Oscars 2018: Spotlight on the Best Actress nominees

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On March 4, winners will be crowned at the 90th Academy Awards. But before the red carpet is rolled out and envelopes are opened, we’ve got inside intel on the nominees. Below, read about the contenders for Best Actress, and come back to EW.com throughout the week for spotlights on the other major categories.

Sally Hawkins

Starring In: The Shape of Water
Age: 41
Oscar Past: 1 nomination; 0 wins
Role Call: Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaning woman who protects — and falls for — a mysterious aquatic monster

When Guillermo del Toro sat down to write his unusual love story, he knew he wanted Sally Hawkins as his leading lady. And as soon as the director explained she’d be playing a mute janitor who finds purpose and joy in her unexpected romance with a fish man, Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) was, um, hooked. “Her internal world was so huge and rich,” Hawkins says. As Elisa opens her heart to the tortured creature, Hawkins imbues her with empathy, bravery, and love — all without saying a word. With the exception of a gorgeous musical dream sequence, Hawkins’ performance is entirely silent, which meant she had to learn American Sign Language. “But [Elisa] has not conventionally learned sign language, and she communicates in her own special way,” Hawkins adds. “That felt like such a joy to discover.” Words can be insufficient, and Hawkins expressed the deepest of emotions with just her face. — Devan Coggan

Frances McDormand

Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight

Starring In: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Age: 60
Oscar Past: 4 nominations; 1 win
Role Call: Mildred Hayes, a mother obsessed with exacting justice for her murdered daughter

Oscar winner Frances McDormand is incendiary as Mildred Hayes, who decimates anyone in her path like a growing wildfire as she taunts the police who’ve failed to solve her daughter’s rape and murder. Eventually, Mildred sets the town ablaze with her rage. “If you can cry out the pain, you don’t need to burn down the police station,” McDormand says. “So I was interested in her being locked out of her own humanity.” Yet her most sublime moment comes early in the film as she spins from sparring with the police chief (Woody Harrelson) to consoling him when she realizes his own personal predicament. In that startling scene, McDormand (Fargo) conveys Mildred’s duality: ferocious yet empathetic. If the role feels tailor-made for McDormand, that’s because it was: Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) wrote it specifically for her. “She is someone that doesn’t play the game and takes no prisoners in her personal life,” he says. “I think she brought along that kind of attitude to the part, too.” — Tim Stack

Meryl Streep

Niko Tavernise

Starring In: The Post
Age: 68
Oscar Past: 20 nominations; 3 wins
Role Call: Real-life Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who defies a belligerent White House trying to stifle news about Vietnam

Meryl Streep has played a litany of powerful women over the years, but what surprised her about publisher Katharine Graham was how insecure this icon of journalism was deep down. In this true story, Graham challenges the Nixon White House as her newspaper seeks to publish the Pentagon Papers, a top secret government report about the Vietnam War. Later, Graham would help topple the same administration with the paper’s Watergate reporting. Streep says the key to her character was Graham’s partnership with editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), whose boldness inspired her to find her own strength. “It was a big test for both of them,” Streep adds. “She hired him knowing he was a pirate, knowing he was trouble — and he was. But she liked the bad boy, she liked that energy, and they were a very good match for each other.” Opposites sometimes draw the best from one another. — Anthony Breznican

Margot Robbie

Starring In: I, Tonya
Age: 27
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Tonya Harding, tabloid punchline of the ’90s for her alleged role in the attack against rival Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan

Margot Robbie never judged Tonya Harding, the Olympic ice skater whose complicity in the 1994 attack against Nancy Kerrigan cast her as a villain for life. “It was important to me that nothing felt like she was lying, that she truly was being honest in every moment, and that she did everything with the best intentions,” Robbie explains. But playing the notorious ’90s antiheroine required more than just belief in Harding’s claims of innocence. The Australian actress trained on the ice for five months, adjusted her voice to match Harding’s Oregonian roots, and studied every piece of footage she could find to understand the complex woman beneath the scandalous headlines. “One of the most fascinating things I noticed watching her was she seemed to start sentences without knowing how she was going to finish them,” Robbie says. “I liked that quality so much, I tried to inject it.” After all, Harding never followed the script. — Shirley Li

Saoirse Ronan

Starring In: Lady Bird
Age: 23
Oscar Past: 2 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: The willful Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, who comes of age during her turbulent senior year at a Catholic high school

As the titular teenager in Greta Gerwig’s film about the confusing age between childhood and adulthood, Saoirse Ronan captures what it’s like to be a walking cyclone of adolescent contradictions. Christine — sorry… Lady Bird — is a young woman who yearns for freedom (from her mother and from Sacramento, mostly) while secretly fearing her future. “You know when you’re a kid and you’ll sort of emulate your parents or you’ll try on different characters?” Ronan says. “That’s what Lady Bird is doing. From scene to scene, depending on who she’s with, she’s adapting.” So is Ronan, who’s been a chameleonic screen presence ever since her first Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement, at age 13. Now 23, she admits she’s learned as much from Lady Bird as Lady Bird has from, well, everyone around her. “It’s okay to not have everything figured out, you know?” she says. “[Lady Bird] taught me that, for sure.” And as far as life lessons go, that one’s “hella tight.” — Shirley Li

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