When an actress prepares

In character

As Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara rarely gives anyone a straight look. Instead, her gaze is downcast, sideways — anywhere but into the face of her interlocutors, whether they are friendly or decidedly not.

Transformed Rooney Mara as Lisbeth in ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’.

The lack of eye contact is mentioned in the original Stieg Larsson novel, and Mara and Fincher set out to keep it. “It’s something that we talked about for the entire time of shooting, and through the audition process as well,” said Mara, who spent months testing for the role. “We were very conscious of it. When she does make eye contact, it’s very specific and sort of
important.”

Mara underwent a series of transformations and trials to play the part: She dyed and shredded her hair, pierced her right nipple, shaved her eyebrows, learned how to ride a motorcycle, studied kickboxing, brushed up on computer hacking.

But it was remembering where not to look that proved one of the biggest challenges: “It was really hard because listening is the most important part of acting, and a lot of people listen through eye contact. You always feel like you aren’t giving enough to the other person. It definitely took some time to get used to that.”

Along with the usual back-story research, dialogue coaching and layers of makeup, the actresses in this year’s crop of Oscar hopefuls sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to get, and stay, in character. Physical metamorphoses — often with more than a glimpse of bare flesh — are part of the job, of course. But the reservoirs of emotion the actresses plumbed surprised even them.

One pivotal scene at the end of Shame, in which Carey Mulligan was soaked in fake blood, “took me to the most desolate place,” she said. “It was the only day that I got into the cab at the end of the night, and I called my friend in London and I was crying. I didn’t expect that at all.”

To deliver Margaret Thatcher’s speeches in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep learned that her vocal stamina came from a place that even she, the grand dame of acting, had to work to locate. “She had the capacity to go on and on and on and on, and on and on and on, and just a moment, I haven’t finished yet,” Streep said at the film’s premiere in New York, adding slyly: “She had a way of overriding interviewers that I’m going to emulate for the rest of my life.”

As Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams spent six months in deepest Marilyn-a-philia, emerging with a little-girl-lost despair and a red carpet wiggle (courtesy of a movement coach), as well as the desire to play Marilyn, her childhood heroine, over and over.

The success of Williams’s performance may rest on that sense of obscuredeness, the peek-a-boo quality that Marilyn’s life had. And it may make her a favourite with Oscar voters, who tend to reward biopics that unvarnish well-known figures.

But deciding how much of a character to reveal on screen — how vulnerable and unfiltered to be — is one way all actors give depth to their work.

In Pariah, Adepero Oduye stars as a New York teenager on the verge of coming out of the closet. Oduye played the part in a short film — dressing for the audition in her brother’s baggy jeans and oversize shirt — and then, three years later, reprised it for the feature, the director Dee Rees’
debut. Oduye lived with the character, Alike, for five years, which did not make the
adolescent struggle any easier to convey.

“As an actor, the challenge was constantly being in that vulnerable space, because it’s uncomfortable,” said Oduye, who is 33. “There were certain times and certain days, literally my body wanted to shut down, because it felt like it was too much.”

She pointed to a tense scene in which Alike, newly out, tells her disapproving mother that she loves her, only to have her mother turn away. To her own shock — and unscripted — Oduye started crying.

“I was kind of mad at myself that I would cry, because I felt at this moment she should be stronger,” she said of her character. But “Alike is open and raw,” she said, and on screen her natural reaction worked.

Those unexpected flashes are what filmmakers hope to capture, though each goes about it differently. An exacting director, Fincher does take after take; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo filmed for nearly a year. Mara said she never doubted this process, even when it meant re-enacting horrific situations.

For the much indier Shame, a character study in sexual addiction and detachment, Mulligan and the film’s star, Michael Fassbender, who plays her brother, rehearsed by improvising around New York, and the director, Steve McQueen, kept some of that in the movie.

“Steve was key in pushing me to never completely crumble with Michael,” she added. “The scenes we had were so abusive and cutting and emotional. She always tried to match him.”

The serendipity of on-set dynamics also helped propel Albert Nobbs, a movie about a woman passing as a man in Victorian Dublin. Glenn Close plays Nobbs, in a film she had been trying to make for 15 years; Janet McTeer stars opposite her as Hubert, another woman in disguise. At 6 feet tall McTeer towered over Close, underscoring the divide between their characters.

“With Hubert, what I wanted to create was everything that Albert wasn’t — confident, fulfilled, with a sense of humour,” said McTeer, who is a contender for best supporting actress Oscar nomination (with Close for best actress). “Hubert enjoys being a man. Hubert doesn’t do it the way Albert does, which is to hide.”

“I put on boots that were much too big and flattened my chest,” which made her feel invulnerable, she said, as if she could punch somebody. Her hands, which she considered too feminine, stayed tucked in her pockets. “As a professional, as a performer, I really enjoyed the real challenge of changing virtually everything about myself,” she said. “I’ll miss Hubert.”

Mulligan, who did Shame just months after wrapping another blood-spattered role in Drive, said McQueen’s film helped reignite an adrenalised sense of performance that she likened to theatre: “That feeling when you come offstage and you can’t remember anything you did, but you knew that you believed it. It was so cathartic.”

And Oduye, the ingenue of the season — Pariah is her first feature — is learning how to deal with the emotional upheavals of her profession. “I’m not going to die from being too vulnerable,” she said. “I can go, when it’s all done, and get a cheeseburger.”

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