Exclusive: Six of the biggest names in showbiz sat down for a talk about fame, failure and fans—an exclusive sneak peek at NEWSWEEK’s annual Oscar Roundtable.

Leonardo DiCaprio was a “Romper Room” reject. Helen Mirren was a rotten schoolteacher. Penelope Cruz kept running to the bathroom between takes to cry while making her first English-speaking movie. Forest Whitaker nodded off while filming a crucial scene in “Bird” and didn’t realize he was on a movie set when he awoke. Cate Blanchett says she would like to have been Gregory Peck. And Brad Pitt once had a job chauffeuring strippers to bachelor parties.

These and other celebrity confessions were part of NEWSWEEK’s Oscar Roundtable on Saturday, which for the first time in its 10-year history was held before a live audience, at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. (The full report of the Roundtable will be in the Jan. 29 issue of NEWSWEEK, which hits newsstands Jan. 22 and will be available online the same day.) In a lively conversation both humorous and touching, the six stars—all of whom hope to make the cut when Academy Award nominations are announced Jan. 23—candidly revealed their fears and fallibilities to NEWSWEEK Senior Editor David Ansen and Senior Writer Sean Smith. “I get mortified at being looked at. I hate being looked at,” Mirren admitted, giving lie to the notion that actors are born extroverts. Then again, as a 3-year-old, DiCaprio was thrown off the set of “Romper Room” for shaking the camera and yelling, “Look at me!”

These actors may have star power to burn, but success was a struggle for each of them—even DiCaprio, who says he tried to get an agent when he was 7 or 8 but couldn’t. (Wouldn’t you hate to be that agent?) This year, the “Titanic” heartthrob could land Oscar nods for his roles in both “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed.” Whitaker—a best-actor front runner for his portrayal of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”—says he didn’t have many role models growing up in the days when Sydney Poitier was the only black star in Hollywood. Helen Mirren’s parents didn’t want her to become an actress, so she tried her hand at teaching for three years. “I was a horrible, really bad schoolteacher,” admits Mirren. Blanchett got her start as an extra in an Arabic-language boxing movie, where “I earned five Egyptian dollars … and free falafels.” This past year, Blanchett costarred in “Notes on a Scandal” with Judi Dench, “The Good German” with George Clooney and “Babel” with Pitt.

Pitt gets the Oscar Roundtable award for best starving-actor story. After making his way to Hollywood, Pitt spent six months driving strippers around to parties. One of them, it turns out, was taking an acting class and convinced Pitt to join—and it kicked his career into gear.

“So a stripper had a huge impact on your career?” NEWSWEEK’s Smith asked, laughing.

“A stripper changed my life,” Pitt said.

“That’ll be the headline on the National Enquirer next week,” Ansen piped in. To which Pitt could only look heavenward, shaking his head, and plead, “I just want one week off!”

For someone who gets chased by paparazzi as he guns his motorcycle around Los Angeles, Pitt is surprisingly at ease with his celebrity: instead of slipping into the Egyptian Theater Saturday morning through a side door, as his fellow panelists did, Pitt strode right through the front entrance as if arriving for a premiere at the old movie palace, now home to the nonprofit American Cinematheque. But for Penelope Cruz, stardom is baffling. “Weird, just strange,” Cruz says of the fame that arrived with her steamy turn in 1992’s “Jamón, Jamón.” She remembers walking down a Spanish street with her father, and “someone screamed from a car, ‘I love you!’ Then somebody else screamed, ‘Whore!’ And I knew I was famous,” she laughed.

Arguably, the most famous figure in this year’s Oscar race is the one Mirren played onscreen in “The Queen,” which shows the British monarchy in crisis in the days after Princess Diana’s death. Does Mirren know what Queen Elizabeth II thought of her performance? “Of course I don’t,” Mirren said. But she confided that “someone close to the queen, [biographer] Robert Lacey, thinks she would have said, ‘Well, that wasn’t too bad, was it? I think I will have a gin and tonic now’.” Speaking of vices, DiCaprio says he’s about to give up one of his own: stepping back into the theater after a smoking break before the event, DiCaprio told Ansen how freaked out he was after seeing the preserved lungs of a former smoker at a museum exhibit of plasticized human corpses. “I’m quitting this year,” he said. Maybe it’ll happen on Feb. 25 if, with luck, he’s too busy clutching a gold statuette to carry a cigarette.