The Envelope Roundtables bring together the actors and directors behind the season’s top films to discuss the industry and their craft.
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.”
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 “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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
As part of the Envelope Roundtable for supporting actresses, Nicole Kidman, Holly Hunter and Laurie Metcalf described their experiences working with female filmmakers, and how that can lead to a different atmosphere on-set. Kidman spoke of working with Sofia Coppola on “The Beguiled,” as well as her experiences with Jane Campion. Hunter won an Oscar for Campion’s “The Piano.” Laurie Metcalf spoke about working with Greta Gerwig on this year’s “Lady Bird.”
“Sofia, she vibrates in this feminine place that is not as plot-driven as much as it is atmospheric,” Kidman said.
“She’s very quietly spoken, and unbelievably powerful,” she added. “People are running around doing things, and she speaks barely above a whisper.”
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.”
A three-time Academy Award winner, Michelle Pfeiffer seemed to have more recently stepped away from Hollywood. Then this year she came back in big way, including supporting roles in Darren Aronofsky’s wild, provocative “mother!” and Kenneth Brannagh’s large-scaled telling of “Murder on the Orient Express.”
On our recent Envelope Roundtable for supporting actresses, Pfeiffer spoke about how it wasn’t so much a conscious decision to take time off and come back to acting, as just the way things turned out.
“It wasn’t unusual for me to take a year or two off in between projects anyway and I think two years became three and then, I don’t know, it became five,” she said. “But the truth is, it was actually when my second child started looking at colleges that I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe it’s time for me to get my foot back in the door.’ And at that time things started presenting themselves that looked interesting and then, here I am.”
“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.”
With only her second role in a movie, actress Hong Chau has created one of the most talked-about characters of the year. In “Downsizing,” directed by Alexander Payne, a process is used to shrink humans to just five inches tall. Chau plays a Vietnamese political activist who is shrunk down by an opposition party. Upon becoming a cleaning woman to the wealthier parts of the tiny world, she helps a man (Matt Damon) see the bigger picture.
The role has proved to be controversial, with many journalists asking if the film presents a cultural stereotype in its depiction of Chau’s character. On the Envelope Roundtable for supporting actresses, Chau noted the conversations she has had with regular audiences and those she’s had with journalists have been very different. She also discussed how she defends the character and its representation in the movie.
“I think there’s a difference between characters with an accent who have two lines in something and my character, where she is driving a good portion of the story,” Chau said.
“I’m glad that people are sensitive to it and they’re well-meaning, but I hope that people are going to go into the movie with a big heart as opposed to exercising their mind like, ‘Is there something that I need to pay attention for’ That’s not really what you should go into any movie with.”
With her film “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow dramatizes real-life events that occurred during the 1967 riots in that city. In “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker tells a tale that explores life on the poverty-stricken fringes in contemporary Florida. Both movies weave fictional and dramatic elements from factual truths, creating stories that feel all too real.
“There's a place where drama and documentary kind of fuse, and that's sort of a place that interests me,” Bigelow said. “It becomes very topical and timely, and that's where the journalistic aspect comes in.”
Baker picked up on Bigelow’s idea of a fact/fiction hybrid by adding, “It's the cinema that I'm really finding the most fascinating right now and the most interesting, where that line is blurred between narrative fiction filmmaking and documentary-style filmmaking.”
In these times of divisiveness and antagonism, or as Guillermo del Toro put it at the recent Envelope Roundtable for directors, “the vulgarity and the brutality of what we're living,” filmmaking can be used as a tool to humanize the “other” said Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Kathryn Bigelow (“Detroit”).
“It feels like all of these stories are exploring a missing piece of the conversation,” said Peele “Story is one of, if not the most important tool, weapon we have against hatred and violence.”
“Especially now,” Bigelow said. “You’re almost weaponizing storytelling in order to somehow contextualize the unthinkable.”
“And story promotes empathy, right?” Peele said.
“Right, exactly, humanizing it,” Bigelow agreed.
“It’s one of the few ways we can actually see through the eyes of another person,” Peele said.
As Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) noted at the Envelope Roundtable for directors, the films of all the participants – regardless of the time period in which they take place – are about now.
“The Shape of Water” director Guillermo del Toro certainly agreed, and his fairy tale/Cold War thriller is set in 1962.
“Well, it was '62 for a reason. Because it's about today. And about the ‘other,’” he said. But, he added, “you don't want to root it in now. It's too direct for me. I like the idea of being able to have people lower their guard with the "Once upon a time," you know, and then listen. And then emotionally, I try to make it very real and very specific to me. … I wanted to see, can I talk about love without sounding disingenuous?”
Seven directors gathered together for the Envelope Roundtable to talk about their work and found their wildly different films actually had a lot in common. They all, as Jordan Peele put it, explore a “missing piece of the conversation.” Here Peele discusses what “the sunken place” from his horror film “Get Out” meant to him:
“The sunken place is this metaphor for the system that is suppressing the freedom of black people,” he said. It’s “the lack of representation of black people in film, in genre. The reason Chris in the film is falling into this place, being forced to watch this screen, that no matter how hard he screams at the screen he can't get agency across. And that, to me, was this metaphor for the black horror audience, a very loyal fan base who comes to these movies, and we're the ones that are going to die first. And we yell ‘Get out, get out of the house.’”