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Few personal stories evidence the rags-to-riches nature of success in Hollywood better than that of Daisy Ridley. In early 2014, she was an unknown British actress whose experience consisted of a few tiny roles and a lot of rejection. Then she heard about Star Wars. "I emailed my agent that I have this really weird feeling; I really feel like I need to audition," recalls Ridley. Months went by and her agent hadn’t booked her an audition. "But I still really had this feeling of needing to read for it. So I emailed my agent again for an audition. I had four or five auditions over seven months, and it was a very emotional time. My first few really didn’t feel good, but my last audition suddenly felt like something clicked."
What a difference a year makes. On Dec. 18, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is poised to launch Ridley and fellow 23-year-old Brit John Boyega into the galaxy of superstardom. Their stories aren't much different from those of the eight other actors age 35 and under who made THR's annual Next Gen talent list.
Edited by Matthew Belloni, written by Tatiana Siegel, Marc Bernardin, Rebecca Ford, Borys Kit, Pamela McClintock, Daniel Fienberg and Michael O'Connell
Daisy Ridley, 23
Before landing one of the most coveted roles of the decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens heroine Daisy Ridley had become accustomed to disappointment. In the months leading up to her first audition for Episode VII's female lead, the 23-year-old actress' confidence was shattered. Just one week into a gig with a small workshop, she was told not to bother coming back. And then after nabbing a lead role in the E4 series Youngers, the part was cut down to just one day of filming. "I was kind of used to things not happening, so I just felt the whole way through [the Episode VII audition process], 'I'm going to lose the job. They're going to find someone better than me,'" she recalls. Even her first two Star Wars auditions were underwhelming — at least from her perspective. Remarkably, Ridley kept getting called back, and something clicked in that final audition, propelling her past the horde of hopefuls. Now, she says with a degree of satisfaction, "I've got opportunities I didn't have before." That's an understatement.
Though the CAA-repped actress is well booked with Episode VIII, which begins shooting in January in London, and then Episode IX, she will soon be familiar to a globe-spanning fan base and presumably have her pick of roles and directors. But even after seizing the role of Rey, Ridley continued to face rejection. She recounts being turned down for an unnamed film role in the past year after a sweat-induced wardrobe malfunction in front of a casting agent. "I'm sure the star they cast is much better than me," she muses. Perhaps it's that self-deprecating air that helped win over Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and the Lucasfilm brass. And whether her career trajectory is more Harrison Ford or Hayden Christensen, Ridley has a backup plan in play: She's begun taking courses for a psychology degree. And of course, she's staying put in London, where she lives with her family and her deaf and blind dog named Muffin. "I love to come to L.A. to visit, and then I like to come to rainy old London because it's home," she says. The Hollywood Reporter talked to Ridley about her impossible ascent from obscurity to Next Gen Hollywood force.
Read more How Unknown Daisy Ridley's "Weird Feeling" Helped Her Land 'Star Wars' Role
John Boyega, 23
The stars seem to hold the key to John Boyega's future. When he was just 19 years old, the South London native strode into theaters like a proto-Denzel Washington in Attack the Block, director Joe Cornish's aliens-invade-a-London-project cult thriller. After a sojourn to television for Fox's 24: Live Another Day miniseries, and supporting roles in films like 2013's Nigeria-set drama Half of a Yellow Sun and Imperial Dreams (which won the Audience Award at 2014's Sundance Film Festival), Boyega finds himself at the center of a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Currently living in Los Angeles, Boyega has no real idea what's in store for him when J.J. Abrams' sequel invades theaters — even though he's been working with Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, all of whom saw their life turned upside down when Star Wars first hit screens in 1977. "This is the first Star Wars movie in the age of social media, and it's a different path," says Boyega the day after the final Force Awakens trailer premiered (along with the Instagram video of him going nuts over it). "The stories they've shared, … I've been able to pick out a few things that are beneficial, but in terms of direct advice none of them have given any."
Read more John Boyega on 'Star Wars' Expectations, Why He Has Six Lightsabers
Rebecca Ferguson, 32
The Stockholm-raised actress, who got her start modeling and in soap operas, first caught Hollywood's eye in the BBC's The White Queen, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie took notice, casting her as the femme fatale in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. After rave reviews, she landed the DreamWorks adaptation of the best-seller The Girl on the Train opposite Emily Blunt. And she's in talks to star with Michael Fassbender in Working Title's The Snowman.
Read more 'Mission Impossible' Star Rebecca Ferguson on Returning Tom Cruise's Phone Call
Tom Holland, 19
In nine years, London-born Holland has gone from starring in the stage production of Billy Elliot to surviving a tsunami with Naomi Watts in The Impossible to landing the role of Spider-Man, who first will appear in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. "I filmed two movies during the audition process," he says of the lengthy Marvel and Sony bake-off while he shot Pilgrimage, an adventure revolving around monks, and Backcountry, a father-son thriller co-starring Joel Kinnaman.
"I wanted to make sure that my focus was 100 percent on those films and it wasn't hindered that I was auditioning for Spider-Man. The hardest thing for me was the not knowing and waiting for that phone call and thinking, 'Did I get to the next stage?'" That call finally came in June. His first move after that? Joining Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson in Lost City of Z, which brought Holland to the jungles of Colombia. The movie wrapped only three weeks ago and he's now happy back home in London, his favorite city, although who knows for how long, as the next gig is surely around the corner. "I don't really live at home enough, frankly. I'm always working and traveling overseas. So it's quite refreshing to come back to my family."
Read more New Spider-Man Tom Holland on Jake Gyllenhaal, David Ayer and Why He Won't Leave London
Rami Malek, 34
Despite a desirable résumé that includes work with Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), Tom Hanks (HBO's The Pacific) and Spike Lee (Oldboy), Rami Malek did not really cross over until he committed to a TV series. The 34-year-old was tasked with carrying USA Network's big swing Mr. Robot — a starring role that quickly put the actor, who has a proclivity for intense characters, on the collective radar of nearly every casting director. "A lot of studio stuff has come my way, but I don't want to be the guy who picks every other job that comes along just because he's on a great show," says Malek, who's spending his hiatus between the lauded drama's first and second seasons on indie Buster’s Mal Heart. "We don't have a script supervisor, and I'm hoping we get a first AD. The budget is … tiny."
Read more 'Mr. Robot's' Rami Malek on Role Model Tom Hanks, Kissing a Casting Director During an Audition
Jason Mitchell, 28
Mitchell's performance as N.W.A rapper Eazy-E in Universal's Straight Outta Compton catapulted him from unknown to rising star nearly overnight. A week after the $200 million grosser was released, he booked Legendary's Kong: Skull Island, now shooting in Hawaii. "People take me more seriously now," he says. "Instead of just having an agent and a manager that believe in me, I have studios that believe in me." Raised in New Orleans, Mitchell worked as a cook and an electrician to make ends meet. An acting class got him hooked, and after small roles in a few films that shot locally (Contraband, Broken City), he emerged from a national search to play the iconic rapper. He next appears in the comedy Keanu with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and the crime drama Vincent-N-Roxxy.
Read more 'Straight Outta Compton' Star Jason Mitchell Once Failed His 'Pitch Perfect' Audition
Ronda Rousey, 28
Can a mixed martial arts champion and Olympic bronze medalist in judo become the next great action star? Rousey showed off her fighting skills in 2014’s The Expendables 3 and this summer’s $1.5 billion-grossing Furious 7 (not to mention the cameo as herself in the Entourage movie). And while she’s due to star with Mark Wahlberg in STX’s Mile 22, a Peter Berg-directed action movie, the Riverside, Calif.-born Rousey made more headlines when she became attached to star in MGM’s remake of Road House, in which she would take the place of one of her role models, the late Patrick Swayze, playing a bouncer brought in to clean up a rowdy bar. (The Notebook director Nick Cassavetes is on board to write and direct the action vehicle.) As for the impact of all that fighting? Says Rousey: “I'm 28 years old, but feel like a 2015 model car with 300,000 miles on it.”
Read more UFC's Ronda Rousey on Her Acting Career Influenced by Role Model Patrick Swayze
Jessie T. Usher, 23
Jessie T. Usher doesn't hesitate to call Will Smith his Hollywood role model, and so far the 23-year-old actor is doing an uncanny impression of the Fresh Prince, minus that part about parents not understanding. Successful TV comedy? Check. Usher plays basketball star Cam Calloway in Starz's hilarious Survivor's Remorse, which has completed its second season and was swiftly renewed for a third. Genre-bending movie career? Check. Usher was just cast in A Meyers Christmas, a Universal family comedy set for a November 2016 release, by which time Usher may already be a household name thanks to a little sequel called Independence Day: Resurgence, in which he plays the son of Captain Steven Hiller from the original smash. Hiller was, of course, the character played by … Will Smith.
Read more Why 'Survivor's Remorse' Star Jessie T. Usher Religiously Studies 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'
Alicia Vikander, 27
In 2013, Alicia Vikander was starstruck when attending the Golden Globe Awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton, where A Royal Affair was nominated for best foreign-language film (the Danish historical drama, along with Anna Karenina, put the Swedish actress on Hollywood’s radar). “I walked into this room with my director and I just couldn’t stop giggling,” Vikander, 27, recalled at the Nov. 1 Hollywood Film Awards, likewise held at the Hilton. “We talked about how it would be a memory that I would tell my grandkids about.” She’s not giggling anymore. Only two years later, the in-demand actress — who, between this year and next, has eight film credits to her name — accepted the HFA’s award for breakout actress for her performance opposite Eddie Redmayne in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl (Nov. 27).
She’s expected to continue to be a force in this year’s awards race, and wowed in April indie hit Ex Machina. And, in her biggest gig yet, she’s currently shooting the fifth Jason Bourne film opposite Matt Damon. “It’s a franchise, but I’m really enjoying myself. I found myself on set the other day and I was like, ‘Gasp. Oh my God, it’s one of those sets,’” says Vikander. She was the girl-of-the-moment at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where she promoted her upcoming film, Tulip Fever, as well as supported her boyfriend, Michael Fassbender, who was in Cannes with Macbeth (there’s buzz she and the actor have split). The daughter of Swedish actress Maria Fahl Vikander, her other 2015 films to hit theaters included Testament of Youth, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Burnt. Tulip Fever, The Light Between Oceans, co-starring Fassbender, and Bourne are out in 2016.
Read more 'Ex Machina' Star Alicia Vikander on Developing New Characters and Joining the 'Bourne' Franchise
Katherine Waterston, 35
If every actor keeps a bucket list of directors they hope to work with, Katherine Waterston already has many of the usual suspects covered. Paul Thomas Anderson, check (Inherent Vice). Danny Boyle, check (Steve Jobs), Ang Lee, check (Taking Woodstock). The 35-year-old actress, whose father is Oscar-nominated actor Sam Waterston, also can now boast the plum female lead in Warner Bros.' latest J.K. Rowling franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. "I just auditioned for it, and like most things, I thought they were going to pick someone else," says the London-born, U.S.-reared actress, who has a deal in place for three Fantastic Beasts films. "I was really surprised when they gave it to me."
Though Fantastic Beasts meant tackling an imaginary world, Waterston also is adept at real-life figures, like playing Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Steve Jobs' eldest daughter. She didn't have any contact with Brennan but meticulously researched her, relying mostly on books about the iconic Apple founder. "No one took it lightly that we were playing real people, but I think first and foremost we had a responsibility to the script, which is a dramatization and not a biopic," she says.
Read more 'Steve Jobs' Star Katherine Waterston on Being at the Center of J.K. Rowling's Next Franchise
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