Oscar time is upon us again, as this year’s nominations were announced this morning, prompting joy and disgust from moviegoers with almost every category. And while the first instinct will almost always be to complain about what didn’t make it – or to complain about Hollywood and awards season in general – let’s take a few minutes to shower further praise on those performers who are receiving their first nominations, and look at the long or short roads they traveled to achieve their successes.
We are admittedly playing favorites today, spotlighting actors and actresses (and a director) over those who arguably put just as much of an effort into the films’ creations. Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winters’ first nom for adapting The Wolf of Wall Street is worth a mention, as is Phillippe Le Sourd’s nom for Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster. Hell, even Steve Prouty’s makeup work for Bad Grandpa got a nod, though Johnny Knoxville is surprisingly absent from this year’s esteemed nominees. Ahem.
Here are 7 first time nominees and a little bit of backstory on where they came from...
Barkhad AbdiOne of two fairy tale stories from this year’s ceremony, Somali native Barkhad Abdi not only received his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but it was for his very first role in a film. The 28-year-old actor moved from Yemen to Minnesota when he was a teenager, and his post-university career consisted of working as a cab and limousine driver, as well as a radio DJ. His life changed forever following a 2011 casting call he’d heard about on the Today Show, which led to several more auditions for director Paul Greengrass and an eventual role.
But instead of being given a smaller role with only a few lines, Abdi nailed the role of Abduwali Muse, the head pirate responsible for taking over the container ship commanded by Tom Hanks’ Richard Phillips. Arguably the best part of a tense though predictable movie, Abdi has received award nominations from many associations and publications, and will be taking his career a step further by directing the film Ciyaalka Xaafada.
Lupita Nyong’oLike Abdi, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o received her Best Supporting Actress nomination for the first feature role, as the young and tortured Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. But unlike Abdi, she has a small background in cinema that helped her land the role. Born to political refugee parents in Mexico, Nyong’o moved back to Kenya for a while before heading to the U.S. to go to film school, eventually working behind the scenes on features such as The Constant Gardner and The Namesake. She went back to Kenya for a role in the TV miniseries Shuga and directed her own documentary called In My Genes.
It was after graduating Yale’s School of Drama that she landed the role of Patsey, and she has received almost universal praise from critics the world over. As you can imagine, she’ll be doing what every new Oscar nominee does for a follow-up project: she’ll star opposite Liam Neeson in the airplane thriller Non-Stop.
Chiwetel EjioforLondon-born theater actor Chiwetel Ejiofor firmly asserted his presence in Hollywood back in 1997 when he was cast in Stephen Spielberg’s lighthearted screwball comedy Amistad. This began a long and accolade-filled career in universally acclaimed films like Children of Men, cult flicks like Serenity, and popular indies such as Dirty Pretty Things.He’s worked with directors like David Mamet, Spike Lee and John Singleton, but never in roles that had the Academy calling his name.
Of course, that all changed with 12 Years a Slave, in which the Best Actor nominee Ejiofor was tasked with retaining humanity and silent strength as Solomon Northup, a free black man who was swindled and dealt into the violent and dignity-free world of the slave trade. In lesser hands, this character may have felt overwrought, but the subtlety Ejiofor applied was absolutely perfect, and he’ll be hard to beat once the voting is said and done.
Michael FassbenderIt seems like we’re talking about 12 Years a Slave a lot, right? And we’re not even done yet. On the page, slave owner Edwin Epps is one of the most detestable characters in 2013 cinema, and the German-Irish Michael Fassbender managed to give that character the full breadth of life and the struggle involved in living that life. Don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s easy to be a douchebag.
While he’d gotten his start in the still awesome HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, Fassbender didn’t really come into his own until starring in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger in 2008, and to a lesser extent in the extremely tense thriller Eden Lake. His performances in both Hunger and McQueen’s Shame were arguably deserving of Academy nominations, but his breakout success in the last few years, thanks to Inglorious Basterds and X-Men: First Class, should lead to an abundance of future roles, some of which may earn him further awards recognition. Hopefully not a Prometheus sequel though.
Jared LetoOh, Jordan Catalano! Leto has had as strange a rise to Oscar fame as anyone on this list. Starting off as a teen heartthrob in MTV’s My So-Called Life, Leto built up his reputation in films like The Thin Red Line and Fight Club before making everyone want to stay the hell away from heroin forever in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. After years of lesser roles, culminating in the "made in 2009 but released in 2013" sci-fi whackout Mr. Nobody, Leto decided to hang up his acting hat for a while in order to invest more time into his increasingly pretentious rock band 30 Seconds to Mars.
And then last year he returned to cinema with a powerhouse performance as the transgender AIDS victim Rayon in Jean-Marc Vallée’s drama Dallas Buyers Club. It wasn’t the most predictable choice, but it paid off in full, netting Leto a Best Supporting Actor nod to go along with co-star Matthew McConaughey’s Best Actor nom. Maybe he’ll write a terrible stadium anthem about the experience.
Sally HawkinsThe British indie fave Sally Hawkins has built a solid career on mostly supporting roles on both the stage and screen, and is occasionally more memorable than the stars. Her first major film breakthrough came in 2008 when she was universally acclaimed for her role as the blindingly optimistic Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Since then she’s starred in such films as Submarine and Jane Eyre, but it wasn’t until she hooked up with Woody Allen that Oscar lightning struck.
Blue Jasmine proved once again that Allen writes female roles as well as anyone, this time Cate Blanchett's title character and Hawkins as her sister Ginger. Something tells me she won’t be receiving such high praise for her upcoming role in the Godzilla reboot, but maybe she can tell that big monster to go and "convince" voters to grant her the trophy.
Steve McQueenFilmmakers like British director Steve McQueen don’t come around that often, bringing a wealth of precise visual styles (but not flair) to stories that heighten drama to its boiling point, all while keeping things ultimately grounded and interesting. 2008’s hunger strike drama Hunger was one unbroken take away from making me want to start protesting things, while the sexual addiction drama Shame is as much a modern love story and family drama as anything Richard Curtis has written. (Okay, it’s an incredibly uncomfortable love story and family drama, but still.)
But McQueen may never top himself in the Academy’s eyes than with the slavery epic 12 Years a Slave, a film that is sad but never maudlin, empathetic but never heavy handed, and violent without becoming straight torture porn. McQueen creates characters, not just narrative placeholders, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is his most fully-rounded character yet, despite staying quiet for large swaths of time. And you might have noticed McQueen didn’t need to use all the CGI effects that Gravity used. Maybe that’ll happen on his assumed follow-up film Slaves in Space.