Two Oscar winners, two first-time nominees and a five-time nominee with no wins are in the Academy Awards race for Best Actress this year.

Life has very unexpected moments,” said a groggy and a bit stunned Marion Cotillard from a Los Angeles hotel room, when she learned she was one of the five Oscar nominees for lead actress.

The Academy Awards nominations for that category played out largely as expected: Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Felicity Jones (The Theory Of Everything), Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) all earned nods in the category.

The surprise? Cotillard. Many expected Jennifer Aniston to snag the fifth spot for her performance in Cake, but instead it went to the French actress for her role in the Belgian film Two Days, One Night.

“I was totally in shock. This was very, very unexpected. And at the same time, a real deep joy because I really wanted to take this movie to the Oscars,” Cotillard said, noting the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

“This was the first time for the Dardenne brothers, and I was very sad when we didn’t make it to the short list of foreign language films, and I thought that was it. Now I’m going to take this movie to the Oscars! There was no inch of suspicion of getting nominated.”

Cotillard is the only actress from a foreign language film in the category. “To show a French or Belgian movie outside of our country – and to see it resonate here – is something I really, really enjoy,” she said.

Marion Cotillard (above) and Reese Witherspoon (below) have been nominated for Oscars twice before, both winning once. – AFP/Frederic J Brown

Shortly after the academy’s announcement, Witherspoon said nominations for her as lead actress and Wild co-star Laura Dern for supporting actress were “a huge win for what I’ve been trying to do with my production company: Create roles people would connect with, but also more dynamic, complicated female characters.

“The academy is so wonderful in recognising them. These characters – they’re not good girls, they’re not bad girls, they’re just complicated women. That’s a huge win for everyone.”

Witherspoon earned her nomination for playing Cheryl Strayed, a former heroin-using divorcee who hiked, solo, along the Pacific Crest Trail.

“The idea of this woman, alone in the wilderness, was just beautiful,” the actress said. “We’ve seen so many hero journeys with men, but I’ve never read or seen one like that with a woman, who saved herself – no money, no job, no man – and it had a happy ending. I connected not as a woman, but as a human being.”

Felicity Jones (above) and Rosamund Pike (below) are first time Oscar nominees. – AFP/Frederic J Brown, EPA/Paul Buck

Moore’s Oscar nod for Still Alice was expected. The actress took home the Golden Globe recently for her role as a professor struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Moore wasn’t available for comment, but in her Globes acceptance speech she said that when Lisa Genova wrote this book on which the film is based, “she told me that no one wanted to make it into a movie because no one wanted to see a movie about a middle-aged woman”.

Felicity Jones said the other actresses in her category are among her favourites of all time. “I’ve been struck by all of them,” she said. “They’re all actresses I hugely respect and have admired for years. So to be in their company is fantastic.”

Wild was a particular favourite, Jones said. “Some films just touch you deeply, and I love that one and would have loved to have been involved in it in any way. It was very special.”

Playing physicist Stephen Hawking’s wife, Jane, pushed Jones to her limits at times, the actress said, because scenes were often filmed out of sequence.

“I remember one scene, playing Jane with two children in the morning – she meets Jonathan, it’s at that point in her life – then, after lunch, doing the scene where Stephen and Jane first meet,” Jones said. “And it took me so many takes because I felt this incredible emotional and spiritual baggage she’d accumulated being in that situation; and it was difficult to take off those layers of experience.”

This is Julianne Moore's fifth Oscar nomination, no wins. – AFP/Frederic J Brown

When Pike learned of her nomination, she was at home in bed with her six-week-old and two-year-old sons – and a rescue helicopter, three cars, a train and other toys. “It’s a mad clash of all areas of my life piling on top of each other in this surreal cocktail of motherhood and career – but it’s been grounding,” she said.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl, she said, “has been the most exciting journey of my career. The daily feeling of being daunted by the challenge and calibrating the journey of this fascinating woman and giving her a truth and a reality – who this little girl was that turned into this woman? – so she wasn’t just this one-dimensional villainous creature.”

Much has been made – at the Globes – and elsewhere about the abundance of strong roles for women. Among the other actresses left out of the Oscar nominations Thursday: Keira Knightley as a whippet-smart mathematician in The Imitation Game, Anne Dorval in the Cannes prize-winner Mommy, Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive and Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service