In 2015, the world was in turmoil, and Hollywood was looking for a happy ending. Whether the topic was sexual identity (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in the midcentury lesbian love story Carol; Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez exploring L.A.’s transgender underworld in Tangerine) or postapocalyptic politics (Charlize Theron in the manic epic Mad Max: Fury Road) or immigration (Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson in the wonderfully old-fashioned Brooklyn), almost all of the movies last year ended on a positive, romantic note. Wrongs were righted in Spotlight, which took on the abuses in the Catholic Church. And even murkier films like Sicario, which costarred Benicio Del Toro in a story about the unwinnable Mexican drug wars, or The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s savage snow Western, celebrated vivid moments of triumph.
Tarantino’s mélange of violence and humor generated one of the greatest characters of the year, Daisy Domergue, a spitfire played with devilish intensity by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The actress was in good company: 2015 was, finally, a very strong year for female roles. Brie Larson was riveting as the trapped mother in Room; Carey Mulligan was inspiring as an early activist in Suffragette; and Alicia Vikander, who surely had the most varied repertoire of any of her peers, was a hypnotic android (Ex Machina), an unflappable World War I nurse (Testament of Youth), and the confused, loyal wife of a transgender woman (The Danish Girl).
Vikander’s Danish Girl costar, Eddie Redmayne, was both subtle and haunting as Lili Elbe, a sex-change pioneer. In 2015, Redmayne was awarded the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and that win seemed to herald the emergence of a new generation in Hollywood. With an affecting performance as the young and tormented Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, Paul Dano made the transition from character actor to leading man. Seth Rogen, meanwhile, departed (briefly) from comedy to embody the computer geek and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs. Similarly, stand-up comedian Amy Schumer had a star-is-born moment with her autobiographical film Trainwreck, and Kristen Wiig proved to be a remarkably versatile actress, as a pathologically narcissistic lottery winner in Welcome to Me and as the somewhat lost mother of a 15-year-old in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley, who played Wiig’s adventurous daughter in that film, and Saoirse Ronan, who was torn between two men and two countries in Brooklyn, were luminous and thrilling. Both women have acted professionally—and very successfully—since they were children, but this was their breakthrough year.
There was also a reemergence of more-seasoned actors. As a domineering diva, Jane Fonda nearly stole Youth, the story of a composer who is facing his own mortality, portrayed with sorrow and grace by Michael Caine. Richard Gere hid in plain sight as a homeless man in Time Out of Mind, and Peter Sarsgaard explored the boundaries of human nature in Experimenter, an unorthodox biopic about the social psychologist Stanley Milgram.
And that’s just the beginning. On the following pages, we spotlight 31 performers who achieved an extraordinary mix of the unique and the universal. These portraits, which were shot in Los Angeles, New York, and London, are revealing and evocative character studies—movies unto themselves.
Eddie Redmayne on the cover of W’s February 2016 issue.
Eddie Redmayne wears Burberry peacoat and T-shirt. Grooming: Burberry.
Grooming for Eddie Redmayne by Petra Sellge for Elemis. Manicures by Michelle Saunders for Essie at Forward Artists, Adam Slee for Rimmel London at Streeters.
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn
“I was scared every single day on Brooklyn. I mean, you always get jitters, and you always get a little nervous before you do your first take, but there was something about shooting at home, so close to where I grew up. I was terrified.”
Vera Wang Collection dress and bandeau; Chopard earrings.
Michael Caine in Youth
“Youth was a complete surprise to me. My agent rang and said, ‘The director Paolo Sorrentino, who just won the Oscar for best foreign film, is sending you a script.’ I said, ‘Does he know who I am?’ She said, ‘Yes! He wrote this script for you.’ I nearly said, ‘You don’t have to send the script; I’ll do it for nothing,’ but I stayed cool and said, ‘I’ll be happy to read it.’ ”
Boss jacket and shirt.
Cate Blanchett in Carol
“All my life I’ve been playing dress-up, and now I get to do it for a living. In film, particularly, the costumes are a big part of my characters. When I first appear in Carol, in a fur coat, hat, and gloves, the audience immediately ascribes meaning to the person I’m playing. A certain scarf or handbag or a pair of glasses can reveal multitudes about someone’s persona.”
Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci dress.
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight and Anomalisa
“I based part of my Hateful Eight character on Regan from The Exorcist. After she kills the priest, she doesn’t know what to do with her power. But she’s also completely lost—full of adrenaline and like an animal. Quentin Tarantino picked up on this right away. You can’t get any film reference past him.”
Rochas dress; Agent Provocateur bra; Chanel Fine Jewelry bracelet.
Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight
“I like being a villain. It’s fun to be unapologetically bad. I hate movies where the bad guy starts to say he’s sorry and explains why he’s doing bad stuff. I like to play men who say, ‘Look—this is just what I do.’ ”
Giorgio Armani sweater. Grooming by Autumn Moultrie for Dior at Exclusive Artists Management.
Amy Schumer in Trainwreck
“I have a crush on Christian Bale. Newsies was a really big deal to me. I haven’t watched it in a while, but maybe I’d still feel attracted to 15-year- old Christian. I definitely wanted to have sex with him when he was emaciated in The Machinist. I’ll take Christian any way I can get him.”
Giorgio Armani jacket; Julianne shorts from Journelle, New York; Wolford tights; Hermès shoes. Styled by Sarah M Richardson.
Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind.
“While I was in character as a homeless man, I would panhandle, and I was very bad at it. We shot for 42 minutes straight, and in that time, I made less than a buck and a half. No one recognized me or made eye contact with me. Their brains went ‘homeless guy’ from two blocks away, and they decided, ‘I don’t want to give to him.’ ”
Giorgio Armani coat, suit, shirt, belt, and shoes. Styled by Sarah M Richardson. Grooming by Birgitte for Acqua di Parma at Sally Harlor.
Bryan Cranston in Trumbo
“I’ve been in drag for several TV roles, and I make the ugliest woman in the world. As a man, I am not vain. But when brilliant makeup artists are making me into a woman, I become very concerned with my looks. ‘Can you soften my jaw?…Can you do anything about the wrinkles?’ Sadly, it’s a lost cause.”
Burberry trenchcoat; Balenciaga shirt.
Carey Mulligan in Suffragette and Far From the Madding Crowd
“I don’t know if I believe in chemistry on a film. I know loads of people who’ve had quite sexy onscreen relationships with people they hate. I think chemistry might just be actors doing their jobs well.”
Chanel blouse, dress, and bag; Anita Ko earring.
Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road.
“My character Imperator Furiosa, in Mad Max: Fury Road, is missing an arm, but in the film we never explain how that happened—she just is. I don’t think the character would have the same gravitas if she wasn’t broken like that. Instead, she’s an entire human being who just happens to be an amputee.”
Dior Fine Jewelry ring. Styled by Sarah M Richardson. Hair by Enzo Angileri for Infusium 23 at Cloutier Remix; makeup by Francesca Tolot for Dior at Cloutier Remix.
Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy
“At auditions, I was the type of person to dress for the part. Then a casting director told me, ‘Don’t dress like the character; just look as gorgeous as possible all the time.’ So then I realized, if you’re up for the part of a waitress, put on an apron over something you might wear to the Oscars. That’s when I started getting roles.”
Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane dress; Graff earrings; Bulgari bracelet.
Benicio Del Toro in Sicario
“At my 4th birthday party, I wore an astronaut costume and we had a cake shaped like a rocket. I remember being very excited about dressing up like someone else. That may have been the beginning of my acting career.”
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Danish Girl
“I was on a long-haul flight at night, and as I went down the aisle to the bathroom, I counted at least 14 screens that had Ex Machina on. I was walking past myself playing Ava, the android. I was tempted to go to the front of the cabin and look over my shoulder to the people watching her. I thought it would shock them to find Ava on their plane. There might have been screams.”
Louis Vuitton vest. Styled by Sarah M Richardson. Hair by Martin Cullen for Bumble and bumble at Streeters; makeup by Mary Greenwell for Chanel at Premier Hair and Make-up.
Joel Edgerton in The Gift and Black Mass
“I’ve never counted how many times I’ve died in movies. I’ve been shot on many, many occasions. I find dying easy. The hard part is trying to hold your breath, because, obviously, dead people don’t breathe. One of these days, I’d love to do a long, melodramatic, triple-death ending. It would be like a drum solo at the end of a rock song. You think the song is over, and then it kicks in again.”
Coach jacket; Simon Miller T-shirt; A.P.C. jeans; The Frye Company boots.
Joel Edgerton wears Coach jacket; Simon Miller T-shirt.
Brie Larson in Room
“I have always wanted to act. When I was around 7 I started auditioning, and I recall going up for a fish-sticks commercial. By then, I was completely committed to the craft of acting and had memorized a full monologue. The director was only looking for cute kids and wasn’t interested in hearing my speech. I started sobbing. ‘They won’t let me act!’ I wailed to my mother.”
Giorgio Armani coat.
Paul Dano in Love & Mercy and Youth
“I gained 30 pounds to play the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. When I showed up for my costume fitting, the director looked at me and said, ‘Um…I think you could lose a few pounds.’ I was so upset. I’m naturally a skinny guy, and it was not fun gaining that weight.”
Maison Margiela suit; Giorgio Armani shirt; Calvin Klein White Label tie.
Peter Sarsgaard in Experimenter
“In college, I was hot for a girl and took an acting class to be near her. They had me do a role from a play called Bent. The scene was between two gay men during the Holocaust, and I felt enormous empathy from the people in the room who were watching. It was very seductive: In that instant, I fell in love with acting.”
Balenciaga jacket and shirt. Styled by Sarah M Richardson.
Jacob Tremblay in Room
“When people watch my movie, they cry. My mom told me that it was a very dark subject, so I didn’t read the whole script. But after we saw Room the first time, my mom was crying. People were a mess. Their mascara was falling off.”
Sogoodnight pajamas; Worth & Worth by Orlando Palacios hat.
Greta Gerwig in Mistress America
“My character, Brooke, is both a fraud and the genuine article, which is, I think, the truth: People can be both. To get anything done, you need a lot of crazy.”
Gap T-shirt; J Brand jeans. Styled by Sarah M Richardson.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw and Everest
“I had no idea how to box before Southpaw. In an early sparring session, I got hit in the face and then in the body, and that first body shot dropped me. In my work, I try to get into the real space of my characters, but at that moment, I thought, What the hell am I doing this for?”
Dior Homme jacket; Alternative T-shirt.
Mya Taylor in Tangerine. “Tangerine happened for me because I was in the right place at the right time. A very attractive person named Sean Baker walked up to me at the LGBT center in Hollywood, and we started talking. Our conversations about hustling and struggling with my gender transition became the basis for the movie.”
Adrienne Landau stole; Rosamosario bra; Tom Ford skirt; Nina Runsdorf earrings and cuff; Chanel belt; Manolo Blahnik clutch and pumps; Wolford stay-ups; Cornelia James gloves (on bed).
Jane Fonda in Youth
“On my 75th birthday—which was my favorite birthday—I had 150 people to my house, including several ex-husbands. It was December 21, 2012, which was, according to the Mayan calendar, the day there would be a major shift to a new paradigm and the world would change. I can’t say that I experienced any sort of turning point, but I had a good time. And the ex-husbands all got along.”
Salvatore Ferragamo coat; Vhernier ring. Hair by Matthew Shields; makeup by Elan Bongiorno at Exclusive Artists Management.
Hair by Odile Gilbert. Makeup by Stéphane Marais.
Digital Technicians: Shaina Fishman, Amelie Ambroise; Photography Assistants: Stefan Rappo, Simon Cordova, Anthony Ignacio, Richard Hagashi, Aram Martirosyan, Chris Chandler, Eduardo Fiel, Matt Roady, Stan Rey-GranGe, Benjamin Madgwick; On-Set Retoucher: Christian Tochtermann; Fashion Assistants: Ryann Foulke, Dena Giannini, Sam Walker, Tina HuyNH, Anastasya Kolomytseva, Sue-Wen Quek, Michael Beshara; Hair Assistants: Megumi Asai, Takashi Ashizawa, Delphine Bonnet; Makeup Assistants: Amber Dreadon, Natasha Severino, Mia Yang, Andrew Colvin, Yumi Lee, Maria VB, Tina Solberg; Set-Design Assistants: Evan Jourden, Bryan Porter, Christopher Garrett; Behind-the-Scene videographer: Stephen Kidd.