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16 Breakthrough and Comeback Performances of This Awards Season

It has been a year noteworthy for arresting performances from actors who’ve never had showcases like this before, and vets who’ve been away from the limelight

oscar-wrap-2-actors-issueA version of this story first ran in OscarWrap: Actors Issue.

This year’s contenders include a French teenager who could become the third-youngest Best Actress nominee in history (Adele Exarchopoulos, “Blue Is the Warmest Color”) and an American theater veteran enjoying her breakthrough film role at the age of 83 (June Squibb, “Nebraska”). There’s an actor whose performance completes a remarkable career transformation from rom-com leading man to indie star (Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”), and there’s his co-star, who abandoned acting six years ago to play rock ‘n’ roll, selling 10 million albums before he picked up another script (Jared Leto).

There are actors who’ve been on successful TV shows but haven’t had breakout film roles (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson and Idris Elba), actors better known overseas (Daniel Bruhl), an actor who’s spent decades pursuing pop-culture domination everywhere except movies (Oprah Winfrey), another who’s been seen more often at the film festival he started, Sundance, than in a movie career he largely walked away from (Robert Redford).

And we have some who’ve come out of nowhere, or close to it: Barkhad Abdi was a Somalian immigrant living in Minneapolis when he answered an ad looking for Somalis to audition for “Captain Phillips.” Adele Exarchopoulos only had a handful of movies to her credit when she won the lead in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Lupita Nyong’o was fresh out of Yale Drama School when she auditioned for Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave.”

Of the 40 actors high on the charts of predicted nominees in the acting categories, 20 have never been nominated — and of the ones who have been there before, Redford hasn’t been nominated for acting in 40 years, Bruce Dern for 35 years, Winfrey for 28, Emma Thompson for 18, Tom Hanks for 13.

So welcome back and pleased to meet you, class of 2013.


“12 Years a Slave”
Born in Mexico but raised in Kenya, Lupita Nyong’o landed her breakthrough role in “12 Years a Slave” shortly after graduating from Yale School of DramaNyong’o, who  directed the Kenyan documentary “In My Genes” before heading to New Haven, plays Patsey in Steve McQueen’s brutal story about a free man dragged into slavery. In a movie filled with harrowing, hard-to-watch scenes, the most horrifying sequence is the one in which Michael Fassbender’s cruel master, driven by lust and self-loathing, takes a whip to Patsey’s bare back and orders Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to pick up the whip himself. “I fully trusted him,” she said of Fassbender, “and I needed to trust him in order to do the things I did with him.”

Also read: Director Steve McQueen on His Brutal ’12 Years A Slave': It’s a Film About Love

“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Oscar Isaac’s fallback career as a musician paid off big time for his breakthrough role in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a bleak Coen brothers tale about a folk singer who is his own worst enemy in Greenwich Village circa 1961. The story is loosely based on folkie Dave Van Ronk, and Isaac, a Juilliard-trained actor and part-time musician, learned three of his songs for his audition, impressing the Coen brothers and musical director T Bone Burnett.  He stars opposite Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, but make no mistake about it: the Guatemalan-born actor carries the film as the melancholy songsmith who had the bad luck to be a decent performer in a Village scene that is about to be upended by Bob Dylan. “It was an interesting challenge, because you had to develop a character who really only shows his soul in his songs,” Isaac told TheWrap. “Once I got the part, I kept developing it,  changing things, figuring out where his motor was and thinking a lot about the comedy of resilience.”

Also read: How Oscar Isaac’s Career Fallback Landed Him ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

China Olympics Beijing Water Cube Bird's NestADELE EXARCHOPOULOS
“Blue Is the Warmest Color”
Director Abdellatif Kechiche came to teenage French actress Adele Exarchopoulos during the shoot and asked her whether she would mind if he changed the name of her character to Adele, believing it would help cement the connection between actress and character. It worked. The movie, titled “The Story of Adele: Chapter 1 and 2” in France, is a searing look at first love, with a sexually explicit performance from Exarchopoulos that is all open nerves and emotion. The actress admits that the lengthy sexual encounters between her and co-star Lea Seydoux were draining to shoot. “There are sex scenes in every movie but in this one they are as long as the other scenes,” Exarchopoulos told TheWrap.

Also read: Sex, Lies and Invective: Inside the Whole ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ Mess

As the Formula 1 racing legend Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s “Rush,” German actor Daniel Bruhl stands toe-to-toe with the towering, bronzed beauty of Chris Hemsworth as playboy racer James Hunt. Bruhl, who also appears in with WikiLeaks movie “The First Estate,” makes us feel for a brusque, driven, abrasive and often unlikable guy whose rivalry with Hunt and recovery from a horrific car crash forms the backbone of the movie.

Also read: Racing Legend Niki Lauda to ‘Rush’ Makers: Don’t Make Me Look Gay and Get Me to the Oscars

“12 Years a Slave”
If Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is a devastating experience, a good deal of the credit must go to the 36-year-old British actor of Nigerian ancestry whose quiet dignity is at the center of nearly every frame. But Chiwetel Ejiofor initially resisted playing Solomon Northrup, a real-life free man from the North who was drugged, abducted and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War Louisiana. “The script was extraordinary, but it led me down a route of questioning whether I could do that,” he told TheWrap. “I realized that it wasn’t about all the big issues, it was [about] telling the story of this one extraordinary man and this extraordinary experience.”

Also read: ’12 Years a Slave’ Review: A Captivating, Harrowing Historical Horror Show (Video)

“Fruitvale Station”
When Michael B. Jordan first met the family of Oscar Grant, the young Oakland man who was shot and killed by Bay Area transit police on New Year’s Eve, 2009, he had one advantage: They were fans of “The Wire,” the HBO show on which Jordan had appeared as a drug dealer. “That helped,” Jordan told TheWrap. “Some of them even called me ‘Wallace’ for the first few days I was around.”

Also read: Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan Bromance Each Other in ‘That Awkward Moment’ (Video)

“Captain Phillips”
Barkhad Adbi’s family fled the Somali Civil War for Yemen in the early ’90s — and if they hadn’t won a lottery to receive a visa to the United States, the 28-year-old told TheWrap, “I don’t know what kind of person I would be.” Picked out of an open casting call of Somalis living in Minneapolis, the erstwhile limo driver was chosen, director Paul Greengrass told TheWrap, for his “mixture of menace and humanity.” Abdi has since landed a Hollywood agent.

She spent more than 30 years acting onstage before Woody Allen cast her in her first movie, “Alice.” But Alexander Payne cast June Squibb as Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt” in 2002, and a decade later he told her, “I have another icon for you.” As Bruce Dern’s wife in “Nebraska,” she’s a long-suffering, tart-tongued scene-stealer. “The script was so beautiful, and so surprising,” she told TheWrap. “I was amazed at the stuff I got to say.”

Also read: Why ‘Nebraska’ Reminds June Squibb of Her Mother

Short Term 12”
Brie Larson did her Skype audition for “Short Term 12” from the Georgia set of “The Spectacular Now,” impressing director Destin Daniel Cretton when she told him that she’d volunteered at local abused-kids home to give her a leg up in playing a counselor in Cretton’s movie. (She neglected to tell him that as a non-resident, she’d been rejected.) “I was scared that he would find me underqualified for the role,” she told TheWrap. “I had never been the lead of something before, and never played a role that was remotely like this — which is why I thought I was perfect for it.”

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
Born in England to Nigerian parents, David Oyelowo joins “12 Years a Slave’s” Ejiofor and Nyong’o as non-American actors in films about the African-American experience. As Louis Gaines, the increasingly radicalized son of Forest Whitaker’s title character, Oyelowo is the driving force behind much of the film’s drama. The stage-trained, 37-year-old Oyelowo insisted on playing the character at all ages rather than letting Daniels use a younger actor for the teenage scenes, working out a regimen that included getting lots of sleep the night before he played a teen — and much less before playing older.


dallas-buyers-club-jared-leto2JARED LETO
“Dallas Buyers Club”
Jared Leto, who first became famous as dreamy Jordan Catalano in “My So-Called Life,” had mostly abandoned acting for music when he picked up a script he’d “already blown off” several times and fell in love. He slipped into a furry pink sweater for a Skype call with director Jean-Marc Vallee, and woke up the next day with the role of Rayon, a transgendered drug addict in “Dallas Buyers Club.” The lead singer for rock band 30 Seconds to Mars lost a terrifying amount of weight and never spoke to Vallee or co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner in his real voice. “Maybe a better actor than me would be able to recall all of the behaviors, the physicality, the emotional state of the character as soon as the director screamed, ‘Action,'” he told TheWrap. “But that certainly wasn’t the case for me.”

Also read: Why Jared Leto Dropped His Guitar and Put on a Skirt for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Robert Redford in All Is LostROBERT REDFORD
“All Is Lost”
Robert Redford is better known for his festival in Utah than his work in front of the camera these days. But he took a liking to “Margin Call” director J.C. Chandor’s script for “All Is Lost,” a largely wordless story of one man trying to survive after his boat has been struck by a stray cargo container. “He had probably seen 1,000 filmmakers come through Sundance with a similar level of success, but there was something in the idea that drew him in very early on,” Chandor told TheWrap of landing his iconic leading man, whose only acting nomination was for “The Sting” in 1973. “We met in March or April of 2011, a couple months after ‘Margin Call’ had played at Sundance. And 10 minutes into the meeting, he said yes.” Redford displayed subtleties that Chandor didn’t realize until later when he was viewing the footage with his editor. “He’s able to communicate complex emotional transitions non-verbally,” the director said.

Also read: How J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford Pulled Off the Crazy Idea Behind ‘All Is Lost’

“Captain Phillips,”  “Saving Mr. Banks”
Once upon a time, Hanks was an Oscar staple, with back-to-back wins for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994-95. But he hasn’t been nominated since “Cast Away” in 2000, a drought that figures to end with nods for his roles as the captain of a hijacked freighter in “Captain Phillips” and as Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks.” “When you find out what happened, you use the facts and translate that into cinematic terms,” he told TheWrap of the former film. “You’re trying to capture behavior as opposed to plot.”

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers ClubMATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY
“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Mud” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”
McConaughey may have become a star as a leading man in major-studio films like “A Time to Kill” and “The Wedding Planner,” but in the last few years the laid-back Texan has reinvented and revived his career with a string of sparkling performances in low-budget indies. His renaissance was sealed this year with his mysterious loner in Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” and then his bigoted and homophobic electrician in Jean- Marc Vallee’s “Dallas Buyers Club.” “The more interesting characters are in independent films, because they never get their edges sanded off,” said McConaughey, who topped off a very good year with a raucous turn in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

See photos: The Evolution of Matthew McConaughey: From Shirtless Surfer Dude to HIV Drug Dealer

Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Can someone as ubiquitous as Oprah be said to make a comeback? If you’re talking about movies, of course she can — because the queen of all media hasn’t had a substantial role in a feature since “Beloved” in 1998, and she hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since 1986. (She won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2011.) “I just didn’t want to embarrass myself,” she told the New York Times of her decades-spanning role in “The Butler,” where she played the wife of Forest Whitaker’s title character and won some of the best notices of her career. And since Oprah is Oprah, she also did a pretty great job selling the film and helping it gross more than $100 million.

Also read: How Bruce Dern Found Redemption With Alexander Payne in ‘Nebraska’

The veteran of more than 50 years in the movies has done it all: He killed John Wayne in The Cowboys, blew up the Super Bowl in “Black Sunday,” worked with Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Coppola and Quentin Tarantino, won an Oscar nomination for “Coming Home” and an Emmy nod for “Big Love” — but he’s never, he told TheWrap, had a role as complete as the part of the cranky and delusional Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” It won Dern the best-actor award at this year’s Cannes and put him back in a game he thought might have passed him by. “You do it for as long as I have, and you figure that the train hasn’t left, but goddamnit, it’s hard to get on,” he said.