BEVERLY HILLS — As the nominees for Hollywood's most-coveted prize gathered at the Beverly Hilton today, the first-time potential Oscar winners seemed to be at ease and enjoying the ride.
Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for her role as Precious in the film of the same name and one of the 12 first-time acting nominees, was one of the first to meet the press backstage at the event.
"Stand up when you clap for me,'' she joked to the assembled reporters.
She also struck a serious note, speaking about her role as a teen raped by her father and severely abused by her mother and the "people of all races, sexes, ages and creeds'' who have approached her with their personal stories of abuse. Some have said Sidibe is the first person they've ever told.
The film, "Precious: Based on the Novel `Push' by Sapphire,'' is also nominated for best picture and director Lee Daniels said he's received thousands of e-mails in response to the story. "It gives hope,'' he said.
"You put your soul into this film to make a statement ... to have people really take a look at Precious,'' Daniels said.
Whether or not the film or Daniels, as best director, takes home an Oscar, he's "over the moon.''
"We never thought we'd get past DVD,'' Daniels said, choking up a bit.
Many of the other nominees seemed happy just to be nominated by the Academy's 5,777 voting members.
"Someone's gonna have an accent when they accept (the award for best supporting actor), but it's not gonna be a Southern accent,'' said Woody Harrelson.
Harrelson, nominated for his performance in "The Messenger'' was apparently referring to Christoph Waltz, nominated for his portrayal of Col. Hans Landa in "Inglourious Basterds.'' The Austria-born Waltz has already taken home a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for the role.
More than one called the award season "surreal,'' and many seemed to follow Sandra Bullock's philosophy of "just go with the flow'' or Jeff Bridges' "play it as it lays.''
"I am really very amazed and thankful to be here,'' Bullock said of her nomination for best actress for her role in "The Blind Side,'' also a best picture nominee.
Bullock, like most of the women quizzed, hasn't started worrying in earnest about what to wear on the night of the Oscars, March 7.
Bullock said she had looked at only one dress so far, though she said it was "exquisite'' and a "work of art.''
Newcomer Carey Mulligan, up for her role in "An Education,'' said she hadn't even really begun to think about it. But she has given some thought to hair color, as hers now too closely matches the gold of the over-sized Oscar icons she was asked to pose against.
Sidibe admitted that she hadn't yet looked at sketches of potential dresses. "I said I looked over them, but I lied,'' she said sheepishly.
The acting nominees tended to downplay their own role in their successes, citing great scripts, great direction and luck as more important.
Jeff Bridges, nominated for best actor, said he had "a lot of help,'' in bringing Bad Blake of "Crazy Heart,'' to life. Bridges, like Bullock, Waltz and Mo'Nique, won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award before the Oscar nominations were announced.
"It's all on the page ... it's all in the poetry,'' said Waltz of his own performance. He said Quentin Tarantino, also nominated for his direction of the film, a best picture contender, is "writing dramatic poetry that he's making movies out of.''
At a reporter's request, Waltz answered one question in German, simultaneously offering his own translation, prompted laughs from the pressroom.
As noise from an adjacent room mounted, Waltz said it was the "directors' breakfast club'' making a racket. "Directors, could you please keep it down!'' he shouted in jest.
The actors downplayed the change an Oscar might bring.
"There isn't actually anything at the end of the rainbow,'' Maggie Gyllenhaal said her brother Jake, nominated in 2006, told her, advising her to enjoy the fun but not stake too much on the moment.
But she's enjoying it while it lasts. "Who knows when this will happen again.'' she said.
And off she went to join her colleagues at lunch, where organizers mixed and matched seating arrangements among films and disciplines, hoping to offer the nominees a relatively low-key chance to socialize.
Waltz, for one, said he was surprised by the "beautiful comraderie'' of the acting community. "It's not a competition -- it's not a sports event,'' he said. "It's lovely to see these people turn into friends.''
"We really are friends,'' said Gyllenhaal of her relationship with Bridges. Despite the nearly 30-year age difference, the actress said the two "work very, very similarly'' and called Bridges' performance "brilliant, open and inspired.''
The other actresses she's encountered -- including Bullock and Meryl Streep, nominated for her portrayal of Julia Childs in "Julie & Julia'' -- have ``all been so unbelievably kind,'' said first-time nominee Carey Mulligan.
Mulligan is up for her role as Jenny in "An Education,'' in which she starred with Gyllenhaal's husband, Peter Sarsgaard.
Some of those actresses may be rooting for Kathryn Bigelow, nominated as best director of best picture-nominated "The Hurt Locker.'' Bigelow, who won the Director's Guild Award, would be the first woman to win a directing Oscar if she beat out her ex-husband, James Cameron, who is nominated for his work on the box office juggernaut "Avatar.''
Bigelow was as camera-ready as any of the actresses at today's luncheon, but focused on the film.
"It's offered a glimpse into a conflict that is otherwise very abstract,'' she said of the Iraq war story.
Jeremy Renner, nominated for his role in the same film, said his most rewarding experience to date had been at a Washington, D.C., screening of "The Hurt Locker'' for 300 soldiers in the army's explosive ordnance detachment, EOD.
It was "the most powerful and lasting (experience) because you realize how people's lives were affected by watching the film,'' Renner said. He told of soldiers who used the film to tell family members what they'd lived through, and families of those killed who found "a little bit of peace'' in the film.
Harrelson also said his view of the military had evolved through his Oscar-nominated work on "The Messenger.'' But "as much as I have come to love the warrior, I still loathe the war,'' the actor said.
There was little focus on the glamour of the upcoming awards, perhaps because of the recessionary times which serve as backdrop. Even these stars are thinking about their next job.
"Hopefully I'll get a decent job this year,'' nominee Carey Mulligan said of her nomination, adding that she had been following best director nominee Kathryn Bigelow around the various award festivities.
"What do I do next?'' Sandra Bullock said. "Because of this honor ... I really have an obligation not to step back even the smallest bit,'' said Bullock who took a couple years off earlier this decade, unhappy with the work she was doing, before returning in 2005 with a small role in the Oscar-winning
Some hoped their nomination would help spur financing for new projects.
There are "very few films between five and 500 million that are being greenlit,'' said Vera Farmiga, celebrating her nomination for work in "Up in the Air.'' But there are many more stories out there, Farmiga said. "I'd like to see them told.''