The Actresses to Know Now
The brilliant young talents storming Cannes are seeking accolades instead of celebrity.
The day she finished shooting her 2003 drama Scratch, Danish actress Stephanie Leon decided to take a break from acting.
She was 18 and had been starring in Scandinavian films ever since the age of 9, when her mother's boyfriend had taken her to an open casting call. Scratch was the film that would make her a star in Denmark and establish her onscreen image -- projected in a slew of Danish movies like Life Hits (2006) and Through Darkness (2010) -- as the tough, sexy girl with a tender core. It's an image she shatters in the Cannes special screening Labrador, where she plays a pregnant girl seeking her loner father.
But Scratch also brought Leon close to the edge. While making it, her nerves got so bad, she developed an eating disorder. Naturally very shy, and so anxious that she still shakes on the first day of every shoot, she was starving herself by day and going to the gym by night to "work out like crazy."
The disorder "probably started before, but it got really bad during Scratch," says Leon, 25, whose relaxed manner and healthy figure make clear those days are long gone. "When you're in a movie, it seems like everyone else has control over your life, so it was easier for me to at least control the food. I became obsessive. I couldn't do anything spontaneous. I had to know exactly what I was doing, when I was doing it, all day and all week."
Leon smiles, recalling that moment when she opted instead to become a geriatric nurse, only to return to acting with 2005's The Sun King.
"It might sound strange," she says of her affinity for nursing, which she still practices, "but I love to care for people. I love acting, but now I know how to separate these things. When I'm on set, I'm on set; it doesn't take over. I don't confuse my job with who I really am."
Leon is one of a new generation of actresses struggling not to confuse the two while on the verge of international stardom.
They include France's Hafsia Herzi and Clemence Poesy; Australia's Emily Browning; Spain's Astrid Berges-Frisbey; and America's Elizabeth Olsen and Jessica Chastain. Each will have films playing in Cannes, either in competition or in the market, alongside other young actresses like Mia Wasikowska, Jennifer Lawrence and Carey Mulligan, who have established themselves before reaching age 30.
These actresses' goals are strikingly different from many of their predecessors'; stardom means less to them than the craft of acting. But they face the same challenge as older stars, especially serious actresses like Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett: how to build a career in a business that remains defiantly male-centric.
"You go back to the Vanity Fair Hollywood issues, with all those actresses, and they seemed pretty talented to me," says Focus Features CEO James Schamus, who notes how few have found lasting success. "With limited budgets, their movies can succeed -- like our own Hanna and Jane Eyre." But can films driven by young actresses be made for studio-size money? Schamus sighs, knowing how hard it is to raise money for these vehicles. "I have to sell a movie for what it is."
Thierry Desmichelle, CEO of French production/distribution house SND, is more blunt: "No one says, 'I'm going to see the next Clemence Poesy or Audrey Dana movie,' " he argues, referring to another French star. In France, "I don't think a young actress can carry a film."
Hafsia Herzi, 24, may prove him wrong.
Stuck in the back of a car at 7 a.m. last Thursday, she spent the previous night up till the early hours for a photo shoot and is now rushing to work on her new TV movie, For Djamila, while dealing with the relentless probing of a reporter. It's certainly not what she envisioned as a child.
"I grew up in Marseilles, a city where there are a lot of Arabs and people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds," recalls the actress, unusual not just for her working-class roots but for being the daughter of Arab immigrants.
Despite her striking beauty, Herzi, a petite, rather reserved young woman, never seriously thought about acting until she was in law school, when she was discovered by director Abdellatif Kechiche during a Marseilles street casting. He gave her the lead in 2007's The Secret of the Grain, a family drama based in the French port of Sete, which won her an award at the Venice Film Festival and then the Cesar, France's equivalent of an Oscar.
"When I received the prize [at Venice], it was an unforgettable moment," she says.
That was four years ago, but she hasn't disappeared and indeed has been swept up in a cascade of roles that have made her an icon for immigrant groups.
"People stop me in the street sometimes, saying, 'Hafsia, what you do is great!' or 'You're giving us a good image, keep at it!' Many of them cry." But, the actress adds, "I've always felt integrated."
It may be a sign of change in this racially challenged country that Herzi has not stopped working since Grain, starring in French films like 2008's Dawn of the World and A Man and His Dog -- though she did have to take diction lessons to lose her thick Marseilles accent.
She shot two pictures last year alone -- Radu Mihaileanu's The Source, a comedy-drama in which she plays a villager in the Middle East, and Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance, where she's a prostitute -- both in Cannes.
But unlike some of France's older stars, Herzi is far more interested in the roles than in the glamour. Think Catherine Deneuve, and one imagines high fashion; think Herzi, and a much more modern woman comes to mind.
"It's not really my thing to have a personal stylist," she confesses. "I'm not very into fashion."
What she's into is the work. "I don't do major blockbuster films that sell millions of tickets at the box office," she says. "Of course, I want these films to work, but when I accept a role, I don't expect the film to be a box-office smash."
Despite her schedule, she remains close to her friends and family. She lives removed from Paris' ritzy sectors and visits her mother whenever she can.
"I get back to reality whenever I go home," she says. "As soon as I'm not working, I go to see my family. It's important to stay close to my roots."
Elizabeth Olsen's roots couldn't be more different.
Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the twins who debuted as babies on ABC's Full House and turned their celebrity into a TV and fashion empire worth hundreds of millions. From Day 1, Elizabeth, 22, was accustomed to Hollywood, which perhaps explains her worldly manner and maturity.
"After school, I would go to the set and play Rummy 500 -- that was my favorite game when I was 5," she recalls.
Despite this, she says her family remained relatively unaffected by the success of the twins, two-and-a-half years her elder.
"My parents are very normal," she notes, adding that they've remained close even after divorcing when she was 5. "My mother was a ballet dancer, then became a mother of four; I have an older brother who's a writer; and my father is in real estate. I grew up in L.A., so I had actors and people in the business all around me and they viewed this as a job. Nothing was 'beautiful' and 'Hollywood' and it didn't feel like some magical thing."
Knowing this, Olsen avoided acting, apart from early cameos in her sisters' projects.
"At 10, I realized, 'I don't want to be a child actor,' " she explains. "I thought even then that the transition people had to make was very difficult. I decided to do school and go to college." It was only while attending New York University that she started auditioning and appearing in plays, then landed a film with Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, and the lead in Fox Searchlight's Cannes entry Martha Marcy May Marlene, a darling at January's Sundance.
Stardom means little to her; wealth means nothing. While her parents have helped with her rent, she has largely managed on her own.
"I got my real estate license and started making my own money when I was 18, because I understood numbers," she says. "It's funny, because not once has anyone in my family lived a lavish life. People put these fantasies in magazines, when the reality is that they are completely normal."
As is Elizabeth, except for her talent.
It's ironic that she is drawing raves for Martha -- the story of a young woman fleeing a Charles Manson-like sect -- when her own sisters have largely abandoned acting. Both prefer fashion and are designing their sister's Cannes outfit.
Unlike her siblings, acting drives Elizabeth like a fury. "My future is acting," she says intensely. "All I want to do is act."
Jessica Chastain discovered that at age 5, when her grandmother took her to a stage production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
"It was a fluke," she says. "My family doesn't go to the theater and there is no connection to acting. But she took me to the play and the lights came up on this 8-year-old girl reading a book and I thought, 'This is my job!' "
She glows at the memory. Twirling around at a recent photo shoot, reveling in the dress she's trying out, she seems like any other young woman, apart from her striking red hair and pale skin and fierce blue eyes that speak of an inner drive. Where does it come from?
Not her family, she says, though she mentions the influence of that strong-willed grandmother, with whom she lived for a while in Mexico. Not her parents, for sure.
"My mother is a vegan chef and she was a stay-at-home mom," Chastain recalls. "And my dad is a fireman in San Francisco." When Chastain recently shot a scene near her father's station, the firemen drove her back to her hotel. "We all piled into the fire truck! The bellmen at my fancy hotel looked like, 'Who is this?!' "
She laughs, but she also speaks of "some traumatic things" growing up, without going into them, just as she won't reveal her age, believing the less people know about her, the better.
Little hints slip out of "longing to escape" as a child. "I felt no one understood me," she says with appealing directness. "When I was young, I'd put up this surly front. Sometimes the most surly kid is the most vulnerable. People don't understand; they have to be that way because they feel they're going to die."
Does Chastain still feel the same, given her welter of success -- she was one of 20 successful applicants to Juilliard out of 1,400, she's starring in films such as the upcoming The Help and The Wettest County in the World and has a lead as Brad Pitt's wife in Terrence Malick's Cannes contender The Tree of Life? Yes, she says.
On the very first day of shooting the Malick film, "My hair was falling out, I was so nervous. I had clumps of hair falling out in the shower."
Her emotions are so honest, they hurt -- like when she talks about her brother Will, a soldier in Iraq. "I just heard someone he was friendly with committed suicide," she says, "and it really is difficult for me because I want to be there to help him and I can't. I was really upset when he enlisted and I don't want to know about him being in danger. I wouldn't be able to focus on anything else. I would be consumed by fear."
She pauses. "Even now," she says, "I am a very sensitive person and highly emotional."
Will this emotion help or hurt her?
It's the very quality that gives actresses like Chastain their strength, but it may also leave them raw in an industry that has never been as friendly to women as men. "Most of the time I get scripts," Chastain admits, "it's 10 amazing male roles and maybe two for women."
In Europe, the situation may be more promising. The rise of cross-border co-productions has created possibilities for young talent, especially performers like Leon who speak multiple languages. And the
$104 million earned by Sweden's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has set off a feeding frenzy among agents in search of the next Noomi Rapace.
"The success of the 'Scandinavian crime wave' has really made the world aware of acting talent here," says Susan Wendt, an executive with Danish sales giant TrustNordisk. "It's meant opportunities for actors that weren't there before."
But will the opportunities continue? Will they expand beyond Scandinavia to the rest of the world? And if they don't, what will happen to these vital young women?
"I honestly don't know," Herzi says. "I'm not ready to ask those big questions yet. [For now] it's all great. But it won't last forever."
The 28-year-old French-born actress has already dipped her toes in pop culture -- with appearances on the CW's Gossip Girl as the flirtatious Eva Coupeau and in two of the Harry Potter movies as Triwizards Tournament champion Fleur Delacour -- and played James Franco's girlfriend in 127 Hours. But in Philippe Ramos' Jeanne Captive, screening in the Directors Fortnight, she's taking on a major challenge by playing France's national heroine Joan of Arc --it's an iconic role that can signal the emergence of a major star, as it did for Ingrid Bergman and Jean Seberg.
When she arrived on the scene in 2009's An Education, she appeared a typical English rose, demure and delicate. But, at 25, the British-born actress is blossoming in unexpected ways. In Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn's modern-day film noir, she takes on the classic role of femme fatale and seduces Ryan Gosling. "Originally, I was looking for a Latino actress, but the minute she walked through the door, I knew it was her -- she's fantastic," Refn says. She'll play a different type of flower in Baz Luhrmann's upcoming The Great Gatsby: the alluring, careless Daisy.
Just a few years ago, back in 2004, the Australian actress starred as one of the three orphan children in the whimsical Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. But now, at 22, she's caught up in fantasies of a much more adult nature. In the recent Sucker Punch, she played Baby Doll, a character who is unjustly imprisoned in an insane asylum where she escapes into lurid and bloody revenge scenarios. In fellow Australian Julia Leigh's first film, Cannes entry Sleeping Beauty, Browning will be seen again manipulating male desires, this time as a high-class prostitute.
Born in Spain and fluent in both Spanish and French, the 24-year-old will make her English-language debut in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, having a splashy Out of Competition screening. She's already proven her ability to hold the screen when playing opposite such stars of French cinema as Daniel Auteuil (in The Well Digger's Daughter) and Isabelle Huppert (in The Sea Wall), but she's sure to catch the eye of international audiences as she inhabits the role of Syrena, the mermaid who attempts to cast a spell on Johnny Depp.
The actress, 21 -- another Australian -- had already filmed her starring role in last year's Alice in Wonderland when Gus Van Sant cast her in Restless, which will open Un Certain Regard. But Van Sant didn't ask to view any footage because he'd seen her play a suicidal teen in HBO's In Treatment and thought her "amazing in that particular show." Once she read for him, he was convinced she'd be "a really great embodiment" of his film's central character, a terminally ill girl. Having also starred in Jane Eyre earlier this year, her career couldn't be healthier.