Mo'Nique, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick are among this year's hopefuls

By EW Staff
Updated February 05, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

*The Frontrunner
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Age 42
Role Mary Jones, a horrifyingly abusive New York City mother whose white-hot anger toward her teenage daughter (Gabourey Sidibe) masks unspeakable shame. Oscar history First nomination.

Getting into character For the role, the stand-up comedian and TV host shed her typical glamazon persona and explored a far more shady side. ”It was like, ‘Take yourself there and don’t judge it,”’ she recalls. ”I never judged it.”

Inspirations How did she manage to capture Mary’s incessant negativity? ”If you look at the environment that Mary was in, it was dark,” she says of her character’s squalid Harlem apartment. ”There was no life. There was no light. It was gloomy, it was damp. So that’s where her energy came from. When she looked around where she sat, what was there to smile about? That’s how I interpreted it.”

Up next She has yet to choose her next feature performance. But she’ll continue to host The Mo’Nique Show, weeknights on BET. —Dave Karger

Vera Farmiga
Up in the Air
Age 36
Role Alex, the sexy, savvy businesswoman who makes George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham reconsider his cynical philosophy on love.
Oscar history irst nomination.

She is woman, watch her soar For director/co-writer Jason Reitman, no one but Farmiga could play Alex. ”She’s a brilliant actress, and I fell in love with her when I saw Down to the Bone,” he says, citing the 2005 film in which she played a drug-addled mother in a miserable marriage. ”And she’s the only [real] woman out there — the only American woman. There are a few great British and Australian women and there are a lot of girls, but Vera is a woman. I needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with George Clooney. And she was perfect.” How does that praise sit with Farmiga? ”It’s very flattering,” she says. ”Jason has a tremendous respect for women. I don’t know his mother, but I would really love to meet her!”

Up next Farmiga is currently shooting the romantic comedy Henry’s Crime opposite Keanu Reeves, and will then costar with Jake Gyllenhaal in the sci-fi thriller Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones (Moon). —Missy Schwartz

Anna Kendrick
Up In the Air
Age 24
Role Natalie Keener, a high-strung college grad ready to revamp corporate America, who is forced to reevaluate her priorities after spending time with an older colleague (George Clooney).
Oscar history First nomination.

Getting into character Kendrick may not be as tightly wound as Natalie, but the actress did find a way to relate. ”Natalie has her list of what she expects out of life, and I have mine,” says Kendrick. ”I know I have just as many rude awakenings ahead of me.”

Learning curve Up in the Air, Kendrick says, was like a master class in acting: ”George is such a technician, and Vera [Farmiga] is like a gymnast. Watching them work was like having front-row seats to the opera.”

Up next The actress will reprise her role as Bella’s self-involved human pal in Eclipse, the third installment in the Twilight series, due June 30. She’ll also appear this summer with Michael Cera in the comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and is about to begin production on I’m With Cancer, in which she’ll play a psychologist opposite James McAvoy and Seth Rogen. —Nicole Sperling

Penélope Cruz
Age 35
Role Carla Albanese, the charmingly obsessive mistress of Italian movie director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Oscar history She won in this category last year, for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and was nominated for Best Actress for 2006’s Volver.

Facing the music For Cruz, one of the most nerve-racking moments of filming was arriving to record her big musical production number, ”A Call From the Vatican,” at Abbey Road studios in London. ”It’s such an iconic place,” she says. ”Everyone who works there is so good, and they’ve seen everything. Then you get there and say, ‘It was John Lennon; now it’s me?”’

Inspirations Cruz says that her character’s slinky choreography was patterned after a certain famous feline. ”One of the images that I worked with for Carla was the Pink Panther, the cartoon…how that character moves.”

Up next Other than a cameo in the upcoming Sex and the City sequel (due in theaters May 28), she has no projects lined up. —DK

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Crazy Heart
Age 32
Role Jean, a journalist and single mom who falls for her troubled singer subject.
Oscar history First nomination.

Perfect harmony Though she had met costar Jeff Bridges before, Gyllenhaal says she didn’t speak to him about Crazy Heart until they were on set. Not that it affected their chemistry. ”Within 20 seconds, it passed between us that we were both open for anything,” she says. ”We just kind of went for it and lived it. We opened our hearts to each other.”

Getting into character Gyllenhaal recalls struggling with the scene in which Jean learns that Bridges’ character has lost her young son in a mall. ”I was having difficulty imagining what that would be like,” says the actress, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Ramona. Bridges reminded her that a parent in that situation would be bewildered as well as terrified. ”It sounds silly now, but it really made the scene click for me.” Up Next She appears in the family film Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, due in August. —Kate Ward

*Front-runner predictions based on pre-Oscar awards, industry buzz, and interviews with Academy members