Best Performances

Our 39 nominees take on the most refreshingly original roles of their careers.

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

With the exception of movies about comic book heroes like Captain America and Spider-Man, as well as The Hunger Games, with its * Katniss Everdeen, nearly every film—especially those in the holiday “prestige” season—was based on the life of a real person. Audiences looking to encounter new characters and nonhistoric narratives had to tune in to premium cable television. On the big screen, Eddie Redmayne was stunning as the genius physicist Stephen Hawking; Reese Witherspoon was courageous as Cheryl Strayed, who walked more than 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail after her mother’s death; and Benedict Cumberbatch was riveting as the largely forgotten Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who helped end World War II and whose Turing machine was a precursor to the modern-day computer. Real people were also brought vividly to life by Amy Adams (as the artist Margaret Keane, who created the Big Eyes paintings in the 1960s), Bradley Cooper (as Chris Kyle, the most accurate sniper in military history), and Steve Carell (as John E. du Pont, the American chemical-company heir who collected Olympic wrestlers and may have been insane). The list of last year’s epic male roles goes on: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.; Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner, the English landscape painter. Even [Boyhood,*](http://www.wmagazine.com/people/insiders/2014/04/ellar-coltrane-boyhood/) the fascinating film made over a period of 12 years that traces the life of a child from age 6 to 18, has the feel of an artistic reality show—the power of the work is in its docudrama veracity.

There were, of course, some notable exceptions to the maelstrom of characterizations straight out of the history books. In Birdman, Michael Keaton appeared as a version of himself—a once successful actor who played a caped crusader—and he, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone all shine in this backstage drama about the complex connection between ego, ambition, and creativity. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are locked in a different version of that emotional battle in Whiplash, about an aspiring jazz drummer and his sadistic teacher. Like Birdman, Whiplash has a larger message about the search for excellence and its cost. And, in A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac embodies a new version of the immigrant story. As a self-made businessman out to achieve the American Dream of wealth and status, he attempts to be civilized and to keep his violent tendencies in check. That proves to be nearly impossible.

Isaac’s character is aided by his savvy wife, played with sly intensity by Jessica Chastain. It should be noted that finding an original, intelligent, intuitive, lively female character in 2014 was like coming across a unicorn. There were very few exceptions to the stock character wife who cradles a baby in her arms as she tells her leading man, “Whatever you think, honey.” Defying the stereotypes were the great and subtle Marion Cotillard as a factory worker fighting for her job in Two Days, One Night, Scarlett Johansson as an alluring alien in Under the Skin, and the brilliant Julianne Moore as an early-onset-Alzheimer’s victim in Still Alice. It can’t be a coincidence that two of those films are foreign and one was made independently.

This combination of severely limited female roles and overwhelmingly serious film biographies may have contributed to the sense of abandon that seemed to possess the 39 actors and actresses chosen for this portfolio. The photographer Tim Walker was influenced by the colorful, sun-drenched Los Angeles paintings and photographs of David Hockney, as well as the ’70s free-love aesthetic that informs the artist’s work. From there, the photographic scenarios took cues from Federico Fellini and, naturally, Walker’s own unique perspective. Remarkably, all the actors and actresses were excited to play, to be transformed, to embrace personae that were extreme, odd, and truly fascinating. Perhaps therein lies a message for Hollywood: History is safe, but surprise is thrilling. In 2015, please give these actors new worlds to conquer.

Best Performances 2015

Julianne Moore in Still Alice “In one of my first films, Short Cuts, I am nude from the waist down. I guess it was scary. And challenging. But it’s not as scary as skiing. I only feel brave when something really terrifies me, and, in my case, that would be skiing.”

Watch a video interview with Julianne Moore here.

Julianne Moore wears Emanuel Ungaro gown, $3,530, Emanuel Ungaro, Dallas, 214.559.4510; Christian Louboutin shoes, $1,275, christianlouboutin.com.

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper “I had advantages in making a film about the Iraq war. On USO tours, I went to bases in the middle of nowhere in enemy territory. I was with the soldiers in their barracks, and I really got a sense of it. And, oddly, I had experience from having starred in The A-Team. I learned how to shoot guns for that film. After making it, an M-4 felt as comfortable to me as a tennis racquet.”

Watch a video interview with Bradley Cooper here.

Bradley Cooper wears Louis Vuitton Jacket, $3,360, and trousers, $870, louisvuitton.com; J.W. Anderson shoes, price upon request, Saks Fifth Avenue, 877.551.SAKS.

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash “I’m now working with a bunch of actors that my 13-year-old daughter has crushes on. She has a thing for bad boys like Miles Teller in Whiplash, which is a little troubling. She wouldn’t mind if I did a movie with Ryan Gosling. Actually, that would make us both happy.”

J.K. Simmons wears Versace blazer, price upon request, for similar styles at select Versace stores, 888.721.7219; Thomas Pink shirt, $185, and bow tie, $95, thomaspink.com.

Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins “My parents were big movie buffs, and they didn’t really care what I watched. My dad let me see A Clockwork Orange when I was around 10. I said, ‘Oh, my God—this woman just got raped!’ And my dad was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah—but you know what they’re doing is bad, right?’ He thought, It’s Kubrick; it’s a great movie. Everything will be all right if the movie is great.”

Bill Hader wears Marc Jacobs suit, $2,145, marcjacobs.com; vest and shirt from Carlo Manzi, London, price upon request, for hire only, carlomanzi.com; Erickson Beamon brooch, $302, Beyond 7, New York, 646.619.6857; Solange Azagury-Partridge gold and plique-a-jour ring, $4,400, solange.co.uk; Marc Jacobs socks, marcjacobs.com; J.W. Anderson shoes, price upon request, Saks Fifth Avenue, 877.551.SAKS.

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child “I started my career in stand-up comedy. I didn’t have jokes— my stand-up was a half-on-a-date/half-in-a-therapy-session version of me. I liked to wear dresses onstage and look how I’d look if I was going out with someone I liked. My goal was to be an American movie actress, and stand-up was my way of auditioning.”

Jenny Slate wears Burberry Prorsum trenchcoat, $6,500, burberry.com; Preen by Thornton Bregazzi bodysuit, $526, Curve, Los Angeles, 310.550.3988; Jonathan Aston tights, $10, jonathanaston.com; Simone Rocha shoes, $1,050, ssense.com.

Ethan Hawke in Boyhood “Becoming a ‘celebrity’ after Reality Bites made it hard to grow up. It created a false reality. You think girls like you, but, really, they like the idea of celebrity. Back then, I would take girls home and they would accidentally call me Troy, which was the name of my character.”

Watch a video interview with Ethan Hawke here.

Ethan Hawke wears Gucci tank top, $625, gucci.com; Erickson Beamon brooch, $302, Beyond 7, New York, 646.619.6857.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild “The sex scenes in Wild were the most explicit I’ve ever done. I dreaded those days of shooting, but they were important. Otherwise it’s just a hiking movie—and that’s not interesting.”

Watch a video interview with Reese Witherspoon here.

Reese Witherspoon wears Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt, $845, dolcegabbana.com; Eric Javits hat, price upon request, ericjavits.com; M&S Schmalberg flower (worn around neck), $25, customfabricflowers.com; Alexis Bittar lip pin, $595, alexisbittar.com; Emilio Cavallini socks, price upon request, similar styles at emiliocavallini.com; Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane sandals, $1,395, Saint Laurent, New York, 212.980.2970.

Photo by Tim Walker.

Sienna Miller in American Sniper “For my first part ever, I played a girl named Stacey in a BBC drama. She was the really trashy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks girlfriend of a geeky boy. I had to say the most embarrassing lines: She called a man’s genitalia ‘a purple-headed trouser beast.’ It was so humiliating that I almost quit acting.”

Watch a video interview with Sienna Miller here.

Sienna Miller wears Coach jacket, $795, coach.com; Anna Sui vest, $363, net-a-porter.com; Anna Sui blouse, $398, Anna Sui, New York, 212.941.8406; Hilfiger Collection shorts, $430, similar styles at Tommy Hilfiger, New York, 212.223.1824; Hilfiger Collection scarf, $160, Tommy Hilfiger, New York, 212.223.1824.

Steve Carell in Foxcatcher “I used to do a piece on The Daily Show called ‘Slimming Down With Steve,’ and I brought out a jar of Crisco and said to Jon Stewart, ‘This is pure vegetable oil, and if you eat this you will get your daily supply of vegetables.’ They wanted to give me vanilla frosting, but I insisted that it actually be Crisco because it was the funnier thing to do. So I ate, like, a ladleful of Crisco. When you’re in the zone, you’ll do anything.”

Steve Carell wears jacket from Contemporary Wardrobe, London, price upon request, for hire only, carlomanzi.com; Thomas Pink shirt, $195, thomaspink.com; Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers trousers, $350, brooksbrothers.com; Tabio socks, price upon request, tabio.com; Etro loafers, $918, etro.com.

Elle Fanning (near right) in Low Down “It was always my dream to play a princess. I watched all the animated Disney films, and there were two blondes like me: Cinderella and Aurora. My sister liked Cinderella, but Aurora in Sleeping Beauty was mine because of her pink dress. Pink was my color.”

Dakota Fanning in Night Moves “For Night Moves, I dyed my hair dark. That was a shock. Everyone acted differently toward me—even my family. My mom has dark hair and dark eyes, so I’ve never really looked like her. For the first time, we were similar. And she was not into it. [Laughs] The day after the movie ended, I went back to being blonde—and myself.”

Dakota Fanning wears Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane dress, $3,190, brooch, $4,995, hat, $990; and scarf, $325, Saint Laurent, New York, 212.431.3240; Eres bra, $235, Barneys New York, New York, 212.826.8900. Elle Fanning wears Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane dress, $2,390, Saint Laurent, New York, 212.431.3240; Max Mara bow, price upon request, Max Mara, New York, 212.879.6100; Preston & Olivia hat, $215, prestonandolivia.com.

Jack O’Connell in Unbroken “My first-ever role was on a daytime program called Doctors. I was a teen runaway with anger-management issues. Then I went on to The Bill, another TV program, where I played a teenage rapist. The kid was caught and got what he deserved, but I don’t know why they kept approaching me for these roles.”

Jack O’Connell wears T-shirt from Carlo Manzi, London, price upon request, for hire only, carlomanzi.com.

Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year and Interstellar

“The part I play in Interstellar was originally written for a man. It was about a father and son, rather than a father and daughter. When Christopher Nolan, the director, switched the gender, I don’t think much about the character changed. And that shows you that Hollywood could easily take more chances with female characters: Men and women aren’t that different.”

Watch a video interview with Jessica Chastain here.

Jessica Chastain wears Novis sweater, $825, novisnyc.com; MP Massimo Piombo shirt, $300, mrporter.com; Rosie Assoulin pants, $1,595, Fivestory, New York, 212.288.1338; Oscar de la Renta belts, $690, Oscar de la Renta, New York, 212.288.5810; Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons shoes, $760, Comme des Garçons, New York, 212.604.9200. In foreground: Giorgio Armani pants, $825, Giorgio Armani, New York, 212.988.9191; American Apparel socks, $9, americanapparel.com; Christian Louboutin shoes, $1,275, christianlouboutin.com.

Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up “To play James Brown, I would rehearse with a tight suit on. That’s the easiest way to get into character: the dress pants, the leather shoes, the button-down shirt, sometimes even a tie. To really understand the nuances of Brown’s dance style, you had to be properly dressed like him at all times. When he danced, he wanted you to see the crease in his trousers, the line of his sleeve, and, of course, his pinkie ring. So you had to have that on to show it off.”

Chadwick Boseman wears Bottega Veneta jacket, $2,600, bottegaveneta.com; Bottega Veneta pocket square, price upon request, similar styles at Bottega Veneta, 800.845.6790; Prada shirt, $770, and vest, $860, prada.com; Umit Benan pants, $440, thecorner.com; Lanvin cravat from Carlo Manzi, London price upon request, for hire only, carlomanzi.com; Falke socks, $28, The Sock Hop, New York, 212.625.3105; Church’s shoes, $820, church-footwear.com.

Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher “I surfed, boxed, and played football and basketball, but nothing is harder than wrestling. In Foxcatcher, the toughest part was mastering the physicality of the sport. After three minutes of charging in a full-on wrestling match, you think you’re going to die.”

Watch a video interview with Mark Ruffalo here.

Mark Ruffalo wears Valentino suit, $2,650, Valentino, New York, 212.355.5811; Marc Jacobs shirt, $390, marcjacobs.com; Selima Optique glasses, $360, selimaoptique.com; Falke socks, $22 per pair, The Sock Hop, New York, 212.625.3105; Church’s shoes, $725, Church’s English Shoes, New York, 212.758.5200.

Imogen Poots in Jimi: All Is by My Side “My first role was when I was 15, in V for Vendetta. I played a lesbian who passes a note to her classmate. Mostly, I recall that they had copious amounts of cake on set, and I spent most of my time in the cake section. I kept thinking, Dreams are real.”

Imogen Poots wears Prada gilet vest, $420, and top, $1,410, prada.com; Anna Sui shorts, $299, stylebop.com; Eugenia Kim hat, price upon request, Eugenia Kim, New York, 212.993.6491; vintage Cartier Love brooch in gold, circa 1971, from Beladora, Beverly Hills, $3,250, beladora.com; vintage brooch, circa 1970, from Beladora, Beverly Hills, $395, beladora.com.

Michael Keaton in Birdman “Stand-up comedy is one of the hardest, most exhilarating things you can do. There’s no character to hide behind, and it’s your philosophy on full view. In the beginning, when I did stand-up I had nothing to lose. It’s best to maintain that attitude for your entire career— the trick is to always work like you’re at the base of the pyramid.”

Etro trenchcoat and trousers; Z Zegna shirt; Jil Sander sneakers.

Photographer: Tim Walker Styled: Jacob K

Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner “To play Turner, I had to learn to paint. Over three years, I did speed drawing and life drawing, and I ended up painting a full-scale copy of one of his masterpieces. It’s on my wall at home. I look at it and think, How the fuck did I do that? I must have been on Turner drugs or something, because I would never be able to paint that again.”

Timothy Spall wears Giorgio Armani trenchcoat, $2,475, and pants, $825, Giorgio Armani, New York, 212.988.9191; shirt and scarf from Carlo Manzi, London, prices upon request, for hire only, carlomanzi.com; Christian Louboutin shoes, $1,275, christianlouboutin.com.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin “As a child actor, I had a hard time booking commercials. I was this small, blonde, enthusiastic kid, and then I’d open my mouth and people would hear my voice and say, ‘Do you have a cold?’ My voice was too deep. It confused people.”

Scarlett Johansson wears Miu Miu top, skirt, and belt, prices upon request, miumiu.com.

Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year “My big, youthful cinematic crush was on Jessica Lange in King Kong. My dad had just bought a computer, and I used it to print out her name in every font. Years later, I made a movie with Jessica Lange, and within 30 seconds of meeting her, I said, ‘I wrote your name in every font.’ She was very kind. But she may have thought I was unbalanced.”

Oscar Isaac wears Ami jacket, $550, mrporter.com; Boss shirt, $205, hugoboss.com; Giorgio Armani pants, $825, Giorgio Armani, New York, 212.988.9191.

Meryl Streep in Into the Woods “The movie that makes me cry is Anchorman. I have the biggest crush on Will Ferrell. I love him in every film he does. I mean, Ryan Gosling could be my child. I’m not going to have a crush on a child. Will Ferrell is a man.”

Emily Blunt in Into the Woods “I have a crush on Roy Scheider in Jaws. It’s the way that cigarette dangles out the side of his mouth. No one smokes a cigarette like him.”

Watch a video interview with Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt here.

Meryl Streep wears Vetements jacket, $1,960, antonioli.eu; Thomas Pink shirt, $350, thomaspink.com; Loewe earring, $490, loewe.com. Emily Blunt wears Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci blouse, $4,700, Barneys New York, New York, 212.826.8900; M&S Schmalberg flower, price upon request, customfabricflowers.com; Loewe earring, $790, loewe.com.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game “Both my parents are actors, and they discouraged me from the profession. But I thought their lives were so romantic. I did loads of plays when I was at school. It was all boys, so I got to play girls. It’s scary how epicene I was. I got the female thing down. My parents were a little worried at that point—they thought they’d lost me to the other side of the board.”

Watch a video interview with Benedict Cumberbatch here.

Benedict Cumberbatch wears Canali sweater, $1,050, canali.com; Thomas Pink shirt, $195, thomaspink.com; Umit Benan pants, $460, thecorner.com; Tabio socks, price upon request, tabio.com; Mr.Lacy shoelaces, $3 each, zumiez.com; Converse sneakers, $50, converse.com.

David Oyelowo in Selma “Being British, I was able to play Martin Luther King Jr. as a human being rather than as an icon, a historical figure, a holiday. He wasn’t part of my life the way he is for African-Americans. They grew up with photographs of Jesus, JFK, and Dr. King in their homes.”

David Oyelowo wears Christopher Kane shirt, $695, Barneys New York, 212.826.8900.

Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything “To play Stephen Hawking, I made a chronological graph of his physical condition. I literally listed the muscles breaking down scene by scene—what glasses he was wearing, whether he was using one or two walking sticks, what wheelchair he was in. One of the toughest things was the different wheelchairs. Trying to hit all the marks and stay in character without moving any muscles was both interesting and nearly impossible.”

Eddie Redmayne wears Loewe sweater, $890, scarf, $490, and trousers, $990, Barneys New York, New York, 212.826.8900; Loewe shoes, $1,090, loewe.com.

Amy Adams in Big Eyes “My favorite love story is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I like messed-up, strong women, and Holly Golightly has both great vulnerability and strength. She’s found a way to change her reality and then, surprisingly, finds someone she truly trusts. A man who’s willing to stand by a woman who is trapped by the persona she’s created—that’s my kind of love story.”

Watch a video interview with Amy Adams here.

Amy Adams wears Gucci shirt, $1,750, scarf, $425, gucci.com; Tom Ford sunglasses, $380, Tom Ford, New York, 212.359.0300.

Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel “Hotels are funny things. They are a bit like the theater. The front is the nice lobby and dining rooms—and then you go backstage through a service door and see another world altogether. That dichotomy has always intrigued me.”

Ralph Fiennes wears Valentino shirt, price upon request, valentino.com.

Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars “My favorite love story is Dirty Dancing. I was young when I saw it, and I wanted to be Baby! I loved that she and Patrick Swayze came from different worlds, and yet they wanted similar things out of life. And, of course, I loved the dancing. It was sexier than most sex scenes.”

Shailene Woodley wears Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons shirt, $395, skirt, $760, socks, and shoes, $760, Comme des Garçons, New York, 212.604.9200.

Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game “I got a Scarlett O’Hara doll when I was 11. You know the red dress she wears when she comes in as a whore? I wanted my doll to be in that dress—to be that Scarlett. The image of her in the red whore gown imprinted itself on me. It’s really a sexy scene in Gone With the Wind, and she’s such a bitch. That’s when I realized it would be interesting to play characters that are not likable.”

Keira Knightely wears J.W. Anderson shirt, $795, Saks Fifth Avenue, 877.551.SAKS; Patricia Underwood hat, $500, patriciaunderwood.com.

Tessa Thompson in Dear White People “I’ve played pregnant women so many times, it sometimes feels that if there’s a story about the female experience, the female must be pregnant. I’d actually love to play a vampire. That would be liberating.”

Tessa Thompson wears Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane jacket, $2,550, Saint Laurent, New York, 212.980.2970; Hilfiger Collection swimsuit, $260, Tommy Hilfiger, New York, 212.223.1824; L. Erickson USA turban, $72, franceluxe.com; Hilfiger Collection scarf, $130, Tommy Hilfiger, New York, 212.223.1824; David Yurman gold and diamond pinkie ring, $2,350 each, David Yurman, New York, 212.343.7918; Lagos gold and sapphire rings, $750 each, and gold rings, $850 each, lagos.com; Falke tights, $74, Harry’s Shoes, New York, 212.874.2035; Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane sandals, $1,095, Saint Laurent, New York, 212.980.2970.

Edward Norton in Birdman “Acting in your underwear—or less—can make you self-conscious, but in Birdman, my character has so much preening self-regard that if you get into that head space, being naked is actually freeing. He’s not worried— so why should I be? He wants you to look at him, so, you know, take a look.”

Ed Norton wears Dior Homme jacket, $6,600, tank top, $1,400, diorhomme.com; Thomas Pink shirt, $350, thomaspink.com; trousers, hat, and tie from Carlo Manzi, London, special order only, prices upon request, carlomanzi.com; Moscot glasses, $240, Barneys New York, New York, 212.826.8900; Falke socks, $22, the Sock Hop, New York, 212.625.3105; Gucci moccasins, $730, gucci.com.

Tim Walker

Carmen Ejogo in Selma “Coretta Scott King was all about her pearls. At one point, I’m wearing pearl earrings the size of golf balls. They’re enormous! She was bold—she knew that she was the Jackie Kennedy of her community.”

Carmen Ejogo wears Bally blazer, $1,795, bally.com; Sonia Rykiel jumpsuit, $1,480, kirnazabete.com; Giorgio Armani beret, price upon request, Giorgio Armani, New York, 212.988.9191; Erickson Beamon brooch, $302, Beyond 7, New York, 646.619.6857; Look From London Hosiery tights, $25, lookfromlondon.com; Tom Ford sandals, $1,690, 888.TOM.FORD.


Set Design by Simon Costin at CLM. Produced by Jeffrey Delich. Production Manager: Steph Broom. L.A. Production: Meghan Gallagher and Jane Oh at Connect The Dots. Photographic Manager: Emma Dalzell. Photography assistants: Keith Coleman, James Stopforth, Max Cornwall. Lighting assistant: Scott Froschauer. Makeup assistant: Rachel Singer Clark. Hair assistant: Ryan Mitchell. Fashion assistants: Clemence Lobert, Sam Walker, Sergio Meja. Grooming for Edward Norton by Sonia Lee for La mer at Exclusive Artists Management. Grooming for Chadwick Boseman by Saisha Beecham at Cloutier Remix. Makeup for Reese Witherspoon by Molly R. Stern at Starworks Artists. Special thanks to Michael Osborn, Karuana Karmarkar, Rebel Scenery, Cooper Montgomery.