Rising stars: You might not know them ... but you will
Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Alicia Vikander. Randall Park. Lily James.
Nothing? Just give them a few months.
A whole new slate of actors, including those promising talents, are moving into the spotlight, poised to unseat the Hollywood establishment and become household names in their own right.
From the next Cinderella to the latest addition to the comedic band of actors in Team Apatow, here are four up-and-comers to keep your eye on. And guaranteed, next awards season you will know their names.
A natural brunette, Lily James was happy to dye her hair blond when she landed the role of Lady Rose MacClare on the hit drama "Downton Abbey."
When James auditioned to play one of the stepsisters for Disney's upcoming big-screen adaptation of "Cinderella," the casting director noticed her new hair color and offered her a suggestion: "You should just read for Cinderella while you're here."
Surprised, James read a few lines. Can you guess what happened next?
If you don't know, then you're not one of the millions who have watched the YouTube trailers for "Cinderella" (opening in March) starring James, 25. Cate Blanchett plays the Evil Stepmother, and Helena Bonham Carter is the Fairy Godmother.
James, a British actress who began her career in theater, is feeling the pressure of updating Cinderella -- she spent hours talking with director Kenneth Branagh about the character. There also were more practical challenges: using CGI for the glass slipper and Cinderella's signature sweeping blue gown.
By coincidence, James's next upcoming starring role is also playing an iconic character -- with a twist. She stars as Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," based on the novel that infused sci-fi into the classic Jane Austen love story.
-- Emily Yahr
What do you do when your breakout acting role becomes embroiled in one of the biggest nightmares in entertainment-industry history -- and an international incident leading to terrorist threats?
Randall Park, 40, an actor who spent the past decade in small parts in commercials and TV comedies ("The Mindy Project" and "Veep"), couldn't believe his good fortune when he landed the biggest role of his career: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Sony's "The Interview." Starring alongside Seth Rogen and James Franco in a film scheduled for Christmas? Sign him up.
We saw how that turned out. Angered that the movie revolved around Kim's assassination, a hacker group -- that U.S. officials say was working for North Korea -- threatened an attack against anyone who saw the film. Claiming to represent the hackers, the group got what it wanted. Sony canceled the movie's release. But days later, company executives changed their minds, making the movie available in a limited number of theaters and online.
Where does all of this leave Park? We interviewed him for this story weeks before the threats started; his representatives did not return multiple requests for his updated thoughts. At the time, he sounded predictably thrilled.
After gaining steam in sitcoms, commercials, film shorts, Web series and everything in between, a director recommended Park, born and raised in Los Angeles, to Rogen for the part of Kim. He got the role almost immediately.
Park acknowledged that such a controversial part was "a big risk." The only other obstacle were his parents, who are from South Korea -- he was nervous about their reaction. The verdict: They thought the idea was hilarious.
Now Park has another big role to look forward to: Starting in February, he stars in ABC's comedy "Fresh Off the Boat." The series is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old Asian-American boy whose father (played by Park) moves the family from Washington to Orlando so they can open a restaurant.
Alicia Vikander's list of co-stars in her packed slate of upcoming movies reads like a who's who of Hollywood's hottest young actors and the industry's most revered stars.
The Swedish actress, 26, might be vaguely recognizable in the U.S. for a small part in "Anna Karenina" or for her role in the historical romance "A Royal Affair," both released in 2012. Soon, Vikander will star alongside Michael Fassbender in "The Light Between Oceans," based on the best-selling book about a couple who find an abandoned baby at sea. Vikander also plays a hybrid witch-human in the sci-fi epic "Seventh Son," co-starring Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges and Djimon Hounsou. She headlines the 17th-century drama "Tulip Fever" with Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench, not to mention the spy movie "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." with Henry Cavill, aka Superman.
Throw in that her name has already hit the American gossip sites with rumors that she's dating Fassbender, and Vikander is well on her way to being the next tabloid-favorite ingénue. Soft-spoken, humble and relishing relative anonymity for now, she's bracing for what's to come with multiple chances for breakout roles.
Also filming next year and primed to make a big splash in 2016: Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl." Vikander stars as the artist wife of Eddie Redmayne's Einar Wegener, the early 20th-century Danish painter who was the first person to have sex-reassignment surgery.
-- Emily Yahr
The energetic Gugu Mbatha-Raw sounds thrilled to be in Pittsburgh. Following a breakout year, in which the 31-year-old British actress dazzled in the lead roles of two somewhat under-the-radar movies, she has become a nomad, going wherever the work is. Now, the work is in Pennsylvania, and it's on a higher-profile project, starring opposite Will Smith as his wife in a still-untitled movie about the doctor who discovered the long-term effects of concussions on professional football players.
The good fortune has been a long time coming. Mbatha-Raw graduated from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art a decade ago and has been working since, mainly in British television and onstage. A pivotal professional moment was securing the role of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life woman born in 1761 to an enslaved African mother and a white father in the British Navy. Mbatha-Raw took home the best-actress trophy for her work in "Belle," released in 2013, at the British Independent Film Awards earlier this month. She also starred this year as a pop singer in the little-seen "Beyond the Lights."
First up in 2015, she has a role in "Jupiter Ascending," the Wachowski siblings' intergalactic adventure starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum.
"It was fascinating after being a big part of an independent movie to then become a very small part of a big studio film," she said.
Following "Jupiter Ascending," Mbatha-Raw will appear on-screen alongside Keanu Reeves and Renée Zellweger in "The Whole Truth," a legal thriller.
Mbatha-Raw is still finalizing her life after Pittsburgh, but she says there are exciting things on the horizon. "I have a permanently packed suitcase that comes with me everywhere," she said.