Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” a love story and ode to cinema houses, is dividing critics after playing at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals earlier this month. However, Searchlight Pictures remains confident in its awards prospects.
“Empire” is among this season’s divisive films, including “Bardo” from Alejandro G. Iñárritu and “The Son” from Florian Zeller. However, one of the agreed-upon highlights of the film is the quality of the actors’ performances — notably Oscar winner Olivia Colman, breakout star Micheal Ward and veteran actor Toby Jones.
As categories become upended with the news of Michelle Williams campaigning for lead actress, instead of supporting, Ward’s campaign is cementing its strategy early by seeking supporting actor consideration for this awards season, Variety has confirmed. Playing Stephen, a young ticket-taker that begins a love affair with Hilary (Colman), a middle-aged woman coming out of a mental health episode, Ward holds his own against the three-time nominee and Oscar winner for “The Favourite” (2018).
Ward will now join a long list of actors battling this year for one of the five coveted acting slots, alongside co-stars from the same movie. Some of those include Searchlight’s other Oscar hopeful, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” with contenders Barry Keoghan and Brendan Gleeson.
Out of Telluride, it seemed like longtime performer Jones, who plays the cinema-loving projectionist Norman, would be the prime candidate from “Empire” to seek awards attention as best supporting actor. His co-star Colin Firth, an Oscar winner for “The King’s Speech” (2010), doesn’t have a great amount of screen time.
Ward’s obstacles are significant as we move through these very early days of the awards circuit, with big names such as Judd Hirsch (“The Fabelmans”), Woody Harrelson (“Triangle of Sadness”) and Ke Huy Quan (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) among the notable top contenders.
Ward might be unknown to many, but the Jamaican-born has piqued the interests of audiences over the last two years with smaller roles like Lykon in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard.” His most significant role came as Franklyn in the beautiful “Lovers Rock,” one of the five films from Steve McQueen’s Amazon Prime Video anthology series “Small Axe.”
Ultimately, Ward’s chances rest on how well “Empire of Light” will do with awards voters. Variety’s Oscar predictions currently has the film projected to receive five noms, for best picture (Pippa Harris and Mendes), actress (Colman), cinematography (Roger Deakins), costume design (Alexandra Byrne) and original score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), with Jones on the bubble in supporting actor. If Ward hopes to make a play, he’ll need the film’s critics’ score and buzz to increase along the way.