Oscar Nominees' Dilemma: Which Project to Choose Next?

Skip Sterling

"The next thing you do will be viewed under a microscope. You want to avoid looking like you are selling out," says one top agent.

After nearly six months of awards campaigning — juggling late-night bookings, photo ops and meet-the-voters events — some Oscar nominees (and their teams) will wake up on March 5 with the same question: "What should I do next?"

Name-brand talent (Streep, Hanks, DiCaprio) likely have years' worth of projects lined up, and this year is no different. Florida Project Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe has four projects already set up in 2018: James Wan's Aquaman; Edward Norton's Motherless BrooklynAt Eternity's Gate, star­ring as Vincent Van Gogh; and Robert Eggers' fantasy horror The Lighthouse. And The Shape of Water Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer has Tate Taylor's thriller Ma, Julius Onah's Luce and a Universal holiday comedy on her slate. 

But relative up-and-comer Oscar nominees may have a difficult decision to make about whether to take a big paycheck movie or roll the dice on finding the next great prestige project. "The next thing you do will be viewed under a microscope. You want to avoid looking like you are selling out," says one top agent, whose client ran in last year's awards race. "The safe way to go is always an auteur director with a strong cast around you." 

More actors are picking studio tentpoles offering ambitious franchise roles. After picking up a best actor win for The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne nabbed the lead in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For the English actor, the Harry Potter spinoff meant working with British literary icon J.K. Rowling and also shooting close to home, in Britain.

Fellow Theory of Everything nominee Felicity Jones secured her role in Star Wars spinoff Rogue One two months after the 2015 ceremony, and Room actress Brie Larson landed the title character in Captain Marvel, the studio's first female-fronted superhero stand-alone. Before them, Jennifer Lawrence was cast in the first installment of the Hunger Games franchise after making her Oscar debut, nominated for 2010's Winter's Bone.  

Insiders emphasize the importance of striking while the media glare is greatest in the weeks before and after the Academy Awards ceremony. "You're going to seize opportunities at that time," says an agent with a roster of Oscar nominees and winners, noting that attention is never greater than when an actor is on the awards podium accepting an honor. "All the great directors are watching you at that moment."

This award season's youngest nominee, Timothee Chalamet, seized his moment when he plead his case to appear in a film by fellow nominee Paul Thomas Anderson during an acceptance speech at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. (Chalamet will next be starring as Henry V in Netflix feature The King and in meth drama Beautiful Boy with Steve Carell. Paul Thomas Anderson has yet to reveal his next project.) 

Even for attachments that don't work out, winners have course-corrected. In the middle of the 2017 Oscar season, Mahershala Ali signed up to star opposite Oscar nominee Tom Hardy in the Paramount crime thriller Triple Frontier from Oscar-nominated director J.C. Chandor. The tumultuous project fell apart, moved to Netflix, and Ali ultimately left. But, a couple months after he picked up his Oscar nom, he snagged a starring role in the third season of HBO's acclaimed series True Detective.

And still, some performers are looking for post-Oscar roles that lie outside of professional ambition or financial incentive. After taking home Oscar gold, Alicia Vikander signed on for Tomb Raider to play Lara Croft, the same role Angelina Jolie took after she won her 2002 Oscar. "I think that there's this idea that now: You win an Oscar [and] you're supposed to take yourself seriously," said Jolie in a recent Awards Chatter interview regarding the undue pressure placed on award-winning performers. "For me, I just wanted life experiences."

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