When I wrote this on Wednesday, Tatiana Maslany – the 26-year-old star of Picture Day, which had its premiere Friday night – was probably unknown to most of you. By the time you read this Saturday, the Regina-born actress could be the Next Big Thing.
It happens that fast at the Toronto International Film Festival. One minute, you're Ellen Page, a cute kid from Halifax who's been building a resumé in Canadian film and TV. Then your film screens on the first Saturday of TIFF, and you are so singular in it that by Sunday morning it's become part of your name – overnight, you're Juno star Ellen Page, festival darling. A few short months after that, you're Ellen Page, Oscar nominee.
The alchemy of this is elusive. No one can pinpoint exactly where it will happen, or to whom. But everyone knows it when they see it.
Maybe it will be the fresh-faced stars of a hard-to-pin-down film that felt so right the minute it screened that no one could stop talking about it. That's the way it happened for Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in 2008 with Slumdog Millionaire. I ran into them at a TIFF party that week. They were the first to arrive and the last to leave, and spent the night circling the room, beaming at everyone, lit by the sparkles that played through the crystal beads strung in ribbons from the chandeliers. "It's all so surreal, especially for a 17-year-old kid like me," Patel said. "I never want to go home."
Or maybe it will be a face you thought you knew, but who shows up in a TIFF role you never imagined, and pulls it off so spectacularly that it sends her career in an entirely new direction. That happened to Anne Hathaway, who arrived at TIFF a Disney princess and left an indie darling, after knocking everyone's socks off in Rachel Getting Married. When I interviewed her that week, she was so giddy about the reception she was getting that she pressed her forehead down onto a restaurant table in embarrassment and pleasure. "This is the performance I always knew I wanted to give, the sort of world I always dreamed of being in," Hathaway said. "Now there's such a clear delineation in my life: before I made this movie, and afterward."
Or maybe it will be the writer/director who calls her films "my babies," and who nurtured one through years of ups and downs before arriving at TIFF, where it was embraced, sold to the U.S. and became successful enough that it earned her next film a gala premiere – as happened to Cairo Time director Ruba Nadda.
"TIFF was amazing for me," Nadda said in an interview this week. "To me, as a filmmaker, it's the most important festival in the world. It's [she mimed a stamp of approval]." Her life could have gone down "a very different path," she continued. "I was a 12-year-old girl in Syria who was for a while engaged to her cousin. And now I feel so lucky and privileged to be in this situation. And terrified," she added, laughing, because her latest film, Inescapable, will be one of Tuesday night's galas: "When they called me up and invited me back, I thought I was going to have a heart attack."
I've been on the breakout-star search since my first TIFF, back in 1996, when I met an apple-cheeked actress from Katy, Texas, who said "golly" a lot and talked more about her dog than her work. She had two films at that festival, a tiny one called The Whole Wide World, and another that would become a monster hit and would provide not one, not two, but three distinct, instant-classic tag lines. That movie was Jerry Maguire, two of the lines were "Show me the money" and "You complete me," and the girl was Renée Zellweger. Writer/director Cameron Crowe admitted that she delivered the third tag line, "You had me at hello," with more heartbreaking sincerity than even he had imagined.
So, will Maslany have us at 'yo'? She has the potential. Her Picture Day character, Claire – a restless soul stuck in high school who rebels in all the wrong ways – embodies the kind of buzzwords actors love: She's complex, guarded, sexual, prickly, vulnerable, divisive. The challenge of playing her scared Maslany, and that's always good; actors love roles that scare them. "Those darker sides, the things that we don't want to admit about ourselves – that's what excites me," she said this week in a phone interview. And the film is accomplished enough that audiences will like it, but unpolished enough that Maslany undoubtedly shines brightest.
Moreover, Maslany has the right resumé. She's been working since age 9, on TV shows and in films including The Vow and Eastern Promises, so she has the requisite polish to assume stardom. "I was the kid who would force my parents to sit down and watch me dance to Jesus Christ Superstar in the living room night after night," she said, laughing. But until now, most of us haven't connected her name with her face, which will make her feel like an overnight sensation.
And if she does break out at TIFF, we'll be able to see more of her soon: She has a series in the can – World Without End, which shot in Hungary and is set in England during the Black Plague and the Hundred Years' War. She has a film on the go: the road movie Cas & Dylan, opposite Richard Dreyfuss, directed by Jason Priestley. "Seeing Richard every day, this legend, with all his experience, who's still so fascinated with the craft, and so innocent and playful, is really inspiring," Maslany said. "I hope that's the way I see my career, wherever it goes." And she has her next project lined up – "I can't talk about it yet, but I'm really excited," she said.
The idea of breaking out is "a bizarre thing," Maslany admitted. "I'm in it right now, so it's hard to see it clearly. I think in a couple years I'll go, 'Oh, right, that's what that was.' For right now it feels like I'm poised on the edge of something. It's precarious, a little bit."
The hype, the expectations, even the inevitable Ellen Page comparisons "don't bug" Maslany at all. She finds it fun, exciting, incredibly flattering. "But I've learned not to place too much value on it," she said. Three years ago, she had a breakout moment at Sundance, with her film Grown Up Movie Star. "There was some blah-blah-blah about it, and I kind of went, 'Oh, cool, I made it. It happened,'" she remembered. Two months later, she was back to auditioning again. "Hype is wonderful when it happens, and you should capitalize on it," she summed up. "But you shouldn't bank on it being the thing that will take you to the next step. Because it's fleeting. The blah-blah-blah goes away, but you're still there." Breaking out is great. Staying up there is better.