realized, ‘I don’t have to become him, nor can I, so I might as well just focus on what all this means to me.’”

    For the film, which also stars Nicole Kidman, Hedges says he did feel a sense of responsibility to get Garrard’s story right, and he says he was able to do that in part because he connected to the character’s need to please those closest to him. “I related deeply to the idea of selling myself out for the approval of others, and this character is asked to sort of perform the ultimate sellout of himself,” he says.

  • Felicity Jones

    'On the Basis of Sex'

    Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features

    Before shooting started on Mimi Leder’s biopic tracing Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early court cases, Jones, 35, met the Supreme Court justice in her chambers in Washington, D.C. “The first time we met, she couldn’t take her eyes off Armie [Hammer, who plays her husband, Marty]. She was completely taken with him,” says Jones, giggling. In their initial conversation, Ginsburg shared how much her husband (who died in 2010) loved cooking. “She gave us a book of his recipes, and I could see how extraordinary that love was between them.” In prepping for the role, Jones also watched footage from when the couple first met. "There was so much love. It was a perfect meeting of minds."

    Listening to Ginsburg's early court recordings and reading her writings helped Jones get into the mindset of the determined law expert. "She is an incredible writer, and she started off at a young age working for her school newspaper, giving her a very literary style. I think that's partly why she's been so powerful — because she knows how strong words are and how words can shift perception."

    Jones considers the death of Ginsburg’s mother at a young age as a “huge catalyst for Ruth. Her mother inspired her in education, had been such a champion of Ruth, that losing her mother gave her the fight. She wanted to fight for what her mother believed in, which was equality.” Although the Notorious RBG read every detail of the On the Basis of Sex screenplay "almost like a court case" and gave full approval on the story, Jones was especially nervous when Ginsburg came to the set for the final sequence. “I was very intimidated that all the work and all the love that had been put into it would do justice to her,” says Jones. “But now she tells everyone, ‘You must go and see the film about my life,’ which is the best review we could have.”

  • Keira Knightley

    'Colette'

    Robert Viglasky/BLEECKER STREET

    After Knightley worked her way through 19th century French scribe Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s oeuvre, the actress realized that the author was “unbelievably modern, perhaps even more modern than we are today,” given the fluid way she approached gender and sexuality. Knightley, 33, initially planned to show the young Colette physically taking up as little space as possible as a girl and later “manspreading” as she grew more confident. “But because all of her costumes were original, they were all so delicate that my movement got kind of restricted,” the actress says. “Most of my costumes were double-stuck onto me because I kept ripping them.” The largest challenge was when Colette took up dance professionally. Of one sequence in which she emerges from a sarcophagus in Egyptian-style attire, Knightley says: “I have never felt more stupid in my life. Given what I do for a living, that’s really saying something.”

  • Rami Malek

    'Bohemian Rhapsody'

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    “I knew there was more to Freddie Mercury than a man who holds an audience in the palm of his hand,” says Malek, who took on the challenge of portraying the iconic Queen frontman for Fox’s rock drama.

    The actor began by researching the beginning of the singer’s life — starting with Mercury’s mother. “I studied her gestures. I listened to the way she spoke,” says Malek, 37. “She has a Gujarat Indian accent — and I thought about why he’s so posh at times. Was he trying to compensate for something?”

    Later on, Malek took piano and singing lessons and worked with a movement coach to learn Mercury’s signature stage style — but also to never feel restrained by it. “I needed to capture his spontaneity,” he says. “The man’s not choreographed. Every time he steps out onto a stage, no one knows what he’s going to do, and that’s what I knew I needed to tether myself to.”

  • Melissa McCarthy

    'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    After playing Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s decidedly unsentimental story, Melissa McCarthy wonders whether she ever passed by the celebrity author turned letter forger when they were both living in New York. “When I was at Julius’ in the ’90s, was she there? Was I talking a mile a minute at a bar and she probably hated me?”

    McCarthy, 48, fell in love with Israel and her devil-may-care attitude, ultimately feeling an undeniable bond to the writer. “In one way, Lee and I are so different. I'm more outgoing and social. I want people around me. I always thought of her as a rebellious armadillo, protecting herself and shutting down, hoping people would go away,” she says. “But then I realized we’re doing the exact same thing. She is her most comfortable living through other people. That’s when she was her smartest, her bravest, her funniest. And I live vicariously through other people. I’m much braver via someone else. And I just thought, ‘Isn’t that funny?’”

    McCarthy also turned to two of the film's producers and longtime friends of Israel's, David Yarnell and Anne Carey, for insights Israel's writings couldn't illuminate. “She’d have a turn of phrase in her letters that could just crush. But she was still writing as someone else. I knew her talent level, but I didn’t know her. Getting to hear all of their stories was really how I keyed into her.” McCarthy took heart in Yarnell referring to his relationship with Israel as “love-hate-hate,” especially during the process of trying to get her to sign the rights over to her memoir. While Carey, who went back and forth with Israel for 10 years trying to get the film made before Israel passed away, revealed that “Lee’s main thing was don’t make it sentimental.”

    McCarthy hopes Israel would be pleased the film shows her talent and grit. “She didn’t care what other people think. She wanted to write and knew she was good. She didn’t need anyone else to like or to validate her, especially now when we’re so obsessed with posting everything.” She laughs, “My God, she’d hate social media.”

  • Rosamund Pike

    'A Private War'

    Paul Conroy

    Pike says that director Matthew Heineman initially had the impression that she was being unprofessional on the first day, putting on headphones the second shooting ended. But she was listening to war reporter Marie Colvin on a loop in order to capture the dialect and energy of her voice. “She was someone who traded in words, and the way she uses words is so much a part of her character,” says Pike, 39. "It's what makes people listen. It's the truth of her, someone so total in her being."

    Pike adds that this is the first experience where she has ever immersed herself in a person's life with such surrender and that it took some time for Colvin’s friends and colleagues to trust the film team. “This process was so delicate. It was almost like the process of being trained to operate like Marie, to spend time to make people understand that you’re serious. That this is not about you. And I thought, 'My God, that's exactly what she was doing all the time.'”

    One friend told Pike of a time when Colvin insisted on spending $600 on lobster for a sailing trip. “She was someone where there was no Plan B. She was a Plan A person. That was a story about lobster, but it definitely gave me insight into so many parts of the film. It’s the mentality of [in Colvin's voice], ‘When I say I’m going to do something, that’s what the fuck I’m going to do.’”

    Heineman enlisted refugees for every background player in the film, which largely fueled Pike's performance. “When I’m interviewing the women in the basement in Homs, those women are telling their real stories from their time in that same basement in Homs. I was devastated, and that happened again and again.” Colvin’s longtime photographer Paul Conroy [played by Jamie Dornan] also showed Pike his personal photographs — depictions of war that are too violent to print in the papers. “Once you’ve seen it, you don’t unsee it. It’s like the fragility of the human body that Marie talks about, how much more violent war is than even your worst imaginings,” Pike says.

  • Saoirse Ronan

    'Mary Queen of Scots'

    Liam Daniel/Focus Features

    “What helped me the most was spending some time in Scotland,” says Ronan, who stars as Mary Stuart, the ambitious queen of Scotland who attempts to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) in the period drama. The 24-year-old Irish-American actress visited various castles, specifically Stirling Castle, where she spent a lot of time. “[It] really helped me feel in touch with her and the land.”

    Along with reading John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, on which the film is based, Ronan adds that the physical transformation was key to her performance because “image was really important back then, especially for women, because it said a lot about their class and what sort of power they had. It was a huge part of self-expression.”

    “What really helped me was the hair!” she continues. “I had the best wig I’ve ever worn, and I was really able to get in touch with my inner fiery redhead.”

  • John David Washington

    'BlacKkKlansman'

    David Lee/Focus Features

    To help tell the story of Ron Stallworth, the black police officer who prevented attacks on people of color by infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in 1979, John David Washington pushed away modern distractions to embody the man he calls a “true American hero.”

    “I rid myself of all hip-hop and R&B for almost four months,” says the actor, 34. “I listened to Soul Train every night so I could get in the right frame of mind.”

    Also useful? Having unlimited access to the real-life Stallworth. “Every question I had for him, he answered,” he says. “Because of his faith in me, playing Ron felt like a privilege rather than a burden.”

    Washington also looked to the retired cop’s 2014 memoir, the basis for the Spike Lee-directed film. The actor’s creative choices were a hit with Stallworth. “After watching the film, Ron told me that there was no other man for the job. That was the greatest compliment.”

    A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.