Magazine article Variety

Tailored for Their Talents

Magazine article Variety

Tailored for Their Talents

Article excerpt

ASK MELISSA LEO about the challenges of being a "character actor" and she'll respond with a hearty laugh.

"Because I get hired at the last minute my moniker for myself is 'Last-Minute Leo.' They call me in when they don't know what else to do," Leo says. She adds that it's "a badge of honor."

Actors who have the "character" label may not always land magazine covers (or want them, frankly), but a number of lauded actresses known for getting lost in their roles are dominating this particular awards season with a vengeance. The legendary Frances McDormand (four Oscar noms and one win) in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is one of them, Lesley Manville in "Phantom Thread" is another. And of course Leo, who won an Oscar for her role in "The Fighter."

In the 1960s period drama "Novitiate," Leo pays a Reverend Mother whose world is turned upside down by new reforms ordered by the Vatican. With only two weeks' notice before filming began, she was lucky enough to find a nun who could share her experiences with her. But that wasn't all she did to prepare for the role.

"I was not so comfortable hanging out in the motel where they housed everybody; I think the [other actresses] were having a good time and that was great, but I like to keep closer to my work when I work," Leo recalls. "The production set me up in one of the dormitories on the school. I will always remember my time shooting there as the time when I was cloistered."

Holly Hunter won her Academy Award for "The Piano" 23 years ago, and found a substantial big screen role with the moving dramedy "The Big Sick." The film is based on the real life romance between screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Hunter plays Emily's mother on screen and while her character was substantially different from Gordon's real-life mom, she says she exploited Nanjiani, effectively playing himself, to find out all she could.

"I really pillaged him for information," Hunter says. "Particularly on the day [we were shooting], that was when it was the most fun to get the play-by-play from Kumail virtually as we were doing the scene. It would be a real kick to get what went down in a detailed story that Kumail would tell me as the camera was virtually rolling."

Hunter has seen her share of Oscar campaigns and starred in movies that were initially pegged as contenders, but quickly became also-rans. She wouldn't directly comment on her own prospects this time around, but is encouraged by the film's surprise success with audiences.

"The timing of the movie feels really good for what people are experiencing, what's going on in the country, in the culture, in the news," Hunter says. "Even though I think the movie wears that really lightly, that sociological, multicultural non-racist costume, I think it, nevertheless, wears it, and I think people love that. They've got a real appetite to see something that is talking, discussing serious topics, but you're laughing your ass offevery 45 seconds."

It's extremely rare for one of the world's most celebrated filmmakers to write a leading role with a specific actor in mind, but that the giftGuillermo del Toro bestowed upon Sally Hawkins (one nom for "Blue Jasmine") with "The Shape of Water." As Elisa, Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman working at a U.S. military facility where she falls for an amphibious man the government is torturing.

She had no idea what was in store for her until she crashed a party alongside her old friend James Gordon and ran into the famed and, um, slightly buzzed Mexican director.

"We saw each other at the same time. …

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