The Review/Feature/Interview/

2017’s Rising Stars

Nine emerging actors explain how they navigate their careers in a rapidly changing industry

by
Sep 11, 2017

Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival hand-picks actors who represent 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 boasts three Canadians and four international Rising Stars from France, New Zealand, England, and the United States, includes some of the most dynamic performances you’ll see at the Festival. From Kathleen Hepburn’s Never Steady, Never Still, Canadian actors Théodore Pellerin and Mary Galloway absolutely captivate as a young man questioning his sexuality and a pregnant grocery store clerk with an uncertain future. (Their chemistry is electric in a beautiful scene towards the end of the film, shot in a car in merely two close-ups.) Meanwhile, actor Ellen Wong — who played Knives Chau in Edgar Wright’s Toronto epic Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and is currently on the Netflix series GLOW — is a force to be reckoned with.

French actor Lina El Arabi appears in two Festival titles. In Noces, she is a Pakistani teenager grappling with the decision to abort her baby or marry a man she hardly knows. In Kim Nguyen's techno-romance Eye on Juliet, she plays a Middle Eastern woman waiting for her lover. New Zealand’s Vinnie Bennett may only appear in a third of the mysterious ecological thriller Human Traces, but his complex characterization in a film full of mystery leaves a lasting impression. English actor Jessie Buckley digs deep to play the black sheep of an oppressive family in the riveting thriller Beast. And emerging Hollywood actor Mamoudou Athie, who personified Grandmaster Flash in the Netflix series The Get Down and appeared in Stella Meghie’s Jean of the Joneses at TIFF ’16, offers a winning, understated performance as a curious, empathetic hardware-store employee in Brie Larson’s directorial debut, Unicorn Store.

We reached out to all the Rising Stars to get their thoughts on how they like to collaborate with other filmmakers, whether doing a red carpet fills them with dread or anticipation, and to describe a performance in a TIFF film that has inspired them. Then we threw it out to Rising Stars alumni Connor Jessup (whose second short film Lira’s Forest plays in the Short Cuts Programme 8 this year) and Deragh Campbell for good measure.

Lina El Arabi in Noces (2017).

How did you feel when you found out you were named a TIFF Rising Star?

Lina Al Rabi: It’s an honour. I am just really grateful as a French actress to be a part of a Canadian festival. I am just at the beginning of my career, so to be named a TIFF Rising Star is so encouraging.

Mamoudou Athie: To be completely honest, I'm not sure what to expect, aside from a wonderful time in Toronto meeting like-minded folk. But to be recognized at a festival full of great talent like TIFF truly is a special thing.

Vinnie Bennett: I was actually told I was selected a week before I’d even seen the film that got me put forward. It helped with my (typical) insecure thoughts on premiere night, knowing that my performance couldn’t have been too bad.

Jessie Buckley: It was a shock and so exciting to be acknowledged for our film and the investment we all put in to tell the story of Beast and Moll. What excites me most about the Rising Star programme is having the chance to meet other up-and-coming creatives who have stories to share. I want to start a dialogue with the filmmakers, writers, directors, cinematographers, and producers whose work has inspired me.

Deragh Campbell: I have acted in largely art-house films, so it felt like some recognition for those projects and validation for my slightly unorthodox relationship to the industry. The programme has been really great at choosing thoughtful actors who have different career narratives and varying relationships to acting.

Mary Galloway: Being named a TIFF Rising Star means being given the opportunity to show the world what I’ve got — something I’ve been working towards with all my might for years! Getting to meet some of Canada’s and the world’s greatest filmmakers means the world to me.

Connor Jessup: I grew up going to TIFF and snuck into screenings when I was 10. It was and is the central film institution in my life. Being selected for the programme meant a great deal to me. It made my 10-year-old self happy.

Théodore Pellerin: It’s beautiful to be endorsed that way by the Festival. A lot of actors I love have been named Rising Stars, so it’s an honour to be a part of the program.

Ellen Wong: It’s an opportunity to meet amazing, creative people and to explore exciting movies. It’s also a chance to be part of a festival that supports Canadian films and actors. I’m learning how to share my voice with the world outside of just being an actor. Rising Stars gives me a platform to do that.

Vinnie Bennett (far right) in Human Traces (2017).

Tell us about the movie that got you selected for the Rising Stars programme. What was the process of developing your character like?

Lina Al Rabi: Noces is the first feature film I’ve done. It’s a Belgian movie, directed by Stephen Streke. I play about a young girl called Zahira who was born in Belgium but her parents are Pakistani. At the beginning of the film, she gets pregnant. According to her parents, there is only one solution: she has to marry a Pakistani man she doesn’t know, or choose between her family and her freedom.

I worked a lot with my main scene partner in the movie, Sebastien Houbani, who plays my brother. He helped me learn Urdu and was really protective.The director helped me understand the way my character should walk. I walk in very masculine way, but Zahira is graceful. She is strong, feminine, free, and traditional. She respects and loves her family, but wants to live her own life. She is a mythological heroine. I admire her.

Mamoudou Athie: Unicorn Store! Brie Larson was everything one could hope for in a director — trusting, yet helped with a clear guiding hand when it was necessary, and just the BEST scene partner. I love my character Virgil’s hidden hope in humanity, which is something I certainly relate to, haha.

Vinnie Bennett: It's a psychological thriller written and directed by Nic Gorman called Human Traces. The film is broken into three chapters with each giving us a unique perspective on each of the three main characters. After reading the script, I was blown away by Nic's writing and became dead set on getting the role of Riki. A few weeks before filming, I met up with Nic in Auckland and we workshopped certain parts of the script. On the first day, he asked me to go off by myself for a few hours and be mindful of what thoughts and feelings came in times of complete loneliness. From the beginning, Nic had a huge amount of trust in my overall understanding of the role. During the shoot, he remained "hands off" most of the time and let me do my thing. This was as equally terrifying as it was empowering but became an essential part in learning how to trust my own instincts as a performer.

Jessie Buckley: I first read Beast when I was filming War and Peace (a 2016 mini-series for Lifetime). I instantly felt in my gut that I needed to play this part and be part of this story. I admired that my character, Moll, was a woman being denied her freedom, but grew in strength through her pain, love, and vulnerability. The director, Michael Pearce, had written such a fresh, raw, humane script where you were confronted with the most disturbing and scary characteristics of a human and still could empathize with them. It’s rare when a story like that comes your way. Michael and I constantly met and chatted before we made the film. We researched her psychology, the relationships she has, the world of Jersey, and little by little created a world that was as honest as possible. I had to really lay myself bare, so I dug as deep as I could so when the shoot began I was free just to have fun and play.

Deragh Campbell: I have actually never been in a film that has played TIFF, funnily enough! But I’ve been working with a lot of Toronto directors who I am really excited about, such as Antoine Bourges and Sofia Bohdanowicz. Antoine and I worked with a non-professional cast in semi-improvised situations but tried to hone a Bressonian stillness over many takes. That was was a very interesting but rewarding challenge. I am also working with my dear friend Sofia Bohdanowicz again, this time writing and producing a film, as well as acting in it. We are combining some more abstract elements with our usual naturalism, which is exciting.

Mary Galloway: My film at TIFF is called Never Steady, Never Still. It is one of the most cinematically stunning films I’ve ever seen. The writer-director Kathleen Hepburn was an absolute pleasure to work with. She allowed the process of developing the character of Kaly to happen very organically. She asked a lot of thoughtful questions that would help me discover little, subtle details about her I might not have discovered on my own. I loved Kaly’s big heart and quiet courage, and I wanted to fiercely protect her innocent optimism. I absolutely related to Kaly. Shooting the film felt a bit like I had traveled back in time to high school, rediscovering how to navigate new friendships and relationships.

Connor Jessup: I've had two features as an actor at the Festival — Blackbird (2012) and Closet Monster (2015). The films were different — so were the characters — but they were both made by deeply passionate first-time filmmakers, so the emotional stakes were very high. There was a similar atmosphere of life-or-death madness. Both times, it was like living in someone else's dream for five weeks. To be honest, I remember that energy and those people much more than I do the characters I played or the work I did. I'm pretty sure my performances owe more to my feelings for the filmmakers than my feelings for the characters themselves, or the stories.

Théodore Pellerin: Never Steady, Never Still tells the story of Judy, a mother who grapples to keep control of her life in the face of advanced Parkinson’s disease, while her son, Jamie, travels to the isolating world of the Alberta oil fields and battles his identity. I don’t think you get to work with a director such as Kathleen Hepburn very often, who’s so open to listening as well as being in complete control of the story she’s telling. I’ve rarely been so moved by a script as I was by this one. The first time I read it, it felt like Jamie was already in me and to get to be him was a gift.

Ellen Wong: I just appeared in the first season of Netflix’s GLOW and am about to start filming season two. The show was such an amazing collaboration with the creators, writers, and the 13 other female actors. It was the safest and most fun space I’ve worked in. Originally, my character, Jenny Chey, had a different backstory, but GLOW creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch talked with me at length about my own background. They chose to craft the character based on aspects of my own history, which was a really eye-opening experience.

TIFF Rising Stars Theodore Pellerin and Mary Galloway, who both appear in Never Steady, Never Still (2017).

What is your process like as an actor? Do you like doing research and asking a lot of questions? When do you rely on training, and when do you rely on instinct?

Lina Al Rabi: I think I need both training and instinct. I need to work a lot before the shoot so I can be really free on set. I love speaking with the other actors, the director, and with all members of the team. I like having debates about a scene, but I don’t want it to get too intellectual.

Mamoudou Athie: It totally depends on the project! I generally like to follow my nose, unless I just get lost, in which case I'll ask the director and or screenwriter for some guidance. I certainly rely on my training every time, though, as it allows my instincts to take over.

Vinnie Bennett: I love doing my research. With all of this accessible information out there on the Internet, I think it's quite hard not to. In terms of training versus instinct, I qualify as one of the "untrained.” I focused on drama in my last two years of high school but didn't go on. I rely on raw, instinctive acting, but after working for a few years I've really learned the importance of developing a technique. I like to create mental freeways to my own instincts. I believe in relaxation when it comes to accessing certain depths of emotion. There are times on set when a frantic mind can be your own worst enemy.

Jessie Buckley: I don't have one set process. I always like to soak myself in the world of the character as much as I can, so when I come to shoot I am as alive to the world as possible. I read the script loads! I recently did a film that had a lot of freedom to improvise. But I also feel strongly that a good film relies on the dialogue and trust that’s built between all departments on set. We are all in this together to make one millisecond of magic on film.

Deragh Campbell: There’s usually a gestation period where I read a lot and watch movies. I really like getting film references from directors — not to imitate what I’m seeing. I want to get an idea of the kind of world I’m living in and how the character listens and moves. Once I get on set, I try to be as present and responsive as possible. Focusing on another actor or a task makes me feel less self-conscious.

Mary Galloway: My process as an actor is always evolving and growing. Depending on the role, I’ll research for hours on end or it’ll come organically. Long discussions are always great! I think I rely on my training, so I'm able to trust my instincts.

Connor Jessup: My process involves a mean interplay between propulsive fear and crippling laziness. The only way I know to motivate myself is terror. I'm afraid of being the worst part of something, letting people down, embarrassing myself, and being discovered as a fraud. I don't have any formal training, either, which contributes to the feeling of being ill-equipped. It's like cramming for an exam the night before after skipping every class of that semester. It depends on the filmmaker, but usually it involves a lot of conversation, rehearsal, reading, and mostly just thinking. On the day, no matter how hard I try, I forget everything I told myself to remember. I get home from set, look at my notes, and feel like real crap and mope for an hour. Then I tell myself I have to be better the next day. It goes on like that.

Théodore Pellerin: I’m still very much learning about how I approach a story and a character. It depends on who the director is — how she or he likes to work. Then I try to let myself go towards what I feel I should do. I have to relearn how to work every single time, and that’s part of what’s interesting. There’s no feeling of security. It’s terrifying, but so much fun.

Ellen Wong: I love thinking about my characters a lot. I do tons of research, take a lot of notes, and love speaking with creatives to make sure we’re on the same page. I think the idea of performance is complicated to dissect, and there isn’t just one approach that works for me. But I do think that the most important thing is to be in the moment and really feel it; but when that doesn’t happen, you just have to act!

Actor Mamoudou Athie appears in Brie Larson's Unicorn Store, as well as 2017's Patti Cake$, The Get Down, and The Circle.

How do you feel about the business of promoting your work? Red carpets, photoshoots, step-and-repeats, fancy parties, conducting media interviews... Do these things fill you with dread, or excitement and anticipation?

Lina Al Rabi: I have to admit, this is not my favourite part. One day, someone told me to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I am looking forward to “making it”!

Mamoudou Athie: I’ve asked every actor I've worked with whom I look up to how they handle this kind of stuff. It can be enjoyable, but it’s always a tad anxiety-inducing! And I don't use social media.

Vinnie Bennett: It's all part of the job. It's surprising how scary it can feel at times. It helps to try and remain in a state of gratitude and remember that at the end of the day, we're all in this crazy business together.

Jessie Buckley: This fills me with dread. Luckily, I have a great family and group of friends, so we can have fun and hang out when my legs get a bit wobbly. You have to take it all with a pinch of salt and try to stay as true to who you are as possible. It's a weird one.

Deragh Campbell: My mum made fun of me when, after doing the red carpet for the first time, I said, “It was an interesting thing to witness.” She said, “Deragh, you weren’t a witness to it — you were doing it!” I think that speaks to the particular detachment I feel when doing press.

Mary Galloway: At first, I dreaded self-promotion. Then I took a “Business of Acting” class by John Emmet Tracy at the New Image College of Fine Arts, and he taught me how to have an appreciation for that side of the job. I love a good challenge, so interviews, red carpets, and photoshoots are definitely that! It takes guts to put yourself out there as your genuine self. In that way, it’s more nerve-racking than acting.

Connor Jessup: A part of me is attracted to it in a very intense way, but it's not a part of me I think I want to know well. It appeals to the things I already like least about myself: a tendency towards impatience, arrogance, solipsism, pettiness, etc. I say that now, but it's not like I turn it away. I mean, I'm doing this interview, right? Clearly, I'm not the best person to give tips. I'll just echo the best advice I've ever heard (which works in almost any context) from the end of My Neighbors the Yamadas: “Don't overdo it.”

Théodore Pellerin: I’m happy to promote a movie I care about. This stuff is part of the deal. I try to surround myself with people I love so I don’t feel abandoned in that craziness. But you can’t be present if you’re obsessed with yourself and your image. “Stay away from the vanity” would be my advice.

Ellen Wong: I used to feel very exposed and embarrassed when I did press, and I still do sometimes. At the beginning of my career, I cried before red carpets because there was a lot of pressure to be this unattainable, polished version of myself. I am most at ease playing a character, but am becoming more comfortable expressing myself through the press. As I have learned to accept myself, publicity became an easier part of the job. I hope that my honesty and truthfulness can connect with people.

Actor Ellen Wong stars as Jenny Chey a.k.a. "Jenny Fortune Cookie" on the Netflix series GLOW (2017).

What's a role you would (probably) never get cast as that you are dying to play?

Lina Al Rabi: A blond, skinny little white girl! Just kidding. I feel like in America, it’s possible to be cast for a role who doesn’t look like you. I hope I’m not wrong.

Mamoudou Athie: Chris Keller from Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons.

Vinnie Bennett: My mother in a story about her life as a single parent. I feel like when you're young, your parent is your parent. As you become an adult, you learn about who they are as human beings, complete with their own dreams, struggles, and heartache. Getting to know my own mother as somebody other than "mum" has made me greatly respect what she went through. One day I hope to tell her story to the world with the obvious consideration of my ability to qualify for the “strong female lead" category.

Jessie Buckley: I suppose my job is to change people's minds who think I'm just one thing, including myself. I'm sure there are lots of people who might’ve thought I would never be at TIFF. In fact, I remember being told early on that I would be nothing more than a cabaret singer. Maybe I should still try and be a cabaret singer.

Deragh Campbell: I’m always trying to push myself to be bigger and louder on screen because I tend towards something smaller and more internal. Since I’ve been working on naturalistic projects so much, I’d love to do something very stylized and theatrical. I’d also love to do a period piece to have the experience of the clothes and set changing the way I behave.

Mary Galloway: A role I’d kill to play is a badass, ass-whooping superhero, or a vigilante. I tend to get cast as vulnerable characters who need rescuing. Don’t get me wrong: those are some of the most interesting characters to play! But there’s a part of me who would love to surprise people.

Connor Jessup: The lead in a Hayao Miyazaki biopic.

Théodore Pellerin: I like to be surprised by what comes my way. I’m drawn to characters who make sense to me and are more alive than I am. I’m also drawn to stories that move me and I can’t really predict what they’ll be.

Ellen Wong: I don’t really think about roles that I would never be able to play. As someone who has experienced the effects of typecasting and stereotyping, I’ve had to fight the feeling of “never.” If I had listened to that voice inside myself, I wouldn’t even be an actor. So I have to remind myself that I’m a multi-faceted, complicated human who can hopefully have a chance to play roles that touch on all of the many aspects of my personality.

Jessie Buckley (left) stars as "Moll" in the romantic thriller Beast (2017).

Describe a performance in a TIFF film that really inspires you. What do you love about this performance and why?

Lina Al Rabi: [I don’t think she’s appeared at TIFF, but] I am a big fan of Isabelle Adjani. In A Murderous Summer, from her hair to her feet she is the character.

Mamoudou Athie: I will continue to fanboy over Brie Larson. Her performances in general made me want to be in Unicorn Store in whatever capacity, but one of the first movies I'd seen her in was Short Term 12. As different as they are, both performances are strikingly intelligent, yet so warm and full of humanity. They move me every time I think of them. Her love for the character and story itself is real and palpable through the screen.

Vinnie Bennett: I thought Mahershala Ali put together an amazing performance in Moonlight. His character is only in one-third of the film, and yet he was able to deliver a performance that won him an Academy Award. The way he so naturally and subtly portrayed deep-seated emotions without losing the character’s cool, calm, and collected facade made me think about the importance of trusting that your audience is able to read what you present without having to over-perform.

Jessie Buckley: Marion Cotillard in La Vie en rose. She just transformed.

Deragh Campbell: I really love a lot of the films that Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, and Atom Egoyan were making in the ‘90s. I really love Valerie Buhagiar in Highway 61 and Arsinee Khanjian in Calendar. They both have such magnetism and are able to react in a really immediate but also casual and light way.

Mary Galloway: Brie Larson in Room. I really loved how raw the entire film is, including Brie’s performance. She was so authentic and real, and if I can ever achieve that level of skill I’d be ecstatic.

Connor Jessup: I was really moved by Andrew Gillis' performance last year in Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf. It was incredibly honest and inventive, and it never felt performative or self-regarding, which is hard to do when playing a character like that. I was convinced.

Théodore Pellerin: Anne Dorval’s performance in Mommy is one of the most powerful and moving I’ve seen. She takes us through the film and we can’t take our eyes off her. We never get bored of watching her live and breathe, and we feel everything she feels.

Ellen Wong: I love Marc-André Grondin’s grounded and relatable performance in Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. His physicality and use of space is incredible. You can see all of the character’s complexities through his eyes, and he isn't afraid to move in his environment.

The trailer for Lira's Forest (2017), directed by Rising Star alumni Connor Jessup.

As a local actor, do you feel protective of your industry? Do you think now-famous Hollywood actors (such as Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, as well as Rising Stars alumni Tatiana Maslany and Sarah Gadon) have a responsibility to keep making movies in Canada and working with local directors?

Lina Al Arabi: It’s important not to forget where you come from. At the same time, the real freedom is to be able to choose a movie because the script is beautiful. That’s why we should be able to speak lots of languages. I am working on my English and my Arabic now.

Vinnie Bennett: l think it's entirely up to the performer whether or not they should keep working within their local industry. Everyone has different goals. It is fantastic when an artist can enable others, who will likely go on to enable others, who might one day (yep) enable others.

Jessie Buckley: I'm incredibly proud to be part of the British industry. I feel really protective of it. There are amazing writers and filmmakers in Britain, and I want to be around that. We all just need to try and do the best work we can, keep challenging boundaries that are before us, and make new stories that haven't been made yet. We are all singing from the same hymn book, in whatever corner of the world we are in. There is nothing wrong with working people outside of your usual realm, but at the end of the day, my home is home and I will always have its back.

Deragh Campbell: I really want to keep living and working in Canada. The Canada Arts Council is really amazing and puts money into really innovative work. Since we have a smaller industry, it is up to institutions to take risks on work that is more experimental. I think they would be surprised by how much more response they would get on an international level than investing in more immediately commercial-sounding projects. I’m in a bit of a pickle because most of my friends make small-budget, non-union films. If I were to join the acting union, I wouldn’t be able to do the projects that I love. I feel really limited by those rules.

Deragh Campbell (left) in Sofia Bohdanowicz's Never Eat Alone (2016).

Mary Galloway: I feel extremely protective of the industry in Canada. In a lot of ways, I’ve moved to Los Angeles in hopes of doing Canada proud. I do think it’s a responsibility for the now-famous Canadian actors to bridge the gap between American and Canadian cinema. Canadian filmmakers and performers are all links in a chain, and we rise together.

Connor Jessup: I wouldn't say I feel especially protective of the Canadian industry. I want to work here because it's my home and I love a lot of the people here, but there's no grander patriotic element to it. If I felt more at home or more inspired somewhere else, and I had the opportunity, I would leave. It seems weirdly tribal to demand that people have a responsibility to work here.

Ellen Wong: As actors and creators, we want to work on projects that are of the highest creative quality. That being said, I think there is a responsibility to support the Canadian film industry. I also think it’s important for the Canadian film industry to support local and diverse talent. I’ve worked mostly in the US because that’s where I’ve found opportunity. I’d love to work on more Canadian films, but the truth is I rarely get asked to audition for movies here. I think we need to support more diverse viewpoints and storytellers who can create unique Canadian films!