The Oscar contenders' films are getting major Sundance screenings.

By David Canfield
January 30, 2021 at 05:00 PM EST

Typically, Sundance is where we get our first look at the next year's Oscar contenders. Not so in 2021: The late January film festival is suddenly perfect timing for this awards season's players to get a splashy premiere, with the Academy Awards pushing eligibility to the end of February. Unsurprisingly, several of them are taking advantage, including Warner Bros.' Judas and the Black Messiah, Focus Features' Land, and Bleecker Street's The World to Come.

Each of the films features dynamic performances generating heat in the acting races: Daniel Kaluuya takes on Chairman Fred Hampton in Judas, Demián Bichir explores grief and recovery in Land, and Katherine Waterston plays a farm woman experiencing a reawakening in 19th century New England in World. As part of EW's 2021 Sundance Film Festival panel series with the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), we gathered the three stars for a wide-ranging conversation on the nuances of these roles, the social impact of their films, and some of the greatest challenges they faced.

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures; Richard Wright; Vlad Cioplea

Bichir stars in Land opposite Robin Wright, who also directs, for a two-hander that often progresses in silence. "One of the things I love about actors that I admire is the moments where they're quiet, where they let their souls do the talking, and how strong the base of the character is," he says. "I just love that. I know some actors who count their lines in order to say 'yes' to a project. [Laughs] Robin and I cut some lines. We were getting rid of things we didn't need to say. Most of the things that I was looking for that I needed, in order to construct the character, were [already] on the page. They were right there."

Kaluuya felt the particular weight of playing a real person like Hampton, especially once filming began. "When I got to set, I realized it was a different kind of pressure than I imagined it, because [Hampton's] son was on set every day," he reflects. "Having that every day was a reminder of what we were doing. There's a legacy, there's a family story, there's a community of people that have been actively erased by the people who are supposed to support them."

Waterston's character Abigail in The World to Come falls into a passionate romance with a neighboring housewife, played by Vanessa Kirby; once she signed onto the project, Waterston was intrigued by the imagined nature of the relationship. "When I started working on the script, I found there was just no written document that I could find about a gay couple from this period," the actress says. "I suppose I slightly took for granted how much this was an imagined history. Not an improbable one, but one we don't have documents to study to try to understand better."

Watch the full roundtable conversation above.

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