Case of extremes

Supporting cast

The supporting actor race to the Oscars may get crowded this year, as several stars have undergone dramatic transformations to get into character and give memorable performances, writes Melena Ryzik 

As the amoral, drug-and-sex-addled right-hand man in The Wolf of Wall Street, Jonah Hill wore a set of gleaming false teeth. They were based on the look of the trader who helped inspire his character, but they made him talk funny.

“I had a horrible lisp, once I put the teeth in,” he said. So on the advice of a dialect coach, he practiced talking with them in for several hours a day, calling unsuspecting customer-service representatives to shoot the breeze. “I would keep them on the phone for like two hours,” he said, “just asking about all the different appliances.”

Staying in character requires commitment. Among this year’s crop of supporting actor Oscar hopefuls, Jake Gyllenhaal, for his role as a police detective hunting for missing children in Prisoners, covered his body with temporary tattoos. In the blue-collar drama Out of the Furnace, Casey Affleck got bruised in bare-knuckle boxing sessions. Bradley Cooper endured an unfortunate, but period-appropriate, perm in American Hustle. And Jared Leto lost more than 30 pounds and shaved off his eyebrows, among other make-unders, to play a transgender AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club.

Giving it all

Leading men in Oscar-bound films are often called upon to metamorphose, most often from hunkiness to debilitation, chiseled hero to lout (and back again). But actors in roles with sparser screen time may do even more, transforming themselves physically and walking off with their scenes with portrayals of depravity or verbal dexterity. (Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained had both.) The emotional turns, in shorter sequences, become more harrowing: Christian Bale embodied both the spirit and the failure of The Fighter in just one scene. And bad haircuts are surprisingly effective for prizewinners: Witness Javier Bardem’s shaggy pageboy in No Country for Old Men.

This Oscar season, supporting actor hopefuls are making all the usual moves — transforming bodily and emoting greedily — along with some unexpected shifts. There are comedians doing understated drama (and vice versa, as in James Gandolfini’s turn in the romantic comedy Enough Said) and foreign-born actors diving into American films in a major way. And at least one front-runner, Michael Fassbender, has publicly eschewed award campaigning for his performance as the sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave.

Most pundits see Leto and Fassbender as the leaders in the supporting actor race; both have earned precursor awards, from industry groups and critics, and are part of films with widespread trophy momentum. But the category is often ripe for surprises.

Surging ahead are Daniel Brühl, a Spanish-born German actor playing Formula One driver Niki Lauda in Rush, and Barkhad Abdi, a Somali actor from Minneapolis making his feature debut, opposite Tom Hanks, in Captain Phillips. Both Brühl and Abdi have gotten nominations from Golden Globes voters and the Screen Actors Guild, whose membership overlaps with the Academy’s. 

Affleck and Gyllenhaal, although far better known, are longer shots, with neither having been nominated for the major precursor awards. Out of the Furnace, from writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), made barely a dent at the box office. But for Affleck, the story and the chance to work opposite Bale, who plays his brother, were the draws.

What was important, Affleck said, was that his character, a down-and-out Iraq war veteran, “has this interior life that he can’t share it with his brother, he can’t share with anybody, and it’s eating him up.” Boxing was the character’s outlet, and the challenge for Affleck. From YouTube videos of illegal matches he learned that the fights didn’t look perfect — “not at all like Bourne Identity,” he said. “So I had that going for me, because it was supposed to look sort of sloppy and messy and not very slick and in control. And I was not in control.”

Getting in the groove

Gyllenhaal’s detective in Prisoners was similarly withdrawn; he had hardly any back story, so Gyllenhaal invented it, envisioning a past of institutions — children’s group homes and juvenile detention centres — that left an unwanted mark. “I wanted the tattoos, so that I could hide them, not so that I could show them off,” he said.

For Leto, Dallas Buyers Club is a showy return to acting after five years of focusing on his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. “For a few years, the scripts were still coming, but after that, people get the point,” he said. But when Dallas Buyers Club — starring Matthew McConaughey as the real-life AIDS patient and experimental treatment crusader Ron Woodroof — came his way, he was ready. He auditioned for director Jean-Marc Vallée over Skype, before a gig in Berlin, playing the character, Rayon, even then.

“I had a little pink sweater on and pulled that over my shoulder, and I proceeded to flirt with him for the next 20 minutes,” Leto said. “And woke up the next day with the offer.” He stayed in character for the 25-day shoot. “Every morning, no matter what, I stepped out of that passenger van when I got dropped off on set, and I was wearing my heels,” he said. 

For different reasons, Will Forte is not at all eager to move past his role in Alexander Payne’s black-and-white Nebraska, relishing the accolades he’s earning for playing against type. “I am not used to getting awards,” he said at the National Board of Review gala, where he picked up a prize for his performance as a wayward son on a road trip with his father. “In fact, I am used to the opposite of getting awards. I am used to the ‘Why did you do that?’s. Or the ‘What the hell were you thinking?’s.”

Forte, a former cast member of Saturday Night Live, said he never expected to be in a film by an Oscar winner like Payne, and he was petrified that the cast, including veterans like Bruce Dern, had acting secrets that he did not. “When you watch this movie, you’re watching somebody who’s in the process of being taught by a legendary actor and an amazing director,” he said in a recent interview.

Hill was likewise attached to the experience of making The Wolf of Wall Street, although he was given full license to improvise, beginning with those in-character calls to Best Buy and Target. He also worked closely with costume designer Sandy Powell to perfect the look of his character, Donnie — preppy sweaters around his shoulders to appear WASP-ier and ties whose garishness corresponds to his wealth. “So much of Donnie are his ridiculous outfits,” Hill said.

He was less worried about working with Scorsese than about hanging out with him — “I didn’t know if I would say something stupid, personally,” he said — but called the production a pivotal one in his career.

“In my note I wrote him afterwards, I said, ‘After this, it’s just egg noodles and ketchup,’ ” Hill said. And he still has the teeth — at home, in a safe, as a souvenir.

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