12 Years A Slave
Role: Patsey, a strong-willed slave in the antebellum South who is the object of lust and abuse for a cruel plantation owner (Michael Fassbender).
Oscar History: First nomination.
Wax Nightmare: Born in Mexico City and raised in Kenya, the actress felt a bit disconnected from the African-American experience prior to shooting 12 Years a Slave. To get a better understanding of the film’s historical context, Nyong’o visited the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. “I had a three-dimensional experience about what that period was like,” she says. “I saw a 500-pound bale of cotton, which is what Patsey used to pick, every single day, and it was far larger than I was. That put things into perspective.”
Peer Pressure: Nyong’o hadn’t yet graduated from the Yale School of Drama when she landed the role in 12 Years, her very first feature. So she was understandably nervous about working with such formidable actors as Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film’s star. But a few words of support from Fassbender helped put her at ease. “It was the first of my rehearsals for the film,” she recalls. “And after we went through the scenes, he turned to me and said, ‘You are my peer.’ You’ve no idea what it meant to me.”
Up Next: She appears with Liam Neeson in the Taken-on-a-plane thriller Non-Stop (out Feb. 28) —Keith Staskiewicz.
August: Osage County
Role: Barbara, the rage-filled eldest daughter in the dysfunctional Weston family.
Oscar History: She won Best Actress for 2000’s Erin Brockovich. She was also nominated for her supporting role in 1989’s Steel Magnolias and her star turn in 1990’s Pretty Woman.
Back to School: Tracy Letts’ dense screenplay, based on his award-winning play, filled the cast with dread. Roberts was particularly scared of the climactic 19-page dinner scene. To stem the fear, the performers, who all lived in the same condo complex in Bartlesville, Okla., spent most evenings together running lines, usually over home-cooked meals. “To have Meryl Streep give you that luxury of practicing it with her…was such a gift and such a nice way to quell my own personal terror of being on the set and screwing it up for her,” says Roberts.
Stop the Vanity: The actress leaned on a distinctly unglamorous look to play Barbara, the daughter who reluctantly returns home after trying to escape her stifling family. “Julia didn’t try and do anything to make herself look better,” says director John Wells. “She’s not wearing makeup. She’s a beautiful 46-year-old woman, but you see the lines — of the life that she’s lived. We didn’t do anything to light her in any sort of special fashion. And she was completely excited about approaching the role that way.”
Up Next: She plays a doctor and AIDS researcher in Ryan Murphy’s HBO movie The Normal Heart (airing in May). —Nicole Sperling
Role: Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the boozy, unhinged stay-at-home wife of comb-overed con artist Irving (Christian Bale).
Oscar History: After earning a Best Actress nod for 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Lawrence took home the trophy last year for playing a neurotic widow in director David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. If she wins this year, she’ll be just the sixth performer to win back-to-back acting Oscars. The last one was Tom Hanks, who won in 1994 and 1995 for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, respectively.
Direction Connection: Russell calls Lawrence an “exhilarating” collaborator. “She and I have a good working dynamic,” says the Hustle director, “and it has a lot of electricity in it, and it has a lot of flow, and a lot of trust.” Russell singles out the Louisville, Ky., native’s innate acting abilities, which jump-start some of her best onscreen moments: “All you have to do is listen to her.”
Creature of Comfort: Though Lawrence wore lavish gowns in Hustle, costume designer Michael Wilkinson says the actress preferred her character’s slouchier day-to-day wardrobe. “Jennifer really enjoyed her housedresses and her muumuus,” he says. “There’s something about her…wearing these housedresses with her beige-colored men’s socks and her slippers. It was just one of those magical combinations.”
Up Next: Lawrence reprises her roles as the shape-shifter Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past (out May 23) and as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 (out Nov. 21). Plus, she appears opposite Bradley Cooper for a third time in the Depression-era indie drama Serena. —Grady Smith
Role: Ginger, the working-class woman who takes in her disgraced ex-socialite sister, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), against her boyfriend’s wishes.
Oscar History: First nomination.
New York State of Mind: Before director Woody Allen began shooting, Blanchett and Hawkins huddled in a New York hotel room to study the script and get to know each other. “Thank God we did,” says the London-born Hawkins. “Woody’s not interested in that — in a good way. He’s editing his other films and moving on, so it was up to us to figure it out on our own.”
Vintage Friendship: Blanchett especially welcomed the input of someone who had worked with Allen before — Hawkins had starred in 2008’s Cassandra’s Dream. “Both of us were a bundle of nerves,” says Blanchett. “It’s a delicate thing finding your feet on any film set. It always feels like the first day of school, but we sort of held each other’s hand through it — and had more than a few glasses of wine.”
Up Next: She costars in Godzilla (out May 16), then plays a mother in two indies, the family film Paddington (due Dec. 12) and the upcoming British drama X Plus Y. —Nicole Sperling
Role: Kate Grant, the straight-shooting, long-suffering wife of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern).
Oscar History: First nomination. If she wins, she’ll be the oldest acting winner ever.
The Show Must Go On: Squibb’s career spans more than 50 years on stage and screen, including roles in the original 1959 Broadway production of Gypsy (she was one of the gotta-have-a-gimmick strippers), 1992’s Scent of a Woman, and 1998’s Meet Joe Black.
Tough Love: Whether she’s cursing at her relatives, arguing with her husband, or — in one unforgettable scene — flashing a tombstone, Kate doesn’t care what other people think. And Squibb says she was drawn to the character’s lack of inhibition. “She says things that other people would never say. It’s just all spurting out of her mouth all the time,” says the actress. “But she’s very loyal to her husband and her two sons. She will fight the rest of the family for them.”
Recurring Payne: Squibb had worked with director Alexander Payne before — she played Jack Nicholson’s wife in 2002’s About Schmidt. But Payne says he still asked Squibb to audition for Nebraska. “I had to hear the words of this particular text in the mouth of this particular actor,” he says. “And she submitted a tape doing the part in a couple different ways, because she’s a total pro. And I said, ‘Wow. June Squibb. She’s got it all going on.'”
Up Next: She plays the grandmother of Hannah (Lena Dunham) in a season 3 arc of HBO’s Girls. —Adam Markovitz