Oscar season is upon us and with it come the obligatory predictions. Who will win? Who will go home empty-handed? Who will make headlines for wearing something wildly inappropriate? Who will drink too much at the afterparty and go on an embarrassing Twitter tirade?
We can’t predict the future but we can anticipate that all eyes will be on this year’s Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. Who are they? How did they get to the enviable place where they stand today?
Let’s look at the educational steps that led each of the nominees to this place. What makes an Oscar-worthy education? Study at one of the finest drama schools in the world or homeschooling and online courses? Both modes of education, and quite a few others, are represented among this year’s nominees. Perhaps your alma mater is even in the mix.
So before you uncork your wine, pop your corn and settle in for the 88th Academy Awards on February 28th, get to know your nominees. Here’s a handy guide:
Nominees in the Category of Best Actor
Brian Cranston—Trumbo | LA Valley College
At age 59, Bryan Cranston is one of the most exciting and celebrated actors of our time. His capacity for comedic lunacy is equaled by his dramatic precision, which might incline you to assume that he studied at one of the finest drama schools in the word. In fact though, Cranston earned his associate degree in police science from Los Angeles Valley College in 1976.
Cranston first became a familiar face to audiences as dentist Tim Whatley, the Seinfeld character who famously converted to Judaism “for the jokes.” For six subsequent seasons, he displayed his virtuosic goofiness as Hal, the affably self-assured patriarch on underrated primetime sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.
This was merely a prelude to his greatest role as Walter White, the cancer-stricken science teacher turned meth-kingpin on the critically adored Breaking Bad. During its run, between 2008 and 2013, he won four primetime Emmys. He also owns a Tony for his 2014 turn as President Lyndon B. Johnson in Broadway’s All the Way.
He’ll have a chance to add an Oscar to his trophy collection for the titular performance in Trumbo. His take on the blacklisted Red Scare-era Hollywood screenwriter has earned him consideration as this year’s Best Actor.
Should he win at the 2015 award ceremony, he would actually not be the first Valley College student to hold the statuette. That honor belongs to Kevin Spacey, who briefly attended the same school before dropping out and attending Juilliard. By contrast, Cranston earned his associate degree at Valley College before moving on to local theatre.
Matt Damon—The Martian | Harvard University
Matt Damon rocketed to stardom in 1997 as half the writing team (along with Ben Affleck) responsible for Good Will Hunting. Damon had several minor film appearances prior to his big break—most notably a single line of dialogue in ‘80s cult favorite Mystic Pizza (1988) and as an antisemitic jerk (also alongside Affleck) in School Ties (1992).
It was, however, his starring role in the self-penned Good Will Hunting that made Damon a household name and an Academy Award nominee. Though he didn’t win the acting trophy that year, the story of a secretly brilliant Harvard janitor from a broken home did earn him the win for Best Screenplay.
As it happens, some degree of his story was based in truth, at least the part that placed him at Harvard University. Damon was an attendee at the prestigious Ivy League school but departed before walking with the Class of ’92 to pursue drama full time.
The decision paid off, not just for Damon, but for Hollywood in general. Damon has proven a deeply reliable box office draw, lending his star power to acclaimed roles in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Syriana (2005), The Departed (2006), Invictus (2009), and the excellent Jason Bourne spy thriller series.
At 45, Damon is nominated for his grippingly entertaining spin as Mark Watney, an astronaut who must find a way to survive after being left for dead on Mars. In The Martian, Damon proves magnetic while spending long stretches of screen time in solitude and may well earn his very first acting Oscar. If he does so, he would join an impressive list of Academy Award-winning Harvard alum that includes Natalie Portman, Mira Sorvino, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jack Lemmon.
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Revenant | John Marshall High School
If you’re like me, you’ll remember Leo as the charming homeless boy Luke, who helped to boost ratings as a late-series write-in for the primetime sitcom Growing Pains. Of course, today he is far more famous for being the most celebrated actor never to win an Academy Award. In spite of earning four previous acting nominations [What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Aviator (2005), Blood Diamond (2007), The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)], an Oscar has been elusive for the man who owns three Golden globes, a BAFTA, and a Screen Actor Guild Award.
Before launching into a career that has achieved as much commercial appeal as critical regard, DiCaprio attended the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies and, subsequently, John Marshall High School. The young DiCaprio, already a veteran of commercials and television, dropped out of school after his junior year to pursue acting full-time. He has since earned his GED.
At 41, expectations are high that DiCaprio will finally receive the ultimate claim to Hollywood immortality. As aggrieved fur-trapper Hugh Glass, DiCaprio bled and grunted his way to celluloid perfection in this year’s stark and haunting The Revenant. Putting aside the fairly undebatable excellence of his performance, if the Academy gave out awards for appearing to be really cold and uncomfortable, DiCaprio would be a lock this year.
If he does win, he would be the first John Marshall High School alumnus to do so.
Michael Fassbender—Steve Jobs | St. Brendan’s College
American audiences probably know Michael Fassbender best for his portrayal of comic book supervillain Magneto in the X-Men films. Fassbender serves the franchise as a younger version of the same character that Sir Ian McKellen has also embodied since 2000.
Fassbender’s career is quite varied however, beginning with his noteworthy role in HBO’s Band of Brothers series. West German-born and of Irish descent, Fassbender has seen success on both small and big screens, in independent and blockbuster films alike.
Relocating from his birthplace to Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland at the age of two, Fassbender remained close to home through his college years. He attended St. Brendan’s College, far more notable in history for producing professional Irish footballers than actors. At 19, he moved to England and joined the Drama Centre London, where he remained until leaving to tour with the Oxford Stage Company in 1999.
By 2001, he had landed the Band of Brothers gig, which he followed with a two-year spin on British supernatural drama Hex. Making his cinematic debut as a Spartan warrior in 2006’s 300, Fassbender has rapidly built an impressive filmography that includes roles in Hunger (2008), Inglorious Basterds (2009), and 12 Years a Slave (2012). The last of these earned him an Academy Award nomination in the Supporting Actor category.
This year, the 38-year old Fassbender will compete for the top prize among actors as the ruthless and mercurially brilliant eponymous character in Steve Jobs. A win for his take on the Apple Inc. co-founder would make Fassbender the first St. Brendan’s College grad to accomplish the feat. As for Drama Centre London, a win would place Fassbender in admirable company with fellow alumnus Colin Firth, who nabbed the prize for 2010’s The King’s Speech.
Interestingly, Fassbender could be one of two former Drama Centre (and Band of Brothers) students to register this achievement in 2015. Another alumnus, Tom Hardy is also nominated for his supporting role as a coldblooded, half-scalped fur-trapper in The Revenant.
Eddie Redmayne—The Danish Girl | Trinity College
At 34, Eddie Redmayne is both the youngest actor competing in the category and the only one to already own a Best Actor trophy. Positively transformative as the brilliant but afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything, Redmayne is making his second consecutive appearance on the ballot.
Redmayne got his start as a model. However, over the last decade, the Westminster, England-born actor has become a fixture on both screen and stage. As to the latter, Redmayne won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play in the role of Ken, a fictional assistant to abstract expressionist Mark Rothko in 2010’s Red.
Before achieving global accolades as Stephen Hawking, Redmayne’s most notable screen appearances were as the title character’s London escort in My Week with Marilyn (2011) and as Marius Pontmercey in 2012’s big-screen adaptation of Les Miserables.
Redmayne is nominated for the second year in a row for his performance in The Danish Girl, where he conveys, with grace and sensitivity, the story of Lili Elbe, a painter who was also one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery.
Redmayne’s educational pedigree is particularly estimable. First graduating from Colet Court prep school, Redmayne went on to Eton College. The actor can boast 19 British Prime Ministers among fellow alumni and Prince William as a classmate. Redmayne continued at Trinity College in Cambridge, a 470-year old school that has been home to a record 32 Nobel Prize winners. In spite of the school’s impressive rosters of grads, Redmayne is the only alumnus with a Best Acting Oscar.
Nominees in the Category of Best Actress
Cate Blanchett—Carol | National Institute of Dramatic Art
Though only 46, Australian actress Cate Blanchett is among the most decorated leading actresses in Hollywood. In addition to putting together one of the more formidable performance resumes on the planet, she also already holds a few Academy Award-related distinctions.
Blanchett owns two Oscars, for starring opposite fellow nominee Leonardo DiCaprio in 2004’s The Aviator and for portraying Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Elizabeth. Both wins placed her in her very own category. As Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, she became the only person ever to win an Academy Award for portraying an Academy Award-winning actress. Pairing Elizabeth with 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, she is also the only actress (and 6th person overall) to be nominated twice for playing the same character. 2004’s win also made her only the third actress, alongside the venerable Meryl Streep and Jessica Lang, to score trophies in both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories.
Prior to this year, Blanchett was also nominated for Notes on a Scandal (2006), for her portrayal of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007), and for the title role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013). She is also a fantasy film icon for her recurrent role as a Royal Elf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Though Blanchett originally studied economics and fine arts at the University of Melbourne, she departed school in favor of travel after her freshman year. During her travels, she was cast as an extra in an Egyptian boxing movie called Kaboria, which inclined her to return home and enroll in Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). She graduated in 1992 and very quickly found herself on both Australian stage and television. As it happens, her first Oscar, for Elizabeth, also marked her first major international film role.
In two decades, she has established herself as an unparalleled talent, only adding further luster to her legacy with this year’s nomination. Blanchett plays the title character in Carol, the affecting story of a budding romance between two women living in 1950s New York. As the only alumnus from NIDA with two Academy Award for acting (Mel Gibson has won for Best Director and Best Film), a win this year would naturally also make Blanchett the only alum with three Oscars.
Brie Larson—Room | American Conservatory Theatre
With her nomination this year, the 26-year-old Brie Larson is making her first rounds on the award circuit. However, the Sacramento-born actress has already achieved a modicum of success as an actress, director, stage performer, and recording artist. Getting her start as a regular player in sketches for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Larson spent the better part of the last decade building her indie flick cred while paying the bills with an array of tween and teen film and TV roles.
As a child, Larson was home-schooled but studied acting at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Even as she pursued her education independently, Larson had already begun to carve out her own space on the big and small screens alike.
Her first major role was as Bob Saget’s youngest daughter in The WB series Raising Dad, which lasted for 27 episodes across 2001 and 2002. Notable performances followed in 13 Going on 30 (2004), Tanner Hall (2009), and cult favorite Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). She was also a regular on the Showtime network’s United States of Tara between 2009 and 2011.
Larson catapulted to a new level of visibility with her appearance as the primary love interest in 2012’s surprisingly enjoyable big-screen adaptation of 21 Jump Street. Still, little could have prepared audiences for Larson’s leap forward in 2015. Her turn as sister Kim in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck was met with praise but it was her devastating portrayal of Joy Newsmen in this year’s Room that is Larson’s defining role to date.
In Room, Larson masterfully conveys the damage and desperation inflicted upon a woman who, kidnapped as a teenager, has been imprisoned in a garden shed for seven years, raising the son sired by her captor in terrifying isolation.
If she does win this year’s Best Actress prize, she would join Denzel Washington and Nicholas Cage as the only American Conservatory Theatre alumni with acting Oscars.
Jennifer Lawrence—Joy | Ballard High School
Kentucky-born Jennifer Lawrence has enjoyed a five-year reign as Hollywood’s “it-girl,” a young talent with dramatic chops, incisive punchline delivery, and powerful box office draw. At only 25 years hold, she is nonetheless already a mainstay in two multi-billion dollar film franchises and the proud owner of an Academy Award.
Lawrence’s star has risen rapidly and dramatically in just a few short years. Audiences first came to know her as the eldest daughter on the TBS network’s The Bill Engvall Show. The run lasted for three years and led to her first big screen role in Garden Party (2008) and a subsequent performance in The Poker House (2008), the latter of which earned her a Los Angeles Film Festival Award for Outstanding Performance.
As acclaim and opportunity began to pour in for Lawrence, she departed home for Los Angeles. She continued her studies at Ballard High School in Kentucky through online classes, ultimately graduating with honors two years ahead of schedule.
Free to pursue a film career, Lawrence ran with it. Her lead performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone announced the arrival of a major Hollywood force. It netted Lawrence her first Best Actress nomination. The following year scored Lawrence the part of shape-shifting mutant Mystique in X-Men: First Class, a role that she has reprised (and will continue to reprise) in subsequent installments of the series. In 2012, Lawrence landed the even more high-profile role as Katniss Everdeen in the massively successful The Hunger Games film franchise.
The very same year that she was breaking box office records as a dystopian future heroine, she earned her second Academy Award nomination and first win with Silver Linings Playbook, a film directed by David O. Russell and co-starring Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper. The very same team reassembled for 2015’s Joy, in which Lawrence portrays the title character and inventor of the Miracle Mop. Lawrence’s performance as the self-made QVC millionaire earned her a third nomination.
Most alumni of note from Ballard High School have rendered their achievements in the world of sport. Lawrence is Ballard’s only Academy Award winner and would thus, with a win this year, double the number of Oscar’s owned by graduates of the Louisville area high school.
Charlotte Rampling—45 Years | Académie Jeanne d’Arc
At the age of 70, Rampling is deeply accomplished in several fields. A model, singer, fashion icon and actress with a resume spanning English, French and Italian cinema, Rampling has been an onscreen arthouse standout since the late 1960s.
Born in Essex, England Rampling got her start modeling in a pitch for Cadbury. Though she appeared as an extra in The Beatles’ groundbreaking A Hard Day’s Night, Rampling landed her first real part—as a water skier in The Knack …and How to Get It (1965)—when a casting agent spotted her walking down a London street. Fun bit of trivia, the British comedy also marked the onscreen debuts of Jane Birkin and Jacqueline Bisset.
1965 also saw Rampling cast in the film Georgy Girl. Though she attended Académie Jeanne d’Arc in Versailles, she was increasingly inundated with film opportunities. Thus, she determined to take acting classes at the Royal Court Theatre.
The next several decades saw Rampling compile a filmography simply too extensive to encapsulate here. Among her most notable films are The Damned (1969), Stardust Memories (1980), The Verdict (1982), and The Wings of a Dove (1997). In 45 Years, Rampling’s Oscar-nominated performance as one half of a marriage rocked by startling revelations from the past is subtle genius.
In spite of a long and impressive resume, Rampling is competing this year for her first Academy Award. As far as we can tell (with our limited capacity to read French), Rampling would be the first alumnus from the Académie Jeanne d’Arc to win a Best Acting Oscar.
Saoirse Ronan—Brooklyn | Ardattin Village Academy
Though Saoirse Ronan made her film debut less than a decade ago, the 21-year-old actress has already left her stamp on the cinematic landscape. This year marks her second shot at an Oscar, her first coming for her breakout supporting role in 2007’s Atonement.
Though she left empty-handed that night, the Bronx-born, Irish-raised Ronan has compiled an impressive list of credits in the years since. Notable roles include The Lovely Bones (2009), The Way Back (2010), and director Wes Anderson’s excellent The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
The youngest of this year’s competitors, she’s up for the trophy for her starring role as a girl engaged to be married in Brooklyn (which is also the film’s title). The film follows Ronan to her Irish homeland, where she falls unexpectedly in love with a local man.
Because success came at a remarkably young age for Ronan, it appears as though the last academy she attended was a local Ardattin Village, Ireland school comprised of three teachers and 59 students. Unless one of those fellow students happened to be an unlisted Tom Hanks, we’re pretty sure she will be the school’s first Academy Award winner should she emerge victorious this year.