Though Tremblay may offer as much of a star performance as his co-star, Best Actor in a Leading Role is always a stacked field, and 2015 is no different. Additionally, young performers like Tremblay also tend to be promoted in the supporting category, which has been friendly to Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon), Anna Paquin (The Piano), and many others. Mary Badham, who played Scout in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is in almost every scene of the film, but because she was 10 years old at the time of filming, she was nominated as a supporting actress. The trend has been bucked a few times in recent years: For the New Zealand coming-of-age drama Whale Rider, Keisha Castle-Hughes was campaigned for as a supporting actress but voters (who are under no obligation to obey studio suggestions) nominated her in lead. Beasts of the Southern Wild’s 9-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis was billed as a lead in 2013 and became the category’s youngest-ever nominee.
Sometimes, performers get bumped down because of their relative fame: Casey Affleck was the protagonist of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but was nominated in a supporting category because Brad Pitt was the film’s top-billed star. The same thinking seems to be behind Rooney Mara’s apparent placement in supporting for the upcoming Todd Haynes film Carol, a drama about a budding relationship between two women in the 1950s. The film opens and closes on Mara’s shrinking violet of a character, Therese, and watches her blossom as a result of her romance with the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett). The two are undoubtedly co-leads, but Blanchett is the bigger name, so she’ll get the bigger stage, so as not to split the vote.
It’s harder to explain the news that Alicia Vikander will run as supporting actress for her work in The Danish Girl, a Tom Hooper drama about Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), one of the first-known recipients of gender-confirmation surgery. Vikander, an emerging Swedish star who already made waves in Ex Machina this year, has received raves for her work as Elbe’s wife, and she has just as much screen time in the movie as Redmayne. One reason could be this year’s crowded lead-actress field, and the hope that Vikander could have better luck with the supporting slate. It’s the same thinking that led the Weinstein Company to bill Kate Winslet as a supporting actress in 2008’s The Reader, advice voters ignored (she ended up winning the trophy for Lead Actress).
Screen time isn’t the only metric of course. After all, Anthony Hopkins barely appears in The Silence of the Lambs, but his Lead Actor win in 1991 was hailed as well-deserved because his Hannibal Lecter so dominated the movie, whether on- or off-screen. And it’s easy to argue that the awards season’s amorphous “lead” and “supporting” designations have a different meaning to Hollywood insiders: An actor with a big role might still lend “support” simply by not having a big enough name to attract audiences: Whether or not a top-billed star puts in the work, it’s still his or her name at the top of the poster, after all.