The ones to watch: meet the next generation of megastars

They’re young, talented – and on the fast-track to fame. Julia Llewellyn Smith meets the next generation of megastars.

The headline maker

Christina House / Getty Images
Her standout performance as Borat’s daughter in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has seen MARIA BAKALOVA, 24, from Bulgaria, inundated with awards – and scripts, too. Maria has also recently been nominated for a Golden Globe, SAG and Critics Choice award. 

You’re currently in LA – are you stuck there because of Covid?

Absolutely. I came here last January [to film Borat] and was meant to go home for Christmas but Covid stopped that.

While you have had an accomplished career in Bulgaria, your role as Tutar, Borat’s daughter, has won you several best supporting actress awards and there’s talk of a best actress nomination – have you had a chance to celebrate?

There are no parties. But the platform I’ve been given is so inspiring. Normally, Eastern European actors are depicted in films as Mafia members or prostitutes, but Tutar is a really multi-layered character.

Was auditioning for Borat fun?

I had to do crazy improvisations in front of real people, such as washing my face from a toilet, using a sink as a toilet, eating the fish in an aquarium. Normally a Hollywood movie is about being glamorous but this was about looking like I didn’t care about myself – so no washing, no shaving, having dirty nails.

Tell us more about the hotly discussed scene with [Donald Trump’s lawyer] Rudy Giuliani, who gets into a compromising position with your character…

The night before I barely slept, I was so busy researching him, and in the morning I had dark circles which they had to cover up. When the time came I was shaking, it was like my heart was about to explode. But afterwards, I was extremely happy.

Are you naturally brave?

I don’t like a quiet life – you have to keep taking risks. As a child I was always reading; I was trying to be an adult. Then when I got older I was like, ‘Where’s my childhood? Let me have it now!’

Did your parents like Borat?

My mum cried because she empathised with Tutar and how her dad doesn’t love her. But then she got over it and has seen the film again and again.

What’s next for you?

I read about four scripts a day but before anything we need to get vaccinated so we can live again.

Maria is in The Father, Bulgaria’s submission for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars

The Twitter trendsetter

Mollie Rose / Kintzing
LYDIA WEST, 27, from London, was working as a PA when she was cast in 2019’s BBC drama Years and Years. She’s currently in Channel 4’s huge hit It’s A Sin

In It’s A Sin you play Jill Baxter, a friend of the young gay men living in 1980s London – is she based on a real person?

Yes, Jill Nalder, who is a great friend of the director Russell T Davies, and also plays my mother in the series. She lived with all these boys and saw the Aids pandemic develop.

Is acting in the family?

Not at all – my mum’s a nurse and my dad works for a charity. I wanted to be a dancer, but in my teens I had a foot injury, so I studied business at university, which was what my parents wanted. Afterwards I worked as a PA but went to drama school part-time. When the audition came along for Years and Years and I got the part, I didn’t know until the day of the read-through that Emma Thompson and Rory Kinnear were in it. People dream of jobs like this, so to have it as my first was amazing.

From there you went straight to Dracula and then It’s A Sin. Any plans to be a PA again?

I’ve got a romcom with Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Text For You, coming out, and I’m currently filming Apple TV+ drama Suspicion with Uma Thurman, so my office job may have to wait!

The response to It’s A Sin has been incredible and #BeMoreJill is trending on Twitter.

I think it’s because Jill’s so loving and caring, and we don’t see people like her on screen much. It really touched a nerve that in the face of adversity there are people willing to have your back.

It’s A Sin is on Fridays at 9pm on Channel 4 and

The comeback queen

Rachell Smith
Known for her roles in Salem, The Tudors and, most recently, Amazon’s Carnival Row with Orlando Bloom, Sussex-born TAMZIN MERCHANT, 33, reveals why losing out on TV’s biggest role was the making of her

What does 2021 have in store?

My first novel, The Hatmakers, is out this month. I got the idea for it during a costume fitting on Carnival Row. That night I dreamt about a girl who comes from a family of milliners, who weave magical ingredients into their hats.

You played Georgiana Darcy in the film Pride & Prejudice then went to Cambridge University. Was it a back-up plan?

I just wanted to have the student experience. When you’re acting you exist in a bubble, so it was nice just to escape to the library and to have friends who were studying things like philosophy or natural sciences, and for whom acting isn’t their whole world.

You were cast as Daenerys in the Game of Thrones pilot, then Emilia Clarke landed the role…

Game of Thrones was a lesson in listening to your instincts. I felt in my gut this wasn’t for me, but I was persuaded it would be good for my career. I ended up on a set in Morocco at 3am feeling very exposed – the only actor on set that looked comfortable was a horse with an erection!

How did you feel when the show became such a huge hit?

I remember going to an audition for a little British horror film and the train there was scattered with newspapers showing Emilia at a premiere. I was, like, ‘OK, I’ve chosen this…’ But it was affirming – I felt I was cutting my own path. And Emilia smashed that role.

What are you up to next?

More writing – then filming the latest season of Carnival Row.

The Hatmakers will be published on 18 February

The bright young thing

Danny Kasirye / Netflix
After landing a role made famous by Marilyn Monroe, JESSIE MEI LI, 25, from Surrey, has two projects – Netflix’s Shadow and Bone and the Edgar Wright film Last Night in Soho – coming out this year

How did you get into acting?

I grew up loving it, but I ended up studying languages at university. However, I didn’t feel happy so I dropped out and worked as a special needs teacher, which I loved. I started acting classes on the side and going to open auditions.

What was your big break?

In 2019, I was cast in the West End production of All About Eve with Gillian Anderson and Lily James. I was Claudia Casswell, who Marilyn Monroe played in the film version. There were two blonde girls auditioning, who really looked the part, soI thought I was wasting my time, but the director hadn’t seen the film, and wanted to put his spin on it.

Tell us more about Shadow and Bone

It’s adapted from a series of books by Leigh Bardugo and set in a fantastical world cleaved in two by a barrier of darkness. I play Alina Starkov, who can control the elements and banish the darkness.

How has lockdown been?

To me, it’s been almost a blessing because it had been such a crazy six months filming and it was quite nice to have a rest. But my mum is a nurse and my brother is a doctor in the NHS, so they’ve been under a lot of stress. My world can be so completely bonkers, so seeing the pressure they’re under and supporting them has really helped keep me grounded.

Shadow and Bone will be out in April

The secret superstar

David Reiss
When then A-level student LAUREN PATEL, 19, from Bolton, got not just her first role but one in the film of the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, she was almost afraid to tell people…

How did you get the Jamie role?

I was at college in 2019 when I heard about open online auditions for it. I sent in a few tapes and then did an audition in person. Three weeks later I landed my part.

Is acting in the family?

Not at all – my mum’s a teacher and my dad’s a pharmacist. I’d always enjoyed performing arts at school and I thought maybe in 20 years I’ll get a small part on telly, but the month after being cast I was spending weekends rehearsing with people like Richard E Grant and then going back to college on Monday. The day after my exams I moved to Sheffield to start filming.

What did your friends think?

At first it was all very secretive, but I had to tell my teachers and my close friends. I was nervous about telling people – I think I was worried it was going to be taken away from me at the last minute, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing this little film.’ Then the trailer came out and everyone was, like, ‘Lauren!’

Does your family let you off the washing-up now that you’re a film star?

Definitely not! I still haven’t seen the finished film – the producers want me to wait until it’s on the big screen – so sometimes it still feels like: ‘Did I dream that?’

Tell us about your character…

I play Pritti, Jamie’s best friend. She encourages him to live his life as a drag queen and has this great song, ‘Spotlight’, where she gets him to put on a pair of high heels. But she’s not just the encouraging best friend – she stands up for herself, she has balls.

What’s lined up next?

The pandemic means the film still hasn’t come out. But I’ve spent lockdown taking lots of online acting and singing classes and a few things look promising.

Any hidden talents?

I play the trumpet, and in lockdown I’ve learnt to make the perfect cupcake.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will be out later this year

The overdue sensation

Camera Press / Joseph Sinclair
It’s been a long road to success for LEILA FARZAD, 39 – but her role as Billie Piper’s best friend and agent Naomi in Sky’s hit drama I Hate Suzie was worth the wait

You’ve been in the acting game for a while…

No actor appears out of nowhere – there’s a lot of graft and pain that people don’t see. I came close to a lot of great parts, did some Shakespeare and bits of telly, but I found it very hard to find work where my face fitted.

You grew up in London, but your parents are Iranian

Yes. I feel Middle-Eastern women like me aren’t represented on screen. I used to get emails from my agent saying, ‘There’s this Pakistani girl they’d like you to play.’ I’d audition and they’d say, ‘You’re too well-spoken, we want someone grittier.’ After I Hate Suzie so many Iranian girls messaged me saying, ‘Wow, there’s someone that looks like me on TV.’ Others said, ‘I’m bisexual like Naomi!’ or ‘I’ve had struggles like Naomi’s.’ It’s really moving.

Those must have brightened up your lockdowns?

I’ve felt guilty because people were having a terrible time and I was like, ‘I have this great part in this great show!’ Doors have opened and people I’ve wanted to meet are eager to meet me.

Was acting always the plan?

I was academic and my mum hoped I’d study something with a guaranteed career. We made a deal: if I did a degree I could try acting after that. I went to Oxford but struggled. When I finally went to drama school, it felt like home.

What next for you?

There are some plans but I can’t talk about them yet! I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to home school my six-year-old daughter and make self-tapes for auditions. Another season of I Hate Suzie is in discussion, but nothing’s been confirmed yet.

Leila will star in the new series of This Time With Alan Partridge, out later this year. I Hate Suzie is available on demand on Sky Atlantic

The Line of Duty rookie

Matt Holyoak/ Netflix
SHALOM BRUNE-FRANKLIN, 26, is best known for playing Rose – the daughter of Hugh Laurie’s slippery politician – in the BBC series Roadkill. Her latest role is in the sixth series of hit show Line of Duty – only she doesn’t want to talk about it…

You’re from Australia via St Albans?

Yes, I was born in England and lived in St Albans until I was 15, when my parents said, ‘We’d rather struggle in the sunshine’ and emigrated. I’ve a foot in both countries and whichever one I’m in I have FOMO about what’s happening in the other place.

You began filming Line of Duty in Belfast last January but then Covid shut down shooting.

We had to wait until the end of August to start again, with the constant threat of coronavirus just around the corner.

Tell us about your part…

I’m DC Chloe Bishop, a cop, but there’s so much secrecy around Line of Duty it’s safest to say as little as possible.

Are you from an acting family?

No – my mum, who’s Mauritian, works for the government and my dad, who’s Thai-English, was an electrician before pursuing his dream job of being a chef.

What does 2021 hold for you?

I’ve got a big show which starts filming in Australia in March and I’m really excited about working again in home number one… or is it two? I can’t decide which is which.

Line of Duty is coming soon to BBC One and iPlayer

The right royal grafter

Rachell Smith / Camera Press
Edinburgh-born CHLOE PIRRIE, 33, has recently starred in two of Netflix’s biggest shows: The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit

Your CV makes it look like you’re the busiest woman in showbiz!

It can look like that, but there have been periods when I haven’t been busy. After drama school I was waitressing for quite a while.

Did that help with acting?

Definitely. I’ve worked in cafés, burger bars, pulled pints – you name it. As an actor, it’s so useful to have worked in environments where no one’s focused on you: you learn about humility and hard graft. Even when my career began taking off, I found it hard to stop waitressing, I valued it so much.

The Queen’s Gambit has been one of the greatest lockdown hits. Did you see that coming?

I fell in love with the script but I didn’t see a drama about chess being huge. I realised it was when I started getting messages from friends and family who aren’t normally massively engaged with TV. I’m just so relieved I accepted the part – in order to film it [in 2019] I had to cancel a music festival, birthday plans, a holiday. Can you imagine how I’d feel now if I’d turned it down?

Are people surprised when they hear your Scottish accent?

Most people think I’m Canadian. Now I live in London with my partner and retired greyhound.

What’s on the cards next?

Filming season three of Amazon Prime’s Hanna. I still worked over the past year, but shooting when you have to distance and wear PPE in rehearsals is so different – between takes you can’t break the ice with the other actors.

The Queen’s Gambit is available on Netflix

The dream debutante

Richard Kelly
Ask AGNES O’CASEY, 25, from Devon, how lockdown has been and, rather than sigh, she’ll tell you… she only got a lead role in new BBC drama Ridley Road!

You hadn’t even graduated when you landed the part…

It was incredible. I was at drama school in Dublin preparing our final showcase when lockdown happened. I went home to Devon and made my peace with probably not working for ages. But Ridley Road’s director had seen me audition for something else and called me in. It felt like a dream.

Tell us more about you.

I’m the great-granddaughter of [Irish playwright] Seán O’Casey and I feel huge pride that he grew up in terrible poverty and today his plays are performed at places like the National Theatre. When I was seven my grandmother took me to see his play The Shadow of A Gunman and I recall thinking, ‘I have to act this!’ I always feel he’s looking after me and changed my surname to O’Casey. My dad was, like, ‘This is so unnecessary!’ but there aren’t many O’Caseys left.

So acting was always the goal?

I spent two years auditioning unsuccessfully for drama schools, so to please my parents I went to Edinburgh University. But I only lasted one year before I won the place in Dublin and left.

Tell us about Ridley Road

I play Vivien, a hairdresser in 1960s Manchester who follows the love of her life to London and discovers he’s part of the anti-fascist 62 Group. She gets involved too and goes undercover.

What’s next for you?

There are a few unconfirmed things, which is fine – I feel I’ve had the opposite of a lockdown and need a moment to sit.

Ridley Road will be on BBC One later this year

The power player

NIAMH ALGAR, 28, from Ireland, recently filmed Raised by Wolves with Ridley Scott. She is also the star of Channel 4’s upcoming drama My Name is Lizzie

You play the policewoman who posed as ‘Lizzie James’ to honeytrap Colin Stagg for the murder of Rachel Nickell in 1992. That must have been gruelling…

It was, because ‘Lizzie’ became a scapegoat for the investigation and I was playing two parts: the ‘Lizzie’ role my character pretended to be and then my actual character. If I get a part wrong I just get a bad review, but if she gets her part of Lizzie wrong she could die.

So what’s next for you?

Flying to Cape Town for season two of Raised By Wolves. As a child I was such a fan of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator that I named my pony Maximus after Russell Crowe’s role. With films like Alien and Thelma & Louise, Ridley was the first director to put women in leading roles and say, ‘Yes, women can be strong and intelligent and not just someone’s girlfriend.’

You’re from Mullingar, Ireland, the youngest of five children.

We grew up in a very isolated house between a lake and a forest. Everyone knows everyone, so when I go home they’re, like, ‘Oh, you’re the actor!’ Though at Christmas no one noticed me because I was wearing a mask.

Did you always want to act?

I was very into sailing as a child. Dad’s an engineer and when I got into drama he wasn’t sure, so he got me to meet his cousin, a journalist, saying, ‘Tell her acting’s a terrible idea.’ But he said, ‘I can see in your eyes you’re going to do this, no matter what.’ Now my parents are, like, ‘We supported her from the get-go!’

You were one of Bafta’s rising stars of 2019 and nominated for most promising newcomer in 2020’s British Independent Film Awards – but you’re Irish!

The majority of my work is in the UK and I live in London, so I feel truly accepted here.

Niamh will star in My Name is Lizzie on Channel 4 later this year

The Undoing scene-stealer

Fabrice Dall’Anese/Contour by Getty Images
Her role as Elena in last year’s Sky hit The Undoing required lots of nudity with Hugh Grant. That was easy, says MATILDA DE ANGELIS, 25, from Italy – the hard part was being around the show’s other star, her idol Nicole Kidman

Was the success of The Undoing overwhelming?

It was incredible to see the huge impact it had. For a while things had been tough and I was feeling frustrated about my career. But suddenly I was getting all this love and I was so happy. I’ve signed with a big US agency, which was beyond my imagination.

How did you celebrate winning the part of Elena?

My first reaction was, ‘I’m so scared. They can’t possibly think I can do this.’ But then I couldn’t stop smiling. I was nervous meeting Nicole Kidman because as a child I was obsessed with Moulin Rouge, but [director] Susanne Bier told me, ‘You’re an actress, not a fan around Nicole’, so I played it pretty cool.

Your part involved a lot of full-frontal nudity… 

I felt really safe because there was a woman director, and an intimacy coordinator who would say, ‘You can take Hugh’s hand and put it wherever you want.’ When you feel empowered, that’s easy. The problem is when you don’t have that control.

You started as a singer…

From 16 I was the lead singer in a band. We spent weeks touring Italy in this ancient yellow van – it was the best fun. My mum said, ‘I trust you to be sensible’ and I behaved like an angel – the things I could have done… and didn’t.

How did the acting start?

I went to an open audition for a film in Rome. Since then I’ve made several Italian films.

How was lockdown?

I felt sad because I’d imagined myself doing the red carpet with Hugh and Nicole, but that couldn’t happen. I live in Rome and was going through a bad time in my love life so I went to stay with my family.

What are you up to now?

I’m filming an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees in Venice. So many projects are coming in and I feel I’m at the point in my career where I have to be careful not to make any false steps.

Matilda will star in the TV series Leonardo alongside Aidan Turner, coming later this year