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Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor's soul-baring portrayal of 12 Years a Slave's Solomon Northup, a real-life Saratoga Springs, N.Y., musician, husband, and father duped by two white men and sold into brutal servitude in the antebellum South, has propelled the longtime actor (Children of Men, American Gangster) into the kind of media spotlight he never expected, or sought. For the first time, strangers on the streets of Los Angeles are correctly pronouncing his exotic name (for the record, it's CHEW-eh-tell EDGE-ee-oh-four). ''I was never particularly excited about being at the front of the crowd,'' Ejiofor says. ''With acting, you can tuck yourself away and, through the character, express all your humanity, hopes, fears, and dreams.''
''He's a calculated risk-taker,'' director Steve McQueen says. ''There's a fearlessness about him, but he's the kind of actor who thinks too much before — 'How is this going to happen?' — and then all of a sudden, he jumps.''
When McQueen first approached Ejiofor about 12 Years, the actor thought it was out of his reach. ''It blindsided me,'' Ejiofor says. ''I hadn't seen a film like that. I thought I'd never see a film like that. It was a story that was so inside the slave experience. I recognized it as a huge responsibility.'' Only when he realized that he had to tell just one man's story, not carry the weight of hundreds of years of slavery on his shoulders, did he agree.
He did months of research, reading Northup's memoir and studying the economics of the slave trade, before setting foot in Louisiana. Once there, nothing about the experience spooked him, he says. The scenes of intense violence?hanging from a noose, being beaten mercilessly?only helped him connect more deeply to his character. ''In those moments you feel that you are as close as you can get to what was going on,'' he says. ''It allows another level of legitimacy in the pursuit of someone's story.'' Still, the time on the plantation took a toll, says McQueen, who advised Ejiofor to be mindful of what the role might be doing to the actor's head. ''Being in that environment, it's not play,'' the director says. ''He was dancing with ghosts.'' —Nicole Sperling
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The Good Wife
Sometimes a thorough desk cleaning can make all the difference. Just ask the cast and crew of The Good Wife. In the season's fifth episode (aptly titled ''Hitting the Fan''), Will (Josh Charles) sweeps Alicia's (Julianna Margulies) desktop in a fit of rage over her decision to leave Lockhart/Gardner. In that moment, the CBS legal drama went from a quiet gem to a breathtaking tale about betrayal, ambition, and revenge — an extraordinary accomplishment for a show that just aired its 100th episode. Unless you're talking about an envelope-pushing series that focuses on a cancer-riddled meth lord, it's almost unprecedented for a drama to explode in its fifth season. But if not for those first four years — when husband-and-wife executive-producing team Robert and Michelle King introduced viewers to a wronged woman, her philandering husband Peter (Chris Noth), and the law firm that gave her a fresh start — the show's nearly 12 million fans would never have been able to experience such a sensational breakthrough.
''We layered those relationships over time,'' says Christine Baranski, who is superb as Diane Lockhart, now another one of Alicia's nemeses. ''There is a complicated history with all of them, so when it hits the fan, it was genuinely shocking. There is something in our culture, in our entertainment, where we want fast payoffs. What this show has proven is that if you lay the groundwork carefully with intelligence and complexity, when things really do happen — it has a tremendous impact. It's like breaking up a long marriage.''
Speaking of which? The Kings have a tall order when it comes to resolving the most delicious part of the journey — whether Alicia and Will will ever fully commit to each other. (Insiders talk of a major game-changing episode in March, but the creators are mum, other than Michelle promising, ''There'll be no cruise ship sinking.'') So keep hope alive, Wilicias! Or is it Aliciwils? ''Clearly this is a woman who is committed to her husband, but that doesn't mean the candle isn't burning as hot,'' reassures Robert. ''It's a conflagration. You can't discount how that heat can translate.'' Nor can anyone predict where viewer passion may lie: One of the show's crowning achievements is how fan devotion to Peter-Alicia and Will-Alicia can turn on a dime. ''You feel a big split on that, which I find fascinating,'' says Margulies. ''I was on a talk show that took a poll on what the audience would want. Will won out by 68 percent to 32 percent. With any given episode it can change to them wanting Alicia together with Peter.'' So what's it gonna be, counselor? ''Ultimately, what the audience really wants is for Alicia to find some happiness,'' Margulies says. ''I just don't know if that will happen anytime soon.'' That's a bummer for Alicia?but great news for us. —Lynette Rice
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Patina Miller, Pippin
Patina Miller dangles from a trapeze almost 20 feet above the stage, belting out the final notes of the opening song from the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Pippin. Over the next two-plus hours, Miller plays with pyrotechnics, levitates a king, performs soft-shoe, Hula-Hoops, and hypnotically leads a troupe of acting acrobats through the not-so-historically-accurate story of a ninth-century Frankish prince in search of purpose. She is the fearless, flying, ferocious Leading Player, but she has a secret: ''I'm a little scared of heights.''
''She never told me that!'' says director Diane Paulus, whose first choice for the role was always the 29-year-old actress, a rising star since she played the Whoopi Goldberg role in Broadway's Sister Act in 2011. ''But that's just so typical of Patina. It's her determination, her virtuosity. She is such a creature of the theater.'' She needs all the skill she can muster to play Pippin's cunning, charismatic narrator — a part originated in 1972 by Ben Vereen. ''It's a very intense, physical role, but I feel very powerful,'' says Miller. ''Before the curtain goes up, I have this big spotlight on me. I'm the first thing they see. It's electrifying.''
From the dazzling opening to the fiery finale, Miller has to act, sing, and shimmy through demanding Fosse-like choreography. Throw in acrobatics and magical illusions, and Miller is a quintuple threat. She's earned impressive rewards for her Pippin star turn: In addition to winning a Tony, she was cast as Commander Paylor in the last two Hunger Games films. And her longtime boyfriend, venture capitalist David Mars, proposed on opening night. ''He was sweating the entire show,'' says Miller, laughing. It wasn't the usual popping-the-question jitters — he was more worried about her high-flying act. ''He was like, 'Baby, do you have insurance?''' —Marc Snetiker
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James Franco, Spring Breakers
In Spring Breakers, James Franco makes you believe he is a marble-mouthed sleazoid-mystic who sprang fully formed from a pile of crumpled dollar bills and expired Oxycontin in the corner of a strip-club bathroom. And we mean that as a compliment. Franco, 35, so inhabited his role as the drug-dealing, conspicuously consuming Alien that even while filming, he says, people didn't realize it was him. ''I had the cornrows in and although the tattoos weren't real, I'd keep them on so we wouldn't have to redo them the next day,'' he says. ''I'd go back to the hotel and I'd forget [about them], thinking, 'I'm just regular old James.' I'd walk down the hall and get really weird reactions, double takes and people moving to avoid me.'' Even more impressive is the fact that the insanely memorable (and memorably insane) performance hit screens only a week after Franco headlined Oz the Great and Powerful. ''It was pretty cool,'' he says. ''Oz was the number one movie in theaters, and Spring Breakers was the number one limited-release movie. Whatever cognitive friction was created by having the Disney girls in Spring Breakers was added to by me also being in a big Disney movie around the same time.'' —Keith Staskiewicz
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Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
Don't back Kate Atkinson into a genre. Although she's best known for her brilliant series featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie, you can't really label her a crime writer. ''Once you put a detective in a book, you're doomed, really,'' says Atkinson, 62. ''I don't like the way people want to limit you.''
Her latest novel, Life After Life, explodes any preconceptions. It's been called experimental lit, sci-fi, and historical fiction — and it manages to be all and yet none of those things. Atkinson centers her novel on a Groundhog Day-like conceit: Ursula Todd is cursed to die over and over again, and each time she does, we return to the wintry 1910 night on which she's born. (In one iteration, Ursula lives long enough to find herself amid the rubble of the German blitz on London during World War II and faces down Hitler himself.) Atkinson downplays the enormous achievement of juggling all these elements without getting absurd or repetitive. ''This was one of the easiest books I've written,'' she says. ''Nobody believes me because it looks quite complicated, but it has a beautiful rhythm to it: She dies, she lives, she dies, she lives.''
Atkinson says she took particular relish in killing Ursula in a multitude of ways. ''I love writing death scenes,'' she says with a laugh. ''There's huge writerly satisfaction to be had from writing one because you can pack it with all the bells and whistles of feeling.'' She adds, ''We writers live on the dark side.'' The author already has two possible new novels percolating in her mind, one of them a companion to Life After Life. It's safe to assume that whatever she does next will surprise us. ''I think I need to move on to romance,'' she jokes. ''That way I could have written in every genre.'' —Stephan Lee
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James Spader, The Blacklist
For James Spader, playing a criminal mastermind like Raymond ''Red'' Reddington on NBC's runaway hit The Blacklist conjures up images of frolicking around his childhood home. Sound odd? Not when you hear him explain why. ''This TV show is a great game of make-believe because you're really taking a flier on it,'' says the 53-year-old actor. ''It's the closest thing you can do as an actor that replicates playing around in your backyard as a kid. Things are very fluent and can really go in any direction.'' That's why Spader — who'll spend his summer hiatus playing a brilliant robot bent on destroying the world in the Avengers sequel — is having a ball as an unpredictable, fedora-wearing antihero who's helping the feds capture his nefarious peers. ''He's a very dangerous guy. I like that enigmatic quality where he's perfectly comfortable in a world that others should never get comfortable in.'' —Lynette Rice
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Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
There's no denying the rough edges of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, who died at age 96 in 1996. Fearsome and sharp-tongued, she tried to wrest control of the 1964 Mary Poppins film from Walt Disney — a rousing battle brought to the big screen in Saving Mr. Banks, costarring Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt. She even enshrined her sourness by insisting that her conversations at the House of Mouse be taped for posterity. (Stick around for the movie's end credits and you'll get to hear some original recordings of Travers bossing around the Disney gang.) But instead of making her character come off as a monster, Emma Thompson, 54, lets us see how pain from the distant past — like Travers' losing her father at a young age — can harden a heart. 'She thought [Disney] was taking [Mary Poppins] away and would turn her into some dreadful, chirping cheery person,'' says Thompson, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role. ''The Disney version of her story was anathema to her. It was, as far as she was concerned, sentimentalized and sugary. Famously, she went up to Walt Disney on the night of the premiere and said, 'Well, we've got a lot of work to do.' And he said, 'The boat's sailed, Pam!''' —Anthony Breznican
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Zachary Quinto , The Glass Menagerie
Since his second voyage on the starship Enterprise in Star Trek Into Darkness, Zachary Quinto has spent his fall dazzling audiences on Broadway as Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie — a character whom Spock would no doubt find ''highly illogical.'' A brooding, depressed dreamer, Tom has given Quinto a chance to show off his emotional agility on stage. More important for the 36-year-old star is the opportunity to bond with the play's late author, one of Quinto's favorites. ''Tennessee Williams appears in every single character he's written, but never so much as in Tom. And that's the biggest gift that I feel playing the role,'' Quinto says. ''I feel such a sense of connection to him as a person.'' —Adam Markovitz
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Amy Adams, American Hustle
''David sees an aspect of my personality, a fierceness, that he wants to exploit,'' Amy Adams, 39, says of David O. Russell, her American Hustle director. ''I remember when we were doing The Fighter, he saw it and was like, 'I want to figure out what that is.''' Well, figure it out he did. Sydney Prosser is the most ferocious creature the actress (who in 2013 also appeared in Man of Steel and Spike Jonze's Her) has ever portrayed. As partner and mistress to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), Sydney is a stripper?turned?con woman posing as a British aristocrat. She's a master of keeping her emotions hidden — using clingy dresses and plunging necklines to distraction — but Adams allows us to see not just a hustler's steely resolve but also her longing and sadness. When Sydney faces down Irving's loose cannon of a wife (Jennifer Lawrence) in an Atlantic City bathroom, it has the heightened tension of a prizefight, a spectacular showdown that ends with Lawrence planting a hostile kiss on Adams' lips — an Adams suggestion. ''David always said that Sydney was a weapon,'' she says. And Adams has proved herself to be an expert sniper. —Sara Vilkomerson
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Taissa and Vera Farmiga, American Horror Story: Coven and Bates Motel
We're guessing Halloween was a popular holiday in the Farmigas' New Jersey household. Sisters Vera and Taissa, who have five(!) other siblings, both gave arresting, compelling performances on two of the creepiest series of the year, A&E's Bates Motel and FX's American Horror Story: Coven, respectively. Playing Norman Bates' waaaaaay-too-attached mother, Norma, on the Psycho prequel, Vera turned what could have been a one-note crazy-mama character into a deeply disturbed but overall sympathetic woman. ''She's just this holy-grail cocktail of madness,'' says the 40-year-old actress. She adds: ''Because it's such a challenge, because she's so all over the place, because she's so ridden with contradiction, it's so much fun to play. I understand that she's incredibly flawed, but there are aspects to her character that are so beautiful to me. She has this disarming honesty, as much of a liar as she is. ''
Taissa is equally fearless playing her Coven character, Zoe, a teenager coping with her new identity as a witch with a killer vagina (beware, would-be suitors!). Zoe is by turns naive, flirtatious, and, ultimately, badass. ''It's just being a part of something special — you're willing to do it,'' says the 19-year-old of signing up for the wild role, which AHS creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk wrote for her. Having a sister who can understand what it's like to exist in a heightened horror world definitely helps. Says Taissa: ''Once in a while [Vera will] text me and tell me what's going on on-set [at Motel] or send me a picture. I'm like, 'Girl, I know what you're talking about. I got you.''' —Tim Stack
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Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
It's easy to dwell on the headlines surrounding Jared Leto's performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Yes, he lost more than 30 pounds to play Rayon, the drug-addicted, HIV-positive transgender woman who becomes an unlikely partner with Matthew McConaughey's homophobic AIDS patient in a 1980s meds-smuggling operation. Yes, he playfully hit on director Jean-Marc Vallée while in character during their first meeting, and yes, he never stepped out of character until the film wrapped. But Leto's most powerful moment in the movie is the scene in which Rayon dresses up as a man. Wearing a dark suit that hangs on her skeletal frame, eschewing makeup and a wig in order to pacify Rayon's conservative father, Leto captures all the hurt and heart that simmers just beneath the surface. Rayon wears that suit like the fabric is burning her skin. ''A lot of times this part had been covered in a way that was more campy or over-the-top,'' says Leto. ''I wanted to bring a real person to the screen.'' For the 41-year-old, it was a career-reviving opportunity, his first movie after more than five years of touring with his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. That he was so committed was no surprise to those who remember his weight transformations for Requiem for a Dream and Chapter 27, for which he gained 60 pounds. But that doesn't mean he's eager to suffer again for another role. ''Can't I just grow a beard?'' he says with a grin. —Jeff Labrecque
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Often the longer a politician stays in office, the lower her approval ratings fall. But in the case of HBO's Veep, the more egregiously Vice President Selina Meyer stumbles, the harder we laugh and the more praise we heap on her. This year, Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her second Emmy award for playing Selina. ''I understand her inner conflict,'' says Louis-Dreyfus of the mesmerizingly frenetic, gaffe-plagued VP. ''She's very powerful and driven, [but] her sense of righteousness and morality is defused by her drive for power.''
The second season gave Selina some actual authority — and it was hilarious to watch her buckle beneath it. ''She sucks at her job, to be frank,'' Louis-Dreyfus, 52, says with a laugh. A low for the VP but a high for the actress came in the much-talked-about episode ''Running,'' when after a minor victory a reinvigorated Selina marched through a glass door on the way to schmooze with potential donors. ''That was so much fun, and actually a bit scary because she walks away from the accident pretty beaten up,'' says Louis-Dreyfus. ''We tried to find the line between scary and funny.'' That's a line that Louis-Dreyfus has struck in her lauded career as Seinfeld's Elaine Benes, The New Adventures of Old Christine's Christine Campbell, and now Selina Meyer. ''Maybe there's an underlying rage-slash-paranoia that pits them against the universe,'' she says. ''I think that's the link.'' —Stephan Lee
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Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
The Interestings, which starts at an arts camp for teenagers, follows a group of kids into middle age. Some become ordinary, others extremely successful. ''But it's not a summer-camp book,'' says Wolitzer. ''It's about the moment when you find your people. When you find your cohort.'' Of the novel's chief theme, envy, Wolitzer notes, ''When I've seen envy portrayed in film or books, it's been this out-in-the-open kind. But there's this other, quiet envy you feel for people you love. A friend calls you up and says, 'Something wonderful happened,' and you're genuinely happy. But it's not long before we think about ourselves. It's so human. There was that great scene in that Woody Allen movie Stardust Memories where he's on this horrible train and he looks out the window and there's this beautiful train going by where people are having champagne. Your own life can start to feel like the ugly-person train, and that's such a danger — because this is it!'' —Stephan Lee
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Michael Urie, Buyer & Cellar
For his remarkable year in Off Broadway's Buyer & Cellar, Michael Urie should raise a glass — maybe the one in his dressing room featuring a certain diva's face. First, to Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who turned down the one-man show about a struggling actor working at the famed underground mall at Barbra Streisand's Malibu estate. Also, to writer Jonathan Tolins, who penned the hilarious story about love, loss, and what Barbra wore. But mostly Urie should toast himself for his award-winning performance playing seven characters, including a tour de force Babs. ''I didn't want to do a drag version of Barbra,'' says Urie, 33. ''I wanted the funny to come out of the situation rather than her being cross-eyed.'' Does he think La Streisand should see it? ''It wouldn't be fair for her to sit with an audience,'' says Urie. A command performance? ''That would be better, but I'd s--- in my pants.'' —Jessica Shaw
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Allison Janney, Masters of Sex and Mom
Allison Janney didn't begin this year expecting to rule the world — or at least TV. But after she booked a high-profile gig as Anna Faris' recovering-alcoholic parent Bonnie on Mom, a call came in from Showtime that her services were needed to play the lonely wife of a gay provost on Masters of Sex. Suddenly, the 54-year-old actress, who costarred as a merry divorcée (coincidentally a boozehound as well) in this year's comedy confection The Way, Way Back, was about to embark on one of the best years of her career. ''It was a wonderful confluence of events,'' says the actress, who also did an episode of HBO's Veep earlier this year.
Best known for her Emmy-winning role as press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, Janney had an easy transition to the CBS comedy — mostly because of co-creator Chuck Lorre. ''After The West Wing, I had a development deal with him, so we had quite a few dinners. I've always felt very comfortable around him.''
The Sex-y role, however, shook her up a bit, especially once she found out that her character, Margaret Scully, would have an affair with a libidinous younger doctor. I was terrified about the nudity part. It was like, Are you kidding me? Do you know how old I am? But I had lost some weight and was working out a lot, so this is as good as I'm gonna feel about my body. So I might as well be brave.'' —Lynette Rice
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Robert Redford, All Is Lost
The beleaguered sailor in All Is Lost doesn't have a name. The script refers to him simply as Our Man, which is everything you need to know about why writer-director J.C. Chandor needed Robert Redford to play him. With only a few lines of dialogue, the one-man show called for someone not simply famous but historically significant. Redford's character is completely alone after his sailboat begins to founder in the Indian Ocean, and our bond with Our Man is reinforced by the legend's iconic roles in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were, and The Natural. ''I needed an actor who had a very deep relationship with an audience to be able to pull that off,'' says Chandor, ''so that by the time you get there in the third act you are sort of projecting your own fears, your own desires, your own concerns about the world, and it really becomes an emotional experience.'' Our Man fights and fights and fights — until he cannot. When that famous face ticks from grim determination to weary surrender and Our Man finally unleashes the most exasperated, most justified F-bomb in movie history, you half expect Mother Nature and Murphy's Law to retreat. It's a truly courageous performance for anyone, much less a 77-year-old actor whose last — and only! — Oscar nomination for acting was 40 years ago. Whether Redford gets another one now, no one who sees All Is Lost will ever mistake him for just a pretty face. —Jeff Labrecque
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Matthew Rhys, The Americans
As KGB spy Philip Jennings on FX's The Americans, Matthew Rhys, 39, masterfully pulls off a lot of contradictory characteristics: He's a romantic who cheats. He works for the Soviets but kind of loves America. He's sensitive but will kick your butt. (Incidentally, Rhys does all this as a Welshman playing a Russian playing an American.) ''He's in great conflict with a number of elements in his life, and the more crazed his world becomes, the more he wants a simpler life,'' Rhys says, adding, ''Philip is definitely a more-than-average challenging role.'' Good thing Rhys is a more-than-average terrific actor. —Jessica Shaw