Nomadland is up for six Oscars at this Sunday's Academy Awards

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By casting real van dwellers and nomadic people, Chloé Zhao, who is the front-runner to become the first woman of color to win Best Director at this year's Academy Awards on Sunday, took on an unprecedented challenge for herself and her lead, Frances McDormand — changing the lives of those she chose.

Zhao is the breakout star of awards season after helming Nomadland — an adaptation of the 2017 nonfiction best-seller by Jessica Bruder — to six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress (McDormand) along with the top directing prize. Her and McDormand's decision to feature the same people from Bruder's book lent an authenticity that produced solemn and sometimes heart-wrenching moments in the film.

Zhao focused on three people from Bruder's book: Charlene Swankie, Linda May and Bob Wells. "I put a camera on them — my phone sometimes — and then just started chatting with them to see how they are with it," says Zhao.  "And when that made sense, it was just about listening to their stories and then writing the characters for them."

"They each have a talent in connecting with the person in front of them and that's really what great performance is, when you're reacting and you're connecting, and they were able to do that in front of the camera, which is pretty incredible," says Zhao. 

chloe zhao and frances mcdormand in nomadland
Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand in Nomadland
| Credit: 20th Century Fox

She also credits her onscreen lead — and executive producer — McDormand. "She's a treasure in the history of cinema," she says. "She said, 'I take a little bit from each of my characters with me and they become part of me.' She really wants to live and feel and experience life through acting. And that's what we really need because all the other non-professional actors are living their lives in front of the camera to many degree. And so I'm sure it wasn't easy for Fran because to be that open 24/7 in this environment and getting to know people then having to say goodbye, and then not see them again for a long time, isn't that easy, but she was very generous and allowed herself to be vulnerable and to give us that."

Once they were on the road shooting, natural elements led to chemistry, she says. "I think human beings, when you take them out of their who they think they should be, and the things they have been building and hoarding and collecting around them, and then you take them out and you put them together in the middle of nowhere and it's hot and there's a scorpion nearby, where they have nowhere to shit and they have to find a bucket and learn how to use it, you'd be surprised how much chemistry they can have."

Zhao, who is Chinese, has been a rising star since her first two films — Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider — were both critically-acclaimed, receiving Independent Spirit Nominations, the latter for Best Film and Best Director. Next up, she dives into the blockbuster arena directing Marvel's highly-anticipated tentpole The Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani, out in November.

As her Nomadland journey nears its end, she looks back on how the movie changed her. "I was raised an atheist and didn't have religion," Zhao says. "And I don't think I can get with organized religion at this point, but I do feel the lack of some of the things that people who are religious have, which are the answers to some of these questions about our existence. And I think doing Nomadland and being out there with people who are dealing with loss and death and knowing they don't have a lot of years left—to see how they view death and where they come from, where are they going—it was a great personal development for me."

Two of Zhao's stars — Charlene Swankie and Linda May — tell PEOPLE how the movie changed their lives as well.

Charlene Swankie

She went into it without expectations, but going down the Nomadland road with Zhao and McDormand gave Charlene Swankie a gift she hadn't imagined. In one emotional scene, Swankie reveals she has terminal brain cancer, and reflects on the nature of a life, and death, with McDormand's character. While everything else she portrays is true to who she is, it was actually her ex-husband who died of a brain tumor. "I have two grown sons that are 50 something," says Swankie. "They didn't know I was even making the movie. By the time the movie premiered, I hadn't told either one of them that I was going to be in the movie because I didn't know how that was going to turn out. I didn't want to say or do anything to hurt my sons."

Following the movie's release, she connected with her youngest son, who is 53. "He told me that he wasn't hurt by it," she says. "He was a little mystified by it because he thought, 'Well, what are the chances of both of my parents dying of brain cancer?'" She assured him she was just acting. 

"It was good to hear him say he was not hurt by it," she says. "We got to spend some quality time together, which is the first time we've had that in probably decades."

Swankie initially didn't want to participate in the project. She was visiting pal Linda May's home when she met director Zhao. "I was facing a serious shoulder surgery because I couldn't use my right arm, which is my dominant arm," she says. "I was intensely involved in sorting all that out, and so along comes Chloe to visit Linda May about the movie in the middle of all this mess. She comes and starts talking to me about some movie and some actress so-and-so and I didn't know who the actress was or what she was talking about. I knew it had something to do with Jessica's book, Nomadland, but I didn't understand the magnitude of any of it because I had problems to solve. I just wanted her to just go away and leave me alone so I could solve my problems. But Chloe is not a person you say no to."

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"She spent a lot of time with me for two days, and we went out to dinner that night and she came back the next day and talked to me," Swankie recalls. "The whole time I'm trying to rebuild my trailer, and I'm doing it with my left arm. My mind just really wasn't on the movie. I didn't know who Frances was. I had never heard her name before, I'd never seen any of her movies. I'd been on the road for a decade traveling around. I wasn't going to movie theaters and spending money on movies and stuff. I didn't really comprehend any of it. But she wouldn't go away unless I said yes, so I agreed to be in the movie. I said, 'Now, okay, my shoulder is my priority. I don't know when the surgery is going to be done. I don't know when I'm going to recover.' This was in August and they're filming in January. I said, 'I may be in a sling.' She said, 'It's okay. Whatever.' That's why I'm in a sling in the movie."

Another great surprise from doing the movie: clicking with McDormand. "She's just the easiest person in the world to work with," she says. "I thought, 'I know we're going to film something together tomorrow. I should go say hi and introduce myself.' I kind of walked up and tapped her on the shoulder and I didn't even get my name out. She turned around and looked at me and squealed my name. She just grabbed me away from all the other people to take me aside and talk to me about stuff. I didn't know what to say. I was speechless. She and Chloe had this whole script in their mind. They had it all worked out. It was amazing to watch her and Chloe sort out some wrinkles in the story and guide me through it and coax me through it. It just totally blew me away."

And now, in her screen debut, her film is nominated for six Oscars. "It's pretty remarkable for me, too," says the normally understated Swankie. "It's going to be a treasure for my kids, for sure. My little granddaughter is 12 and she's in local community theater now, so now she's out bragging about Grandma."

Linda May

In movie, after decades of living on the road, Linda May talks of dreaming of buying property and building an environmentally-friendly earthship. In real life, she has given up full-time traveling after purchasing land in New Mexico, where she is indeed developing her dream home. When Zhao approached her about appearing in her movie adaptation of the book Nomadland, May agreed. "Well, it's my philosophy, if you ever get invited to a party, say yes," she says. "I just like saying, ' Let's try that.' I'm always for trying new and different."

She's happy she took the chance. "The way we talk, the way we connected with each other, Chloe just got it," she says. "She just really understood what we were about and how we lived. She just took all the parts out of the book and put them in the movie. All the experiences, the true life things that she picked out, she just had such a great eye for everything."

frances mcdormand
Francis McDormand in Nomadland
| Credit: Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

In the movie, May describes being desperate following the economic crash of 2008, which is based on her real life. "The only time in my life I can remember ever having suicidal thoughts, was 2008 when the bottom just fell out of everything and I could not find a job and I had no money and no work," she says.  "Another woman who owned a business came to me and said, 'Linda, I have bios that I need archived. Can you do that? I can pay you $15 an hour.' And I'm like, 'Oh my God, $15 an hour!' So I resisted the urge to fill the trailer full of propane and I just talked to that friend. I didn't tell her I was thinking suicidal, I just told her I was really needing work, and she offered me work."

May says, "Of course there's been ups and downs in my life, but all those experiences are my strengths. The weakest, most vulnerable part of my life that I could share—I lived through it. I survived. And look at the magic and the miracles that have happened since then."

The best reward, May says, has been the reaction of her family and friends — and some of her friends' families. "At first I told them, 'It's just a little documentary film,' because that's what I was told. So they're just totally blown away because it was kind of undersold I guess. They went, 'Wow, that is such a beautiful movie. You were so good. I didn't know you could act.'"

"My best friend, Lavonne Ellis, has little cameos throughout the movie," she says. "She was at the premiere with her son and they're very close. And she would try to explain how wonderful it was to be a van-dweller and to travel and to visit all her friends and to see places she's always wanted to see. And he didn't understand it until he saw it. He said, 'Oh, this is how you live. This is what it's like,' because he didn't have a visual. And I think my family got the same thing."

One scene in particular struck them, where May helps a young girl with a balloon. "Each one of them could remember me tying a balloon to their hand," she says. "They didn't always want the balloon on the same hand, so I always had to make sure to ask, as I did the little girl in the movie, 'Which hand would you like it on?' And they all burst out in tears when they saw that. 'Oh my God, that is my mom!'"

The 93rd Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, April 25 starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.