The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences loves nothing more than a solid portrayal of a real-life figure. It worked for Eddie Redmayne last year when he won the Best Actor statuette for his work as paralyzed astro-physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and it could work again for him this year for his portrait of the riveting — and beautiful — transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl.
Redmayne will be joined by a slew of other actors who took on real-life roles, including Michael Fassbender, who despite looking nothing like Steve Jobs, seemed to have little trouble transforming himself into the maniacal founder of Apple Computer. There’s also Will Smith, who channeled the distinct mannerisms and accent of Nigerian doctor Bennet Omalu in Concussion; Bryan Cranston, who mimicked the unique eccentricities of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo; and Johnny Depp, who took on the receding hairline, blue contacts, and malevolence of mob leader and FBI informant Whitey Bulger in Black Mass with aplomb.
But if we’re being honest, we like our actors to suffer for their craft, and no one seems to have suffered more this past year than Leonardo DiCaprio for his part as the mythologized 19th-century fur trapper Hugh Glass. Early stories of freezing temperatures and stark accommodations pale in comparison to the latest tales from Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s brutal Revenant set that involved DiCaprio sleeping in an animal carcass and eating raw bison liver. No, we haven’t yet seen the movie. But if that doesn’t get the four-time Oscar nominee his first statue, what will?
Even if actors are not playing men from the history books, some of the best performances are drawn from fictional men well-crafted by literature. Like Sherlock Holmes in the case of Ian McKellen‘s portrayal of both the spry 60-year-old fictional detective and his more feeble 93-year-old self in Mr. Holmes. Or the fictional botanist Mark Watney, as first envisioned by geeky novelist Andy Weir, and then fully embodied by Matt Damon, who kept our eyes glued to the screen even when tasked with the mundane exercises that allowed him to survive on Mars in the blockbuster The Martian.
Filling out the potential nominee list is Michael Caine for his sorrowful portrayal of an aging conductor in Youth and the ever-green Tom Hanks who, in his fourth collaboration with Steven Spielberg, pulls off the heroic everyman effortlessly in Bridge of Spies.
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Watch interviews with many of the contenders below: