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One of the more volatile of the top Oscar categories, supporting actress races can reward veterans or provide the surprise of laureling a newcomer.

“Hotel Rwanda’s” Sophie Okonedo is among the latter. Best known for her stage work in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she worked to de-Westernize herself and played off the African location and extras. “The way we filmed, it was quite chaotic and very raw. … So it wasn’t actually that difficult to kind of imagine yourself in that situation.”

Virginia Madsen continues to ride the wave of success uncorked by “Sideways.” One scene in particular sums up the experience of working on the film for the actress: when she and Paul Giamatti discuss the underlying significance of wine. “It was so beautifully written that you just don’t want to get in the way of the script,” she says. “I’ve spent 15 years working on scripts that need filling in the blanks.”

Cate Blanchett is in the unusual situation of being nominated for an Oscar for playing the role of Oscar’s most-nominated actress, Katharine Hepburn, in “The Aviator.” “I read everything about her and (Martin Scorsese) screened a lot of her films. I’d seen the greats, but they were mostly films from when she was older.”

Films such as 1932’s “A Bill of Divorcement” and 1935’s “Alice Adams,” from the era depicted in “Aviator,” were an important component of Blanchett’s preparations. “I had to strip away the perception of her and get behind who the real person was.”

Like Blanchett, Laura Linney is up for an Oscar for the second time. She landed her role in “Kinsey” in somewhat ironic circumstances, hearing from director Bill Condon while on Broadway in something of an antisex moment. “Bill called me when I was doing ‘The Crucible’ with Liam, and I was in my Puritan outfit,” she says.

Linney had little background info to prepare for the role as Alfred Kinsey’s wife, Clara. While she saw a few photographs to get a visual sense of the woman, it was an audiotape that Linney discovered that proved crucial in helping her form the character. “You could hear how she formed her thoughts and centered her voice,” Linney says.

The transition from space princess to the physical and emotional intimacy of “Closer” was made easier for Natalie Portman by her trust in director Mike Nichols. “He created a safe environment for me so that during difficult scenes — and I mean emotionally and physically vulnerable scenes — I felt comfortable to just try everything,” she says.

Portman points out that it can be more difficult to be emotionally revealing. “Physical intimacy is so much easier for us to achieve than emotional intimacy. I’m not an exhibitionist, but at the same time, I didn’t get anxiety before doing it. But being emotionally bare in front of people you don’t know that well — that’s what the movie talks about. It’s easier to show someone your physical side than to go deeper than that.”

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