Running down the race between Octavia Spencer, Melissa McCarthy, Bérénice Bejo, Jessica Chastain, and Janet McTeer

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The Frontrunner
Octavia Spencer in The Help
Age 39
Role Minny Jackson, a Mississippi maid with a talent for baking unique pies.
Oscar History First nomination.
Accent of a Woman ”It’s definitely a distinct dialect,” says Spencer — a Montgomery, Ala., native — of Minny’s drawl. ”People who aren’t Southern don’t know that there are different dialects for each Southern state and region. I mean, an Alabama accent is very different from a Mississippi accent, very different from Mississippi Delta.” She chuckles. ”The dialect part was the least of my concerns.”
An Education Before shooting one particularly challenging scene, Spencer realized that the nonprofessional child actors playing her kids needed a better grasp of the harsh conditions African-Americans faced in the 1960s. ”They had to be in as much distress as I was in,” she explains. ”[To] one little boy, the youngest one, I said, ‘Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and he said, ‘I want to be a fireman!’ I said, ‘Well, you can’t be a fireman. The only thing you can do is mow lawns.’ And his little lip quivered. He was just heartbroken.” The kids nailed the scene — and won more than just praise from their acting coach. ”I got them lots of gifts,” says Spencer.
Up Next She stars with Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the indie drama Smashed, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, then shoots Diablo Cody’s untitled directorial debut later this year. —Adam B. Vary

Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
Age 41
Role Megan, the lascivious bowling- shirted bridesmaid who encourages Annie (Kristen Wiig) when it counts.
Oscar History First nomination.
Keeping It Real Though Bridesmaids won attention for its R-rated content, McCarthy rejects the idea that the film was raunchy. ”Everyone goes back to the dressing-room scene,” says the actress of a notably scatological sequence set in a bridal store. ”But that was a horror show! It was a train wreck that we were all trying to stop. To me that’s not raunchy. It was wildly embarrassing and sad.”
Why Megan Rules ”The kind of comedy I hate,” says Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, ”is when it’s ‘Look at this crazy character who’s so dumb and let’s just laugh at this person.’ Melissa never lost the humanity of Megan and played her as someone unabashedly proud of who she is.”
Red-Carpet Routine McCarthy has become a regular at premieres and awards events — and the transformation has not gone unnoticed at home. ”My [4-year-old] daughter gets a big kick out of it when I get dressed up, because she literally is like, ‘What’s that? What do you call that on top of your head?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s my hair.’ I think it was the first time she hadn’t seen my hair pulled back in a Helga bun.”
Up Next She costars in director Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 (Dec. 21). This summer, while on hiatus from CBS’ Mike & Molly, she’s lined up to shoot two comedies: Seth Gordon’s Identity Thief and Tammy, which she wrote with husband Ben Falcone. —Karen Valby

Bérénice Bejo in The Artist
Age 35
Role Up-and-coming starlet Peppy Miller, whose ascent into the Hollywood firmament parallels the decline of silent-film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), for whom she has fallen.
Oscar History First nomination.
He Looks Familiar Bejo and Dujardin had both worked with director Michel Hazanavicius on the 2006 spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. And her association with Hazanavicius goes even deeper: They have two children together. ”Michel is the kind of director who loves actors,” says Bejo. ”Me especially.”
On Tap The film culminates in a spectacular sequence in which Bejo and Dujardin perform an Astaire-Rogers-esque tap-dance routine. A lot of time and effort went into making it look so effortless. ”We practiced for five months almost every day,” says Bejo. ”It was really hard, and even now when I look at the movie I can’t believe how fast we’re doing it. Sometimes it’s like my feet still hurt.”
To the Dogs One of Bejo’s few regrets is that she didn’t have more screen time with Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who plays George’s pet. ”I only got to do two scenes with him,” she says. ”It’s too bad. He’s a big star now. He’s even got the Palm Dog at Cannes.”
Up Next Bejo will be joining Hazanavicius on his next film, the Chechnya-set The Search. —Keith Staskiewicz

Jessica Chastain in The Help
Age 30
Role Celia Foote, a poor outcast who marries into Mississippi’s high society.
Oscar History First nomination.
Hello, Norma Jean For inspiration, Chastain studied the traits of another woman who triumphed over her impoverished background. ”The giggling and lust for life is her running from something, just like Marilyn Monroe,” Chastain says. ”So I read Marilyn Monroe’s biography, and in it I found a huge connection.”
Almost Famous Perhaps because she was in seven movies in 2011, Chastain is definitely getting noticed — though not always as herself. When she posed for photos with some fans at a screening of The Help, they gushed about how much they liked Spider-Man 3 and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, apparently having mistaken her for Help costar Bryce Dallas Howard. ”I love that people don’t know me,” Chastain laughs. ”I was just at the airport, [and] there’s a guy with a camera, asking me a couple of questions. I get into my car and I hear him say to someone else, ‘I don’t know…Kate Walsh?’ So that’s the stage I’m in right now.”
Up Next She provides the voice of a jaguar in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (June 8), then stars in John Hillcoat’s drama The Wettest County (Aug. 31) and the supernatural thriller Mama (date TBA). In February, she begins shooting Kathryn Bigelow’s December drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and she makes her Broadway debut this fall in The Heiress. —Anthony Breznican

Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs
Age 50
Role Hubert, a cross-dressing woman who’s happily married to another woman and becomes a role model for Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close).
Oscar History She earned a Best Actress nomination in 2000 for the indie drama Tumbleweeds.
Walk Like a Man When she was developing Hubert’s virile body language, McTeer looked to two of her showbiz pals for inspiration. ”I tried to copy the way Brendan Gleeson and Liam Neeson stand,” says the actress. ”They’re big, Viking Irishmen and that’s what I wanted Hubert to be. I knew I couldn’t totally do it because I’m not as big as them, so we used a lot of padding, too.”
A Close Friend McTeer says that she and Close forged an unusually tight bond while filming Albert Nobbs, which led to McTeer landing a part on Close’s long-running series Damages. ”Yeah, we’re in each other’s contracts now,” laughs McTeer, who says their friendship arose out of a similar work ethic. ”When we work together, there’s a combination of extremely committed hard work and a huge amount of laughter. We’re very in sync in that sense.”
Up Next After costarring with Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black (Feb. 3), McTeer will reunite with Close as a lawyer on the final season of Damages, airing on DirecTV this summer. —Adam Markovitz

Albert Nobbs

  • Movie
  • R
  • 113 minutes
  • Rodrigo Garcia