First time’s a charm

Foxx, Giamatti and Rossum among those whose status changes with nom

What do a wife-swapping bisexual graduate student, neighborhood abortionist, wine-obsessed wannabe novelist, drug-abusing musical genius, African humanitarian, murderous U.S. congressman, Argentinean revolutionary and an unfaithful stripper have in common?

No, they’re not characters in “Revenge of the Blue States,” but roles that might propel a handful of the industry’s most acclaimed actors into the ranks of Oscar contenders for the first time.

Beyond Acad favorites vying in this year’s race — Kevin Spacey, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett — lurk a host of veteran thesps led by Jamie Foxx (“Ray”), Jim Carrey (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Natalie Portman (“Closer” and “Garden State”), Peter Sarsgaard (“Kinsey”), Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”) and Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) with Oscar aspirations of their own, all whom have a chance to break through with their first nom.

Add in Clive Owen (“Closer”), Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen (“Sideways”), Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”), Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson (“The Phantom of the Opera”), Scarlett Johansson (“A Love Song for Bobby Long”), newcomer Rodrigo de la Serna (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), Regina King (“Ray”), Liev Schreiber (“The Manchurian Candidate”) and Kevin Bacon (“The Woodsman”) and the Academy is poised to receive a heavy injection of new blood.

Crazy like a Foxx

The would-be Oscar newcomer whose prospects for nomination may shine the brightest, according to industry observers, is Foxx, the former sitcom star who enjoyed a professional breakthrough of epic proportions in the last six months. Headlining with Tom Cruise and earning the best reviews of his career for his work as a taxi driver in the wrong place at the wrong time in Michael Mann’s neo-noir “Collateral” would have been enough for most actors, but Foxx was just getting warmed up. He followed that star-making turn by delivering the defining performance of his life as music legend Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s “Ray.”

Whereas Foxx burst just like a supernova on to the Oscar scene this year with a pair of highly visible star vehicles, Giamatti and Sarsgaard have made careers out of critically acclaimed perfs in films that flew below the commercial radar.

Both were considered dark-horse candidates in 2003, with Giamatti winning the National Board of Review’s breakthrough actor kudo and garnering an Independent Spirit Award lead actor nomination for his role as comicbook creator Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.”

Sarsgaard was named supporting actor by the National Society of Film Critics for his work as former New Republic reporter-turned-editor Charles Lane in “Shattered Glass,” the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass. He also earned supporting kudos from the Boston Society of Film Critics and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and was nominated for a Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award.

They’re back at the center of Oscar talk, with Giamatti drawing raves for his turn as would-be author and wine connoisseur Miles Raymond in one of the year’s best reviewed pics, Alexander Payne’s “Sideways.” Sarsgaard has critical tongues wagging over his role as bisexual sex researcher Clyde Martin in “Kinsey,” starring opposite fellow contenders Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

For Sarsgaard, Oscar consideration isn’t something he thinks a lot about, and he isn’t sure a nomination would have too profound an effect on his career. “I couldn’t work more than I already do,” he says. “Having seen other people get nominated, unless you’ve never done anything before, I guess you get paid more. I’m very happy with the way things are going now.

“I don’t really see it as a career booster as much as something nice for my parents. A lot of those things are really for your relatives. They’re for the people who are close to you. It really makes them feel the happiest.”

‘Virgin territory’

Giamatti takes a similarly low-key approach. “This is the first time I’ve ever really been through this sort of thing, and I’m willing to do whatever (his representatives) want me to do, but I’m just glad to have a job,” says Giamatti. “All of this is very virgin territory to me. If people are saying you’re going to win awards, it’s flattering and nice, but I certainly never expected to be in this position.”

Schreiber didn’t expect to be in this position, either. He says he still isn’t fully sure how he got cast in “The Manchurian Candidate,” but he made the most of the unexpected opportunity. Critics felt he more than held his own as war hero-turned-vice presidential candidate Raymond Prentiss Shaw opposite multiple-Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in.

Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan called his work in Jonathan Demme’s remake “the performance of his career,” remarking that “no one steals a movie from Washington, but Schreiber comes closer than anyone could have predicted.”

For his part, Schreiber is happy to be considered.

“I come from the ilk of actor who is incredibly superstitious and I consider it extremely bad luck to talk about something like this,” he says while laughing. “Work leads to work, and exposure is part of the actor’s game. You look for things that are not only going to satisfy you creatively but also are going to further you in terms of your career. It’s always a balance between the scale of the movie and the quality. Not to mention that you thank your lucky stars that you got a job in the first place.”

King’s royalty

If no one steals a movie from Washington, certainly no one steals “Ray” from Foxx, but Regina King creates a memorable portrait of former Raelette and Charles mistress Margie Hendrix. She’s garnering the first serious Oscar talk of her career, but will be content to let the chips fall where they may.

“I’m so honored to be part of this movie and for me to aggressively go after an award would take away from this amazing ride that I’m on right now,” says King. “I’m not going to say that I wouldn’t be totally ecstatic if I were nominated, but the Oscar wouldn’t validate the work for me.

“I do think the Oscar is a wonderful thing, but it’s a moment. It’s almost like your wedding. Your wedding day is great and it goes by so fast. You go through all this preparation for this one day, and then you have the marriage. Acting is deciding where you’re going to put in the work — the wedding (the Oscar) or the marriage (the career).”

She and all the other first-time contenders will find out Jan. 25 whether they will be nominees with a chance to walk down that aisle.