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Nomination: Best Actress, Walk the Line
Witherspoon, 29, has some things in common with her Walk character, the maternal June Carter Cash. "I'm pretty conservative, or old-fashioned, I should say," the mom to Ava, 6, and Deacon, 2, told W recently. "In my house you're not allowed to wear two-piece swimsuits."
Up next: Producing and acting in Penelope with Christina Ricci
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Nomination: Best Actor, Hustle & Flow
The Chicago native, 36, labored in small roles for decades before landing Hustle. Howard, who has three kids with wife Lori, hopes his struggles inspire others. "I'm so proud of the choices I've made over the last 20 years," he told CNN. "I am living proof that if you pour your heart into it, you can get there."
Up next: The big-screen musical Idlewild
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Nomination: Best Supporting Actress, The Constant Gardener
Weisz, 34, might have Oscar-night jitters, but the baby she's expecting with director fiancé Darren Aronofsky probably won't. "I feel exhilarated and overwhelmed and very surprised," she said after her Golden Globes win. "(But) the baby has been strangely quiet. I hope it can deal with all the adrenaline."
Up next: Aronofsky's sci-fi drama The Fountain
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Nomination: Best Supporting Actor, Crash
Playing a racist L.A. cop helped Dillon overcome his own prejudice ... against cops: The 41-year-old single New Yorker – and first-time Oscar nominee – had imagined L.A.P.D. officers as "menacing and kind of scary," he told The Hollywood Reporter, but when researching the role, he found that "most of them were regular guys working a difficult job for a very low salary."
Up next: The comedy You, Me and Dupree
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Nomination: Best Actor, Brokeback Mountain
Ledger's performance as a lovelorn cowboy drew raves, but his real passion is for fiancé Michelle Williams (a Best Supporting Actress nominee) and their new daughter. "She's the most beautiful, beautiful little girl," the actor, 26, told Oprah Winfrey. But who will watch 3-month-old Matilda on Oscar night? Williams's mother has already offered.
Up next: The Australian indie Candy
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Nomination: Best Actress, North Country
For her turn as a tough miner, Theron, 30, had a great role model – mom Gerda, who ran a construction company. "She knew how to change a spark plug, knew how to fix an engine better than a guy," the actress, 30, said recently. "So I grew up thinking you can be whatever you want to be."
Up next: The drama The Ice at the Bottom of the World
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PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
Nomination: Best Actor, Capote
Hoffman, 38, cut his teeth in theater, where he's collaborated with costume-designer girlfriend Mimi O'Donnell (they have a 2-year-old son, Cooper). He remains humble about how far he's come: "We want to be accepted and admired," he's said, "but I don't think that's a hole that is ever filled."
Up next: Playing the villain in Mission: Impossible 3 opposite his Magnolia costar Tom Cruise
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Nomination: Best Supporting Actress, Capote
"I don't have the looks to be a Hollywood diva," jokes the indie favorite, 46, who's mom to Clyde, 6, with husband Dermot Mulroney. As for filming Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman, "All I knew was that I had to clear his face so the camera could get both of us," she told Time.
Up next: Friends with Money, with pal Jennifer Aniston
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Nomination: Best Supporting Actor, Brokeback Mountain
The 25-year-old, who dated Kirsten Dunst off and on for years, filmed Brokeback mid-breakup – which made his performance especially poignant. "If you're not alive and feeling what you're feeling … it gets to be bland," he told Oprah Winfrey. "So yeah, I brought that period of my life into the movie."
Up next: Filming serial-killer drama Zodiac