The five actors who will break out of Sundance 2018

By and
Photography Mark Aghatise

Published January 18, 2018

Many up-and-coming actors have emerged the other end of the Sundance Film Festival cycle, wet behind the ears but edging dangerously close towards the promise of success in Tinseltown. It’s often a budding actor’s first pit stop on the long slog to stardom. Insofar as it can act as a breeding ground for new talent, it can be unforgiving if a new film premieres to resounding “boos.” That’s seemingly unlikely for these five actors, all with one, two and—in one case—three movies that will give them each a sure shot at a rapid trajectory. For Kelvin Harrison Jr., Hari Nef, Sheila Vand, Ed Oxenbould and Jasmine Cephas Jones, this could rightly be their big moment, all they have to do is reach out and grab it.

Though you probably saw Dee Rees’s racially charged Netflix film Mudbound, one of 2017’s best films, you might not have caught the young Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the compelling role of Weeks. He’s making sure you won’t miss him in his next big roles, as the 23-year-old from New Orleans is armed with three films premiering at Sundance—a hat trick that will plonk him square in front of Hollywood’s greedy eyes. It’s a unique situation to be in, and one that he keeps getting bat over the head with: “Everyone’s told me,” he says, laughing off his impending fame. With three separate films—two of which are socially conscious projects anyone would be proud to be a part of—Harrison Jr. is teetering on the precipice of a cushy career on the big screen. You’ll be seeing his name everywhere. — Trey Taylor

NAME: Kelvin Harrison Jr.

AGE: 23

MOVIES HE’S IN: Monster, Monsters and Men, Assassination Nation

WHAT THEY’RE ABOUT: Monster is based on a book by Walter Dean Myers. It’s about a 17-year-old filmmaker and honors student who is on trial for a murder he may or may not have been part of. I play Steve Harmon, the 17-year-old filmmaker. Monsters and Men is told in three parts, loosely based on the Eric Garner story, the aftermath and how that affects three different people: a guy on the street who films the incident, a black cop and a baseball phenomenon. That’s who I play, this baseball player who is trying to figure out what his role is in society now being a black male in America. Then Assassination is this really fun movie with all these cool kids, kind of like the social media The Crucible. I play Mason, who is just one of the boys.

ON ONE OF THESE ROLES BEING HIS POTENTIAL BREAKOUT

KELVIN HARRISON JR.: Who’s to say? We’ll see how it goes. I can’t really think about it and I don’t really think about it. Honestly, I’m just like, “When’s the next job?”

ON TAKING SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS ROLES

HARRISON JR.: [Socially conscious projects] are not necessarily something I look for, per se. It’s if something gravitates towards me because of where I am in my life and what I’m learning. I like roles that educate me. Those particular ones open my eyes personally and make me go, “Wow.” If it can teach me something just from reading the script, I want to be a part of it to see what it can do for other people.

HIS EARLIEST CINEMATIC MEMORY

HARRISON JR.: I was only really allowed to watch Disney movies when I was growing up. I always say Sleeping Beauty [1959] was my favorite movie. Everyone was like, “Why? She sleeps the whole movie?!” And I’m like, “Yeah, but Maleficent! What a lady. What a gal!” I want to be Maleficent. I also saw a movie called Imitation of Life [1959]. That was the first time I ever cried watching a film. It made me change how I thought.

Hari Nef tackled a few jobs on the small screen before making waves with her performance as Gittel on Amazon’s streaming boon Transparent. The model-turned-actress—who has appeared on the covers of Elle UK and Love Magazine—will be making her Sundance debut with her first major film role in Sam Levinson’s thriller Assassination Nation, where she will co-star alongside Suki Waterhouse, Abra, and Odessa Young. As her professional resume continues to grow, Nef hopes to keep her off-screen life more contained. “I think a big part of being in my mid-twenties is just allowing my world to shrink a little bit and discover who my supporters are, who my champions are, who my real friends are,” Nef says. This sentiment is also shared by her character Bex in Assassination Nation, who goes on a journey of self-discovery through unconventional means. — Austen Tosone

NAME: Hari Nef

AGE: 25

MOVIE SHE’S IN: Assassination Nation

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: “It’s a very dark, pitch-black coming of age teen comedy,” Nef says.

ON POTENTIAL BREAKOUT STARDOM

HARI NEF: This is my first major film role and my first time playing a lead role in a project like this. I don’t see myself as someone who’s breaking in or breaking out … Whether five people see this film or five million, I will feel really proud of the work that I did. I know it’s the best work of my life.

WHY INDIE THEATERS MATTER

NEF: I first became invested in cinema because of the films I would see at the smaller, local theaters around where I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. There was the West Newton Cinema, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Kendall Square Cinema and The Brattle Theatre. They weren’t fancy megaplexes—the seats were kind of falling apart, and they were all really old. But the fact that I had access to those theaters. They were where I saw my first indie films. I remember seeing Juno [2007] at Coolidge Corner, I remember seeing I Am Love [2009] at West Newton Cinema, I remember seeing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [2007] at Kendall Square. What I’m saying is keep theaters like this open!

CHARACTER STUDY

NEF: Bex is the girl I wish I had the gumption to be in high school. She is cool, she’s self-assured, she knows what she wants, but she’s also a teenager so she’s super vulnerable. She’s experiencing a lot of things for the first time like lust and romantic rejection. I did a lot of character work thinking about Bex and her upbringing and her history with the other girls and what her dreams are. I think maybe she wants to move to New York and go to Parsons or something. That’s not in the film at all or anything. [laughs] She’s 17 years old. It was fun to wind back the clock on myself.

Rolling onto screens as a badass vampire skateboarder in Ana Lily Amirpour’s stunning noir A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night [2014], Vand has already cemented her status as an indie darling. But she isn’t content to simply take roles where she has to “whisper and keep my eyebrows still,” she says, deadpan. The Iranian-American is wanting to exhume the no-holds-barred style of acting from the ’70s, when being angry on screen translated to yelling until your snot runs out. She returns to Sundance for a third time in Jeremiah Zagar’s film We the Animals, a languid coming-of-age story based on Justin Torres’s novel of the same name. It will marry animation with live-action and push Vand even further into Hollywood’s stratosphere. — Trey Taylor

NAME: Sheila Vand

AGE: 32

MOVIE SHE’S IN: We the Animals

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: “I play the mom in a mixed race family to three young boys who are growing up in the chaos of poverty. She had kids at a really young age and she’s trying to make ends meet. I felt like all the characters were really complex and three-dimensional in a way that is really hard to find in scripts. Also the fact that it’s about a mixed race kid coming into his queerness is something I wanted to be a part of. There can’t be enough stories about people of color and people exploring their identity in the way that this movie explores that.”

ON HAVING PRIVILEGE GUILT

SHEILA VAND: Nothing in my decade-long career was handed to me. I really have worked hard for where I’m at. I remind myself of that when I worry about whether or not I deserve what I have. I know that the people who are my true friends who don’t necessarily have the same life I have are really happy for me. They would be bummed out if they knew that I was spending all of this time being sad inside of my dream. My family is so proud of me and supportive of me, so I have to remind myself, it’s not like I’m giving them something by feeling bad about what I have. I’m not sure that that is actually an act of generosity. Guilt isn’t serving anybody. Everybody deserves their dreams to come true. I really believe that everyone has that light and that potential inside of them. It doesn’t help them shine their light by us dimming ours.

THE FILM ROLES THAT SHAPED HER

VAND: Most of the films that have impacted me were made in the ’70s and ’80s when there was a different culture to performance and the artistry of acting. Like Gena Rowlands in any Cassavetes movie, or even a young Jack Nicholson. I’m a big fan of Andrzej Żuławski and Isabelle Adjani’s performance in Possession [1981]—that’s one of my favorites. The through line in all of these performances is that they’re wild and electric. What we see a lot today are these “naturalistic” performances where people are whispering and not moving their face … I did not become an actor to whisper and keep my eyebrows really still.

HER BIGGEST POTENTIAL SETBACK

VAND: Straight white men … I think we’re learning a lot in this current climate about how intrinsic misogyny can be and the way that it has affected women isn’t always blatant and it doesn’t always come in the form of some explicit violence. Sometimes it’s really subversive, sometimes it’s systemic, the way most oppression is. I’m just so happy that in my lifetime, so many brave women have given me this gift of a new lens in which to see my life experience. I’m really trying not to shy away from looking at things clearly. It’s not about some political or social agenda, it’s about the truth. I never thought that in my lifetime we would see this kind of change. It’s just exciting and I’m so curious what’s going to happen moving forward now that we’ve lifted the curtain.

At age 16, Australian actor Ed Oxenbould is already 16 credits deep into his IMDb resume, and his momentum only seems to be on the rise. As the main character in actor-turned-director Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, the Sydney native has come a long way from his first gig: doing a voiceover for an air freshener commercial. While he still has two years to go until getting his GED, Oxenbould probably won’t be needing math class much longer after audiences see what this precocious young star can do. — Trey Taylor

NAME: Ed Oxenbould

AGE: 16

MOVIE THAT HE’S IN: Wildlife

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: “It’s about this family falling apart, and this marriage between Joe’s parents, Jeanette and Jerry, falling apart, but it’s only seen through my eyes. So there’s not a lot of scenes of the parents alone. It’s interesting, it’s about what a kid would see in a family going through a divorce, which is what makes it so interesting and so different.”

OTHER SUNDANCE FILMS HE’S EXCITED FOR

ED OXENBOULD: There’s one I really want to see called Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham. I’ve been a massive fan of his since probably grade seven. Me and my friend would just quote every line to his standup show, to all his songs.

ON BEING DIRECTED BY PAUL DANO

OXENBOULD: In rehearsals he made me and Carey Mulligan, who played my mom, he gave us these topics and he gave us a notebook and we had to write this whole paragraph about this topic that we channeled later in the film, which was something I’d never done before and it really did help. Later in the scenes he’d say, “Hey, think back to the time in rehearsals when you wrote down this and you wrote down that.” But he was great and he gave great directions that stuck with me, that I’ve just gone, “Oh, that’s how you play that kind of moment,” and you pick up so many little things.

STARSTRUCK

OXENBOULD: I remember being starstruck, especially when I met Jake [Gyllenhaal]. Because I have to drive in the film I was doing practice driving around a mall parking lot in Oklahoma and I remember that I just heard that he was in the trailer and I went, “Oh my god.” Then I went to go meet him and he’s super nice. But it’s strange seeing someone you and thousands of people admire. It’s strange to see someone in the flesh that you’ve watched on-screen for years, people that you know about. It’s a weird feeling.

As the daughter of legendary actor Ron Cephas Jones—who played ailing grandfather William Hill on NBC smash This Is Us—Jasmine was dragged along to auditions all throughout her childhood. It was an inspirational upbringing that lit a fire under the Hamilton actor to get out on her own, taking her father’s name “Cephas” as her own—a permanent reminder of what she has to live up to. With two films at Sundance, the uncompromising singer and actor is hedging her bets with two very strong films. — Trey Taylor

NAME: Jasmine Cephas Jones

AGE: 28

MOVIES SHE’S IN: Monsters and MenBlindspotting

WHAT THEY’RE ABOUT: “In both of them I play a young mom,” she says. “One is about police brutality, and Blindspotting is about gentrification in Oakland. David’s character sees a shooting and is affected by it, he has this PTSD about it. Both of my characters are very responsible and hold their ground and speak their truth as women, so I think it’s really special and exciting to see. In Blindspotting I play a girl from Oakland, I’ve got an accent, I’ve got long, ’90s Poetic Justice braids, and in Monsters and Men I play a girl from Brooklyn.”

ON BEING DRAWN TO SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS ROLES

JASMINE CEPHAS JONES: It’s something that we need right now. While the world is going through what it’s going through, this is the time when art needs to thrive and we need a platform to say something, so I’m super proud and happy to be involved, if you make something that has any type of message it’s important because you’re using your artistry to tell a story.

LIVING UP TO HER LEGACY

JONES: [My father] is an actor, he opened my eyes to downtown theater. He is part of a company called LAByrinth Theater Company, Philip Seymour Hoffman directed two plays that he was in. He opened my eyes to theater. My father would take me to auditions and put me in the room right in the corner because he was watching me; he couldn’t get a babysitter. He’d be at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the LES until four in the morning, trying to tell his story and using his craft, but because he had a kid that didn’t let him stop. He included me in that, so that’s another reason why I included it in my name, I was like, “Cephas is pretty dope.”

HOW TO GIVE LESS OF A FUCK

JONES: Block it out. Block it out, sometimes laugh at the situation. I’ll laugh at the situation and turn it into a song. A lot of the times I write it. I’m a singer, this last year was the first time I started writing my own music, and a lot of my “not giving a fucks” and “fuck yous” came out in my music. Speaking my truth. I think that’s the number one thing, man. That’s my 2018 mantra. Speak your truth, because you hold all that in, it’s going to destroy you.

 

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL RUNS UNTIL JANUARY 28, 2017. ALL IMAGES SHOT WITH POLAROID’S ONE-STEP 2 CAMERA.