As with any list, this isn’t an exact science and it is something that could easily be altered tomorrow, but for some reason, I decided that I wanted to put down in writing a list of the ten most interesting actresses working in Hollywood today. Note, this is not a list of the ten BEST actresses working today (although some of them would certainly constitute as such) but a list of the ones that I find the most interesting. These are the actresses that I find to be challenging themselves from role to role; exploring new and fresh directors and characters. They are actresses who I admire for their sheer aggression towards their craft.
So, while the rest of the world is swooning over Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley, I present to you the ten most interesting actresses Hollywood has to offer.
Oh, and before we get the rants from those suggesting that this list is too white and blonde, I just want to toss the conversation out there. Finding women of color who are producing continually intriguing work is hard. That isn’t to say that they aren’t out there, but they aren’t garnering the attention they deserve, thus not landing the roles they should be getting. And while Zoe Saldana is certainly attempting to branch out, she’s not there yet, and Kerry Washington, who would have made this list a few years ago, is devoting her time to television pursuits, and this is about film.
But here’s to hoping that Lupita Nyong’o, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Carmen Ejogo and even Saldana can change things in the near future!
She has her fair share of detractors, and I can’t even say that they are unjust detractors because I can completely understand where they are coming from in some instances. Wasikowska is an actress who has a specific style, and it’s a style that suits her well because she is continually cast for her ability to exude that style. She’s mousy, contained and still. She possesses an elegance that rests comfortably on her subtle gaze, but where many see an actress with limited range, I see an actress who is comfortable internalizing instead of externalizing. What really earns a spot on this list for Wasikowska though, is less her actual talent and more her impressive resume. Like I said, this is a list of the most interesting, not the best. Her resume, between directors and roles, speaks for itself. With work under the hand of Burton, Zwick, Van Sant, Fukunaga, Cholodenko and Hillcoat, not to mention an onslaught of films this year with established directors like Cronenberg and del Toro as well as well received performances in films like Only Lovers Left Alive and The Double, Wasikowska is quickly becoming a face we’re seeing everywhere.
While her big breakout certainly came with all the critical success her Cannes winning lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Color garnered, the truth of the matter is that Seydoux has been working towards this breakout for quite a while. She’s one of those faces that you know you’ve seen many times before, but placing a name with that face has been difficult. Her vast number of borderline cameo performances has established her ability to work with a varied array of directors, and it has made this current transition from obscure actress to leading lady much easier. Having worked with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Woody Allen, Brad Bird and Wes Anderson; Seydoux has added spark to such small roles, but she’s past that. Her astonishing turn under Kechiche’s direction is the mark of a new director for her career, and with two lead roles lined up (with two iconic characters, in Beauty and the Beast and Diary of a Chamber Maid) and notable fresh directors like Giorgos Lanthimos and Benoit Jacquot in her corner, she’s quickly becoming one of those actresses you not only recognize, but seek out!
I think the truest testament to Mara actually deserving to be on this list is that fact that before 2010, the only Mara anyone knew of was Rooney’s sister Kate. Now, no one knows who Kate is. In a singular year, Rooney eclipsed everything her sister (who has been working since the late 90’s) had ever done and pretty much became the girl to get for serious, thought provoking work. The crazy thing is that, in 2010 she was in The Social Network and had three scenes with very little actual screen time. She made so much of those scenes, and with her naturally piercing presence, she established for herself a future in this business. Since then, she’s capitalized on it marvelously. She snagged an Oscar nomination for her very next role, under the guidance of David Fincher, when she took on Lisbeth Salander, proving that she is fearless and turns up her nose at vanity (she even had her body pierced and tattooed for the role). Since then she’s worked alongside Spike Jonze, Steven Soderbergh and newcomer David Lowery and has films set to release under the direction of Terrence Malick, Joe Wright, Stephen Daldry, Jim Sheridan and Todd Haynes! I mean, in just four years she has become a cinematic staple. We all know who she is, and every director is dying to work with her. She continues to stretch herself, finding truly interesting characters to embody, and I don’t see her slowing down anytime soon!
Much like Mara, Fanning has eclipsed a famous sister. What is more impressive is that Elle’s sister was actually really FAMOUS. Dakota Fanning was arguably the most famous child star in the history of child stars up to that point in time, and in a few years with some really smart choices, Elle edged her own sister out of the way to become the most talented child star working today. I look at Fanning’s career and her film roles and I listen to her on talk shows and I sit back completely blown away with how real this girl is. She’s so damn smart! What is so cool about Elle is that, even before we knew that we loved her, she was making an impact on our film-viewing. She was building a resume at such a young age, taking on those thankless kid roles where she just had to walk past the screen once or twice while another actor or actress (sometimes her own sister) chewed up all the scenery. Remember when she asked a naked Jeff Bridges what a penis was? Remember when a distraught Adriana Barraza carried her across the desert? Remember when Mira Sorvino taught her to play the piano? Remember when she grew up to look like Cate Blanchett? Yup, before she started OWNING her films, she was already kicking ass and taking names alongside great actors (Pitt, Phoenix, Blanchett, Bridges, Washington) and inspired directors (Fincher, Scott, Inarritu). And then she met up with Sophia Coppola, and everything changed. She did Somewhere in 2010 and it became obvious to the world that this girl had it. She had finally reached that point in her career where she was a real actress. Since then she’s been on a roll. With great notices for her work in Super 8 (where she should have been Oscar nominated), Ginger & Rosa and Low Down, as well as continued work alongside respected directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Cameron Crowe, not to mention voice work in the upcoming Boxtrolls and the part of Mary Shelley to her name, Fanning just keeps getting better and better.
In 2011 no one knew who Jessica Chastain was. We hadn’t ever heard of her. I remember seeing the picture of this red headed woman floating around the internet and speculation as to who exactly she was and why she had FIVE films slated for release in a single year, and a slew of others in talks. While I personally have not been her biggest fan (I kind of hated her work in Zero Dark Thirty, and find her sudden legion of fans and deity status among cinephiles to be ridiculous), there is no denying that she is really working to build a VERY inspired resume for herself, and this list is all about who is the most interesting actress…and she’s certainly interesting! It doesn’t hurt that every year she gives us 3-5 performances to choose from, and while I’m critical of her, I can’t deny that she truly tries to stretch herself with every performance. Her work in 2011 proved her range. From Malick’s tortured housewife to Taylor’s ditzy outcast, she turned in some truly inspired work that set a precedent for what she had to offer. Working with directors like Hillcoat, Bigelow, Ullmann and Nolan isn’t going to hurt her career any either, and continuing to seek out as many different characters and genres as she can (political, war, sci-fi, period, gangster, western, comedy, horror) she etching out a career that is truly admirable, even to those who are yet to fall completely in love with her.
I’ve been a serious fan of this girl from the beginning. She’s been smart since the very start of her career, and I’ve always applauded her for that. Her big break came back in 2003, with the first Pirates of the Caribbean film taking off like gangbusters, and while she had a built in franchise to rest on from the get-go, she decided NOT to coast, like her beloved co-star Johnny Depp. She showed right off that she had not only range, but a desire to explore different characters and important directors. Tony Scott, Richard Curtis, David Cronenberg, Kenneth Branagh and John Carney have all come calling her name, but Knightley has also been known to seek out un-established directors in order to work with a fresh face and an interesting role. The biggest example of this is her pairing with Joe Wright (who also happens to be one of the ten most interesting directors working today). Back at the start of her career, she met with this first time director on his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and their iconic director/muse pairing is one of the greatest in recent memory. The two have made three films together, all three absolutely stunning. Knightley can play period well, but she’s not a one trick pony. Whether she’s the coy love interest, the rebellious badass, the opinionated feminist, the conflicted adulteress or that quirky sidekick you can’t help but fall for; Keira Knightley is a talent we all too often take for granted. She’s one of the very best in the business; period.
We are getting into the top five, and this is where personal preference is going to play a little bit of a role, despite trying to look at everything objectively. In fact, this pick in particular may feel a little bit of a stretch, especially ranking higher than Chastain and Knightley and yet I can’t help but give Mulligan a little bit of an edge for the fact that, in my eyes, her two greatest performances are better than nearly everything that anyone has done on this list, and that’s including the rest of my top five (sans a few performances). Her breakthrough Oscar nominated performance in An Education was one of the greatest performances of the aughts, and in my eyes she was the greatest find of the aughts. The way that she possessed such innocence, tattered and torn apart and yet somehow preserved in its established ferocity was just brilliant to witness. The fact that she has since then shown so many layers to her persona is even more admirable. You can’t look at any of her performances and see the same actress. She just melts into every role. An Education’s Jenny has no similarity to Shame’s Sissy, who is completely polar opposite to Gatsby’s Daisy, who would never be caught dead in the same room with Llewyn Davis’s Jean. She’s the definition of chameleon, and while she may not be as ‘in-demand’ as someone like Chastain, her resume is nothing to scoff at. With Oscar winning directors like the Coen Brothers, Oliver Stone and Steve McQueen under her belt, alongside cult favorites like Refn, Mann and Luhrmann, Mulligan has proven to be devoted to her craft, even throwing herself in the face of directors she wants to work with, making it known that she cares about where her career goes. The fact that she delivers every time is icing on the cake of her own success!
It’s really weird for me to think that, until her Oscar nominated turn in Michael Clayton, I really didn’t even glance at Tilda Swinton. I mean, I knew her face (how could you not at least know it), but I didn’t have any desire or motivation to find out who she was. Since then though, she has proven herself to be such an intriguing presence. This is an actress who is beyond the vanity of stardom and completely engulfed in her own craft. She selects such interesting roles, such inspired and different choices, that once can’t help but be compelled to explore. Then, when you realize that she’s been at this since the mid-80’s and you start to notice her in her pre-stardom (because, let’s be honest, she’s achieved stardom whether she likes it or not) roles you begin to see the whole of her range take shape before your eyes. She startling to look at, which really bodes well for many of the characters she takes on, because she forces you to notice every tick, ever expression. Whether she’s giving us dead-pan comedy, broader caricatures, burning intimate dramatics or passionate desperation, she sells it every time. Her ability to anchor independent cinema while fluidly transitioning to mainstream cinema is uncanny.
Back in 2003, Scarlett Johansson went from ‘child star with talent no one wanted to use’ to ‘bonifide bombshell with serious Oscar potential’. It took a single year and an Oscar snub heard all around the world to do it, but she followed up her star making turn in Sophia Coppola’s masterpiece, Lost in Translation, by becoming Woody Allen’s muse and every straight male’s spank bank queen. Sadly, her reputation became that of a screen siren, a sex icon who was used more for her bodily presence than her talent, and a string of poorly received turns in films like The Black Dahlia, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Spirit seemed to bring a career of wasted potential…and then 2013 happened and everything changed. With the success of Iron Man and her role in The Avengers film, Scarlett Johansson became a household name again, and this afforded her the opportunity to branch out and experiment, this time extremely successfully. Of all the renaissances happening today, Johansson’s is by far my favorite. Her recent output has been remarkable, with such intimate work in Jonze’s Her, sex personified (with total personality) in Don Jon and a brilliantly nuanced turn in Glazer’s Under the Skin. She has work with the Coens coming up, as well as more Marvel work, including her OWN Black Widow film and she’s riding high on action superstardom with Lucy. She’s reclaimed her spot in Hollywood, and I couldn’t be more pleased!
Cate Blanchett is easily one of the most respected actresses working today, and alongside Meryl Streep is often considered the best actress working today. What sets her apart from Streep (who is an extremely talented actress) is that Blanchett is a more interesting actress. She works with better directors, finds better roles and diversifies her choices without relying solely on generic biopics or heavy makeup to constitute a change of role. If you scroll down through her resume, I’m tempted to say that it rivals (in whole) anyone in the history of cinema. She’s done everything from comedy (sometimes even broad comedy) to biopic, to sexy thriller to B-grade drama to fantasy and sci-fi and film noir and experimental and her ability to draw a general audience and excite cinephiles alike is nearly unmatched. Directors like Wes Anderson, Anthony Minghella, Peter Jackson, Todd Haynes, David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Joe Wright and Woody Allen have all used her beautifully and she continues to reach further, with upcoming projects with Malick and Branagh and another with Haynes in the mix as well. This is what happens when undeniable talent and true thirst (ambition) collide. She’s a force, and I haven’t even mentioned her stage career.
I’m going to say this now and you can disagree all you want, but you’d be wrong. Marion Cotillard is not only the most interesting actress working today, she’s the best. There, I said it. I remember seeing her for the first time alongside Russell Crowe in A Good Year and thinking “I hope she has an amazing career, because she is smoking hot”…then she won an Oscar the very next year and I knew that God was smiling (and by God, I obviously mean Russell Crowe). Since her Oscar win, she’s really the only actress who has taken that win (Lead Actress win, obviously) and carved a career that is not only admirable, it’s damn near scary how diverse, creative and interesting it all is. She’s made English language films with Scott, Mann, Nolan, Marshall, Allen, Soderbergh and Gray, as well as Foreign films with the likes of Audiard and the Dardenne Brothers. She’s done musicals, gangster flicks, thrillers, comedies, dramas…she’s played infirm, sick, helpless…powerful, sexy…abused, frail, heartbroken. She’s done it all, and she does it all well (you know, aside from that ONE scene in The Dark Knight Rises). With Shakespeare and voice work on the horizon, and a reputation as one of the very best in the business (beauty AND talent personified), there is no one working today who has built the range, prestige and respect in the industry that Cotillard has. This is the face of cinema today!