There's a reason people pay attention every time Jessica Chastain appears onscreen. The two-time Academy Award nominee has a unique talent for conveying depth to her characters that many of her peers can only dream of. That's once again apparent in her latest role as Elizabeth Sloane, a savvy Washington, D.C., political lobbyist who finds herself potentially outsmarted in John Madden's Miss Sloane.
Chastain is one of a number of familiar faces returning to the awards arena this season. In the lead actor category you have former winners such as Tom Hanks (Sully), Matthew McConaughey (Gold), and Denzel Washington (Fences). In the supporting actor race, Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water) is facing off against previous nominees including Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) and Liam Neeson (Silence). The supporting actress field potentially features three former Oscar winners in Nicole Kidman (Lion), Lupita Nyong'o (Queen of Katwe) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures). Two-time nominees Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) and Viola Davis (Fences) are also in play.
The most competitive race, however, is lead actress, in which Chastain is joined by former nominees Emma Stone (La La Land), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) as well as previous winner Natalie Portman (Jackie) and the venerable Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins).
Chastain analyses her technique: "Every character I play, I fill another level of a story you wouldn't know and I keep it a secret from the director, the screenwriter, and everyone, because at some point you have to take ownership of your character," Chastain says. "And just like every person has their own secrets, Elizabeth needed to have hers."
She continues, "In any script you read, there are clues that tell you a backstory. Her real name is Madeline Elizabeth Sloane. Only her mother used to call her that. And why doesn't she use Madeline anymore? There's something with her mother. You think in terms of when she says, 'I grew up lying for it. I didn't want to. I had to. That's why I excel at it.' So, why would she be in a situation as a child where she was lying all the time? You find those tiny little nuggets and from there you build on it. And, hopefully, when you're playing those scenes the character for me becomes so real that when something happens an audience sees me react or sees my eye do something or I go into a memory or whatever it is that they can't quiet guess, but that's just like real life. I mean Elizabeth would never tell you about her childhood if you met her. And I like that."
The performances from leading ladies are so remarkable this season that five-time nominee Amy Adams has not one, but two different roles vying for recognition.
In Arrival, Adams portrays a noted linguist who is recruited by the U.S. government to assist in attempting to communicate with an alien race, whose presence has put the world on edge. The Denis Villeneuve film is much more than a genre piece, however, filled with an emotional storyline that weaves in and out of present day, and that's what intrigued the star from the beginning. She notes, "It was one of the most beautiful things I'd read in a long time and something about it just felt so difficult. Like, 'How are we going to do this?' So, for me that's when I say, 'This is special. If we do it right it's going to be awesome.' And it was worth taking the risk."
Adams took a dramatically different turn in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Adams plays Susan Morrow, a privileged art gallery owner who becomes enthralled in the new book her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man she hasn't seen in years, has sent her before publication.
"It was funny to me. I always saw it as Edward's story – I don't know why I didn't see it as Susan's story. I think because so much of what she does is by herself, and it doesn't take up a lot of space in the script," Adams says. "But, what I love about it is that everything you don't see her current self in, it's all inside of her memory and her imagination. But also that's what I was drawn to thematically when I read the book. It's about regret, about loss. About loss of one's sense of self in sort of what we trade in terms of comfort."
As with any Oscar season, there are always a number of players on the board who have still have not had the opportunity to sit in the Dolby Theatre as actual nominees. While there are fewer of them than usual, this season the Academy has a number of impressive performances from potential first-time nominees to consider, including Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (Loving), Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Molly Shannon (Other People), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge, Silence), and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea).
The 19-year-old Hedges has already had a remarkable career starring in films from renowned filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Jason Reitman, and Terry Gillam, but it's his role as Patrick in Kenneth Lonergan's poignant drama that is drawing serious attention. He spent hours listening to audiotapes to nail his character's Boston accent, but admits one of the harder aspects was portraying Patrick's charismatic confidence.
"I guess that was one of the things we worked on most," Hedges recalls. "How can I be tougher as Patrick and still allow the toughness to come from me and not come from an idea in my head, but rise naturally? And some of it was simply just doing daydreams about Patrick's life and imagining scenarios where I got into fights as a kid and was triumphant. People have memories of intimidating people, or they have memories of humiliation or [being] embarrassed. And I gave myself [memories] of striking fear into other people's hearts. That was enough to change my physical chemistry as I moved as Patrick."
The most notable "newcomer" is hardly a newcomer at all. Isabelle Huppert is a legendary actress who is an icon of global cinema and has won actress honours twice at both the Cannes and Venice film festivals. Shockingly, she hasn't felt Oscar's golden glow, but that may change after her acclaimed turn in Paul Verhoeven's Elle.
Huppert initially reached out to producer Said Ben Said after reading Philippe Djian's novel "Oh...," because she was so enthralled by its main character, Michele Leblanc. A character Huppert describes as "fearless, lonely, brave, and manipulative and caring and generous and very free" is also someone whose reaction to being sexually assaulted at the beginning of the picture will be unexpected to many.
"First of all, she doesn't want to be a victim and in her own way she has a plan," Huppert says. "She might not know exactly what this plan is, but she has a plan after the rape happens. I like the fact that something happens to her and we don't really understand her reaction, but I'm not sure she understands her reaction either. She's pushed by something. Something we gradually might be able to understand and explain, but she is more pushed by her intuition, instinct, and desire. There is a kind of attraction to this violence."
Many people in the industry are rooting for Huppert this season, but she's taking such talk in stride and, frankly, we'd expect nothing else. "I'm in Paris and this all happens in Los Angeles and New York, so it's a bit far from my reality at the moment I have to say. Which is good," Huppert says laughing. "It's the French entry for best foreign[-language] film, but being far away gives it a certain... it's real and not so real for me."