We’re about to hit a real sea-change with the kind of movies Hollywood is making. For years, studio bosses shied away from the idea of making movies with female leads that weren’t weepies or romantic comedies, but last year saw the three of the top-grossing movies — “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Frozen” and “Gravity”—star women, all in genres that are traditionally more male driven.
Slowly but surely, audiences are proving that they’ll turn up and see actresses in parts that are more than just token roles, and studio executives are increasingly running out of excuses to stick with the status quo. (Unless their name is Kevin Feige, apparently.) And it’s lucky, because the depth and range of female talent that’s coming up is enormously impressive, and they deserve to have killer roles to take on.
Yep, it’s the latest in our On The Rise series, and after looking at screenwriters, actors, composers and cinematographers, we’ve picked out thirteen actresses that are heading for the top. Previous years have seen faces like Dakota Johnson, Maika Monroe, Nicole Beharie, Brie Larson, Jennifer Lawrence and Alicia Vikander make the cut. Who joined this time around? You can take a look below, and weigh in with your own recommendations in the comments section.
When the cast of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode VII” was first announced back in May, most of the new names were familiar, at least to the savvy cinephile: John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Max Von Sydow. But there was one face who was essentially a total newcomer, 22-year-old British actress Daisy Ridley, and if the rumors are correct, she, along with Boyega, is going to be the lead of the entire trilogy (and, possibly, the daughter of Han and Leia). Ridley is a Londoner who made her acting debut last year in long-running medical drama “Casualty” (something like national service for British actors, Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom, Ray Winstone, Tom Hiddleston and Martin Freeman all had early gigs on the series), and has appeared steadily on TV since, cropping up in youth drama “Youngers,” the excellent comedy “Toast Of London,” and the murder procedural “Silent Witness." Her most substantial part so far has been opposite Jeremy Piven in the period drama “Mr. Selfridge.” She’s also got a lead role in the low-budget British horror film “Scrawl” in the can, and was to supposed to make an appearance in smash hit comedy sequel “The Inbetweeners 2,” but when reshoots were required, they clashed with her next gig, and the part had to be recast. But when that next job is “Star Wars,” you probably aren’t too upset by that. Ridley is busy filming her first trip to a galaxy far, far way, and is currently the only cast member confirmed to be returning for Rian Johnson’s “Episode VIII” and “Episode IX.” The last time we had a female lead in a "Star Wars" movie, we got Natalie Portman, so we’re expecting equally big things from Ridley.
Seven years on from a remarkable performance in Ang Lee’s erotic thriller “Lust, Caution,” and having spent much of the intervening time becoming one of China’s biggest stars, Tang Wei may be about to conquer the U.S. as well. The 35-year-old actress from Hangzhou, who trained at the Central Academy Of China, started off her career in television, before beating over 10,000 rivals for the part of Wong Chia-chi, a young woman who’s tasked with seducing and planning the assassination of a Japanese collaborator in “Lust, Caution.” The film drew attention both for being Lee’s follow-up to his acclaimed “Brokeback Mountain,” and for its explicit sex scenes, but Tang rightly drew enormous praise (and an Independent Spirit Award nomination) for her performance, even if the sex scenes caused her to be banned from acting for a year by the Chinese government. Once she returned, it was with great success, with a starring role in the rom-com “Crossing Hennessy” (a remake of the obscure 1988 Amy Irving vehicle “Crossing Delancey”), which earned her a nomination from the Golden Horse Awards for Best Actress. Actioners “Dragon” and “Speed Angels” followed, before another monster rom-com hit with “Finding Mr. Right” (a riff on “Sleepless In Seattle”), co-starring Wu Xiubo. But it’s the next few months that should win her an even wider following, as she’s starring in Ann Hui’s Venice closer “The Golden Era,” and in January will be seen in her first American movie, as the female lead in Michael Mann’s “Blackhat,” opposite Chris Hemsworth. It’s potentially a very big deal indeed, at home and abroad, but she’s got big arthouse plans as well as blockbusters. She’s seguing from Mann to Wong Kar-Wai, with a major role in the director’s next film, “The Ferryman.”
We’ve been a little touch-and-go with HBO‘s new series “The Leftovers,” but at the point when we were in danger of tuning out altogether, episode 6 happened. “The Guest” focused on the character of Nora Durst, played by Carrie Coon, and unfolded in an almost self-contained way, giving Nora an arc encompassing grief, anger, humor, regret, anguish and acceptance, and illustrates the possibilities of the show’s multi-character format. Moreover, it made it impossible not to realize that Coon has become not just the show’s surprise breakout, but one of the most compelling, quietly convincing new actresses we’ve seen recently. Aside from the Damon Lindelof show, Coon’s screen credits are few — a couple of single episodes of procedural TV — but in 2013 she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (the actor and playwright Tracy Letts, whom Coon recently married, won for his role in that production). That show was her Broadway debut after years with Chicago’s venerable Steppenwolf Theater Company, but on the foot of her triumphant small-screen breakout, Coon landed a plum role for her feature film debut. In David Fincher’s upcoming “Gone Girl,” she plays Margo “Go” Dunne, the twin sister of Ben Affleck’s lead, who is a pivotal and fairly meaty character. If the book is anything to go by, this should give Coon something to get her teeth into.
After a decade of working consistently in film
and TV, Tessa Thompson finally looks ready to explode in the next few
months. The 31-year-old L.A. native made her name on the stage in
various Shakespeare productions before landing the regular role of
Jackie Cook in the second season of “Veronica Mars.” She only lasted a
season, but went on to crop up regularly on TV from there on out, with a
major part in short-lived Kevin Williamson show “Hidden Palms,” and
one-offs in shows including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Life,” “Private Practice”
and “Heroes.” Alongside Kerry Washington, Thandie Newton and Janet
Jackson, she impressed on the big screen in Tyler Perry’s departure “For
Colored Girls,” and returned to television for “Detroit 1-8-7,”
“666 Park Avenue” and, most notably, a regular stint on BBC America’s
“Copper,” a period drama from “Oz” creator Tom Fontana. 2014’s the one
that’ll tip her over the edge into stardom, though, starting in January,
when “Dear White People” premiered at Sundance. Justin Simien’s film is
a wise and acerbic satire (he made our screenwriters list earlier in
the week), and among a fine ensemble cast, Thompson is the obvious
stand-out as Samantha White, the outspoken, Taylor Swift-loving, mixed-race host of the college radio show of the title. It’s a fierce
and funny performance that embraces the smart contradictions that Simien
built into the character and runs with them, and should make Thompson very much in demand. In fact, it already has. She recently wrapped the key
role of Diane Nash, one of the organizers of the titular march, in Ava
DuVernay’s Oscar-aiming “Selma.’ WIth the two movies hitting theatres only months apart,
she’s going to start 2015 with things looking better than ever.
Remember a few years ago, when someone that no one had heard of called Jessica Chastain kept being cast in big movies, and then they all came out, it turned out she was one of the most talented actresses of her generation, and she became a huge star? We’re about to see something very similar with Katherine Waterston. The 34-year-old daughter of “Killing Fields” and “Law & Order” star Sam Waterston is far from a household name, but is already gathering awards buzz for her leading turn in one of the most anticipated films of the fall, and is sure to be in demand after that. The Tisch grad made her on-screen debut with a bit-part in "Michael Clayton" back in 2007, before playing the lead in the little-seen indie “The Babysitters” alongside John Leguizamo and Cynthia Nixon. Other small big-screen roles followed, in indies like “Good Dick,” “Taking Woodstock,” “Robot & Frank” and “Being Flynn,” but she was making a bigger impact on the New York stage. She starred off-Broadway in “Bachelorette” (later adapted into a film, with Lizzy Caplan in Waterston’s role), and appeared alongside John Turturro, Dianne Wiest and sister Elisabeth in “The Cherry Orchard,” both to great acclaim. She also showed up in several episodes of “Boardwalk Empire,” as the badass sister of Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow. 2014 is where it’s really kicked off, with small gigs in Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves” and the much-acclaimed “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby,” and alongside Corey Stoll and Billy Crudup in well-received boxing noir “Glass Chin,” a hit at Tribeca this year. But the fall will bring as big a job, as Waterston plays Shasta Fey Hepworth, the ‘surf-girl femme fatale’ female lead of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” And despite a cast including Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro, all the buzz we’ve heard ahead of the film’s NYFF premiere is about Waterston’s performance. As such, if she isn’t much sought after by this time next year, we’ll eat our collective hats.
Charlotte Le Bon
Quebecois Charlotte Le Bon became known to French-speaking audiences as a television weather girl on the Canal+ nightly news show “Le Grand Journal.” But after a 2012 role in an “Asterix” movie, she first came to our attention as Omar Sy’s girlfriend Isis in Michel Gondry’s whimsy explosion “Mood Indigo.” Since then, the ridiculously beautiful, birdlike actress has racked up several more credits, including the forthcoming biopic “Yves Saint Laurent.” It was not a film we liked that much in Berlin, but we did describe Le Bon as “luminous,” and it seems we weren’t the only ones taking notice. After a string of light French comedies, she made her American film debut with “The Hundred Foot Journey,” starring Helen Mirren and Om Puri as rival restaurateurs, a film produced by no lesser patrons than Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Your mom probably loves Lasse Hallstrom‘s film about transformative omelettes, but the rest of us are probably more excited that Le Bon’s been cast as the female lead in the upcoming “The Walk.” Robert Zemeckis’ fictional retelling of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers will also star Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, alongside Ben Kingsley and James Badge Dale. The terrific documentary “Man on Wire” proves that this is an immense story, and the film has bagged a slot in the 2015 fall schedule, so whatever happens, it will give Le Bon her highest profile gig to date. Like, 1,300ft high.
This was a tough call, as we could essentially populate this entire list with names from “Orange is the New Black." Not only was it number 2 on our top TV shows of 2013/2014, it features one of the most impressive ensembles out there, all the more so for being predominantly female, showcasing characters of diverse ethnicities, sexualities and social groupings, and with a keen eye for relatively untested talent. But this season, aside from the stalwart standouts Lorraine Toussaint and Kate Mulgrew, both of whom are rather too well-established for this list, the character we’ve come to love the most is probably Poussey Washington, played by Samira Wiley. Wiley, who can also be found punching out Jonah Hill in David Gordon Green’s “The Sitter,” shows up in the Michael Pitt-starring crime romance “Rob the Mob," as well as Paul Weitz’s star-studded dud “Being Flynn.” She became much more than just the joker sidekick of Danielle Brooks’ Taystee in season 2, getting her own flashback episode, revealing a fascinating, complex and unexpected backstory. Further good news: like Brooks before her, she has been promoted to a series regular for season 3, which must mean we’ll see more of Poussey next time out (and you know that has to mean more Amanda and Mackenzie, Poussey and Taystee’s hilarious white middle-class alter egos).
For an actor with pretty much one major screen role behind her (aside from a single episode of “Prison Break” and a 4-episode arc on shortlived comedy series “Sordid Lives”), Allison Tolman’s rise to prominence, along with an Emmy nomination, is a rare showbiz story of straight-up good work getting the recognition it deserves. Tolman is undoubtedly the breakout success of FX‘s “Fargo,” negotiating the tricky tone of Coens-y black humor, occasional violence and homespun Minnesotan values effortlessly, but also providing the show with unexpected heart. Her character’s goodness, and the odd loneliness she brings to the role of Deputy Solverson (the loneliness of being way smarter than everyone else, but too nice to make a big deal about it) was the biggest surprise of a surprisingly successful show. In fact, that “Fargo” established itself as its own thing was largely because of the subtle work Tolman did to differentiate her character from Frances McDormand’s pregnant police chief in the film, and the buzz around her has only grown as Emmy season reaches its climax. Among the show’s 18 nominations, Tolman’s, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie, feels like the most deserved, and whether or not she takes home the statue we expect to see that buzz translate into big things soon, especially as neither she nor any of the rest of the cast has season 2 commitments.
There are times when those of us not in thrall to the televisual crack cocaine that is “Downton Abbey” feel like we’re missing out, and Lily James’ turn as Lady Rose MacClare is a case in point. Prior to the all-conquering period drama, James had a recurring role on the Billie Piper-starring “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” and a small role in “Clash of the Titans,” along with a couple of smaller British films, notably feelgood competitive running movie “Fast Girls.” But for all that, she remained largely under the radar. But as little as we watch ‘Downton,’ it’s clear that casting directors pay it a great deal more attention, and James is about to become inescapable. Appropriately, her professional rags-to-riches story really kicked into gear when she was cast as the titular, uncomfortable footwear-sporting “Cinderella” in Kenneth Branagh’s live action version. After that we’ll see her in Bradley Cooper‘s untitled restaurant film, scripted by Steven Knight and co-starring fellow 2014 On the Rise alum Jamie Dornan, and recent word has it that she’ll be back in corsets once again to play Natasha to Paul Dano’s Pierre in a lavish BBC miniseries production of “War and Peace” (billed as “the most ambitious event series ever made for the BBC”). She’s being somewhat typecast into period pieces and princessy type roles at the moment, but if Disney’s “Cinderella” does anything like the business the studio clearly hopes for, she could turn out to be the next Anne Hathaway—she has both the face and the talent.
It feels a little like we’ve been talking up Gugu Mbatha-Raw for a long while now, but of course her big break, Amma Asante’s lovely period drama “Belle,” was just released this summer, so her face is still probably new to most.In that film, she more than holds her own against terrific, more established British talent like Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson. But of course, she hardly came from nowhere, having worked consistently for some years in British TV, notably “Spooks” and 4 episodes of “Doctor Who,” not to mention two episodes of “Lost In Austen" and a small role in “Larry Crowne." While it may have been a long time coming, there’s no mistaking that “Belle” has boosted her profile immeasurably on this side of the pond (in a way that the short-lived J.J. Abrams show “Undercovers,” for example, did not). Mbatha-Raw will next be seen as the lead in November’s music biz movie “Beyond the Lights,” co starring Minnie Driver, Nate Parker and Danny Glover, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees”), which is incidentally the first film to come from Relativity’s new “diversity division.” After that, she’ll crop up in the Wachowski’s batshit-looking “Jupiter Ascending," and further out she’s signed on to legal drama “The Whole Truth” with Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger.
Even those who didn’t like “22 Jump Street,” should such people exist, came away from Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s comedy adoring at least one part of it: Mercedes, the sarcastic, smart-mouthed roommate of Amber Stevens’ character, who spends the film bombarding Jonah Hill with insults about his age. Actress Jillian Bell, who played the role, has been familiar to comedy fans for a while thanks to her regular gig on Comedy Central’s popular show “Workaholics,” but post-‘Jump Street,’ she looks to be set to break out to an even wider fanbase. The 30-year-old, who presumably has showbusiness in her blood after growing up in Vegas, went from improv troupe the Groundlings to writing for “Saturday Night Live” in the show’s 2009/2010 season. Though Lorne Michaels turned her down for on-screen appearances, she was soon landing small roles on TV, including stints on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Franklin & Bash,” and had a bit part in “Bridesmaids,” before “Workaholics” began in 2011, where Bell stood out immediately as socially awkward assistant Jillian Belk. But it’s in the last twelve months that she’s started to cross over even further into the mainstream, first with a regular role as neighbor Dixie in the fourth season of HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,” then with her scene-stealing ‘Jump Street’ appearance, where she comes up with most of the movie’s most quotable moments, and shares a hall-of-fame fight scene with Jonah Hill. It looks like she’s going to be borderline-inescapable in the next few years. She’s sticking with Comedy Central for her own show, “Idiotsitter,” co-created with and starring Charlotte Newhouse, based on their web-series about a young woman hired to act as a live-in nanny to a spoiled rich girl under house arrest, and has booked upcoming gigs in horror-comedy tentpole “Goosebumps,” and alongside Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Jonathan Levine’s untitled Christmas movie. And Paul Thomas Anderson is a fan. After a supporting role in “The Master,” Bell’s returning for “Inherent Vice” later in the year.
After a great first season, “Homeland” has been spinning its wheels ever since, but after the major, and overdue, development at the end of the last series that we won’t spoil here, hopes are high that the upcoming fourth season, which begins next month, will see a critical rejuvenation of the series. In large part, we’re holding on to that hope because Nazanin Boniadi is going to be playing a key role. The 34-year-old actress was born in Tehran, but moved to London with her parents as a young child. Initially, acting wasn’t the plan. She actually studied biological sciences at UC Irvine, and was en route to a career in medicine when she decided to switch tracks and pick up acting in 2006, almost immediately landing a regular job on long-running soap “General Hospital,” making her the first Middle Eastern character on a U.S. daytime soap. Within a couple of years, she’s appeared in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the original “Iron Man,” and Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days,” but she’s probably most recognizable from TV. She played Barney Stinson’s near-love Nora in “How I Met Your Mother,” has appeared in the likes of “24,” “Suits” and ‘Grey’s Anatomy,” and only this year was a terrorist on “Scandal.” Happily, she’s been able to show much more range than ‘terrorist’; she was very good in the lead role of otherwise forgettable indie rom-com “Shirin In Love,” and was a highlight of the last season of “Homeland” as CIA analyst Fara Sherazi. She’s been bumped up to a regular for the upcoming fourth season, which suggests she’ll be more crucial than ever, and will also appear in hotly-tipped British feature “Desert Dancer,” a biopic of persecuted real-life Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian (a subject to close to her heart, as she’s an outspoken activist for Amnesty International, and led their campaign to free filmmakers Jafar Panani, Mohamma Rasoulof and Behrouz Ghobadi).
Being a “Mission: Impossible” girl hasn’t quite reached the same cultural status as being a Bond girl, but perhaps that’s for the best, though Emmanuelle Beart, Thandie Newton, Michelle Monaghan and Paula Patton have gone on to more lasting careers than most actresses who crossed paths with 007. The latest actress to pair up with Ethan Hunt on screen is Rebecca Ferguson, and given that the part was once earmarked for Jessica Chastain, big things are expected from her. The 30-year-old half-Swedish, half-British actress grew up in Stockholm before finding fame as a teenager on local soap “Nya tider.” She mostly retired from acting for a while, with a gig in horror flick “Drowning Ghost” (helmed by “1408” director Mikael Hafstrom), her most notable part in the better part of a decade. Just when they thought she was out, they pulled her back in, and after making her big-screen return in Swedish picture “A One-Way Trip To Antibes,” she re-embraced her career, and was swiftly cast as the lead in BBC/Cinemax co-production “The White Queen.” Her porcelain beauty, and steely acting chops, made a hell of an impression, and earned her a Golden Globe nomination earlier this year. By then, she was already high on casting directors’ wish-lists. In addition to appearing in Swedish film “Vi,” she also filmed a major role in Ridley Scott-helmed pilot “The Vatican” alongside Kyle Chandler and Matthew Goode (the network ultimately passed on the series). This year, she also cropped up (albeit in a somewhat thankless part) alongside Dwayne Johnson in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules,” and has Soviet spy romance “Despite The Falling Snow,” co-starring Charles Dance and Sam Reid, on the way. But it’s “Mission: Impossible 5” that’ll undoubtedly be her biggest mainstream exposure so far, and from what we hear, it’s the meatiest female role in the franchise so far.
Honorable Mentions: Boy, the office fights over this one went on for days and days. It’s a testament to the strength of female talent that we have right now that this list could have been five times the size and we’d have still been leaving out strong contenders. So in brief, some of those who were too well established, not quite there yet, or we just didn’t have the space for, included Elizabeth Debicki, who’s gone from "The Great Gatsby" to "The Man From U.N.C.L.E" and "Macbeth"; "Orphan Black" star Tatiana Maslany; TV veteran Julianne Nicholson, so good in "August Osage County"; "The Knick" actress Juliet Rylance; Phoebe Fox, who’s wowed on the British stage and is the lead in "The Woman In Black: The Angel Of Death"; "Hannibal" and "Wonderfalls" star Caroline Dhavernas; and "Doctor Who" grads Karen Gillan and Jenna Coleman.
Also impressing us recently are: Julianne Cote from Cannes favorite "Tu Dors Nicole"; Ashley Hinshaw, who’s excellent in "Goodbye To All That"; Liana Liberato, soon to be seen in "If I Stay"; Meredith Hagner, who’s very good in David Cross‘ "Hits"; new Whit Stillman favorite Carrie MacLemore; Kerry Bishe from "Argo" and "Halt & Catch Fire" (we figured her co-star Mackenzie Davis, also from "Breathe In" and "What If," is too well established for a list like this); Aly Mychalka of "Sequoia"; Natalia Dyer from "I Believe In Unicorns"; "Brooklyn Nine Nine" star Melissa Fumero; Emily Meade from "The Leftovers"; Sophie Cookson, the female lead in the upcoming "Kingsman: The Secret Service"; and "Nymphomaniac" actresses Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark.
Finally, watch for the waves being made by "True Detective" actress Alexandra Daddario; Irish thesp Katie McGrath, who’s in "Jurassic World"; Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, who’s impressive in Cannes film "Catch Me Daddy"; Gitte Witt and Stephanie Ellis from "The Sleepwalker"; "House Of Cards" standout Rachel Brosnahan; SNL‘s Kate McKinnon; Haley Bennett, who’s in Terrence Malick‘s next film; Eve Hewson from "Enough Said" and "The Knick"; Gabriella Wilde from the "Endless Love" remake; Britt Robertson, who has a key role in Brad Bird‘s "Tomorrowland"; Melissa Benoist, who’s very good in "Whiplash"; "About Time" and "Jupiter Ascending" actress Vanessa Kirby; Annabelle Wallis, the lead in appropriately-named "The Conjuring" spin-off "Annabelle"; Emily Ratajkowski, who’ll soon be in "Gone Girl"; Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who’s very good in "I Origins"; and our future Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot. Anyone else? Let us know who you’re tipping in the comments section.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang