EW Staff
February 05, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

Christopher Plummer
The Last Station
Age 80
Role Plummer plays Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, living out his final years while deciding whether his fortune should go to his wife or the Russian people.
Oscar history As shocking as it sounds, despite over 50 years of film work, this is his first Academy Award nomination. Plummer claims not to care. ”I don’t think about that. I honestly don’t,” he insists. ”Producers think about it, and people who push the movie, God bless them, think about it. I don’t think about it; if I did, I wouldn’t ever get anything done.”

Getting into character ”It was very hard to research Tolstoy physically,” Plummer says. ”We don’t know what he sounded like, really. On the recording he did make, the medium was so new that it raised the level of his voice to a rather high squeak. So it was impossible to get a line on Tolstoy physically. Mentally, you bring your own imagination to it.”

Up Next He’ll costar as a monsignor opposite Paul Bettany, Twilight‘s Cam Gigandet, and True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer in the vampire drama Priest, due this August. —Dave Karger

Matt Damon
Age 39
Role François Pienaar, captain of the 1995 world-champion South African rugby team.
Oscar history A Best Actor nomination, for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, and a Best Original Screenplay win (with Ben Affleck) for that movie.

Getting into character Director Clint Eastwood’s historical drama about the effort by Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) to rally South Africa around its national rugby team required Damon to adopt a credible Afrikaans accent. But the real challenge for Damon was grappling with the rugby lingo required for the role. ”The rugby guys all knew I didn’t know what I was doing, which was really helpful,” says Damon, who relied on tips from technical adviser and former South African rugby player Chester Williams. ”I’d ask him, ‘What can I yell at these guys right now?’ ‘Say, ”We have to disrupt them at the first phase!”’ I was like, ‘What the f— does that mean?’ He was like, ‘Just say it — and say it like you mean it!”’

Up next Damon will star in Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass’ long-delayed Iraq-war movie Green Zone in March. He recently wrapped the sci-fi thriller The Adjustment Bureau, costarring Emily Blunt, and has reunited with Eastwood on the supernatural thriller Hereafter. —Josh Rottenberg

Stanley Tucci
The Lovely Bones
Age 49
Role George Harvey, Susie Salmon’s neighbor — and murderer. Oscar history Despite Tucci’s prestigious film résumé, this is his first nomination.

Dark days The actor, who studied photos of serial killers in preparation for his role, couldn’t even get through Alice Sebold’s novel when he read it for the first time. ”I would skim it, because it was too up — setting for me to read the whole book,” he says. ”I was literally holding the book away from my body as I was reading it. I got to a certain point where I said, ‘Okay, that’s it.’ I was literally physically ill. You don’t want to have to go to that place. But you have to, so you do.” Good thing he went straight into playing Julia Child’s loving hubby in last summer’s decidedly cheerier hit Julie & Julia. ”It was the perfect antidote to playing George,” he says. ”And I got to go to Paris.”

Up next The actor plays a dad in the Scarlet Letter-inspired high school flick Easy A, and a nightclub manager in this November’s star-studded musical Burlesque. — Kate Ward

Woody Harrelson
The Messenger
Age 48
Role Capt. Tony Stone, the hardened officer who shows a young soldier (Ben Foster) the ropes in the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Oscar history A Best Actor nod in 1997 for the title role in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt.

Never say never ”The two parts in my mind for years that I didn’t think I had the capability to do were a policeman or a soldier. I felt like I couldn’t be believable, being, you know, kind of a hippie from Maui,” says Harrelson, who lives in an eco-friendly community on the Hawaiian island with his wife and three daughters. ”And then this came up. I was so slow on the uptake, it took me three or four days just to learn how to salute. But it started coming together.”

Up next Harrelson says he hasn’t been approached yet about a rumored 3-D sequel to Zombieland, but he does have two new films in the can: the dark comedy Defendor, due on DVD in April, and the action pic Bunraku with Josh Hartnett (which awaits a U.S. distribution deal). Also on the horizon: another collaboration with Messenger director/co-writer Oren Moverman. ”He wrote a phenomenal script,” says Harrelson of the new project. ”But he told me not to talk about it.” —Adam Markovitz

Christoph Waltz
*The Frontrunner
Inglourious Basterds
Age 53
Role Hans Landa, the SS colonel (nicknamed ”the Jew hunter”) who’s as charming as he is terrifying.
Oscar history First nomination.

Tarantino 101 When Waltz first read Quentin Tarantino’s script, he was completely overwhelmed. ”You can’t possibly take it all in. I said to my agent, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ She said, ‘You have to read it as if you’re watching a Tarantino film.”’ So he watched Tarantino’s entire oeuvre and cracked the script again. ”Funnily enough,” Waltz says, ”after watching Death Proof, something clicked.”

Getting into character Waltz, who was born in Austria and lives in London and Berlin, speaks four languages — English, German, French, and Italian — in the film. Did he have to brush up on his skills? ”On the Italian, yes,” he laughs.

German opposition Though Waltz has been offered Nazi roles several times in his career, he never said yes until Basterds. ”It wasn’t for ideological reasons,” he says. ”It was because they were lousy parts. To do a lousy part and a Nazi? That’s a bit much.”

Up next He plays the villain Chudnofsky in The Green Hornet (out Dec. 22). — DK

*Front-runner predictions based on pre-Oscar awards, industry buzz, and interviews with Academy members

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