Playing real-life people on film is one of the trickier acting challenges, a feat that the Academy Awards has recognized more than 15 times over the past decade. They're expected to do it again at Sunday's ceremony, with the real-world tales "The King's Speech," "The Social Network," "The Fighter" and "127 Hours" up for multiple Oscars.
Portraying a nonfictional character isn't a surefire way to win an Oscar, but it sure seems to help an actor's chances. James Franco, who is serving double duty as the show's co-host and a best actor nominee for "127 Hours," felt just as much pressure to portray real-life mountain climber Aron Ralston as he did to become a fictional heroin addict named Joey.
"You feel a different kind of responsibility, but you can also feel that for a fictional character," said Franco, one of eight nominees this year who portrayed a real person. "I played a heroin addict once opposite Robert De Niro (in 2002's "City by the Sea"). There are lots of people with heroin addictions, so you feel a big responsibility to get that right."
Some of this year's nominees shaped their performances after meeting their real-world counterparts. The cast and crew of "The Fighter" had access to the actual Ward boxing brood from Lowell, Mass., including Amy Adams, who is up for a best supporting actress trophy for her portrayal of bartender Charlene Fleming, Micky Ward's tough-as-nails second wife.
"How I looked at it was as a gift because I was able to get a sense of her energy, her intention, her personality, her manner," said Adams. "It could be nerve-racking because you want their approval, but at the same time you know that you are there to tell the story that the director is telling, so that can be a little tricky, but mostly it is a gift."
Some of the Oscar contenders never received such a present. Jesse Eisenberg, who is nominated in the best actor category for his prickly take on Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," never friended the inventor of poking until long after filming when Zuckerberg popped up on the episode of "Saturday Night Live" he hosted last month.
"He was so sweet," said Eisenberg. "The fact that he agreed to come on and do that with me, after what must be a very weird few months of having a movie out about yourself, and to not be involved with it and not be in control of it, I could only imagine if it was me, it would be a little uncomfortable. It was so wonderfully generous to come and do that."
Tom Hooper, the director of best picture front-runner "The King's Speech," believes it's more challenging to create an honest and accurate film chronicling a real-life story, especially when the royal family is involved. Hooper said he didn't want to hurt Queen Elizabeth II's feelings with his film about her father's struggle to overcome his stuttering.
"I think it is more difficult telling a story about real people, particularly iconic real people, than to tell stories about fictional people," he said. "When you are telling stories about invented people, no one is ever going to have an issue. They will have an issue if it is a bad film, but they are not going to go, 'But that character will never do that.'"
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