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On The Rise 2015: 20 Actresses To Watch

On The Rise 2015: 20 Actresses To Watch

It’s that time of year again. When the blockbusters start to lull, and the fall festival season hasn’t quite begun. When the movies on release tend to be slim pickings. And that’s when we like to look to the future, and the talents who’ll be shaping it, with our On The Rise season of actors, actresses, writers, directors, cinematographers and composers to watch. 

First up are the actresses —in what turned out, hearteningly, to be a tremendously difficult list to narrow down. There’s an enormous amount of talent out there, and with studios finally beginning to listen to the demand for more female-skewed movies, there will be hopefully more showcases. 

In previous years, we’ve tipped Brie Larson, Alicia Vikander, Dakota Johnson, Maika Monroe and last year’s list, Tessa Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Rebecca Ferguson, among others, and watched their careers explode. Who’s on our ones-to-watch list this time? Take a look below, and let us know who you’re excited about in the comments, and come back next week to take a look at our picks for male actors whose stars are ascendant as well. 


Melissa Benoist
It’s getting harder and harder to spot where superheroes might come from, but even so, when we saw Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” we wouldn’t have imagined that the actress who shone in her brief appearances as the love interest of Miles Teller’s character would be the next to don cape and tights. But Benoist, previously best-known for appearing in the last few years of “Glee,” was that girl, and she’s premiering this fall in CBS’s “Supergirl” as Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin. The jury’s out on whether the show will rise to the level of “Daredevil” or “Agents Of SHIELD,” but Benoist looks perfect in the footage. She’s not disappearing into TV completely, though: she’s already appeared this year in “The Longest Ride” and “Danny Collins,” with crime comedy “Band Of Robbers” (which we dug at LAFF) and “Fast & Furious”-ish Universal pic “Low Riders” also coming up. 


Rachel Brosnahan
The first time Brosnahan appeared in “House Of Cards” as a sex worker hired by Corey Stoll’s Peter Russo, it seemed like it was likely to be a brief, one-off guest appearance. Instead, the character became a key figure across the following three seasons, and has made Brosnahan one to watch in a big way. Before that show, she had small roles in horror flick “The Unborn” and underrated YA picture “Beautiful Creatures,” but her sparky, soulful, Emmy-nominated turn as the tragic Rachel Posner in Beau Willimon’s show was where she really stood out. Since then, she also impressed at Cannes with a small role in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs as Jesse Eisenberg’s ex-girlfriend, while she’s also among the terrific ensemble of “Manhattan,” the best TV show that you’re not watching. Next up, she’ll be seen alongside Chris Pine and Casey Affleck in coastguard drama “The Finest Hours” and with James Franco in indie thriller “The Fixer.” 


Morfydd Clark
Whit Stillman’s upcoming “Love And Friendship” might be most exciting as a “Last Days Of Disco” reunion between the writer/director, Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, but this Jane Austen adaptation looks to be a big launching pad for one of the young British actresses we’re tipping here, Morfydd Clark. Since the Welsh actress left drama school two years ago, she’s been extremely busy, initially coming to our attention as a teacher in Carol Morley’s The Falling.” Since then, she’s wowed on stage in London in “Violence & Son,” and will seen as Mr. Darcy’s sister in the upcoming “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” with Lily James and Matt Smith. Stillman’s more traditional, zombie-free Austen adaptation might be her biggest breakthough, with Clark playing Beckinsale’s character’s daughter. Brit List-topping sci-fi “The Call Up” is also on her dance card, meaning she’ll be near-omnipresent in 2016. 


Jamie Clayton
It looks likely this awards season that Eddie Redmayne will be following in the footsteps of Jared Leto by picking up an Oscar nomination for playing a trans character, but the time when straight male actors automatically take a part like the lead in “The Danish Girl” might be coming to an end, thanks to the strides made by people like the enormously talented Jamie Clayton. The actress first made her name on “Orange Is The New Black” star Laverne Cox’s VH1 reality show “TRANSform Me” and moved onto drama the following year with the HBO drama “Hung,” but her biggest break came earlier this year with the Wachowskis’ Netflix drama “Sense8,” in which she plays trans blogger/hacker Nomi. It’s a terrific, forceful performance, and it looks like other big-name directors are starting to pay attention: she’ll next be seen in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon.” 


Kiersey Clemons
Love or loathe Rick Famuyima’s “Dope,” there’s one actor who shines in the film, and that’s Kiersey Clemons. The 21-year-old actress has credits stretching back to her teens, mostly on Disney Channel shows like “Austin & Ally,” but her turn as the confident, kick-ass Diggy in “Dope,” one of the more interesting gay characters in cinemas this year, is maybe the best thing in the movie. That alone would have made her worthy for this list, but as well as a guest appearance in “New Girl,” she shone in Amazon and Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” as Bianca, the step-daughter of Melora Hardin’s Tammy, who ends up in a questionable flirtation with Jay Duplass’ Josh. At present, she’s also joined Halle Berry in the regular cast of CBS sci-fi series “Extant”: given her age, you sense that she’s still just warming up. 


Tina Desai
It’s taken a while, but it looks like we’re finally getting some crossover between Hollywood and Bollywood: the latter is one of the biggest film cultures in the world, but mostly has been limited in Western movies to Baz Luhrmann musical numbers and “Slumdog Millionaire.” Thanks to “Jurassic World,” Irffan Khan is as recognizable in the U.S. as he is at home, while megastar Priyanka Chopra is starring in TV series “Quantico,” but the next to make the leap could be Tina Desai. At home, the actress starred in thriller “Table No. 21” and this year’s “Sharafat Gayi Tel Lene,” but she’s perhaps best known, at least to your mom, for the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” films. But like Clayton, she impressed us in the Wachowskis’ “Sense8,” where she plays Kala, one of the titular central octet in the cast, and giving a head-turning performance that’s sure to lead to more work in the U.S.


Courtney Eaton
So many movies would have treated the five wives in “Mad Max: Fury Road” as glorified MacGuffins, but it’s to the immense credit of George Miller & co that the five actresses involved all got to create real characters, and it should be good for all involved. Perhaps the one getting the biggest boost (alongside Abbey Lee, who’s starring in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” and is up for the female lead in “Gambit”) is Courtney Eaton. The striking Australian model-turned-actress, who has Maori, Chinese and Cook Islander heritage, played the youngest and most nervous of the wives, and her fake-out defection near the end marks one of the more rousing moments in the film. Unsurprisingly, the actress was winning roles even before the film hit: she plays the female lead in upcoming blockbuster “Gods Of Egypt” with Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and is shortlisted for the lead in the Sarah Polley-scripted adaptation of John Green’s “Looking For Alaska.” 

Arielle Holmes

No one has had a tougher route to being noticed than Arielle Holmes. The 21-year-old first tried crack at 12, was a heroin addict in her teens, has attempted suicide and was working as a dominatrix while on methadone when she met filmmaker Josh Safdie, who encouraged her to write up her experiences. Her memoir (which will be published soon) was then turned by Safdie and his brother into their film Heaven Knows What,” which starred Holmes as a version of herself in a stunningly raw performance. Often, a similar figure will never do another movie (think of Katie Jarvis from “Fish Tank”), but Holmes looks to be in it for the long-run: she’s wrapped sci-fi picture “Winter’s Dream” and has the lead alongside Shia LaBeouf in Andrea Arnold’s new movie “American Honey.” 


Lola Kirke
Looks like the ranks of cinematic sisters (the Deschanels, the Maras, et al) have another pair of siblings to contend with. British-American actress Jemima Kirke has been impressing across the past four seasons of Girls,” but Sundance saw her younger sister Lola cement her burgeoning stardom. After standing out in “The Leftovers” and “Gone Girl” (in which she played the teen drifter who rips off Rosamund Pike’s Amy), Kirke starred in Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman’s Amazon series “Mozart In The Jungle,” proving to be a winning lead even when the series around her was uneven. Then she co-starred with Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s latest “Mistress America,” a performance we described as “luminous” in our review. She’s already shown a hugely impressive range in her on-screen appearances —we’ll be intrigued to see how she handles more commercial fare, with YA adaptation “Fallen” and Tom Cruise vehicle “Mena” up next. 


Sidse Babett Knudsen
The Scandinoir movement been fascinating subtitle-happy crime buffs for a while now, but its influence has mostly been limited to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and the U.S. remake of “The Killing” so far. But likely to join Noomi Rapace as the breakout actress from the movement is Sidse Babett Knudsen. The 46-year-old actress has been familiar to international cinema fans for a while —she starred in Susanne Bier’s “The One & Only” and “After The Wedding”— but she perhaps won most admirers via the lead of hit political drama series “Borgen.” This in turn led to an incredible performance in Peter Strickland’s beautifully perverse “The Duke Of Burgundy,” one of the best bits of acting we’ve seen all year. That project looks to have put her on the international map: coming up, she’s starring with Tom Hanks in both “A Hologram For The King” and “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Inferno,” and she’s also in the cast of Jonathan Nolan’s HBO drama “Westworld.” 


Ariane Labed
Greece might be in one of the worst economic crises a country’s faced since the Great Depression, but its cinema scene remains vibrant, and its biggest breakout star might be Ariane Labed, who’s about to win a lot more fans in one of the more intriguing blockbusters of 2016. The Greek-born French actress first came to attention five years ago in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s tremendous “Attenberg” (Quentin Tarantino’s Venice jury awarded her Best Actress), and followed it up swiftly with a brilliant turn in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Alps.” She reteams with the director this year for a darkly hilarious turn in “The Lobster (her dancing alone needs to be seen to be believed), her second English-language picture after a brief appearance in “Before Midnight.” But bigger things are yet to come: when scheduling conflicts forced Alicia Vikander out of Justin Kurzel’s “Assassin’s Creed,” Labed joined Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the blockbuster video game adaptation. 


Sonoya Mizuno
Alex Garland’s terrific sci-fi “Ex Machina” was billed in advance as a three-hander, but one of the film’s many secrets was that it wasn’t: the fourth cast member was Sonoya Mizuno’s Kyoko, who turned out to have a crucial part to play as the film unfolded. Born in Tokyo but raised in England, Mizuno began as a ballerina before moving into modeling, but made her screen debut in Garland’s film, which let her bust some moves alongside Oscar Isaac in the film’s most memorable scene, which also allowed her to make a huge impression in a silent role. There’s lots coming up beyond that: she’s appearing in dance movie “High Strung” and motorcycle actioner “Alleycats,” and is likely to be doing some more hoofing in two upcoming musicals, Bill Condon’s big-budget Disney remake “Beauty & The Beast,” and alongside Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” 


Muna Otaru
One of the frustrations of the festival circuit is seeing a great film, and then having to wait a year before you can shout at everyone to go see it. Daniel Barber’s terrific neo-Western “The Keeping Room” is one of those films, having premiered at Toronto International Film Festival last year but will open this fall. One of the reasons we’re so high on it is the breakthrough performance by Muna Otaru. Raised between Lagos and Liverpool, Otaru studied film at the University of Maryland until she found work as a PA on the second season of “The Wire.” She eventually found work in front of the camera on the show, and small roles in “Lions For Lambs” and “Rendition” followed before took the role of Mad, with Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld one of three women besieged by Union soldiers in “The Keeping Room,” and she’s staggering in it. Nothing else seems to be lined up yet, but that’ll surely change once the film is more widely seen. 

Caren Pistorius

This summer’s Western “Slow West” might have starred Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, but the film’s stealth hero —both within the narrative and in terms of the strength of performance— was Caren Pistorius. The 30-year-old actress, born in South Africa but raised in New Zealand, has been working consistently in TV at home for a while now (most notably in long running Australian show “Offspring”), but glows off the screen with a perfect Scottish accent as the quietly badass Rose in John MacLean’s film. She clearly made an impression on one of her co-stars: she’s playing the grown-up version of Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in Derek Cianfrance’s Oscar-touted “The Light Between Oceans.”  Her oddly ageless screen presence is unlike any other that we’ve seen for a while, and we’re sure MacLean and Cianfrance are just the first directors who’ll be taking advantage of it. 


Bel Powley
Stardom’s clearly been in the offing for 23-year-old Bel Powley for a little while now. The daughter of an actor, she began starring in BBC kids’ series “M.I. High” at the age of 15 and was on Broadway with Billy Crudup in “Arcadia” at 19. But her big movie debut came at Sundance this year in Marielle Heller’s terrific Diary Of A Teenage Girl,” and she quickly became the Carey Mulligan or Jennifer Lawrence of this year’s festival with a fearless, funny performance that saw her instantly anointed as the next big thing. She’s already shone this year alongside Sarah Gadon and Jack Reynor in comedy “A Royal Night Out,” and is filling up her diary swiftly: she’ll be in Venice with Drake Doremus’ “Equals,” co-starring Kristen Stewart, thriller “Detour” with Tye Sheridan and Emory Cohen, and alongside Elle Fanning in Mary Shelley biopic “A Storm In The Stars” from “Wadjda” director Haifaa Al-Mansour


Charlotte Riley
It feels like Charlotte Riley’s been on the verge of breaking through for a while now, but 2015 looks to be the year that it finally happens. The actress first came to our attention in two TV miniseries, “Wuthering Heights” and “The Take,” the latter opposite Tom Hardy in 2009 (the pair married last year). Some slightly forgettable TV gigs followed, though she came close to playing Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but things started kicking up a gear last year: she was unrecognizable as a redneck soldier in “Edge Of Tomorrow” and proved a welcome addition to the second season of “Peaky Blinders.” She shone again recently in the excellent “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” and before the end of the year will play a kickass MI5 agent in action sequel “London Has Fallen,” and she’ll star with Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy in Ron Howard’s “In The Heart Of The Sea.” 


Gina Rodriguez
Her name might not be totally familiar unless you’re a fan of her show, but with a Golden Globe already under her belt, you’re likely to know who Gina Rodriguez is in the very near future. The 31-year-old Chicago native has been working for a decade, impressing as a female rapper in Sundance drama “Filly Brown” a few years back. Stardom finally beckoned in the last twelve months, at last, with The CW’s hit comedy-drama “Jane The Virgin,” in which Rodriguez is brilliant as the title character, a religious young woman who’s accidentally artificially inseminated. She was the surprise winner of that Golden Globe for the role in January, and though she missed out on an Emmy nod this time around, she’s busy enough that she might not have noticed: military romance “Purple Hearts” and Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” starring Mark Wahlberg, are both on the way. 


Alexandra Shipp
Hugh Jackman aside, the first iteration of the “X-Men” didn’t launch too many of its actors to megastardom, but with the likes of Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee playing younger versions of the classic characters in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” that could change, and one of the strongest potentials as such is Alexandra Shipp. Hailing from Phoenix, the actress had small roles in “Alvin And The Chipmunks” and “In Time” before Nickelodeon series “House Of Anubis” and the lead in DTV sequel “Drumline: A New Beat,” but she got more press for last year’s Lifetime biopic “Aaliyah: The Princess Of R&B.” More recently, she had one of the more notable female roles as Ice Cube’s wife Kimberley Woodruff in “Straight Outta Compton,” but it’s next year’s superhero blockbuster, in which she takes up Halle Berry’s mantle as Storm (this time with an impressive mohawk) that’s very likely to put her on the map. 


Alison Sudol
It’s hard enough to carve out a career in the music biz without trying to do the same in acting, but Alison Sudol is doing both and making it look easy, culminating with a major role in one of the biggest movies of next year. Born in Seattle, Sudol first came to fame under the name A Fine Frenzy, with three best-selling Tori Amos-ish records since 2007. Even before that, she was acting, but she’s gearing up again in the last year or two, beginning with a key role in “Transparent” as the young pop star that Josh (Jay Duplass) has been sleeping with. She followed that part with the lead alongside Jason Isaacs in archaeological thriller series “Dig” on USA, with indie relationship flick “The Force” coming up. But megastardom seemed to guaranteed once she beat out Saoirse Ronan and Dakota Fanning to one of the leads alongside Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston and Ezra Miller in Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them,” which hits next year. 


Anya Taylor-Joy
There’s no release date yet for Robert Eggers’ period-horror “The Witch” (perhaps because those who saw it at Sundance are still recovering from having the shit scared out of them), but the film’s star Anya Taylor-Joy isn’t waiting around to take advantage of its momentum. Born in Miami and raised first in Argentina, then in London, Taylor-Joy, still just 19, has been modeling for a few years now, but began acting thanks to “Downton Abbey” and “Imitation Game” actor Allen Leech, who spotted her at a photoshoot. According to our Sundance review of the movie, Taylor-Joy “stands out,” and it looks like casting directors have agreed: she’s recently had a run on BBC drama “Atlantis,” she’s starring with Kate Mara and Toby Jones in “Morgan,” the feature debut of Luke ‘son of Ridley’ Scott, and is up against fellow On The Riser Courtney Eaton for the lead role in “Looking For Alaska.” 

Honorable Mentions: As we said, it proved very difficult to narrow down our list even to an expanded group of twenty, so there’s plenty who missed out. Among them are “Jurassic World” dinosaur chow Katie McGrath, who’ll next be seen in Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur”; young “Paddington” actress Madeleine HarrisLea Thompson’s daughter Zoey Deutch, who has the female lead in Richard Linklater’s next untitled movie; Australian “Predestination” breakout Sarah Snook, next seen in “Steve Jobs”; Meredith Hagner, the best thing about David Cross’ “Hits”; Sofia Black D’Elia, who’ll next be seen in “Ben Hur”; “Wild Canaries” actress Sophia Takal; “Spring” monster Nadia Hilker, and Elodie Yung, soon to be seen as Elektra in “Daredevil.” 

And then there’s “Tomorrowland”’s Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy; Pauline Etienne from “Eden”; “Tangerine” actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya TaylorOona Laurence, so good in “Southpaw” and next to be in “Pete’s Dragon”; “Mistress America” and “Boardwalk Empire”’s Heather Lind; Rosa Salazar from “The Scorch Trials” and “Insurgent”; Halston Sage from “Paper Towns” and “Goosebumps”; “Jem And The Holograms” lead Aubrey PeeplesFlora Spencer-Longhurst from the upcoming “The Bastard Executioner”; “Penny Dreadful” actress Sarah Greene; “The Force Awakens” debutante Maisie Richardson-Sellars; and “Shameless” actress Emma Greenwell, who’s heading to “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies,” which also features Millie Brady, who’ll also be seen in “Legend” and Guy Ritchie‘s “King Arthur.”  

And there’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”’s Jubilee, Lana Condor; “Victoria” lead Laia Costa”; “Game Of Thrones”’ Hannah Murray, who won Best Actress at Tribeca for “Bridgend”; Hermione Corfield, killed off early in “Rogue Nation” but soon to be seen in “King Arthur”; “Dheepan” actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan; “My Golden Days”’ Lou Roy-Lecollinet; “Tale Of Tales” star Bebe Cave; Eve Hewson from “The Knick” and “Bridge Of Spies”; soon-to-be-“GhostbusterLeslie Jones; “Man Seeking Woman” standout Britt Lower; Constance Wu from “Fresh Off The Boat”; Rose McIver of “iZombie”; “Halt & Catch Fire”’s best bit, Kerry Bishé; “Unexpected” star Gail Bean; and Gemma Chan of “Humans.” Anyone else? Let us know in the comments.  

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