As Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s adaptation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Rooney Mara rarely gives anyone a straight look. Instead her gaze is downcast, sideways — anywhere but into the face of her interlocutors, whether they are friendly or decidedly not.
The lack of eye contact is mentioned in the original Stieg Larsson novel, and Ms. Mara and Mr. Fincher set out to keep it. “It’s something that we talked about for the entire time of shooting, and through the audition process as well,” said Ms. Mara, who spent months testing for the role. “We were very conscious of it. When she does make eye contact, it’s very specific and sort of important.”
Ms. Mara underwent a series of transformations and trials to play the part: she dyed and shredded her hair, pierced her nipple, shaved her eyebrows, learned how to ride a motorcycle, studied kickboxing, brushed up on computer hacking. Mr. Fincher even sent her for skateboarding lessons, “so I got more of a 14-year-old boy skateboarding stance,” she said.
But it was remembering where not to look, she said in a recent phone interview, that proved one of the biggest challenges. “It was really hard,” she said, “because listening is the most important part of acting, and a lot of people listen through eye contact. You always feel like you weren’t giving enough to the other person. It definitely took some time to get used to that.”
Along with the usual back-story research, dialogue coaching and layers of makeup, the actresses in this year’s crop of Oscar hopefuls sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to get, and stay, in character. Physical metamorphoses — often with more than a glimpse of bare flesh — are part of the job, of course. But the reservoirs of emotion the actresses plumbed surprised even them.
One pivotal scene at the end of “Shame,” in which Carey Mulligan was soaked in fake blood, “took me to the most desolate place,” she said. “It was the only day that I got into the cab at the end of the night, and I called my friend in London and I was crying. I didn’t expect that at all.”
To deliver Margaret Thatcher’s speeches in “The Iron Lady,” Meryl Streep learned that her vocal stamina came from a place that even she, the grand dame of acting, had to work to locate. (It was somewhere below and behind her diaphragm.) “She had the capacity to go on and on and on and on, and on and on and on, and just a moment, I haven’t finished yet,” Ms. Streep said at the film’s premiere in New York last month, adding slyly: “She had a way of overriding interviewers that I’m going to emulate for the rest of my life.”
As Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn,” Michelle Williams spent six months in deepest Marilyn-a-philia, emerging with a little-girl-lost despair and a red carpet wiggle (courtesy of a movement coach), as well as the desire to play Marilyn, her childhood heroine, over and over. “Because when can you say that you’ve really solved the riddle?” she told Vogue. “When can you say that you really know her?”
The success of Ms. Williams’s performance may rest on that sense of obscuredeness, the peek-a-boo quality that Marilyn’s life had. And it may make her a favorite with Oscar voters, who tend to reward biopics that unvarnish well-known figures.
But deciding how much of a character to reveal on screen — how vulnerable and unfiltered to be — is one way all actors give depth to their work.
In “Pariah” Adepero Oduye stars as a Brooklyn teenager on the verge of coming out of the closet. Ms. Oduye played the part in a short film — dressing for the audition in her brother’s baggy jeans and oversize shirt — and then, three years later, reprised it for the feature, the director Dee Rees’s debut. Ms. Oduye lived with the character, Alike, for five years, which did not make the adolescent struggle any easier to convey. “As an actor, the challenge was constantly being in that vulnerable space, because it’s uncomfortable,” said Ms. Oduye, who is 33. “There was certain times and certain days, literally my body wanted to shut down, because it felt like it was too much.”
She pointed to a tense scene in which Alike, newly out, tells her disapproving mother that she loves her, only to have her mother turn away. To her own shock — and unscripted — Ms. Oduye started crying. “I was kind of mad at myself that I would cry, because I felt at this moment she should be stronger,” she said of her character. But “Alike is open and raw,” she said, and on screen her natural reaction worked.
Those unexpected flashes are what filmmakers hope to capture, though each goes about it differently. An exacting director, Mr. Fincher does take after take; “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” filmed for nearly a year. Ms. Mara said she never doubted this process, even when it meant re-enacting horrific situations. “I couldn’t have had any hesitation,” she said, adding that her resolve is one thing she had in common with Lisbeth. But, she said, “to have made it through the year I have gotten tougher.” (As a set memento, she kept one of Lisbeth’s pink earrings.)
For the much indier “Shame,” a character study in sexual addiction and detachment, Ms. Mulligan and the film’s star, Michael Fassbender, who plays her brother, rehearsed by improvising around New York, and the director, Steve McQueen, kept some of that in the movie. “By the time we were shooting we had gone pretty far with each other, so we had no qualms about doing it again,” Ms. Mulligan said.
“Steve was key in pushing me to never completely crumble with Michael,” she added. “The scenes we had were so abusive and cutting and emotional. She always tried to match him.”
The serendipity of on-set dynamics also helped propel “Albert Nobbs,” about a woman passing as a man in Victorian Dublin. Glenn Close plays Nobbs, in a film she had been trying to make for 15 years; Janet McTeer stars opposite her as Hubert, another woman in disguise. At six feet tall Ms. McTeer towered over Ms. Close, underscoring the divide between their characters.
“With Hubert what I wanted to create was everything that Albert wasn’t — confident, fulfilled, with a sense of humor,” said Ms. McTeer, who is a contender for best supporting actress Oscar nomination (with Ms. Close for best actress). “Hubert enjoys being a man. Hubert doesn’t do it in the way that Albert does it, which is to hide.”
Ms. McTeer, of course, does hide, at least physically. “I put on boots that were much too big and flattened my chest,” which made her feel invulnerable, she said, as if she could punch somebody. Her hands, which she considered too feminine, stayed tucked in her pockets. “As a professional, as a performer, I really enjoyed the real challenge of changing virtually everything about myself,” she said. “I’ll miss Hubert.”
Ms. Mulligan, who did “Shame” just months after wrapping another blood-spattered role in “Drive,” said Mr. McQueen’s film helped reignite an adrenalized sense of performance that she likened to theater: “That feeling when you come offstage and you can’t remember anything you did, but you knew that you believed it. It was so cathartic.”
And Ms. Oduye, the ingénue of the season — “Pariah” is her first feature — is learning how to deal with the emotional upheavals of her profession. “I’m not going to die from being too vulnerable,” she said. “I can go, when it’s all done, and get a cheeseburger.”