By Jeff LabrecqueNicole SperlingAnthony Breznican and Tim Stack
Updated January 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Barry Wetcher

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 supporting actor nominees. Pick up the latest issue of EW here.

SYLVESTER STALLONE, CREED

We’ve seen Sylvester Stallone play Rocky Balboa in seven films, but something about his performance in Creed is different. Not only is he cast in a supporting role, but his Rocky has been wounded, both by blows in the ring and by the cruelty of time. His friends are gone. His wife, Adrian, has died. And he’s been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The former heavyweight hero is now a defeated champion living among ghosts. It’s shocking, heartbreaking to watch, and it’s a version of the Italian Stallion that Stallone initially resisted. “He wasn’t sure that audiences wanted to see Rocky that vulnerable,” admits director Ryan Coogler. “And that was an uphill battle for him. It took some time for Sly to wrap his head around that, but once he did, he did it totally.” One of Stallone’s most poignant and heartfelt scenes depicts the moment when Rocky is diagnosed by his doctor and decides to reject treatment. “The hospital shoot was tough,” Coogler says. “We were pressed for time, and I remember on that day we had to move really fast. I only had one camera in that small hospital room. I did a push-in on Sly’s face, and on the first take he nailed it. Something felt so special and so real about it.” — TIM STACK, with additional reporting by Joe McGovern

MARK RUFFALO, SPOTLIGHT

As dogged journalist Michael Rezendes, Mark Ruffalo brims with righteous, kinetic energy as he races around the streets of Boston, tireless in his quest to discover the truth. “He vibrates through the entire movie,” says director Tom McCarthy. That physicality also represents the actor’s personal commitment to getting the film made. “Mark really is the heart and soul of Spotlight in a lot of ways,” says coscreenwriter Josh Singer. “He was the first guy to sign on board, he was the first one to say, ‘This is an important movie. It’s a story we need to tell.’” And for those who know the real-life Rezendes, the resounding consensus is that Ruffalo nailed both the man’s physical nuances and his character traits without turning the performance into a caricature, Singer says: “He’s really got him down in a way that is subtle and wonderful.” — NICOLE SPERLING, with additional reporting by Devan Coggan

TOM HARDY, THE REVENANT

The production of The Revenant has been described by everyone involved as a painful endurance test. For Tom Hardy it was an exercise he says he would have failed had he not spent six arduous months in the deserts of Namibia filming Mad Max: Fury Road. “If I hadn’t done Mad Max and hadn’t had a good taste of being powerless, and not knowing what was going on, and then seeing the results and going, ‘Oh my God, I get it,’ I couldn’t have done this,” he says. As the amoral John Fitzgerald, Hardy makes a murderous decision in an effort to save himself after his fellow trapper, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is mortally wounded by a bear. But Hardy doesn’t like to label him a bad guy — or judge him outside the context of the era in which he lived. “I try and avoid making sweeping generalizations about a character,” says the London native. “John makes the executive decision to not bring Glass back because he’s a liability. [Glass’] son is screaming and drawing attention to the three of them, so he offs the son as well. It’s not nice. It’s not very palatable. But it was a brutal place back then.” — NICOLE SPERLING

MARK RYLANCE, BRIDGE OF SPIES

“I think I reveal more of myself when I pretend to be someone else,” says Mark Rylance, a three-time Tony winner who has spent most of his career on the stage. So embodying a stoic Soviet sleeper agent held in U.S. custody, in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War espionage drama, wasn’t much of a stretch for the actor, who says he immediately drew parallels to his own career — and, indeed, acting in general. “There is something alike in the objective of our two businesses,” he says. “The twofold consciousness that actors and spies work with: pretending to be one thing while being fully aware you’re another.” — ANTHONY BREZNICAN

CHRISTIAN BALE, THE BIG SHORT

Director Adam McKay won Christian Bale over with a rather simple pitch: “It’s not often that we get to see an introvert as a hero.” Michael Burry was a brilliant numbers cruncher who recognized the looming financial crisis while Wall Street stuck its collective head in the sand. Socially awkward, with a whiff of Asperger’s, Burry worked in solitude — an acting challenge that the übercommitted Bale couldn’t resist. He wore Burry’s clothes, emulated his breathing, and mimicked his office routines. “It turns out Burry would do push-ups, play heavy metal, and walk in different patterns,” says McKay. “So that office really became his mind, and once we got that, it became incredibly exciting. Suddenly, you’re really getting to just watch someone’s mind work.” Bale invites you inside while simultaneously maintaining a distance, a coolness that is essential to the character. Burry was always three steps ahead; so is Bale. — JEFF LABRECQUE

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