By Devan CogganNicole SperlingJoe McGovernSara Vilkomerson and Kevin P. Sullivan
February 01, 2017 at 10:00 AM EST
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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 Actor, and come back to throughout the week for spotlights on the other major categories.

Casey Affleck

Starring In: Manchester by the Sea
Age: 41
Oscar Past: 1 nomination; 0 wins
Role Call: Lee Chandler, a benumbed janitor thrust back into his hometown

Casey Affleck has compared his character Lee Chandler to a boiling pot trying (often in vain) to keep its lid clamped tight. “He doesn’t want to feel things again, but he’s probably feeling more feelings than most people all the time,” Affleck says. Lee is haunted by his past and con-flicted over his future after returning to his hometown to bury his older brother and take care of his 16-year-old nephew. “It’s a strange and beautiful performance,” says writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. “This is someone who cannot bear the thoughts in his own head. It makes him detached on the surface, and Casey beamed in on that beautifully. He found this gold mine within himself.” Lonergan credits his leading actor with keeping the director’s head in the game during the relatively brief seven-week shoot. “He really pushed me to think about the characters as thoroughly as he had,” Lonergan says, laughing. “If you let him, Casey would shoot takes until the batteries ran down in all of the equipment.” — Sara Vilkomerson

Andrew Garfield

Starring In: Hacksaw Ridge
Age: 33
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Desmond Doss, the World War II hero who refused to carry a gun because of his religious beliefs

This past year, in addition to playing a 17th-century Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Andrew Garfield took on a second spiritual role, as a Seventh-day Adventist compelled to serve (but not shoot) during World War II, in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. And though his character, Desmond Doss, was a figure from much more recent history than Silence’s Father Rodrigues, the transformation into the soft-spoken hero wasn’t necessarily less of a stretch. “How on earth am I going to access this Lynchburg, Virginia, kind of Appalachian working-class, very Southern, uneducated, pure-of-heart?” the U.K.-raised Garfield remembers worrying. “How do I even begin to think about that?” Evidently, he found his way. As Doss, Garfield captures a man of fierce conviction whose unwavering belief does not simplify him. It’s a performance that makes a story of unbelievable bravery into something relatable and human. In the end, Doss is an everyday person who found great power in his responsibility to others. Maybe Garfield was more prepared for the role than he thought. — Kevin P. Sullivan

Ryan Gosling

Starring In: La La Land
Age: 36
Oscar Past: 1 nomination; 0 wins
Role Call: Sebastian, a passionate jazz pianist whose heart and soul are tested when he falls for a fellow Los Angeles dreamer

Ryan Gosling floats to the heavens during a scene of romantic reverie in La La Land — but ask many moviegoers and they’d say that he already possessed the ability to dance on air. The actor is a paradigm of style and presence, but his biggest concern about playing Sebastian, the ambitious jazz pianist, was keeping his feet on the ground. “What worried me was losing track of the character when the musical numbers came in,” he says. “That it wouldn’t feel like the same person you saw beforehand because of the singing and dancing.” The verisimilitude paid off. In the sweetest, most Goslingian moment of his whole performance, he’s crooning the Oscar-nominated song “City of Stars” when he takes an elderly woman into his arms for an impromptu waltz (much to the chagrin of her husband). “That’s pure Ryan,” director Damien Chazelle says. “There’s a timeless glamour about him as a performer, but when he experiences an emotion on film, you feel what he feels.” — Joe McGovern

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.

Viggo Mortensen

Starring In: Captain Fantastic
Age: 58
Oscar Past: 1 nomination; 0 wins
Role Call: Ben Cash, an idealistic patriarch raising his kids in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest

The title may suggest a superhero story, but you won’t find Viggo Mortensen’s character leaping over tall buildings in Captain Fantastic. Instead, Ben Cash is an anticapitalist intellectual, raising his six children in an off-the-grid utopia. “He has lots of great ideas, and he obviously loves his children,” Mortensen says of his Noam Chomsky-worshipping protagonist. “But he makes mistakes and contradicts himself at times.” Ben and his family may be a bit unconventional, but Mortensen connected with Ben’s values. Mortensen and the younger actors bonded at survivalist boot camp, learning how to scale rocks, jam out on the bagpipes, and skin animals. “Encourage people to think for themselves and not only form their own ideas but be able to defend those ideas,” says Mortensen. “And be open to changing those ideas if someone comes along with a better one.” Perhaps Mortensen is the superhero we need. — Devan Coggan

Denzel Washington

Starring In: Fences
Age: 62
Oscar Past: 6 nominations; 2 wins
Role Call: Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh whose rage and resentments derail his life

Denzel Washington first saw an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play back in the 1980s with James Earl Jones in the lead role of Troy Maxson. Though he connected to the anguish swirling inside the character, he always felt too young for the part. It wasn’t until producer Scott Rudin handed him the script in 2009 that he realized the time had finally come. “I was like, ‘Oh, wait, I’m almost too old. I better hurry up,'” Washington says with a laugh. And hurry he did. Portraying the embittered ex-ballplayer on the Broadway stage in 2010 landed him a Tony award, but it’s on film where Washington shines brightest. His years of big-screen experience coalesce with his mastery of the material to channel a man penned in by his own regret. To harness deep-seated nostalgia, Washington relied on simple things, primarily Troy’s trusty wooden baseball bat. “That was my most important tool to find Troy,” he says. “That was where he found comfort—by the tree, with his bat—that was his past. That was when things were good. The bat was the positive, and the bottle—the booze—was the negative.” Capturing the glory and the agony, it’s a performance that swings for the bleachers, and knocks it out of the park. — Nicole Sperling

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