"To Leslie," the indie drama that scored Andrea Riseborough one of the most shocking nominations in Oscar history, opened at Monica Film Center in Santa Monica on Oct. 9, where it came and went after playing to an empty house for five days.
It ended its theatrical run soon afterward with a worldwide box office of $27,000 — that's thousand, not million. Marc Maron, who co-stars with Riseborough in the downbeat drama about an addict returning to her West Texas hometown to rebuild her life, was incensed at distributor Momentum Pictures' handling of the film, grousing on his WTF podcast: "The f— distributor dropped the ball on facilitating something that would bring a lot more attention to the movie. And now this movie with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score that everyone should see [has] been hobbled by the people responsible for putting it out there."
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Riseborough, a gifted English actress who has worked with everyone from Mike Leigh to Alejandro G. Iñárritu and won many admirers and allies in the process, somehow entered the awards season conversation. You didn't see her face on billboards along Sunset Boulevard or in for-your-consideration ads in the trades. There wasn't any money for that.
But she did have connections. "To Leslie" director Michael Morris knows plenty of actors and celebrities from his long career, as does his wife, actor Mary McCormack, and they contacted nearly every one of them, requesting their friends watch the movie and, if they liked it, spread the word.
Charlize Theron was the first to sign on, hosting a screening for the movie at Creative Arts Agency in Century City in November. "It's the kind of movie that stays in your mind. It stays in your bones. [It] even stays in your skin," Theron said, introducing "To Leslie" as a throwback to indie movies of the '70s. Edward Norton and Jennifer Aniston lent their support later that month, opening their homes for private screenings.
Shortly after that, Riseborough met with Shelter PR, who agreed to run a campaign alongside her team at Narrative PR. Outside of what Riseborough and Morris were willing to spend, there wasn't any money. Riseborough and the publicists drew up a list of actors they could possibly enlist and, bolstered by McCormack's and Morris' contacts, started working the phones. Over the holidays while the rest of Hollywood was laying low and trying to navigate the film academy's streaming platform, they built a foundation of support that was unleashed when the calendar turned to 2023.
"It went from zero to 100 faster than anything I've ever seen," a source close to the campaign says. "It was a movement of support and love for a performance."
Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a screening in early January, calling the movie a "masterpiece." Courteney Cox followed suit. Oscar nominations voting began on Jan. 12, and the next day, Rosanna Arquette introduced "To Leslie" to a packed theater at the Directors Guild on Sunset. After the credits rolled, Riseborough, Morris and actors Allison Janney, Maron and Andre Royo took the stage to talk with Demi Moore. Nobody in the theater left.
The campaign went virtual the next day with Kate Winslet, who worked with Riseborough on the upcoming drama "Lee," leading a Q&A. “You should be up for everything," Winslet told Riseborough. "You should be winning everything. Andrea Riseborough, I think this is the greatest female performance on screen I have ever seen in my life.” Amy Adams led a similar event hours before voting closed last week, saying she was "happy to spread the word ... about this amazing feat of filmmaking."
In between, social media was flooded with raves from the likes of Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt (“If you’re out there voting for performances, don’t do it till you see Andrea Riseborough”), Melanie Lynskey, Mira Sorvino, Minnie Driver and too many others to possibly mention. Cate Blanchett, who would eventually join Riseborough among the lead actress Oscar nominees, even gave her a shout-out while accepting an honor at the Los Angeles Film Critics dinner the weekend before the ballot deadline. (Blanchett reaffirmed the support the next night during the low-rated, televised Critics Choice Awards.)
Given all that, can Riseborough's nomination really be considered shocking? If you simply go by the work itself, Winslet says, the answer is no.
“I am just so delighted for her that the acting community has spoken on behalf of her phenomenal performance," Winslet told me Tuesday. "It doesn't actually matter how many voices have been singing her praises in the last few weeks, those voices did not give that performance. She did."
"This nomination was hard-won for her," Winslet continued. "She has worked and worked and pushed herself for years. None of that is easy. This nomination is deeply and richly deserved.”
That said, Riseborough herself was "astounded," telling Deadline that "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.”
How much support did she need? The academy's actors branch has 1,336 members, meaning that if every one of them voted, Riseborough would require around 200 or so mentions. But in the Oscars' preferential voting system, where members rank their choices, a passionate core of first-place votes can catapult a nominee higher in the race. I'm no expert in math, but, given the low visibility of "To Leslie," Riseborough must have sat atop a great many ballots.
Riseborough's astounding success could prompt every actor in Hollywood to call their managers next year, badgering them for a similar grassroots word-of-mouth campaign. "It's probably only limited to actors," a veteran awards consultant says. “It would be less likely that such a grass-roots campaign were to happen within other branches. I can’t see directors being asked to jump on a bandwagon to lobby aggressively for another director, or cinematographers, or producers, who are all in competition with one another. You’d have to believe selflessness exists in Hollywood for that.”
In the immediate wake of her nomination, there were whispers that Riseborough's campaign may have skirted film academy regulations, which specify and limit the type of contact allowed in reaching out to voters. Others took to social media, expressing outrage that no Black women were nominated for lead actress, despite powerhouse performances from heralded contenders Danielle Deadwyler ("Till") and Viola Davis ("The Woman King").
But Riseborough didn't replace either woman. She earned her nomination by delivering an astonishing, uncompromising performance that caught a wave of love. Who knows? She may well have placed third or fourth in the balloting. The academy doesn't release those figures, so we'll never know.
Riseborough's campaign team understands the speculation over how she netted a nomination. ("They have a right to do so," a rep says.) But they've already moved on to the next chapter: Getting Riseborough that lead actress Oscar.
"There's really no time to enjoy this," the rep said. "We've got more work to do."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.