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From Sam Rockwell to Patrick Stewart: Ranking Contenders for Best Supporting Actor Oscar

We look at eight master actors in contention for five Best Supporting Actor nominations.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

There’s more than a few good men lining up for Supporting Actor recognition at this year’s Oscars, and they all won’t make the cut. Here’s a roundup of who’s likely to land a nomination slot, as well as a few worthy dark-horse contenders.

Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson

From Venice to Toronto to the Hollywood Foreign Press, “Three Billboards from Ebbing, Missouri” has been wowing audiences and critics. Actually, if the Screen Actors Guild is any indication, the Ozark-set dramedy may score three acting Oscar contenders — Golden Globe winners Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, as well as Woody Harrelson. It’s a rare sign of strength.

The veteran character actors starred together in McDonagh’s raucous comedy “Seven Psychopaths.” This time out, uncharacteristically, two-time Oscar nominee Harrelson (“The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “The Messenger”) is the straight man of the piece as empathetic cancer-ridden Sheriff Willoughby, who is the target of the wrath of Mildred Hayes (McDormand). Never-nominated Rockwell is Dixon, his bigoted, narrow-minded, incompetent, heavy-drinking mama’s boy of a deputy.

Hayes starts out the movie so frustrated and angry about the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, an unsolved, horrible, year-old crime, that she buys three billboards targeting Sheriff Willoughby for not doing his job. “The premise is about as hardcore as any premise of any movie ever,” said Harrelson. “The emotional value couldn’t be more extreme. Starting there, you are already at a formidable emotional plateau.”

Writer-director Martin McDonagh is “unhinged,” said Rockwell. “He writes unhinged material. It’s such a no-brainer. A script from him is like getting a Christmas present; it’s not the usual thing.” The actors follow McDonagh’s script “like the bible. You don’t mess with it. But he was looser on this than he was on ‘Seven Psychopaths.’ He runs a tight ship, but we had fun. He does want to move the audience with universal themes: revenge, pain, loneliness.”

Harrelson provides “the dramatic relief in this movie,” he said. “I like to do the comedy — especially as funny as my dear friend Martin is. But my character has an important function in the movie; I don’t get the flashy stuff.”

Extra credit: Harrelson has had an amazing run in 2017, from “The Glass Castle” and “LBJ” to “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Don Knotts as Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“Sam, you’ve never done a part you weren’t great in,” Harrelson told Rockwell after seeing “Three Billboards,” “but I believe this is your greatest performance.” He is not alone. “It’s an amazing, almost incredible arc in the movie,” Harrelson said. “To go from, you don’t like this guy at all, to, you love him by the end.”

For Rockwell, whose gift as an actor is to have both “a funny bone and a dramatic bone,” the simple version of Dixon is “Barney Fife turns into Travis Bickle,” he said. “Martin and I pushed the envelope. We had big comedy bones; if we pushed any further you wouldn’t follow it.”

Playing dumb but likable is harder than it looks. Rockwell looked at Tim Robbins and Robert De Niro’s as baseball players in “Bull Durham” and “Bang the Drum Slowly,” respectively, as well as Tom Hulce as “Amadeus,” he said. “You bring yourself. I’m gullible; you can play a prank on me. You enhance that side of yourself. Gullible comes off as innocent. On film, neurosis and eccentricity comes off as danger.”

Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project”

Courtesy of A24

Willem Dafoe

Sean Baker’s Cannes pickup “The Florida Project” (A24) gives the veteran New York two-time-Oscar nominee (“Platoon,” “Shadow of the Vampire”) one of his most engaging performances in years. Working with a cast of non-pros including several children, Dafoe’s frustrated and humane motel manager Bobby is the closest thing to a father figure and civilizing force these marginal characters will ever know.

Dafoe’s character was based on a real budget motel manager (John Manning of Polk City, Fla). “I was amazed at the pride he took in his job,” Dafoe said. “Talking to this guy helped orient me to certain kinds of class things, a history, how he carried himself. I see that as really key to the character. Bobby’s kind of an authority figure. I didn’t think about modulation as much as I thought about how to accomplish these tasks. He has a different strategy for every person.”

The actor settled into the Florida motel environment for a week before shooting. “My job was to fit in with them, really,” he told IndieWire. “Because there’s no uniformity to how acting works, you’re always dealing with a wide range of experiences. I think Sean invited me to collaborate with him more than usual, because that’s the nature of the character. He holds things together.”

"Call Me By Your Name"

“Call Me By Your Name”

Stefano Dall'Asta

Michael Stuhlbarg

Sundance launch “Call Me By Your Name” (Sony Pictures Classics) is simple yet sophisticated, an escapist summer fantasy that feels authentic, and a lovely romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his professor father’s 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). As classics scholars, Professor Perlman (the never-nominated Michael Stuhlbarg) and Oliver explore the eroticism of Greek statues and fine art; Perlman admires the Grecian ideal of love between two men; he wishes he had experienced what Elio and Oliver shared that summer.

The pivotal scene is a simple one: a concerned father and weepy son sit on the couch in Professor Perlman’s book-lined study. However, the actor’s performance — with an extensive monologue that reveals a father’s insight as well as longing for what might have been — transcends its setting.

Guadagnino shot the film in chronological order, so Stuhlbarg was able to watch what his movie son went through right up to his payoff scene. “I had a number of weeks in a row to watch Timothée and Armie get to know each other, get to know each other’s fears,” said Stuhlbarg. “When it came time for that scene to be shot, I had a lot of time to be inspired by what they had been doing, how brave and game they were to tell this beautiful story. As my relationship with them grew over time, getting to say what I got to say became richer as I lived with it and worked on it alone. [The character] says a lot of beautiful things [and] one in particular resonates: ‘What a shame it is for us as we get older to push away the feelings and experiences we have.’ He’s encouraging his son not to do that, to feel what you’re going through right now. It’s a beautiful sentiment: What a shame it would be to ignore what your feelings are.”

Richard Jenkins and Doug Jones in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Richard Jenkins opposite Doug Jones in “The Shape of Water”

Fox Searchlight

Richard Jenkins

Like Octavia Spencer, in “The Shape of Water” the veteran character actor (Oscar-nominated for “The Visitor”) helped bring to expressive life his mute neighbor Eliza (Sally Hawkins) as he joined this peculiar gang of outsiders assembled by Guillermo del Toro.

Jenkins had to “learn how to sign, as that’s the only way she can talk to me,” he said. “It’s proximity. She’s next door. If I was going to be her friend, I had to learn to watch what she’s saying through her hands. I brought her into my world, musicals, teaching her about Betty Grable and Jimmy Cagney.”

Del Toro’s detailed ’60s-period sets helped to define Jenkins’ gay artist. “My apartment is authentic, of the period, with a Murphy bed, all the tools of an artist. But it’s not real. It’s otherworldly. Del Toro speaks in film language.”

The pivotal scene comes when Hawkins demands that he help her rescue her beloved merman (Doug Jones) from certain death at her government lab, and he selfishly refuses. “I was moved in rehearsal when she says, ‘He sees me as I am.’ But while we were doing it, I wasn’t moved by what she said to me. It felt right. It’s only afterward, when he realizes she’s his only friend — I don’t know what this thing is, but it’s important to her. He goes from a fish in a tank to her fiancée in that amount of time.”

“Darkest Hour”

Ben Mendelsohn

“Darkest Hour” is dominated by Golden Globe winner Gary Oldman, but Australian Emmy-winner Mendelsohn brings unexpected gravitas and intensity to his portrayal of the skeptical yet empathetic King George VI. “I’m a suburban Australian creature,” he said, “so playing a head of state brings an element of a surprise. He’s a good guy, a nice guy. There is enough of resemblance. Sadly, I don’t look like Colin Firth, but look on the back of the coin, look at me certain angle with a squint, you can be fooled.”

He didn’t have to deal with “The King’s Speech” stammer. “By the time we see these guys, he’s done a lot of that work. On the newsreels you see an uncomfortable pause, not the classical stutter. I tried very hard to just try and sound like a royal. Those accents are difficult. It’s one thing to achieve the sound, but you have got to live in it and move in it.”

The pivotal scene: when King George visits Churchill is his rooms — as the Prime Minister makes the crucial decision to go to war with Adolf Hitler. The King “did come forward to support that position; the threat was real,” said Mendelsohn. Director Joe Wright took two long days “to muck around and find it, we had a lot of things to figure out. Joe creates real atmospherics.”

“Dunkirk”

Melinda Sue Gordon

Kenneth Branagh

In Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” the actor has precious little time as the British Commander Bolton in which to lay out valuable, authoritative exposition in an action epic with few words. “This was a time to understand once again that creative satisfaction and effectiveness were not directly linked to the equation of screen time or dialogue,” Branagh said. “It’s the quality of the moments and how they are executed and how Chris sets it up. Chris talked about the critical nature of the character. Given his maturity relative to the other characters, life was written on his face differently.”

Bolton marked the epitome of the British character ideal, said Branagh: “‘Dunkirk’ captures our brand: dignity, stoicism, gallantry, civility, an innate sense of the cardinal sin to show off — or to emote.” He leaned on his own late father: “He was the most emotional man, who spent his life trying to hide it, and was never successful. Bolton was someone to hang on, others took their looks from him. ‘We have to be there for the French and if the Germans are coming back, so be it.’ There’s un-noisy self-sacrifice there.”

The setting helped. “On the first day, I walk along the vast beach of Dunkirk and get a great big drink of historical context as I walk through 1,000 soldiers to get to my first position,” Branagh said. “We were all aware of the vast manpower and the crew beyond, two massive boats on other side of the mole, accompanied by the information that the tide was dropping and we had to get this now, the spitfire is coming. You look eye to eye with Nolan standing next to the camera, and feel all the noise falling away. I am always looking at where the vision is behind the whole operation, the ear of the project is right at the moment of capture.”

Branagh recognizes how carefully Nolan assembled the intricate time scheme of the movie, while remaining an entertainer. “The detail of the interweaving and overlapping meant there was a profound layer of telling. Nolan carefully planned and articulated the grand scheme as well as an improvised painting in front of a massive canvas.”

Extra credit: Branagh has four Oscar nominations: acting and directing “Henry V,” acting in “My Week with Marilyn,” and directing the 1992 short “Swan Song.” He recently directed the holiday widescreen spectacle “Murder on the Orient Express,” which could earn several craft nominations, including one for the song “Never Forget,” sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and co-written by Branagh.

Patrick Stewart in “Logan”

Patrick Stewart

“Logan” brought the veteran actor’s six-movie “X-Men” exploration of Charles Xavier to a final close. He didn’t realize it was really the end until the premiere screening in Berlin, when he and Hugh Jackman got emotional and held hands. “It was very emotional,” Stewart said. “We are all saying goodbye.”

Writer-director James Mangold first visited Stewart in his Broadway dressing room for “Waiting for Godot” to pitch the story of an aging Xavier and Logan in a familial last-act drama. “It’s been 17 years since we did the first one,” he said. “I was very fond of Charles. Which is what made this project so interesting: The Charles we had gotten to know over six movies was not the same person. It was fascinating to explore how far away from his well-known personality and character and manner he had gone in this, how extreme we could be.”

First, the character was 20 years older. “The man had been brilliant intellectually, compassionate, articulate, with some humor,” Stewart said, “with great passion for the people he worked with, the other mutants. But he’s limited as to how active he could be. From the beginning, I found that limitation interesting, and could compensate for it. Now his mind is so unraveled; he’s so ill and old and disturbed and depressed — and potentially very dangerous and violent and not in control of his powers.”

The pivotal scene: Stewart appreciated that “Logan” focused on “human drama, not dependent on special effects,” he said. His favorite scene is the introduction of Logan and the paternal Xavier, out of his mind. “The two men are exhausted and ill and worried and unhappy,” said Stewart, “trying to find some way they could survive. It’s a survival scene. I had to chart moving backward and forward between the moments of understanding and control, when Charles knew who he was and knew what he had to do, and when he was out of control and angry and depressed.”

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