Riz Ahmed, Viola Davis, Maria Bakalova and more nominees talk to The Hollywood Reporter about their nominations and performances..
Back in summer 2018, Riz Ahmed was preparing for a classroom scene for his latest film, Sound of Metal, and his American Sign Language coach, Jeremy Lee Stone, was becoming increasingly annoyed. Stone had worked with the actor for the better part of a year, teaching him ASL for the role of Ruben, a rock drummer whose life begins to spiral out of control when he loses his hearing. This, however, was his first day on the Massachusetts set, and he hadn't seen his star pupil in months. Stone made a "voices off" sign, and Ahmed was expected to reciprocate with an identical sign. But Ahmed sat defiantly, refusing to sign, and "it boiled my blood," Stone recalls. After all, the actor was well beyond fluent in ASL by that point. And then it hit Stone. Ruben the character was not yet fluent. "I realized, in that moment, I'm not speaking to Riz," Stone recalls. "There was no Riz. He was fully Ruben in that moment."
Ahmed's deeply immersive performance in Sound of Metal, which Amazon debuted Nov. 20, has garnered some of the best reviews of a trailblazing career that has brought the British-born phenom American stardom — if not quite universal recognition: On a sunny January day in Santa Monica's Palisades Park, as the 38-year-old actor is logging on to a video call with The Hollywood Reporter, a stranger calls out to him. "Is that Hardy?" she asks. Ahmed is confused. "Your name is Hardy?" the woman presses. "No it's not, no, no sorry," he says, looking puzzled before switching his focus back to the call. "I wonder if she meant Tom Hardy? Or Laurel and Hardy? Or am I a Hadid?"
Sacha Baron Cohen played '60s activist Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Your association with Abbie Hoffman goes back decades …
When I was 20, I was staying at the YMCA in downtown Atlanta researching a thesis on Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement of the '60s. Abbie Hoffman was one of a bunch of Jewish radicals who went down South to support voter registration for people of color. So I knew about him from the age of 20. Then, 13 years ago, I heard that Spielberg was making a movie about the Chicago Seven and, with characteristic chutzpah, I called him up and asked if I could audition. He was concerned that I wouldn't be able to do the accent because all he'd seen me do was the first Borat, so he put me with a dialect coach and said, "OK, in two weeks' time, I want this speech done as Abbie Hoffman."
Every night for two weeks, I recorded the beginning and end of the speech. By the end, we had about 38 recordings on this CD. At the beginning, it was dreadful — I sounded like a Northwest London Jewish guy trying to do Abbie Hoffman, who's this Boston radical with influences of Brandeis University and Berkeley, a very specific accent. But by the end of the two weeks, the dialect coach felt I'd nailed it. I said to my assistant, "Put take 38 on a separate CD and deliver it to Steven's house by 9 a.m." At lunch time, I met up with Steven in his mother's kosher restaurant, and Steven sits me down and says, "Listen, I've got to be honest, the first 15 takes were not very good." I was like, "What?!" He goes, "By take 20, you're getting good. By take 37, it was absolutely perfect." I realized my assistant had given him the wrong CD, and Steven Spielberg had listened for over an hour to the same speech!
For how many minutes after that discovery was your assistant still employed by you?
(Laughs.) Unbelievably, she's actually gone on to be a very successful producer. I kept her on for another year.
When Borat Sagdiyev returned to the screen 14 years after the Oscar-nominated Borat, creator and star Sacha Baron Cohen was eager to examine Trumpism in America in the months leading up to the 2020 election. Along for the ride was Tutar, Borat's teenage daughter, played by 24-year-old Bulgarian newcomer Maria Bakalova, whom Borat planned to give as a present to Vice President Mike Pence.
Was there a scene in the film you were most nervous about?
I was most nervous when I was [speaking at] the conservative women's center. I was alone in a group of women. ... That was one of the first weeks of shooting. I was like, "What should I do?" They did my makeup, I cried, they fixed my makeup, I cried. I called Sacha on FaceTime, and that was the first time he told me: "Use that fear." And I listened to him because he is genius.
How familiar were you with American politics before making the film?
I can say I was familiar with the president, and who Rudy Giuliani used to be. I cannot say that I've been familiar with American politics at all. I came here because of this movie. I think I love America right now — or at least, I love L.A.
I don't think after seeing this film anyone will have any question about whether you can do it. Let's talk a bit about physical transformation for a character. Glenn, in Hillbilly Elegy, you're physically transformed. How did finding the look of that character help you?
I began personally not wanting to be distracted by my own face. I wanted to have very subtle differences so that it was an experience, that you get into the full hair and makeup and costume, and there she is, because she's very different from who I was. But we started with a portrait of Mamaw and just the glasses, the hair, the ears, I changed my nose a little bit. And it was very, very finessed work to make it subtle enough that it wasn't me, but not so … I didn't want people to say, "Oh, there's Glenn Close with a really bad nose."
That took a lot of wonderful collaboration coming up with that. We had video, we talked to members of her family who were incredibly generous in talking about her. And I asked just very specific questions: "How did she walk, how did she hold her cigarette? How did she sit? What did she wear?" which is basically what you see in the movie. She was very much a larger-than-life character. "What was her atmosphere when she came into a room?" I mean, all those kinds of things that just was a slow buildup [from] the moment you walk on for hair and makeup, and you feel that there she is.
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Viola Davis is a fighter.
A Southern blues singer on the down side of her career in 1927 Chicago, Ma Rainey is in charge of her band and in love with a woman. Davis’ role in the Netflix adaptation of the 1984 August Wilson play presented the Oscar winner with a powerful new challenge, she says.
“A huge motivating factor with me is feeling like I’m not valued,” Davis says. “It either makes me come up like a pit bull or feel like crap. Ma… is up for the fight. I loved that fight in her, her unapologetic nature, even with her sexuality.”
Davis found fuel in Ma Rainey’s relationship with her female lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who has also caught Levee’s eye. “I have to get back to her sexuality,” Davis says of her character. “I felt that it was my mission to absolutely not make that a negative. When I read about Ma Rainey, Dussie May was her woman. It’s your job to approach a character without any editorial comment.”
Davis also notes the larger arc of the film, which is part of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle that chronicles the 20th-century African-American experience.“When you look at Ma Rainey as a narrative, you see our hopes and dreams… mixed with the trauma of our past,” Davis says. “People had big visions, big dreams. The past, though, became a huge obstacle in achieving that.”
In Judas and the Black Messiah, Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, the former chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and a co-founder of the Rainbow Coalition, whose killing in a 1969 raid was the result of an FBI counterintelligence operation. That government plot placed a petty thief named William O'Neal (played in the film by LaKeith Stanfield) undercover to infiltrate the party's dealings and undermine its community organizing.
How much about Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers did you already know coming into this role, and what did you learn right away?
I actually went through my stuff the other day, and I saw a school textbook that mentioned the Black Panthers. You learn about American history, and I think they really just scoot past the Black Panther section of it. [There's] a lot on Kennedy, quite a bit on Martin Luther King, not that much on Malcolm X, and then kind of just moving forward [to the] Vietnam War. I knew about the Panthers and chairman Fred Hampton just from living life and hearing stories from others and having conversations with others and realizing that's something later on in my life I would love to have a deep-knowledge dive on it, to understand that philosophy and those people. It was from references in art, references around me and in my community and the people I knew, where I got all my information about the Black Panthers before the film was [proposed] to me.
In Pieces of a Woman, Vanessa Kirby gives quietly powerful and gut-wrenching turn as Martha, a woman dealing with towering loss after a home birth that goes wrong (shot in one hugely impressive yet frequently hard-to-watch half-hour take).
Even before the reviews came in, Pieces of a Woman found a fan in Martin Scorsese, who came aboard as executive producer. “I haven’t stopped smiling,” says Kirby, speaking from the south London home she shares with her sister Juliet (a theatrical agent) and two close friends. “It’s such a mind-blowing thing.
”The actress was originally shown the script in L.A. by filmmaking couple Sam and Ashley Levinson (Ashley is producing the film for Bron Studios). Within 24 hours, she'd jumped on a plane to London, then Budapest, to meet director Kornél Mundruczó. “You know when you’re supposed to do something. ... It felt so right,” she says. “I wanted to show up and tell Kornél face-to-face how much I loved it and how much it touched me.”
In John Lee Hancock's The Little Things, Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Rami Malek play police officers on the hunt for a serial killer in 1990 Los Angeles. Their pursuit leads them to Albert Sparma, a prime suspect who seems to know as much about their case as they do. What ensues is a psychological game of cat and mouse, with Sparma always one step ahead of the men trying to capture him. It's a deeply unsettling role, one in which Oscar winner Jared Leto completely immerses himself, bringing a humanity and a sinister sense of humor to the character. Leto tells THR about his approach to the role and why, after playing a string of onscreen villains, he reluctantly embodied one more.
Director John Lee Hancock said that the two of you first connected because you were a fan of his film The Founder. Is that right?
Yeah, I was, and I am. I thought it was just an absolutely beautiful movie, so well shot. And Michael Keaton was astounding in it. I think I reached out to meet [John], or we both did at the same time, about a year or so before The Little Things.
What were your first impressions of the script?
Well, my first thought was to say no. I wasn't sure about playing a murder suspect or potential villain again. But after talking to John, there seemed to be an amazing opportunity. If we could make this heavy on character and make this a really transformative role, I could be interested in having this be the last walk on the dark side of the moon, but only if we could really push it as far as possible. He was open to that and excited. So I just went to town.
On Nomadland, Frances McDormand is surrounded by real nomads — with the exception of a key role played by David Strathairn — and the actress threw herself into adopting their lifestyle. Over four months of filming in seven states, including the Badlands of South Dakota, the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and the beet fields of Nebraska, McDormand performed several of the jobs a typical nomadic older American worker does, often slipping into the scenery unnoticed. In order to gain Zhao’s crew access to shoot the actress working in an Amazon fulfillment center, McDormand wrote a letter to Jeff Blackburn, Amazon’s senior vp business and corporate development. "I explained that we were telling the story about a woman who did migrant work and one of the jobs that she did was CamperForce with Amazon," says McDormand, referring to a kind of traveling retiree army that takes seasonal work for the online retailer during the holidays. "It was right before they started giving people $15 an hour. This was a really smart move for them because ... we are telling a story about a person who is benefiting from hard work, and working at the Amazon fulfillment center is hard work, but it pays a wage." One downside for the retailer, notes McDormand, is that "some people got some packages that I packaged that were pretty bad."
The actress also worked at a beet harvest, took reservations at a Badlands campground and cleaned campground toilets. When a man walked out of one campground restroom and asked if she was Frances McDormand, McDormand answered, "No, I’m Fern." While they traveled between locations, Zhao and her crew of roughly 25 people filmed McDormand as she drove the van, which she had nicknamed Vanguard and outfitted with some of her own belongings, including some china. Eventually, McDormand came to realize that she needn’t do everything the nomads do and opted to stay in Best Westerns and Days Inns with the crew rather than live in Vanguard. "I was 61," says McDormand. "At 61, it’s much better for me to pretend to be exhausted than to actually be exhausted. I figured that out."
What is something people often get wrong about acting?
There's a bit of an idea, and maybe more even within the industry, that to make something great, people have permission to behave badly, the idea of someone being a creative genius … that they are so inspired, there's a required level of darkness or unpleasantness that goes along with that, that you need to put up with. And I think people get away with bad behavior because of those reasons. In my experience, some of the most incredible people I've worked with have just been also the most delightful. So that's kind of a common misconception, that there are people who have to behave badly to psych themselves up at work, or that the process is just sort of utterly miserable. I think you can work really hard, but ultimately … the attitude on set should be one of warmth.
How did finding the look of your character help you?
With Promising Young Woman, [director] Emerald [Fennell] is very intentional about building a world that felt very enticing. You wanted to build a film that you wanted to see, not something you needed to or should see. Part of the way that Emerald first presented the film to me was this Candyland environment that you're in and that Cassie lived in that in the way that she clothes herself. She's somebody who is very practiced at living with her rage and her sadness and her grief. She's figured out that hiding in plain sight and looking like someone who's functioning, people tend to leave her alone. It's very deliberate that she has candy-colored nails and blond hair. First of all, she looks very unthreatening, so no one would ever suspect that she's about to destroy a life, but also she's someone that you don't need to check on. You can leave her alone … Her main everyday look was just a way of saying, "I'm absolutely fine. You don't need to look at me because I'm just generic, and a girl, and you don't need to take me seriously." Because we so often trivialize the way girls and women clothe themselves. It was just a very easy way of putting up a boundary between her and the rest of the world.
Leslie Odom Jr. is nominated for his role as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami, for which he also earned a Golden Globe Award. He also is among the casts of Hamilton and Music, which were both nominated in the best motion picture, musical or comedy category, at Sunday's Golden Globes.
What do these nominations mean to you?
I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that because it represents a great deal to me, personally — it's quite literally thousands of hours of my life. When I think about the years of development for Hamilton and over 500 shows as Aaron Burr. When I think about how Sia was one of the first calls that I got after leaving Hamilton and she wanted me to be a be a part of this movie that I couldn't quite understand, even as she described it to me, but I wanted to be a part of the cinema. I wanted to see if I could make the leap from the stage to the big screen. I think about One Night in Miami and all the things that I learned on music with Sia, and how it made me a better artist and made me more ready to take on a challenge like Regina King's One Night in Miami.
It's a lot for me to process, those three projects in particular, because they represent years of my life, but they also represent something more. I think they represent the ridiculous vision and hope that I had for my life as an artist, that I had as a teenager. As I went to go study in drama school, there was some part of me that was idealistic or something. I kind of thought that my whole career would be full of projects like this. But it took me 15 years to find my way to Hamilton and then a few years more to Music; a few years more to One Night in Miami.
Gary Oldman plays the hard-boozing screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in David Fincher's Mank, Affleck.
This year, with almost everything streaming, how do you gauge the degree to which your movie is resonating?
You make a movie with, say, Netflix, you don't have to have an opening weekend. You don't have those particular pressures. They log how many people are watching — I think it's if you've clicked on and watched for two minutes, then it counts as a view. So I enjoy the streaming services like everyone else. But I was recently in London and Mank was playing a three-minute walk from my hotel, and I thought, "I've never seen this on the big screen. I'll go find out what the other customer thought of it." I went and there were about 11 people in the audience, but there was something to be said for being in this big space in a dark room watching this thing 40 feet across. It played faster. I think the gags worked better. And certainly, the guy behind me was having a good time. So there's advantages and disadvantages.
Director David Fincher famously does dozens of takes.
If they want to do 10 takes or 60, I'm on the clock, and I'm there to serve. David is watching everything else in the first four, five, six takes — he's calibrating the lighting, or he's saying, "The camera, when it lands, it's got to be here." He's like a conductor of an orchestra. Maybe he's not really focusing on you yet. Then he comes in and starts to work. By take 17, you're thinking, "This is interesting." (Laughs.) Then, maybe take 32, you come out the other side.
Steven Yeun, best known for TV's The Walking Dead, portrayed the patriarch of a Korean American family in Lee Isaac Chung's Minari.
Your character is a man of few words, and yet you manage to convey so much. When a character doesn't have much dialogue on the page, is that daunting or exciting for you?
That's a great question. Sometimes I actually prefer that. That actually makes me feel freer, because what I've found is that most of the work is internal anyhow. I don't mind saying a lot of dialogue. I love to say a lot of dialogue. But there's also something beautiful about the space between words and the space between moments. And that's what was really fun about playing Jacob, just really deeply connecting to the internal dialogue of his reality. He's a first-generation immigrant, so the language is a barrier for him. He's also coming from a collectivist existence, from a Korean background, and that type of mentality is different than the way we live here, which is very "Here's who I am!" From the East, it's more like "You probably already know who I am" or, "I am fitting this box that you need me to fit in for the collective." And I think that type of existence is in some ways like this movie, the ways that East and West miscommunicate and why they don't understand each other.
And that was the fun in playing that — it's a glance, a look, the shoulders, the breathing, the way you sit. Approaching work from that point of view is scary because you don't know if anybody's going to see. But wonderful directors always see it.
For the pivotal role of Minari's unconventional grandmother who shakes up the Yi family in more ways than one, director Lee Isaac Chung turned to Korean screen legend Youn Yuh-jung, who has built a career out of playing daring, unorthodox women. After winning Korea's Blue Dragon Award for best actress in her film debut as the country girl turned femme fatale in 1971's Woman of Fire (part of director Kim Ki-young's iconic Housemaid trilogy), Youn quit acting in her prime to immigrate to the U.S. A decade later, she returned to Korea and mounted a comeback, continuing to shatter conventions and earning acclaim in such films as A Good Lawyer's Wife, The Taste of Money and The Bacchus Lady. Now 73, Youn finds herself on her biggest stage yet.
Your character goes through a dramatic shift in the movie. Was there a certain aspect that was most challenging to film?
Of course physically, the fire was the memorable scene. It was a low-budget movie, so there weren't many skilled technicians on set. We had to measure how the wind was blowing, but it wasn't very accurate, so the flames came toward my face. I was struggling because I tried to put out the fire, and I'm a very old-time actress. My principle is that until the director says, "Cut," I should go on. So I kept trying to put out the fire, and there was no sign to cut. He's not yelling anything. Finally, some of the crew had us stop. It turns out Isaac forgot to say "cut." Isaac is a very sweet man, he felt bad about that situation, but we made it OK. (Laughs.)
It was the summer of 2019 in the lobby of London's Soho Hotel. Helena Zengel, a then-11-year-old German actress with a still-shaky command of English, was meeting British director Paul Greengrass, who was looking to cast the second lead, alongside Tom Hanks, in his new Western News of the World, which Universal is set to open Dec. 25. Zengel had to act out a scene where Hanks' Captain Kidd character, a Civil War veteran, rescues Johanna, who had been raised by the Native American Kiowa tribe that had kidnapped her and killed her family. Helena's mother, Anna, stood in for Hanks.
"It was really funny because I had to bite Mama and scream at her," Zengel recalls. "Afterwards, Paul said, 'You've got the role.' But my English wasn't so good then. I didn't understand him. Only when he held out his hand and said, 'It's yours if you want it,' I was so overwhelmed. I could have jumped for joy. I did, actually. And then Mama and I went shopping!"
Zengel, whose first professional gig was in a music video at the of age 5, gallops through the story, barely pausing for breath. Sitting in her room in Berlin on a Zoom call against a backdrop of pink duvets and stuffed animals, the German actress looks at once angelic — with her straw blond hair and sharp blue eyes — and hyperactive. Like a cherub on a sugar high.
It's hard to reconcile this bouncy tween with Zengel's terrifying breakout performance as Benni in Nora Fingscheidt's 2019 film System Crasher, playing a violent, near-feral child who lashes out at anyone who tries to help her. The role won Zengel the best actress Lola — Germany's equivalent of the Oscar — and put her on Greengrass' radar.
— Reporting by Kirsten Chuba, Tyler Coates, Scott Feinberg, Rebecca Keegan, Alex Ritman, Scott Roxborough, Tatiana Siegel and Rebecca Sun