Age and experience tends to pay off in this category, which has boasted more wins for seniors than the other acting categories. Think Jack Palance, 73 (City Slickers), Alan Arkin, 72 (Little Miss Sunshine) and Christopher Plummer, 82 (Beginners), who also holds the record for the oldest performer ever nominated (at 88). This year, the elder statesmen include 67-year-old J.K. Simmons, the lineup’s only former nominee (he won in 2015), and 69-year-old Ciarán Hinds. But last year’s winner was Daniel Kaluuya, 32, and this time around, 25-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays a teenager in The Power of the Dog, could become the second-youngest winner, after Timothy Hutton, then 20, for Ordinary People.
Troy Kotsur, CODA
For his performance as the funny, proud fisherman dad in CODA, Kotsur became just the second deaf performer ever nominated for an Oscar. The first was Marlee Matlin, who plays his wife in CODA and won Best Actress in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God. His nomination is the crowning achievement—so far—in a remarkable career that’s included roles in Deaf West Theatre productions of American Buffalo, Big River and Spring Awakening. “I remember finishing the movie and thinking, if I could make Troy a star, that would be the best thing ever,” said CODA director Siân Heder. “And I just can’t believe that it’s happening.”
Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
In his nearly 50 years as an actor, Hinds has worked with everyone from Steven Spielberg (Munich) to Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and Martin Scorsese (Silence), plus voiced the Troll King in two Frozen films. This year he scored his first nomination for a part that tapped deeply into his Irish spirit. The actor credited director Kenneth Branagh with fostering an environment where Hinds immediately felt comfy in his grandpa role. “When (the cast) came to meet, the focus was immediate and dynamic and not to be wasted,” he said. “We knew each other very quickly, within an hour of meeting.”
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog is an eerie psychodrama about the darkness hidden within men, but Plemons provides a counterweight of moral goodness that deepens the film’s complexity. As a 1920s rancher with a gentle soul, the actor achingly portrays both the loneliness of a solitary life and the elation of finding love. “Jesse has the best line in the whole film,” said supporting actress nominee Kirsten Dunst, the actor’s romantic partner on screen and in real life. “When he says, ‘How nice it is not to be alone,’ it’s such a heartfelt moment for Jesse and he plays it so beautifully.”
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Simmons has more than 100 credits on TV, stage, film and commercials, but Being the Ricardos is one of the first times he’s portrayed a real person—William Frawley, the cranky actor who played Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. “Generally, I have stayed away from biopics,” said Simmons, who won in 2015 for Whiplash. “But (director) Aaron (Sorkin) really reassured all of us that he wasn’t looking for spot-on impersonations. We added a little bit of a comb-over to my baldness, but the rest of (my performance) was just taking the brilliance that maestro Sorkin put on the page and bringing that to life.”
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
A former child actor whose spooky screen presence includes performances in 2009’s The Road and 2010’s Let Me In, Smit-McPhee felt his career crossed into a new territory after meeting director Jane Campion to audition for the role of Peter, a shy teenager. “She asked me to bring Peter alive in the room and then we talked,” said the Australian actor. On the set, Campion urged him to dig deeper and reach further. “Jane consciously knows how to be a necessary antagonist. I would much rather work with a director that pushes me rather than one who lets me remain in my comfort zone.”
Kodi Smit-McPhee started out as the presumed frontrunner for most of awards season, but Troy Kotsur has run up a string of wins that point toward him becoming the second deaf performer to ever win. CODA is a widely admired film surging at the right time, and Kotsur is probably the voters’ best chance to give it a statue. But don’t underestimate Hinds if the Belfast love starts flowing on Oscar night.