Leading the Way: Inside the Best Actor and Best Actress Categories

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'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing'

Newcomers mix with the old guard in the battle for this year's best leading performances.

Some have been working the awards circuit for a year after snowy, showy premieres at the Sundance Film Festival. Others saw glitzy debuts at the Venice or Telluride film festivals, and one hit the scene only weeks ago with his film's Christmas bow.

Now as their date with Oscar destiny looms Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the nominated stars reflect once more on their work.

Here, THR takes a closer look at each of the actor categories, followed by Oscar night predictions.

Best Actress

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Hawkins faced several challenges on her way to landing a best actress nomination for The Shape of Water, her second following a best supporting actress nomination for 2013's Blue Jasmine. In Guillermo del Toro's love story, her character, Elisa, a cleaning woman at a top-secret government facility, is mute (which meant the actress had to learn sign language), while her romantic interest (played by Doug Jones) is a fishlike creature with whom she engages in a lengthy dance scene.

Del Toro wrote the role with Hawkins, 41, in mind, despite the fact that he'd never met her at the time. For her part, Hawkins credits Jones' own humanity with allowing her to look past his rubber suit and see the human being beneath.

"We had a lot of rehearsal dance-wise," Hawkins said. "I was there weeks [before]. I would be there months before, if I could. Sometimes you don't get that luxury of time. Guillermo knew it was essential to have that rehearsal period. … That was just key to getting to know [Doug] and loving him as a human being. Doug Jones is an extraordinary human. And such a gift.” – Aaron Couch

Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

In this coming-of-age story, the Irish actress plays an eccentric 2000s-era teen growing up in California’s Central Valley, desperate to get out. Ronan, at just 23, has earned her third Oscar nomination, following nominations for her work in Brooklyn in 2016 and Atonement in 2008. 

"Lady Bird shows the beauty and the frustration of being a teenager, especially around that age when you're just about to leave home and you just want to get out of the place where you grew up," Ronan said. "I really identify with that juxtaposition of confidence and insecurity and how you can really believe in yourself, but not quite know exactly what you believe in. I knew that that complexity would be something that would really have to be thought out. The challenge of that really excited me." – Mia Galuppo

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Robbie already was becoming known for her breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street and for playing the demented villain Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, but the Australian actress, 27, proved her range by portraying infamous figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. 

Robbie earned her first Oscar nomination for playing the ice champ from ages 15 through 40 in the dark comedy, which attempts to explain how an athlete with such raw talent could land at the center of the sport's biggest scandal. 

"When I picked up the script, I didn't really see any similarities, and that's what excited me about the character," Robbie says when asked whether she had anything in common with Harding. "The character seemed so foreign to me, and it's always something I find with the characters that I really love, is that to begin with I can't see any level that we relate on and then, as I explore the character, I suddenly find that we relate in so many ways. That just kind of comes out when putting yourself in the mindset of someone else. I think if anyone does that, they'll find empathy there and find a way to connect and find small or big things to relate to their character." – Rebecca Ford

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

In Martin McDonagh's dark comedy, McDormand, 60, plays a mother out for justice for her murdered daughter. The role, which earned her a fifth Oscar nomination (she won in 1997 for Fargo), sees her character, Mildred, go up against the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and a racist cop (Sam Rockwell) in several spectacular battles of wits and insults. Harrelson spoke about his infamously press-averse sparring partner and how they created one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

"I know Frances pretty well," says Harrelson. "We've been friends for quite a while, and we also worked on [2005's] North Country together. As a person, she's incredible, very kind of almost matriarchal — she mothers people, she looks after people. But to work with her is another thing entirely. To actually get into an involved scene is very exciting because I'm such a fan of her as an actor." – Seth Abramovitch

Meryl Streep, The Post

Streep holds the record for acting Oscar nominations, with her work in Steven Spielberg's The Post — playing Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham — marking her 21st nomination. 

 "She's not only the greatest actress — the greatest actor, I should say — of our times, she's also probably one of the greatest dramaturges of our time," co-screenwriter Josh Singer said. "She's like a heat-seeking missile with scenes. Sometimes it's with lines and sometimes it's performance, because Meryl doesn't give you the obvious reading of any line, she doesn't even give you the second most obvious reading of any line. She tends to give you the 15th most obvious read of any line. And so there were any number of times, it was like, does her performance here fit the arc? And then the first time I saw the cut, I started screaming at the screen because all those moments that I had questioned during the shooting turned out to be brilliant. We build an arc that's a rough sketch in pencil, and when she's through with it, it is a beautiful oil painting, a gorgeous work of art." – Rebecca Ford

Who Should Win: Saoirse Ronan

Margot Robbie and Meryl Streep were both very good but not on the level of Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand and Saoirse Ronan, all exceptional in very fine films that are unthinkable without them. Arguably, Hawkins plays the most unusual character, while McDormand makes the strongest moment-to-moment impression. But cumulatively, with this performance coming on the heels of her very different coming-of-age turn in Brooklyn, I can only once again champion the ever-revelatory Ronan (if both she and Timothee Chalamet were to win, their combined ages would be less than those of most of the other nominees). – THR Chief Film Critic Todd McCarthy

Who Will Win: Frances McDormand

McDormand won this award 21 years ago for Fargo, and she's about to join an elite group of 13 who have won it more than once. Sally Hawkins, Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep also anchor best pic nominees, and Margot Robbie has the more Oscar-friendly narrative (beautiful movie star morphs into less beautiful real person) and produced her own pic. But none of the others have been able to accrue any momentum because McDormand — for a John Wayne-esque turn that captures the anger felt by many of us right now — has run the table on them at other awards shows. – THR Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg

Best Actor

Timothee Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

Chalamet's awards season marathon began more than a year ago at Sundance, where Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino's Italy-set romantic drama in which Chalamet stars as an erudite teen experiencing his first love, premiered. The actor, 22, received his first nomination for his work opposite Armie Hammer.

"Getting to meet Jennifer Lawrence and hearing her say she was moved by the film is on one side of the crazy-gratifying experience of this movie," Chalamet said. "On the other side would be my sister saying that she saw so much of [our upbringing in] France represented on the screen and communicated within the lines of this story; it felt very true to us. There have been a lot of reactions that have been really heartwarming, from people I don't know, and also from friends and family who can appreciate the film for what it is but also can see me underneath peeking through." – Mia Galuppo

Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

More than 30 years after he broke out playing the emaciated punk rocker Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, Oldman, 59, has ventured to the other side of both the waistline and the British class spectrum for Darkest Hour. It took a sizable effort to persuade the actor that he could become Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the U.K. through World War II, but the allied forces of producer Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten's script, Joe Wright in the director's chair, makeup artist extraordinaire Kazuhiro Tsuji, and a 14-pound fat suit and silicon face mask did the job.

"God bless Eric Fellner, who I had started my career with," Oldman said. "I'd done other things before Sid & Nancy, but you could say it was that movie where they say you 'arrived on the scene.' And he thought of me for it. And it was five weeks of Churchill's life, it's not really a biopic. It wasn't a huge, great big epic transformation in that sense. Then I went in and started to read around that period and learned things from the script I didn't know. I just thought, 'Can that be right? Were we that perilously close?' And so it just grabbed me." – Alex Ritman

Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

From British TV to a small role in 2015's Sicario to the lead in record-smashing cultural phenomenon Get Out, Kaluuya's star trajectory has reached a new peak with his first Oscar nomination, not to mention a role in the movie of the moment, Black Panther. 

"I just knew that I'd never seen something like it before," Kaluuya, 28, said of Get Out. "I mean, the image of a young black man strangling a young white woman — it could go either way! So I just kind of kept going. I didn't know what was going to happen, because there's never been anything like this. And that's the same with Black Panther, because there's been nothing like it.” – Alex Ritman

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Washington, 63, earned his eighth acting nomination (and ninth overall) for playing the eccentric titular defense attorney at the center of Dan Gilroy's courtroom drama, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

"For me, it's all about the work — it's all about growing and trying to learn and get better as an actor," Washington said. "I really got stretched doing Roman J. Israel. I started doing a lot of research about the spectrum and Asperger's. I felt like there was evidence in the script that made me feel that this man was on the spectrum. Dan and I talked about it and just did a lot of research in what that entails." – Rebecca Ford

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis is known for his obsessive work as an actor, involving himself with every aspect of production and staying in character for the length of every shoot. In what the 60-year-old has said will be his last role, he channeled that intensity into Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, starring as Reynolds Woodcock, a passionate designer whose work comes before any of the women in his life, including muse Alma (Vicky Krieps) and sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Manville, who scored a supporting actress nomination for her role, recalls their collaboration.

"We grew up in London in the '80s and the early part of the '90s, so we had a big crossover of friends, but we never actually met," she says. "I was asked to do Phantom Thread seven months before shooting began, so we got to know each other during that time. Our relationship was instantly easy, which boded very well to be Reynolds and Cyril, who have been lifelong companions and are very comfortable with each other, comfortable in silence with each other. We really get on, and we share an enormous sense of humor. We ended up being very good siblings." – Seth Abramovitch

Who Should Win: Timothee Chalamet

Once Oscar night is over, is anyone even going to remember that Denzel Washington was in a film called Roman J. Israel, Esq.? Daniel Kaluuya's presence is also something of a surprise, while Gary Oldman, who seems to be the odds-on favorite to win, delivers a better-than-expected impersonation of Winston Churchill while still seeming not to be genuinely suited for the role. As the Academy has demonstrated three times, it's hard to deny Daniel Day-Lewis. But I would vote for Call Me by Your Name's startlingly fine leading man, newcomer Timothee Chalamet. – THR Chief Film Critic Todd McCarthy

Who Will Win: Gary Oldman

Forget about Roman J. Israel, Esq.'s Denzel Washington — the nom's the win for him. Don't totally write off Daniel Day-Lewis for his last rodeo (in Phantom Thread) or Daniel Kaluuya or Timothee Chalamet for their first, as each anchors a best picture nominee. But so does Oldman, who, unlike the others, has both paid his dues and never won. His transformation into Churchill — already recognized with every major precursor award — is just the sort of thing Academy members eat up. – THR Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg