January 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST

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 actress nominees. Pick up the latest issue of EW here.

ALICIA VIKANDER, THE DANISH GIRL

On April 29, 2014, Sweden native Alicia Vikander was best known as the star of the 2012 Danish art-house hit A Royal Affair, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. She had already wrapped shooting on Testament of Youth and Ex Machina, and her career was undoubtedly on the rise — but on that afternoon, as she was riding a train in the London Underground, her instant reaction to reading a newspaper item about the movie version of David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl was “Wow, that’s gonna turn out to be great.” The article said that Tom Hooper was going to direct Eddie Redmayne in the lead role. “And I’m not kidding,” Vikander says with a bemused laugh, “two days after that my agent called and said they were casting for Gerda.” Researching the part afforded Vikander an education in both trans rights and love. “I read a book called My Husband’s a Woman Now by Leslie Hilburn Fabian and she was generous enough to talk on the phone with me,” the actress says. “And it was a revelation to see that, with anyone who you’re close to, it is very much the two people who go through this change together. That’s something I really listened to and was very moved by. I’m glad it’s such a part of our film.” — JOE MCGOVERN

ROONEY MARA, CAROL

Stillness can be just as intimidating as acting up a storm, something Rooney Mara admits was on her mind when she joined Todd Haynes’ period drama Carol, replacing Mia Wasikowska in the role of a shopgirl with a complete lack of vocabulary for what she’s experiencing — in her case, romantic attraction to a mysterious older woman. “I loved the script but was worried that there wasn’t enough for me to do or that I wouldn’t be bringing enough to it,” Mara explains. Fortunately, being enamored with her costar helped. “I’ve looked up to Cate Blanchett since I saw Elizabeth when I was 13,” Mara says. “And as soon as I had Cate on other side as the person I was reacting to, a lot of things made more sense.” — JOE MCGOVERN

KATE WINSLET, STEVE JOBS

An actor can take on a role for any number of reasons: wanting to work with a director she admires, or to elevate a script she loves. Or maybe the film is shooting in Hawaii. But Kate Winslet accepted the part of Joanna Hoffman largely because it scared her. “If you know how to play a role, then where’s the challenge and where’s the fun?” Winslet says. “I read the script, and I thought, ‘God, I actually have no idea where to begin with this.’” Not only would she be performing Aaron Sorkin’s tech-heavy, rapid-fire dialogue, but she would be doing it in a polyglot accent that reflected Hoffman’s Polish and Armenian upbringing. She needn’t have worried, though. Winslet delivers a cool counterweight to the gravitational force of Michael Fassbender’s fiery Steve Jobs. She balances his tunnel vision with her broad view, his drive with her strategy. And like their real-life counterparts, neither could have succeed without the other. — KEVIN P. SULLIVAN, with additional reporting by Darren Franich

RACHEL MCADAMS, SPOTLIGHT

Rachel McAdams plays a woman who is equal parts determined journalist and loyal granddaughter of a devout Catholic. Her portrayal of reporter Sacha Pfeiffer was so effective at adding emotional depth to a complex story of reporters striving to unearth a cover-up in the church, that director Tom McCarthy and his coscreenwriter Josh Singer just kept adding more lines and scenes for her while they were shooting. “She was so good at taking our last-minute rewrites and turning them into gold,” Singer says. “I kept saying to her, ‘The problem is that you give us no incentive to stop doing this because you’re so good at it.’ Everything we threw at her, she literally could learn stuff within minutes.” Those moments turned out to be some of the most affecting in the film, says her costar Michael Keaton. “The scenes that always get me the most are the ones with Rachel, where she hasn’t told her grandmother yet and she knows her grandmother is going to find out all this information from the church, knowing how much that is going to hurt,” he says. “That’s a huge thing, and those are the scenes that — without Rachel saying a word — move me the most.” — NICOLE SPERLING, with additional reporting by Devan Coggan

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH, THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Quentin Tarantino didn’t write the role for her, but with Daisy Domergue, the conniving fugitive, Jennifer Jason Leigh sure makes it seem like he had. Feral, funny, and bloodthirsty, Daisy is a deadly hillbilly playfully jabbering with her captor one moment, then singing a ballad foreshadowing his doom the next. “It had been a long time since I had anything that made me really want to lose myself in a character, and [Daisy] demanded that of me,” she says. “Acting is something I loved so much, but I had sort of forgotten about it.” No one will forget Daisy’s bloody visage in the film’s final chapter, and Leigh has earned her stripes as a Tarantino player: “I would love nothing more than just to work with him forever and ever.” — JEFF LABRECQUE

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