So you want to win a Best Actress Oscar? Here's a tip: Get ugly. In the last few years, the Academy has raised its glass to exceptionally gorgeous women -- The Hours' Nicole Kidman, Monster's Ball's Halle Berry, Boys Don't Cry's Hilary Swank -- who took advantage of nonglamorous roles to dig more deeply into their characters than ever before.
This year, three potential lead-actress nominees are stunners who've dropped the maquillage and delivered physically and emotionally raw performances (see all our predictions beginning on page 33). Jennifer Connelly, a 2002 supporting-actress Oscar victor for A Beautiful Mind, veers from pitiable to disagreeable as alcoholic evictee Kathy Nicolo in DreamWorks' House of Sand and Fog. Naomi Watts, who won Best Actress honors in 2002 from the National Society of Film Critics for her dual turn in Mulholland Drive, is devastating as Cristina, a recovered addict and mother of two whose life is shattered by a tragic accident in Focus Features' 21 Grams. And former model Charlize Theron, whose past awards recognition is pretty much limited to two Blockbuster nominations, has utterly floored critics with her indelible portrait -- complete with fake teeth and 30 extra pounds -- of real-life prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, released by tiny indie Newmarket. We gathered the three comely contenders in Los Angeles for a candid conversation about role models, nude scenes, and the curse -- and blessing -- of the ''difficult'' film.
EW First things first: Here are some photographs I found of each of you in character from your current films. [See our Best Actress predictions on page 34.] So, who's the ugliest?
WATTS Oh, dear! We all look pretty fetching, I must say. [Pointing to the photograph of Theron] This is extraordinary! How many hours did this take?
THERON Sadly enough, not that much. The one thing nobody notices was that they plucked all my eyebrows out. I was like, ''Okay, am I playing Whoopi Goldberg?'' That was the freakiest thing for me, going for a year without eyebrows. They take forever to grow back.
EW Did you all essentially have to be your own agents to get these parts?
CONNELLY Oftentimes my tastes run a bit on the not-terribly-commercial side. So sometimes my agent will say, ''I read this script, I hate it, you'll love it.'' But she really loved this one too.
THERON I wasn't looking. And [director] Patty Jenkins came knocking, which has never happened in my career. I don't know for you girls, but I'm always the one banging down the door trying to get in the room. [At first] I went, ''I saw what [Aileen] looked like. I don't know if I can do this.''
EW Naomi, you signed on to do 21 Grams without even reading the script.
WATTS I fell in love with Amores Perros. [Perros director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga] told me what the film was about and I just said, ''Yeah. I don't care what the part is.''
EW These roles won't get you Revlon contracts, though. Was there anyone in your camps who was against it? WATTS No, but I've had people who've seen the movie say, ''Wow, you're so brave to be looking like that.'' That shocks me. I think that's what an actor's job is, to lose yourself in a role. THERON I completely agree. The word brave is so misused. The things we as actors are just dying to do, people tend to look at that and say that's "brave" or ''courageous.'' Meanwhile you're sitting at home going ''God, I just hope something comes along where I can strip it all down.'' WATTS And anyway, why does beauty have to be so exterior? What these women are going through, their internal struggle, is, to me, beautiful. EW Are there any stripped-down female performances that you admire? THERON One movie that was a huge inspiration for me was Badlands. That's one that I watched when I was making the film. But I'm certainly no Sissy Spacek! WATTS I really love Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. She just shook me to the bone. CONNELLY I didn't think about this movie on those terms whatsoever, I have to say. I didn't think, Ooh, this is an opportunity to do something completely different with my look. I just thought, This is a remarkable story, its politics are really sound, I love the fact that it has these really complicated characters that contradict themselves and that your allegiance shifts from one side to the other. I didn't think about what she would look like. WATTS It can be exciting to think, Oh, I'll change my hair or how I walk, but the bigger picture is the emotional journey. THERON Anyone can put prosthetics on and look ugly. Everybody can gain 30 pounds. God, I wish it was as easy as just putting on the makeup. But at some point you have to actually go and do the work. CONNELLY I wish that there were more scripts that I would read and think, That's so fantastic. It seems like there are more talented women out there right now than there are really great parts. EW How tough was it to shed these women at the end of each shooting day? CONNELLY My life doesn't allow me at all to bring it home with me. Because I have my son Kai, who's 6 now, who has a Lego project or whatever it is that I want to help him with. And then Paul (Bettany, her husband), who'd be sitting in my trailer with his guitar making up songs like ''Ooh, my name's Jennifer, and I take myself very seriously....'' WATTS We shot 21 Grams in chronological order, so I did take a bit of it home with me. It was okay because I was away from my normal life. And if I didn't sleep so well that night, it was fine, because I didn't have to look so good the next day! EW Speaking of which, all three of you do nude scenes in these movies. Is that scarier to do when you're not looking your best? THERON For me, it's just another scene. I'm sorry, it's easy to take your clothes off. Sometimes it's much harder to actually show raw emotion. CONNELLY In the script, there was more (nudity). The first scene was written so that Kathy was walking around the house naked. I thought it didn't really make sense because she was someone who didn't feel at home in her own skin. So we scripted away from almost all the nudity for that reason. WATTS I have some hang-ups about nudity. With this movie it just seemed completely not about the flesh but about the hunger and need to create some kind of intimacy with somebody. I was slightly uncomfortable. Whenever I have to do nudity, it seems to be the only time I ever fight with a director! Alejandro and I had a near-fight. THERON Are you talking about the day you did the (love) scene with Sean (Penn)? Because that was an insanely heartbreaking scene. I'm glad he fought you back. WATTS It was more at the end of it when I was getting dressed, that's where I fought him. God, I don't know if I should be saying this. He wanted me to have my top off and then be getting dressed and I wanted to already be dressed. So that was the one fight. EW All three of your characters aren't always likable. There are some actresses who would be scared of that. WATTS Who's always likable? Who always does good things? THERON The thing that I absolutely hate is watching people in movies when, before they even deserve to be heroes, you're hit over the head with this hammer of, You have to like these people. So many times I feel like an alien because I watch these movies and I'm like, ''That's not my f---ing life.'' It's nice to see characters where you don't get forced or manipulated into feeling a certain way. A lot of empathy comes from showing the horrible side. WATTS I went to some grief support groups, and I saw the rage in these people. The kind of undulation that they go through. And some days they are at peace with it. I've heard people say Cristina's kind of mean or unlikable. But that's the only way she knows how to live. EW How concerned are you that people won't see these films? They're not exactly the feel-good comedies of the year. WATTS People say, ''21 Grams is such a difficult film.'' To me, difficult is watching a bad film. That's depressing. CONNELLY I also think these movies can be uplifting in the sense that you walk out and say, ''Look at my life.'' When I saw the first cut of House of Sand and Fog--apart from all the neurotic things I thought--I thought, I can't wait to go home and see my family; I'm so grateful for my life. THERON I'm terribly worried that people won't go see Monster, because we're not selling with Burger King, and we have about 5 dollars and 50 cents for a marketing campaign. I think you guys have more money than us. Wanna give me some?