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Jessica Chastain

Best Actress nominee

Zero Dark Thirty

Plays: Maya, a hard-driving CIA agent

Key to the performance: "I thought, 'She's the smartest person in the room and she's probably always been the smartest person in the room, even when she was 6. When you're like that, you don't really make friends very easily."

She wanted to be an actor ... "When I watched Judy Garland sing 'Over the Rainbow' in The Wizard of Oz."

The pup on her lap: "He's Chaplin, my rescue dog. I just fell in love."

photographed on Jan. 8 at the Jane Hotel in Manhattan

Bradley Cooper

Best Actor nominee

Silver Linings Playbook

Plays: A man with emotional problems trying to win back his wife

Key to the performance: "Finding his heart. I'd have to say calling Robert De Niro 'Dad' probably grounded me more than anything."

The hardest part: "Shooting it in 33 days. I don't think I sat down once!"

He wanted to be an actor ... "When I saw The Elephant Man when I was 12."

photographed on Feb. 1 at the Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan

Naomi Watts

Best Actress nominee

The Impossible

Plays: Tsunami survivor Maria Belon

Key to the performance:

"I knew all the physical stuff in the water was going to be difficult, but nothing prepared me for it. There were moments when I thought I'd reached my limit. Then I'd think, 'This is nothing. I'm an actor. I know I'm safe.' "

The phobia she faced: "I have a fear of the waves. I got caught in a riptide in Bali when I was 14. I swam against it to the point of almost giving up."

Her awards-season buddy: "I love talking to Nicole [Kidman] about this. She and I just laugh."

photographed on Jan. 11 in Los Angeles

Anne Hathaway

Best Supporting Actress nominee

Les Misérables

Plays: Doomed prostitute Fantine

Key to the performance: "I have bad eyesight, so I decided Fantine did too. I didn't wear contacts or glasses. I wanted to ground her in vulnerability."

She wanted to be an actor ... "When I saw Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. She was so powerful, she was death-defying."

That very clean dog: "Esme, short for Esmerelda. I've had her since she was 8 weeks old. Isn't she the best dog in the world?"

photographed on Jan. 26 in Beverly Hills

Quvenzhané Wallis

Best Actress nominee

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Plays: a defiant 6-year-old on a Louisiana bayou

Best part of filming: "The seafood! I liked the crawfish and the crabs."

Worst part of filming: "The mosquitoes. The director would say 'no slapping,' and you had to just stand there and let them bite you."

When she grows up: "I want to be a dentist. And I want to act."

photographed on Jan. 11 in Los Angeles

Robert De Niro

Best Supporting Actor nominee, Silver Linings Playbook

Plays: Bradley Cooper's father, a bookie and Philadelphia Eagles fanatic

Key to the performance: "The key was, 'I better not f--- this up, or I'm not going to feel good about myself.' I didn't watch much [football]. I'm not into it. But I understand the obsessive-compulsiveness of it."

He wanted to be an actor ... "When I was a kid and I used to watch Dean, Brando, Montgomery Clift."

Advice from a seven-time Oscar nominee: "It's nice to win, but if you don't, your life goes on. You meet people. It's nice. Enjoy it."

photographed Jan. 23 at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn

Helen Hunt

Best Supporting Actress nominee

The Sessions

Plays: A sex surrogate who helps a disabled man lose his virginity

Key to the performance: "Not being self-conscious when you're naked!"

Best fan mail for the movie: "Mike Nichols wrote me a letter. I've got it up on my corkboard for self-esteem."

photographed on Jan. 16 in Venice, Calif.

Sally Field

Best Supporting Actress nominee, Lincoln

Plays: Mary Todd Lincoln, the volatile

and fiercely maternal First Lady

What she learned: "I didn't know just how fascinating, complicated and important she was. Abraham Lincoln would not have existed without Mary Todd. They were two sides of a coin."

What she kept: "My costume designer made a quilt of fabric she used for Mary's dresses."

She wanted to be an actor ...

"I was born an actor!"

photographed on Jan. 11 in Los Angeles

Amy Adams

Best Supporting Actress nominee

The Master

Plays: Peggy, the deceptively tough wife of a cult leader

Key to the performance: "I saw her as a lioness protecting her pride. If something were to threaten my family, I can't say that I wouldn't be like Peggy."

Oddest moment on-set: "Wearing a prosthetic pregnancy belly while nude."

She wanted to be an actor... "When I saw John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease. I thought, "To kiss him, you have to be her!'"

photographed on Jan. 18 in Los Angeles