TIFF’s rising stars on being part of the changing face of film

TORONTO — It’s hard to stand out amid the A-listers who descend upon the Toronto International Film Festival each year, but a quartet of emerging Canadian performers are willing to try.

Shamier Anderson, Nahema Ricci, Kacey Rohl, and Mikhail Ahooja are the fest’s homegrown “rising stars” this year, a designation that gives them access to private industry meetings with casting directors, filmmakers, producers, and executives.

An additional four global rising stars include Norway’s Josefine Frida, Australia’s Geraldine Viswanathan, the United States’ Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Argentina’s Chino Darin — son of renowned actor Ricardo Darin.

At a red carpet event for TIFF earlier this summer, some of the Canadian actors spoke about their desire to further Hollywood efforts to achieve gender parity and increase support for diverse voices. Here’s a look at each of their burgeoning careers:

NAHEMA RICCI

This 21-year-old helms one of the buzziest homegrown titles of the fest, “Antigone,” billed as an indictment of the refugee experience in North America.

Directed by Quebec filmmaker Sophie Deraspe, this modern-day interpretation of the classic Greek tragedy centres on an immigrant family in Montreal anchored by straight-A student Antigone, played by Ricci — herself a Montreal-born child of immigrant parents of Franco-Tunisian descent.

After their parents are murdered, Antigone, her sister Ismene, her brothers Eteocle and Polynice, and their grandmother Menecee attempt to build a quiet life in a tiny apartment in their working-class neighbourhood. But tragedy strikes when Eteocle is wrongfully gunned down by police during the arrest of Polynice, a small-time drug dealer.

Speaking about her career, Ricci says she’s buoyed by the chance to forge a show business profile amid an apparent sea-change that emphasizes equity and representation, but she sees any recent gains merely as “a great step.”

“Hopefully, I’m getting more opportunity than I would have 20 years ago being a woman and being a woman from a minority,” says Ricci, “but I think there’s a lot of work to do, still, and we have to stay vigilant because we have seen in history a backlash that can happen.”

SHAMIER ANDERSON

Anderson arrives at TIFF as a supporting player in Drake Doremus’s “Endings, Beginnings,” which stars Shailene Woodley as an idealistic woman caught up in a love triangle.

But he also takes a leading role as co-host of the fourth annual B.L.A.C.K Ball, an event hosted during TIFF and in Los Angeles during Oscars season, with its acronym referencing the initiative’s mission of Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema and Knowledge.

Co-founded and co-hosted by Anderson’s younger brother Stephan James — a TIFF rising star from 2015 — the event’s goal is to foster mentorship relationships between established stars and emerging talent, especially those from marginalized communities. Anderson calls efforts to support onscreen diversity “a human issue.”

“It starts before we get here, it starts back in the projects in Toronto, in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods. I think we’ve got to get to those places because that’s where I’m from,” says Anderson, a Scarborough native whose credits include the feature films “City of Lies” and “Destroyer,” the Space series “Wynonna Earp” and Netflix’s “Dear White People.”

The 28-year-old recently wrapped work on the civil rights drama “Son of the South” and the sci-fi thriller “Stowaway.”

Anderson says he and his brother James — pegged in a recent Variety profile as poised to join Hollywood’s A-list — are committed to making a difference: “We have a responsibility, especially coming from Scarborough, and (are) hoping that our city and our country can help us in this change.”

KACEY ROHL

This Vancouver actress has amassed several TV roles over the past decade in series including AMC’s “The Killing,” CW/Space’s “Arrow,” NBC/Citytv’s “Hannibal,” and Fox/Citytv’s “Wayward Pines,” and is currently shooting CBC’s upcoming spy thriller, “Fortunate Son.”

In her new TIFF film “White Lie,” Rohl dominates nearly every frame as a young woman who becomes a campus celebrity after pretending to have been diagnosed with cancer.

Directed by Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis, the film is billed as an examination of social media’s impact on contemporary culture, including the alarming proliferation of manipulation and falsehoods across the internet.

The 28-year-old Rohl plays the attention-hungry Katie, who finds herself unable to give up the fantasy world she’s created even as it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the elaborate ruse.

Co-stars include Martin Donovan of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Connor Jessup of ABC/CTV’s “American Crime,” Amber Anderson of Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” and Sharon Lewis of Global’s “Private Eyes.”

MIKHAIL AHOOJA

This francophone actor has amassed an impressive list of credits in his home province of Quebec, where he can be seen on stage, in television series and film.

The 31-year-old performer acknowledges he’s relatively unknown in English Canada, but says he’s ready to change that with his new film, “The Twentieth Century.” The surreal take on the early years of William Lyon Mackenzie King comes from Winnipeg’s Matthew Rankin, whose offbeat style has been described as akin to fellow ‘pegger Guy Maddin.

“This is my first English movie that I’ll be in, it’s just amazing to be here with everybody,” Ahooja said. “I want to hopefully meet a lot of people that can help me explore this new market.”

Rankin’s bizarre biopic stars Beirne as the former Canadian prime minister, revealed here in his youth as a political hopeful full of “both manic ambition and cherubic naivete.” Like his fellow rising stars, Ahooja says he’s energized by a push for new voices.

“People who were silenced for so many years, who didn’t have their place in movies or in big blockbusters now have the chance to be there and have their part to play and they represent a lot of people in the population,” he says. “Twenty years from now this won’t even be a conversation.”

The Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5 to 15.

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