Mandy Moore, Hilary Swank and 9 Top Drama Actresses Talk Free-Falling Into Character

6:00 AM 6/7/2018

by Scott Huver

Playing moms on a mission, fighting (or committing) crime and navigating sci-fi landscapes, these 11  stars — including Jessica Biel, Keri Russell, Laura Linney and Sharon Stone — took leaps of passion and faith for their performances.

'This Is Us,' 'The Americans' and 'Trust'
'This Is Us,' 'The Americans' and 'Trust'
From left to right: Courtesy of NBC, FX (2)

  • Laura Linney

    'Ozark' (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    How does being a mother inform your character’s motivation? 

    “Who this character is has to do with identity. It has to do with who she thought she was, who she really is, who she wants to be, who she wishes she was. I think it’s the competition of all of those things happening simultaneously. When I sort of stumbled upon the realization that all four members of the Bird family really don’t know one another — and really don’t know themselves — that was a great place to start from. So I’m curious what happens to the family, really. Like, is that sustainable? Is it not sustainable? Do they stay together? Does it fracture? What happens to those children? What are they gonna do? "

    What performance inspired you when you were starting out? 

    “Jessica Tandy in Foxfire and Jessica Tandy in The Gin Game. She was just glorious. There was just such an expertise and an ease and a relaxation in her work that just filled you up. You left the theater feeling different than you did when you went in. It was completely selfless acting. She was completely in service to the story and to her fellow actors. I felt like I wanted to go to a place where people are generous like that.”

  • Mandy Moore

    'This Is Us' (NBC)

    Courtesy of NBC

    How does being a mother inform your character’s motivation? 

    “Motherhood is not her entire identity, but it informs every decision she makes in her life. She didn’t realize that this was something she wanted early on, and now I know she can’t imagine her life not being a mother. There’s a scene in the sixth episode where I do this monologue as I’m in the hospital making that final decision to take home baby Randall to meet his brother and sister. Simultaneously, it’s intercut with me giving a similar monologue when I’m meeting my first granddaughter for the first time in the hospital. And it just was overwhelming, the similarities, the crossover of this conversation and this time in her life. And, yeah, this is this woman’s identity, it’s what she’s most proud of, it’s what she’s known for, and I felt like her entire motivation for getting through a fundamentally devastating tragedy, like losing a spouse and losing a child, is just focusing on her family and focusing on what she knows best. And I think that’s motherhood, in a nutshell.”

  • Keri Russell

    'The Americans' (FX)

    Courtesy of NBC

    How does being a mother inform your character’s motivation? 

    “I felt that mortality for Elizabeth in this season is very much on her brain, in her daily existence, especially with her daughter. She’s wearing a cyanide necklace, and I think she knows it’s all very close right now, what you’re going to leave these kids with, and you have to prepare them. And in that way I felt being a mother was a strong part of her story this year. Especially in preparing Paige through the whole season. There are a lot of episodes where we were kind of walking and talking and I was trying to explain things to her. And it didn’t feel frivolous. It felt very serious to me. Like, ‘I have to get this across to her. I have to get her to understand, because I don’t know how long I’ll be around.’ And I think she’s trying to raise not just a nice girl, but she’s trying to raise a fierce, successful person who can be proud of herself — in however Elizabeth feels that.”

  • Jessica Biel

    'The Sinner' (USA)

    Courtesy of USA Network

    What drives your character, and how did that inform your work on the role? 

    “The driving aspect of her character is self-preservation. She has these truths that she so believes are her truths and her life, and some of them are not actually truth at all. But that idea of ‘Don’t say anything, don’t let anybody know about this one thing that is so shameful, this thing that you did with these men and what happened to you in this drug addiction’ — it’s like the shame drove her. The guilt drove her, to the nth degree — like, she would rather go to prison than have to talk about this thing that she did and this horrible person that she is. Every day on set, I stepped on with that ‘Oh, shit’ feeling, like, ‘Please, please be there for me today. Please just be authentic and find that connection with that character so I can drop into her shoes, drop into her body and be able to really be present.’ I prayed every day to myself to just be able to find that way in.”

    What performance inspired you when you were starting out? 

    “I remember Natalie Portman in The Professional — she was close to my age when she did that movie. Also, I would say Claire Danes’ performance in Romeo + Juliet.  That was one of those that I auditioned for from afar — I sent a video in and probably never had a shot in the world, but I thought, ‘Oh my God, that is what I want to do. I want to be like her.’ I wasn’t even looking at the classic performances of the Meryl Streeps or the Helen Mirrens of the world. It was more what was happening for girls my age.”

  • Claire Danes

    'Homeland' (Showtime)

    Courtesy of Showtime

    What drives your character, and how did that inform your work on the role? 

    “Her driving force really is her patriotism, her devotion to her country. That’s tested in a lot of different ways, and she keeps returning to it. She wonders if she’s qualified to continue doing her work as somebody with her condition, and then we discover this season that maybe that’s not as much of an obstacle as her role as a mother. She has to really come to terms with that reality, which is obviously a very painful one. Her calling is real and powerful, and it’s something that she’s had to honor no matter what the cost, basically. There has been a lot of cost, [but] I think she’s not so afraid of her condition anymore. I think she used to believe that disqualified her from a human connection, but she is extraordinary. If she is careful about focusing her gifts, she can be very constructive, and if she’s not, she can be the opposite of that. There’s always that tension.”

    What performance inspired you when you were starting out? 

    “Marilyn Monroe, Molly Ringwald and Meryl Streep, in that order. I loved Some Like It Hot, I inhaled all of the John Hughes movies, and I saw Sophie’s Choice at a very inappropriate age — I think when I was 9 or something! I understood that acting could be a profound exercise and art form. I never liked cartoons or Disney movies or anything — I wanted to see passionate acting from a very, very young age.”

  • Sharon Stone

    'Mosaic' (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    What drives your character, and how did that inform your work on the role? 

    “While she was quite raw and wounded and a person who was pretty ‘warts and all,’ I thought she was driven by being honest and that she was loving, in her way. And that she was a person who was trying to search for her life, moving forward, trying to sort it out and be honest and figure out what people were doing and figure out herself and figure out the truth about herself and others. [And I related because] there’s no end to the restarts you make as an actress. There’s no end to the starts and the beginnings of proving yourself. And if it matters to you, you have to do the climb. You have to dedicate yourself and do the climb.”

  • Hilary Swank

    'Trust' (FX)

    Courtesy of FX

    What drives your character, and how did that inform your work on the role? 

    “Hands down, it was the love of a mother for their child [who has been kidnapped]. There must be nothing worse in the world than to know that your child is in harm and not knowing at any moment what is happening to them, whether they’re being mutilated or they’re being killed, and it’s completely out of your power and you’re totally helpless. Knowing that it’s a true story,  it’s pretty intense, because you can’t separate and say, ‘Oh, this is fictional.’ Even though you’re playing it and going through the emotion, you can detach if it didn’t really happen and you can have that separation. But when you know something really happened, it takes a deeper place in your psyche and it’s harder to separate. Essentially, you just are trying to empathize with what that must be like and the horrors of that. And it’s pretty deep to go to those places.”

  • Sonequa Martin-Green

    'Star Trek: Discovery' (CBS All Access)

    Courtesy of CBS All Access

    What’s your favorite part of the world that you get to step into for the show, and how has that informed your character this season?

    “I appreciate the exchange that can happen in the sci-fi genre. Obviously it’s hyper-reality, but it allows people to open up their hearts … And then I of course can’t help but be grateful for being a black woman at the helm, because I think that’s such an example of that [Star Trek] legacy being furthered, as well as all the diversity that we have on our show that we’ve been championing — which of course, every generation has, but the fact that we’re doing it in a new way, in a way that is conducive to our current society, is tremendous. [My character] Michael Burnham is very principled and has a very strict moral code — although that moral code is still being developed, which is one of the things I loved the most about her — but yet still, there is that sort of thump of the heart that always wants to beat to what’s right. So that I really appreciated, as well as feeling these things that I believe in are worth sacrificing everything for and worth dying for.”

    What performance inspired you when you were starting out? 

    “Angela Bassett’s performance in What’s Love Got to Do With It? because she gave everything she had in that role, and you could see that. I just was floored by how much she stretched herself and by the torture that she put onto herself and took into herself. Stories like that take a lot of bravery, because it’s going to be a painful experience. She just took on that pain, and I found her to be almost beast-like, so raw and exposed.”

  • Tatiana Maslany

    'Orphan Black' (BBC America)

    Courtesy of BBC America

    What’s your favorite part of the world that you get to step into for the show, and how has that informed your character this season?

    “We’re able to talk about issues that are really relevant to women today, to people today, in terms of body autonomy and their own voice and being heard and the patriarchy, but do it in a way that’s not completely hitting you over the head with it. It’s a bit more subversive and kind of fantastical. There’s a limitless amount of stuff we could’ve explored with all of them. There were some characters that were gone sooner than I wanted and others that had a shorter lifespan or whatever, but I feel like in terms of the show and the story we were telling, it’s satisfying and that we told it to completion. But selfishly, I could’ve played them forever.”

  • Krysten Ritter

    'Jessica Jones' (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    What’s your favorite part of the world that you get to step into for the show, and how has that informed your character this season?

    “I love the noir style of our show, and what I love about our approach to storytelling is how grounded we keep everything. The drama is very real and relatable, and we’re dealing with very tough subject matter. There was a scene in episode 11 where Jessica is facing the physical embodiment of everything she hates about herself, which is [her super-powered abuser] Kilgrave. Jessica was dealing with a lot of conflict: whether she did the right thing or she was a murderer, she was a monster, she’s on her way to becoming a monster, and where she realizes that she is good. And she’s able to face him and say, ‘I feel bad about these things and you don’t, and that’s what makes us different, so that means I’m stronger than you are.’ I think of that as a really big moment for Jessica because her being able to like herself a little bit makes me really excited to see where she’s going to go next — to see her maybe not torture herself so much, and start to give a shit and do something about it.”

  • Evan Rachel Wood

    'Westworld' (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    What’s your favorite part of the world that you get to step into for the show, and how has that informed your character this season?

    “I love the detail. I usually scan the set for clues, because the production design and the set dressing and every single thing that is on that set is handpicked and put there for a reason. When you really start to look at the details and explore, you realize just how much thought went into everything. The sets are really incredible and truly immersive. It’s hard not to feel like you’re in another world. For me, [season two] was terrifying because I was stepping into a new character really completely blind but still had to keep sort of the essence of the previous build with very little information and very little time. You’ve got to be on your game really fast and think on your toes and also be OK with not knowing, to have that kind of trust in the showrunners, and to be able to just sort of free-fall into the character and into the plot.”

    What performance inspired you when you were starting out? 

    “I may have been 7 when I saw To Kill a Mockingbird . I was a little tomboy in the South and I had an older brother, and I just really identified with Scout. The movie was so moving. I thought [Mary Badham] was amazing. I also thought, ‘Wait a minute — I’m like her. I’m also young — I could do this!’ ”

    This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.