The Envelope Roundtables bring together the actors and directors behind the season’s top films to discuss the industry and their craft.
In “The Shape of Water,” Richard Jenkins plays a commercial artist in the early 1960s, forced by the times to keep his identity as a gay man closeted. As part of the film’s triumphant celebration of giving a voice to outsiders, he joins forces with a ragtag team to help free the mysterious creature that his neighbor (Sally Hawkins) has unexpectedly fallen in love with.
“This movie I’m doing takes place in 1962 and I was in high school in 1962. Man it was great for me. But I was a white straight man, or boy,” Jenkins said at a recent Envelope gathering of supporting-actor Oscar contenders. “If you were anybody else, it wasn’t so great. If you were a woman, if you were somebody of color, if you were gay — it’s like I was saying, we didn’t have anybody gay in my school until our 40th reunion.”
Actor Jim Belushi was intimidated at first on the set of “Wonder Wheel” with his Academy Award-winning colleagues, such as actress Kate Winslet, writer and director Woody Allen and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. But what he learned while working on the television show “Saturday Night Live” many years ago made that pressure seem like a piece of cake.
“’Saturday Night Live’ was probably the toughest thing that I’ve ever been through in my entire life, and I’m including divorce,” Belushi said at a recent Envelope gathering of supporting-actor Oscar contenders. “Everything has been easy after ‘Saturday Night Live.’ It is one of the toughest pressure cookers I have ever been in.”
Noting that he was only on the show for two years, he recalled something his brother, “SNL” legend John Belushi, said when he added, “My brother John left after four years and I was like, ‘John, what are you doing? What are you leaving for?’ And he goes, “Ah, it’s like high school, Jimmy. Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, you gotta go.’ So I felt like I was just finishing sophomore year and I needed junior and senior, but it was intense. I’m glad I had that experience.”
In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” actor Sam Rockwell plays a violent, racist police officer in the small town of the title. After a young woman is raped and murdered, it seems that little is being done to solve the crime until her mother (Frances McDormand) begins a personal campaign for justice. Along the way, Rockwell’s character has his own reckoning with who he is and what he stands for.
At a recent Envelope gathering of supporting-actor Oscar contenders, Rockwell noted how the role comes as part of a long line of dim-witted characters that at times make him question how other people might think of him.
“I get all these redneck [roles], you know, and I think it’s hilarious because I’m a city kid,” he said. “They try and put a lasso in my hand and they’d throw us on horses, but I’m a city kid, I’m a concrete creature.”
Jason Mitchell had a breakout role as rapper Eazy-E in the movie “Straight Outta Compton” and has more recently gotten acclaim for his role in “Mudbound.” Playing Ronsel Jackson, who returns to his family’s small Mississippi farm after fighting in Europe during WWII, Mitchell noted how he takes away something new from each role.
“It’s interesting to see what you can throw out, you, know, that people take to, because I never thought that I’d be playing a veteran with PTSD,” Mitchell said at a recent Envelope gathering of supporting-actor Oscar contenders. “It’s good to learn and grow and then, you know, just see how you process things differently. I can probably read scripts that I did a while ago and feel a whole lot different about the character now; I have a lot more to offer that character.”
Jim Belushi is best known as a leading man in television sitcoms. For “Wonder Wheel,” he turns in a deeply emotional performance as a man coming to terms with the shortcomings of his own life as he struggles to please and provide for his wife (Kate Winslet) and protect his daughter (Juno Temple) by another woman.
“I heard a great saying one time, heroes aren’t born, they’re cornered,” Belushi said at a recent Envelope gathering of supporting-actor Oscar contenders. “Our characters are constantly getting cornered and so it’s not the cornering that’s interesting, it’s the recovery.”
With “First They Killed My father,” Angelina Jolie crafted a visceral film that captures the fear and trauma of wartime 1975 Cambodia from the perspective of a young girl. In bringing the memoir by Luong Ung to the screen, Jolie was aware of added concerns that were unusual for a film production.
“Every single Cambodian crew member was affected by this war,” Jolie said at the Envelope Roundtable, where she gathered with six other Oscar contending directors. “Many of these children knew their parents went through this, but they never talked about what happened. But now they're going to re-create a scene, and they're going to see, and experience, and feel what the parent went through. We had to be really sensitive to that.”
As allegations of sexual abuse and harassment have roiled the entertainment industry, awards season has continued apace, albeit with a newfound and unexpected seriousness. Joining the Envelope Roundtable for lead actors for his role as Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman in “Stronger,” Jake Gyllenhaal expressed the kind of genuine candor and soul-searching that has suddenly become part of the process.
“It’s a confusing time. Everyone is trying to digest what all of this means,” Gyllenhaal said. “I feel like to me the most important thing that I have discovered in this period of time, particularly being a man in this business, is to listen. This takes a lot of work and will from everyone. … How do we behave moving forward?”
Hugh Jackman was on the Envelope Roundtable for lead actors for his role in the deeply felt superhero character study “Logan,” even as he will also soon be seen in the musical “The Greatest Showman.” Questions of how to respond to the sexual harassment and abuse scandals that are shaking Hollywood are both inevitable and yet still difficult to answer. When the subject came up, Jackman was the first to respond, expressing his feelings on what this moment could come to mean.
“I just have unbelievable empathy and am so inspired by all of the people coming out,” Jackman said. “I think the amount of shame and guilt that is attached to this entire subject and the amount of courage it takes to step forward is humbling to me. I don’t think it matters if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re old or young, if you’re a parent or not, it’s a human issue. I’m really glad the conversation is out there, it’s a great opportunity beyond our industry, really amongst society. An issue which has obviously been sort of pasted over is no longer.”
James Franco stars in and directs “The Disaster Artist,” the impossibly true story of actor and filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and the making of his now cult classic 2003 movie “The Room.” Rather than laughing at Wiseau, through Franco’s unexpectedly heartfelt performance the movie turns him into a heroic ideal of can-do spirit and believing in yourself. In our roundtable, Franco talked about what drew him to Wiseau as a character, complete with an impression of Wiseau’s unusual, difficult to place accent.
“Tommy Wiseau had been told no his whole life. ‘I’m like James Dean.’ Imagine the whole world saying, ‘No you’re not, dude,’” Franco said. “‘I want to shoot on 35 millimeter and HD at the same time.’ Why Tommy? ‘Because nobody ever do it before.’”
As the landslide of stories about sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry has continued to flow, it has often been the main and sometimes only topic of conversation at screenings and receptions and the other whistle-stops of awards season.
This year’s Envelope Roundtable of supporting actress contenders was no exception. Allison Janney from “I, Tonya,” Laurie Metcalf from “Lady Bird,” Nicole Kidman from “The Beguiled,” Holly Hunter from “The Big Sick,” Hong Chau from “Downsizing” and Michelle Pfeiffer from “mother!” had something to say, starting with Janney, who recalled, "I always knew about this thing called the 'casting couch' and that was something women had to navigate."
But now that people are telling their stories, Janney added, "it's a very empowering time."
As we were preparing for this year’s Envelope Roundtables we kept asking ourselves, would the thing everyone is talking about be something people would actually want to talk about, live, unscripted and on-camera?
It turns out yes. "Mother!" actress Michelle Pfeiffer shared her thoughts freely.
“I’ve had conversations with women I’ve known my whole life,” said Pfeiffer. “We’ve never had these conversations, and we’re having them now and I’ve realized one of the things that has kept it quiet has been this sort of veil of shame, and that in combination with, when something happens so much, it becomes normalized.
“Both of those things are being lifted and I think that it will never be normalized again in the same way,” Pfeiffer added. “I see a seismic change happening and I’m very excited about it.”
In this year's Envelope Roundtable of supporting actresses, the topic of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry came up. After an initial nervous pause these actresses jumped right in. Hong Chau ("Downsizing") credited the ongoing discussion of revelations of harassment with jump-starting a greater push to get women behind the camera and in other production positions.
Laurie Metcalf sees a new strength and savviness in the younger generation of actresses in dealing with these situations, and Holly Hunter gives a shout to social media for enabling the entire movement of women and men telling their stories.
In the role of Molly Bloom for the movie “Molly’s Game,” Jessica Chastain plays a woman navigating her way through the male-dominated world of high-stakes underground poker. As she said during the recent lead actress Envelope Roundtable, the experience made her think about how women are seen and perceived in the world.
“For me it was so much about what society tells women about what they need to be valuable,” she said. “So I would show up on set with this long black hair and my spray tan and short dresses with the highest heels and my cleavage out. And I could feel the power that I would receive on set, I could feel this immediately, ‘Now people are paying attention to me.’ And at the same time I felt smaller.
“And it really gave me a lot of compassion for women in our society,” she added. “In order for someone to listen to what they have to say, they have to smile enough, they have to maybe not wear too many pantsuits, all these things that the film explores.”
One of the many things discussed at this year’s Envelope Roundtable for lead actresses was the emphasis society is still putting on women’s looks: their size, the way they dress and how pretty they might be. Kate Winslet was having none of it but, as she notes, it won’t change until the next generation of girls and the ones after that are taught that there are other things to value about themselves.
“It’s so important that we’re putting across an image of what it means to be strong, successful, proud of your body, proud of who you are and proud of what you say,” the “Wonder Wheel” actress said, so that young women “will know that these are interesting things to aspire to be. It isn’t about an image.”
With “In The Fade,” actress Diane Kruger took on a role in her native Germany for the first time. Written and directed by Fatih Akin, the film tells the story of a woman struggling to move forward with her life after her husband and son are killed in a terrorist bomb attack. Kruger won the best actress prize for her performance at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and as she explained during the recent lead actress Envelope Roundtable, the fact-based story was one that has stuck with her in unexpected ways.
“I didn’t quite realize how sometimes, maybe to my own fault, sometimes a character makes you discover so much more about yourself and your capability of empathy,” she said. “You know people talk about the craft of acting but every once in a while you get to play someone who has to live with that reality you’re portraying, and that sets a whole other level of responsibility in what a film can do.”
As part of the recent lead actress Envelope Roundtable, actress Margot Robbie talked about her work on the darkly comic biopic “I, Tonya.” Having grown up in Australia, Robbie wasn’t aware of the infamous saga of figure skater Tonya Harding. So she was able to approach the performance with a fresh perspective.
“In hindsight, I’m really grateful I wasn’t aware of the situation, or I didn’t know who any of these people were going into it, so I could really approach it with no preconceived notions or judgment,” she said. “I quickly found out that everyone had passed judgment on her.”
When the younger women who took part in the recent Envelope Roundtable for lead actresses began to wonder about confidence and insecurity and, you know, when do the jitters actually go away, veteran actress Annette Bening spoke up to ease their concerns by essentially telling them: It never goes away. But that’s not a bad thing, she assured them.
“Whenever you’re a creative person, you always have a certain amount of insecurity and uncertainty,” she said. “You want to be in a place of uncertainty, a place where something surprising can happen. That’s where the gold is.” The trick, she said to Soairse Ronan and Margot Robbie, is simply to cultivate those feelings, acknowledge them and accept them. And then, essentially, go with the flow.
Actress Jessica Chastain took part in the recent lead actress Envelope Roundtable for her performance in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, “Molly’s Game,” an adaptation of the memoir by Molly Bloom about her time running a high-stakes underground poker game. Chastain was also part of the jury for the 2017 Cannes Film festival and spoke out at the time regarding the collective impression those films made for their depictions of women. During the roundtable, she noted that she had never before watched 21 films in such a short amount of time. And with such a disappointing results.
“Watching in that concentration, it became very clear to me, how the world viewed women and how little stories talked from a woman’s point of view, a story about a woman who wasn’t victimized,” she said. “Of course, there were exceptions at the Cannes film festival. However, I found it really disturbing in general, the image that was portrayed of women in the lineup that I saw.”
“The Big Sick” has been hailed as a welcome return for the romantic comedy, as a couple comes together, goes through adversity, falls apart and comes back together again. The movie was written by the husband-and-wife team of Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani based on their own experiences. Nanjiani plays himself, with Zoe Kazan standing in for Gordon, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents.
Hunter was at the Envelope Roundtable for supporting actresses recently and talked about “The Big Sick” in relation to “Broadcast News,” the 1987 film in which she starred and is now widely considered a classic modern rom-com. She noted how “Broadcast News” was taken less as a rom-com in its day and in fact, “‘Big Sick’ is more the romantic comedy genre, I think, because Kumail loves it.”
In “I, Tonya,” Allison Janney plays LaVona Golden, mother of figure skater Tonya Harding, who would become embroiled in the scandal surrounding the 1994 attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. In the film, the contentious relationship between Harding and Golden becomes a big part of the story and Harding’s motivation for success at skating.
A real-life documentary interview with Harding’s mother formed the basis for scenes when she talks directly to the camera with a small pet bird on her shoulder.
During the Envelope Roundtable for supporting actresses, Janney talked about auditioning three birds for the part and how the calm bird picked for the role wasn’t so calm on shooting day, while adding “It was fun, I really fell in love with the bird.”
Actress Laurie Metcalf noted, “He is a wonderful scene partner for you.”