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Supporting actors panel: Costumes, touching and even making monkey noises bring a film together

Leading contenders for supporting actor nominations Mahershala Ali, Jeff Bridges, Aaron Eckhart, David Oyelowo, Dev Patel and Michael Shannon participate in a Los Angeles Times roundtable.

An impressive group of actors who gave some of the year's most stimulating performances recently gathered for The Envelope's Supporting Actor Roundtable conversation. With such an eclectic gathering of minds, it's unsurprising that at times, they took the opportunity to ask one another questions.

Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water" plays a Texas Ranger on the verge of forced retirement who throws himself into a case involving a string of bank robberies. Michael Shannon in “Nocturnal Animals” is a noir-ish detective investigating a violent incident in a story within the story. Aaron Eckhart in “Bleed for This” plays a has-been trainer who agrees to help a fighter return to the ring a year after a debilitating accident. David Oyelowo in “Queen of Katwe” plays a chess coach at a local youth ministry. Dev Patel in “Lion” plays a young man who finds his way back home to India after being separated from his family as a young boy. And Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” plays a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to a troubled young boy.

The six actors came together in downtown Los Angeles for a spirited conversation that touched on their commitment to physical transformation for a role, building believable relationships with costars, and the balance between work experience and life experience. Here are excerpts.

Aaron Eckhart discusses the challenges of playing Kevin Rooney, Mike Tyson's former boxing trainer, in "Bleed for This."

Aaron, in your first scene in "Bleed for This," you're passed out drunk. You've got a big paunch.  You're balding.  Were you ever tempted to dial that back?

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Eckhart: No, I mean, I'm playing a real character, Kevin Rooney, and he was at a very low point in his career. He'd just been fired by Mike Tyson and had been drinking and gambling.  And so actually, as an actor, those are the moments you look for. You're looking for the humanity in the character. The first time I ever saw it on film, I cried because I felt so much for the character.  So, it was a joy to play.

What did that take to add the pounds? 

Eckhart: I gained about 40 pounds for it and I just stopped exercising and ate a cheese pizza before bed and wake up and eat a banana split and then go to the hamburger and fries.

Bridges: Tough to get it off though, no?

Eckhart: I had another movie, actually, two months after that, so I lost 40 pounds in two months.

Bridges: And what did you do for that?

Eckhart: I just didn't eat.

Jeff Bridges talks about learning the world of Texas Rangers for his role in "Hell or High Water."

Jeff, your costar Chris Pine has said the look of everyone in the film in some ways dictated how they were behaving.  Did you find that with your mustache and the uniform?

Bridges: Oh yeah. Absolutely.  You know, you come to work, you start getting on the makeup and your character starts to come together. Yeah, it's a fun part of the day.

Oyelowo: How do you avoid not twiddling it?

Bridges: Avoid? No, man, I twiddle that sucker, mess around with it.

Shannon: I had a mustache too, but mine was fake and it produces a lot of anxiety, wearing a fake mustache. You just always think it's coming off or it's crooked and you're afraid to like, open your mouth or smile. [Costar Jake Gyllenhaal] used to always try and get me to smile, because he knew when I smiled, it would crack the glue on the mustache. So, he'd just say really stupid stuff and try to get me to laugh.

Dev Patel talks about portraying a man raised in Australia, then tracing his roots in India in "Lion."

Dev, for "Lion," you had to bulk up a little bit, grow your hair out. What did that do for you with finding the character?

Patel: I found this masculinity and this sensitivity, both ends of the spectrum. I got to explore that in the film. But as soon as I got the role, [director Garth Davis] said, 'Look, we need to change you from that kid from "Slumdog." You gotta put on some weight.'  So I was eating foie gras and liver and training every day.

In "Lion," you have the unique opportunity to see the evolution of your character. How important is it for you all to know the back story of your character?

Oyelowo: It depends. Part of the joy of playing a fictional character is that you can invent, you can imbue that character with things that you, maybe, have been interested in exploring. But to actually have someone who is alive, it's how do you capture their essence without doing an impersonation of them? Because I think the audience picks that up if you've gone for the surface representation as opposed to the soulful representation of a character. For me, playing Robert Katende in "Queen of Katwe," thankfully, he was right there with us and I could spend time with him, with his family, with his kids and a lot of the kids who he taught chess. So, my research was with me the whole time. But at some point, for the sake of the movie, you've gotta take what he is and then make the version that is going to be best for the story.

WATCH: Supporting actor Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali talks about his surprise and delight in recognizing traits of people he's known in the script for "Moonlight."

Ali: I had gone into "Moonlight" thinking of Juan as a fictional character. But, in sharing the film with people and getting to know the playwright, I found out that Juan is based on a real person. It was interesting, in connecting to that character — growing up, I was in Oakland —  these type of characters don't really exist in the narratives that we've seen up to this point, that are multidimensional, but they've existed in my upbringing in very real ways.

Growing up, my aunt had a boyfriend and loved this guy. My mom gets remarried when I'm about 9, and [my aunt's boyfriend] just so happens to be one of my stepfather's best friends. So I grew up with this guy, playing basketball, teaching me to work on my left and whatnot. He was a substitute teacher. I go off to college and one day I find out that he's gone to prison. Come to find out that he was a drug dealer. Was a good dude, great dude, the cleanest guy, nothing necessarily excessive. Smart guy, really kind. So, there are people like him — just in my life.

Supporting actor Michael Shannon talks about his much-noticed role in "Nocturnal Animals."

Michael, in "Nocturnal Animals," you play a character who's within a story that's within the story of the film.  Did that do anything to your performance?

Shannon: I don't think so. It's not like Bobby's thinking, "Oh, I'm not real." He's real to himself. The whole notion that he's part of some allegory would be way too highfalutin for him, I think. But having said that, he definitely is fulfilling kind of an iconic part of the story of the writer's imagination. This fella that comes along and makes everything right again. You see it a lot in movies and literature — he's a cynical guy.  He's a hard-ass, but underneath it all, he's got a good heart.

Jeff, you're playing a Texas Ranger and that brings a lot of screen iconography to it.  Are you thinking at all about what the Texas Rangers mean in movies?

Bridges:  Yeah. I read a wonderful book called "Empire of the Summer Moon" that is really a terrific book all about the beginning of the Texas Rangers. And our writer, Taylor Sheridan, he based my character largely on his cousin, Parnell McNamara, who was a marshal in Texas going through retirement and all that. And so I was able to talk with him quite a bit. And then we had Joaquin Jackson, who died recently, but he was one of the bad-ass Texas Rangers. He's written books on it and he was around and would adjust the costumes and tell how we should behave and that kind of stuff.  But more than that, just having him in the room, just feeling that Texas Ranger, macho guy.

Aaron, how important was it to develop a bond with costar Miles Teller outside the set, to make the one on-screen more believable?

Eckhart: It's part of your job. Whoever you're playing with — a kid or a wife or whatever — I have to be able, as an actor, to be able to touch you when I want and wherever I want.  You know, if I touch you here, I'm going to see a reaction in your eyes because we're not familiar with each other. We've got to bridge that space so that when I touch you, it's the relationship. So, that's extremely important to work on. If you're doing what your character does to the person all the time, it's a natural extension of yourself once you start filming.  Just makes the job easier.

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Bridges: Don't you think it's interesting, the different approaches to acting? You know, my approach, and it seems like most of us here have a closeness already. And maybe that comes from having to get down to it quick and so you develop a kind of a friendliness or an openness quickly. Then there's the other side with, "Please just refer to me as my character and I'd rather not talk to you." And you get good results that way, but it's just a whole different way.

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Shannon: Seems like a lot of extra energy. Trying to convince yourself that you're not who you are.

Oyelowo: It's about the end product, isn't it?  'Cause I've done films with actors who've full on done the, call me by… You just go, "Oh, you're being him for three months."  But then you see the film and it was worth the pain. But it's not necessarily great for everyone else. It doesn't have that social quality, necessarily. And then, you can have the other, where you have so much fun on a film and then you watch it and go, "Oh, we were having a little too much fun on that movie."

Dev, in Garth Davis' "Lion" there's some tremendous scenes of you with Nicole Kidman and even though you enter the film 45 minutes or so in, you feel that your characters have a whole lifetime of experience together. Was that difficult to generate so quickly?

Patel: We all came to the process emotionally pregnant. She is a mother in real life with adopted children, so she kind of has been living this character longer than anyone. And I spent eight months as soon as I got cast traveling across India on trains, writing diaries, visiting orphanages. It allowed me to go on this really soulful journey. But that scene is the first that we did together. And Garth is a kind of amazing director because he doesn't rehearse with lines. It's all about energy and tactility.

I did an exercise with [costar Rooney Mara] where we were both monkeys and, you know, you take away the lines from the scene and I had to somehow bring her over. She's upset with me so I'm walking in like [grunting] and Rooney's going [more monkey sounds]. You feel like an idiot first of all. And then, once that's out of the window, you have to touch her face, bring her closer and it generates a kind of a chemistry that would take 12 years in the relationship to really do. Same with Nicole. There's things where we just look into each other's eyes for like half an hour or hug. So when I entered that scene, we had that connection instantly.

What are your thoughts about working too much, taking breaks.  Do you get worried that Hollywood will forget you?

Eckhart: Hollywood's forgotten me a lot. You've got to reinvent yourself and get out there and get hungry again and challenge yourself and work with great people.

Ali: Well, look, I think it depends where you're at in your career.  I was coming out of "House of Cards" but I was doing four projects at one time. And what concerned me was bleed, you know. So going from "House of Cards," "Luke Cage," "Moonlight" and shooting those in the same week —  hoping I was creating a certain degree of separation and compartmentalizing in a certain way and being very clear on what I was doing on that day. But, that's not sustainable. I don't think that that's healthy and I do think that you need time to take in life and to grow as a person and to be with your family. And, to feel you're well so to speak so that you have something to give and then put out.

David Oyelowo discusses portraying Ugandan chess instructor Robert Katende in "Queen of Katwe."

Have any of you turned down a role because you didn't agree with the message of the film?

Oyelowo: Sometimes it's the message, sometimes it's where you're at — I feel like I've played that role before. That's a real hazardous thing if you've successfully done something, there is a temptation to come back to do it again and again. As a father, I'm very aware of wanting the choices I make to match up with how I'm raising my children so that there isn't a disconnect, if you like. Also it's a very competitive industry and I think that's why when opportunities start coming later on after you've worked for 20 years or whatever it is, it becomes counterintuitive to say no. It's a very tricky balance. Being a father to four young kids and they grow so fast. And three months here on one film, another three months and two months there, doing a play, before you know it, they're taller than you.

Bridges: I'm a product of nepotism. You know, my dad, Lloyd Bridges, he dug what we're doing for all the same reasons. He encouraged me and [my brother] Beau to get into it. And I fought him for a long time but I'm glad I listened to the old guy, finally. But I don't have any of that hunger at all, man, because it just fell into my lap. So I have this weird thing now. My mother used to say I have a mental condition where you can't make up your mind. Most of my energy is put into resisting [a project], because if I do this, then I won't be able to do this other thing that's coming around the corner. It takes that time and that energy, got to be away from my kids. I can't do other things. I'm into music and painting.

I had this dream of going down a big river and my task is to row down this river and avoid these huge whirlpools. But there's a beautiful jewel at the vortex of each whirlpool that draws me in. And I'll go, that's beautiful, oh, oh. [Mimics steering toward it and then pulling away suddenly] And finally there'll be one, it'll be, oh, oh, and then oh, I'm stuck in it. And I made a painting of that moment and the title of it is "Jeff Makes a Decision." That's kind of my process where if the script is too cool or the opportunity, you know, how can I pass that up? It's kind of a painful thing.

And then the other thing I just wanted to say is having a love of what we do so much, the process is the deal. It's the hanging with the people and the other artists, all getting together to make something beautiful. They're like incarnations, little lifetimes. It's so beautiful. And I keep thinking about what a great metaphor for how the world might work.

Shannon: Yeah, and on the best jobs, there's that kind of harmony. It's like a little society.

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Bridges:  It takes you away from your family to another family.  The little incarnation where you get to create together. It's so exciting for us to enlarge that feeling into our society somehow, you know, so we can work together as a world.

Twitter: @villarrealy

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