Acting isn’t just about reading lines and hitting your marks: Performers have to become instant experts in whatever their characters do best, and those specialized talents shift with every film. So, in order for the actors to become proficient in a new skill, studios call in outside help. Here are four experts in their field who stepped forward to teach sewing (“Phantom Thread”), ice skating (“I, Tonya”), Native American language and culture (“Hostiles”) and tennis (“Battle of the Sexes”) techniques that helped those films’ stars make it all look easy, natural and – hopefully – award-worthy.
Susan Clark (seamstress, “Phantom Thread”)
Expert resume: Clark, a former teacher of dressmaking and tailoring and now a specialist sewing volunteer at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, was brought in to speak with director Paul Thomas Anderson, costume designer Mark Bridges and star Daniel Day-Lewis (as fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock) about mid-20th century couture dressmaking rooms and about the outfits themselves. Next, she was asked to appear in the film -- Clark plays Biddy, one of Woodcock’s seamstress employees. “We weren’t allowed to tell anyone we met,” said Clark. “It was a secret.”
Lessons learned: Day-Lewis “in particular” asked Clark (and fellow V&A volunteer Joan Brown) to point out what could be improved or if something was being done wrong; that included assembling a lacy dress in the correct order. “Daniel had already learned to sew and make garments,” she recalls. “He was quite apt in sewing.”
Expert extra: The phrase “phantom thread” has no particular meaning in sewing circles.
Sarah Kawahara (skating coach and choreographer, “I, Tonya”)
Expert resume: Figure skater and choreographer Kawahara joined Ice Capades at age 17, and later earned two Emmys for her choreography of exhibition skating TV specials (including one with Nancy Kerrigan).
Lessons learned: While Margot Robbie (as Tonya Harding at many ages) ultimately dedicated months to train in skating, Kawahara was on hand intensively for the first five weeks and provided drills for her to do when she went home to her native Australia. “It goes beyond learning to skate technically,” says Kawahara. “It has to look natural to them.” That included casual moves, like skating out to the ice and back again and stopping. In addition, 2017 skating skills are different from the ones in the 1990s, when the film takes place. “Today’s competitive skater is widely versed; the scope of their athleticism is phenomenal,” she says. “It’s even more difficult now than it was back then.”
Expert extra: Kawahara also helped choreograph Will Ferrell’s 2007 feature “Blades of Glory.” “That was a real adventure,” she says.
Joely Proudfit, Chris Eyre (language and culture advisors, “Hostiles”)
Expert resume: Professor Proudfit and director (1998’s “Smoke Signals”) Eyre created Native Networkers to help producers and filmmakers portray Native American culture and language in their projects. “We’re not the police, just a bridge between producers and culture,” says Eyre. “We’re a liaison for that.”
Lessons learned: Star Christian Bale (Capt. Blocker) learned the southern dialect of Cheyenne for his role, though there was a problem: “The joke we had is he’s almost too fluent [for his character],” says Eyre. “I told [director Scott Cooper] you have to pull him back a bit.” In addition, many points of accuracy had little to do with dialogue. “A lot is said without words,” notes Proudfit. “How women might have reacted emotionally, or with male counterparts, or white men who had incarcerated them – their body language had to speak volumes.”
Expert extra: While filming, the production team took a group photo for the press that indicated they stood with the Standing Rock protesters.
Vince Spadea (tennis coach, body double for Steve Carell, choreographer for “Battle of the Sexes”)
Expert resume: Former professional tennis player Spadea formed his own talent agency to help athletes get body double roles in films. While attending the casting for “Battle,” he was asked to try out and “it all flowed after that.”
Lessons learned: Spadea worked closely with star Emma Stone (as Billie Jean King) for nearly two months, though less intensively with Steve Carell (Bobby Riggs). “It comes down to technique and repetition,” he said of teaching actors to appear like champs. That applied to holding rackets at the correct angle and ensuring the actors hit the ball the way King and Riggs did. “It was like an art project that we had to re-create as closely as possible,” he says, though he adds he wishes they’d had more time. “It’s about having your brain train a whole motor system.”
Expert extra: Spadea played matches for Carell as Riggs, but also jumped in as a ball boy in one scene when another expert failed to do it convincingly.