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character on screen

Lack of eye contact

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UNDER THE SKIN: Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

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 Mara and 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 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. "

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. Fincher even sent her for skateboarding lessons, "so I got more of a 14-year-old boy skateboarding stance, " she said.

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.

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, " 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 Williams's performance may rest on that sense of obscuredness, the peek-a-boo quality that Marilyn's life had. And it may make her a favourite 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.

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