On March 4, winners will be crowned at the 90th Academy Awards. But before the red carpet is rolled out and envelopes are opened, we’ve got inside intel on the nominees. Below, read about the contenders for Best Supporting Actress, and come back to throughout the week for spotlights on the other major categories.

Mary J. Blige

Starring In: Mudbound
Age: 47
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Florence Jackson, matriarch of a sharecropper family closely intertwined with white landowners in post-WWII Mississippi

If you didn’t know Mary J. Blige starred in Mudbound, you might not recognize her under Florence’s straw hat and sunglasses. According to Blige, director Dee Rees insisted on eliminating every inch of Blige’s glamorous diva persona. “Florence really liberated me,” Blige says. “She’s given me a newfound confidence—to be stripped down to my own hair texture. That’s all my own hair. The makeup is very minimal.” However, the physical transformation was only step one in getting into a character who sees a lot but vocalizes very little—a trait she recognized from summers spent with her Southern grandparents. Blige also hired an acting coach to help her find Florence emotionally. “I wanted all of the emotion to be right in this person, and I wanted people, when they look at her, to be inspired—inspired looking into her eyes, or inspired at the way she moves,” Blige says. It’s fair to say she succeeded. — Chancellor Agard

Allison Janney

Starring In: I, Tonya
Age: 58
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Tonya Harding’s tough-loving mother, LaVona, whose investment in her daughter’s talent often goes too far

Throughout I, Tonya, Allison Janney’s LaVona glares — at her daughter Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), at Tonya’s boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), even at the camera itself when she’s recounting her memories. (The pet bird on her shoulder escapes her wrath, mostly.) But LaVona’s intensity isn’t rooted in evil; it’s entwined with the deep fear of losing the little she has. At least that’s what Janney thought: She created a mother with a one-track mind whose own abusive past left her with no understanding of how to nurture. “The stakes are very high in every scene for LaVona,” says the seven-time Emmy winner from Mom and The West Wing. “Like, ‘I have to get my daughter out on the ice, I have to get her to skate, I have to humiliate her so she will skate better. Just, I want better for myself and my daughter, and I need it very, very badly.'” Good luck, rival nominees. — Shirley Li

Lesley Manville

Starring In: Phantom Thread
Age: 61
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Cyril Woodcock, the no-nonsense dame who manages her brother’s 1950s fashion empire

The House of Woodcock’s well-coiffed matriarch is essentially Medusa with a better hairdresser. As played by Lesley Manville (Another Year), Cyril can turn you to stone with a single glance. Yet her air of contempt suffuses Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread with such a tense humor that she’s easy to love, just standing there — stunned, silent, and blinking. “I did occasionally catch wind of how funny it was because on two occasions my director, in the middle of a take, would start laughing and have to leave the room,” she says. “It didn’t help much because I could still hear him laughing next door.” — Kevin P. Sullivan

Laurie Metcalf

Starring In: Lady Bird
Age: 62
Oscar Past: 0 nominations; 0 wins
Role Call: Marion McPherson, Lady Bird’s protective but hypercritical mother, who loves her children so much it can hurt

Don’t let the disapproving scowl on her face fool you. Marion McPherson is intimidated by her teenage daughter, Lady Bird. “All the guidance that Marion gives her daughter, which comes out very aggressively, is couched by fear,” says Metcalf, the veteran TV (Roseanne) and stage actor. “She doesn’t know whether her daughter is ready to leave the nest, which means that Marion hasn’t fully done her job. [Her guidance] is coming from a place of love, but where they are in their relationship right now, there are so many buttons being pushed.” Metcalf was proud to learn that the movie’s complicated emotions have prompted mothers to call their daughters and vice versa. “[Writer-director] Greta Gerwig sweetly lets people feel that on their own,” says Metcalf, smiling. “I love the phone call at the end. It’s just a one-sided call, but it really sums up where the mother-daughter relationship is: rock solid and it always will be.” — Lynette Rice

Octavia Spencer

Starring In: The Shape of Water
Age: 47
Oscar Past: 2 nominations; 1 win
Role Call: Zelda Fuller, a 1960s cleaning lady drawn into a plot to rescue an aquatic monster

Both of Octavia Spencer’s previous Oscar nominations came for playing a woman confronting discrimination in the 1960s. “I’ve played women in this era before, but never like this,” says Spencer, comparing her role as a cleaning lady in The Shape of Water to turns in The Help and Hidden Figures. “Never with a point of view that is more about me being a woman, instead of the societal constraints.” In Guillermo del Toro’s tale of quirky characters and otherworldly monsters, Spencer grounds the story with much-needed humanity. Whether she’s fiercely defending a friend or cracking jokes about human-monster copulation, the actress imbues her character with loyalty, wit, and kindness, making Zelda the kind of best friend any of us would be lucky to have. — Devan Coggan

The Shape of Water
  • Movie

Comments have been disabled on this post