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Oscars 2017: Spotlight on the Best Actress nominees

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On Feb. 26, Los Angeles will become what La La Land promises: A city of stars. But before the envelopes are opened, we’ve got inside intel on the nominees. Below, read about the nominees for Best Actress, and come back to EW.com throughout the week for spotlights on the other major categories.

Emma Stone

Starring In: La La Land
Age: 28
Oscar Past: 1 nomination; 0 wins
Role Call: Mia, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles who manages to stay upbeat in the face of professional rejection

After a decade of starring in successful Hollywood films, Emma Stone doesn’t seem like the most plausible struggling actress. But that’s where her extraordinary vulnerability comes in. “I have had bad audition experiences, for sure,” she says, “but the deeper thing here is when you’re being so open and emotional as one human being to another human being, and it’s just not seen or recognized. F—, that’s painful.” Amid all the buoyancy and romance of La La Land, Stone turns that pain into grace. Her mixture of melancholy and hopefulness makes Mia first and foremost relatable. That’s an instinct that Stone, luckily for us, can’t shake. By the end of the musical, though circumstances have changed for her, Mia still walks on the Warner Bros. backlot with a sense of absolute wonder. “If that magic is gone for any of us, then you should be doing something else,” Stone says. “I hope I never lose that. I can’t ever lose that.” — Joe McGovern

Natalie Portman

Starring In: Jackie
Age: 35
Oscar Past: 2 nominations; 1 win
Role Call: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, coping with the assassination of her husband

For Natalie Portman, playing a historical figure as renowned as Jackie Kennedy was a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, there were vast resources — interviews, articles, film footage — to help her perfect that breathy finishing-school accent. At the same time, all those resources only showcased the First Lady as she presented herself to the public, not the heartbroken wife privately grieving her husband’s assassination. “She edited her interviews,” Portman says. “I think that was the most helpful [for me] because there are big sections that are deleted, and it says, ‘This portion has been deleted by Jackie.’ It’s a little bit of a detective story, imagining what she wouldn’t want out there.” The result is a performance that’s both meticulously true to the former First Lady and a devastating exploration of what it must have been like to cope with such loss. “Each of us has heard our parents or grandparents tell us where they were and what that was like on that day,” Portman says. “We understood how collectively traumatic it was — which is obviously only an iota of what she felt.” Portman captures Jackie’s pain, our pain, in a searing, unforgettable performance.  — Devan Coggan

Meryl Streep

Nick Wall

Starring In: Florence Foster Jenkins
Age: 67
Oscar Past: 19 nominations; 3 wins
Role Call: Florence Foster Jenkins, the wealthy 1940s dilettante who became known as the “worst singer in the world”

It’s hardly revelatory to say that Meryl Streep, the world’s most celebrated actress, turns in an extraordinary performance. She has as many career Oscar nominations as Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando put together. But that shouldn’t diminish what a fascinating tightrope she tiptoes in Stephen Frears’ dramedy. Florence is entitled and spoiled but also generous and bighearted; a truly terrible singer who is so devoted to music she can still bring all of Carnegie Hall to its feet. For her costar Hugh Grant, who plays Florence’s husband and manager, just chatting with Streep between takes was inspirational. “It’s like talking to a university professor,” Grant says. “And I admire how she’s so keen on what she does — it reawakens my enthusiasm, listening to her.” To say nothing of our enthusiasm for watching her. — Sara Vilkomerson

For more on this year’s Oscar contenders, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, or available here — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Ruth Negga

Starring In: Loving
Age: 35
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Mildred Loving, one half of a Virginia couple whose historic 1967 Supreme Court case struck down laws banning interracial marriage in America

In archival footage, one of the first things you’ll notice about Mildred Loving is her voice. “Oh, God, those elegant, mellifluous tones,” Ruth Negga says. “I could listen to her all day.” And all night: While portraying the humble civil rights warrior in Jeff Nichols’ poignant Loving, the Irish-Ethiopian actress fell asleep to recordings of Mildred from Nancy Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story. “She speaks so articulately and not in a peacocky, show-off way,” Negga says. “Her lack of cynicism and her lack of self-awareness is really beguiling, and it’s something that people are quite starved for these days.” Negga’s preparation also included traveling to Virginia to meet with the only surviving member of the Loving family, their daughter Peggy. “I didn’t go out there with a barrage of questions,” Negga says. “All I wanted to do was sit with her and just be with her and her energy. I think we just both cried for about an hour.” Watching Negga’s performance, audiences have had the same reaction. — Joe McGovern

Isabelle Huppert

Starring In: Elle
Age: 63
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Michèle, a Parisian CEO of a videogame company, dealing with the aftermath of a rape

Michèle, the woman at the center of Paul Verhoeven’s provocative drama, is many things: a mother, a businesswoman, a daughter of a jailed murderer. She’s also the target of a sexual assault in the film’s very first scene. But instead of following the traditional cinematic path of either victim or avenger, Michèle responds in a way that’s sometimes humorous and sometimes horrifying—and Isabelle Huppert captures every single facet. “She’s almost ‘the man’ of the story,” Huppert says, “in the sense that she by no means espouses the pattern of what you might expect from a woman who’s afraid or fragile.” Even though this is hardly the first time the French actress has played a forceful woman, Huppert still relished the chance. “When you act a woman of power, it gives you a lot of credit as an actress,” she says. “In a way, it gives you the good cards.” And Huppert certainly knows how to play them. — Devan Coggan, with additional reporting by Nicole Sperling

Ben Rothstein; Stephanie Branchu; NICK WALL; Dale Robinette; Guy Ferrandis

Find out who wins the trophy when the Academy Awards take place on Feb. 26.

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