They hail from Los Angeles, from Anderson, S.C., from Detroit, Mich. and from Birmingham, England.
Three of them are in their early 30s, one in his late 50s. They range in age from 31 to 59. One has appeared in six movies, one in 60. One has been nominated for an Oscar before, three have not; this year, two are favorites and two are long shots.
As soul legend James Brown in “Get On Up,” Boseman (31, Anderson, six movies) is scary as he waves a gun around and electrifying as he channels Brown’s dance movies.
As a feral videographer prowling the streets of Los Angeles looking for marketable carnage in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal (33, Los Angeles, one nomination) is a monster you can’t stop watching.
As the woman who stood by Stephen Hawking despite unimaginable obstacles in “The Theory of Everything,” Jones (31, Birmingham) is a force of nature clearing the way for genius to survive.
And as a pathologically sadistic music teacher in “Whiplash,” Simmons (59, Detroit, 60 movies) is a villain to give any musician nightmares.
Here we pay tribute to four of the year’s most indelible and formidable characters, and to the gifted actors who gave them life.
— Steve Pond
Felicity Jones has been the romantic ingénue, the 19th century mistress and now, in “The Theory of Everything,” the stoic and deeply loving wife of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), a role that required her to play a real-life character over more than 20 years. As Hawking loses his ability to walk, then eat, then speak, Jones as Jane Hawking must step in to provide all the tools of daily life.
Sharon Waxman: Did you feel the weight of carrying so much of the film’s dialogue?
Felicity Jones: Yes. We both felt a responsibility to Jane and Stephen because they are extraordinary people, and wanting to bring all the truth and nuance of their relationship. A lot of that came from watching documentary footage, meeting caregivers and patients, seeing what that’s like, just trying to understand that relationship and that dependence on each other. We’re really lucky [director] James Marsh gave us months of time to prepare and just be in a room together, make loads of mistakes and make fools out of ourselves. It was just building up trust with each other.
SW: Talk about the complicity between you and Eddie. Was it a real thing or did it come from rehearsal?
FJ: Yeah, we came across it all the time. There’s a moment in one of the documentaries about Stephen when one of his caregivers is feeding him champagne on a spoon. We would see that and think, ‘We need to put that in the film.’ The story is based on Jane’s memoir, which was written after Stephen left her for his nurse. But there’s nothing vengeful about it, you just see this incredible devotion. We both felt that the moment when Stephen and Jane break up is in the spelling board scene. That’s when something in the relationship is broken and they can’t carry on anymore. The profundity of this incredibly intelligent man who will no longer be able to speak is just incredibly overwhelming for both of them. So when they do break up later on, it’s more that there’s a letting go of each other. When Stephen says he’s going to America with Elaine, they both acknowledge that it’s over, which is the painful moment for them.
SW: Did you spend time with Jane?
FJ: I did. I met her at the end of the rehearsal process. When you start to inhabit the character and work out who this person is, it’s nerve-wracking when you meet them quite late on, because you think, ‘Well, gosh, if this isn’t right I’ll have to start again.’ I met Jane and she has this incredible ability to command a room. There is something of the battle general in her, which I felt in the scene where Stephen’s father says to Jane, ‘This is going to be a huge defeat,’ and she says, ‘No, it’s not. We’re all going to pull together.’ In meeting Jane, I saw that in her, she does have this will and determination. They are a true match for each other.
SW: Did she give you any advice?
FJ: Absolutely. But you don’t just horse in there straight away and start asking personal questions. We spent time and got to know each other. She was very generous, showing pictures of her and Stephen when they first met, and showed this very intimate side of their life. They didn’t give us any sort of limitations; they trusted us wholeheartedly.
SW:How else did you prepare for the part?
FJ: I had to go and work out at the gym. I hate going to the gym. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get really strong.’ You find you’re lifting a full-grown man from the chair to the bed, and it takes enormous physical strength. You have to be tough physically and tough emotionally. Every day, I was sort of like, ‘Jane has to have 10 pairs of hands.’ I have such respect for her. Both of them, you know. They’ve both got struggles, but in different ways.
J.K.Simmons is having a bit of a moment thanks to his role in Damien Chazelle’s Sundance winner “Whiplash.” And the actor, with decades of credits under his belt, finds the whole thing a bit surreal. “To be having a breakthrough when you’re pushing 60 is an interesting way to put it,” he told TheWrap.
In “Whiplash,” Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, an abrasive, abusive and obsessive music professor who pushes promising drumming student Andrew (Miles Teller) to his breaking point, all in the name of nurturing his innate talent for the sake of art. Simmons has a long history with the project, having first played the same role in Chazelle’s short film of the same name. But he downplays how much he helped shape the character.
“As for developing the character, I really feel like he was there on the page,” he said. “It was so clear who this guy was and what he’s doing and what he wants. Damien and I didn’t talk about it a lot. I just read what he wrote and tried to bring that to life, and I think Miles felt the same way. Our work was really clear cut.”
While Sony Classics has kept up the “Whiplash” buzz that began at Sundance long enough for the film to be considered a Best Picture contender, Simmons’ performance in particular has caught the attention of critics and, presumably, voters. In the past he’s appeared in four best-pic nominees (“The Cider House Rules,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “True Grit”) without having a role big enough to warrant individual awards attention, but this time around things could be different for the actor who might be best known for his parts in “Juno,” the HBO series “Oz,” Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies and the Farmers Insurance commercials.
“I see why people view it as a breakthrough, since generally the characters I get to play just don’t spend that much time on camera,” he mused. “And this was not only a lot of time on the screen, but a character that was larger than life in a different way than most of the characters that people know me as.”
Simmons admits that the film has already opened up more doors for him. “I think we’re feeling the Whiplash effect,” he said. “The kind of scripts and the number of things that are coming my way, it’s definitely having an effect. It’s great. It’s always nice to sort of give people another way to perceive you as an actor. This shows part of what I do that maybe people haven’t thought of me doing before.”
But the character actor isn’t in a rush to suddenly become Hollywood’s next leading man, and has lined up projects big and small for his “Whiplash” follow-ups, including a webisode with Colin Hanks.
“I just want to keep playing characters who have an impact, whether it’s comedy or drama or whatever it is,” he said. “Just continue to play interesting guys. Yeah, there are bigger parts coming my way, or offers or possibilities for bigger parts. But I’m open to everything. I just like to go where I feel the good writing is and the good work is. So if it’s big parts in big movies, that’s great. If it’s small parts in small movies, that’s great, too.”
— Linda Ge
“Mr. Brown is here, y’all!”
Chadwick Boseman heard that line every day when he walked into the makeup trailer on the set of “Get On Up,” the James Brown biopic in which Boseman was tasked with the formidable job of embodying the look, soul and rather astonishing dance moves of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. That deference from the makeup artists, as well as from everybody else on the set of director Tate Taylor’s movie, helped him embody the mercurial, brilliant, difficult man who insisted that everyone around him always call him “Mr. Brown.”
“It was important for me to find a way to channel him,” Boseman told TheWrap. “And that meant going to set every day as him.”
Originally, though, Boseman didn’t want to do it at all. The actor had just come off winning raves for his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42, and he and his manager had set a rule: Whatever he did next, it wasn’t going to be another biopic. “The idea was absurd,” he said of the thought of playing Brown. “Nobody should do James Brown. I wouldn’t even read the script.”
But Taylor kept after Boseman and his manager. “He talked my manager into convincing me. He told her, ‘Tell him to stop being a pussy and come in and read for me.’ She didn’t tell it to me like that, but basically her message was, ‘You like him as a director, you want to meet him, so use this as an acting exercise.’” Boseman filmed two scenes for Taylor, realized “there was a way in” to the character, and then worked for three days with a choreographer to film a medley of songs wearing a jumpsuit and a wig.
The performance persuaded Boseman, Tate and even executive producer Mick Jagger, who’d stolen more than a few of JB’s moves over the years. But with only two months to go before production began, it also meant that Boseman had to get funky, and he had to get there fast.
“You just do as much as you can,” he said. “I had a regimen. I would get up in the morning, go to dance rehearsal. I would come back, read chapters about him and look at footage. Sometimes I would go to a voice lesson. I listened to the music in the car, I listened to the music when I got home. And then at night I’d dance again. If I got tired of reading I would dance, and if I got tired of dancing I would read or watch footage. That was my life for two months.”
When “Get On Up” began shooting, Boseman wasn’t sure he had a handle on the character — but by a Thanksgiving break a few weeks later, he said, “I was having a whole lotta fun.” Sure, he hit himself in the face a few times trying to nail the concert scene where Brown throws the microphone, catches it on his shoulder, does a split and hops back up — but despite the inevitable mishaps, Boseman said he was consumed by Mr. Brown. “You feel like you are literally connected to him,” he said. “He shows up in your dreams to tell you things.”
Boseman and his manager are now determined not to do any more biopics for a while, but they won’t have to: The actor was just cast as the Marvel superhero Black Panther and signed for a five-movie deal.
“Maybe another biopic will pop up that I have to do, but I have to have some other things first,” he said of his career path. “A few other things, if not 10 other things.” He grinned. “And if we make it that far, I’ve already won anyway.”
— Steve Pond
Jake Gyllenhaal has been around Hollywood long enough to know that no odds are insurmountable. So when TheWrap asked the Oscar-nominated actor what he thinks about the awards “experts” who’ve suggested that “Nightcrawler” is “too genre” for the Academy, he scoffed.
“I don’t like to underestimate anybody,” he said. “I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve made movies, in the ‘70s in particular, who really respond to this film in a way that’s exciting and positive. I think there’s a whole generation that’s not afraid of movies like this.”
This refers to dark, edgy and uncompromising — a description that fits Dan Gilroy’s film, its morbid protagonist Lou Bloom and Gyllenhaal himself to a tee. Though he caught the acting bug early thanks to his parents, in recent years he has reinvented himself as an artist, gravitating toward unsettling material and roles that frighten him, including Bloom.
“I’m scared every time, and if I’m not then I’ll probably create something,” he said.
“Obstacles are really important for me in terms of the creation of anything. I was really intimidated by the character, and I knew that I had to shape myself into him.”
Bloom is an ambitious freelance crime videographer whom critics have called both a sociopath and an antihero for the modern age of journalism. Wary of labels, Gyllenhaal respectfully disagrees with both descriptions.
“I think Lou’s a gangster,” he said. “He’s fulfilling a certain type of American dream. I hesitate to call him a sociopath because I think that when you qualify something like that then it takes the onus off of the people who’ve created them. I don’t want to say there’s some deeper message to the movie, but truly there is. It’s about us being complicit in creating someone like him.
“Ultimately, I think Lou is really a hero. We’ve asked for him. This is part of our 24-hour news cycle. He’s the guy who is going to be a hugely successful entrepreneur, because we’ve created him. Why aren’t we psyched?”
As an actor, Gyllenhaal knows better than to judge his character, especially one who’s hard to reconcile because he says one thing but often does another. “I don’t agree with what he does,” he said. “People say, ‘I wish he was caught in the end,’ but the irony is that a lot of people who do the things he does don’t get caught. Perpetuating the idea that there’s this easy arc to everyone’s life where everybody learns a lesson and everyone’s OK is more dangerous in the end than showing what Dan shows in this movie, which is that actually people like this don’t have an arc — they stay the same and they succeed. It’s frightening.”
His attitude, he added, was formed to large degree by the research he did in preparing for David Ayer’s End of Watch, in which he did ride-alongs with the LAPD. “When I was doing that movie,” he said, “we would be on the streets with police officers and people would be shot in front of us. I’d ask myself, ‘What am I doing this absurd job of acting for?’”
As not only the star of “Nightcrawler,” but also one of its producers, Gyllenhaal felt so passionately about the project that he dropped out of Disney’s “Into the Woods,” in which he had won the role of Rapunzel’s prince. Gyllenhaal confesses that the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction to “Nightcrawler” meant even more to him due to his involvement off-camera.
“After enough time making movies, it really does feel like your life’s work in a way,” he said. “I feel very proud that we made the right choices along the way and I was a part of it. We made the movie for $8 million bucks. It’s made everybody their money back. We have been so positively reviewed and people seem to really like the movie.”
“When you make a movie that nobody’s looking at [or] paying attention to while you’re making it and then it comes out and people have that response, I don’t know if you can really ask for anything more.”
— Jeff Sneider