Our editors pick the ten most exciting emerging actors at Sundance 2021, from Niamh Algar to Anna Cobb.
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It’s become a sort of tradition for us to highlight the most exciting emerging actors with projects at an upcoming festival — we’ve done it at TIFF for several years , and this year, we’re doing it for Sundance, too. Especially at a festival like Sundance, which tends to showcase lots of indie titles from new filmmakers, the calibre of acting talent in the films screening really shapes our list of most anticipated films.
Below, you’ll find a list of ten actors whose work you should look out for at this year’s festival. It’s a mix of names we’ve been following for a while (Niamh Algar, Grace Glowicki) for whom we’re still waiting to break out in a big way, and new talent we were introduced to through the few Sundance 2021 films we’ve already seen (Anna Cobb, the Mesa sisters).
Niamh Algar, Censor
In 2019, we named Niamh Algar one of the most exciting emerging actors at TIFF 2019 for her supporting turn in Calm with Horses. Last year, when the film was released, we named that performance one of the twenty best supporting turns of the year. Algar has thus far made a career of doing outstanding work in not-so-great films and TV (Calm with Horses, MotherFatherSon, The Virtues), leaping off the screen in just a few scenes. So I couldn’t be more excited to see her finally in a leading role in Censor, hopefully with something to really sink her teeth into. Alex Heeney
Bartosz Bielenia, Prime Time
Bartosz Bielenia gave a breakout performance last year in Jan Komasa’s Oscar-nominated film, Corpus Christi. Bielenia played a young man, Daniel, straight out of juvie who dreams of being a priest, and suddenly finds himself impersonating one. Daniel is charismatic, understanding, insecure, terrified, and he holds the potential for violence, all of which Bielenia balances perfectly. When he auditioned for the role, it caused Komasa to rethink how he understood the character. As Komasa told me, “I was looking for the range of the actor from the saint to the sinner… When Bartosz Bielenia showed up, he wasn’t great at any of them. We were looking for a guy who’s great at both. But Bartosz opened my eyes. This character is like 50% of this, and 50% of that. He’s not 100% because his personality is not yet established. He’s in collusion in the script. Daniel is not a priest, and he’s not a thug. He’s something else.”
Prime Time marks Bielenia’s first post-Corpus Christi screen role, playing a man who shows up at a television studio’s live show with a gun, demanding to be broadcast. Think Polish Money Monster. Once again, Bielenia has to balance playing someone unhinged and lost, and he’s a major highlight of the film. AH
Anna Cobb, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
When I spoke with writer-director Jane Schoenbrun a few days ago (interview to come), they said of lead actress Anna Cobb: “I made an agreement with myself that I wasn’t going to make the movie until I’d found someone who was an astounding discovery.” After an extensive search, Cobb was cast to head up We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and she and Schoenbrun prepared extensively together for the shoot. That prep pays off in spades in the film (although we can’t talk about the film itself yet, as we’re under embargo). Cobb’s performance involves a lot of dialogue-free scenes, and her silent reactions and intriguing, hard-to-read expressions make this enigma of a character compelling. Orla Smith
Grace Glowicki, Strawberry Mansion
The multi-hyphenate Canadian talent Grace Glowicki — actor, director, writer — is long overdue to breakout, having been named as a TIFF rising star back in 2016. I first became aware of her work in Cardinals, in which her grounded performance was a major standout. She’s since popped up with small but memorable supporting turns, including in Paper Year, one of the best films of 2019. Last year, she made her feature debut as a director, Tito, starring as an androgynous character with a hunch, in which she completely physically transforms into someone entirely unrecognizable. Once again, she’s a highlight of the experimental Strawberry Mansion, switching gears from Tito entirely to play an ultra-feminine woman in a white dress, part memory and part dream, balancing an ethereal quality with the need to literally save the film’s hero — no small feat.
Patti Harrison, Together Together
Comedian Patti Harrison has mostly worked in TV up until now; Together Together will be her first feature film role, after a supporting turn in A Simple Favour. I first noticed the actress in her recurring role in Shrill, as the thoroughly weird office secretary who works with main character Annie (Aidy Bryant). Harrison gives probably the most heightened performance in the show, but she plays her character’s self-serious intensity with such sincerity that she never seems like a cartoon. I’m excited to see her in a more prominent role in Together Together, which is sure to flex her comedic chops. The serious tone of writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s previous feature, Stockholm, Pennsylvania, makes me hope that her new feature will also give Harrison the chance to sink her teeth into some more dramatic, psychological material. OS
Alessandra Mesa & Anamari Mesa, Superior
Identical twin actresses Alessandra Mesa and Anamari Mesa are highlights of the U.S. Dramatic Competition title Superior. We’re under embargo, so we can’t talk about the film itself, but the Mesa sisters are a delight to watch as their characters play identity-switching games. They play twins who, at various points, have to pretend to be each other, and they do a great job of subtly modulating their performances to show when and how their characters are ‘acting.’ It made me excited to see what they will do in the future, together or apart. (Alessandra also co-wrote the film, alongside writer-director Erin Vassilopoulos.) OS
Grace Van Patten, Mayday
Grace Van Patten already had a breakout year in 2017, with her first lead film role in Tramps and her supporting role in The Meyerowitz Stories. She was a standout in both, elevating the mostly unexceptional Tramps and holds her own against big names like Emma Thompson, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, and Elizabeth Marvel in Meyerowitz. Still, I feel like she’s yet to show her full potential, and she hasn’t had an opportunity to do so since. Mayday may change that. It looks to be an ambitious debut feature with action elements, and Van Patten is tasked with pulling it all together in the lead role. She’s also playing opposite a strong cast of supporting players such as Soko, Mia Goth, Juliette Lewis, and Théodore Pellerin (see the next entry on this list). OS
Théodore Pellerin, Mayday
Pellerin has been a Seventh Row favourite for a while: we listed his performance in Genèse as one of the best of the decade, Justine Smith wrote a profile of him for our ebook The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook, and last year, we named him one of the best supporting actors of 2020. The young Québécois actor is consistently doing great work in Québec, and his star is on the rise stateside, too. (You may recognise him from Boy Erased, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, or On Becoming a God in Central Florida.) We sense he won’t have a central role in Mayday, as the film is about an army of women, but we’re excited to see what he brings to a supporting role. OS
Hayley Squires, In the Earth
We’re not huge Ben Wheatley fans at Seventh Row, but the one thing that does intrigue us about his new film, In the Earth, is the presence of Hayley Squires. The actress first came to prominence with her heartbreaking turn in I, Daniel Blake, but she hasn’t been in much of note since, save for Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. We don’t know how big her role in In the Earth is, but fingers crossed it’s a lead! Then, maybe Wheatley’s film will be worth the ticket price. OS
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