Female Actors Talk Tough Scenes in Season’s Awards Contenders

A star maestro. Multiverse dwellers. Fearless journalists who historically propelled the #MeToo movement. 2022 has supplied an embarrassment of riches when it comes to complex roles written for women, brought to life by a diverse array of actresses. In separate conversations with Variety, several of the names leading the awards conversation offered insights into their characters, reflecting on the most challenging aspects of their parts.

Playing the retired schoolteacher Nancy who hires a sex worker in Sophie Hyde’s “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” Emma Thompson recognized the utmost significance of a role that focused on a woman’s sexual pleasure.

“Especially a woman who has been roundly ignored and given very little agency in films,” she says. Thompson had been in search of a heroic role such as Nancy for years, so she knew her inside and out for a long time. “She’s someone who decides to cross every boundary she has ever known. What a gift from [writer] Katy Brand, the person who understood her first.”

Thompson’s ultimate task was making Nancy believable. “Everything about her needed to be authentic: [funny], irritating, overbearing, naive and sometimes downright rude. It was as immersive a study as any I have ever done.” 

For the film’s tricky intimacy scenes, Thompson relied on the safe space Hyde created for her and her co-star Daryl McCormack who was easy to trust and “willing to jump off a bridge on the bungee rope” with her. 

“The three of us spent one day’s rehearsal together nude. We spoke carefully and curiously about our bodies: what we liked, our inner and outer scars, what we didn’t like – my list was longer than Daryl’s, needless to say — and how we wanted to present them,” Thompson says. “When the time came, it was like Christmas. We just opened each other like presents.”

“My preparation is internal,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, whose Deirdre Beaubeirdra puts a hardworking immigrant family through bureaucratic tax hell in The Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” She first needed to understand Deirdre before she could become her. Then she realized she knew a lot of women like her. “They wield their supposed power in their jobs each day and then go home alone. It’s heartbreaking really.” 

Since she found shades of Deirdre in a character she played in “Daddy and Them” as Ben Affleck’s older, alcoholic lawyer wife, she brought along a Polaroid from that production. Then she relied on artisans Shirley Kurata, Anissa Salazar and Michele Chung (costume, hair and make-up designers) to create Deirdre’s external world. 

“Josh Bramer, the prop designer, was helpful with her carpal tunnel wrist brace and the watch she wore over it, which was my favorite aspect. For me, the whole goal is freedom. I felt as free during this work as I have in anything I’ve ever done.” 

An important element for Curtis to grasp Deirdre’s headspace was her character’s beautiful red nails. “She prides herself on them and goes to the nail salon each weekend to perfect her nails. The one area of control over herself that she has.”

Playing one of the most significant women in American history — Emmett Louis Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley seeking justice for her devastatingly abducted and lynched son in 1950s’ Mississippi — Danielle Deadwyler saw her role in Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till” as a great responsibility.

“Considering the impact Mamie had on history, it was imperative for me to move intentionally in preparing for [the role]. I received a wealth of archival resources, from footage and first-account stories, to her own words in her memoir, ‘Death of Innocence,’” says the actor. 

To Deadwyler, one scene or aspect of the film wasn’t necessarily more challenging than the rest. “How do we present the public versus private nature of Mamie as a prosperous Black woman of the North and condemned Black woman in the South? This was always a question for approaching each scene and the film as a whole. The tension is perpetual in the experience for Mamie, and for Black families who have lost family to white terrorism and racism,” she says. “Chinonye and I analyzed every crevice of the script together to get to the heart of Mamie’s humanity and evolution into activism. There is no preparation for what grief will mold into. The grief Mamie transfigured inevitably [helped] birth the civil-rights movement.”

For the film’s demanding close-ups and long takes, Deadwyler drew from her stage roots. “On the theater [stage], the experience is continuous, unflinching, and consuming. The weight of the film called for [similar] rigor at every scene.”

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” gave Hong Chau the kind of complex supporting role she’s always loved, one that could warrant its own movie. She cherished calibrating the different qualities for her character, Liz, as she cared for her overweight friend, Charlie (Brendan Fraser). “This was a memorable time for me because I just had my first child,” she recalls. “What ultimately got me to throw my hat in the ring was empathy for Charlie as a parent. Even though I was so happy holding my little nugget, I was already lamenting that I wouldn’t get to know her as long as I’d like to. There’s a ticking clock for us all. This story is a sober reminder.” 

Tapping into Liz’s darkness and longing was her toughest undertaking. She says: “I had to drop any vanity about my appearance. My lips were chapped. I asked for clothes that would make me look like someone who eats cold leftover mozzarella sticks for breakfasts.” 

To further her development of Liz, she came up with tools outside the script. “I think Liz was a wild child [in her youth], rebelling against her oppressive family. I asked for tattoos. Every morning, Judy Chin, our wonderful make-up department head, would apply tattoos on [my body]. You don’t really see the tattoos in the film. It was just for me.”

“Something that the Daniels and I talked about was creating a villain that had a strong philosophical core,” says Stephanie Hsu, about her dual roles of Joy and Jobu in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” 

While Joy is a frustrated but caring daughter, Jobu is the villain of the story. 

“Not scary to be scary. You [had to] know that something went wrong and then she started
acting out.” 

Hsu did a lot of research, but mostly on male roles played by the likes of Jim Carrey and Joaquin Phoenix. “I wanted to tap into that grotesqueness of wild and volatile characters that we don’t get to see women [portray] a lot.

The scariest thing was giving myself the permission to go there — we are so conditioned to feel likable [as women]. That was a really interesting difficulty.” 

Another concern for Hsu was holding onto the same heartbeat as both Joy and Jobu. “She is a daughter seeking her mother’s acceptance. I had to really understand the depths of Joy’s sadness and despair and make sure that Jobu came from that place of integrity.”

For her complicated action scenes, Hsu depended on Wushu legend Li Jing, who plays a kung fu master in the movie. Says Hsu, “She trained me in Wushu, [which] has a very zen martial-arts philosophy. It’s about internal power.”

In Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Kerry Condon knew that her brainy and profound character, Siobhan, had to be different from everybody around her on the film’s remote Irish island in the 1920s. She met that challenge by melding an optimistic edge with Siobhan’s sadness and loneliness at the forefront. “She is jaded and tired of her existence. But there has to be a hopeful aspect to her because she thinks beyond the island. So I had to find the moments where there was still a youthful kind of hopefulness to her,” Condon says. “But also the moments where I could show that if she stays on the island, it’s going to end badly. She will go depressed and get worse. So that balance was a little tricky for me. But Martin helped me with it.”

For her character’s inner sadness, Condon drew from the notion of grief, considering a loss that Siobhan had suffered recently. 

“I knew from the very beginning that the parents had died. People handle grief so differently and Siobhan was privately on a lonely journey where she can’t shake it.” 

Condon also was aided by Siobhan’s costuming. “The clothes, like her [distinct] yellow coat, showed she was thinking beyond other people. She wasn’t afraid to be herself and different.”

“The most challenging thing for me was her accent,” says Dolly De Leon about playing Abigail, the below deck staff-turned-“captain” of Ruben Östlund’s satire “Triangle of Sadness.” 

In order to authentically create an accent for Abigail, De Leon considered her life trajectory growing up in the Philippines, transferring from port to port and meeting different nationalities. 

“She would have a difficult accent to trace. I had to seek the help of some Swedish actors who were with us in Sweden during filming. I didn’t want to offend any of our overseas Filipino workers. I wanted her to sound human, not like a caricature.”

To get into Abigail’s headspace, De Leon created a careful backstory for her. “I wrote a journal and talked about her past: from her parents to her growing up and adulthood; all the events in her life that led to the kind of person that she ended up. She grew up poor, catching fish. She was forced to work at a young age. She worked for a wealthy family and fell in love with [their] son. She got pregnant and he didn’t want the baby. She was shunned from her own family. That changed her whole perspective about men, the wealthy and society.”

“You just had to trust the script and throw yourself in,” says Olivia Colman about the challenge of portraying Hilary, a 1980s cinema manager in Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” a film loosely based on the filmmaker’s own life and informed by his mother’s mental-health struggles in that era. To portray the role truthfully, Colman relied on having Mendes by her side. 

“If I ever had questions, Sam could tell me exactly what he remembered. He grew up watching every little movement and change: a change in medication, a change in makeup would mean something was coming. He was an only child raised by someone dealing with serious mental- health issues, and he watched every moment of it. He was a ‘young carer’ before we even really knew what that meant.”

For an emotional scene that follows Hilary as she experiences the magic of movies for the first time in a theater and on the big screen, Colman recalled watching “Bambi” as a young girl and never really getting over it. 

“Years later, I watched ‘Breaking the Waves’ and Emily Watson blew me away. I love the feeling of surrendering to a story and crying and snorting or laughing along with it.

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