The biggest breakout stars of 2018 are here…and by here, we mean at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
On Saturday, Entertainment Weekly‘s Devan Coggan moderated the EW Breakout Award Panel, where she was joined by some of the hottest up-and-coming actors — Kayli Carter (Private Life, Godless), Raúl Castillo (We the Animals, Looking), Winston Duke (Black Panther), Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), Hari Nef (Assassination Nation, Transparent), and Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place) — for an in-depth discussion about their current projects, highlights of their careers so far, and what’s next.
The conversation started with the actors sharing the moment they decided acting was what they wanted to do. “I mean, I’m a pretty rational person so up until high school I didn’t think it was a thing I could actually do as a job,” began Carter. “I was figuring out what I was going to do college-wise and my high school drama teacher asked if I would turn off the lights in the theater…and I went in to the theater and all the lights were on and I stood on the stage and looked out and thought, ‘Well, you’re going to be pretty mad at yourself if you don’t try. If you fail, you can do anything else.’ So I looked at colleges and came here [to SCAD].'”
Castillo then joked that his experience was somewhat similar — he had been an altar boy so spent lots of time backstage in a costume and going up in front of people — while Duke revealed that his problem was that he wanted to be anything and everything including a fire truck. Luckily, acting was the perfect outlet for Duke’s imaginative personality as he realized he could take on a myriad of roles and live out all of his career fantasies at the same time. He also credited his Caribbean upbringing for preparing him to be a storyteller, but said it wasn’t until a teacher called on him to do a presentation in class that he discovered he came alive in front of an audience.
Assassination Nation‘s Nef also shared her reasoning for entering the world of acting, saying that “we knew from a relatively young age I was weird” and “didn’t know what to do with all of these impulses that I had to communicate and perform and tell stories that didn’t really have a place in everyday life.” It was theater trips with her grandmother that made her realize there were people out there who “harnessed these spirits and did it for a living.”
Next, the group discussed what they seek most in a role. “I’m always looking for the dirtier, grittier, and nastier parts only because I’ve seen how women have been asked to behave and feel a really strong desire to mess that up,” shared SCAD alum Carter. Eighth Grade star Fisher added that she looks for a character that’s genuine and “feels like a real person” because often times teenage girls on screen aren’t very dimensional or authentic and she wants to see a more diverse representation of all the young people out there.
And like most aspiring actors, all of the breakout stars had some crazy early audition stories — Duke blacked out, “saw stars,” and forgot all the words during one of his, while A Quiet Place’s Simmonds had to stage a crazy fight and wrestle with her dad with whom she is very close. “We have such a great relationship; we would never fight,” she shared via an interpreter. “After that, we were crying and saying I love you.” But perhaps one of the best early audition tales came from Nef whose callback for Assassination Nation was the day after President Trump was elected. When the director explained that in the scene her character had “just been f—ed over by this guy and you’re sad,” Nef had no problem getting emotional because “those were real tears.”
VIDEO: Winston Duke Says Black Panther Showed That Representation Makes Better Stories
Leave No Trace’s McKenzie had a similarly traumatic experience self-recording an audition where she was playing the part of a teenage girl giving birth in medieval times. “I remember it because afterward, I was like, ‘Geez, I hope my mom didn’t go through this,'” she said, adding, “It was probably the loudest I’ve ever been in my life.”
On a more serious note, the breakout stars also discussed Hollywood’s gradual shift toward becoming more inclusive and diverse. The young stars were in agreement that there have been some important steps taken, but there’s still a long way to go. “I shot a sex scene the other day,” said Castillo. “We’re pretty bare at that point and I look up and it’s all women and I’m the only dude. That’s the first time in my career that I’ve been the only man in the room; that was exciting for me and a sign that things are changing and a push in the right direction.” He later added, “For an industry built on imagination there’s so little of it…People see you in one thing and think that’s all you can do, and then you have to prove you can do something else.” Nef’s way of combatting that narrow attitude? “I’m writing a thing,” she shared. “I’m so tired of sitting around waiting to be chosen by these people.”
Duke concurred. “We work in an industry where business people make artistic decisions and that doesn’t lead to really good things,” he said. “When you’re working solely based on a bottom line, you don’t leave room for expression and imagination and all the things that keep you attached to a story… It’s time that we put more agency back into the creatives, back into artists and let them play — it’s going to make you money. It’s also very lucrative to put power in the hands of creative people, in the hands of people who don’t look like you, of people that don’t have it and let them tell tons of stories. There’s so [many] recycled stories out there,” he continued. “We’ve made King Kong so many times, we’ve made Robin Hood so many times. There’s a lot more stories. I’m from the Caribbean, there’s magical realism out there… Wakanda isn’t a real place but it’s based on cultures that exist. There’s stories all over the world and if we put agency back in creative people, give them money, give them the opportunity, support them, it’s going to be a beautiful world.”