Toronto International Film Festival puts tomorrow’s stars through celebrity boot camp

Vinnie Bennett, left, Mary Galloway, Ellen Wong, Theodore Pellerin, Lina El Arabi and Mamoudou Athie, members of TIFF's Rising Stars, at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When Vinnie Bennett first walked into a gifting lounge at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was handed some complimentary bags of M&Ms. Sure, he could have bought the candy for a few bucks at a local drugstore. But frankly, he was just happy to be given anything for free.

After all, as one of the seven actors selected to participate in TIFF’s Rising Stars program, he’d already been gifted an IWC watch worth roughly $3,000. M&Ms were just a bonus at this point.

But then he spotted a tattoo artist setting up an inking station. “You want a tattoo?” asked Mr. Koo, who has his own local shop.


“Yeah, sure thing,” the 25-year-old New Zealander replied sarcastically.

But Koo was serious. Bennett already had ink all over his arms, so he wasn’t opposed to the idea — but he wasn’t sure what tattoo to get. He tried to think of something sentimental, like his mother’s name — “something deep.” Koo steered him in another direction.

The tattoo artist “was, like, ‘Yeah, sure, man. But I don’t know — it’s a gifting lounge,’” Bennett recalled. “ ‘I’ve drawn up some ideas for today, and if you like any, I’d be keen to do one of those.’ ”

Bennett settled on a design depicting a bear riding a unicycle because he thought it looked “hilarious.” The entire thing, which he got on his upper ankle, took 20 minutes.

“I’m still at the stage where I’m really quite a sucker for free” stuff, Bennett acknowledged with a laugh. “People develop this ability to refuse it over time, but I’m not there yet. I’m like, ‘Yes, yes, yes! Food? Tattoo? Anything — let’s do it.’ ”

Vinnie Bennett shows off that tattoo he got in a gifting suite at the festival.
(Amy Kaufman / Los Angeles Times)

Bennett got far more than some free ink in Canada. For four days during the film festival, he and six other up-and-coming actors — Mamoudou Athie, 28, Jessie Buckley, 27, Lina El Arabi, 22, Mary Galloway, 26, Théodore Pellerin, 20, and Ellen Wong, 32 — participated in an industry boot camp of sorts, being media trained, picking the brains of casting directors and walking the red carpet at swanky premieres. (An eighth actor, Daniel Doheny, was also invited to attend but couldn’t make it to the festival.)

It was all part of the annual Rising Stars program put on by TIFF, which the festival launched seven years ago. Initially, the four-day event was meant to serve as an incubator for Canadian talent.

“We’d see an actor in the Canadian star system get a certain amount of success and then boot it to the States,” explained Natalie Semotiuk, who’s been producing the program since 2015. “This was created in order to show that Canadians foster great talent — but also that we have a place to celebrate it.”

There have already been a number of Rising Stars who have gone on to international success in recent years, including Sarah Gadon (“Alias Grace”), Stephan James (“Race”) and Tatiana Maslany, the “Orphan Black” Emmy winner who was back at the festival to premiere her new Boston Marathon bombing drama, “Stronger.”

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“I think it’s a great foot in the door in terms of getting into the industry,” said Maslany, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan. “Any kind of training for this [media] world is good, because so much of it is a weird byproduct of the job and a whole other skill set. I’m so glad I did it.”

Since Maslany was a participant in 2012, the Rising Stars program has expanded beyond Canada, this year welcoming four international actors into its ranks. While Canadians have to fill out a written application and submit a video interview, those from outside the country were nominated by festival programmers and all appeared in at least one movie at TIFF. Roughly 100 Canadians applied for the 2017 program, Semotiuk said, while about 60 international stars were considered.

One of the stars who traveled from overseas this year was Lina El Arabi, a 22-year-old French actress who appeared in two festival films, playing a pregnant Pakistani teen in “Noces” and working with director Kim Nguyen (whose “War Witch” earned an Oscar nomination for foreign language film) in “Eye on Juliet.”

El Arabi was one of most outspoken at a Filmmaker Speed Dating event, where the young group had the opportunity to dine with a handful of industry veterans like Justine Bateman and Patricia Rozema. After the stars chose a seat, they had 20 minutes to engage in discussion with the filmmaker opposite them, before moving on to chat with another director.

Justine Bateman, left, is one of the directors who took part in the Filmmaker Speed Dating event with the Rising Stars.
(Amy Kaufman / Los Angeles Times)

El Arabi was initially seated across from Clement Virgo, a Canadian director who is currently an executive producer of the OWN series “Greenleaf.” He began their conversation by asking if she was on Twitter or Instagram. El Arabi responded that though she is on Twitter — she has fewer than 600 followers — she adamantly dislikes Instagram.

“If I were on Instagram right now, I would not be talking to you,” she said. “I see a lot of people who don’t enjoy life and present an image. It’s just about showing to other people that your life is so cool.”

Virgo pressed further.

“So if you were to have a film that’s very successful, and Chanel wanted you to be a model for an ad, or Lancome or any of those big companies, would you do it? You’ve had a good career, it’s going well, and suddenly they want you to be the face of a perfume.”

“It’s not what we do,” she insisted. “We’re not here for that.”

“Really?” he asked, visibly shocked. “Even for money? Even for 500,000 euros?”

“Today, I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m fine,” El Arabi explained. “I’m not poor, but even if I’m very poor, I’m happy. I don’t need a lot of money. For what? A car, and a second car, and a boat, and the Eiffel Tower?”

Virgo smiled and went on to tell El Arabi how whenever he goes to cast an actress in a film or a television show these days, he is immediately asked by distributors how many followers his potential star has. Once, he admitted, he actually cast an actress because she had 3 million followers. At first, he fought against the choice, but ultimately realized her social media presence could prove helpful to the project.

“I tell you this because obviously you have talent and you’re young and you have a long career ahead of you,” said Virgo, noting that he also shared a disdain for sharing his life online. “So you might want to have someone else do it for you. Maybe you hire someone to help you build up your Twitter and Instagram followers. Unfortunately, it’s a reality.”

Mamoudou Athie also spent his time at TIFF promoting "Unicorn Store" with director/actress Brie Larson.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A few days after Speed Dating, the Rising Stars gathered at a luncheon held in their honor hosted by the head of IMDB and actress Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Athie, who had spent the festival juggling the boot camp with promotional duties for Brie Larson’s “Unicorn Store,” looked tired. He tried to mask his fatigue while mixing with the crowd, shaking hands and trying to accept compliments modestly.

“Even when you come fresh out of school, unless you have mentors that you cultivate on your own, it can be very difficult,” said the Yale School of Drama graduate, stepping away from the onlookers. “And these guys?” he said, pointing to his fellow Rising Stars. “They’re so chill and fun. So unpretentious. Friends for life, every single one of them.”

Of the eight in the group, Athie was arguably the best known coming into the festival, having just appeared in the critically acclaimed Sundance festival favorite “Patti Cakes.” But in the days since the event wrapped, some of the other Rising Stars already seem to be capitalizing on the momentum from the fest. On Tuesday, Deadline Hollywood reported that English actress Buckley was signed by CAA, while Bennett landed with Primary Wave Entertainment. Maybe he’ll be able to start paying for his own tattoos soon, too.

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA


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