Liam Daniel
Nicole Sperling
September 09, 2014 AT 01:28 PM EDT

There were many Toronto surprises this year: Bill Murray boogied all night long with Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy following the raucous debut in his return-to-form role in St. Vincent; Chris Rock scored the biggest deal from Paramount, a reported $15 million, for his new comedic feature Top Five; and Oscar talk swirled for a dramatic turn for Jennifer Aniston in Cake.

But it was relative unknown Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) who truly astonished audiences at the 39th annual Toronto Film Festival with his mesmerizing performance as theoretical physicist and motor neuron-disease sufferer Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s (Man on Wire) feature debut Theory of Everything.

The performance generated an extended standing ovation and immediate Oscar talk for the 32-year old British actor. Some prognosticators even have him at the top of the heap of an already very crowded list of pedigreed actors including Michael Keaton (Birdman), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Steve Carell (Foxcatcher). (We will see if Murray can get in as his curmudgeonly Vietnam vet Vincent.)

It’s an auspicious place to be for Redmayne, who spent six months researching the role and working with a choreographer to recreate Hawking’s muscular degeneration. But the actor said he’s avoiding all kinds of chatter, finding satisfaction in the fact that Hawking and his ex-wife Jane Hawking (née Wilde) liked the film enough to lend both Hawking’s actual computerized voice to it and the medal he received from the queen.

“The greatest moment of relief for me was when Stephen saw the film and enjoyed it,” says Redmayne, the morning after the film’s debut. “It’s wonderful if anything else comes along, but I’m trying not to read stuff because I’ll end up having a meltdown.”

Stock also rose mightily for Redmayne’s co-star Felicity Jones, who should get some recognition for her formidable turn as Mrs. Hawking. She will likely be joining the lead-actress race, a light one this year, but one most likely to be filled by Reese Witherspoon for her turn as Cheryl Strayed in the adaptation of her novel Wild. Who else fills that race is unknown at this time. But two films looking for distribution, Aniston’s Cake and Wiig’s Welcome to Me, where she plays a mentally ill woman who wins the lottery and starts her own reality television show, are hoping whoever buys will include an Oscar campaign in their budget. And Julianne Moore’s film Still Alice, about a woman with early onset Alzheimers, also has audiences raving over her performance. (Still Alice has not secured U.S. distribution.)

Others came to the festival for a victory lap after debuting strongly in other venues. The quiet and grim Foxcatcher, about the tragic relationship between billionaire John du Pont (Carell) and two Olympic wrestlers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) from director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) was already a huge hit when it debuted in Cannes earlier this year, and the response in this cosmopolitan city was no less enthusiastic. Cumberbatch’s turn as mathematician and code-breaker in The Imitation Game began the Oscar talk in Telluride over Labor Day and continued as it traveled north.

Early praise is the name of the game at this stage in the race—and is what everyone is seeking. But it doesn’t make the grind ahead any less daunting.

“I’m not ready, actually,” said Carell ahead of his press days, which, if everything goes as planned, could extend into the new year as part of the road to Oscars. “This isn’t an easy character to talk about. He was a real person and to talk about character development feels cavalier.”

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