These first-time nominees are over 50, and their work is more vital than ever

Oscar statuettes grouped backstage at a past Academy Awards ceremony.
First-time Oscar nominees might be dreaming of coming home with one of these guys.
(Los Angeles Times)

Callow youth has its charms, but there’s also something to be said for the hard-earned talents demonstrated this year by six over-50 actors honored with their first Oscar nominations. Contenders range from Bill Nighy of “Living,” who didn’t even land substantial movie roles until his mid-40s, to Ke Huy Quan, whose early start at age 12 as Harrison Ford’s plucky co-star in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” led, after many years of struggle, to renewed acclaim in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Also personifying the virtues of longevity are first-time nominees Michelle Yeoh, Brendan Gleeson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Brendan Fraser.

This over-50 crowd still has some catching up to do before matching Anthony Hopkins’ achievement two years ago when he became the oldest actor, at age 83, to win an Academy Award. But in speaking with Nighy, Fraser, Curtis and Quan, The Envelope finds they are savoring their longevity and still stretching acting muscles in movie roles that crack open previously unrevealed depths.

A woman with short gray hair and glasses poses for a portrait with her arms crossed.
Jamie Lee Curtis advises young actors: “Let people know that you are grateful.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)


Jamie Lee Curtis

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
Supporting actress nominee

First time doing this in a role: “I relaxed. That’s the one thing I needed to do in playing [IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdre]. I had to relax all the muscles in my body so I could create her physicality. Most people, we walk around very clenched. I wanted Deirdre to not be clenched, and that required me to let go, to release muscles and vanity so I could inhabit this lonely, forgotten woman.”

Snapshot moment: “When I was shooting ‘Halloween 2018,’ there was a scene where my character, Laurie Strode, is alone in a truck reliving the trauma and horror of the last 40 years. It was at night, the middle of nowhere, and my last day of filming. When I walked onto the set, the entire crew was standing silently with their hands behind their backs and they were all wearing name tags that said, ‘We are Laurie Strode.’ I will never forget that moment.”

Advice: “I’ve been doing this since I was 19, so this comes from experience: Show up early and stay late. Be prepared. Never leave the set if you can. Let people know that you are grateful. Write thank you notes. Reach out after work. Volunteer for any job needed. Be hungry. Most of all, be kind. Understand that this industry is a collaborative group effort. Any actor standing up on that stage clutching a shiny thing is standing there in solidarity with hundreds of other people who did their jobs.”

A man wears a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up as he rests his arms on a table for a portrait.
Have the courage to battle past obstacles, Brendan Fraser advises young actors.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)


Brendan Fraser

‘The Whale’
Lead actor nominee

First time doing this in a role: “I used the love that I have for my kids to fuel Charlie’s whale-sized heart. He has possibly five days left [to live] in these regrettable circumstances, having fallen in love with the wrong person and knowing that his little girl got lost in the mix. So Charlie throws a hail Mary to reach out and apologize [to his daughter]. That’s Charlie’s bid for redemption. From my actor’s bag of tricks or tool chest or whatever you want to call it, I found intense empathy for this character.”

Bucket list: “My oldest son has special needs. He’s autistic. I want to work on how we can improve and expand on facilities and services for families and people on the spectrum who are coming into early adulthood. I don’t know if I can do that single-handedly, but that’s my passion.”

Advice: “Have courage. Acting is about wanting and wanting and wanting again. There’s always going to be something in the way. An obstacle. And the actor’s job is to get around the obstacle and achieve the objective. Living in this city alone is an obstacle. Finding an agent? That’s an obstacle. Staying in the game, staying relevant? That’s an obstacle. As a young actor 30 years ago, I would have done well to have had somebody telling me to have courage.”

An older man in glasses and a dark suit sits on a bench and leans against a wall for a portrait.
Bill Nighy longs to play a vampire ... with Christopher Walken.
(Craig Fleming / For The Times)


Bill Nighy

Lead actor nominee

First time doing this in a role: “There’s always a bit on the schedule where you go, ‘Well I almost certainly can’t do that.’ I’d never had to sing a song and go to pieces to some degree [until ‘Living’]. It was helpful [to think about] that thing where you’re at a funeral mourning the loss of someone you care for. You hold it together until they ask you to sing, and by the third line, you’re falling apart, so there is something about the act of singing that unlocks your emotions. This enabled me to give the appearance of someone who had lost his wife and was singing her favorite song.”

Dream genre: “I’d like my action career to begin with me being this most unlikely action figure. It would obviously have to be either funny or sort of accidental and therefore funny. I’d also like to be a contemporary vampire and have my own franchise, and I’d like to wear a lot of very chic, dark suits. And I’d like Christopher Walken to be a vampire alongside me.”

Snapshot moment: “On ‘Love Actually,’ the writer and director Richard Curtis was away directing someone somewhere else one day, so the film’s producer Duncan Kenworthy directed me in the bit where I lost a bet and had to play the guitar naked in a pair of cowboy boots. Once the music started, I’d have to pretend to play the guitar and sing the song. I had a tendency to lift the guitar too high, if you see my point. Duncan spent the whole hour shouting, ‘Down with the guitar, down with the guitar!’ So that was a strange day at the office.”

A man in glasses and a blue shirt leans against a corner wall as he sits on a bench with his hands on his knee.
Harrison Ford taught Ke Huy Quan how to swim when he was a child.
(Philip Cheung / For The Times)


Ke Huy Quan

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
Supporting actor nominee

First time doing this in a role: “Growing up in a traditional Chinese-value culture family, I was raised to internalize a lot of my emotions. When I got this role, the only way I could do it justice to [the character of] Waymond was to open up. I spent a long time with myself, persuading myself to let out feelings that I’d locked up for many, many years. I’ve experienced enough ups and downs in life; it was just a matter of convincing myself to put all those feelings into this character. When I was younger, I didn’t have the courage to do that.”

Snapshot moment: “When we made ‘Temple of Doom,’ everybody stayed at the same hotel in Sri Lanka. We’d shoot during the day and then come back and hang out by the swimming pool. That’s when Harrison Ford found out I didn’t know how to swim. He said, ‘Ke, come on, get in the water, I will teach you.’ And to this day, the reason I know how to swim is because of him.”

Advice: “Learn to love auditions. For the entire pandemic, I was auditioning left and right. I was frustrated: ‘Oh, my god, everything that happened when I was much younger is happening again.’ My wife was worried about me so she said, ‘Don’t think of it as an audition. Think of it as an opportunity to perform.’ So my advice would be to love the audition process. And don’t give up. I had to wait decades, but one day that opportunity will come knocking on your door, and when it does, you have to be ready to pour your heart and soul into it.”