Canada’s Rising Screen Stars: Seven talents making big moves
To celebrate National Canadian Film Day, we’re shining a spotlight the country's most exciting up-and-coming actors and filmmakers
By Norman Wilner and Radheyan Simonpillai
Apr 16, 2020
There are very few overnight sensations in the entertainment industry. There are breakouts, sure, and people who hit the culture at exactly the right time, but more often than not it’s a case of earning the spotlight: putting in the hours, doing the work and being ready to deliver when your moment arrives. Last year, when we assembled NOW’s rising stars spotlight, the artists we featured stood at the forefront of a new wave of Canadian cinema and all of them had plans to work both sides of the camera.
This year’s cohort is also part of that wave, which has been building all along: everyone here has been at this for a while, developing their skill set and getting ready for that wave to break. You’re about to see what they can really do… even if, thanks to the whole coronavirus thing, you’ll have to see it at home.
Photography by Samuel Engelking | Makeup and hair by Robert Weir
Deragh Campbell has been having a hell of a run. Already one of the most well-respected actors on the Toronto film scene, she delivered the performance of her career as a disintegrating young day-care worker in Kazik Radwanski’s Anne At 13,000 Ft. – a raw, uncompromising turn made all the more powerful by the fact that she plays almost all of it in close-up, the better to lock us into her character’s frame of mind.
A hit on the festival circuit, it landed four Canadian Screen Award nominations – including best picture, best director, best supporting actor (for Matt Johnson) and best actress for Campbell herself. That nomination caps a decade of distinctive, empathetic performances in indies like I Used To Be Darker, Stinking Heaven, O, Brazen Age and Fail To Appear… although the awards ceremony itself has been pushed back into some undetermined post-coronavirus date, along with the movie’s release.
Campbell is doing her best to roll with it. “It’s hard to be productive when the future is postponed,” she says from Stratford. “But I’m enjoying just watching things and reading for the time being, and I’ll see if some writing comes naturally to me.”
Is it weird to suggest she’s earned a break? Campbell’s been an essential part of Toronto’s indie film wave, regularly working with directors like Radwanski, Sophy Romvari and Sofia Bohdanowicz – with whom she’s made a number of shorts and one feature, MS Slavic 7, for which she shared writing and directing credits.
“I’ve always had large roles in small movies, and my role has always been kind of hybridized,” Campbell says. “Sometimes I’m an actor, sometimes I’m a co-writer, co-director, producer. It’s always been about, ‘What can I contribute to a movie?’ and taking part more than anything else – though right now, I’m really excited about acting.
“When I first started I could feel really self-conscious, like I wasn’t doing enough, and it could be quite difficult for me. Whereas now I feel a bit more open, like I’m enjoying acting more and I want to take more risks and try more things.”
Anne At 13,000 Ft. feels as risky as they come: the movie lives or dies on Campbell’s electric performance, which gives us the sense that her protagonist is always on the verge of spinning out – or imploding.
“It’s always just been about not controlling or anticipating what my reactions to things are going to be, and what it’s going to look like – just trying to be as present as possible and knowing that your face and your body give off so many different signals and contradictions. If you don’t control them too much, you can create a character that’s quite rich.” NW
Connor Jessup is used to breaking out. “I was a TIFF rising star – whatever that means – eight years ago,” he laughs. “I’ve been in a constant state of ‘rising star’ for a decade.”
That was in 2012, when the Toronto-based actor and director was shooting the alien-invasion series Falling Skies and playing a ticking-bomb teenager in Blackbird. Since then, he’s expanded his range on the network drama American Crime and in movies like Closet Monster, playing a queer teen traumatized by witnessing a gay-bashing as a child.
Jessup is slowly building a filmography of complex, intelligent characters in an industry that doesn’t always care so much about those things.
“It’s not like you have 50 options and you’re carefully making choices,” he says. “You’re much more at the whim of other people and what’s available, what the industry is doing right now and what the landscape is – and that doesn’t really have anything to do with you. It’s hard to feel like you have any sense of meaningful control over your circumstances. Which is where good people come in handy.”
Jessup has also established himself as a filmmaker, directing evocative short films like Boy and Lira’s Forest and the cinephile documentary A.W.: A Portrait Of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And like many of the people featured in our Rising Screen Stars issue, he’s looking to spend more time working with people he likes on projects that matter to him.
“Someone – I think it was Martin Scorsese – said when you watch a movie, you don’t really remember the plot afterward – it’s the least important thing,” he says. “I feel the same way about working: I don’t necessarily remember the content of the things that I worked on, or the troubles or conflicts or problems I was having. All the fond memories I have are of people… so I really am trying to only work more on things with people that I care about.”
In the last year or so, things have shifted both personally and professionally. Jessup came out as gay last summer – and talked about that decision at length in a NOW podcast – and starred in the buzzy Netflix series Locke & Key. (He also has a small part opposite Kacey Rohl in next month’s White Lie.)
And he’s getting ready for his biggest creative challenges yet.
“All I’ve felt for a while is, ‘Time to make a feature,’” he says. “I’m in the process of writing it. And hopefully, depending on a couple of factors, I can do that in the next couple of years. In the meantime, I’m working on the very early stages of a virtual-reality project I don’t even know if you can call it a short film. A short experience?” NW
By the time we emerge from isolation, Kacey Rohl’s hair will have grown back. So that’s something.
The Vancouver-based actor shaved her head to play Katie, a Hamilton university student faking a cancer diagnosis in White Lie, the new psychological thriller from Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis. You can see her do it in the film’s trailer, if you’re curious Rohl does it in character, with an eerie focus and calm that says everything about how far this young woman is willing to go to get what she wants.
Katie moves sharklike through the world of White Lie, trading favours and blackmail threats and pulling her girlfriend deeper and deeper into the hoax – with an unflappable conviction that she’s doing the right thing, even though it’s very clear she isn’t. It’s the Canadian version of Uncut Gems, rushing headlong towards disaster, and Rohl’s performance is a revelation. (She’s up for a Canadian Screen Award for best actress the film also scored nominations for best picture and best director.)
We’ve watched her play complicated young women in dozens of television shows – most vividly in Hannibal, Arrow, The Magicians and the CBC’s new 60s drama Fortunate Son – but we’ve never seen her like this.
“I read the script and all of my body was like, ‘There’s no way you can pull this off,’” Rohl laughs. “And that meant I had to do it. That’s the new barometer for me.”
After almost a decade of TV work, Rohl is changing course to seek out small, independent character pieces like White Lie. (Originally scheduled for release this month, it’s now on hold while its distributor figures out a new strategy.)
“It’s been quite a long process of me figuring out my relationship to the business and finding my own sort of power,” she says. “Figuring out the types of project I just didn’t want to do – they’re totally valid projects, a lot of my friends do them – but they don’t feed me. That’s a big part of it for me, I’m definitely not just here for a paycheque. For the last eight years I’ve been trying to find things that feel expansive in some way, that feel new in some way, that challenge me. Certainly in the last two, three years, a real focus on actively taking on things that scare me.”
Rohl is currently waiting to see whether CBC picks up Fortunate Son for a second season, “and then, you know, I’m looking for the next White Lie,” she says. “I’m looking to keep making weird little movies that make people feel stuff. I feel like now I can go forward and say, ‘Look, I did the thing! See?’
“I’m also trying to start cooking my own projects,” she adds, “so if you want to hold me accountable in print that would be awesome.” NW
Danis Goulet’s last short film, Wakening, is set in a dystopian future. Yonge and Dundas is reduced to ash and rubble. An occupying force scours the territory and Sarah Podemski’s warrior seeks out a monster from Cree lore.
Wakening is an early example of what now feels like part of a new wave of Indigenous storytellers using fantasy, sci-fi and horror in novels and films to process their history and trauma. There’s Cherie Dimaline’s dystopian YA novel The Marrow Thieves, Jeff Barnaby’s zombie thriller Blood Quantum (available on VOD on April 28), Nyla Innuksuk’s alien invasion movie Slash/Back and Goulet’s upcoming return to (genre) filmmaking, Night Raiders.
“There are genre tropes that easily lend themselves to Indigenous experience,” says Goulet, “’We’re fighting the intergalactic empire. We’re the rebels! We’re up against the oppressive force.’”
Executive produced by Taika Waititi, Night Raiders channels residential school trauma, depicting yet another dystopian future where children are the government’s property. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers stars as a mother fighting to get her daughter back from the state.
The film is expected to land on the fall festival circuit alongside Innuksuk’s alien invasion thriller Slash/Back. They are both part of a larger renaissance in Indigenous storytelling, which Goulet has been fighting to make happen over the past couple of decades.
Since 2003, Goulet has been making shorts while going to bat for other Indigenous artists as a programmer at TIFF and imagineNATIVE. She was also executive director and artistic director at the latter fest during the mid-2000s.
“For years there was a renaissance of short films,” says Goulet, speaking to projects that were wisely funded by the Canada Council tor the Arts. But in the years before the Indigenous Screen Office and a commitment from Telefilm to fund Indigenous features, shorts were like a final destination for Indigenous filmmakers. “At a certain point, a bunch of us sat up and said, ‘Why isn’t this translating into feature film production?’.”
In the years between programming, Goulet co-authored one of several reports that pointed out the success Indigenous shorts had on the festival circuit internationally. Along with many other artists, she advocated for a greater commitment to Indigenous feature filmmaking, which we’re finally seeing today with those aforementioned genre filmmakers, prize-winners like Tailfeathers and Tasha Hubbard, and promising artists like Caroline Monnet, whose first feature Bootlegger should also be ready for fall.
“This time has been building for a long time,” says Goulet. “We’re just on our way up. The next five years are going to be really defining.” RS
Jess Salgueiro has amazing range. But if you’ve been watching Canadian TV for the last few years, you’ve already seen it: “Ethnically ambiguous,” as she puts it, and able to match the tone of anything she’s dropped into, the Toronto actor has been working constantly, juggling mainstream programming like Kim’s Convenience and Mary Kills People with genre shows such as The Expanse and The Boys.
She also makes movies, turning up recently in Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece and Chad Archibald’s I’ll Take Your Dead. Recently, she anchored Geordie Sabbagh’s micro-budget comedy Canadian Strain as Anne, an independent pot dealer trying to deal with legalization. Originally scheduled to open across Canada last month, the film went directly to iTunes.
Salgueiro is doing her best to thrive during the coronavirus lockdown. “’I’ve been doing Ryan Heffington’s dance class on Instagram Live nearly every day,” she reports. “I’m also knitting a scarf, and drawing in The Post-Structuralist Vulva Coloring Book.”
When she can get back to work, Salgueiro plans to be a little more selective about the projects she takes.
“So much of being a performer, starting young, was just about the hustle,” she says. “Now I feel like I’m in a place where I’m starting to be a lot more particular. I’m a kid of immigrants, I had no reference point for anyone who did what they wanted to do as a career… you do what you can to survive, to make as much money as you can, to help your family.”
Things are starting to change Salgueiro’s becoming a known quantity, and as the offers are increasing she’s taking tighter control of her career. (This is a sentiment we’re hearing from a number of this year’s rising stars.) She explains it with a reference to Fado, the Portuguese music she grew up singing.
“It’s something that informs me as a performer – this idea of saudade,” she says. “It’s like yearning, but it’s also the love that was left behind. It’s always about this celebration of feeling, and it’s about feeling everything. Whether I’m doing drama or comedy or theatre or film or TV, I want to open myself as much as possible. To let all of the messiness of life stumble out.”
While you might not see Salgueiro in quite so many projects going forward – this year there’s the Netflix ballet-academy series Tiny Pretty Things, and her Letterkenny teammate Kelly McCormack’s Sugar Daddy, which plays festivals in the fall – you don’t need to worry. That’s part of the plan.
“This year, specifically, I had to prove something to myself,” Salgueiro says. “I’m trying to be nice to myself. I’m trying to be as radically honest as possible, and also lean into the joy of my work: the more I can understand about my own humanity, the more I can connect with others.” NW
One night on a New York City rooftop in the fall of 2017, Lina Roessler ordered a celebratory champagne, looked out at the skyline and asked herself: “What the fuck just happened?”
Earlier that day, the Toronto-based actor who had directed three short films was in a meeting with veteran Hollywood producer Cassian Elwes and his daughter and producing partner, Arielle Elwes. Conan O’Brien was sitting at a nearby table. Roessler assumed she was being interviewed for an assistant or associate producer gig for a script the Elwes duo held on to called Best Sellers. They didn’t explicitly tell her what they had in mind. All they had asked the novice filmmaker for was notes on the script and a look book.
“I couldn’t conceive what was really happening,” Roessler recalls. “So I actually asked Cassian, ‘Do you guys want me to be involved in this project in some way?’ Cassian kind of slammed his hands on the table. He was like: ‘Why do you think I flew you down here? I want you to direct this picture.’”
That’s how Roessler awkwardly landed her feature debut, an odd-couple road trip dramedy starring high-calibre duo Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza that should reach screens in the fall.
To hear Roessler tell it, her entire filmmaking career sounds incidental. She’s always been interested in writing, even as she worked as an actor on shows like Lost Girl and Murdoch Mysteries. She studied English lit at school. She wrote 50 short stories as a collection and found a Montreal publisher that was interested in having her write 50 more. As an act of procrastination, she instead took one of her short stories, turned it into a screenplay and filmed it while on a trip to L.A. That film, The Vow, won a prize at the Rhode Island Film Festival, encouraging Roessler to keep going.
The Vow, along with Winter and Mustard Seed, would form a trilogy called Little Whispers. Each film depicts children (whether they be Iranian immigrants, abuse victims or a witness to the Holocaust) processing trauma in their own way.
In 2017, Roessler was invited to TIFF’s Talent Lab, which is where, weeks before that meeting, she met Elwes, the producer with a reputation for nurturing indie talents like David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and Dee Rees (Mudbound).
Elwes was serving as a mentor at the talent lab, where the initial assignment tasked the participants with making a self-portrait. He was taken by Roessler’s Wes Anderson-style self-portrait, in which she states: “I like telling stories. I suppose that’s why I’m here.”
And that’s how she ended up on that rooftop. RS
Heather Young’s Murmur is about a woman (Shan MacDonald) who hoards rescue animals from a shelter to keep her own loneliness at bay – a premise that isn’t exactly a snappy concept as far as traditional financiers are concerned.
“That’s okay, I don’t want to make big Hollywood movies anyway,” Young jokes, feigning offence at the suggestion that she isn’t exactly mainstream.
Young’s unique and uncompromising voice is why Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program started. She’s from the first cohort for the former micro-budget funding program that has been revamped by director Matt Johnson and producer Matthew Miller to access diverse talent from across Canada. And so far, Young is the big success story from that cohort.
Murmur, which will be available April 17-23 via Vancouver’s The Cinematheque‘s virtual screenings, has already been racking up accolades. Young won the Prize of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) at TIFF, the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature at the Slamdance Festival and is nominated for the John Dunning Best First Feature Award at the Canadian Screen Awards (full disclosure: I was a CSA film juror this year).
Murmur is bleak but beautiful, powered by MacDonald’s vulnerable performance, which is laid bare within Young’s precise and striking compositions. The film starts off heartbreaking and just gets grimmer before finding a glimmer of hope.
As with her short films Fish and Milk, Murmur blends fiction with documentary in a style similar to fellow CSA nominee Denis Côté. But Young also has a lot in common with another east coast filmmaker, Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf). The two represent what is being loosely referred to as a Nova Scotia New Wave.
“There’s a certain aesthetic that has been born in Nova Scotia,” says Young. “It partially comes out of working under certain restrictions and using those restrictions to your advantage. You learn to write for your budget level and make something formally interesting.”
Both McKenzie and Young use real locations and non-professional actors, which is both a necessity (Nova Scotia doesn’t exactly have a large pool of professional actors) and an advantage when finding someone like MacDonald, who Young says brings her own personal life and emotions to the role.
“She’s not acting,” says Young. “The emotion that you see her portray in the film is real lived emotion that she’s experiencing on camera.”
Young’s work is also distinguished by visual storytelling: images that get burned into your memory, like a dog in rehab running on a submerged treadmill.
“I wanted to challenge myself to create stand-alone visuals that express the theme of the piece,” says Young, describing an aesthetic she’s been developing over the years. “A great way to have subtlety is expressing emotion through image.” RS
National Canadian Film Day takes place on April 22. Visit canadianfilmday.ca for a list of online screenings and events.
Video: Behind The Scenes at the Canada’s Rising Screen Stars shoot