Christian Bale, Geoffrey Rush, and Mark Ruffalo are among this year's hopefuls

Christian Bale
*The Frontrunner
The Fighter
Age 37
Role Dicky Eklund, the charming but troubled mama’s boy who’s the key to the title hopes of his boxing half brother (Mark Wahlberg).
Oscar History First nomination.

Them’s Fighting Words Bale captured the squirrelly vibe of boxer Micky Ward’s ne’er-do-well half brother so well that townies in Lowell, Mass., occasionally mistook the actor for Eklund himself. But at least one local didn’t much care for Bale’s devotion to detail: Ward’s trainer — and Lowell police officer — Mickey O’Keefe, who portrayed himself in the movie. True to the relationship depicted on film, O’Keefe and Eklund can barely stand to be in the same room with each other. After Bale observed that dynamic, the actor began improvising in his first scene with O’Keefe and poking fun at the cop. ”You could see it was really pissing Mickey off,” recalls director David O. Russell. ”O’Keefe’s sitting there with his finger over his mouth, like he’s reliving the past with Dicky, and Christian plugged right into that. That scene [later] where he yells at Dicky, and the veins are sticking out of his neck, I think it was very cathartic for O’Keefe. He could’ve done that all day.”

Up Next Bale stars in Zhang Yimou’s big-budget Chinese epic The 13 Women of Nanjing before appearing as Batman in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. —Jeff Labrecque

Geoffrey Rush
The King’s Speech
Age 59
Role Lionel Logue, the Australian-born speech therapist for stutter-afflicted King George VI (Colin Firth).
Oscar History He won Best Actor for his portrayal of schizoaffective concert pianist David Helfgott in 1996’s Shine. He also received nominations for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love and 2000’s Quills.

Taking The Bait ”I’ve read a lot of the recent blogs where people say, ‘Oh, [The King’s Speech] is such an Oscar-bait film…. You know, you have someone with a stammer, it’s about British royalty, et cetera.’ But from our end, we read it and went, ‘Who will want to see this film about two middle-aged men who become friends?”’ laughs Rush. And his costar agrees. ”You have a premise where we could have given it over completely to a comic setup of the odd couple,” says Firth. ”You could have had Crocodile Dundee meets Lord Snooty and gone all the way down that route.”

Befriending A King Rush and Firth had met during Shakespeare in Love, and resumed their camaraderie while prepping for The King’s Speech. ”We were just always barking with laughter every five minutes of the day,” says Rush. ”It became a very essential ingredient.”

Up Next Rush reprises his role as Barbossa opposite Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20). —Sara Vilkomerson

Mark Ruffalo
The Kids Are All Right
Age 43
Role Paul, the sperm-donor dad for lesbian parents Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) who becomes pre-occupied with the latter when they finally meet.
Oscar HistoryFirst nomination.

Spousal Support Ruffalo initially passed on the film because he wanted to spend more time with his family — which he apparently neglected to tell his wife, Sunrise. ”I was texting with Sunrise,” says Moore, ”and she said, ‘Whatever happened with that movie?’ I told her Mark passed because he didn’t want to be away from them anymore. She said, ‘That’s ridiculous! I love that movie. I want him to do it.”’

Opposites Attract Despite the movie’s focus on female sexuality, Ruffalo managed to show off his sex appeal. ”He was incredibly hot in this movie,” says Moore, ”this übermale.” Ruffalo just laughs. ”I’m the only actor who could be a sex symbol in a lesbian movie,” he says. ”But I don’t think I outsexy Annette or Julianne. Those are some fine ladies.”

Up Next He’ll play Bruce Banner (a.k.a. the Hulk) in Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, shooting this spring. —Adam B. Vary

Jeremy Renner
The Town
Age 40
Role Hair-trigger-tempered bank robber James ”Jem” Coughlin.
Oscar History Second nomination…and second in a row, following last year’s Best Actor nod for The Hurt Locker.

Getting Into Character Renner is so believable as a brutal, loose-cannon hood from the blue-collar Charlestown section of Boston that even his director, Beantown native Ben Affleck, couldn’t believe his eyes—or ears. ”With Renner I didn’t do anything,” says Affleck. ”I said, ‘Here are some people you should talk to.’ Then I never heard from him again. He just showed up, had the accent, and nailed it. He just spiked it! I knew if I cut to him, I’d have something good. That’s really comforting when you’re also acting in the movie. If I’m not good, I can just cut to him.”

Takes One To Know One ”Ben just wanted to make the film feel authentic,” says Renner. ”Outside of the main actors, everyone else was an ex-con. When we were shooting, if you wanted to find a criminal to talk to, you just had to look to your left or your right. It was awesome and totally helpful.”

Up Next He costars with Tom Cruise in December’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, then plays superhero Hawkeye in Joss Whedon’s 2012 caped-crusader-palooza The Avengers. —Chris Nashawaty

John Hawkes
Winter’s Bone
Age 51
Role Teardrop, a menacing meth user living in the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains.
Oscar History First nomination.

Bar Examination Before shooting Winter’s Bone, Hawkes studied locals in rural Missouri bars. ”I wanted to observe Teardrop-like people — and a bar is usually the best place to try to pick up the specific dialect of the area and how people move and mark their territory,” he says. ”I was a little frightened, actually, to go into some of these places.”

Hey, Aren’t You That Guy? After more than two decades as a largely unknown character actor, Hawkes has become more recognizable thanks to roles in HBO’s Deadwood and Eastbound & Down and now Winter’s Bone. ”It’s troubling, to be honest, because I feel like my effectiveness as an actor so far has been that people don’t quite know who I am, so they tend to believe me as the character as opposed to someone they saw on a talk show talking about what their daughter spat up for breakfast. But there are still a lot of folks out there who have no idea who I am — and those are my people.”

Up Next Hawkes stars in two indie dramas that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Higher Ground and Martha Marcy May Marlene. —Josh Rottenberg