12 Years A Slave
Role: Solomon Northup, the real-life Northern-born musician who was abducted and sold into slavery while visiting Washington, D.C., in 1841.
Oscar History: First nomination.
The Art of Suffering: The more brutal the scene, the easier it was for Ejiofor to get into character and portray the truth of American slavery. “The hanging scene, the first beating in the cell — there was a level of uncomfortability in it, but it was in those moments you feel that you are as close as you can get to what was going on,” says Ejiofor, a British actor born to Nigerian parents. “It allows for another level of legitimacy in the pursuit of someone’s story, somebody’s life.”
Out of Order: Director Steve McQueen began filming on the plantation of ruthless slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), then jumped to Northup’s pre-slave life in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. While Ejiofor had initially hoped to film in chronological order so he could experience his character’s trajectory from free man to slave, he wound up welcoming the time-shifting schedule. “It gave me a good visceral sense of where we were going,” he says. “I wouldn’t have had that ability if we had shot in sequence.”
Up Next: He stars with Thandie Newton in the Nigeria-set drama Half of a Yellow Sun (due this summer) and will soon begin shooting the sci-fi flick Z for Zachariah with Chris Pine and Amanda Seyfried in New Zealand. —Nicole Sperling
Dallas Buyers Club
Role: Ron Woodroof, a hard-living, homophobic Dallas man who begins smuggling experimental medicine in the 1980s after learning he has AIDS.
Oscar History: First nomination.
Heavy Lifting: If you counted only his colorful supporting roles in Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013 would still be a great year for McConaughey. But his harrowing performance in Dallas Buyers Club — for which the already lean star dropped 47 pounds — managed to overshadow both. McConaughey says he’s gratified audiences didn’t assume the film would be a downer. “With Dallas Buyers Club, the one-liner would be: period-piece AIDS drama,” he says. “Well, that doesn’t necessarily qualify as entertainment — that would qualify as something that’s probably good for you, more of a message movie. But we made a highly raucous, entertaining movie.”
Fired Up: Remember that chest-thumping, throat-humming bit his character did in The Wolf of Wall Street? That’s a routine McConaughey uses as off-camera preparation every time he shoots a scene. “Yeah, that’s a warm-up thing I’ve always done, you know, to calm the nerves, to get into rhythm,” he says. “I’ll just make up a different rhythm for whatever I’m going to be doing in the scene, and it also gets my voice box more relaxed.” Leonardo DiCaprio was transfixed by the routine and talked him into working it into one of their Wolf takes as an improv.
Up Next: McConaughey stars in Christopher Nolan’s top secret space saga Interstellar (out Nov. 7). —Anthony Breznican
Role: Woody Grant, an old-timer who embarks on a road trip with his son (Will Forte) to retrieve a million-dollar prize he believes he has won.
Oscar History: Dern was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing a Vietnam vet in 1978’s Coming Home.
Old Innocence: Critics have called Woody a high point in Dern’s sprawling 50-year filmography. And Dern agrees. “It’s the best part anyone has ever given me,” says the actor, who credits Woody’s charm to an unusual mix of traits. “He’s an innocent. He’s not an angry man. He’s not a self-pitying man. He’s not a guy who bemoans the fact that things didn’t work out well for him. He’s living out his life.”
Salty & Sweet: Although other actors were considered for the part — Gene Hackman was approached — director Alexander Payne says Dern had precisely what was needed for the role. “The character he plays is very singular. [Woody] is ornery and vulnerable all at the same time,” he says. “You can’t just plug any old actor into it. You really have to get someone quite close to that character as written.”
French Toast: Even after all his years in the business, Dern was still startled by the warm welcome Nebraska received at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where he won Best Actor. “At Cannes I was absolutely blown away when they clapped like they did and I got the award,” he says. “Me, little Brucie from Winnetka, Illinois. Who knew?”
Up Next: Dern stars in the upcoming thriller Cut Bank with Billy Bob Thornton and is in talks for Quentin Tarantino’s next Western, The Hateful Eight. —Adam Markovitz
Role: Irving Rosenfeld, a clever con man with an impressive comb-over who reluctantly partners with the FBI.
Oscar History: Bale won Best Supporting Actor for Hustle director David O. Russell’s The Fighter in 2011.
Therein Lies the Truth: Irving may be a consummate hustler, but Bale was drawn to his character’s softer side. “He’s a hopeless romantic,” says the actor. “He’s got dreams and aspirations and thinks, why the hell shouldn’t he achieve all of that? He does it the only way that he sees he can. I see him as a man who is in desperate need and in search of truth, and he’s telling as many lies as he needs to in order to get there.”
Method Man: Bale famously does extensive research and arrives on set fully in character. “He’d hate to hear me say this, but it’s part of the genius of who he is,” says Russell. “He always comes back with something that’s different or more extreme than I imagined.” And once Bale’s in character, good luck getting him out. “It’s hard to have a conversation with Christian,” says Russell. “You always forget that you have to go through this deep filter, in this case Irving.” He laughs. “It’s very strange to hear him talk now. He calls me and I don’t recognize his voice.”
Up Next: Bale has already wrapped two upcoming Terrence Malick films, both costarring Natalie Portman — one untitled, the other called Knight of Cups — and recently completed his role as Moses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus (due Dec. 12). —Sara Vilkomerson
Wolf of Wall Street
Role: Jordan Belfort, the real-life fraudster who sucked up cocaine like a Hoover and bought expensive ’90s suits like they were going out of style (which they were).
Oscar History: DiCaprio has been nominated three times before: Best Supporting Actor for 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Best Actor for 2004’s The Aviator and 2006’s Blood Diamond.
He Can’t Stop: Belfort worked to live and lived to work, barely pausing his high-flying lifestyle for even a day. DiCaprio similarly allowed himself little downtime, shooting three big movies in a row with almost no break. “I had a week or two off in between The Great Gatsby and Django Unchained and then went straight from that to The Wolf of Wall Street,” the actor told EW during filming. “But they were three opportunities that I couldn’t pass up. I figured, ‘Why the hell not? While I’m still here, let’s rock & roll and do all of them!'”
Dynamic Duo: This is DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, only three fewer films than the director has made with Robert De Niro. Their rapport is so easy that costar Jonah Hill was a little nervous about joining the cast. “They’re super close,” says Hill, “just great friends and collaborators. At first it was daunting, like being the third wheel on a date.”
Up Next: DiCaprio has said he’s taking a break from acting and has announced no new projects. —Keith Staskiewicz