Running down the race between Christopher Plummer, Nick Nolte, Kenneth Branagh, Jonah Hill, and Max von Sydow

By EW Staff
January 27, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

The Frontrunner
Christopher Plummer in Beginners
Age 82
Role Hal Fields, a 75-year-old widower who belatedly embraces his homosexuality, even while battling a terminal illness.
Oscar History Nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 2009’s The Last Station.
Father Figure Beginners borrows from director Mike Mills’ experience when his father announced he was gay in his 70s, and Plummer was the only actor he wanted in the role. Says Plummer, ”You just need to read the script to know his father had this wonderful sense of humor and a delight in finding that he could come out of the closet unscathed.”
Forever Young ”Christopher can talk about working with [Elia] Kazan or [John] Huston or just about anything. He has the most amazing war stories,” says Mills, who recalls that at one point during production Plummer hurt his knee but never complained. ”That generation…it’s more than stiff upper lip, because that sounds dour. It’s stiff upper lip with a big flag! They keep the party going. Christopher’s very funny and subversive. We should all be so lucky to be so hungry and alive as he is.”
Up Next Plummer can be seen in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He’s also attached to two upcoming projects that, he says, ”I won’t mention until they get an official green light because I think it’s bad luck.” —Sara Vilkomerson

Nick Nolte in Warrior
Age 70
Role Paddy Conlon, the Moby-Dick-obsessed recovering alcoholic whose rages forged the hardened personalities of his two sons (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), both mixed martial artists.
Oscar History It’s his third nomination, following nods for The Prince of Tides (1991) and Affliction (1998).
Art Imitates Life Nolte’s well-publicized struggles with substance abuse dovetailed with his character’s, which should be no surprise, since co-writer-director Gavin O’Connor specifically wrote the role with his friend in mind. ”In some ways, that’s really great,” Nolte told EW in December. ”In some ways, that’s really terrifying. He knows me well enough that when I looked at the role, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what do I have to go through now?”’
Nothing to Be Sorry About Conlon’s repeated pleas for forgiveness from his sons are greeted with venom, especially in one heartbreaking confrontation with Hardy’s character at a casino. ”The crew got very nervous,” Nolte recalled. ”I could feel them around me not wanting to watch. We only needed a few takes because Tommy just really went at it. And it made people uncomfortable. It’s hard to watch that scene. I couldn’t watch it. And then you kind of revisit all those emotions when you see the film again, and it brought tears.”
Up Next Nolte stars as a grizzled old thoroughbred owner on HBO’s new drama Luck, and he’ll play the LAPD chief in October’s star-studded The Gangster Squad. —Jeff Labrecque

Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn
Age 51
Role Laurence Olivier during his time directing 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl.
Oscar History Four previous nominations: for Best Actor and Best Director in 1990 for Henry V; for directing 1992’s live-action short Swan Song; and for Best Adapted Screenplay for 1996’s Hamlet.
Big Shoes Branagh says he was both intimidated and excited to play the much-revered Olivier. ”There’s a big voice in your head going, ‘That’s a long way to fall,”’ Branagh laughs. But on the first day of filming at the U.K.’s famed Pinewood Studios (where The Prince and the Showgirl was also shot), he found his confidence thanks to costar Michelle Williams. ”My first appearance as Olivier was watching Marilyn walk away. So my first sight of Michelle’s performance was her undulating behind shimmying in this beaded white dress. It was intoxicating. I thought, ‘Well, if she’s Marilyn Monroe — and by God, with that walk it seems that she is — I think I ought to start being Laurence Olivier.”’
Up in Smoke As he researched Olivier, Branagh was surprised by one discovery. ”He was unbelievably thrilled about the fact that he had a pack of cigarettes named after him,” says Branagh. ”They were called Oliviers, and you couldn’t cough anywhere in Pinewood before he would offer you a pack of his own cigarettes.”
Up Next Branagh will direct Kate Winslet in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which starts shooting in March. —Sara Vilkomerson

Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Age 28
Role Baseball-stats whiz Peter Brand, who works with Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) to shake up the Oakland A’s.
Oscar History First nomination.
Jonah Does Drama? Taking a dramatic role was hardly an obvious career move for the raunchy-humor star. ”I just like having an underdog complex,” Hill explains. ”In comedy right now I’m not really the underdog anymore, so that means it’s time to be the underdog in something else. When you’re not the underdog, you’re not fighting for anything anymore, so for me it was great to fight for this part.”
Improving Through Improv Oscar-winning screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian both worked on the film’s meticulous script, but sometimes memorable lines happen spontaneously. Case in point: the scene where Beane fires A’s outfielder Jeremy Giambi, essentially cutting the team’s manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) off at the knees. ”Brad walks out and Phil says to me, ‘You agree with this?’ and I say, ‘A hundred percent,’ and that’s where the scene ended. But then walking out I said, ‘Do you want this door closed?”’ says Hill. ”It was just a little improvised moment. You have this intense dramatic moment, and then to cap it with something mundane felt interesting to me.”
Up Next Hill co-wrote and stars in 21 Jump Street, a riff on the ’80s TV series, due March 16, then appears opposite Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn in Neighborhood Watch (July 27). He’ll soon start shooting The Apocalypse in April, with James Franco and Seth Rogen. —Rob Brunner

Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Age 82
Role Billed only as ”The Renter,” von Sydow’s silent character becomes the extremely quiet and incredibly distant companion to the film’s precocious child protagonist (Thomas Horn).
Oscar History Von Sydow was nominated for Best Actor in 1989 for the Danish-language drama Pelle the Conqueror.
There Are No Words… To play the Renter, the polyglot von Sydow gave up all languages but the physical. ”People have asked me if it is difficult to do a nonspeaking character,” he says. ”The answer is no. The only difference between the Renter and other people is that he doesn’t speak. Apart from that, his reactions are just as they would be otherwise.”
Something Different For von Sydow, the Renter was a welcome change from the usual Hollywood roles he’s offered. ”Unfortunately, sometimes you have a feeling that casting directors don’t have very much imagination,” he says. ”My first American part was Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. The consequence of that is I’ve been offered I don’t know how many priests, bishops, popes, cardinals, and religious figures, although I guess it’s always a step down from Christ.”
Multimedia Man He may be mute in Extremely Loud, but the actor contributed nothing but his voice to last year’s best-selling videogame The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which also features the voice of fellow nominee Christopher Plummer.
Up Next Nothing announced. —Keith Staskiewicz