Andrea Riseborough’s late blooming word-of-mouth awards campaign for her title role in To Leslie has resulted in the British star’s first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, upending received wisdom about the direction of travel for this year’s race. Riseborough now joins Cate Blanchett, Ana de Armas, Michelle Williams and Michelle Yeoh to make up this year’s Oscar Best Actress list.
“I’m astounded,” she tells Deadline this morning. “It’s such an unexpected ray of light. It was so hard to believe it might ever happen because we really hadn’t been in the running for anything else. Even though we had a lot of support, the idea it might actually happen seemed so far away.”
So, how did it happen?
Directed by Michael Morris and based on the semi-autobiographical experience of writer Ryan Binaco, To Leslie premiered at last year’s SXSW and yet it flew largely under the radar, grossing a little over $27,000 on an underwhelming release by Momentum Pictures in October. That makes it among the lowest-grossing movies in Oscar history to score a nomination, and the film might have languished forever had the team behind it not fought hard to get their movie seen by audiences and the industry.
“The response we’ve had all along has been so personal from people,” Riseborough says, of the encouragement she felt to keep championing the film in spite of its distribution challenges. “You judge Leslie in some moments, you identify with her in others, and you go on so many journeys. It felt like there was a scope for it to touch so many people. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to do, to keep talking about it even if people weren’t very interested in it because as soon as they watched the film, they became instantly interested and couldn’t shake off the story. The film really drove itself in that way.”
With next to no budget for an awards campaign, they took it on themselves to make sure the film was entered and uploaded onto the Academy’s screening portal, and Riseborough and Morris turned to friends to help support the film at screenings. Charlize Theron hosted a screening at CAA in November, and since then, screenings hosted by Gwyneth Paltrow, Courteney Cox, Edward Norton, Jennifer Aniston and Minnie Driver ensured members of the Academy’s acting branch had every opportunity to catch the flick on the big screen. Marc Maron, who co-stars in the film along with Allison Janney and Stephen Root, hosted Riseborough on his popular podcast WTF.
Though Riseborough was Independent Spirit Award nominated for the role in late November and earlier won the Best Actress prize at the Raindance Film Festival in London, few prognosticators saw this coming. In the last days before voting closed, a campaign on social media led by those stars and others, including Demi Moore, Jane Fonda, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Laura Dern, Frances Fisher, and many more, rocketed Riseborough into the conversation. A fellow nominee today, Cate Blanchett, singled out Riseborough’s performance in interviews at the recent Critics Choice Awards, where Blanchett won Best Actress.
Reacting to the groundswell of support, Riseborough laughs, “I’m not entirely sure how the f–k this happened. After SXSW there was a quiet lull. And then slowly, as the film had a few screenings elsewhere – including at Raindance, which was a big deal because we hadn’t had a release in the UK – we found people were starting to talk about it. And people were asking us: ‘Why can I not go and see it? Where can I see it?’ After a while, we were able to point them to iTunes and Amazon, but it didn’t happen right away.”
Riseborough says she started receiving more and more reactions from people inside and outside the industry as word of mouth spread throughout the season leading up to the voting window. “You always think, ‘If we’ve done a good enough job it will break through the noise,’ but often it’s just impossible to compete with millions of dollars of advertising,” she notes. “Every year, for some reason, there are spotlights shining brighter in some places than in others, and maybe it is just all to do with money, though I try not to be cynical in that way. It has been special to feel so supported by the community—especially by actors—and to feel like the work has broken through that. It’s really not something I’ve ever experienced before.”
In fact, there’s very limited precedent in Oscar history for a late-breaking grassroots awards campaign gathering enough steam to land a nomination. Deadline’s Pete Hammond suggests Sally Kirkland’s personal campaign in 1987, which scored her a nomination for Anna, is the closest comparison, but Kirkland’s drive started sooner, and she won a Golden Globe for the role, making her a more permanent fixture in that season’s conversation.
Riseborough credits producer Claude Dal Farra for continuing to champion the film. “Without a producer like Claude, we wouldn’t have come this far. It takes one person to believe that it’s worth sharing.” She was in London this afternoon with her partner, Karim Saleh, who was watching the livestream and told her the good news while she was “busying myself trying to find a sock or something, just to take my mind off it.”
Riseborough’s nomination is her first Oscar nod in a career marked by appearances in critically-acclaimed and award-winning features such as Birdman, The Death of Stalin, Battle of the Sexes, and Never Let Me Go. She is twice BAFTA nominated and received a British Independent Film Award in 2012 for her role in Shadow Dancer.