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Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Role: Pat Solitano, a man struggling with bipolar disorder who becomes romantically entangled with an enigmatic woman (Jennifer Lawrence) with her own emotional problems.
Oscar History: First nomination.
Throwing out the Playbook: Cooper was both exhilarated and terrified by the prospect of working with director David O. Russell, who employs a fast-paced, improvisational shooting style and likes to push his actors' emotional buttons. ''Being on a David O. Russell set is like an athletic event,'' Cooper says. ''It's very organic, and there's tremendous freedom. He's rewriting on the day. He's yelling lines in. He's right there with you almost like another character in the scene. There's no sort-of-acting it. He wants to capture it happening.''
Shall We Dance? In a parallel to the film's plotline, Cooper and Lawrence forged a close bond as their characters spent hours together preparing for a dance competition. ''The best rehearsal any actors working together could do would be to do a dance routine,'' says Cooper. ''I think that's why the chemistry [between us] is so good.''
Up Next: Cooper stars with Ryan Gosling in the indie drama The Place Beyond the Pines (April 12), then reprises his role as Phil in The Hangover Part III (May 24), the final installment in the men-behaving-badly comedy trilogy. He also reteams with Lawrence for the Depression-era drama Serena, due later this year. —Josh Rottenberg
2 of 5
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Role: Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, in the closing months of his life.
Oscar History: This is his fifth Best Actor nomination. He's won twice, for 1989's My Left Foot and 2007's There Will Be Blood.
Not Fade Away: There is much speculation about Day-Lewis' acting process, though he shies away from discussing it publicly. While playing Lincoln, he did push aside as much of modern life as possible to better immerse himself in the role. But it irks director Steven Spielberg when people suggest that his star might have lost track of reality during the production. ''Daniel was always conscious of his contemporary surroundings,'' Spielberg says. ''Daniel never went into a fugue state. He did not channel Lincoln. All that stuff is just more about gossip than it is about technique.''
Have We Met? Many of Day-Lewis' costars encountered him only after shooting began and he was already in character, so they often felt they got to know the fictional Lincoln better than the man playing him. ''He is a phenomenon. He's kind of in a league of his own,'' says Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Lincoln's son Robert. ''What I love about acting is transforming myself into someone different from who I am, and he does that unlike anybody. I never personally, physically met Daniel until the night we finished shooting.''
Up Next: He hasn't announced his next project. —Anthony Breznican
3 of 5
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Role: Jean Valjean, an ex-con (for stealing bread) who skips out on his probation and lives on the run from relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
Oscar History: First nomination.
Blessings From Above: Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in London's West End and on Broadway, appears in the film as the bishop who gives Valjean a shockingly generous gift that allows the former prisoner to reinvent himself. ''Colm was one of the most famous people to ever play the role,'' Jackman says. ''I did ask him a couple questions, but I remember him saying at one point, 'What matters is you do it your way.''' Valjean would applaud such an independent spirit.
How To Be Good: Director Tom Hooper says Jackman was uniquely suited for the role. ''We did the usual long hours, and it was very intense for him particularly as the lead,'' says Hooper. ''But this is a guy who never snapped at anyone, ever. He was never irritable, never had an off day. Whatever the situation, he was always gracious, always thoughtful of other people. He's truly a good man, with a great moral compass as a person. And I think that's a part of why he makes a good Valjean. He makes goodness interesting.''
Up Next: Jackman recently wrapped The Wolverine, due in theaters July 26. —Anthony Breznican
4 of 5
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Role: Troubled, alcoholic drifter Freddie Quell, who seeks help from an L. Ron Hubbard-like guru (Philip Seymour Hoffman) while whipping up batches of brutal homemade hooch.
Oscar History: Phoenix has been nominated twice before: in the Best Supporting Actor category for 2000's Gladiator and for Best Actor for 2005's Walk the Line.
Arriving at Phoenix: Director Paul Thomas Anderson originally cast Jeremy Renner to play Quell. But the script took longer than Anderson planned, and by the time things finally got moving, Renner had already committed to other projects.
Serious Business: Phoenix has a reputation for eccentricity, and The Master was his first film after he ''retired'' from filmmaking while shooting the bizarre 2010 pseudo-documentary I'm Still Here. But Hoffman, for one, thought he was a wonderful collaborator who helped raise his own game. ''He's just a hard worker,'' he says. ''He's a serious guy, you know? He's serious in all he does. I loved working with him. He's just a terrific actor. His commitment and responsibility to the project is unbelievable. Every day it inspired me to try to do well.''
Up Next: Phoenix stars with (coincidence!) Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard in the drama Lowlife, due this fall, and he acts opposite Master costar Amy Adams in Spike Jonze's upcoming Her. —Rob Brunner
5 of 5
Denzel Washington, Flight
Role: Boozing, coke-snorting airline captain William ''Whip'' Whitaker, who becomes a media hero when he miraculously lands a malfunctioning plane while intoxicated.
Oscar History: With this, his sixth nomination, Washington becomes the most nominated African-American actor in Academy history. He's won twice — Best Supporting Actor for 1989's Glory and Best Actor for 2001's Training Day.
By the Book: During production, Washington carried around the very first draft of the Flight script — even after everyone else was working from updated versions. ''Because that was what I was affected by,'' he says. ''This script affected me. When I read it, I felt like, Wow.''
Prep School: The actor started getting into character during early read-throughs of the script. ''When Denzel showed up to those table reads, he had a cane with him and an unlit cigarette,'' recalls screenwriter John Gatins. ''I was like, 'Oh, right. Whip goes through an accident and he injures his leg.' Denzel really looks at every line of description.''
Up Next: Washington switches back into action-hero mode for 2 Guns (Aug. 16), which casts him as an undercover DEA agent who teams with a Naval Intelligence officer (Mark Wahlberg) to infiltrate a Mexican drug cartel. —Adam Markovitz