New generation of European actresses making an impact on Hollywood, Part 1

During the Golden Age of cinema European actresses like Ingrid Bergman, Brigitte Bardot, Ursula Andress, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren had an exalted status in Hollywood. While they won awards for their work in European films, Hollywood wanted them for their glamour value (the notable exception being Ingrid Bergman who was critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic). In the current globalized entertainment world, with easy access to content anytime/ anywhere, European actresses are not considered ‘exotic’ any more; they have to fight for English-language roles on the same level playing field as American and British actresses. In the past 15 years, we have had the likes of Penelope Cruz and Audrey Tautou who have achieved a great fame in English-language films; Ms Cruz in particular could be considered in the same league as those Golden Age actresses. As Cruz and Tautou move through the second decade of their international careers, there is a second wave successfully crossing over into mainstream Hollywood while still retaining their acting ‘street cred’ back home on the Continent. Here’s the first half of the list:-

Eva Green (35) was the first of this new wave to make her mark. The French-Swedish actress produced a memorable performance as Vesper Lynd in Daniel Craig’s 2006 Bond debut Casino Royale. I loved her verbaltête-à-tête with Daniel Craig in the train (below). Since then, she seems to have carved a niche for herself as a villain in fantasy/ supernatural films. In fact, she has stated in an interview: “At drama school I always picked the really evil roles. It’s a great way to deal with your everyday emotions”. She is certainly one of the few actresses who can ham it up so well as a villain; this is normally the territory of older male actors like Christoph Waltz or Ben Kingsley. She was portrayed different shades of evil in 300: Rise of an Empire, Dark Shadows and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Ms. Green will next be seen in the title role of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton’s adaptation of a weird fantasy novel that made headlines in 2011 for its creative use of real vintage photographs as illustrations.

31-year-old Rebecca Ferguson was the surprise package of this summer’s Mission: Impossibe – Rogue Nation; her conflicted double agent Ilsa Faust (below right) had great chemistry with Tom Cruise and owned the screen when she was on it. Very reminiscent of her Swedish countrywoman Ingrid Bergman. She had already made an impression a couple of years ago with the well-received TV mini-series The White Queen (below left). More fame is assured in 2016 when she appears in the movie adaptation of bestseller The Girl on the Train, sharing the screen with a powerhouse ensemble cast including Emily Blunt and possibly Hollywood hunks Jared Leto and Chris Evans in the two male roles. There is also talk of her signing up for crime-drama The Snowman opposite Michael Fassbender. And she has another film in post-production called Florence Foster Jenkins, a biopic of a New York socialite who tried to become an opera singer in spite of having a terrible singing voice (the socialite is played by Meryl Streep). A very busy slate and guaranteed to make her a household name and potentially line up for acting awards in a couple of years’ time.

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Noomi Rapace (35): The character, Lisbeth Salander became a global phenomenon overnight in 2008-09 with the English language translations of the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels. Actress Noomi Rapace (pronounced “rə-pahss”) had been acting in theatre and on TV in her native Sweden since her teenage years, but achieved a whole new level of fame and accolades for playing Salander in the 3 films released in 2009. This led inevitably to openings in Hollywood – she played a gypsy in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and then a major role as archeologist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus (below), the much-anticipated return by Ridley Scott to the Alien franchise. Having to share the screen with high profile co-stars like Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, I’m not sure how many people actually noticed her, although it would be difficult to forget the scene in Prometheus where she self-administers a cesarean-section! Ms. Rapace has since appeared in 4 more films, one of which is the excellent but little-seen Tom Hardy crime drama The Drop. But I feel that she has not really figured out how to pick great scripts or good parts for herself. In 2017, she will reprise the role of Dr. Shaw in Alien: Paradise Lost and there’s talk that she will play Enzo Ferrari’s wife (opposite Christian Bale) in the biopic titled Enzo Ferrari. Hopefully both these films will give her the spotlight she deserves.

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In the next part of this post, I will list two French and one Danish actress who are making waves across the world.


Milkweed Triptych: Supermen and wizards fight WW2 in amazing scifi trilogy

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In his books The Joyful Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put forward the concept of the Übermensch, which would have a far-reaching impact on literature, science and politics. When Nietzsche’s works were translated into English, the word became ‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’; George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write a 1903 play Man and Superman, based on the concept. In 1933, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel published a comic book with a bald telepathic villain that they named Superman; later they figured it would be a better idea to make Superman the good guy. Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra suggested that humanity should set itself a goal of physiological advancement, to strive to become Übermensch, rather than to allow itself to ‘fall’ into a life of comfort and security, devoid of risks.

Half a century later, the Nazis wholeheartedly adopted the idea, fit it into their ‘master race’ plan and even embarked on some horrific experiments to try and create their own supermen.

Now, imagine the consequences if the experiments had worked.

In Ian Tregillis’ debut novel Bitter Seeds (2010), a brilliant but unhinged German doctor decides to try and build supermen (and women). In 1920 while the German countryside is devastated by poverty and starvation, he starts offering bed and board to orphaned or unwanted children at his farmhouse. He then experiments on them, trying to find the parts of the brain that he believes can allow humans to tap into higher order physical abilities, such as telekinesis, levitation, pyrokinesis, telepathy and precognition. Behind the farmhouse, a makeshift cemetary appears and grows, the result of failed experiments. The doctor discovers that when specific parts of the brain are excited by electric current, it does indeed allow certain subjects to tap into their Willenskräfte (willpower) and exhibit superhuman powers. Over the next decade, his half-dozen ‘children’, powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries strapped to their waists, hone their skills (mainly through coercion and punishment). The mad doctor comes to the attention of the Nazis, who become his patrons and thus the Gotterelektrongruppe (“divine electricity unit”) is formed as a independent unit within the SS.

Soon after the start of WW2, the German army with this superhuman unit at its leading edge, scythes through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest. Suddenly we see a very different history unfold across Europe with the British army completely decimated at Dunkirk in May 1940. Britain is on the verge of losing the war.

Meanwhile, a British secret service agent named Raybould Marsh, while on a mission to Europe comes into possession of some fragments of film and photographs that show the supermen in training exercises. Coupled with the news from the front, the British realize that they are up against something otherworldly. By sheer chance, Marsh recalls a conversation with a friend from his Oxford days who had alluded to secret cults and ancient texts; apparently, there are a very small group of people in Britain who can speak an ancient language to call upon and request favors from inter-dimensional beings called Eidolons. Before long, the secret service have pressed these ‘warlocks’ into national service, forming a ‘black ops unit’ code-named Milkweed which uses the Eidolons to protect England, mainly by playing with the weather, but also some other extraordinary acts. However, the Eidolons are not easily controlled and their ‘asking price’ (which is live human blood) goes up each time the Milkweed warlocks request for some help.

And so the story progresses, at breakneck speed across two more books The Coldest War and Necessary Evil. Marsh and his Milkweed colleagues are pitted against their superhuman enemies while trying to control the otherworldly Eidolons. One of the German superhumans, a clairvoyant named Gretel emerges as their most dangerous adversary; how can you defeat someone who can see the futures…all possible futures?

As ridiculous as this story line may seem to a casual reader, Mr. Tregillis has such command over his language that the entire narrative becomes utterly believable. His descriptions of places and situations are vivid, almost tactile. And the characterizations are deep and realistic – other than Gretel and the mad doctor who are purely evil and beyond redemption, the other key characters are drawn in shades of grey; Marsh and his acquaintances exhibit equal measures of love, jealousy, naiveté, stupidity, panic and thoughtlessness. Every action has its consequences, which come back to haunt them hours, months or years later. The narrative spans several years, into a very different Cold War. Ultimately, all the loose ends are tied up by the end of the third book, but everyone has paid a price and as often is the case, the most heroic people are also the ones who have suffered the most and whose brave exploits remain a secret from the general public. It’s also refreshing to read a scifi story where the US plays absolutely no part!

This is an altogether engrossing and compelling scifi thriller, which will appeal to fans of alternate history, military fiction and mystery thrillers.

A little bit of information about Ian Tregillis. He has a PhD in physics and works at the Los Alamo s National Laboratory in New Mexico, the home of the Manhattan Project and one of only two institutions where classified nuclear weapons research has been conducted in the US. In 2005, he attended the famous Clarion Workshop, a 6-week long annual workshop for aspiring scifi and fantasy writers, conducted each year by a who’s who of established authors of the genre. Five years later, Tregillis published Bitter Seeds, completed its two sequels in the next three years. He is now considered part of the growing band of scifi/ fantasy authors based in New Mexico, whose most famous member is George R.R. Martin, but also consists of other well known authors like John Scalzi, Ty Franck & Daniel Abraham (who publish as James S.A. Corey) and S.M. Stirling.

I am now looking forward to reading Ian Tregillis’ latest book The Mechanical which is the first book of his new trilogy titled The Alchemy Wars.

Nextgen British actresses excel at both indie drama and blockbuster action, Part 3

Concluding this series about young British actresses. In Parts 1 and 2, I covered the careers of Hayley Atwell, Emily Blunt, Felicity Jones, Lily James, Carey Mulligan, Rosamund Pike, Imogen Poots and Daisy Ridley. In Part 3, let’s look at 4 more up-and-coming British actresses (well, one’s been around for several years):-

In 2007’s Atonement (below left), a 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan made us hate her for putting poor James McAvoy in jail on false charges; she was so convincing that she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar, making her among the youngest acting nominees alongside the likes of Abigail Breslin, Anna Paquin and Keisha Castle-Hughes. Since then, her only other notable solo performance has been in Peter Jackson’s heart-breaking The Lovely Bones (2009); however, poor reviews and the tragic storyline conspired to kill it at the box office. Among her other notable roles – a 16-year-old assassin in Hanna (made by her Atonement director, Joe Wright) and a teenage vampire in Byzantium (directed by fellow Irishman Neil Jordan); the first was a moderate success, while the second sank without a trace. I feel that Ms. Ronan has generally been drawn towards challenging scripts tackling difficult subject matter. This makes it unlikely that she will opt for escapist entertainment (I don’t expect to see her in a Marvel or Star Wars movie, for instance). One exception was the 2013 movie adaptation of Stephanie “Twilight” Meyer’s young adult best-seller The Host; but the movie was a critical and commercial dud. It was also nice to see her as part of the fantastic ensemble cast in The Grand Budapest Hotel. I am looking forward to watching the 21-year-old’s new film Brooklyn (below right) which comes out next month; the Nick Hornby scripted film tells the story of an Irish immigrant in 1950’S NYC and the challenges she faces transitioning to her new life.

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Kaya Scodelario (23) started acting in the acclaimed and edgy British TV show Skins at the age of 14, eventually becoming the central character by the time she left the show four years later. The show was a proving ground for several talented young actors like Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult and Jack O’Connell. Since 2010, she has had small roles in a few films, but came to wider public attention only last year as Teresa (“It’s a girl!”) in the dystopian young adult film Maze Runner. Global exposure is now assured via its sequels The Scorch Trials (Sept 2015) and The Death Cure (Feb 2017). But there’s more to come in 2017; Ms. Scodelario will appear opposite Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. While the series has been getting progressively poor reviews, audiences have delivered a billion dollars of ticket sales for the last two entries in the franchise, so it’s a pretty good place to be for an up-and-coming actress. She has also acted in an unusual fantasy film called The Moon and the Sun, based on the award winning 1997 novel by Vonda McIntyre. It tells the story of a mermaid that is captured and brought to the court of King Louis XIV, who wants to steal its life force in the belief it will give him immortality. Pierce Brosnan plays King Louis and Scodelario plays a lady-in-waiting who befriends the mermaid and tries to save its life. The movie’s release has been postponed indefinitely; usually a sign that the studio has serious concerns about the film’s prospects. Having seen the trailer, I can understand; I suspect someone at the studio woke up and wondered, “what were we thinking?”. Hopefully, while she pursues commercial success through these big-budget films, the audiences will also get to see some of the acting prowess which she showcased as a teenager on TV.

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Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones (below right) will be familiar with Sophie Turner, having seen her survive a seemingly never-ending series of travails as the hapless but determined Sansa Stark over 5 engrossing seasons. Next summer, she makes her first big screen appearance as mutant Jean Grey in X-Men: Apocalypse (below left, seen with co-star Tye Sheridan, who plays Cyclops). This film caps the 2nd X-Men trilogy and presumably will be the last to feature both ‘first trilogy’ (Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman) and ‘second trilogy’ (Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence)  actors together. It is sure to do blockbuster business and will potentially bring many other big screen offers her way. I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books and even if I had, with the way the show is deviating from the books, I can’t say how many of the remaining 3 seasons of GoT Sophie Turner will have to commit to. Assuming she will be in at least 1-2 more seasons, she may not be able to commit to more than one film per year. But at the age of 19, she can afford to be patient!

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It’s been four years since Emma Watson walked away from the Harry Potter universe. In addition to acting, she has been modeling for the likes of Lancôme and Burberry, launched a new clothing range with ‘ethical fashion’ label People Tree and has also been appointed a UN Goodwill Ambassador! Quite a lot for a 25-year-old, but of course this is someone who has literally grown up in the front of a global audience, starting with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2001. Perhaps because she’s appeared in 8 fantasy/action films, Ms. Watson seems to have gone for more character-driven indie assignments since then; I loved her sensitive heartfelt performance in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (below right), but 2013’s The Bling Ring (below left) is notable because she was cast against her established ‘good girl’ stereotype, portraying a spoilt rich kid who along with her friends burgle the homes of Hollywood celebrities (based on a true story). She will go back to blockbuster territory again soon with two big films – she shares the screen with Tom Hanks in the scifi thriller The Circle (2016) and then steps into the iconic shoes of Belle in the live-action Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, releasing in March 2017.

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No doubt there are many more talented actresses emerging from the British theater and TV ranks, who will make a splash in big budget movies, as Hollywood casting agents continue to look for ‘the next big thing’. In this notoriously fickle industry, it’s only a few who will be able to stay in the spotlight for any extended period of time, which tends to be much shorter for women than it is for men.

Nextgen British actresses excel at both indie drama and blockbuster action, Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I had a look at the careers of Hayley Atwell, Emily Blunt, Felicity Jones and Lily James as they successfully came up through the ranks of British drama films and TV shows, then made the jump to big screen blockbusters. Here are another 4 young actresses who have been making waves:-

Technically, Carey Mulligan (30) shouldn’t be on this list, as she has never crossed over to an action movie role. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t do to leave out one of the important young actresses of this generation. Like many of the others in this list, she cut her teeth on those gritty TV dramas and immaculately produced literary adaptations that British TV excels at; during the two years from 2005-07, Ms. Mulligan covered everything from Bleak House and Northanger Abbey to appearances in episodes of Agatha Christie’s Marple and Dr. Who. Then in 2009, she broke out in acclaimed Danish director Lone Scherfig’s English-language debut, An Education. This coming-of-age story had Mulligan playing a wide-eyed and idealistic schoolgirl who is seduced by an older man and briefly experiences his glamorous lifestyle before coming back down to earth. She received an Oscar nom and this led to her appearing in a number of interesting films; unfortunately, the high profile ones like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Great Gatsby haven’t received great reviews and the well-reviewed films like Inside Llewyn Davis and Far From the Madding Crowed haven’t found an audience. I am looking forward to her forthcoming film Suffragette (below), which as the name indicates tells the story of the early days of the feminist movement, with Meryl Streep playing the legendary Emmeline Pankhurst.

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The classy Rosamund Pike (36) started off her career with the customary British period dramas but then got a fantastic break as the femme fatale in Die Another Day (below left). This was Pierce Brosnan’s final outing as Bond and by then the series was making more money at the global box office than ever before (although the quality of the films was questionable). She has acted in several movies since then, though many of them aren’t particularly notable; perhaps she should be hiring Emily Blunt’s agent! There are exceptions – the heart-warming true story Made in Dagenham (below right), the 2012 Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher and of course, Gone Girl in which her chilling performance earned her an Oscar nomination this year. Two of her forthcoming projects look interesting – A United Kingdom tells the true story of an African prince who married a white British lady in the 1940’s and sparked international outrage; in HHhH, she plays the wife of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Gestapo and the architect of ‘the final solution’.

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Imogen Poots (26) first caught my eye in the classical music drama A Late Quartet (2012). This is the absorbing story of the build-up to the final performance of a string quartet whose cellist has to retire due to Parkinson’s disease. Poots plays the daughter of a couple who are both members of the quartet. When they discover that she is having an affair with the 4th player in the ensemble, it only adds to the stress everyone’s going through. In spite of all the angst and conflict, their love for the music and their loyalty to one another leads to a fitting and satisfactory finalé. Ms. Poots really owns the screen for the short time that she is on it. Likewise her small role in Me and Orson Welles (2008) also was memorable. Unlike the others in this post, Ms. Poots has not done the usual tour of British TV period dramas; instead, from her teen years, she has taken supporting roles in all sorts of films – zombie apocalypse (28 Weeks Later in 2007), rom com (Solitary Man in 2009) and musical biopic (Jimi: All Is By My Side in 2013). Sadly, many of her films are neither critically nor commercially successful, even the ones where she has worked with legendary directors like Peter Bogdanovich (She’s Funny That Way) and Terrence Mallick (Knight of Cups); perhaps because both are well past their prime. Unexpectedly, a recent horror film called Green Room which will get released only in April 2016 is earning some rave reviews from critics who have seen it at various film festivals this year. I really hope this young actress can get roles worthy of her screen presence and acting prowess.

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Daisy Ridley (23) is guaranteed to become a household name with the release of her debut film this December. With just a handful of TV appearances on her CV, Ms. Ridley was picked as one of several new faces for the much anticipated continuation of a beloved space opera. For anyone who’s been living under a rock, the upcoming film Star Wars: The Force Awakens is releasing this December and is expected to shatter all kinds of box office records. In the trailer, Luke Skywalker is heard saying “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power, too.” It is widely assumed that he is referring to Ridley’s character Rey. Naturally, she will appear in the next two parts of the new trilogy, scheduled for 2017 and 2019. Of course, only time will tell if her career will go the way of Harrison Ford who used Star Wars as a springboard to become one of the biggest movie stars of the ’80s, or if it will go the other way, like Mark Hamill who has mainly been a voice actor for animated TV shows (especially DC Comics villain The Joker) for the past 20+ years.

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In most cases, these actresses have been able to continue taking roles in meaningful films with strong characterizations, while appearing in mass entertainment films which allow them to pay the bills. The remaining names in the list come out in Part 3!

Nextgen British actresses excel at both indie drama and blockbuster action, Part 1

Although it’s been 6 years since a British woman last won an Oscar (Kate Winslet for The Reader), actresses from the UK are very much present and accounted for in a wide range of critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies. Having watched Felicity Jones earlier this year in The Theory of Everything and Emily Blunt’s tour-de-force performance in Sicario a few weeks ago, I started thinking about how comfortably this new generation of British actresses are at dramatic and action roles, indie films and Hollywood blockbusters. Naturally, a bout of list-making followed and I ended up with 12 names. Here’s the first part of the list:-

Since 2005, Hayley Atwell (33) has had supporting roles in various British TV films, mini-series and two notable period films Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess. But her first real chance at stardom came in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger and she took full advantage. Her memorable performance as the plucky British agent Peggy Carter made her a household name and led to a spin-off TV series Agent Carter (much enjoyed by our entire family!), now gearing up for Season 2; she’s also had cameos playing this character in 3 subsequent Marvel movies. This hasn’t left her time for anything other than a couple of supporting roles (one of them in the excellent anti-war film Testament of Youth from earlier this year). But as the Marvel films move into Phase 3 and Peggy Carter exits the timeline, Ms. Atwell will have to move on to new projects and I look forward to seeing what she picks up.

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Emily Blunt‘s first lead role was in My Summer of Love (2004) as a ‘minxy’ upper-class girl who spends a summer in the countryside and disrupts the lives of everyone around her; it’s a slow-burn movie, but definitely worth watching. A few TV roles followed before her global breakout as the ‘bitchy’ personal assistant to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Then came several dramatic roles including the excellent 2009 period film The Young Victoria (below left), one of my favorites, and a must-see for anyone whose only image of Queen Victoria is that of a glum and rotund monarch. In 2011, Ms. Blunt acted in the scifi film The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon. This seems to have kicked off a love affair with the scifi/ action genre and I love every one of them, intelligent scripts, solid acting, good blend of character development and action – Looper, Edge of Tomorrow (below right) and most recently, Sicario. Whichever talent agent is bringing her these scripts is doing an amazing job; in fact, I believe the 32-year-old should get an Oscar nomination for Sicario. If she wins, it would put her into the big league of actresses who can headline blockbusters and win awards. If she can keep up the balance of dramatic and action roles, she could, in time, be mentioned in the same breath as Julie Christie, Helen Mirren, Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. Each of them have won Oscars, have comfortably straddled art and commercial cinema and are considered the best British actresses of their generation. Ms Blunt will next be seen in the film adaptation of the bestseller The Girl on the Train, which I think could become next year’s Gone Girl.

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Felicity Jones (31) has had lots of TV acting experience, has shared a movie with Daniel Craig (though they weren’t on screen together in Flashbacks of a Fool) and appeared in more than a dozen movies before her global breakout role in The Theory of Everything for which she was Oscar nominated earlier this year. She did get some minor award nods in 2011 for the indie film Like Crazy, where she plays a British college student who falls in love with her American classmate and then is separated from him due to visa trouble; it’s an understated but convincing acting performance, bringing alive the foolishness, spontaneity and desperation of young love. An even more powerful performance followed two years later as Charles Dickens’ lovelorn and conflicted mistress in The Invisible Woman (below left). Frankly, I thought it was as good or better than her Oscar nominated performance a year later; unfortunately the film itself had a very limited run in theaters. Ms. Jones’ small role in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was the seed for a future appearance as anti-heroine Black Cat, but with the franchise being ‘re-rebooted’ with a new cast, that appears highly unlikely. No worries for her though, as she has two big action movies in late 2016; first comes the third Robert Langdon film adaptation Inferno, opposite Tom Hanks; and then (perhaps following Emily Blunt’s footsteps), she will play the lead in a scifi/ action film, none other than the first Star Wars spin-off –  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (below right).

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Lily James (26) is well known to all Downton Abbey (below left) fans as the irrepressible and somewhat irresponsible young Lady Rose who eventually ‘grows up’, shows she has a heart of gold and wins the affection of all around her. She leveraged that small-screen popularity very quickly into a big-screen role in Disney’s live action adaptation of Cinderella, which was quite well received. She is very busy now with 3 projects coming out in 2016 – she plays Natalya Rostova in a 6-part TV mini-series adaptation of War and Peace; then at the other end of the spectrum, she plays Elizabeth Bennett in the horror-comedy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (below right) from the man who brought you Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter…don’t ask, there’s an entire series of such novels; and her third release of 2016 is the big-screen adaptation of the World War II story The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. She finally gets a chance to stop wearing period costumes and moves on to acclaimed and edgy British writer-director Edgar Wright’s next film Baby Driver, prepping for a 2017 release. I’m not sure if there are any acting awards in Lily James’ future, but for sure she is seeking out some high profile and left-of-center projects!

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Part 2 to follow…