Faces To Watch in 2012: TV, Film, Media and New Media
As a girl in Berkshire, England, Jessica Brown-Findlay, 22, dreamed of being a prima ballerina. At age 15, she even performed with the Kirov Ballet at London’s Royal Opera House, but an ankle injury a few years later permanently derailed her career ambitions. While studying art at Central St. Martin’s in London, she decided to give acting a try. In short order, she was cast as Lady Sybil Crawley, the spirited youngest daughter of a wealthy British earl in “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes’ dishy period drama set in the early 20th century.
An acting neophyte, Brown-Findlay had the daunting task of performing alongside the formidable Maggie Smith, but her English rose looks and plummy voice made her the series’ breakout star. Certifying her it-girl status, she was honored as one of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ Brits to Watch at a party attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in July.
The highly anticipated second season of “Downton Abbey,” which premieres Jan. 8 on PBS, finds Sybil working as a nurse. To prepare, Brown-Findlay spent hours at the Imperial War Museum in London, poring over the letters and diaries of World War 1 nurses. “I really wanted to do justice to the huge sacrifice women like Sybil would have made,” she said.
In 2011, she filmed two other British TV series: the medieval adventure “Labyrinth” and “Black Mirror,” a technophobic satire, and 2012 promises to be yet another busy year for Brown-Findlay. First up is the lead role in the indie film “Albatross.” And in February, she’ll be back on set for Season 3 of “Downton Abbey.”
-- Meredith Blake (Dave Hogan / Getty Images)
The first thing Keegan-Michael Key, left, and Jordan Peele want viewers to know is that they are biracial. They announce it to a live audience in the pilot for their new Comedy Central sketch series, “Key & Peele,” and credit their backgrounds with bringing a fresh perspective to their political, culturally literate humor. “We grew up in between worlds, without a clear definition of who we are,” Peele said. “In all of our racial material, there’s an underlying acknowledgment of how absurd the whole idea of [seeing] these physical traits as differences between human beings is.”
Lil Wayne, Gordon Ramsay and even Ancestry.com are all fodder for the show, but Peele’s Barack Obama impression is bound to attract the most election-year attention. Although Peele unsuccessfully auditioned to play the president on “Saturday Night Live” in 2008, his portrayal of Obama has proved popular in a series of videos on the website Funny or Die.
Peele and Key, a Second City alum, have performed together as part of the Groundlings’ “The Black Version” since leaving “MADtv”; their runs on that sketch comedy series coincided for more than five seasons, beginning in 2004. Peele earned an Emmy nomination in 2008 for “Sad Fitty Cent,” a song parody he cowrote for the show. After Key’s sitcom “Gary Unmarried” was canceled last year and a pilot Peele shot wasn’t picked up, the friends jumped at the chance to collaborate again on “Key & Peele.”
-- Judy Berman (Matt Hoyle / Comedy Central)
Ben Schwartz is fairly sure that Clyde Oberholt, his character on the new Showtime comedy “House of Lies,” which premieres Jan. 8, would hate Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, the lovably clueless, self-styled entrepreneur he plays on “Parks and Recreation.”
“Clyde would write off Jean-Ralphio in two seconds,” Schwartz said. “He would see that he’s all talk and no game.”
“House of Lies” follows a team of management consultants, led by a Don Draper-like antihero (played by Don Cheadle), under constant pressure to impress high-powered corporate executives while jockeying for position in an ethically ambiguous field. Clyde’s calculating nature extends to all aspects of his life. “When he’s trying to pick up a woman, he does it in a certain number of keystrokes,” Schwartz noted.
An Upright Citizens Brigade veteran, Schwartz also appeared in NBC’s short-lived 2010 spy drama “Undercovers.” The promising “House of Lies” role is only one of many items on Schwartz’s busy 2012 agenda: He wrote the screenplay for a “Soapdish” remake that recently made industry insiders’ “Black List” of highly anticipated unproduced projects and will voice the title character of the Disney XD animated series “Randy Cunningham: Ninth Grade Ninja,” slated to premiere late next year.
-- Judy Berman (Patrick Ecclesine / Showtime)
Taylor Kitsch is poised to become a major movie star -- if he can stomach all the Hollywood fanfare about to come his way, that is. “Am I ready for it? I’ve been asked that so many times, and I don’t know what ‘it’ is. I’m not a big Hollywood cat,” a nonchalant Kitsch said via telephone from Tokyo, where he was already doing press for “John Carter,” the $200-million-plus fantasy epic that doesn’t hit theaters until March.
The 30-year-old’s dance card is considerably full for an actor still best known for his work on television’s “Friday Night Lights,” the football drama that became a cult hit during its five-year run. His character -- the beer-toting-yet-lovable womanizing jock Tim Riggins -- was an audience favorite, and Kitsch was one of the few cast members to appear in every season of the program. After the show wrapped last year, Kitsch said he was offered a number of roles in which he’d play “the good-looking guy or the high school quarterback.”
While he wants to branch out to different fare, he’s grateful for the influx of opportunities. Growing up in Canada, Kitsch dreamed of becoming a professional ice hockey player, but when a knee injury derailed those plans, he moved to New York City to try modeling. He landed a few low-paying gigs with the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch, took acting classes when he could, but success didn’t come so easily -- he was even homeless temporarily.
“I was literally living on the subway for a couple of weeks,” Kitsch said. “You’d act as if you’re just going to sleep, more or less, and stay on until the early morning.”
Nowadays, Kitsch can afford a home in Austin, Texas, where production of “Friday Night Lights” took place. And no matter how much his star might rise over the coming year, he says that’s where he’ll remain. “If I have a meeting in L.A., I fly in, take the meeting, and get home. I know I’ll never live there.”
-- Amy Kaufman (Larry Busacca / Getty Images)
After supporting roles in two of the breakout summer hits of 2011 -- playing a pastor in the civil-rights drama “The Help” and an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company boss in the sci-fi film “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” -- English actor David Oyelowo (pronounced “oh-yellow-oh”) is poised to team with very big names this year. His next role is the scrappy fighter pilot Joe “Lightning” Little in the George Lucas-produced “Red Tails,” about the all-black World War II squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen. A longtime passion project for Lucas, the film opens Jan. 20 and also stars Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. Later in the year, Oyelowo, 35, will appear in Steven Spielbergs star-studded historical drama “Lincoln,” which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president as well as Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field. Other upcoming films for Oyelowo include “The Paperboy,” with Nicole Kidman, and “One Shot,” with Tom Cruise.
An accomplished stage actor, Oyelowo is also known for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
-- Oliver Gettell (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)
Like the character at its center, the film adaptation of the 2001 Yann Martel novel “Life of Pi” has been adrift for a long time. After being attached to such directors as M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet over the years, the 3-D spiritual fable about a young man marooned at sea alongside a Bengal tiger ultimately ended up in the hands of Ang Lee and is due out in December. Carrying much of the acting load will be first-timer Suraj Sharma, a student from Delhi, India, who was chosen from among 3,000 candidates. Sharma, 17 at the time of filming, had no previous acting experience and auditioned on a lark with encouragement from his brother and mother. Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000, said the filmmakers were struck by Sharma’s strength, vulnerability and sense of humor. “He has the ability to be both a boy and a young man,” Gabler said in a statement.
“Life of Pi” also stars Gerard Depardieu, Irrfan Khan and Tobey Maguire.
-- Oliver Gettell (Fox)
It will be a long slog of sound, fury and “super PAC"-funded TV ads before we get to Nov. 6. One of the most potent antidotes to the abiding bluster of the presidential campaign will be administered by comedian, author and tweeter par excellence Andy Borowitz.
The former Harvard Lampoon editor and creator of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” issues the Borowitz Report -- daily and sometimes hourly (Twitter: @BorowitzReport), satirical news darts that puncture the overinflated political set. (“Breaking: Rick Perry requests that debate format include Lifeline and 50/50" or “MUST READ: Obama Says US Not Abandoning Iraq; ‘We Will Continue to Follow You on Twitter.’”)
A sometime New Yorker writer and editor of a new anthology of American humor, Borowitz, 53, puts pop culture on the couch. (“CBS Cancels ‘Two and a Half Men’; Will Instead Mount Camera on Charlie Sheen’s Head. ‘More Entertaining’”) Prescription: Massive therapeutic intervention required. That’s good news for the audience, which is in store for yuck therapy, in ample doses.
-- James Rainey (Donald Bowers / Getty Images)
Everyone and his little blogging cousin in media is looking for the sweet, money-making mix between creating original content (i.e. breaking stories) and riffing off someone else’s facts (i.e. commentary and aggregation). When aggregation site BuzzFeed hired rising political reporter Ben Smith late last year, it represented a recognition that winning websites need to do more than rip and regurgitate.
Smith has been a consistent news-breaker since he helped get Politico off the ground five years ago. Though he’ll continue to write occasionally for that site, his main job in 2012 will be drawing eyeballs to BuzzFeed. The site, created by some of the same funders who brought the world the Huffington Post, thrives on celebrity, pop culture arcana (“10 Most Tattooed Cities”) and, yes, politics.
The 35-year-old journalist and a few key hires will try to build audience and ad revenue by moving beyond what one commentator described as “goofy distractions and silly videos.” Smith & Co. will provide one answer to the abiding question of Internet Age journalism: Can quality survive in a digital world that thrives on quantity and speed?
-- James Rainey (Politico)
Absurdly accomplished, Kevin Chou has been an investment bank analyst at Deutsche Bank, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist at Canaan Partners and the CEO of a rare species of startup company, namely, a profitable one -- all before he turned 30.
Much bandwidth has been eaten up on breathless stories about social games such as Words With Friends and FarmVille, crowd-pleasing titles published by Zynga Inc. and played by more than 200 million people a month on Facebook and other social platforms.
By contrast, Kabam’s titles, which include Kingdoms of Camelot and Dragons of Atlantis, attract just 3 million players a month, according to AppData.com, a site that tracks traffic on the social network. That doesn’t count players of its recently released title, a licensed game based on the Godfather franchise, which was released in early December on the Google+ social network.
But Chou, who joined San Francisco-based social games publisher Kabam in 2007 and is now the ripe old age of 31, firmly believes that the future for social games lies in catering to much smaller niches of people like himself -- hard-core players willing to spend hundreds of dollars a year on the right game. Chou is on the right track with his small-is-better strategy. Camelot scored $85 million in revenue between 2010 and 2011, while Dragons of Atlantis is projected to hit more than $50 million in revenue this year.
-- Alex Pham (Noah Berger / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
For a guy who shuns publicity, Markus Persson has been getting lots of it. The 32-year-old Swede developed an underground hit, called Minecraft, which has swept through the ranks of gamers like wildfire in late summer. Players do two things: build and explore. Think Lego bricks but virtual. Sounds simplistic, but the game’s rudimentary charms have millions of players in its thrall.
A survey of players who frequent IGN.com’s site for game news and reviews voted Persson as the person of the year, edging out the president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, and developers of a slew of this year’s blockbuster titles, including Pokemon Black and White, Uncharted 3 and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Not that Minecraft has done poorly in the sales department -- it’s sold 4 million copies as of November without so much as a krona spent on advertising. Doing the math, that converts to more than $73 million in revenue. Not bad for a game that was initially created by one Persson and is now supported by a tiny team of a dozen or so developers in Stockholm.
Persson and his tiny company, Mojang, have embarked on another, unannounced title for the new year. Chances are, if you haven’t already heard of his games, you probably will in 2012.