TIFF’s Rising Stars
We asked the new class for their thoughts on their Festival experience, the industry and how we can create a star system in Canada
Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival handpicks actors who illustrate the best and brightest performers in the Canadian film industry. They participate in an intensive programme run by TIFF, in collaboration with the CSA. This year’s crop, which boasted four Canadians and two Rising Stars from Nigeria, included a former MMA fighter from Flim Flom, Manitoba (Jared Abramhamson, star of TIFF 16’s Hello Destroyer, now selected for Canada's Top Ten Film Festival), “Nigeria’s Brad Pitt” (OC Ukeje, who appeared in the City to City film The Arbitration), a fiery Lagotian/former McMaster science student (Somkele Iyamah-Idhalama who had roles in both TIFF 16’s The Arbitration and 93 Days, opposite Danny Glover), a 16 year old Montreal megastar (Sophie Nélisse, commanding as a teen runaway in the Canada Top Ten feature Mean Dreams), a Québécois actress who portrayed four different sides of Nelly Arcand (Mylène MacKay, star of Nelly, at Canada's Top Ten) and an emerging actress/filmmaker from Toronto (Grace Glowicki, whose turn in the Canadian short film Her Friend Adam awarded her a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, also selected for Canada's Top Ten Shorts programme).
Our Rising Star questionnaire touched on their perspective on the industry and the misconceptions of being a Canadian actor. Then, we threw it out to RS alumni Shannon Kook and Cara Gee for good measure.
As a TIFF Rising Star, what were your expectations going into the program?
Somkele Iyamah-Idhalama: I hoped to gain a wealth of knowledge about the industry and interact with stakeholders from all over the world. I also wanted to influence a more positive narrative of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry.
Mylène MacKay: I think the TIFF Rising Stars program was a chance to make new connections and share my passion for cinema. Being a French Canadian actress who would like to act in English films, it was also a chance to improve my English.
Sophie Nélisse: I expected it to be a really great experience. The other participants were very nice.
Jared Abrahamson: I was expecting to network with other artists — directors, actors, producers, writers, and people that I could potentially collaborate with. The main goal was to celebrate all of these solid films along with my peers.
Cara Gee: I honestly had no idea what to expect. I hoped that it would be a chance to meet other artists in the industry and that was my favourite part. Meeting Cassandra Kulukundis, who produced The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, was a highlight. She talked about how much our personal taste is a part of our journey. That resonated with me and was very empowering.
Shannon Kook: My expectations were to join a platform of people who would highlight Canadian potential in the world market. I didn't need more press for my O1 Visa, but having some magic dust around your name is essential in this business.
OC Ukeje: I think I was looking forward to soaking up everything that would give me insight into how to handle the industry here in North America. I’m expecting to keep it as a life-changing moment.
Grace Glowicki: I got lots of press, which will be very helpful in securing my O1 visa. I also got to become friends with the other Rising Stars, which has been the best part. They are all so smart and talented. I really hope we can work together in the future.
Creating a Canadian star system is crucial for the survival of the industry. How would you describe the opportunities available to actors in Canada?
Mylène: Up to now, I've only been working with French Canadian directors. I am particularly proud of the Québéc film industry. I think of Xavier Dolan, Anne Émond, Jean-Marc Vallée, Denis Villeneuve, Maxime Giroux, Chloé Robichaud, Philippe Falardeau, and the list goes on and on! I think it's possible to have a career in Canada, but I understand that people want to experience working away.
Sophie: First of all, I believe that there are great opportunities for filming in Canada and I've never felt that people thought Canadian movies were bad. My film Mean Dreams, directed by Canadian Nathan Morlando, screened at TIFF and also was at Cannes. I think having a star system could perhaps make more opportunities arise. It’s obvious that some will always want to try to make it big in Hollywood. I have opportunities in both the States and Canada, many of which I have turned down. For me, I will go where I'm offered a great character, or a great script.
Jared: I think this program is important so that people can get to know us and see us as serious artists, like the ones you'd find in any other market. I think a lot of actors go down to the States because they feel there is more opportunity there, especially in the indie world. Last year, I noticed more and more indie films being made in Canada. I have to say, it is definitely changing for the better here. The attention to quality, and quantity of films being made out here is growing.
Cara: I’m probably not the best person to ask because I’m working on my Green Card application right now. Or maybe that does makes me the best person to ask. I am drawn by the fact that America is way further ahead of Canada in terms of diverse casting. I think Canadian films and television are great and if I could parlay my success into more work here, I would stay.
Maybe we need to ask ourselves if we’re content being the scrappy underdogs? I think of the Tragically Hip, who just had their farewell concert. Part of what we as a nation love about them is the fact that they never broke the US market. They remain ours and ours alone. It’s strange to me. I also grew up in Bobcaygeon, so I’ve been thinking about them a lot.
Shannon: The Francophone work I've seen is very ballsy and original. Whereas, the Anglophone stuff can tend to feel not quite Canadian, but also not quite American. Part of this lies in people not being willing to completely back Canadian talent, in front of and behind the camera.
How different do you think our star system would be if Canadians could have leading roles (not principal) in movies with actors like Charlize Theron, Chloe Moretz and Christina Hendricks in a regular acting season? People assume I booked The Conjuring and Dark Places as a local shoot, and say things like, "You're shooting for three weeks? So, is it actually a speaking part?", like I'm not good enough for a lead.
As soon as an actor finishes shooting a regular role, they tend to try to make the move to LA because I think they fear they've hit the ceiling of what Canada can offer. One of the most respected Canadian agents told me once that once actors get to a certain level here, they stop hiring them. It's almost like they punish them for being successful.
The question is: how do we create names from within Canada? What if we had enough of an industry that all these actors stayed here? I've heard and seen the work of actors auditioning in LA enough to know that Canadians are no less. We have stars. We have the crew, writers and directors. But stars don't become stars by talking about and marketing themselves. The validation comes from the market.
OC: I think that people leave for Hollywood because it symbolizes the pinnacle of success in this business. For these reasons, it behooves actors to create more opportunities for themselves in their home country.
Describe a performance in a Canadian film that really inspires you. What do you love about this performance and why?
Mylene: I remember seeing My Life Without Me and how moved I was by the performance of Sarah Polley. This actress offers something particularly touching. It seems that she gives us access to her soul.
Sophie: Antoine-Olivier Pillon in Mommy, where he played an out-of-control kid with ADHD. I thought that he was able to act out this role to the point without overdoing it, by just putting himself in a state of vulnerability.
Jared: I was really impressed with Brendan Fletcher's portrayal of Willie “The Clown” Jackson in Citizen Gangster. He made some bold choices but they were all very grounded. I always root for the guys who step outside the box.
Cara: I loved Max McCabe-Lokos and Sarah Allen in The Husband, directed by Bruce McDonald. I found the material wonderfully uncomfortable and the performances were compelling and raw.
Shannon: I saw Mommy at TIFF a couple years ago. I didn't know any of Xavier Dolan's other work, but could not wait to give a standing ovation at the end of the film. It wasn't just the direction, but the chemistry and bravery of the ensemble.
OC: It isn’t a Canadian film. It is a South African film called iNumber Number (Avenged). It’s the hunger of the character to change his circumstances that comes through in S’Dumo Mtshali’s performance. It was very gritty, very relatable, very engaging.
Grace: Jared Abrahamson in Hello Destroyer (a fellow RS). I saw it last night and I thought his performance was top, top, top.
What kinds of roles do you want to play? What kinds of roles are you generally offered?
Somkele: I would love to play roles that tell a resounding story, regardless of the genre. Roles that leave a memorable aftertaste and keep you thinking about the character… no matter how “small.”
Mylène: I have played many different characters with directors I admire a lot. I played an anxious young woman in Endorphine, a free spirit and gutsy woman in Embrasse-moi comme tu m’aimes by André Forcier. In Nelly from Anne Émond, I had to play four different parts of the same woman: the whore, the writer, the star and the toxic lover. I enjoyed changing my look, my body, my way of speaking. One day, I would love to play a man as Cate Blanchett did in I’m Not There. When I act, I don't have limits. I like to go as far as I can into the character.
Sophie: If I could have the kind of role Leonardo DiCaprio had in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, that would be so cool! I'm looking for challenges, as I'm not crazy about just playing the “nice, little daughter.” There has to be depth to the character and something to really act! I've been fortunate to be offered roles that are different but I have noticed that I often have an absent or dead parent!
Jared: I want to do more comedy. I get to play a lot of roughnecks and tragic heroes, but there is so much more that I can do.
Shannon: Part of my frustrations are that society has a narrow-minded view of men who look like me, which I admit sometimes makes me defensive. I'd love to be the lead in a rom-com, or play a superhero in a Marvel/DC production, no matter how scarce an Asian superhero is in these worlds. As for what I'm offered, it's been the “dark villain,” the “wholesome zen gay love interest,” the “bad boy you cheat with,” the “jocky douchebag,” the “intelligent, charming, cocky fellow” and I've also played a few assistants.
I remember seeing an Asian man on a billboard, I think it was for GAP or Abercrombie, and it really hit me, emotionally. I remember thinking, "Wow… this is happening sooner than I expected." It was really good to see an Asian male face up there, finally.
OC: I think I’m generally offered more romantic roles. I’d be grateful to try some action characters, as well.
Grace: I want to play unconventional characters in movies directed by nice, smart people. I'm offered all sorts of roles, but I'm learning to be picky — it's very empowering.
What can the Canadian film industry do to support emerging actors and filmmakers?
Somkele: Programs like TIFF Rising Stars are a certified move in the right direction.
Mylène: Many directors have had their first film presented at TIFF. I think the Canadian film industry must continue to promote creators’ first films and take risks.
Sophie: We are fortunate that in Canada we have some government funding, which I hope will continue in the future. At 16, I don't really know about the politics of it all.
Jared: I think they can start by hiring more Canadian leads. I understand that most of the “names” are out of the US and they are plenty talented, but we have our own beasts rattling the cage, looking for a way in.
Grace: Encourage their individuality.
Shannon: Validation starts with ourselves, much before others can give it to us. Why can't Canadian talent push through when it's backed by our resources? More promotion for these projects seems like the best method. Local pride can snowball and draw moths to a light. It doesn't have to be puritanical, but we can elevate Canadians by putting them in substantial positions. Casting [former Rising Star] Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black shows where we can take things.
OC: I think that more roles can be created for Black actors, specifically speaking. I think that Canadian filmmakers too can be empowered with slates that can consider more opportunities for emerging actors.
What intimidated you as an actor navigating TIFF for the first time?
Mylène: Red carpets! It’s a lot of attention. I am learning how to deal with this in a simple way.
Jared: Definitely dealing with press! They have been great so far and all the interviews have gone smoothly, but this is new to me and a part of the game that I'm still getting used to. Sometimes I questioned whether I was giving them my authentic answer, or the answer that I thought they wanted to hear.
Cara: The whole thing was incredibly surreal. It has been especially wild finding myself at these parties and feeling completely overstimulated. Before the Rising Stars program, I had been working in theatre for years, where it is only ever about the actual work, and everybody’s pretty poor.
Grace: I learned to sit things out when I was too tired.
Shannon: Walking carpets, doing step-and-repeats, and interviews are intimidating… but fun! You don't have to say or do anything you don't want to.
OC: Well, I think that it’s more the case of going into new territory. The intimidation comes with knowing that there is a vibrant and successful film circuit outside of my Nigerian and African experience. It sometimes feels like you’re working as hard as you can, but you’re still relatively unknown.
Who do you look up to and admire as a role model for your career?
Somkele: Denzel Washington and Anne Hathaway.
Mylène: I admire Cate Blanchett a lot. For me, she is a hard worker and a smart and polyvalent actress. She is always completely invested in her body and soul and in symbiosis with her characters.
Sophie: Jake Gyllenhaal and Leonardo DiCaprio... When I watch them act, it just makes me crazy as I analyze the way they do every little thing. They also have the chance to play different characters and are not typecast. I'd even take a tiny, tiny role just to be opposite them.
Jared: Tupac Shakur. As an actor, rapper, artist, anything, he was the man. Pac has and always will be a huge influence on me. His work ethic was insane. From movies to music, he just never quit.
Cara: Jennifer Podemski is one of the most inspiring women I have ever encountered. She is a true boss and she has so much integrity.
Shannon: It's always been Bruce Lee. Not only was he in the film industry at a time of much more racial segregation than myself, but his self-belief, passion and philosophies inspired all walks of life. He transcended race in a time that marketed him for his race. His acting is underrated and his skills were broad. He certainly left us too early.
OC: I’d totally keep Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio as role models for a while.
What’s the most important advice you could give an up-and-coming actor?
Somkele: Never lose what got you the right attention in the first place — your sincere expression of your craft. Regardless of your limitations, be open to exploring all kinds of characters.
Mylène: If you feel it from inside, believe and never give up.
Sophie: Be confident, don't overplay it and don't get discouraged... Many times, it's not that you didn't do a great job but that the director has something else in mind. Many times, you’re the better actor but they wanted someone well-known. The most important thing I can suggest is act because it’s your passion. Like any other job, it will get old and you will be disappointed if you aren't doing it for the right reasons.
Jared: Break the rules.
Cara: Know your lines. Respect your audience.
Grace: Trust your gut.
Shannon: You can't gain your self-worth by the acting jobs and accolades you get. The more you build and explore yourself as a person, the more it will reflect in your work. Grow in your personal life, whether that be personally, through a skill, or by reading a book. Culture your palate and perspectives. Who you are behind your eyes permeates a room whether you want it to or not. A lot of the hurdle is actually just allowing who you are to come forward.
OC: I’d advise any up-and-comer to think about their craft with the rest of the world as a stage. It does insufficient service to play it only local.
With the conversation surrounding gender and diversity reflected in TIFF’s Industry conference and film programming this year, how do you think these issues should be addressed?
Somkele: I think the Festival has done a commendable job in allowing the voices of the “underdogs” to be heard. I believe that no one person has one single story and it would be illogical to paint a demographic with the same colour and stroke each time. I do hope that we can creatively tell stories that transcend beyond gender and ethnicity because emotions are what we portray.
Mylène: I think we should have more women, especially over 35, on-screen. Films have to reflect real life! I can't believe we cast 20 year old women with 40 year old men and 30 year old women with 60 year old men and we find it normal! A woman over 35 without having any surgery done is still sexy and beautiful. As an actress, too many times I have received scripts with a character description that starts with “sexy, young Caucasian woman with voluptuous chest, blond hair, beautiful smile, blah blah blah.” I always refuse to read on when the description starts like this. This is the power I have.
Sophie: Movies are a form of art and they tell a story. My 11th film is the first time that I will be directed by a woman.
Cara: We have a chance to show how the world can be a better, more inclusive place through the stories we tell in film and television. And we are shitting the bed. I think it’s offensive to suggest that we just need to make our own work. There are systems in place to keep us out. And rather than asking why we deserve roles that suggest our lives are valuable (because the answer is self-evident), I think that we should remember that it’s actually about what the audience deserves. I believe that audiences deserve stories that reflect the myriad facets of our beautiful, complex, exhilarating reality. We should be engaging on that level, not selling people shit they don’t need. I think of all-white films as commercials selling a reality that I don’t want to live in.
Shannon: Trudeau gave Canada its first cabinet with an equal number of men and women: "Because it's 2016." It's not like film and television can't adapt. I think it starts with producers and writers having an objective to hit a quota but extends as they see people responding to diverse casts. How many shows are all Caucasian, mainly male?
Though we're seeing many women take on leading roles, it's still rare to see an Asian male carry a storyline or be the love interest. We get bit parts, though those Asian boys are still portrayed as geeky and afraid of girls. These stereotypes affect how society projects onto the Asian population and how we perceive ourselves. Self-creation is key. And I think mandates like bravoFACT having 50 per cent female filmmakers is a great first step.
Grace: We need to tell our own stories! Write scripts! Make movies! Also, just say “no” to the projects that perpetuate stereotypes.
OC: I think that the nets should be cast wider. So, right from developing the story, conversations of the male or female experience should be strongly considered. It is heavily welcome for a minority or a woman to create their own work (if empowered to do so), but the (other) important part of the equation is understanding how to circulate the material through the right channels so that new voices are being heard.
What is a stereotype about actors that you face?
Somkele: In Nigeria, it used to be one of two things: either that actors are not “intelligent,” or that they do it to attain fame for ulterior motives.
Mylène: Sometimes, people think that because we are actors we can start doing a show anytime. I am too shy for that!
Sophie: I guess the thing I get told the most from the other kids at my school about being an actress is that I'm rich and what I do is easy. It's hard work, long hours, the shooting conditions aren't always the best.
Jared: That we are soft, or pampered. Maybe some are, but not in my house. I work my ass off. The people that I surround myself with work their asses off. I still train like I did when I was fighting. I know many actors who come from different art forms and backgrounds, who’ve brought their drive and creativity with them. We're trying to share our life experience.
Cara: Actors are storytellers and we have a great responsibility to serve our audience. It is actually a very important job. I am proud to be an actor.
Shannon: Without mentioning names, I'll quote a couple things that have been said to me and my agents:
"Shannon isn't Asian enough."
Casting Director 1: "I like you for this. You're great, but you're too good looking for this part." Casting Director 2: "I like that he's good looking for this part."
“They wrote the Asian character/storyline out of the script you auditioned for."
OC: I think one of the clichés about actors is that we are too consumed in ourselves through the creative process. It is assumed that we think of ourselves as the center of attention and expect that sort of treatment all the time. Actors are the vehicle through which the story is conveyed. An actor employs emotions and instincts and relies heavily on conducive environments to function fully. So it’s wrong to think about it from that perspective.
Lastly, what do you love about TIFF?
Somkele: I love the opportunity that TIFF gives independent movie makers and actors… opportunities that they may not have gotten otherwise.
Sophie: What I love about TIFF is that first of all, it's a Canadian festival. I got to see some wonderful movies that otherwise wouldn't be known at all.
Jared: I love the programmers, our handlers, the sponsors, and of course, the other Rising Stars. These people have a real passion for film like I've never seen. They've gone above and beyond to help us in our careers and I'll forever be grateful for that.
Cara: I love that during TIFF, Toronto puts on its fancy clothes. The city comes alive and it’s so exciting to be here and be part of that. Being in the Rising Stars program and having an inside perspective on the magic of the Festival was like running away and joining the circus for a week. It is an experience that I will cherish forever.
Shannon: TIFF exemplifies Canadian talent on a world stage. Rising Stars is the seed for creating a much-needed star system in Canada, which will only benefit our industry. We just need more people to back up their incentive.
OC: I think that the opportunity to be a part of TIFF for a first-timer on this scale tips TIFF as majorly progressive for me. I think the timing of the City to City spotlight is so impeccable for my career and for the industry back home.
Grace: I feel so supported by the Toronto film community.
For alumni, what changed for you after you finished the program?
Cara: I joined the program with the first film I ever acted in. Prior to Empire of Dirt, I had been working exclusively in theatre in Toronto. I’m sure that the success of Empire of Dirt had something to do with being cast as the lead in CBC's Strange Empire. Of course, for a while, I worried that I would only ever get to act in things with the word “empire” in the title.
Shannon: A year after my Rising Stars journey, all the alumni were invited to dinner with Jennifer Euston, the casting director from Girls and Orange is the New Black. We stayed in touch. A year or so later, she contacted me directly and asked me to send her an audition for a leading role opposite Emilia Clarke in a project they were working on. I didn't get the role but I was among a very select group of actors selected to go in for the part. To be honest, I was surprised but thrilled that she was pitching me to producers. That moment just told me things are at least trying to move forward — and just having that happen felt like a major victory.