By Nicole SperlingJoe McGovernKevin P. Sullivan and Sara Vilkomerson
Updated January 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Kimberley French

No one was sure who would be nominated — and not everyone was thrilled — but when Chris Rock hosts the 88th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 28, a whopping 57 films will be represented. So to help you prep for the least predictable Oscar race in recent memory, EW has your inside scoop on who’s been nominated and why. Ahead, a look at the year’s best actor nominees. Pick up the latest issue of EW here.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, THE REVENANT

Between stuffing himself inside a horse carcass, chowing down on bison liver, and immersing himself in freezing water, no one suffered more for his craft this year than Leonardo DiCaprio. But his primary motivation to play fur trapper Hugh Glass didn’t stem from a penchant for masochism, he says. He was most interested by the challenge of portraying a character who barely speaks. “I’ve played a lot of vocal characters in the past, so this was something I really wanted to investigate: how to convey Glass’ complex emotions with very little dialogue.” DiCaprio succeeded thanks to a close collaboration with director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, whose commitment to shooting the entire film in natural light required his star to practice each scene in excruciating detail so he could nail it quickly when the cameras rolled. And because DiCaprio is on screen alone for most of the film, his wardrobe — in particular, a bear hide — became a narrative talisman, of sorts. “It was always about the bear fur,” he says. “What happened to the fur through the movie — when I put it on, when I lost it — always represented Hugh Glass’ arc.” — NICOLE SPERLING

EDDIE REDMAYNE, THE DANISH GIRL

For a decade, he’s been the epitome of a hardworking actor. (You might have first seen him in 2006 as the son of fellow Best Actor nominee Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd.) But in the past 18 months, Eddie Redmayne has cemented himself as the cinematic heir to Daniel Day-Lewis. His Oscar-winning performance as Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory of Everything was not simply the pantomiming of a disability for awards bait. Redmayne located the twinkling charisma and effortless charm within the astrophysicist’s wrecked body. Now, as Lili Elbe, a transgender woman struggling to understand her identity without destroying her marriage, Redmayne again defines his character not with cosmetics, but through her very female heart. “With Eddie, everything flowed from inside to out,” says director Tom Hooper, who also worked with the actor in Elizabeth I and Les Misérables. “The primary concern for him was always Lili’s emotional journey, much more than the physical, and that’s the incredible work you can see in his performance.” His costar Alicia Vikander agrees. “He’s such a thoughtful person,” she says. “So I never questioned that the film would work with him playing the part.” — JOE MCGOVERN

BRYAN CRANSTON, TRUMBO

Dalton Trumbo more or less came prepackaged for the biopic treatment. The Roman Holiday writer was both a vocal opponent of the House Un-American Activities Committee — a group of congressmen whose witch hunts plagued Hollywood in the late ’40s — and a bird lover who frequently wrote screenplays in his bathtub. Yet Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Trumbo in the film directed by Jay Roach could only have come from the performer who wowed TV viewers for five seasons on Breaking Bad and made them laugh years before on Malcolm in the Middle. “There comes a time, hopefully — that’s what every actor wants — when that character sucks into you, and you’ve ingested it,” Cranston says. “You feel that when you read an excerpt from his books or talk to people who knew him; it’s now filtered through your version of that character.” The transformation is simultaneously all Trumbo and all Cranston, capturing the eccentricities of the Hollywood legend, sifted through the ineffable charisma of the man we once knew as Walter White. — KEVIN P. SULLIVAN

MICHAEL FASSBENDER, STEVE JOBS

Michael Fassbender may not look like the Apple cofounder, but that was never the point. For the Aaron Sorkin-scripted biopic — a life in three product launches — Fassbender needed to capture Steve Jobs’ spirit and find the human soul behind the Mac daddy. Though he describes his process as “not really doing much” before he starts shooting, Fassbender read and reread and re-reread Sorkin’s script to make sure that when it came time to perform the complex pages of fast-paced dialogue in front of director Danny Boyle’s cameras, he wouldn’t be the one holding production up. “I’d hate to go home having had a bad day because I didn’t prepare properly,” Fassbender says. “The script dictates a lot by its rhythm, in terms of the character’s inner life and objective and psyche. By obeying the rhythm, it actually does a lot of work for you.” Turns out the old joke is true: How do you get to the Academy Awards? Practice, practice, practice. — KEVIN P. SULLIVAN

MATT DAMON, THE MARTIAN

In The Martian, the mission to rescue astronaut Mark Watney — who is mistakenly left on Mars because his crew believes him dead — becomes a globally watched event. It’s a role that requires a hero who is not only appealing enough to almost singlehandedly hold a movie audience’s attention for two-plus hours but could conceivably seduce an entire planet. “The whole world wants to bring him home. Who is that guy? It’s Matt Damon,” says costar Jessica Chastain with a laugh. “He’s so likable we have to root for him.” Veteran director Ridley Scott had been a fan of the actor for some time: “My favorite of Matt’s performances is The Talented Mr. Ripley — that one was really special,” Scott says. “But anything he does is something I’d like to see.” Damon was a Scott fan, too, and the first-time collaborators found that their working styles meshed from the start. “Normally I like to wait to rehearse with other actors and see what happens,” says Damon. This time he had few scenes with other actors, so “I prepped and showed up and was ready to go. On the first day we shot the first monologue where Mark realizes he’s stranded on Mars. It’s a two-page speech and we did it in one take. Ridley came blasting onto set and goes, ‘Jesus, you and me could do two movies at once!’” Maybe next time? — SARA VILKOMERSON

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