Emmys: 17 Movie and Mini Nominees on the Great Lengths of Getting Into Character

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon sent each other flowers and love letters, Sarah Paulson refused to go to the bathroom (or craft services) and Alfre Woodard pissed off her husband -- these and other award contenders dish on how they prepared for their nominated performances.

A version of this story first appeared in a stand-alone special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Spray-tans, reading up on sociopaths and non-stop southern accents are the tip of the iceberg in how these 17 actors and actresses prepped for their Emmy-nominated roles. Here, in their own words, is how they got ready for their movies and miniseries.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Christopher Tietjens, Parade’s End (HBO)

I really do love [the character of] Christopher, I love that man! Proud, curmudgeonly, right and good — to a fault. I read and reread the book and all of Ford Madox Ford’s work. It’s very rich modernist writing, and [writer] Tom Stoppard brought such intelligence to it. Christopher’s goodness tortures his wife, but there are no black-and-white characters, so I had to find the humanity in him and the vulnerability. Once I found his voice — a big, deep, aristocratic voice — and his dignity, I knew I was close to finding him. Tom’s script certainly guided me beautifully. This is one character I have not wanted to let go of, still. I really adore him and adored being him. 

Matt Damon

Scott Thorson, Behind the Candelabra (HBO)

Normally I try to do a 15-minute sitting for wardrobe and makeup — once. Here, I did 12 sittings with [costume designer] Ellen Mirojnick and got more excited each time I got a look at the clothes for each phase of Scott Thorson’s life. My bejeweled Speedos with matching tops are without a doubt the favorite costume I’ve ever worn. I got bikini underwear, which I don’t usually wear, and they inspired me to get a spray tan, but it wasn’t severe enough. So I hiked my bikini up into the crack of my ass like a Brazilian and got spray-tanned again. I got out of the shower the next morning, and my wife screamed, “What the f— happened to your ass?” That inspired me to drop my robe in the argument scene in bed with Michael. I’m back to normal underwear now. 

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Michael Douglas

Liberace, Behind the Candelabra (HBO)

It’s not often that I get to play the nice guy, and I had never played a real-life character. I watched old footage and documentaries to study Liberace’s voice and mannerisms. Since I don’t play the piano, I was determined to master his hand gestures. Then came the challenge of physically getting into character. Liberace was a big, barrel-chested guy, and I was still recovering from cancer. Luckily, Matt [Damon] and [director] Steven [Soderbergh] went off to work on other projects for about a year, which gave me time to put on some weight. Ultimately, though, I wanted the audience to forget they’re watching two guys and instead focus on watching two people very much in love. I had lunch with Matt right before we were going to start shooting, and I brought my 12-year-old son, Dylan, and he suddenly broke out in the whole “Boogie Woogie” number. Matt said that’s when he knew we were in great shape, because if my son knew the whole routine, I must have rehearsed for many hours! Jerry [Weintraub] wanted Matt and I to have a lot of chemistry once we got to the set, so we were sending each other flowers and love letters for months before. It was pretty funny.

Toby Jones

Alfred Hitchcock, The Girl (HBO)

I watched an awful lot of footage of Hitchcock, and Truffaut’s interviews with him online were an absolute godsend. Hitchcock is clearly drinking wine, so you have an impregnable public person becoming less formal. You hear him chink into the primitive voice as he becomes unguarded — the voice is fantastic and very revealing. There’s the physical aspect: Being that big, there’s a certain resonance, and something in the way the jaw is formed, whether it’s tense or not, the way the teeth strike the tongue. You think of metaphors: He’s like an uncle telling you ghost stories, a huge bald baby, a homunculus drinking and smoking cigars, which all affect the voice. These are all things to play with as you warm up the voice in the morning. The point is to get behind the mask.

Jessica Lange

Sister Jude Martin, American Horror Story: Asylum (FX)

The emotional preparation is what’s most important, to find out what the character has been through and look for moments in your own life you can re-create and draw on. I still use a lot of the Method technique, but now I find I rely more on imagination. I want to be like a child playing make-believe, so invested in imagination, there’s no separation for them. I listened to cello music — there’s a sorrow to the cello, resonances of a human voice. I looked at a lot of photos of Ellis Island before they restored it, and I visited there — it’s haunting. I also looked at a photo essay on a Massachusetts institution for the criminally insane that had been deserted for years. I work visually a lot. The biggest draw for me is to play an element of madness, somebody who’s surviving by the skin of her teeth.

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Laura Linney

Cathy Jamison, The Big C: Hereafter (Showtime)

I had known since the beginning how Cathy’s story would unfold, so I’d been preparing for the end almost from the first day we started filming. When we had the good fortune to get to do a fourth season, I knew there were certain things I wanted to work on physically and what I thought was important for people to see — I wanted an honesty about how her journey ended. Not only what happens to the person who is confronted with this terminal disease, but what happens to family and friends around them. Some crumble, some are resilient, and some fall into sadness. Others are very aware of the absurdity of how big everything is and how out of control it all feels. We wanted to weave all of that — it’s a big task —into the final season. I was in a state of concern more than anything else, just hoping it would all come together. 

Elisabeth Moss

Robin Griffin, Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel)

After my audition, Jane [Campion] called and said, “You’re my No. 1 choice, but we need to hear the accent,” which was an Aussie/Kiwi hybrid. I worked on it for a few days with a wonderful dialect coach, Carla Meyer, in Los Angeles, recorded it on a Flip-cam and sent it off. The next day I got the part. Then I proceeded to go into three months of working with Victoria Neufeld, the series’ dialect coach, but the real work was when I got there — every day, every scene, every line talking in that accent. It never felt like something I could take for granted or relax into.

Sigourney Weaver

Elaine Barrish Hammond, Political Animals (USA)

There are many brilliant leaders I know in Washington and in nongovernmental organizations whom I tried to channel, who have the moral compass I wanted to portray. The script showed the complete woman, who’s still in love with her wastrel ex-husband, who’s made to feel guilty for her political ambitions by her drug-addict son. In the first segment, I had to host my ex-husband and his very beautiful girlfriend in front of a press member. There was almost nothing you could do as an actor other than just feel your way through the situation. Underneath that business, there is someone very strong there who still loves her husband, whether that’s a smart thing or not. But she’s too smart not to recognize her own feelings.

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Scott Bakula

Bob Black, Behind the Candelabra (HBO)

I kind of worked from the outside in. I sat with [costume designer] Ellen Mirojnick trying on clothes in fabrics that defy description and will still be in landfills 200 years from now. I called a gay friend who was in Hollywood at the time — when I was in New York in the theater, with a strong exposure to the gay community there —  and I said, “Can you just talk me through what was going on in the L.A. bar scene then?” He gave me a rundown on what it was like when that world was much more closeted, with a lot of older men searching for younger boys, and also older men staying home, having other men bring them younger boys, which is an element of my character. Steven [Soderbergh] said, “Keep it simple; you don’t need to add anything to your impersonation of a gay choreographer.” I did have to diet, because clothes back then fit tight.

James Cromwell

Dr. Arthur Arden, American Horror Story: Asylum (FX)

My character is a Mengele-esque Nazi torture doctor who integrates his work seamlessly into a tubercular ward run by a Catholic charity. It’s a horror story, yet it’s a statement about our society. I tried to make my character banal, average, indistinguishable, because what happens in real life is so much more bizarre. I saw Auschwitz, the Trayvon Martin tweets, I saw an NSA guy lie to Congress. That all goes into my performance. My laboratory and bunker is so redolent, it shaped the performance. When I had to rape Chloe [Sevigny], I said, “If we do it on the desk, it’s gonna hurt, mostly Chloe. How about the couch?” She said, “You won’t get me to the couch.” So she ran, I picked her up and threw her on the couch. What the set provided helped us find the behavior that supported the grotesquery, the Grand Guignol. It’s ghoulish — that’s why people love it. 

John Benjamin Hickey

Sean Tolkey, The Big C: Hereafter (Showtime)

By saying goodbye, it opened up this whole new focus and concentration and reparation for the characters. My focus this season — because I knew it was the end of Cathy’s life — I wanted so much for Sean to grow up and show up. I wanted him to be fully present as her brother, and I feel like he did that in his very specific way. In that last episode where he makes that decision to help her end her life — if that’s the way she wanted to do it — it was so incredibly brave of Sean because of his manic depression and fear of losing his sister. They all had such a profound year of losing family, he was so scared to face up to what was going on with her, and he did in a really great way.

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Zachary Quinto

Dr. Oliver Thredson, American Horror Story: Asylum (FX)

I did a fair amount of research into the psychology and psyches of sociopaths and serial killers. Ed Gein was somebody I used as a real point of departure for Dr. Thredson. I had to see some things that I would rather not have seen, but they were important to understand the psychology of this character. It’s important to cultivate compassion for the character you’re playing, but when you’re playing a character as abhorrent as Thredson, it’s a bit of a challenge, so a lot of the research I did was geared toward understanding how people end up that way. It was rooted in this twisted pursuit of some sense of belonging, but the cruelty of skinning someone alive and the sexual brutality of [the role] was challenging.

Ellen Burstyn

Margaret Barrish, Political Animals (USA)

At the same time my character was, I was a dancer myself in a chorus line in Montreal at the Chez Paris, a very mild form of Vegas, where she danced. I’d spent a lot of time in the Chez Paris dressing room in 1952 or ’53. I was 19, kind of the baby of the bunch. One girl, the oldest and toughest, who mingled with the customers more than the rest of us, she became my prototype. She’s now into her 70s but still has pizzazz and flash, some strut to her walk. The risk in playing a drinker is manifesting drunkenness by not slurring the words, which is not common. When I drank, it was a question of less inhibition, speaking ever more frankly and having a good time, laughing at everything. But you get to a point where time is not unlimited, and you want to be awake for the whole rest of the trip. You don’t want the edges blurred, you want it all in sharp focus.

Sarah Paulson

Lana Winters, American Horror Story: Asylum (FX)

I wanted to read about aversion/conversion therapy, but I wanted part of the horror to be the fact that Lana didn’t know what was coming. I needed to sustain a certain feeling of desperation and terror over so many episodes that the only way I could do it was to stay strapped to the bed in Thredson’s lair. I didn’t get up, I didn’t use the bathroom, I didn’t use my cell phone, I didn’t go to craft service. It was too emotionally raw to go giggle with my friend Zachary Quinto and then come back and pretend that I’m being raped, or he’s going to ask me to breastfeed him. Your body doesn’t know it’s not real, so in order to go there, I had to turn off my brain and allow my body to tell me the story.

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Charlotte Rampling

Sally Gilmartin/Eva Delectorskaya, Restless (Sundance Channel)

I don’t create a character out of books. I have to find something that fascinates me into wanting to be inside that person, and vice versa, and then I delve in in my own way. I’m intrigued by people who hide their lives, these women who give the impression of being in control but they’ve built up facades. I have something that comes across onscreen as unsettling — that’s what I bring. You say, “God, I never know what’s going to happen.” This is true on Dexter, too. I don’t like costumes. You have to grin and bear it, but I’d rather wear a cat-suit like a dancer. I don’t want to be in costume or like other people. Right from a kid, I was determined to go where all the others weren’t — it’s more interesting: “Sorry, I’m going this way.” And that’s a trait in my characters. Acting is the one area in my life I don’t get anxious about. I have a strange clarity. 

Imelda Staunton

Alma Hitchcock, The Girl (HBO)

The BBC gave me footage to watch of her, and I read about her, and then I tried to do what was on the page. Alma knows how talented [Hitchcock] is, and she knows that he seemed to have to have a crush on every leading lady he had in order to do the work. I’ve never felt that I have to love the characters I play, I just have to portray them. She enabled Hitchcock to behave the way he did. She also knew the power she had over him. She knew he couldn’t live without her. She was his second-in-command, his partner. She felt his behavior was unacceptable yet necessary. Alma’s not stupid; she wasn’t a weak woman. I want to have said to her, “Why did you tolerate that?” And I imagine the answer would be, “Because that’s how we got these films made.”

Alfre Woodard

Ouiser, Steel Magnolias (Lifetime)

A month out from shooting, I start to use the dialect so it feels like it comes out of my mouth. Not from the script, just phrases: I was a little salty there, speaking truth and shamin’ the devil while shopping at Whole Foods. My husband said, “You need to finish with Ouiser, she’s getting on my nerves.” I started to stretch and get rid of my own rhythms, walk around the house in her gait, so I can fall into the center of that person. And that center is always in your groin area. How does she sit in her hips differently than me? I envisioned her as a pocketbook-carrying woman, in the crook of her arm, so it lifts her sternum and puts her back on her hips. She sashays, but not like a young girl, breasts forward, leading with the pelvic bone; more like, “I have earned the right to be where I want and do what I want.” I know so much emotionally, but I don’t learn my lines until the night before, or that morning in makeup because we never know what we’re going to say in life. 


Al Pacino (lead, Phil Spector, HBO); Helen Mirren (lead, Phil Spector, HBO) and Peter Mullan (supporting, Top of the Lake, Sundance Channel).

Additional reporting by Reagan Alexander, Merle Ginsberg and Lesley Goldberg