Awards Watch: Actresses

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Even though shooting was well under way on "The Lovely Bones," Peter Jackson's feature adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel, the film's young star was still struggling with her character.

Given that she was required to play the part of a murdered teenager who watches her family -- and her elusive killer -- from a heaven-like perch, it's no wonder 15-year-old Saoirse Ronan was having a tough time.

That was until the day co-screenwriter/co-producer Philippa Boyens played a song for her -- and suddenly the character of Susie Salmon fell into place.

"It was 'Song to the Siren' by This Mortal Coil," recalls Ronan, a supporting actress Oscar nominee for 2007's "Atonement." "It made me cry as soon as I listened to it.

It was very emotional and the woman's voice was so haunting. So every time I did a dramatic scene, they'd play it on set. We must've played it about 10 times."

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When it comes to creating a truly affecting performance, the key to ultimately unlocking some of the year's most intriguing characters can take many different forms -- from an evocative strain of music to a singular item of clothing to a lingering scent of perfume.

For Gabourey Sidibe, the first-time actress whose powerful portrayal of title character Claireece Precious Jones in "Precious" has been turning as many heads as the film itself, there was no professional training to call upon.

"I don't understand Method," says the soft-spoken 26-year-old, maintaining that her primary scene motivation was not wanting to let down director Lee Daniels or the cast and crew.

But while she didn't share the skill-set of her seasoned colleagues, Sidibe -- whose mother, Alice Tan Ridley, has earned a following singing in New York City subway stations -- knew her music. So before shooting some of the film's heavier scenes she'd listen to Kanye West on her iPod (mainly from his "Graduation" period) while switching to Beyonce when prepping for the escapist fantasy sequences.

"And when I got sick for a few days I had a friend hum the 'Rocky' theme to me!" Sidibe adds.

From her standpoint, when Vera Farmiga began connecting to Alex, the beguiling traveling businesswoman who seems to be the perfect match for George Clooney's emotionally aloof "career transition consultant" in "Up in the Air," songs would only take her so far.

"Music can be a good source, but shoes are the big deal for me," Farmiga says. "They really define the rhythm of the character -- the gait, the tempo -- and where Alex was concerned, that meant high, high heels that help her move in a languid way. It all makes a difference."

The choice of footwear also helped to define Diane Ford, the seemingly free-spirited long-haul truck driver (with an estranged 11-year-old son), played by Michelle Monaghan in the indie film "Trucker."

"There was something about the boots that I wore that brought a certain physicality to the character," Monaghan recalls. "It wasn't really a conscious thing, but now when I look at the movie, it made her walk sort of heel first, giving her this very deliberate stride."

Of course, when it comes to prepping a role, when you're playing the title character in something called "Trucker," somehow a pair of heavy boots and a mock-up of an 18-wheeler against green screen just aren't going to suffice.

So Monaghan went off to truck-driving school for three weeks.

"I don't think they really expected me to go out and do it," Monaghan admits. "But for myself as an actor, I knew it was imperative for me to be as honest as I could. They were all strong women you wouldn't want to mess with, but they were also all feminine. They all had their nails done and their hair was perfect and their cabs were decorated with a woman's touch."

That sort of insight really helped Monaghan inform her own character choices.

Natalie Portman made a similarly valuable discovery while researching her role in "Brothers," Jim Sheridan's take on the 2004 film by Danish director Suzanne Bier. In order to get a better handle on Grace Cahill, the military wife and mother whose husband, played by Tobey Maguire, goes missing in Afghanistan, Portman met with a number of Marine wives.

"It's not a world I had been particularly exposed to before," she admits. "The thing that surprised me was they were really the bosses of the house. You think of a soldier-husband and imagine a certain paternalism that would go with it, but then you realize the parent that's home is the one who has to keep a pretty tight ship."

To help her connect with her "Broken Embraces" character, Penelope Cruz says director Pedro Almodovar provided her with a very strange song that he first played during one of their rehearsals and she subsequently listened to it every day they were working.

"I always pick a few songs for each character I play," says the actress, who won a supporting actress Oscar this year for her turn in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." "They're the quickest way, I think, to get into the right mood for a scene. They really go directly to your heart."

The music must have influenced her off-screen as well as on, because, Cruz says, "I was feeling very weird the whole time we were making the movie. We never had any problem on the set, but we were both feeling the black cloud that follows the character everywhere. Usually when you finish a movie that cloud is gone."
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