From Jared Leto to Michael Fassbender, the actors talk about their roles and upcoming projects

By Keith StaskiewiczSara VilkomersonJeff LabrecqueStephan Lee and Josh Rottenberg
Updated January 30, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

Jared Leto
Dallas Buyers Club
Age: 42
Role: Rayon, a transgender, HIV-infected drug addict who partners with Matthew McConaughey’s redneck on a meds-smuggling operation at the height of the 1980s AIDS crisis.
Oscar History: First nomination.
Worth the Wait: Leto hadn’t starred in a film in nearly six years, but he was hardly idle. He performed with his rock band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and directed videos and a music-industry documentary, Artifact. “I could’ve pursued opportunities that were there that were more traditional, more obvious, more financially rewarding,” he says. “But I don’t think I’d be very good taking on a film that I wasn’t incredibly passionate about. I’m not interested in making the most. I want to make the most interesting.”
A Mile in Her Shoes: Director Jean-Marc Vallée says he met the real Leto only briefly — when the actor auditioned via Skype and again when the film premiered at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival. In between, Leto was completely in character as the delicate, deteriorating Rayon, who brings out the humanity in her homophobic business partner. “Every morning when I stepped out of that van that took us to set, I always had my high heels on,” says Leto, who dropped more than 30 pounds and waxed his body, including his eyebrows. “You don’t want to have high heels on at four in the morning, but it kind of set the clock.”
Up Next: Leto is touring with Thirty Seconds to Mars until July. He hasn’t selected his next film project. —Jeff Labrecque

Michael Fassbender
12 Years A Slave
Age: 36
Role: Edwin Epps, the sadistic cotton-plantation owner who torments his slaves, including kidnapped free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Oscar History: First nomination.
Onscreen Trust: Fassbender’s Epps reserves the worst of his cruelty for a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) — in one memorable scene, he whips her nearly to death. “Michael plays such a terrifying character, and our scenes together are particularly difficult ones, but it’s even more amazing when you see how utterly kind a person he is in real life,” says Nyong’o. “We had a very trusting relationship.”
Cutting Loose: Given how heavy the scenes could get on the Louisiana set, Fassbender and his costars often sought an escape when the cameras weren’t rolling. “On the weekends, we would try to get as far out of character as possible — New Orleans is a great place to get out of character,” says Ejiofor with a laugh.
Three Dimensions: “He breathes life into a character that on the page seems one-dimensional,” says director Steve McQueen, who previously worked with Fassbender on 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame. “There’s intensity with the guy. He doesn’t leave anything behind. It’s all on the screen.”
Up Next: His schedule is packed. First, he returns as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past (out May 23). He also stars as an eccentric pop singer in the British indie Frank, which just premiered at Sundance, and as a 19th-century American frontiersman in Slow West. Plus, he’s about to shoot a big-screen version of Macbeth opposite Marion Cotillard. —Stephan Lee

Barkhad Abdi
Captain Phillips
Age: 28
Role: Abduwali Muse, a Somali pirate who takes U.S. ship captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage.
Oscar History: First nomination.
Untested Waters: Born in Somalia, Abdi immigrated to Minneapolis at age 14 and had never acted before auditioning for director Paul Greengrass. “There was one scene [during shooting] where I was stuck,” Abdi remembers. “Paul took me to the side and said, ‘You know, there are similarities between you and the real Muse.’ I was like, ‘No, that man is a criminal.’ He said, ‘That man took a big risk with the piracy, and you are taking a big risk with this industry. If you don’t do this right, you’re going to fail.’ That motivated me.”
Electric Moment: Greengrass deliberately kept Abdi from meeting or even laying eyes on Hanks until the pivotal scene in which the Somali pirates storm the ship’s bridge. “There was a lot of electricity on the set,” Greengrass says. “Barkhad got in front of Tom, put his two fingers up to his eyes, and said, ‘Look at me. Look at me. I’m the captain now.’ The hairs on the back of my neck went up and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy is the real deal.'”
Up Next: He recently landed an agent and will be moving to L.A. to pursue more acting roles. “I just want to see how far I can do this,” he says. —Josh Rottenberg

Bradley Cooper
American Hustle
Age: 38
Role: Richie DiMaso, an ambitious FBI agent who uses two con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) to help bring down corrupt politicians.
Oscar History: Cooper received a Best Actor nod last year for director David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.
Russell Repertory: Along with costars Adams, Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence, Cooper was eager for a chance to do another movie with the director. Especially after he read the script for American Hustle. “Like the rest of David’s movies, these characters are emotional and winning. They make you laugh and they break your heart,” says Cooper. He also served as an exec producer on Hustle, just as he had on Silver Linings. “David has been so open with me and allows me to be a part of his process,” he says. “It’s like going to film school every time I work with him.”
Curl Power: To play DiMaso, a vain man with a tightly coiffed ’70s ‘do, Cooper arrived three hours early every day to have his hair set in tiny individual curlers. “He looks fantastic to me! Just a completely different person,” says Russell. “We looked at baseball players as inspiration. [Pitcher] Dock Ellis was really our model.”
Up Next: He voices Rocket Raccoon in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (out Aug. 1). He stars with Lawrence in the upcoming Depression-era indie Serena, and plays a defense contractor opposite Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams in Cameron Crowe’s untitled rom-com. —Sara Vilkomerson

Jonah Hill
The Wolf of Wall Street
Age: 30
Role: Donnie Azoff, a sleazy aide-de-camp to stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Oscar History: Hill earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for 2011’s Moneyball.
Idol Chatter: Hill met Wolf of Wall Street director Martin Scorsese at the 2012 Oscar ceremony. “I don’t usually go up to people and bother them,” Hill says. “But I thought, ‘He’s my favorite director of all time and he’s sitting right in front of me.’ I was happy enough right then and there just shaking his hand.”
Going for the Goldfish: In one scene, Azoff swallows a goldfish belonging to one of the company’s bullpen peons just to make a point. Of course, no animals were harmed in the making of the film — although the same might not be said for Hill. “They had three animal-rights people on set. Three adult human beings just for this goldfish,” he says. “What we had to do was put the live goldfish in my mouth, and it could only be in there for a few seconds. The third or fourth time, the goldfish went to the bathroom in my mouth. The glamorous world of movie acting!”
On the Fly: After years of working on improv-heavy comedies in the Judd Apatow-verse, Hill hoped to bring his skills to a different setting. “Scorsese was incredibly open to improvisation,” he says, “which was a delight to me and everybody else. It’s something that can work really well not just for comedy but also drama.”
Up Next: Hill reprises his role opposite Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street (out June 13), then plays a journalist in the drama True Story with James Franco. He also voices characters in The LEGO Story (out Feb. 7) and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (out June 13). —Keith Staskiewicz

12 Years a Slave

  • Movie
  • R
  • 134 minutes
  • Steve McQueen