THE LISTS: Top 10 actors under 30

Posted by · 10:39 am · October 6th, 2009

Abbie Cornish in CandyI wrote recently about how this year’s Best Actress race seems to ushering in a striking new wave of young talent, from the elfin throwback charm of Carey Mulligan to the rawer screen presence of Gabourey Sidibe, while a range of youthful names, from the long-hyped Abbie Cornish to the out-of-nowhere Katie Jarvis, have been racking up critical plaudits all year.

Whether Academy voters comply or not, it’s hard to disagree that it’s a good year to be a fresh face.

Meanwhile, the industry’s male twentysomethings may have enjoyed less frenzied acclaim than their fairer counterparts, but the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Whishaw and – yes – Shia LaBeouf have kept things ticking over for the generation quite respectably.

So, with the teen-driven narratives of “An Education” and “Precious” heading for theaters soon, and with the youth romance of “Bright Star” currently pleasing older arthouse audiences, it seemed an apt moment to celebrate the new guard by ranking the finest talent that the born-after-1980 generation has to offer.

And believe me when I tell you it was one of the trickiest lists I’ve ever compiled on this site. The more I contemplated recent successes and breakthroughs, the longer the shortlist of candidates grew, spanning Academy-endorsed names already on the A-list (Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal) to quirkier talents from the indie and foreign sectors (Sam Riley, Emilie Dequenne). I like to think that the fact that I struggled as much as I did to narrow the list down to 10 names bodes very well for the future.

To make things slightly easier on myself, I imposed several restrictions on myself, beginning with the under-30 qualification. I also decided that every actor on the list had to have wowed me on more than one occasion, whether in film or another medium, eliminating the possibility of single-performance stunners like Riley or Jarvis.

I kept the focus on potentially great actors rather than evident great movie stars: an Anne Hathaway, for example, has star quality oozing out her ears, but I’m not yet convinced she has the same depth of talent these 10 do. Yet. And I limited myself to actors who are currently on song (or were, the last time we saw them): Scarlett Johansson, say, would have been a cinch for this list four years ago, but she’s been letting her gifts lie dangerously dormant ever since.

Finally, I don’t need to tell you to regard this list more as a highly subjective conversation-starter than anything more concrete; I myself am not that pleased with its English-language dominance, but the vagaries of foreign-language distribution make it that much harder to track the careers of international up-and-comers.

There are any number of names I was hesitant to leave out, be it Evan Rachel Wood or Gaspard Ulliel, but the ten names here all represent careers I can imagine eagerly following for years to come. I look forward to growing old with them.

Nicholas Hoult10. Nicholas Hoult
As a gawky 12 year-old, Hoult may have impressed in “About a Boy,” sparring opposite Hugh Grant with admirable lack of cuteness, but it was hard to see what kind of career lay ahead for a child actor with such a tart register and ungainly presence. Rather to the surprise of everyone, then, he grew into a teen heartthrob of sorts, winning cult favor (and revealing advanced chops) as slippery high-school player Tony in British TV drama “Skins” (which also gave us Dev Patel). Now 19 and entering the adult stage of his career, he’s off to a smashing start with an alert, seductively ambiguous turn opposite Colin Firth in Tom Ford’s festival hit “A Single Man.”

Nicolas Duvauchelle9. Nicolas Duvauchelle
Allow me a wild card, if you will. Many of you won’t yet have heard of 29 year-old Parisian actor and model Duvauchelle, but France’s premier auteurs certainly have: this year alone has seen the guy’s face (and ink-heavy physique) crop up in new works from Alain Resnais, André Téchiné and Claire Denis. It was Denis who gave Duvauchelle his break a decade ago in “Beau Travail,” and he lights up her latest, “White Material,” with frightening intensity. Meanwhile, his nervy, charismatic turn in Téchiné’s “The Girl on the Train” (screening at the upcoming London Film Festival) seals his arrival.

Rebecca Hall in Red Riding8. Rebecca Hall
The 27 year-old daughter of theatre legend Sir Peter, Hall has been a staple on Next Big Thing lists for the last couple of years, but it took me a little while to become convinced she had greatness within her. Her winningly spiky work opposite James McAvoy in Brit-com “Starter for 10” was a promising, well, starter, but things have only really clicked in the last year, as she effortlessly anchored Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” with its most rounded, grounded characterization and then proceeded to knock my socks off in UK TV sensation “Red Riding,” where her prickly turn as a grieving young mother showcased a previously unseen sexual magnetism.

Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet7. Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet
That two Gallic compatriots make this list is testament to the stunning array of acting talent bursting out of France at the moment: see Melanie Laurent, Louis Garrel and Gaspard Ulliel for further evidence. But if I had to bet money on any one of them staying the course, it’d be the fantastically named 21 year-old Leprince-Ringuet, who has traded in terse vulnerability since his startling 2003 debut in André Téchiné’s “Strayed.” It’s in a pair of Christophe Honoré films that he really announced himself: in “Love Songs” (which showed off his musical chops, too) and “La Belle Personne,” he played two different but equally moving riffs of teenage heartache; it’ll be interesting to see how he matures.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer6. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Gordon-Levitt might have ranked even higher on this list if I hadn’t found him a tad self-regarding in his supposed breakout role in “(500) Days of Summer,” but there’s no mistaking that the 28 year-old actor has the goods – and has had them for several years now, ever since his affectingly stoic childhood turn in “A River Runs Through It” way back in 1992. Of course, his fearlessly assured, haunting performance as an emotionally scarred teenage prostitute in Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” remains his career high thus far – but with names like Christopher Nolan in his Rolodex, he’s going to have more than enough chances to improve on it.

Abbie Cornish in Somersault5. Abbie Cornish
Before you ask: no, I haven’t yet seen “Bright Star.” But for all the Oscar talk swirling around her work there, I don’t feel I’m cheating since Cornish firmly earned her spot on lists like these years ago, with the Australian one-two punch of “Somersault” and “Candy.” She burned up the screen in the former, as a teenage drifter gradually grasping the power of her own sexuality, and consolidated that promise in the latter, matching a top-form Heath Ledger scene for scene as an infatuated junkie. Some rough years followed; happily, with multiple critics swooning over her teaming with Jane Campion, she appears to be back in the zone.

Andrew Garfield4. Andrew Garfield
Another young British talent who has been afforded his biggest opportunities on the box so far, 26 year-old livewire Garfield is just one well-timed big-screen role away from deserved stardom. His prominent Hollywood debut in Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs” was a bit of a false start; perhaps he’ll have more luck opposite Keira Knightley and fellow Next Big Thing Carey Mulligan in next year’s “Never Let Me Go.” In the meantime, we have the glories of his astonishing, BAFTA-winning turn as a reformed youth murderer in “Boy A,” as well as his steely headlining of the aforementioned “Red Riding,” to fall back on.

Carey Mulligan in An Education3. Carey Mulligan
No, it’s not just “An Education” – though her vivid, heartbreaking work in Lone Scherfig’s coming-of-age drama would be enough of a calling-card for any actor. But the day I knew Carey Mulligan was a powerhouse came almost three years ago, as I watched her go toe-to-toe with an imperious Kristin Scott-Thomas in the Royal Court stage revival of “The Seagull,” delivering the legendary “I am the seagull” monologue with such searing conviction it earned her spontaneous applause in the theater. If/when anyone commits that to film, Mulligan will be unbeatable for Best Supporting Actress; for now, she’s a fearsome threat anyway.

Ryan Gosling2. Ryan Gosling
It feels like Ryan Gosling’s talent has been taken as a given for so many years, I had to double-check to make sure he’s still under 30. Sure enough, the Canadian thesp is 28 and seemingly well-positioned enough to take a two-year break following his delicate comedic work in “Lars and the Real Girl.” That very nearly earned him a second Oscar nod following his expansive, kinetic turn as an addiction-addled schoolteacher in “Half Nelson” – for which he really should have taken the gold. But his career jewel, for me, remains his alarming yet compassionate portrayal of a Jewish anti-Semite in “The Believer,” where I first noticed his gifts. Quite the decade, then, but we need him back at work.

Michelle Williams1. Michelle Williams
We’d been aware of her ability since she acted the entire “Dawson’s Creek” cast off the screen back in the 90s, and congratulated ourselves on spotting her when she landed an Oscar nod for sterling work in “Brokeback Mountain,” but 2008 was the year when Michelle Williams formally made her bid to be the next Great American Actress. Veering from devastating, microscopic detailed character work in “Wendy and Lucy” to nimble semi-comic riffing in the “Synecdoche, New York” ensemble, with a great work in the not-so-great “Incendiary” somewhere in between, she demonstrated both fierce chops and canny taste in projects. Next up: the plum supporting role (read the book and see why) in Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”

Agree? Disagree? Which under-30 thesps get you excited? Have your say in the comments section below!

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79 responses so far

  • 1 10-07-2009 at 1:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    @Snowballa: I have no idea how far down the list I’d have to go to include an actor of color — I don’t really think in such terms. But if you asked me to name a possibility off the top of my head who meets the criteria stated in the article, I have to admit I’d struggle. I like to think this is the industry’s fault rather than mine.

    @Lena: Yeah, I have high hopes for “Blue Valentine.” Awful title, though.

    @Ivich and others: I have to be entirely sold on Whishaw, though he has much potential. (I thought he was a weak link in “I’m Not There,” personally

    @Rogers: At the top, easily.

    @Morgan: What a shame, but that’s the beauty of theatre, really — you never see the same production twice. I had a similar experience watching Juliette Lewis in “Fool for Love” a few years ago — I thought she was shrill and distracted when I saw her, but I’m assured by others that she was having on off night.

  • 2 10-07-2009 at 2:05 am

    jackal said...

    ellen page the best.

  • 3 10-07-2009 at 3:06 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    By the way, I didn’t have space to mention it in her entry, but I should add that Mulligan’s superb work in a 2007 “Doctor Who” episode factored in her placing.

    I only caught up with it recently following the recommendations of others (I’m not a fan of the show), and she really knocks it out the park.

  • 4 10-07-2009 at 4:07 am

    Patrick said...

    Nicholas Hoult and Rebecca Hall over Keira Knightely boggles my mind. Just don’t understand that at all.

    But other than this, a great list. Wonderful notices for Cornish in Somersault and Levitt in Mysterious Skin – two revelatory performances from young actors that have stayed with me since I saw them.

  • 5 10-07-2009 at 6:02 am

    M said...

    It would be better if you split it up in males and females because then you can have a lot more on the list. TMF (the movie fanatic) did a great top 50 for males and top 50 for females in terms of young acting, they have some great names on it.

    I like Michelle, not sure she should have been number 1 but she is good. Gordon Levitt, should be at least top 3 for me. I also think Saoirse Ronan should be on this list. Her other movies might not have been a hit, but she is great in them.

    Knightley is another one, she could be in the lower part of the top ten for me.

    However, nice list, you wont be able to please everyone.

  • 6 10-07-2009 at 6:44 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I specifically didn’t want to separate men and women for this list — sometimes I think it’s more interesting to put everyone on an equal footing.

    As for Ronan, again, I’m afraid I’ve only seen her in “Atonement.” I was impressed by her work, but I need more.

    And since several of you have brought up Keira Knightley, I’ll repeat that I do like her — she alone breathed some life into the otherwise petrified “The Duchess,” after all — but I haven’t yet been knocked sideways by anything she’s done.

  • 7 10-07-2009 at 8:40 am

    Jim T said...

    Ronan was also very good in “I could never be your woman”. Anyway, The Lovely Bones will give her a chance to show her talents.

  • 8 10-07-2009 at 8:44 am

    Mr. F said...

    Ronan is also quite good in “City of Ember,” one of the most underrated movies in the last few years.

  • 9 10-07-2009 at 8:45 am

    Neel Mehta said...

    Decent but not overwhelming American representation. An ultimate list would look even more global, but this is a step in the right direction. All in all, a pretty good list for 10 white people.

  • 10 10-07-2009 at 8:58 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I must say the racial makeup of the list never even occurred to me when I compiled it — I’m sorry that some of you seem bothered by it. All suggestions welcome.

  • 11 10-07-2009 at 9:31 am

    david said...

    Dakota Fanning is incredibly talented for her age, as is Freddie Highmore.

  • 12 10-07-2009 at 9:55 am

    M said...

    Yeah Problem for me is that the black actresses I like are all over 30. Tara P Henson, Zoe Saldana, Halle Berry e.t.c.

    Howllywood really needs to give other races a chance. The young ones don’t really get good roles, until they are old.

    Asians also have a hard time breaking into Hollywood. In the 21st century and things are still hard for other races, esp females to break through early.

  • 13 10-07-2009 at 10:18 am

    Barbara said...

    I agree that Daniel Radcliffe should have been included on the list; as anyone who saw him in Equus or My Boy Jack could tell you, he’s an amazing actor who is only going to keep getting better and better with time.

  • 14 10-07-2009 at 11:04 am

    Frank said...

    I’m not sure if he’s 29 or 30, but Anthony Mackie is a black actor who deserves a good deal of respect–it’s obviously tough for black actors to get good roles but he killed in “Half Nelson” and “The Hurt Locker,” and he’s in the upcoming “The Adjustment Bureau.”

    I didn’t see “Notorious”… was he a decent Tupac?

  • 15 10-07-2009 at 1:01 pm

    Tom C said...

    Without a doubt, Emile Hirsch comes to mind more than any other. Ryan Gosling is definitely the one to beat on this list, though.

    Anne Hathaway I think deserves consideration. While Williams definitely dominated her in ‘Brokeback’ I think Hathaway’s chops blew Michelle’s entire career work away with ‘Rachel’ alone.

  • 16 10-07-2009 at 1:17 pm

    the outsider said...

    according to imdb., anthony mackie just turned 30. He is a great actor.

  • 17 10-07-2009 at 1:57 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I actually like Hathaway’s work in “Brokeback” very much — she never gets enough credit for that, I think.

  • 18 10-07-2009 at 8:14 pm

    Maria said...

    Abby Cornish? i can sincerely say she is a big zero. primarily because she was fucking Ryan whats-his-name and that split his marriage up from Reese Witherspoon..secondly because she was next to me at the hair salon recently and has an UNCOMFORTABLY LARGE MOLE on her face next to her ear…so large it’s probably no longer classified as a mole and really a wart.

  • 19 10-07-2009 at 9:00 pm

    snowballa said...

    @Guy Lodge: I wasn’t blaming you for the absence of minorities. It’s Hollywood’s fault. If the actors I mentioned were given more roles, they would’ve certainly cracked your list. I’d put Tristan Wilds’ performance on “The Wire” up against any of those names. I was just referring to the people who claim that Hollywood is diverse when your list clearly illustrates the lack of good roles for otherwise talented minorities.

    @Paul Outlaw: I refuse to see “New York, I Love You” because again, I’m sick of the whitewashing on my hometown. The most diverse city this country can offer and all the faces I see in the trailer save two are white. That being said, I saw a clip of Shia and Julie Christie’s short and cringed a bit at Shia’s accent. But, I will tell you one thing, he sure is dreamy.

  • 20 10-08-2009 at 1:08 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Maria: Yes, those are excellent reasons. Thanks for bringing so much insight to the discussion.

  • 21 10-08-2009 at 1:10 am

    sally p. said...

    Definitely, I agree with a separate Top lists for Actors & Actresses. I’m also going on the Anne Hathaway bandwagon. This past summer , I saw Shakepeare In The Park’s ” Twelfth Night”. She gave a phenomenal acting & singing performance as Viola. Hathaway’s glowing performance was very natural, charismatic, & intelligent.

    Anne is one of the few young thespians that can shine in different genres of film & can easily do theatre. 2008-2009 year truly proved her immense talents: SNL hosting , song & dance number with Hugh Jackman, “Rachel Getting Married”, and ” Twelfth Night”. She is in it for the long haul !

    P.S. I will patiently give Emily Blunt a couple years , so she can be well-regarded. She completely deserved an Oscar Nomination for “Devil Wears Prada” ( she hijacked scenes from the Mighty Meryl Streep) & “Summer of Love”.

  • 22 10-08-2009 at 1:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Indeed, “My Summer of Love” is Blunt’s best work to date. (I’m so glad someone has mentioned that film.) But surely we can agree that it’s Natalie Press’s film. Both ladies were on my shortlist.

  • 23 10-08-2009 at 5:46 am

    Jeremy said...

    I’m surprised Ben Foster hasn’t been mentioned. He blew his co-stars off the screen in Alpha Dog, 3:10 To Yuma and 30 Days of Night. Should have a bright future ahead of him.

  • 24 10-08-2009 at 8:19 am

    Edwin Drood said...

    None of your final ten choices can hold a candle to Anne Hathaway, whom you dismiss as not having “the depth of talent”. I truly doubt any of those you cite could carry a Broadway musical on their shoulders, for example – but Hathaway most certainly could, in addition to being capable of playing comedy, drama, romantic and character roles…

  • 25 10-10-2009 at 11:26 am

    Alex said...

    No Anne Hathway, Emily Blunt, Kiera Knightley or (and especially) Evan Rachel Wood???

  • 26 10-10-2009 at 2:04 pm

    Megan said...

    BEN WHISHAW. He is the finest actor working today (along with Johnny Depp). His charisma and range are extremely impressive and he brings such subtlety, depth, and truth to every performance (believe me; I have seen them all (film anyway, not stage)).

  • 27 10-14-2009 at 12:20 am

    Janine said...

    Yes…I agree Evan Rachel Wood. Not heard the last from her yet…shooting The Conspirator with James McAvoy right now. Also Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt and Jamie Bell. I think to be a truly great actor, you must be able to pull off period pieces as well as contemporary….and you have to give Hathaway and Wood props for their singing voices too. Triple threats who can do Broadway as well as film? Yes, please. And, you may hate me for this, but Keira Knightly and Sienna Miller.

  • 28 10-17-2009 at 8:37 am

    Chris said...

    I may slip Anton Yelchin and Anna Paquin in there.