Supporting actor Oscar hopefuls, including this year’s Jared Leto, Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill, are putting themselves through a lot for parts.
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. Based on the look of the trader who inspired his character, 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 practised talking with them for several hours a day, calling unsuspecting customer-service representatives to shoot the breeze.
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.
Leading men in Oscar-bound films are often called upon to metamorphose, most often from hunkiness to debilitation, chiselled 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. 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. 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.
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 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, I stepped out of that passenger van when I got dropped off on set, and I was wearing my heels,” he said. Although he gained the weight back, leaving Rayon behind wasn’t easy. “She’s funny and fun and full of grace and wit,” Leto said.
Hill was likewise attached to the experience of making The Wolf of Wall Street. 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.
He still has the teeth — at home, in a safe, as a souvenir.