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Amy Adams, The Master
Role: Peggy Dodd, the manipulative, ironhearted wife of spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Oscar History: Since her breakout Oscar-nominated role in 2005's Junebug, Adams has racked up nods for 2008's Doubt and 2010's The Fighter — but she has yet to win.
Hidden Force: Adams has appeared on screen with Philip Seymour Hoffman twice before — as an administrative assistant in 2007's Charlie Wilson's War and a young nun in 2008's Doubt. The Master marks the first time their characters were on equal footing with each other, an opportunity the actress relished. ''The wonderful thing about Philip is he never tries to dominate,'' she says. ''He's always very true to the scene.''
Office Hours: Shooting the penultimate sequence of The Master — in which Lancaster and Peggy confront troubled WWII vet Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) in their palatial office — ''was one of the most surreal experiences of my career,'' Adams says. ''It was the most quiet a set has ever been. We shot it on a night shoot after several evenings of night shoots, so we were all at a very sleepy, time-doesn't-exist place, and Philip and Joaquin were just so focused on one another for hours. It still breaks my heart when I watch that scene in the film.''
Up Next: She plays Lois Lane in Man of Steel (June 14). She recently wrapped Spike Jonze's Top Secret Her, and will soon start shooting an as-yet-untitled David O. Russell film about the FBI's Abscam sting operation. —Adam Markovitz
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Sally Field, Lincoln
Role: Mary Todd Lincoln, the troubled wife of the 16th president.
Oscar History: The misquoted cliché from her Oscar acceptance speech in 1985 is true: They like her, they really like her. Both times she's been nominated — for 1979's Norma Rae and 1984's Places in the Heart — she's won.
Privacy, Please: Daniel Day-Lewis wasn't alone in staying in character throughout the shoot. ''That's how I work,'' says Field. ''And I've always hidden it. I go off by myself in a chair and I do something so people don't talk to me so I can stay in my world.'' She says it's just a way to stay in the right head space, especially when playing someone from a different era. ''You have to think in that language, almost like you're thinking in a foreign tongue. And so you have to stay in that because you can't flip into current slang.''
Homeward Bound: While prepping for the role, Field visited Mary Todd Lincoln's childhood home in Lexington, Ky. ''I carried away the vision of her in that little bitty spot. And how close [they] were to the slave quarters, how close it all was. It wasn't really like a whole plantation thing where you're once removed from it all,'' says the actress. That proximity to slaves might have accounted for Mrs. Lincoln's later sensitivity to their plight. ''It was certainly always in Mary's mind,'' Field says.
Up Next: She expects to reprise her role as Aunt May in 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2. —Anthony Breznican
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Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Role: Fantine, a former factory worker who turns to prostitution to earn money for the care of her young daughter, Cosette.
Oscar History: She received a Best Actress nod for 2008's Rachel Getting Married (and cohosted the 2011 Oscar broadcast with James Franco).
Finding Fantine: Though Victor Hugo's novel was published 150 years ago, Hathaway says its depiction of human struggle remains relevant. ''When people feel crushed, they feel moved to do desperate things,'' she says. ''It's one thing when life just hands you burden after burden after burden. It's really cold out and your coat's too thin. Or you're sick and then you get screwed over by an insurance company claiming you're not quite sick enough or too sick for them — the niggling bureaucracy that makes you feel less than human. That is something that, unfortunately, we are still dealing with today.''
Wasting Away: Before filming began, Hathaway dropped 10 pounds and lost an additional 14 during production to portray her character's physical decline. ''I couldn't sleep. I was so starving, my body was keeping me awake at night, like it was telling me, 'Go look for food!'?'' she says. ''I was kind of in this otherworldly, slightly ecstatic manic state all the time.''
Up Next: She plans to star in ''a little indie drama'' called Song One, which she's producing with new husband Adam Shulman. —Anthony Breznican
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Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Role: Cheryl Cohen Greene, a sex surrogate who helps a severely disabled poet (John Hawkes) lose his virginity using a decidedly hands-on approach.
Oscar History: Hunt won the Best Actress award for the 1997 romantic dramedy As Good as It Gets.
Sexual Healing: Hunt had never even heard of the profession of sex surrogacy before reading writer-director Ben Lewin's script, but after meeting the real Cohen Greene, who has been practicing for nearly 40 years, she felt inspired by the therapist's totally open and positive attitude toward sexuality. ''I don't think of myself as being a person with a lot of hang-ups about sex, but if you stand next to Cheryl, you're like, 'That's what it would look like to be really healthy about it all,'?'' Hunt says. ''She's a grandmother, still working, and just amazing.''
The Naked Eye: Hunt didn't want to approach the sex scenes cavalierly, so she invited Lewin and director of photography Geoffrey Simpson over to her house before shooting began to work out a detailed plan. ''The DP is lying on my bed and I'm on top of him and we're saying, 'Well, if there's a camera there, that'll be good.' 'Oh, you don't want the camera to be there.' My job was to take off my clothes with total abandon and joy, and if I was worried about any of it, I couldn't have pulled that off.''
Up Next: Hunt plays a breast-cancer researcher in the indie drama Decoding Annie Parker, expected later this year. —Josh Rottenberg
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Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
Role: Dolores Solitano, the hovering, snack-preparing wife and mother of troubled men.
Oscar History: She was nominated for her role as the matriarch of a crime family in 2010's Australian drama Animal Kingdom.
Fan Club: Weaver had an admirer on the Philadelphia set. ''I met Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and Jacki Weaver all at the same time,'' says costar Jennifer Lawrence. ''Robert De Niro is standing right next to Jacki Weaver, and I go straight to Jacki and am like, 'Oh my God, I love Animal Kingdom! I love you!'?''
Down for the Count: Weaver's contributions to the film extend far beyond her onscreen work. ''I was sitting there with 300 other people in the ballroom watching the dance scene,'' she says about the climactic sequence where Cooper's and Lawrence's characters await their dance scores. ''It's crucial that they get 5 points in order to win the parlay bet. The judges kept holding up their scores in take after take. I'm not great at math, but I kept adding them up thinking, 'That doesn't add up to 5.' So I told one of the producers that it didn't average 5 and he said, 'Oh my God!' and they changed it. So yeah, I saved the film.''
Up Next: She stars with Nicole Kidman in the psychological thriller Stoker (March 1), then scares up some chills in the horror film Haunt (Oct. 11). She also appears opposite Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in the drama Labor Day, due later this year. —Karen Valby