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Alan Arkin, Argo
Role: Lester Siegel, the no-bull Hollywood lifer who agrees to produce a fake movie for the CIA.
Oscar History: Arkin earned a Best Actor nom for his big-screen debut in 1966's The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and was nominated again two years later for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. He finally won the Best Supporting Actor prize for 2006's Little Miss Sunshine.
Film Studies: Lester Siegel is actually a composite of various producers involved in the real-life 1980 CIA operation. But Arkin took his inspiration from a Hollywood legend: Jack Warner. ''He was very secure, very sure of himself, very brash, didn't take crap from anybody,'' says Arkin. ''He smiled more than I do.''
Homecoming: Shooting in a building in L.A.'s Crossroads of the World mall brought back memories for Arkin. ''My family moved to Los Angeles when I was 11,'' the actor explains. ''My first day, I walked down Hollywood Boulevard. I wanted to be an actor even then. I got to that building and I saw a sign in the window that said 'Screen Children's Guild.' I dragged my mother there and I said, 'Whatever it is, I want to be part of that.' Argo hearkened back to my very first memory of Hollywood. One hundred twenty years later.''
Up Next: Arkin stars opposite Steve Carell and Jim Carrey in the magician comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (March 15). —Darren Franich
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Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Role: Pat Solitano Sr., a tightly wound, obsessive-compulsive football fan whose son (Bradley Cooper) has just moved back home after a stint in a mental institution.
Oscar History: This is his seventh nomination. He's won twice: Best Supporting Actor for 1974's The Godfather Part II and Best Actor for 1980's Raging Bull.
Analyze This: When director David O. Russell went to De Niro's house to discuss the script, he was startled to see how deeply the actor, a father of six, connected to the material on an emotional level. ''While we were talking about it, I thought he was having hay fever — and then, as we were talking about the story of the father and the kids, I realized that he was crying, which was very uncomfortable for me. I watched him cry for 10 minutes, then he resumed the meeting once he collected himself.''
Consummate Pro: What's it like directing a living legend? ''You're very intimidated by him,'' says Russell. Luckily, the actor has a tireless work ethic even now. ''You see how focused he is, working very hard, memorizing his page-long monologues.''
Up Next: He costars with Diane Keaton in The Big Wedding (April 26), faces off against John Travolta in Killing Season (release date TBA), goes into witness protection with Michelle Pfeiffer in Luc Besson's Malavita (Oct. 18), and teams with Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman in the buddy comedy Last Vegas (Dec. 20). —Josh Rottenberg
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Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Role: Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard-like spiritual leader who forges an unusual relationship with a desperate World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix).
Oscar History: Hoffman won Best Actor for 2005's Capote and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 2007's Charlie Wilson's War and 2008's Doubt.
Getting Psyched: To explore the nuances of Hoffman's complicated character, the actor had some thought-provoking conversations with director Paul Thomas Anderson. ''We'd talk a lot about 'Does anybody ever really get well?'?'' says Hoffman. ''Sometimes the person that's helping you is in just as much trouble as the person that needs help. These are all the kinds of things that we would talk about.''
Preacher Man: Though Dodd isn't a religious evangelist, Hoffman sees connections between his character and a certain type of charismatic church leader. ''He's [similar to] a preacher who had a congregation and all of a sudden got some traction,'' says the actor. ''He has that quality of somebody who's heading a congregation that is starting to be known around the country and the world. He's that kind of guy. That's what's so interesting about him: Who is that? We have so many examples of that kind of person in our world.''
Up Next: The indie-film vet will reach a whole new audience as Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Nov. 22). —Rob Brunner
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Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Role: Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce abolitionist considered a radical at the time.
Oscar History: Jones won Best Supporting Actor in 1994 for The Fugitive and has been nominated two other times — for a supporting role in 1991's JFK and for Best Actor in 2007's In the Valley of Elah.
Fighting Words: Jones is like a verbal action star, someone whose characters take out enemies simply with the force of their fiery rhetoric. But he insists he doesn't get any personal charge out of ripping costars a new one. ''I'm not there to experience catharsis. I'm there to contribute to one for the audience,'' Jones says. ''It's not about me or my experience. About the only emotion I personally experience is relief if I have any suspicion that it worked.''
Ensemble Player: Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field went deep into character throughout the shoot, but Jones says he just went with the flow. ''I don't really have a method of acting. I'll work any way. I'm not actually interested in the way I work. I'm interested in the way you work, because I want to work the way you do,'' he says, referring to his fellow actors. ''Whatever you require, it's easy enough for me to fit in.''
Up Next: Jones plays Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Emperor (March 8), then costars with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in the drama Malavita (Oct. 18). —Anthony Breznican
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Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Role: Dr. King Schultz, a traveling dentist?turned?bounty hunter who frees Django (Jamie Foxx), then mentors him.
Oscar History: Waltz took home a Best Supporting Actor trophy for playing sadistic Nazi Hans Landa in 2009's Inglourious Basterds.
Teutonic Synchronicity: Hailing from Europe, Waltz didn't have the same identification with the history of slavery as his American costars. But a walk through one of New Orleans' historical graveyards during production helped him make an important connection between the old and new worlds. ''Out of 10 tombstones, seven had a German name on it,'' he recalls. ''In fact, at least 10 percent of the Union soldiers were German. That gave me a completely different perspective.''
Django Slang-o: The original 1966 Django and its many spaghetti-Western imitators were immensely popular in Central Europe. A number of unrelated Westerns were even retitled to include the name — so Waltz had more than a passing familiarity with the character's legacy. ''When I grew up in Austria, Django was a synonym for cool,'' the actor says. ''But it was slightly mocking, like, 'Hey, look at Django over here!'''
Up Next: Waltz sports a bald head in Terry Gilliam's sci-fi film The Zero Theorem, due later this year. He's also expected to slap on a port-wine stain to play Mikhail Gorbachev opposite Michael Douglas' Ronald Reagan in the indie drama Reykjavik. —Keith Staskiewicz