From the 300-plus films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, five individuals stood out.
Nine years after her debut feature, “A Way of Life,” premiered at the festival, Amma Asante returned with sophomore effort “Belle,” which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the woman depicted in a seminal 1779 painting. The biracial daughter of a Royal Navy captain, Belle was instrumental in the fight to end slavery in England. A former child star in her native England on the long-running show “Grange Hill,” Asante spent four years trying to bring her story to the big screen, even working on the script on her wedding day and writing pickup scenes while sitting by her dying father’s bedside. “An hour after I finished these scenes, Dad died,” she says. “Eight hours later, I was filming those pickup scenes.”
Actor, “Rush” and “The Fifth Estate”
Perhaps best known to Americans as the lovelorn sniper in “Inglourious Basterds,” Daniel Brühl is a star in his native Germany. Now the actor has gone Hollywood—in a good way—with two meaty roles in studio pictures. In “The Fifth Estate,” he plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the trusted ally of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But it’s his performance as racecar driver Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s “Rush” that is earning the actor Oscar buzz. Landing the coveted role came as a surprise to Brühl, who says, “I flew to the audition and I was pretty relaxed because I thought, ‘I’m so different from Niki—they’re never going to choose me.’ ” Coincidentally, he discovered he won the role while driving in his car. “I got the call that I was offered the part. It was a huge excitement, then of course panicking, because I thought, ‘Shit, now I have to play this guy.’ ”
Actor, “Beneath the Harvest Sky”
At 23, Cohen is already a veteran of Toronto; he was at the fest last year with “The Place Beyond the Pines,” in which he played the son of Bradley Cooper. He’s back this year in “Beneath the Harvest Sky” as Casper, a restless youth who turns to crime in hopes of escaping small-town life. The actor, likely best known for his role as Debra Messing’s son on the TV series “Smash,” says the most difficult part was capturing the reckless side of Casper—but that was also what drew him to the role. “He was considered trouble to the town, but he had so much soul. He was half hero and half bad boy. He did things society would deem as wrong but all to protect his family,” says Cohen. “I was interested in his struggle between good and evil and wanted to figure out if there really was such a black-and-white way to describe a person’s actions.”
Actor, “12 Years a Slave”
For her first film role, Lupita Nyong’o found herself starring alongside Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s epic “12 Years a Slave.” Nyong’o not only holds her own against the heavyweights but also shines in the role of Patsey, a slave who attracts the unwanted obsession of her owner (Fassbender). Though Nyong’o is no stranger to movie sets—she was a production assistant on “The Constant Gardener”—stepping in front of the camera was new to the actor, who had just graduated from the Yale School of Drama. She says she had to manage what she calls “imposter syndrome”—“that feeling we so often get that we are imposters, and they’re going to find out shortly. Everything was so new, and I was worried about whether I would be able to do this character justice.” Mission accomplished.
Director, “Enemy” and “Prisoners”
Plenty of actors have more than one film at Toronto, but this year Denis Villeneuve joins the elite group of directors to have two films play the festival. “Enemy” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who spots his double in a twisty thriller that’s garnered comparisons to Stanley Kubrick. Gyllenhaal also pops up in “Prisoners,” as a cop assigned to the kidnapping case of two girls. When the father (Hugh Jackman) of one of the victims takes the law into his own hands, a gritty, impossible-to-predict story unfolds. Villeneuve broke through with “Incendies,” which earned an Oscar nom for best foreign language film in 2011, but he has hardly gone Hollywood. Though “Prisoners” is a mainstream film, he notes, “It’s a movie about gray zones. It’s not a movie about black and white. It’s an exploration of the dark part of the human soul.”