Girls on Film: Hollywood’s New Wave of Actresses, Toeing the Line Between Indie and Mainstream

Girls on Film: Hollywood’s New Wave of Actresses, Toeing the Line Between Indie and Mainstream

Jun 09, 2011

New digs, new day, new Girls on Film.

As we set off here at, it’s hard not to think of the recent game-changers in the femme world of film. Since I've been writing about female artists on a regular basis, the Best Director Oscar finally went home with a woman; films found success on the backs of top-billed female stars like Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie; old and established Cannes went from a practically femme-free festival to having four female directors in competition; increasing numbers of actresses are trying their hands at directing, writing, and producing, not to mention newbies like Brit Marling being a double writer/lead breakout festival star. And even the straight-forward world of acting isn’t as it used to be.

We’re used to a Hollywood trajectory where an actress finds her groove, sticks to it, and then throws a game-changer in the mix once type-casting becomes too troublesome. The younger generations mostly stick to their bubbly Disney fare and then unleash skin and sex to be seen as adults. Indie stars hit it big and never look back to the independent world again. Comedic actresses stay in comedies. Dramatic actresses stay in drama.

Of course, it hasn’t been quite that black and white and Hollywood is always primed to offer up surprises. For the most part, however, we know what to expect and can be comfortable in our expectations. The cycle continues and not too much changes … until the new crop of actresses started hitting the scene.

The actresses of tomorrow aren’t sticking to a crisp line between mainstream and indie/artsy, between typical fare and the avant-garde. They aren’t victim to thematic phases. They jump in and out of indie and mainstream, working on a blockbuster one moment, and a small, sometimes controversial project the next, without fame or spotlight expectations narrowing their choices. They seem to want nothing more than to balance on the fence between both worlds.

To name five:

Mia Wasikowska

Television was her bridge from Australian fare to Hollywood, and last year she made a huge splash with the multiple Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right and a CGI blockbuster,  Alice in Wonderland. It was followed by a turn as Jane Eyre, and what’s to come is all over the map. Her future includes Stainless Steel, offering up FBI corruption (Judd Apatow is one of the writers),  Chan-wook Park’s Stoker, and anticipated indie work with John Hillcoat (The Wettest County in the World) and Jim Jarmusch.

Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence didn’t start with Winter’s Bone. Like many aspiring actresses, her career began with TV, her first big-screen roll coming in the form of sexy teen angst with Garden Party. From there, she recreated Lori Petty’s life, faced The Burning Plain, and ultimately found her way to an Oscar nomination for her hard-core, squirrel-skinning Ree in Winter’s Bone. Instead of sticking with the unique characters, however, she headed for blockbuster superheroes and X-Men: First Class, and will soon merge both worlds as she faces a grim future as Katniss in The Hunger Games. But she hasn’t forgotten her small-scale roots – she’s also set to star in new filmmaker Rotimi Rainwater’s Truckstop.

Freida Pinto

It was only three years ago that Indian actress Freida Pinto scored her first acting gig as a star of Slumdog Millionaire. Fame brought her straight to Woody Allen for her second feature – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. There is a distinct trajectory – following notable filmmakers including Julian Schnabel, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Tarsem Singh, and Michael Winterbottom, but it’s also a mix of exposure and themes ranging from racial issues and romance to her starring turn in one of this summer’s big-buzz films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Juno Temple

If you want a great embodiment of going by whim and interest rather than trajectory as a career explodes, it’s Juno Temple. Her work began with Notes on a Scandal, before working bad girls, Atonement, and even abysmal comedy with Year One into the mix. She now bounces back and forth between the straightforward and strange, the mainstream and the little-known. 2010 brought sexual promiscuity with indie flicks Kaboom and Dirty Girl, and though many still might not know who she is, her upcoming roster mixes The Dark Knight Rises and The Three Musketeers with a selection of smaller fare.

Kristen Stewart

Being listed here might make some eyes roll, but Stewart has one foot in stardom and one foot in the indie world. The actress maintains that she never expected the frenetic insanity of the Twi-hards, and it seemed that the mainstream held little interest as she dug into Welcome to the Rileys and The Runaways. But it seems that she has a taste for the mainstream that’s intermingling with her cinematic sensibilities. Alongside On the Road, Stewart is slated to become the fairest of them all in Snow White and the Huntsman.


Naturally, this isn’t a trend relegated to actresses. Robert Pattinson, with both Twilight and Harry Potter under his belt, spends much of his time in brow-raising indie fare, just as Daniel Radcliffe dropped trou for Equus. The next generation – outside of the Disney/youth fare warehouse – seems quite uninterested in the normal trajectories and expectations.

While it means nothing distinctly concrete for the future, it suggests the potential for real change. If expectations can be easily subverted and Stewart can tongue a sparkly guy one moment, then rock as Joan Jett the next, it stands to reason that audiences could also handle other changes to the cinematic landscape.

The list above, as well as many of the other women of the New Wave – Carey Mulligan, Emily Browning, Hailee Steinfeld, Chloe Moretz, Emma Stone, Abbie Cornish… – are a sea of fair skin. In the past few years, as Vanity Fair touts the Next Wave and New Wave of female Hollywood talent, they’ve also fallen under derision for their prominent light-skinned cover girls. (One has to wonder if photographer Annie Leibovitz chose to accentuate that fact with fair clothes and washed-out hue.) However, save Freida Pinto, it’s difficult to find in-the-spotlight talent that isn’t white simply because of who gets the roles. Zoe Saldana and Gabourey Sidibe are often the only two names offered as alternatives/additions, but the former is about to turn 33 and had her first big role eleven years ago with Center Stage, while the latter only has two released credits to her name (her Oscar-nominated Precious and the TV show The Big C).

If the biggest moneymaking film ever can co-star a black woman in blue, maybe audiences can handle a visible amount of women of color in leading, everyday gigs. If women can fill out resumes without ridiculous romcoms and fluff, maybe they continue to find work beyond romantic fools, frazzled professionals, or uptight asses. There are so many changes that could reinvigorate the art, and having a talent pool with wildly diverse interests and talents surely helps. It’s refreshing to see this new wave bend or break the rules professionally. It makes writing about women fun, because just composing a list of unique, young female talent leads to a page full of scribbled names. One can only hope it’s an indication of the future, and not a decade-specific fad along the lines of the Brat Pack.

Ten to twenty years ago, teen and young twenty-somethings would explode onto the scene with youthful fare, before fading into obscurity or drama. Today they play everything from providers for their families to literary figures and rock stars, and show no signs of stopping.

Considering this, what could the New Wave mean for cinema ten years from now?


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