Next Generation 2011: Actresses

40 FEA NEXT GEN Felicity Jones H
Sarah Dunn/Contour by Getty Images

"English literature is about understanding character," says Jones, a 2006 Oxford honors graduate, "so it's fed into the way I now approach scripts." It's a bit ironic then, that her wordless audition for Drake Doremus' star-crossed-lovers film "Like Crazy" -- a scene that took place in a shower -- won Jones the part.

These young leading ladies are drawing crowds and critical praise.

Lily Collins | 22
Untitled Snow White Project

Going from episodes of 90210 to portraying an iconic fairy-tale figure is a little mind-blowing for Collins, who plays Snow White in Relativity's untitled adventure movie. Although she comes from a family of performers -- her father, Phil, got his start in theater before making a name in music, and her grandmother founded a theater school in London -- all she got were audition rejections while living in Los Angeles as a teenager until she landed a role in 2009's The Blind Side. A small part in the vampire actioner Priest and a romantic lead opposite Taylor Lautner in Abduction followed, but the Snow White project, which chronicles Snow's growth from sheltered girl to young woman, has taken Collins to the next level. And like something out of a fairy tale, it all happened in 24 hours. One day in March, Collins had her Snow White audition at 3:30 p.m., met with director Tarsem Singh at 6:30 p.m., then flew to San Francisco to promote Priest at WonderCon. While checking into her hotel, she received a call: The part was hers. "I feel like I literally grew as Snow grew in the movie, that our experiences paralleled," she says. "It wasn't a movie shoot for me; it was a life experience."

Felicity Jones | 27
Like Crazy

"English literature is about understanding character," says Jones, a 2006 Oxford honors graduate, "so it's fed into the way I now approach scripts." It's a bit ironic then, that her wordless audition for Drake Doremus' star-crossed-lovers film Like Crazy -- a scene that took place in a shower -- won Jones the part opposite Star Trek's Anton Yelchin. Later, the actors helped write the film's dialogue. "[Doremus'] script has stage directions and tells what happens, information we had to deliver when we're improvising," she says. "The key is to relax and just let the scene happen. The first few times it felt very contrived and very forced, but by the 15th take, it becomes a lot more naturalistic. You sort of relax into it, and you find the right words to say." Jones, who lives in London and starred in the 2007 TV film Northanger Abbey with her friend Carey Mulligan and won kudos as Shakespeare's Miranda in 2010's The Tempest, loves Doremus' spontaneity. "I didn't know you could actually improvise a whole film straight onto camera," she says. Now Jones, who won Sundance's special jury prize for her performance in Like Crazy, is an awards contender alongside Mulligan (Shame) and another former co-star, Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method). "The main thing was just to create something as honest as we could," says Jones. "From then on, it's just been crazy."

Adepero Oduye | 33

For Oduye, 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."

Elizabeth Olsen | 22
Martha Marcy May Marlene

Olsen admits she still gets a little "weirded out" when encountering evidence of her newly minted fame in unexpected places. "I'll be reading The New York Times online, and I'll see that little ad with my face on it," says the actress of promo materials for her role in the drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. Olsen better get used to the exposure. Since Martha debuted at Sundance to great buzz, the younger sibling of multimillionaire entrepreneurs Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen has spent the past year balancing newly opened industry doors with a commitment to academia as an NYU senior. Sean Durkin's indie, which opened wide Oct. 21, has garnered rave reviews and three Gotham Award nominations, including one for Olsen. While admitting that the hoopla feels "very unrealistic," Olsen says she has been moved by personal stories that Martha has evoked among audiences. "We did a national press tour, and at least a few people in each city told me, 'I was in a cult,' or, 'My sister was in a cult,' " says Olsen, who next appears in the horror film Silent House. "I never made Martha thinking we were making a statement about cults. But for someone to say, 'You really depicted what it feels like to lose your voice,' that's really rewarding."

Shailene Woodley | 19
The Descendants

Woodley is often asked how she got her first name. "When my mom was 18, she saw the word 'shai' on a license plate," says Woodley. "When I was born, she asked my dad, 'What do you think of 'Shai-lene?' " She broke out on the series The O.C. and Crossing Jordan and in 2008 got the lead in ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Eighteen months ago, her character "went to New York" so Woodley could film The Descendants with George Clooney in Hawaii. The film was the hit of Telluride and Woodley was the festival's breakout star. The process was all new to her. "With Secret Life, we do eight or nine scenes a day," says Woodley. "With a movie, you do one scene a day, maybe two." Everything was slower in Hawaii. "They have a 45 miles per hour minimum because people go too slow. Back in L.A., I was like, 'Slow down, you guys!' " Woodley takes her own advice. "I don't have a plan," she says. "I'm not strategizing my next move until a movie comes along that really fuels my soul."