From Renée Zellweger to Cynthia Erivo: How 12 Actors Prepped to Play Real-Life People

7:00 AM 11/25/2019

by Rebecca Ford, Tara Bitran, Katie Campione, Hilary Lewis , Rebecca Keegan, Katie Kilkenny, and Trilby Beresford

To nail their portrayals, these top talents interviewed priests, went undercover as a stripper and trained in acrobatics to immerse themselves.

'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,' 'Harriet,' 'Judy'
'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,' 'Harriet,' 'Judy'
Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures; Glen Wilson/Focus Features; David Hindley/Roadside Attractions
  • Renée Zellweger

    Judy Garland in 'Judy'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Zellweger portrays the iconic singer in the late 1960s, when she moves to London as her career and personal life are in decline. The actress did a deep dive into much of the photo and video content available. "We were always digging and looking for things. The materials of her legacy were surrounding us — there was her music and her voice, the audio recordings," says Zellweger. "We were looking at videos all the time, and reading the books." Zellweger says that even while they were shooting, new inspirational material would surface. "Someone would find a recording or we'd read something in a book, and we were always sharing and adjusting according to what came along," she says. "Her presence felt very much alive around us."


  • Matthew Rhys

    Tom Junod in 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

    'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'
    'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

    Rhys, who plays journalist Lloyd Vogel, inspired by Tom Junod, author of the Esquire profile about his friendship with Mr. Rogers, started his research with an interview. "I was lucky enough to sit down with Tom and talk through his time with Fred Rogers and how he changed his life," Rhys says. He found it challenging to nail Junod's walk ("I'm my own worst enemy in trying to capture tiny traits and drop them in gently"), but Rhys says his co-star Tom Hanks, who plays TV icon Rogers, told him that "as long as you get the spirit and the heart of it, the rest will follow." Rhys worried that Junod's interviewing technique, in which he'd wait in silence for a subject to open up, "was no good because on film, the pauses are always cut out." But it was exactly what director Marielle Heller wanted. "She'd tell us, 'This moment is about two men who are trying to out-wait and out-question each other.' And we really did try to out-pause each other at times." Rhys watched the film with Junod sitting next to him. "He said, 'I'm only so happy that Fred's good word is being carried on.' It was a relief that it wasn't like, 'You messed up my walk.'"

  • Jonathan Pryce

    Pope Francis in 'The Two Popes'

    'Two Popes'
    'Two Popes'
    Peter Mountain

    Pryce had a bit of a head start when it came to playing Pope Francis. "On the very day [he became pope], the Internet was full of images of the two of us together, saying how much we looked alike," says Pryce. "One of my sons called to ask me, 'Daddy, are you the pope?'" With the look locked down, Pryce watched videos of Pope Francis and talked to priests who worked with him when he was an archbishop and cardinal in Buenos Aires. When he stepped in front of the camera, Pryce says he relied on others to tell him if he was properly embodying the character. "Fernando [Meirelles, the director] said to me, 'It's just extraordinary. You're actually inhabiting this man. You're walking exactly like him,'" Pryce recalls. "I didn't have the heart to tell him that Francis walks like I walk. I've got a dodgy knee, and I think he has a dodgy knee, too." 

  • Felicity Jones

    Sophie Blanchard in 'The Aeronauts'

    'The Aeronauts'
    'The Aeronauts'
    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    Jones plays a balloonist, aka an aeronaut, named Amelia Wren in the adventure drama. While it's a fictional name, she's inspired by Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to work as a professional balloonist. "She was a real pioneer, and a bit of a wildcat," says Jones of Blanchard. She used The Little Balloonist, a novel by Linda Donn that was based on Blanchard's life, as a resource. Plus, Jones took inspiration from Amelia Earhart: "I looked at a lot of old images of female pilots," she says. "The costume was very much inspired by those early aviators in terms of the leathers that you see Amelia wearing — and also a real nonchalance and a physical confidence." For the physical confidence, she took acrobatic training. "She is naturally a free spirit and she has a confidence, a physical strength."

  • Cynthia Erivo

    Harriet Tubman in 'Harriet'

    Courtesy of Focus Features

    "The work she had done was really important, but we also wanted to make sure that her life, the love she had for her family, for her husband, which she'd never really even spoken about, were part of the story," says Erivo about portraying famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. To create the whole picture, Erivo looked at photos of the legendary activist to "learn the map of [Tubman's] face because I wanted to sort of be able to disappear." And the Grammy winner drew on her own history as a singer to find an authentic voice. "I knew that because of the way she worked and how much she had to go through, she needed something that was far more grounded and would give her power and gravitas," she says. "It ended up feeling like an alto voice in my diaphragm and in my solar plexus, as opposed to up in my throat and my head, just because it felt like it weighed more."

  • Constance Wu

    Roselyn Keo in 'Hustlers'


    To play stripper Destiny in Hustlers, Wu dressed in disguise (donning fake tattoos and hair) and went to a strip club to interview for a job. She then worked at a real club as part of her research. "While it was terrifying at first, after a while you get to the point where you're sort of like bored," she says. "Really feeling and earning that specific boredom was key." Wu wasn't able to meet with Roselyn Keo, the real-life stripper who teamed up with her colleagues to take money from wealthy clients, but before shooting she focused on learning about Keo's "masked fragility and its roots in her history — the way she pretends in order to hide her need. She went from lonely to belonging to happy to despondent to powerful to jealous to scared to remorseful."

  • Tracy Letts

    Henry Ford II in 'Ford v Ferrari'

    'Ford v Ferrari'
    'Ford v Ferrari'
    Merrick Morton

    For his role as Henry Ford II, Letts "read a couple of books," watched the "Le Mans '66 documentary" and consulted YouTube but didn't meet with the Ford family, who, he says, were "keeping their distance." "[Director] James Mangold was very upfront about saying there's no reason for us to do an impersonation. He's not really present in people's minds," Letts says. "What seemed to me most essential was to capture the man's power and the insecurity underneath." In order to embody Ford's strong persona, Letts relied on a suit and shoes and "tight" haircut that "helps to show a blocky physical presence, that he's an obstacle." Ford's office was the finishing touch. "It's grand, but it's not ostentatious. It's replete," Letts says. "You walk onto a set like that, and you're wearing the suit and you've got the haircut, I don't have to do anything. The power is all right here in my hands." 

  • Da’Vine Joy Randolph

    Lady Reed in 'Dolemite Is My Name'

    'Dolemite is My Name'
    'Dolemite is My Name'
    François Duhamel

    When she was cast as Lady Reed, Randolph had precious little material to draw upon to portray the actress, who became a black pop culture icon during the 1970s. "Unfortunately if you google her, there's really nothing," says Randolph, who relied on Lady Reed's comedy albums, film performances and the recollections of the Netflix movie's star, Eddie Murphy, who had seen Lady Reed perform in his youth. "The biggest thing was advice that I got from my father, that Lady Reed was like Foxy Brown or Pam Grier, that she was a sexual icon," Randolph says. "She was not a frumpy woman." 

  • Rob Morgan

    Herbert Richardson in 'Just Mercy'

    'Just Mercy'
    'Just Mercy'
    Courtesy of Warner Bros.

    Morgan never got to meet the late Herbert Richardson, the veteran on death row whom he plays in Just Mercy. "But I did have two pictures of Herbert, so I would really stare into his eyes and try to download his spirit," he says. To capture Herbert's stutter, Morgan consulted his first acting teacher, Keith Johnson, the day before heading to set. "People actually live with a stutter and a tic every day, so I wanted to be mindful and honest with those actions," he says. "Everybody needs to be represented onscreen." The actor examined the path that led Herbert to death row. "He was a young man who hadn't even kissed a girl yet but was enlisted in Vietnam. He survives after his whole platoon is blown up and comes back with no mental services," he says. "If we look at the root of the circumstance, is a person in that kind of mind-set worthy of such a punishment?" 

  • Zhao Shuzhen

    Nai Nai in 'The Farewell'

    'The Farewell'
    'The Farewell'
    Courtesy of A24

    "She is someone simultaneously optimistic, tender and kind, but she has an interior life that is quite tough," says Zhao of playing Lulu Wang's grandmother, a matriarch who's kept in the dark about her terminal cancer. Because the story is based on Wang's real grandmother ("nai nai" in Chinese), the veteran Chinese actress watched video clips of the real grandmother performing morning exercises and striking powerful poses, which helped her identify the right energy to infuse into her performance. Zhao (who let slip that she has not yet seen The Farewell) says that her experience was highlighted by "the importance of women in society and in the workplace," noting not only the prominence of the female characters in the film, but also that the crew was heavily populated with women.

  • Jimmie Fails

    As himself in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

    'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'
    'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'
    Peter Prato/A24

    In his feature film debut, 25-year-old native San Franciscan Fails plays (and co-writes the story for) a fictionalized version of himself. The character, still smarting over his family's eviction from a beautiful Victorian home, squats in the area while it is briefly vacated. His character in the film is more "naive" than he actually is, Fails says, but shares some of the basics of his life story (Fails' family also was evicted from a Victorian), his "caring" nature and loyalty to friends. "Because it's so personal, sometimes you don't really want to go to that place, but it's all for the story," Fails says. In choosing the film's locations, Fails and longtime friend Joe Talbot, who directs, say that they chose settings like Hunters Point and South Van Ness Avenue because movies "always film the Golden Gate Bridge or some shit, places where San Francisco natives are never really at." 

  • Paul Walter Hauser

    Richard Jewell in 'Richard Jewell'

    'Richard Jewell'
    'Richard Jewell'
    Warner Bros./YouTube

    Hauser was in preparation for the film about the security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb when he broke down in tears in the makeup trailer. "There was a photo on the wall of Richard that showed him crying, and he's wiping tears from his eyes while in a deposition of some kind," says Hauser. "It was just such an ugly cry to have in front of total strangers, but it was also the understanding that this movie is about seeing someone being broken down." Along with watching plenty of videos of Jewell, the I, Tonya actor also met with Jewell's mother. And he went to Georgia (where Jewell was from) and pored over photographs and memorabilia. "I just had like his entire life spilled out on tables in front of me," he says. "It was pretty overwhelming." 

    This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.