What This Year's Awards Contenders Can Teach About Parenthood

6:30 AM 11/15/2017

by Rebecca Ford, Mia Galuppo , and Ashley Lee

Mothers and fathers loom large in this year's most powerful films, as 19 stars — including Kate Winslet, Steve Carell, Laurie Metcalf, Hugh Jackman and more — reveal how they brought these sweet, tough, supportive and struggling figures to life.

Written by Rebecca Ford, Mia Galuppo, Ashley Lee and Brian Porreca

This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Steve Carell

    'Last Flag Flying'

    Wilson Webb/Amazon Studios

    In Richard Linklater's latest feature, Carell plays Larry, a father and Vietnam War veteran who is tasked with retrieving the remains of his son, a Marine who was killed in combat during the Iraq War. He takes two of his Navy buddies (played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) along on the emotional trip to bring his son's body home to be buried. The actor says he was inspired by his own father, a 92-year-old World War II vet: "He is very stoic and never talked about his time in the Army." Carell, 55, did eventually get his father to tell him stories, which he describes as "terrifying," about his time in the service. The father of two adds, "The dad I knew and grew up with was kind-hearted and mild-mannered, but he was this hero with a courage to him and a fortitude that I had never known about."

  • Willem Dafoe

    'The Florida Project'

    Courtesy of A24

    Dafoe's character, Bobby, might not technically be a parent to any of the long-term residents of his Orlando motel, but he serves as father figure to many of them, protecting them from harm or trying to get them on a stable path. Dafoe, who spoke to several motel managers in Florida as research for Sean Baker's drama, found that "these guys have a lot of pride in making it a better place." He adds: "It's natural that the residents became a sort of family for him, and his sense of well-being is dependent on them." When it came to his young co-stars (the main lead, Brooklynn Prince, was 8 when the film was shot), Dafoe, 62, says the goal was "to make these kids feel comfortable and give them a lot of room so they could be relaxed and have fun. They were kids first and actors second." Notes Dafoe of his character: "He's a guy who just wants peace in his life; he just wants to watch the ball game."

  • Bridget Everett

    'Patti Cake$'

    Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

    Everett's Patti Cake$ character, Barb, is a onetime rocker whose shot at success was derailed when she got pregnant with Patti, a fact she never lets her rap-loving daughter (played by Danielle Macdonald) forget. "Barb is a real c—, but she isn't just a c—. She is lonely and trapped and uses a bottle as a way to solve her problems," says the cabaret performer and comedian, who counts the Sundance feature as her first dramatic role. While not a mother herself, Everett, 45, says she "instantly felt maternal" toward her co-star Macdonald, who plays a young New Jersey woman hoping to make a name for herself as a rapper. Everett's bond with Macdonald made filming the climactic concert scene particularly emotional for her. "Every time she would start the song, I would feel really proud of her as a person and a performer," she says. "And I'm a total sucker for a Rudy moment. I cried every time."

  • Colin Farrell

    'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'

    Courtesy of A24

    "It makes Sophie's Choice seem like, 'Pistachio or Rocky Road?' " says Farrell of the dire decision that his character has to make in Yorgos Lanthimos' twisted drama. Farrell plays Steven, a surgeon who is told by a troubled young man that he must choose one member of his family to kill — or they will all die. Farrell, 41, says Lanthimos discourages rehearsal and encourages actors to just be in the moment. "If I was to bring my love of my children into this and personalize it, I would betray the material. The characters in Yorgos' stories behave in such atypical ways," says the father of two. But is Steven a good dad? "I think he's doing his best," he says. "I've seen bad fathers who've known they were bad fathers, but they're just doing the best they can."

  • Andrew Garfield

    'Breathe'

    Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street

    Garfield portrays Robin Cavendish, who was struck by polio at 28 and given months to live. Though he became a pioneering medical aid developer and one of the longest-lived responauts (a person dependent on a ventilator) in Britain, his conventional parenting abilities remained paralyzed (from the neck down). "Robin had to let go of the notion that he'd play with his son like he'd imagined: cricket, wrestling, throwing a ball around — those things weren't going to happen," says Garfield, 34. The actor found that Robin's relationship with his young son Jonathan (the real Jonathan Cavendish is a producer of the Andy Serkis-helmed drama) developed into something unique: "When Jonathan is given the responsibility of Robin's [breathing] bag, it's so scary, but what a wonderful, empowering thing to be entrusted with your father's life. Father-son relationships are so complicated — usually, the father doesn't want the son to overtake him — but Robin was forced very quickly to say, 'I want you to be everything I can't be and, in a way, I will allow you to be my father.' "

  • Dustin Hoffman

    'The Meyerowitz Stories'

    Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

    Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical drama centers on something many can relate to: a dysfunctional family. And running the show is the sometimes tough, almost always neurotic Harold Meyerowitz, played by Hoffman. An often-frustrated artist who gathers his children (Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel) together for a retrospective art show, the family patriarch may be self-involved and oblivious to his children's issues, but, Hoffman says, underneath it all he cares for them. In particular, he connects to Sandler's character through music. Says Hoffman, 80: "The softer side of him was brought out by scenes I had with Adam. He plays the piano and sings, and I sing with him. I love him." He adds: "That's all I thought about when I was doing the part. 'I really love this guy.' "

  • Hugh Jackman

    'Logan'

    Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox

    While some dads protect their daughters from prom dates, Jackman's Logan (aka Wolverine) has to shield his girl from an armada of genetically engineered bad guys in Logan, the R-rated Wolverine tale directed by James Mangold. According to Jackman, who has played the mutant in eight movies, Logan's worst fears are "love, family and human connection," so when he meets his offspring, a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), he immediately is saddled with a responsibility he never wanted. Nonetheless, Logan rises to the occasion. Jackman, 49, found it easy to bond with his co-star, who was 11 years old during filming. "She is the same age as my daughter, and they became good friends," he says. "On a Sunday, I was taking them to the water park, and on Monday, [Keen] had the claws on and was slicing and dicing people's heads off."

  • Allison Janney

    'I, Tonya'

    Courtesy of NEON

    "I don't think LaVona would win any mother of the year awards," says Janney, who plays Tonya Harding's acerbic and often abusive mother, LaVona, in the comedy-drama about the famous and controversial figure skater. "She wasn’t trying to be her best friend, she was trying to make her daughter be the best she could be and rise above her circumstances and fiercely fight against her foes." Janney's standout performance, which includes mockumentary-style interviews where Janney is seen sporting a bowl haircut, and wearing a fur coat with a live pet bird on her shoulder, earned critical praise when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. "I think she had a huge chip on her shoulder about life not giving her what she deserved," adds Janney, who says she did try to find the real LaVona before she played the part, but came up empty: "Tonya didn't know where her mother was and didn't care."

  • Catherine Keener

    'Get Out'

    Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

    "The sunken place seems a lot like motherhood," jokes Keener about the purgatory-like setting in which her character, Missy Armitage, sends her daughter's boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). In Jordan Peele's social thriller Get Out, Missy, mother of Rose (Allison Williams) and Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), uses her hypnotherapy (and some tea-stirring) to trap the minds of her unsuspecting black victims in 'the sunken place.' Says Keener, 58: "But in all seriousness, I think that mothers have historically been islands in the home, and I felt very isolated as a character because of the backstory Jordan gave me. Jordan says this made her more empathetic with Chris." Keener brought her 18-year-old son, along with eight of his friends, to a screening of the movie. She adds: "All of them, including my son, erupted into cheers when I got murdered."

  • Diane Kruger

    'In the Fade'

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    To play a German woman whose husband and young son are killed in a terrorist attack by neo-Nazis, Kruger spoke to dozens of people whose loved ones had been murdered in order to learn what that would feel like. "I'm not a mother in real life," says Kruger, 41. "I've had loss in my life, but I think the death of a child, or so I hear, is even a step beyond." She learned that the loss was especially difficult if there was not a body to bury. "That's a void that no one can ever fill," says Kruger, who won the best actress award at Cannes for her performance as Katja, the German-born actress' first role in her native tongue. "I learned that through talking to mothers and just seeing and feeling, letting, allowing myself to feel." Kruger says German director Fatih Akin based his script on his own perspective as a parent. "He wrote this also thinking about his own family, what he would do and how he would feel."

  • Melissa Leo

    'Novitiate'

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    Leo wears a habit with dedication and pride as Reverend Mother, who struggles to lead a convent during the early 1960s, when Vatican II transformed the Catholic Church. The new regime sought to end medieval atonements like crawling and self-flagellation — traditional punishments she valued and enforced while training novices. "She is a mother who loves her little lambs more than they yet know to love themselves," explains Leo, 57. "She's not being cruel; she just knows, after 40 years of being a nun, that it's not an easy life. And when the archbishop questions her on self-discipline and she says, 'I'm not asking the girls to do anything I would not do myself,' I believe that to be the truth." In the Maggie Betts-helmed drama, the Reverend Mother may seem borderline sadistic, but Leo has compassion for her: "She's been betrayed and has no one to turn to, so she hides away. I think that sends her somewhat over the deep end. I have nothing but empathy for her."

  • Sandy Martin

    'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

    Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

    In Martin McDonagh's black comedy, Martin plays the chain-smoking, porch-sitting Momma Dixon, the onscreen mother of Sam Rockwell's small-town police officer with a penchant for violent outbursts. Martin says all of her and Rockwell's mother-son bonding happened during a single dialect session, recalling, "We came into it and were already so similar. We are both odd ducks, so we just clicked immediately." In order to understand her "tough old boot" of a character, Martin, 67, constructed a background for the Missouri-bred Momma. "I hate to say this, but [she's] from Trump people. She gets hot around the collar and is not very sophisticated," she says. Nonetheless, Momma's maternal instincts, no matter how unconventional, always shine through: "She does everything for her son. I just live for him because he is everything I got."

  • Laurie Metcalf

    'Lady Bird'

    Courtesy of A24

    Metcalf's favorite scene to film in Greta Gerwig's directorial debut was the opening sequence in which her daughter, played by Saoirse Ronan, ejects herself from a moving car rather than listen to any more of her mother's lecture. "It was just really playful and collaborative and it felt natural," says the actress of her and Ronan's mother-daughter dynamic, adding, "We both had lived through those times, as a mother and as a daughter." Metcalf, 62, notes that filming Lady Bird gave her a new perspective on the relationship she has with her own kids (she's got four). "What shocked me was how easily I was able to step outside the part and watch Marion." Trading harsh words with Ronan's Christine, she says, "was a reminder to me that things said in the heat of the moment can strip someone of their confidence."

  • Rob Morgan

    'Mudbound'

    Steve Dietl/Netflix

    In Dee Rees' post-World War II drama, Morgan's silence speaks volumes in his portrayal of Hap Jackson, a black preacher and sharecropper who grows cotton on a leased part of a white family's land to provide for his wife and four children. "Being a black male in the Deep South after World War II, you could actually come home in your uniform and be lynched on the spot or be connected to some horses and buggies and dragged on the street in front of your wife and children," says Morgan, 44. "Understanding that capacity of knowing when to be charming, when to shut the hell up, when to be humble and when to basically disappear for your safety and survival — that's the kind of conversation you'd have as a parent to your child, not only in 1940s America but in 2017. It's still very, very present."

  • Miranda Richardson

    'Stronger'

    Scott Garfield/Roadside Attractions

    Richardson gives an unembellished portrayal of Patty Bauman, the alcoholic mother of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman. A single parent, she struggles to care for her son alongside his girlfriend and repeatedly encourages him to participate in publicity events and charity initiatives. "I don't know how any of us would have coped with that situation — I would hate for people to think that it was money-grabbing or nagging; she just knows that life is unpredictable and, in her way, is trying to prepare for him and his future," she says. Richardson, 59, repeatedly tried to meet with her real-life figure, who kept canceling. "I found that in itself informative for character-building," says Richardson, who did eventually meet Bauman. "You have to kind of screen what she's telling you: what is true and what's not." Of her portrayal, Richardson adds: "Jeff thinks it's pretty much spot-on. But that's how family goes."

  • Ray Romano

    'The Big Sick'

    Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate

    Romano spends the majority of Amazon's The Big Sick — based on the true story of its husband-and-wife writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon's early courtship — running in and out of his daughter's hospital room while awkwardly bonding with Nanjiani and dispensing fatherly advice. "I have a daughter right around the same age as Emily in this story, so it was easy to feel the pain and anguish that Terry was feeling," says the father of four, who stars opposite Holly Hunter as Gordon's mom. While Romano, 59, didn't get a chance to meet the father his character is based on, he did receive some familial feedback: "After Emily's real mother watched a screening, she told Emily, 'You know, Holly is prettier than me, but your father is more handsome than Ray Romano.' I loved it. Now in interviews I just say, 'What I did with Terry was picture the way Emily's real father would do something and then do it as if he were ugly.' "

  • Andy Serkis

    'War for the Planet of the Apes'

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    Serkis reprises the franchise's lead role for the final time in War, which begins with Caesar witnessing the midnight murders of his wife and son. "His family is decimated, and he goes to a very dark place and asks the audience, 'How would you feel if this were to happen to you or people very close to you?' " says Serkis. Caesar grieves and avenges the death of his family by finding a place of refuge for his tribe, whom he's cared for as their patriarch — a new take on the role he's played since the reboot trilogy's first installment in 2011. "Apes has always been about the human condition, and I was really putting enormous amounts of myself into this last movie because I'd stopped thinking about him evolving and how I'm gonna carry him physically," says Serkis, 53. "I had reached that point after three films of having been a chimpanzee, and now it was just me as a parent."

  • Michael Stuhlbarg

    'Call Me by Your Name'

    Sayombhu Mukdeeprom/Sony Pictures Classics

    As Professor Perlman, Stuhlbarg spends a summer in northern Italy researching classical antiquity while at the same time providing hands-off support to the budding relationship between his teenage son (Timothee Chalamet) and a visiting intern (Armie Hammer). He quietly looks on as his boy falls for the charming older visitor and then, soon enough, undergoes his first heartbreak. "I'm sure there's a part of every parent that desperately wants to help your kid whenever they're experiencing any kind of discomfort but must also let them find their own way," says Stuhlbarg, 49, who closes Luca Guadagnino's coming-of-age gay love story with a notably tender monologue about identity and acceptance. "My agent told me, 'You may not find the role to be as engaging, but wait until you get to the end of the story,' " adds Stuhlbarg. "I was so moved when I first read the script — so many beautiful sentiments are expressed — and if anyone could take Professor Perlman's sense of generosity and love and understanding and apply it to their own lives, that would be wonderful." When it came time to perform the heartfelt monologue, Stuhlbarg says he was "very ready." He adds: "I was a little on eggshells because I'd been waiting so long to do it — it's like holding your breath for two months."

  • Kate Winslet

    'Wonder Wheel'

    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    Woody Allen's latest has Winslet playing the troubled Ginny, wife of a carousel operator on Coney Island who is bored with her life and frustrated by her arson-obsessed 11-year-old son. "When I was asked to play Ginny, I had to immediately teach myself how to slow my heart rate down," says Winslet, 42. "I was very nervous and knew that I couldn't allow that to affect my opinions about who she was. The biggest challenge was how to make this woman grounded in spite of her massive flaws, self-sabotage and regret." Even when Ginny finds new purpose through an affair with a younger man (Justin Timberlake), she continues to struggle with her son. "Her dreadfully lame parenting underpins so much of who she is," adds Winslet. "Ginny blames herself entirely for his problems because it is her past behavior that has made him so unstable. And her erratic current behavior isn't helping him much, either."

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