"I feel a little bit like I've graduated," says Joan Allen, 44, who earned her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for The Contender after two prior nods in the Best Supporting category for The Crucible and Nixon. The actress—who is competing against Julia Roberts
, Laura Linney, Juliette Binoche and Ellen Burstyn—doesn't subscribe to the "third time's a charm" theory when assessing her chances on March 25. "This is the first time I've done a feature with a leading female character, and I got nominated right off the bat, so that's a very good feeling," she says. "But maybe if I was in Supporting for the third time, I might go, 'Give it to me already!' "
"I knew, just keep your mouth shut and try to learn something," says actor-director Ed Burns, 33, who jumped at the opportunity to costar with Robert De Niro in the new thriller 15 Minutes. "De Niro's a guy that asks a lot of questions and really wants to know what this scene is about and why this line of dialogue is necessary." In contrast, Burns's Saving Private Ryan cast-mate Tom Hanks was more of a stand-up guy. "He must spend so much time working on the character off the set," says Burns, "because he could be in the middle of telling a funny joke, and [Steven] Spielberg would say, 'Okay, let's get going,' and Hanks would go into the most intense scene imaginable. Steven would yell, 'Cut!' and Tom would say, 'Okay, where was I? So, the guy's walking down the street...' "
Regis Philbin's former cohost, Kathie Lee Gifford, gives a big thumbs-up to her successor, Kelly Ripa
. "I was really impressed with her," says Gifford. "She has the right combination of sparkle and sass, all the natural ingredients you need to be successful in the job. She should just be herself." Gifford, meanwhile, is definitely not herself in the E! movie Spinning Out of Control, airing March 18, in which she plays a drug-addicted sitcom star. "None of that [behavior] is really appropriate for 9 in the morning," says Gifford, 47. "I used to keep from pill-popping and coke-snorting until at least 4 in the afternoon."
Rocker Chris lsaak suspects a few folks may be scratching their heads, wondering how he landed his own comedy series, The Chris Isaak Show, on Showtime. "I know: 'How did he get a show? Why him?' " says lsaak, 44. "All I can say is what I tell every kid in America: Penmanship is important. These are things that people don't think about, but I took them to heart, and they've paid off for me big-time." As the show's March 12 premiere approaches, Isaak claims not to be nervous, but he cops to having a nightmare or two about what the critics will say. "The opening line of the review came to me in a vision: 'Woefully miscast as himself, Isaak drudges his way through a wooden performance,' " he says. "I want to walk around clutching that paper and saying, 'But they meant it in a good'way.' "
Some folks want to be a Millionaire and others want to be a Survivor, but after 26 years, plenty of people are still content with buying a vowel on Wheel of Fortune. "We make changes gradually because it's a tightrope between keeping yourself fresh and remembering that people like it the way it is," says Pat Sajak, 54, who has hosted the game show since 1982. "It used to be a shopping show—you won money and used it to buy overpriced cheesy merchandise—but that got to be a bit old hat. And Vanna [White] used to turn letters. Now she just touches them." Wheel's latest innovation? Sajak's wardrobe. "I'm wearing fewer gray suits and more blue-gray," he says. "It's really a dramatic change."