The season’s Oscar contenders open up about returning to acting after grief and disappointment and how to stay hungry over the course of a long career: "Expectation is a dangerous thing."
The six participants on this Oscar season’s edition of THR’s Actor Roundtable can speak to a wide variety of showbiz experiences.
Ranging in age from 30 to 56, some started out as child actors (Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Key Huy Quan and Elvis’ Austin Butler), others have anchored big studio blockbusters (Hustle’s Adam Sandler and The Whale’s Brendan Fraser) and still others are longtime critics’ darlings (The Banshees of Inisherin’s Colin Farrell and The Inspection’s Jeremy Pope). But there is one thing that none of them has ever experienced: an Oscar nomination.
That will almost certainly change for most — if not all — on Jan. 24, especially given that their 2022 performances already have been recognized with major nominations. Farrell, Fraser, Quan and Butler received both Critics Choice and Golden Globe noms; and Pope landed the latter and is, like Quan, nominated for a Spirit Award, too. And some already have wins tucked under the belts, with Quan having scored Gotham, L.A. Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle awards, and Farrell having earned Venice Film Festival, National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle prizes.
And while that undoubtedly accounts for some of their excitement upon gathering at THR‘s offices in late November, there were other reasons too. Farrell’s son was accompanying him for the festivities. Fraser and Quan hadn’t seen each other since working together on 1992’s Encino Man (“We’re still here,” Fraser greeted his fellow comeback kid, who was visibly moved). And Fraser and Sandler reminisced about working together early in their careers on 1994’s Airheads (“I wasn’t thinking about stuff like this back then,” Sandler said with a chuckle. “We were just like, ‘Holy cow, we’re on a movie set! There’s craft services?!’ “). As for Butler and Pope, two of the year’s breakthrough performers, they were just in awe of being at the same table as some of the actors they grew up adoring.
I’d like to ask you each to discuss a moment when this moment may have felt furthest away. Ke, this is your first film role in 20 years. You started as a child actor in films like 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1985’s The Goonies. And then …
KE HUY QUAN It just went downhill from there! (Laughs.) For the longest time, I couldn’t get a job. Hollywood didn’t want me. There were no roles for me. I spent the majority of my late teens and early 20s just waiting for the phone to ring, and it rarely rang, so I had no choice but to step away. The difficult part was saying goodbye to the dream that I’d always had, but it was just difficult to be an Asian actor at that time, so I went to film school, graduated and then started working behind the camera and was content doing that. I didn’t think that one day I’d revisit that dream. It felt so distant and far away — until a movie called Crazy Rich Asians came out [in 2018], and I realized that Hollywood had changed dramatically, that they were giving more opportunities to a wider group of people. It was really then that I said, “Ah, maybe I should try acting again.” I was 49, about to turn 50, and I was so worried that I’d reach my 60s and look back and have regrets. So I had a conversation with my wife: “Should I do this?” As you all know, it’s tough to be an actor. You’re rejected again and again. It’s OK to face those rejections when you’re younger, but to do that when you’re a middle-aged man is something else.
COLIN FARRELL If I had a vote, I know where my vote’s going — what a journey!
QUAN So being here is beyond anything I could’ve imagined.
BRENDAN FRASER Well, get used to it because you have courage.
So do you, Brendan. You’ve been in films for 30-odd years, in action-adventure movies — some in the jungle, as folks will recall — and dramas like 1998’s Gods and Monsters, 2002’s The Quiet American and 2005’s Crash. But you’re also coming out of a period during which you stepped away from the business.
FRASER I think it was the night that I was shooting a scene wherein I was being mauled by a bear, and I was in a Porta Potty, and the Porta Potty got inverted, and I was on my head, and all this Gatorade and stuff dropped on my head that made me have a conversation with myself: “Is this worth it? Maybe I should reprioritize myself and stop working with animals.” Look, I stepped back for a number of reasons. I had some chips and dings in the paint [injuries], and the business had changed a lot, too. I had to grow back into it and get back the real hunger that I had to tell stories.
Colin, you were shot out of a cannon at the beginning of your career with the Joel Schumacher films Tigerland in 2000 and Phone Booth in 2002. More recently, you’ve done daring projects like 2008’s In Bruges and 2015’s The Lobster. But I understand there was a moment, after Alexander in 2004, that forced you to rethink everything.
FARRELL Expectation is a dangerous thing. Alexander was a story that Oliver Stone had dreamed of since he was in college. So, as grand as it was, as global as it was, as political as it was, as thrilling as it was, as violent as it was, and as sensual as it was, it was really personal — to Oliver and to me. It took us six months to shoot, on three continents. It was incredible. When I say “expectation,” we all had our tuxedos ready [for awards shows]. I’m not even joking. We were all like, “Right, lads, we’re off to the Oscars. This is a sure thing.” And then it came out. The reviews came out, and I remember someone going, “Oh God, it’s not good.” And my publicist going, “It’s really not good.” I was like, “Well, what do you mean ‘not good’?” There wasn’t any Rotten Tomatoes then, so they had all the printed reviews, and one after another was telling me to pack my bags, I’d been found out: “Alexander the Dull,” “Alexander the Boring,” “Alexander the Inarticulate,” “Alexander the Weak.” I was like, “Holy shit.” I thought, “What can I do?” I felt so much shame. I found myself in a place where with everyone I met I wanted to say, “Have you seen Alexander? If you have, I’m really sorry.” I’m not even joking. I wasn’t going to give them their $20 million back, but …
So I went to Lake Tahoe to a ski resort. I didn’t ski, but I realized I could wear a mask and a beanie, and I did that for three days. And then after that, yeah, I did question. I went, “I’m just shite at it. I’m a crap actor. I’ve been found out.” I came blazing onto the scene with a bit of moxie and a bit of Irish this and that — “Fuck, I don’t give a shit about it!” I was 23. When you’re 23 and you actually care a lot, and you don’t know how to articulate that or have a relationship with that care, the easiest thing to do is to say you “don’t give a shit.” This is not to apologize — I was a young man — but Alexander really made me go, “I don’t know.” And what I had to do was plug back into the Colin that went into an acting class when he was 17. And not only the fellow that went in the first time, but more importantly the fellow that went back for the second workshop. I had lost that. I was shot out of the cannon, as you said. I was given so much opportunity. It was insane how much money I was given, the keys to this, the keys to that. And that’s why, when I heard years ago that Justin Bieber threw eggs at his neighbor, I was like, “He deserves a medal if that’s all he’s doing.” He raced a car on Ocean Drive? I’m like, “If that’s all he’s doing, that kid is trying the best he can to be a good human being.” So anyway, it’s been an interesting trip. And I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to reconnect with the simplicity that should never leave the core of what we do.
Adam, for so long you’ve been loved for your comedy work. But 20 years ago, when you starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, it revealed this other side of you that we’ve since seen in 2004’s Spanglish, 2007’s Reign Over Me, 2019’s Uncut Gems and now Hustle. Did you always aspire to show that you were more than a funny guy or did it take other people’s belief for you to be able to believe it?
ADAM SANDLER It’s funny, the other night, my daughter, who’s 16, said, “When you first started, why did you do it?” I guess I just wanted people to like me. I started caring about opening up to other stuff the older I got. I started thinking about not just the opportunities, but making sure that every opportunity I got, I did the best work I could do — work that I could say, “Oh, I didn’t know I could do that!” It’s exciting to do different types of things. And that stuff didn’t open up in my brain until Paul Thomas Anderson wrote that movie for me. He saw it as just like “an Adam Sandler movie,” but a dramatic version of it.
Jeremy, only six people have gotten two Tony nominations for acting in one year, the most recent being you in 2019. Then you played your first major TV role, in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, and got an Emmy nom for that. Now you’re making a major impression with your first film. Did you always expect to move among media?
JEREMY POPE I didn’t see a lot of representation of Black, openly gay, queer individuals in media, so I didn’t know what my way in would be. When I graduated college, went to art school, and everyone was about to audition, it was like, “Don’t let people know you’re gay. You’ve got to be this version of a Black man to be successful as an actor.” So I spent many years doing that and abandoning my truth and trying to be what they wanted me to be in the room. It was the moment when I started to love on myself, and love the evolved version of who I am, and be around collaborators and creators that are doing that, when all these things started to happen. It began in 2019, when Tarell McCraney — whom I’d met years before and who won the Oscar for [writing 2016’s] Moonlight — brought his show [Choir Boy] to Broadway, which happened to be my Broadway debut. The Inspection is just an affirmation to myself of what’s possible. I think about little Jeremy, just trying to find a way in, watching George of the Jungle [starring Fraser]. You just never know. But I’m grateful that I tried and kept trying and ultimately found self-love and self-worth.
Austin, you began as a kid on TV, and went to Broadway yourself, opposite Denzel Washington in a 2018 revival of The Iceman Cometh. Later, he advocated for you to play Elvis. But when you began acting, was it with any specific goal in mind?
AUSTIN BUTLER I started at about 12. I just stumbled into extra work. I was an incredibly shy kid. If that kid knew that I was sitting around all my heroes right now, talking like this in public, he wouldn’t believe it. But being around other actors, suddenly I felt like I’d found my tribe. I started wanting to be around other people. My mom saw that in me, and I owe her for everything because she quit her job and drove me to auditions and took me to acting classes. Then I started working. This was in the heyday of Nickelodeon, and you’d make 100 bucks a day or something, and, as a kid, that was huge! Then, as I started to get certain mentors who’d say, “You’ve got to watch Raging Bull and East of Eden,” I started falling in love with the craft. But I was stuck in a lane of doing Nickelodeon and Disney. Then I moved on to young adult TV shows. After my mom passed away, I’d never experienced pain like that before, and I started to question. Suddenly I was around doctors and people that were hurting a lot in hospitals, and I thought, “Is acting a noble profession? Should I be doing this or should I give myself in some way that can help people who are dealing with cancer or something like that?” After my mom passed away, I went straight to New Zealand to start shooting a young adult TV show. A lot of people enjoyed the show, and I had fun doing horseback riding and that sort of thing, but I’d go home and cry every night. I was dealing with grief, but it was also this feeling that I wasn’t aligned with something that felt truly fulfilling. I got done with that show, once they canceled it after two seasons, and I said, “I would rather not work as an actor than ever do something like that again.”
SANDLER How old were you?
BUTLER I was 24, 25 at that time. I thought, “I’ve got a little bit of money in the bank. I’ll just take time off.” Then I started sinking into a deeper and deeper depression. It was about six or eight months of that. Then my agent called and said, “You’ve got to put yourself on tape for The Iceman Cometh. Denzel’s doing it on Broadway.” I had just bought a camera, so I thought, “I’m going to film this like a movie and give it everything I got.” That day I had an actor friend come over, and we started running it and filmed it like a film. I sent that in on a Friday, and they said on Sunday, “We want you to fly out on Monday to meet with Scott Rudin and George Wolfe.” I had these perceptions about an L.A. actor going to New York — “There’s no way that they’ll cast me, they’ll rip me to shreds, I don’t deserve to be here, it was a good tape but I’m not going to be good in the room” — but I flew out early and worked with one of my acting coaches who’s been a mentor for a long time, Larry Moss, for three days in a row, and then I went in the room, and they gave me the job in the room. And that’s the moment that changed my career.
That brings us to your 2022 films that have gone over so tremendously. Austin, it’s eerie: Elvis was on your mind shortly before you learned there was going to be a film, right?
BUTLER Yeah, in the month before. People always ask me, “Had you for years thought you looked like Elvis?” And I’d say, “I don’t really think I look that much like Elvis.” That never crossed my mind. But the month before I heard that Baz [Luhrmann] was making the movie, I was going to look at Christmas lights with a friend, and there was an Elvis Christmas song on the radio, and I was singing along, and my friend looked over at me and goes, “You’ve got to play Elvis.” I said, “Oh, that’s such a long shot.” Then my agent called and said, “So Baz Luhrmann is making an Elvis film …” The hairs just stood up on my arms. It made me go, “All right. It’s Everest. I don’t know if I’m good enough. But I’ve got to give it everything.” I hired a movement coach, a singing coach and a dialect coach, and I just started working like I had the job. I met with Baz after about a month. And we spent five months trying things. And then eventually I had to do a screen test. I was like, “Oh, I don’t have the job?”
Ke, what led the Daniels to you?
QUAN Hearing Austin’s story gives me goose bumps because it’s very similar to mine. Everything came around the same time. I decided to get back to acting. Then Daniels saw somebody do a joke on Facebook — a picture of Andrew Yang with the caption, “Short Round [Quan’s character in Indiana Jones] is all grown up and he’s running for president.” Which triggered them to go, “Oh, I wonder what Ke is doing.” They started doing the calculation, “Oh, he’s about the same age as this character.” It was at the same time that I called up an agent friend of mine. I didn’t have an agent for decades, so I was practically begging him to represent me, and he said yes. Two weeks later, I got a call about this script, and an audition. The Daniels were gracious enough to send the script over so I could prepare, and I read it and was blown away. I was so hungry for a script like this, for a role like this. I remember reading it until 5 a.m., and in my head I had all these ideas of what I wanted to do with this role. I was looking out the window, the sun was rising, and I said, “I have to go to sleep,” because my audition was in the afternoon. It had been more than 25 years since I’d auditioned — I was so nervous, I was shaking. The Daniels were so sweet. Sarah Finn, the casting director, was amazing. And then I didn’t hear from them for two months. I was miserable because I wanted this role so bad. Finally, I went to audition for a second time, and then that phone call came. I was screaming so loud. I was jumping up so high. And to this day, I still cannot believe how everything came to be.
FARRELL So cool! Twenty-five years, brother?! That’s intense!
And Ke, a quick follow-up: Who did your deal for the movie?
QUAN Jeff Cohen, who was in The Goonies with me — he was Chunk — is all grown now and he’s an entertainment lawyer. (Group bursts out in laughter.) When the producer of our movie was trying to make my deal, he said he never imagined that he’d have to talk to Chunk and Data for his movie. Anyway, then I did the whole thing, too — hired an acting coach, a dialogue coach, a voice coach — because I’m playing three different versions of the same character. I also hired a body-movement coach, and he’d pick different animals for me to practice as. One was a squirrel. I watched countless videos of nothing but squirrels on YouTube. I was on all fours trying to move like a squirrel.
SANDLER Chunk get you a good deal, by the way?
QUAN Jeff is an outstanding lawyer.
Colin, you and Martin McDonagh worked together on In Bruges — with Brendan Gleeson, who is again your co-star in Banshees — and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths. Were you all looking for another thing to do together?
FARRELL It came out of the blue. I actually tried to talk Martin out of hiring me for In Bruges. He said, “That’s interesting. Why?” And I said, “This script is so good. You don’t want anyone coming in with the baggage that I have.” He said, “Noted. I want you.” In Bruges was a big turning point for me. And Brendan I adore — he’s a soulmate. It doesn’t make sense — we’re so different in age and look, we live very different lives, we move through the world in very different ways, and yet, I swear to God, I’ve known him longer than the 46 years of my life. But, yeah, we had no idea it was coming. Martin had written the script seven years before. Then he put it away. The one I read seven years ago was better than the majority of things you read, but Martin thought it was shite.
Adam, you’ve always been into sports — which pops up in Happy Gilmore and Uncut Gems — and particularly basketball, which you also play, and which I know can take a toll on the body …
SANDLER (Laughs.) Yes, got a new hip three months ago. Moving just fine.
On Hustle, you were surrounded by NBA stars and legends, which must’ve felt like fantasy basketball camp.
SANDLER Sure. LeBron [James] and Joe Roth had this script. It was about a scout. They thought I might be interested. And I got excited from there. Like you said, I love basketball. And I loved this guy who cares a lot about another human being. He cares about himself, but he also kind of falls for this guy, Bo Cruz, and just wants the best for him, and is selfless, and will go as far as he can to make sure this kid lives up to his potential. It was exciting to play that guy.
Jeremy, you were essentially playing your writer-director, Elegance Bratton. How did you guys find each other, and what’s it like when the guy you’re playing is always just a few feet away?
POPE An agent sent me the script and was like, “I hope you love it as much as I do — but even if you don’t, you should meet this human. I think you guys are of the same mind, creatively.” I read the script, fell in love with the words and wanted to know what happened to him after boot camp. Then we met, and he was just such a light. It felt like it did with Tarell, who actually helped fund and support Elegance’s first documentary; we instantly bonded. But then there was nine months of waiting. I was like, “I thought we connected. What happened?” But it was just life doing life and studios doing studio things. Then I got the call. I’m grateful for the experience. I wanted to protect him because I knew that he was being so vulnerable by giving us this story. This was his feature debut as a Black queer man going, “I want to be in Hollywood. I want to tell my story.” So I thought, “Let me be the person they have to meet before they see you.” This is someone who got kicked out of his house for being gay and lived on the streets for 10 years, so he didn’t see this for himself.
Brendan, Darren Aronofsky says that he looked at a ton of people for the role of Charlie in The Whale but wasn’t sure anyone could do justice to it until he came to you.
FRASER He didn’t know if he was going to make the movie or not when I met him. I didn’t even have sight of the screenplay before I met him. I was just glad that he was interested in me doing this, and he did intimate that it was important to him to hire someone who was hungry, no pun intended. When I did get sight of the screenplay, it made my teeth sweat. He staged a reading at St. Mark’s in Greenwich with Sadie Sink and [The Whale‘s playwright and screenwriter] Sam Hunter — it is, like with Elegance, Sam’s story in a way — and eventually we moved forward.
Let’s close with the best piece of advice you’ve received.
BUTLER “Make it about the work.” There’s so much noise around, so much that can end up blowing you like a flag in the wind.
FARRELL Before I did my first American film, Pierce Brosnan got me in a bear hug, picked me up and said, “Keep being bold.” I don’t know that he knew that I was bold, but it was a lovely thing to hear.
SANDLER A lot of the guys I’ve worked with over the years, older actors and actresses, like to say before we move on from a setup, “Let’s go one more and see what happens. We’re here, it’s set up, let’s go one more.” Sometimes you land on something you weren’t expecting.
FRASER Ian McKellen [Fraser’s co-star in Gods and Monsters] said, “Approach each role as if it’s the first and the last time you will act,” and that’s stayed with me.
POPE “Audiences are unreliable, but you are not.” When you do the work and investigate and excavate and find out your why, the sky can be the limit. They will always be unreliable, but when you do those things, you are not.
QUAN Had you told me a year ago, “Ke, you’ll be among these amazing actors,” I would’ve said, “Get the F out of here.” Winning the lottery would be easier than being at this table. So I hope my story inspires others. If they have any doubt about what they can accomplish or that their dream can come true, well, look at me. My dream came true. Be patient. Your time will come.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.