Next Gen 2011: Hollywood's Fastest-Rising Stars
For Oduye, 33, it was a tragic loss that thrust her on a path to acting. The Brooklyn native, born to Nigerian parents, was a pre-med junior at Cornell ("For Nigerians, it's either medicine or engineering," she says) when her father suddenly passed away. "It was a wake-up call," says Oduye. "I already had doubts about that career path, and I was mostly doing it for my father. I thought: 'Life is too short. What else can I do?' It was a little voice that said, 'Acting.' " Oduye took an acting class and felt the challenge was something she couldn't deny herself after graduation. She hit the audition circuit in New York City, landing parts in Half Nelson and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In 2006, she connected with writer-director Dee Rees, who was casting her short film Pariah, about a black teenager coming to terms with her homosexuality. Producers were adamant that Oduye reprise the role in Rees' feature adaptation, which won the cinematography award at Sundance and Oduye acclaim as the year's breakout indie talent. "It's so cool to be part of a story that hasn't been told yet," says Oduye. "Many people have told me they've finally seen something similar to their lives shown on the screen. It's a very special thing."