Oscar Watch: In their own words

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The breakout actors in the past year's most buzzed-about films take us through the auditioning process, on the set and into the worlds of their characters. Though some of them might not make it to the podium during this awards season, expect all of them to be prepping their acceptance speeches in years to come.

Rosemarie DeWitt
Sony Pictures Classics' "Rachel Getting Married"
"They had cameras going -- even at the table read, which was a sign of things to come in that there would be no rehearsal, but they would always be filming. (The first big argument between my character, Rachel, and her sister, played by Anne Hathaway) was a really weird day because here we have this 10- or 12-page scene that we're about to shoot. So with no rehearsal, we just started the scene, and Anne followed me into the dining room. There were no lights on. Then we went into the foyer. Again, there were no lights on. Then we went into the living room. There were no lights on. So I'm like, 'Well, I better put a light on if I want anyone to see us in this movie.' And (director) Jonathan (Demme) really let that evolve. What he inspired in everyone was a lot of trust by working that way, because you never felt there was a right way or a wrong way or that Rachel should be one thing. He would come up and whisper in my ear from time to time, 'Be you, be you, be you.' And I was like, 'Well if I could do that, I'd have my whole life figured out. That's epic, what you're saying.'"

Rebecca Hall
The Weinstein Co.'s "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
"Woody Allen's casting director saw me in something and encouraged him to meet me not too long after that. I had just finished shooting 'The Prestige,' and I met him for two seconds. It was on St. Patrick's Day, and we had a discussion about green jumpers and something else equally superficial and inconsequential. And then I never heard from him again and thought that I had blown my one chance at being in a Woody Allen film. But then, like a year after that, I got a call saying, 'Can you go in and meet Woody again?' And I remember it was winter, it was New York, and it was very, very snowy and cold. I went in, and he was editing, and he came out of the dark. He just came darting out and went, 'Hi, hi. We met before.' And then we stood there for a second. And then he said, 'Can you do an American accent?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he went, 'All right. Bye!' And I left. Then two weeks later, the script arrived with a typewritten note from Woody saying, 'Have a read at this -- I think you'd be great as Vicky -- and tell me what you think.' "

Sally Hawkins
Miramax's "Happy-Go-Lucky"
"Because of the nature of working with (filmmaker) Mike Leigh, you never know what you're going to end up with. You start rehearsals not having a script, not having a character as such. And over a period of six months, you create this role together. He was interested in capturing someone with an incredibly positive outlook on life and somebody who's happy, but not in a dippy sense, not in a naive sense. (One day in rehearsal) I, as (schoolteacher) Poppy, stumbled across Stanley Townsend who was playing this incredible (homeless) character. I was doing an imaginary lesson at school while Stanley Townsend was in another room somewhere else in the building warming up in character and doing his character's day. I came down the stairs, but in my mind, it was Poppy's journey from school to home, and I came into the rehearsal room that was set up with a park bench. And I heard, as Poppy, this mumbling and this chanting. And this was Stanley playing this wonderful character, the homeless guy. And the essence of the scene you see onscreen was pretty much as true as it could be to the first improvisation that happened."

Taraji P. Henson
Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"My favorite scene is when Benjamin (Brad Pitt) comes back after leaving home, after going off into the world, being a man. This is the first time you see (my character) Queenie aged. And she hasn't seen him in so long, and she's so happy. And it's my favorite scene for two reasons: It's my favorite scene acting-wise in the film; and then also, behind the scenes, Brad had gone over to (director) David Fincher. Brad was nervous because he didn't have a lot to do or say in the scene. And so Fincher told Brad, 'Don't you worry, man. Taraji's got this.' And so we did the first take, and when he yelled cut, I was going crazy, because I'm like, 'Oh my God, this is Brad Pitt I'm acting with. Oh, Jesus.' So I was over in the corner going through my own madness. And then Brad Pitt went back over to video village where Fincher was, and Brad was like, 'Man, where did you find her? She's incredible.' And then Fincher told me this later and I almost fainted!"

Dev Patel
Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire"
"(Director) Danny Boyle took me while they were scouting for locations in Mumbai, and it really opened my eyes to what Mumbai was all about, because I'd never been there prior to this film. But I remember the day I woke up, and I was like, 'I've got to go to the slums. All right, brace yourself. This is going to be depressing.' But really, when you go there, it's totally the opposite. It's just such a strong sense of community, and everyone knows everyone. And we went into this little stall where this guy was selling sweets and things like that. He had loads of old-school video games, like the 'Pac-Man' machine and the 'Super Mario' machine. And it was so cool because you saw these little kids -- like probably just 5 or 6 (years old), they were tiny -- in their little dirty clothes, and they were paying him one or two rupees to play on this 'Pac-Man' machine. Danny just turned to me and said the most beautiful thing. He's like, 'Isn't that just wonderful? Kids are the same everywhere in the world.'"

Michael Shannon
DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage's "Revolutionary Road"
"We were shooting my entrance -- and it was a long take, it went throughout the whole scene -- and it was a close-up. And (filmmaker) Sam Mendes would take notes, like a theater director would. I mean, he comes from the theater, and it was unusual. I'd never actually seen a film director sit and write down notes the way you would in a play rehearsal. And he came up to me and said, 'I've got like eight things here that I would really like you to do in the next take.' I was like, 'Wow, that's a lot of things.' He's like, 'I know, I know. But let's just give it a go, and if you can't, you can't. It's fine.' And so he read the list for me. It was all over the place. You know, movement, like, 'Look at those books over there before you say this.' But then there'd be a note about the emotional underpinnings of this or the subtext. And then we did the take. He came up to me afterwards, and he congratulated me, because to his mind's eye, I had apparently done all eight things."
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