Role: Sydney Prosser — or is it Lady Edith Greensly? — a deeply determined woman in love with her partner in cons, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale).
Oscar History: This is Adams’ fifth nomination. She was previously recognized for her supporting roles in Junebug (2005), Doubt (2008), The Fighter (2010), and The Master (2012).
Women’s Studies: Adams says that Sydney is the most miserable character she’s ever played. But that doesn’t mean the actress doesn’t understand her. “I think of her as a survivor,” she says. “And what drives that survival instinct is this great feeling of isolation and vulnerability. She has this great strength about her, but I think if you play only the strength and survivor parts, you create a kind of sociopath. I wanted her to feel relatable.”
Taking the Plunge: Sydney is different from Adams’ previous characters — harder, more ruthless, and showing a lot more skin, too. “There were a lot of plunging necklines,” she says with a laugh, noting that the role helped motivate her to go to the gym. Since the birth of her daughter, Aviana, in 2010, Adams adds, “there are all sorts of things that happen to your midsection. Let’s just say you work with a different set of challenges.”
Up Next: Adams stars with Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (due later this year) and will return as Lois Lane in 2016’s untitled Batman-Superman film. —Sara Vilkomerson
Role: Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission who’s suddenly cut adrift in space.
Oscar History: She won Best Actress for 2009’s The Blind Side.
Gift of Gravity: Director Alfonso Cuarón’s technically complex film tested Bullock both mentally and physically. “I’m really proud of those moments with Alfonso where I became fearless,” she says. “He said, ‘Okay, you’re going to sit at the bottom of a [water] tank 35 feet deep.’ And I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it! Let’s go down there and sit all day.’ I never felt fearless before. And the movie spat me out a completely different person than when I stepped into it.”
Good Grief: One of Bullock’s bigger challenges in Gravity was tapping into Ryan’s grief over the loss of her daughter. “You put yourself in that character’s headspace and you go, ‘Do not waste a second,'” says the actress. “I wasn’t sleeping at night because [her now-4-year-old son, Louis] wasn’t sleeping through the night yet and I was fighting it for so long. And then I went, ‘Let it go.'”
Red-Carpet Frenzy: Bullock has grown less ambivalent about plunging into the pressure of the awards season. “As long as I can come back home, as long as I can just pop in and don’t feel like I have to take a shower afterwards, I’ll do it,” she says. “Plus, it means I get to see my ‘Jorge,’ George Clooney.”
Up Next: “I haven’t picked a job yet to do,” she says. “The only thing that heats up is Louis’ school schedule.” —Karen Valby
August: Osage County
Role: Violet, the overbearing, pill-popping matriarch of the dysfunctional Weston family.
Oscar History: This is her 18th nomination, a new record. She’s won three times: Best Supporting Actress for 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer and Best Actress for 1982’s Sophie’s Choice and 2011’s The Iron Lady.
Face-Off: Streep suggested that the cast live together during the August shoot, in a set of newly built townhouses in Bartlesville, Okla., where she and costar Margo Martindale would often make dinner and run lines. There was another bonus: “The actors studied one another’s movements and facial expressions, so that there are all of these subtle ways that Meryl’s Violet acts that you see in the daughters,” says director John Wells. “The way they move and move their hands, and their facial expressions — they are all modeled on each other.”
Driving Force: Working with Streep can be intense. Julianne Nicholson recalls a small scene where she sits in the backseat of a car beside Streep and Julia Roberts. “We’re sort of chatting a little bit, and all of a sudden we’re rolling and Meryl starts acting,” says Nicholson. “The whole car just felt full of feeling, and it was suffocating in the best way. It was so real. If you were sitting in that car, I would dare you not to cry.”
Up Next: Streep stars opposite Jeff Bridges in an adaptation of the YA best-seller The Giver (out Aug. 15), then plays the Witch in Rob Marshall’s musical Into the Woods (out Dec. 25). —Nicole Sperling
Role: Salt-of-the-earth Irishwoman Philomena Lee, who searches for the grown son she was shamed into putting up for adoption as a teenager.
Oscar History: A seven-time nominee, she won for her eight-minute supporting role as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love.
M is for Magnificent: “She was our dream,” says Steve Coogan, who co-wrote and produced Philomena and plays the British journalist who helps the heroine on her search. But Coogan had to convince co-writer Jeff Pope that the celebrated actress, and star of James Bond films, was right to play the lower-class Lee. “I told him, ‘Stop thinking of her as M. She’s not just this refined English older lady. She is a character actor and one of the best out there.'”
Going Brogue: Dench tapped into her roots for the role. “My mother was Irish, and my father moved [to Ireland] when he was a child,” says Dench, who met with the real-life Lee before the shoot. “Philomena has a wonderful sense of humor and also a glorious innocence about her. All that I needed was to watch her and listen to her and take in as much as I could.”
Inner Groupie: By now, you’d think that Dench would be accustomed to the glamour and hubbub of the Academy Awards. You’d be wrong. “I’m like those people who scream every time a Beatle showed up,” says Dench. “‘Oh, look! There’s Jack Nicholson! Antonio Banderas!’ I’m not cool at all.”
Up Next: She’s back in India shooting The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2. —Karen Valby
Role: Jasmine Francis, the former NYC socialite left penniless and friendless after her husband’s Bernie Madoff-like scheme unravels.
Oscar History: This is Blanchett’s sixth nomination. She won Best Supporting Actress for playing Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s The Aviator.
Studying Up: When gearing up to star in her first Woody Allen film, the Australian-born actress watched Robert B. Weide’s 2012 documentary on the mercurial director. “Both Dianne Wiest and Diane Keaton spoke about the sense of camaraderie you can find with him,” says Blanchett. “It’s unique and particular and it only lasts for the length of time that you shoot the thing. But it’s there.”
Sisterly Bonds: Blanchett developed the strongest rapport with fellow nominee Sally Hawkins, who plays Jasmine’s working-class sister, Ginger. “We were both experiencing the same level of fear,” says Blanchett. “I would come home and say, ‘Oh, Woody just told me I was awful,’ and she would say, ‘Oh, he said that to me, too.'”
Close Quarters: Ginger’s apartment was a truly cramped San Francisco locale. “I remember feeling incredibly claustrophobic,” says Blanchett. “It was actually smaller than it looks on the screen. The crew was hidden in the cupboards, under the floorboards, in the rafters, and behind the sofas.”
Up Next: She costars in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men (out Feb. 7), then plays the stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (due in spring 2015). She will begin filming David Mamet’s Blackbird later this year. —Nicole Sperling