Oscarwatch: Actors on Actors

Has any array of leading performances ever been put through the wringer like this year's?

Daniel Day-Lewis' "Lincoln," wearily shouldering slavery and the Civil War, is almost a piker next to Joaquin Phoenix carrying the postwar world's psychic burden searching for "The Master," or Jean-Louis Trintignant carrying Emmanuelle Riva through her decline in "Amour."

Laura Linney on Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'The Master'

There's one thing to make choices and then there's another to apply it to the work and have it integrate into something that doesn't just look like a choice. And I just loved every move that Phil made in 'The Master': the voice, that very inclusive, slightly matinee-idol kind of like a bouquet, that voice. And his physical carriage, the sense of power he had. I loved him drinking that hooch and the reaction after he would drink that stuff. Yeah.

Jessica Chastain on Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master'

His performance was so brave. I know everyone says 'brave' for acting, but for me Joaquin Phoenix's performance in 'The Master' was brave. It really was! Without vanity and an absolute transformation. What he did with his body. From the moment we see him on the screen, we understand so much about this character. And it's so unlike all the other characters he's ever done. When I saw him in this movie, I was just blown away.

Chris Hemsworth on Matthias Schoenaerts in 'Rust and Bone'

Most of the time you find yourself observing a character from the outside. Occasionally, you are forced to sit in the driver's seat and not only empathize with but justify actions, regardless of how questionable they may be.
Through a remarkably unselfconscious and open performance, Schoenaerts brings a refreshing take to the "hero."

Not at any point did I see him attempting to map out a journey or retreat into cliched "movie moments," just beat by beat and absolutely truthful at every step.

No matter what he did or how brutal his actions, I was right there with him because of the honesty and vulnerability he brought to the character. It was raw and unpredictable. I am a fan.

Ralph Fiennes on Rachel Weisz in 'The Deep Blue Sea'

The beauty of Rachel Weisz's performance in Terence Davies' superb film 'The Deep Blue Sea' is in its interior life. Every nuance and shift of emotion is profoundly felt.
Terence Rattigan's writing relies on actors who will keep deep, painful emotions under the surface and be truly possessed by them. Rachel Weisz fully inhabits the pain of Hester Collyer and it is unbearably moving. Thoughts and emotions sit half emerged, half subdued in her face and eyes, continuously leading us or beguiling us. Weisz is unnervingly present, and as the disappointments accumulate in Hester's life we feel them with her.

It would be easy to be impatient with Hester's dilemma: a privileged woman who leaves her loving husband for a charming but unreliable and petulant younger man.

Physical attraction has woken something in her, but it breaks her too. We see Hester's weaknesses and vulnerability, but Weisz shows us a devastating stoicism as well. She confronts the hurt inflicted on her husband and herself without self-pity or melodrama. There is an emotional nakedness here, which is like watching the permanent bruising of a human soul. It is a luminous and unforgettable performance, beautiful in its detail and heartbreaking in its lightness of touch.

Gabourey Sidibe on Suraj Sharma in 'Life of Pi'

Among the beautiful scenery in the film "Life of Pi," I have to say that the most beautiful thing to see is the breathtaking performance of Suraj Sharma. To know that his performance is actually a debut makes it that more astounding.
This performance is as strong as any I've seen from longtime leading men who are now in their 60s. Suraj's courage and emotion, shown in every frame of his screen time, is riveting and heartbreaking; I never took my eyes off of him.
From his frantic search for his family on a drowning ship, to dodging the fierce claws of a CGI tiger, I felt fear, hope, sorrow and jubilation in every flicker of his eyes. This kind of talent isn't taught; it lived within him, and watching this film is an invitation to watch that talent flourish and bloom.

Gemma Arterton on Bradley Cooper in 'Silver Linings Playbook'

The first view of Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook" is of his back while he reads a letter. We hear his thick Philly-accented voice and then he turns to us, into an in-your-face closeup, and a new Bradley Cooper is revealed.
Obviously, we see the character of Pat, with his scarred nose and buzz cut, but it is also the director saying, "introducing Bradley Cooper as you've never seen him before!" And he'd be right.

Cooper's Pat suffers from bi-polar disorder. He is erratic, blunt, passionate, beautifully innocent, volatile. We see Cooper at his most instinctive. He's totally working off-the-cuff.

I was told that the movie was shot in thirtysomething days, so you can imagine that for Cooper it was a total KBS situation (a British phrase: kick, bollock and scramble; "Aaagh! We don't have time. Just bloody get on with it").

The KBS situation totally lends itself to the character: unapologetically real and in the moment. This is particularly thrilling to watch. We fall in love with Pat. For all his unpredictabilities and unconventionalities, we are rooting for him.

He is the perfect combination of fragile and strong; the winning heart-melting formula (men take note). He can also sort of dance, which is also adorable. I'm so excited to see where Bradley Cooper's career will go from here. His performance in 'Silver Linings Playbook' is extraordinary and one of those mile stones/glitzy award winning/generally lauded and adored achievements that will catapult him into magnificence. He deserves all of it.

Michael Douglas on Matt Damon in 'Promised Land'

In "Promised Land," you get a chance to see Matt's inherent likability. Some actors have that quality, some don't. And that likability is necessary to play this kind of scam artist and still be as caring as you are for his trip.
His face is an open book from the first frame when he's washing his face and he's tormented and nervous about what's to come. He handles it without pushing. And he ends the picure with a final speech before the town, telling them the entire truth and what's he's been involved with. It's emotional and powerful without being pushed.

In some ways, Matt is like John Wayne, who had that inherent feeling of trust. Which you also get from Matt. There's a direct truthfulness there that a lot of actors don't have. They have to get tricky. Matt has this inherent shit detector. He's a very good listener, but he also has the ability to handle lengthy dialogue, which is becoming a relatively lost art in film.

He produced this picture and wrote it, and from my own experience with doing dual roles, it never gets in the way for him. Matt has enough knowledge as a writer and producer to surround himself with the best people possible. He's not threatened by talent. He enjoys it.

Bradley Cooper on Pierce Gagnon in 'Looper'

I just saw "Looper" and Pierce Gagnon, the little boy who played Emily Blunt's demonic son, was incredible. There's a level of reality there, a level of authenticity.
You thought, "How did Rian Johnson get this performance?" He just hit it out of the park. I was stunned. Gagnon was fierce and utterly childlike and evoked so many potentially cliched characters; it was a character we've seen a 100 times, and he made it new.

Colin Firth on Emily Blunt in 'Looper'

Emily Blunt has something that is much rarer in actors than it should be, and that is mystery, given that mystery is such a cherished commodity in a performer. And she has it in abundance.
One of the things that struck me watching "Looper" is that she makes such an impact on the film. You meet her halfway through movie. Is this a cameo? And yet as soon as she shows up, you're rooting for her. But you're also not quite sure about her: Is she menacing or sympathetic, a liar or genuine?

It's good if actors can keep you guessing as to what they're about, particularly with this film, which messes with your need for a protagonist. It is a festival of antiheroes until you meet Emily, a mother figure out there with her shotgun.

Cloris Leachman on Jack Black in 'Bernie'

Jack Black is a deliciously funny actor, but he didn't fall into the many, many traps that were there in "Bernie." He held it down when he could have gotten laughs. He didn't. He never went for a laugh, and being the funny man that he is he could have created them even if the laughs weren't there.
He kept it true and presented a very real character, who was so sweet and darling. His taste is just unerring.

Then when he killed the old woman, it was real. Very real. But every once in a while he would do something that would just kill me, make me laugh outloud, like at the end of the movie when he's in jail and he walks away from the camera. You knew he'd be all right. And that walk! It was such a subtle thing. Oh, I just treasure this performance!

Kenneth Branagh on Keira Knightley in 'Anna Karenina'

Keira Knightley is breathtaking as "Anna Karenina." Caught in a loveless marriage, Anna is swept off her feet by the dashing Count Vronsky and the sense of joy portrayed by Knightley when she finds true love for the first time in her life is contagious.
Her effervescence of spirit is tangible and irresistible. Her whole being seems to blaze with a ferocity that is mesmerizing. This is Knightley as we have never seen her before so completely: a mature woman who is also impulsive, troubled, deceitful, sexual, passionate, heartbroken.

"I am not ashamed of who I am or what I've done," Anna defiantly proclaims to her young lover on being shunned by the Russian nobility for having such an open affair while married. But when, after bearing a child to the young count, she starts to believe that her lover's feelings for her have diminished, Knightley's sense of foreboding burns through the lens.

Everything about her work here sears and scorches itself into the memory. This is an actress of subtlety and delicacy fulfilling her potential in a performance that comes from the depths.

Like the novel itself, her work in the role is at once elegant and wild and compelling at every moment. A classic.
Shailene Woodley on Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 'Smashed'

I became so lost in the raw vulnerability of Mary Elizabeth Winstead's acute and accurate portrayal of an alcoholic woman, my mind seemed to forget that I was watching a movie starring an actress instead of observing a dear friend who was fighting personal inner battles.
Mary paved her road of empowerment with penetrating strength and unabridged vulnerability. She sucked me into Kate's world, a world of messy, difficult, unclear paths that are filled with obstacles and tribulations beyond reason. She did not glamorize AA meetings. She did not victoriously display the perks of abstaining from substances. She did not give me the impression that life gets easier once an individual becomes sober. Rather, she navigated her way through waves of confusion, self-doubt, dependence, separation, honesty, responsibility and courage without ever demanding empathy or compassion from her audience.

I was naturally drawn to root for this woman, to cheer for her triumphs and to cry for her blunders. Mary's performance left me humbled as she carved her way out of a blinding inebriation with forceful perseverance and pure, stripped-down human bravery.

Eddie Redmayne on Helen Mirren in 'Hitchcock'

There is something so astoundingly earthy and true about Dame Helen Mirren's performance as Alma Reville in "Hitchcock" that while your senses are seduced and bedazzled by the trappings of 1960 Hollywood, your eyes and heart return again and again to the film's anchor.
It is, of course, a downright treat to watch her spar with Sir Anthony Hopkins, a unique clash of the titans, but perhaps most compelling is the fierce poise that Helen retains amidst the commotion. Her eyes, often obscured by an array of eccentric eyewear, seem to invoke emotions of compassion, strength, shame and barbed humor, virtually simultaneously. And without an ounce of judgment on the character.

Dame Helen's meticulous control, as Alma's frustrations build in the pressure cooker, render the eventual eruption ever the more astonishing. It is both an emotional and technical masterclass.

Melissa Leo on Helen Hunt in 'The Sessions'

Helen Hunt has always stuck me as a smart actor. I loved her on TV years ago on "Mad About You," and in all her film roles over the years she brings a refreshing new look at women of our times. But, in "The Sessions," Helen reinvents herself as an actor.
Helen's performance in "The Sessions" is astonishing. Her grownup body is beautiful to behold onscreen, and the ease and calm she portrays makes the scenes with nudity and sex so pleasantly watchable. Disbelief is simply not possible.

I found myself deeply in love with her Cheryl as she falls deeply in love with John Hawkes' twisted and complex character, Mark, over their series of sessions together.

Sarah Paulson on John Hawkes in 'The Sessions'

John Hawkes is the greatest acting partner I've never had. I've been in three different projects with him, but have actually never had the pleasure of sharing any scenes with him.
I found myself sneaking around all three of those sets asking those who did get to play scenes with him what it was like and what they had learned from acting with him.

The most common response was: "I've never worked with someone who was more present," and for me that's the only thing that matters.

John's performance in "The Sessions" is the most crystalline example of this, and was a master class on the importance of listening. No one is better at honoring the truth of the character than John.

Even if I only continue to be in the same movies with him -- without any shared scenes -- I will still be one of the luckiest actors alive, because I can sneak around to watch the monitor and learn from an actor who quite simply cannot tell a lie.

Alan Alda on Laura Linney in 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

It's one of those mysteries of fine acting when you can plainly see what a character is thinking without any apparent effort on the actor's part to telegraph it, tweet it or even leave a furtive BTW.
It seems to me that in Laura Linney's performance in "Hyde Park on Hudson" there's no telegraphy at all. It's more like telepathy. Sometimes, she just stands there, seemingly doing nothing, and your heart aches for her. She takes that mysterious simplicity to surprising lengths, and goes seamlessly from utter vulnerability to rage to the strength and durability of an old tree in the damaged forest of this presidential Hyde Park.

I don't know how she does it. I've acted with her, and frequently after a take, maybe the fifth take where her eyes still well up at a critical moment, I'll ask her, "How do you do it?" Maybe she knows, but she's not saying. And, whenever I can, I keep acting with her to find out.

Diego Luna on Michael Pena in 'End of Watch'

Michael, in addition to possessing an incredible charisma, is the type of actor who doesn't just act; he embodies his character, creating a palpable vivacity in every scene where the audience breathes the same air that nurtures his character. In every film he reflects a familiarity, a bewildering humanity that you can relate to.
He took on a complicated task in "End of Watch." The entire film rests on a brotherhood filled with significance and everyday interaction. It's a celebration of friendship, a declaration of love between two men who accompany each other every single day, who communicate without the need to look each other in the eye and selflessly complement one another.

It only took watching the scene after the wedding once they've had a few drinks to understand that a human being is complete only when given the opportunity to experience friendship as a concept in perpetuity.

With this film, Michael confirms once again that he is well-equipped to take on more and more ambitious roles each time, and that he can easily transition from drama to comedy without any difficulty, and always with great success.

Carey Mulligan on Jake Gyllenhaal in 'End of Watch'

I remember so vividly Jake's demeanor when he was preparing for "End of Watch." I have known him and regarded him as a dear friend for several years, and during that time I was very struck by some fundamental change in him. He was energized, he was completely present and he told me with such excitement about the work that he was doing to get ready for his next movie.

A large part of the work involved was observing protocol on the midnight shift with the LAPD. Both he and Michael Pena witnessed pretty tragic, unpleasant scenes that affected them both. His descriptions of the ride-alongs were charged not with voyeurism but with a profound respect for the policemen and women whom they were observing. His reinvigorated sense of perspective and humility was palpable. I sensed just how deep he had already gone, and that the experience was filling him in some new way. Not that Jake had ever taken work lightly ­­-- quite the opposite -- but what was so distinct on this occasion was that this work was releasing him. He seemed more free, more alive and more comfortable in his skin than I had ever known him.

Watching Jake in "End of Watch," I saw all of that joyous freedom on the screen. His complete ease in scenes with the brilliant Michael Pena makes those moments wrap around you in all their infectious warmth, and pulls you into the car with them. Their comraderie is the most beautiful portrayal of friendship in the truest sense: absolute trust, love and unflinching loyalty.

It is a love story that broke my heart and Jake's work is fearless. He is not daunted by the intimacy of their relationship, the lightening fast emotional changes, the dichotomy of bravado and honesty or even a meticulously choreographed first dance at his wedding.

When he stood to speak at the closing of the movie, with such quiet grace, I realized I hadn't thought once of the Jake I know as my friend but only as the character he embodies in this wonderfully special movie.

Jonah Hill on Leslie Mann in 'This Is 40'

Leslie Mann is one of the most interesting actresses I've ever worked with. She has a very rare ability to be very funny while coming from an incredibly deep and truthful place. This is especially true in "This Is 40." In the film, there is nothing false about Leslie's acting even in a broad circumstance. In edgy moments, she brings sincerity and in judgmental moments, she shows compassion. The film itself is very human and her performance encompasses the authenticity of a woman coming to terms with real problems, life and growing into a true adult.

James Gandolfini on Kristen Stewart in 'On the Road'

"The only people for me are the mad ones." -- Jack Kerouac
Kristen Stewart is one of the mad ones. But mad in a beautiful way. And she is determined to make people mad. To show them she is more than Bella in "Twilight." To show them she does burn, and smolder, and wants more out of her career and life. And smolder she does.

As soon as she steps into the movie "On the Road," you can't take your eyes off her. As Marylou, whenever she fixes her gaze, you see someone who will go as far as she can, and do it as mad as she can, to live and feel alive. And it is sexy and scary and reckless and smart. She can play all of these things. She has them at her fingertips. She is just beginning. She is fearless. And that can be that good, and that can be very bad. But she is smart enough to handle it.

Stick around my friends, and there will be much, much more to come. Thinking about it, I am smiling already.

Michael Fassbender on Kelly Reilly in 'Flight'

The thing that always lingers after a job is the talent we encounter. When Kelly and I worked on "Eden Lake" together, it required us to go to extreme places, and so I have been exposed to Kelly's talent in abundance. It was unadorned, fearless and brilliant.
In "Flight" she navigates expertly, a complex and harrowing journey on which she takes her character, but once again so distinctively and personally that she effortlessly takes the audience along too. Kelly can go from broken bird to warrior in the blink of an eye. Always with the greatest of charm and intelligence.

Octavia Spencer on Tommy Lee Jones in 'Lincoln'

How can I applaud Tommy Lee Jones's breathtaking, awe-inspiring performance in "Lincoln" without feeling like a total sycophant?
Truth is I can't, because he is just that brilliant. Jones' deftly crafted Thaddeus Stevens is played without artifice, but is grounded and authentic. Substantive.

Simply put, Jones portrays the man with true grit. But that's not all. From the moment the character's introduced onscreen, Jones held my rapt attention. I found myself leaning forward in my seat not wanting to miss a single beat of his impassioned yet hysterical repudiations.

Not to mention the emotional impact of his stoic, mournful gazes. Soul-stirring! Jones' performance had me laughing out loud, silently weeping and dying to crack open a history book or surf the Internet to learn more.

While I believe that everything about this movie is masterfully executed, from Steven Spielberg's epic direction to Daniel Day-Lewis' iconographic Lincoln, I feel Tommy Lee Jones' performance will engender it's own luminescence in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere.

Stanley Tucci on Ewan McGregor in 'The Impossible'

Ewan McGregor's performance in "The Impossible" is very hard for me to describe, as it is one of the best I have seen in a very long time. I say this not because he is a friend but because it is a fact. His ability to project strength, charm, intelligence and sensitivity in all films seems to manifest itself tenfold in this one.
He falls into none of the well-laid melodramatic traps (neither does the director), and gives us at once a nuanced and emotionally raw performance that brings the piece to a profoundly moving place. The purity of his emotionality is something rarely seen in life, let alone in film.

When I mention proudly that Ewan is a friend, people often comment that he has had a "strange career," because he appears in Hollywood, foreign and independent films in every kind and size of role. He is one of those actors who has chosen to follow no clear path. Only his own. And what that choice has allowed him to do, is to mature and gain depth as an actor in ways many of us don't.

However, even better than that is the fact that Mr. McGregor is still a young man and therefore has many more years to astonish us with performances such as this one.

Mark Ruffalo on Naomi Watts in 'The Impossible'

Naomi shows us once again how beautifully and honestly she can render tragedy into heroism. In the character of Maria, she shows us a woman who is both struggling with sacrificing a career for her three young sons and a longing for greater meaning.
There is a Christmas morning scene that feels devoid of family or the togetherness and becomes a free-for-all to open presents. The family is staying at a top resort surrounded by beauty and material wealth. All of these things experienced through the filter of Maria's quiet emptiness and soul sickness. Naomi masterfully imparts Maria's longing for something that not even she is able to articulate. Naomi does this in a look or a simple few words about her husband always being on his cell phone. She then turns her disappointment into a light-hearted laugh to cover her longing, to cast off any heaviness or discomfort. These things are subtle and nearly imperceptible to any other audience member, but to an actor they are admirable in their restraint, poise and intention.
What happens next is an epiphany through suffering. The scene with Naomi and her son (a fantastic Tom Holland) trying to survive in the torrents of the 2004 Thailand tsunami are heartbreaking, and we are swept up into the emotional honesty of a woman coming to terms with the loss of her children and family.
This is great and nearly impossible acting. Naomi takes us through this woman's journey from modern malaise to the deepest and most meaningful parts of being human: our relationships to others in the world around us.
Naomi fills every moment onscreen with honesty and intention -- one eye on the story and the other on credibility, and she is deeply in service to them both. She never backs away from what is difficult and she is never gratuitous or vain, which is incredibly refreshing and admirable. Naomi Watts is one of our acting treasures.