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On Feb. 26, Los Angeles will become what La La Land promises: A city of stars. But before the envelopes are opened, we've got inside intel on the nominees. Below, read about the nominees for Best Supporting Actor, and come back to EW.com throughout the week for spotlights on the other major categories.

Mahershala Ali

  • Starring In:Moonlight
  • Age: 42
  • Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
  • Role Call: Juan, a softhearted drug dealer who becomes a father figure to a bullied boy

Mahershala Ali didn't think twice before signing up to play Juan, the drug dealer who takes in Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), a shy and lonely 9-year-old living in Miami with his crack-addict mother (Naomie Harris). Ali understood Juan; he'd known someone like him growing up, someone who could show limitless compassion but carry just as much shame. He'd also known someone like Chiron. "These were people in the black community that I've seen," Ali says, "and they don't tend to get a story." With an opportunity to tell Juan's, Ali focused on the man's empathy. In an early scene, Juan takes Chiron to his home with girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) and smiles as he watches the scrawny boy practically inhale his food. The joy in that moment should resonate with anyone who watches the film, Ali observes. "When you peel all the layers away, we're all the same," he says. "We're all dealing with wanting to be a part of a tribe. We all need to be supported. We all need a presence in our lives. That's why this story has connected with people." — Shirley Li

Jeff Bridges

  • Starring In:Hell or High Water
  • Age: 67
  • Oscar Past: 6 nominations; 1 win
  • Role Call: Marcus Hamilton, the good-ol'-boy Texas Ranger whose last case before retirement is a string of bank heists

Jeff Bridges' love affair with Westerns began long before his first Oscar nomination for 1971's The Last Picture Show, a rueful ode to a dying Texas town. "When I was a kid, whenever [my father] was playing a cowboy in a movie, I loved to try on his boots and his hat when he came home from work," explains the actor. Hell or High Water is a return to that thematic territory, with Bridges playing Marcus Hamilton, a grizzled Texas Ranger on the cusp of retirement. Every element of Bridges' performance feels beautifully lived-in, and Marcus becomes both an amused witness and a struggling participant at the end of a whole way of life. The actor took special inspiration from Joaquin Jackson, a storied lawman who consulted on the film before his death last June. "There's not a tougher guy around than a Texas Ranger," Bridges says. "You might think these guys have got this macho presence. But Joaquin was so confident in his toughness, he didn't have to project any of that. He actually had kind of a sweetness about him." Tough, confident, and sweet? We know the type. — Darren Franich

Lucas Hedges

  • Starring In:Manchester by the Sea
  • Age: 20
  • Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
  • Role Call: Patrick Chandler, a teenager forced to live with his uncle in the wake of his father's death

Lucas Hedges won over writer-director Kenneth Lonergan to play the suddenly fatherless teenager left in the care of his emotionally unavailable uncle (Casey Affleck), but shooting wasn't necessarily easy for him. "I just really wanted to impress Casey — I wanted him to be my best friend," Hedges says with a laugh. "That did not happen." Affleck remained distant on purpose to maintain their tense dynamic. On the last day of production, Affleck invited Hedges for a walk. "He put his arm around me and told me he was proud of me — it meant the world to me, and I started crying," Hedges says. "That is something I will remember for the rest of my life." — Sara Vilkomerson

For more on this year's Oscar contenders, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, or available here — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. <iframe src="//renderer.qmerce.com/interaction/588f8126a45697ca44a922c5" width="100%" height="512" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>

Michael Shannon

  • Starring In:Nocturnal Animals
  • Age: 42
  • Oscar Past: 1 nomination; 0 wins
  • Role Call: A gruff Texas cop named Bobby Andes, who's willing to bend the law to see justice done for a bereaved man

As a huge fan of hard-boiled fiction author Jim Thompson (The Grifters), Michael Shannon needed little persuading to join Tom Ford's slippery psychological thriller as Lieut. Bobby Andes. "Bobby seemed like he was of that great Jim Thompson world, and man, I just love those old gumshoe detectives," Shannon says. Like fellow nominee Jeff Bridges' character, Shannon's is a lawman working on his last case, hunting down a murderer while, in one memorable scene, nearly coughing up a lung. "Michael is playing an iconic Marlboro Man type," Ford says, "but Bobby is also dying from cancer, decaying, and that gives him this intensity and this urgency. I was afraid of Michael on the set — and he was the good guy." For Shannon, who appeared in 10 films in 2016 (including Midnight Special and Loving), the dark road that Bobby travels feels like home turf. "He's burnt-out, cynical, nihilistic," Shannon says. "So I kinda love the guy." But the actor sees his second Oscar nomination (eight years after nabbing his first for Revolutionary Road) as an unexpected thrill: "It's nice to get a little pleasant surprise in the midst of all the, uh, carnage." — Joe McGovern

Dev Patel

  • Starring In:Lion
  • Age: 26
  • Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
  • Role Call: Saroo Brierley, an Indian-Australian adoptee who uses Google to map his childhood memories and find his home

To play Saroo, a young Australian searching for his long-lost Indian birth family, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) started at the end: Saroo's reunion with his mother after years apart. "I shot my last scene of the film first," Patel explains, "and the amount of apprehension and pressure going into that [resulted in] lots of sleepless nights." Patel had to be as true as possible to the real Saroo, who was adopted as a boy by an Australian couple, and as a young man spent months combing Google Earth to try to find his way home. The result is a performance of gravity and humanity. "Dev has such light and joy, but he also managed to find those more challenging aspects of himself," director Garth Davis says. Patel's radiance and Saroo's vulnerability proved a magical alchemy. "I'm really proud that this is the film that gave Dev that sexy leading-man status," says Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo's adoptive mother. "He's very sexy in it!" A slumdog no more. — Devan Coggan

Credit: Claire Folger; Merrick Morton; David Bornfriend; Lorey Sebastian; Mark Rogers

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