There are always those actors who rise above early on. Even when a movie implodes around them, like “Another Happy Day” did around Ezra Miller, there is something in the performance that makes them stand out, that lingers long after. The way Miller handled the nervous energy of a teen on a precipitous emotional edge, or the sadness in Garrett Hedlund’s angsty singer in “Country Strong.” They not only make an imprint in the role but they also tantalize about what they might do next.
Others, like Dev Patel, are discovered in an unexpected whirlwind when a film like “Slumdog Millionaire” hits like a hurricane. Director Danny Boyle’s tale of a Mumbai teen caught in a game-show controversy charmed audiences and won eight Oscars, including best picture. Though Patel, just 18 at the time, didn’t get an Oscar nod, his performance as a romantic teen refusing to be broken by brutal interrogations put him on the map — and certainly my radar.
Such actors have that sense of promise — one of the first things I look for when I see a new face on-screen — and it became a key factor in compiling my list of 30 under 30 who matter, members of a generation more interested in the art than the artifice. The ones I’ve singled out represent a diverse array of talent. But there is a tonal quality as well that resonates through the list, an earnestness and directness in the actors’ approach to the work, more of what we think of as an indie style even when the project is in blockbuster territory or playing with extremes of sci-fi fantasy.
It’s a generational gene pool that is particularly rich in talent, so rich that limiting the list to 30 has required painful cuts. My list is also whiter than I would like, a reflection of Hollywood’s continued bad casting habits. It’s not that actors of color don’t break through but that the journey is often longer and more circuitous.
Though TV is far from a colorblind medium either, with so many dramas and comedies to populate, it remains a better place to find emerging Latino, Asian and African American talent.
There is a lot of heavy traffic among screens of all sizes these days. For actors, the creative distance between Imax and iPhone, three-hour blockbusters and three-minute webisodes, is disappearing. But because film is the primary concentration for these actors, as it is mine, it’s the first criteria for making my cut.
Whatever perks of fame and fortune might come their way as a result — and several tied to mega franchises in “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” have had explosive head starts — this crew seems to truly care about the craft.
Yet at some point, a career in the movie industry becomes a question of staying power. I was especially curious about the “Harry Potter” kids. Would they fade to black along with “The Deathly Hallows: Part 2" in 2011? Not hardly. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in particular have not only survived but they have also thrived on smaller fare, smartly going more indie and eclectic, making interesting choices, though a great deal of Radcliffe’s time at the moment is being spent onstage.
For “Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, you had to wonder whether there was something more beyond the steamy vampire romance. It was clearer sooner with Stewart, who quickly embraced edgy projects and infused them with an unaffected reality that earned her critical acclaim. Pattinson is finally gaining traction with a string of demanding roles in the offing and an impressive turn in the just-released “The Rover,” a case of a gritty turn rising above the project.
The final measure for me in weighing whom to include is that sense of trajectory. It’s the sense that the roles right around the corner are likely to push the actors to creative and artistic higher ground — that these 30 under 30 won’t accede only to what Hollywood, that great lover of youth, desires but that they will also take on a wide range of roles and find ways within each to make them their own — essentially, the Meryl Streep model.
Most of the names you know well. Several have careers that stretch back to their grade-school years. Elle Fanning began following in big sister Dakota’s footsteps when she was only 3, first playing younger versions of Dakota’s characters. At 6, her emotionally nuanced performance as the young daughter in a damaged family, with Jeff Bridges playing her writer-father in “The Door in the Floor,” set a course for the kind of affecting acting that continues to define her work.
Mia Wasikowska started at 15 with a TV series but soon moved her haunting presence to film and has been giving indelible performances in movies large and small since. In contrast, Carey Mulligan seemed to burst on the scene fully formed at 24 in “An Education.” But in truth, the actress had been in the BBC TV trenches, where greatness is honed.
Nearly all on my list have awards to their credit. A remarkable number have already been Oscar-nominated: Saoirse Ronan for “Atonement,” Ellen Page for “Juno,” Anna Kendrick for “Up in the Air,” Rooney Mara for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Hailee Steinfeld for “True Grit,” Mulligan for “An Education.”
At 23, Jennifer Lawrence stands alone — with a lead actress Oscar on her shelf for “Silver Linings Playbook” and nominations for “American Hustle” and “Winter’s Bone.” She just topped Forbes’ most powerful actress list. And I’ll just throw in how well Lawrence plays on Fallon. That would be “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” which has quickly become its own influential proving ground, requiring even superstars to play games and play them well.
The climb has not been so fast or so starry for others. After only a handful of roles, Alden Ehrenreich’s breakthrough came last year in the bewitching “Beautiful Creatures” and as Cate Blanchett’s recalcitrant stepson in “Blue Jasmine.” He remains an intriguing question mark for now. Hedlund, who turns 30 in September, had his first good year in 2010, managing to make a mark in the marginal “Tron” continuation, “Tron: Legacy.” But joining Stewart and Sam Riley in the 2012 film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” despite mixed reviews, opened doors for the brooding, gravel-voiced actor.
For others, the challenge has been to be taken seriously. Brie Larson has had to fight her way out of the pretty-girl corner. It’s not that the actress hasn’t been busy, it’s rather that the meatier parts have been harder to come by.
Larson’s affectingly earthy performance as a troubled young woman in last year’s “Short Term 12" changed that. Among other projects, she’s set to star in the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel “Room.” As Ma, Larson will be mothering a son born of rape in the single room where they are still held captive by her kidnapper. I can’t wait.
On-screen talent is an ever-shifting landscape, years come and go, names change. Last year’s hunk — Channing Tatum — is this year’s old guy at 34, as “22 Jump Street” has had so much fun pointing out this summer.
By the way, for the 30 under 30 who’ve made my list, there are no statuettes, no red carpet. Just a “well done” from a critic who appreciates those who respect the craft, to those whose artistry is making the movies a better place to spend $14 on a Saturday night.