Move over, Keira! Introducing a new generation of young British acting talent

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From maths-induced panic attacks to ballet-inflicted bone spurs, the road to stardom hasn't been easy for the emerging generation of British actresses

When last month a shocked and delighted Vicky McClure accepted her Best Actress Bafta for This Is England '86 – adding to the Royal Television Society award she had already won for the Shane Meadows Channel 4 series – those watching at home must have thought McClure was now firmly launched as an actress. Yet, as she recounts on these pages, it has been a dozen years since – as a 15-year-old – she first won acclaim in a Meadows film – A Room for Romeo Brass – since when she has taken endless office jobs to make ends meet.

Overnight success is rarely what it seems in show-business. Three of the actresses profiled here went to Rada – a secure stepping stone to the Royal Court and the National Theatre. Yet it took Amanda Hale four years of rejections even to win a place at the prestigious London drama school.

Single-mindedness and determination are key – as well as the willingness to turn your hand to bar work, pushing paper or modelling (see Ruta Gedmintas, below). And even with a hit or two under your belt, you're only as good as your next job – "you always think this bubble could burst", as McClure put it to me.

Three of our five actresses describe themselves as "stubborn" – a helpful attribute but useless without a modicum of talent. Helpful, too, is the ability to spot a good script when you read one, although even this is not necessarily foolproof. For as Hale points out, a script can read well, but the resulting TV show (naming no names) can be a stinker. But what unites our quintet is the absolute refusal to contemplate any other career. Wunmi Mosaku considered alternatives and ended up suffering panic attacks, while Jessica Brown Findlay describes her heart pounding at the end of her first day of rehearsals on her first ever job. Perhaps it has to be as viscerally important as that if you are really going to make your mark in this notoriously shaky profession.

Ruta Gedmintas

Ruta Gedmintas's rangy limbs are twisted around each other – not the body language one would expect of her alter ego Frankie, the lesbian lothario in BBC3's Sapphic saga Lip Service. But then the 27-year-old has always been shy, explaining that she gets in a feisty mood for Lip Service with her "Frankie playlist" – including a Danger Mouse track she won't identify, just as she won't reveal the story behind the tattoo on her arm – "Luceo non Uro" – Latin for "I shine but I will not burn".

The idea of using such musical "triggers" was taught to her at the Drama Centre in London by her tutor, the former Lee Strasberg acolyte Reuven Adiv, who also told the aspiring actress to do some modelling. "He thought I had to find my femininity as I was a bit of a tomboy," admits the Anglo-Lithuanian.

Her credits since include the Spooks spin-off Spooks: Code 9, while she was introduced to sex scenes as Henry VIII's mistress Elizabeth Blount in The Tudors. "I was terrified and I cried after... 'What am I doing? My mum's going to see this.'"

In the upcoming HBO saga The Borgias, she falls in love with the depraved son of the Pope, while in You Instead, filmed over five days at the T in the Park festival, she plays the ditzy model girlfriend of a rock star. Then there's Exteriors, a "bleak" tale of two wannabe actresses in LA for the TV pilot season.

Plenty, then, to build on Lip Service, which has already brought her lots of fans. "I have 8,300 people following me now on Twitter; before Lip Service it was about 10 and they were all my friends."

Role model: "Joan Allen – she ought to be considered on a par with Meryl Streep."

See her next in... The Borgias (Sky Atlantic, July)

Jessica Brown Findlay

Aged nine, Jessica Brown Findlay announced to her parents – a classroom assistant and a financial adviser from Cookham in Berkshire – that she was going to be a ballet dancer. By her final year at school she was a veteran of the National Youth Ballet and an associate of the Royal Ballet, and had danced on stage at the Royal Opera House with the Kirov.

And then, after three operations, she was told she'd never dance again. "I had heel spurs: my ankle joints were cutting away at my Achilles tendon," she explains. "It was heartbreaking – I was so close to what I'd spent years training towards."

A supportive art teacher suggested she make a fresh start by applying to St Martins in London. "I enjoyed the solitary side of painting – I just wanted to spend time in a room and not be bossed about."

But how did a promising ballet dancer and painter become a promising actress? "I'd always enjoyed acting but never let myself think about it – after all, I was a ballet dancer. Then Susie Figgis, who was casting for Alice in Wonderland, showed my picture to Tim Burton and I got very close to playing the main part."

Findlay Brown, now 21, started attending other auditions and landed the role of Emelia in coming-of-age movie Albatross, which premieres at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. "I was in Soho when I learnt I'd got the part. I went skipping, screaming down the road.

"I deferred my art course but knew by the end of my first day that I'd made the right decision – my heart was beating like mad all the way home."

Next came Downton Abbey, in which she plays Lady Sybil, the rebellious Crawley daughter, and where she found herself, untutored in the dramatic arts, surrounded by Maggie Smith ("she's so funny and kind"), Hugh Bonneville and Penelope Wilton. "It was scary, but I knew from ballet that you learn by doing things – even if you fall over 10 times attempting them."

Role model: "Kate Winslet. She's quite fearless. And she's a Berkshire girl..."

See her next in... Downton Abbey (ITV, August)

Wunmi Mosaku

"It was only when I was accepted to university to do maths that I thought, 'No, I can't go,' and started having panic attacks."

And so Wunmi Mosaku applied to Rada, as it was the only drama school she knew of – and while that's the story of many an actor with no family background in the profession, her mother told her that if she didn't get accepted, she shouldn't bother with anywhere else, because it obviously wasn't the right career for her. "We were naive," admits Mosaku.

The 24-year-old, who attended drama classes as a child to keep her out of trouble on the Manchester housing estate on which she grew up, ended up in the same year at Rada as Gemma Arterton, before winning roles at the Royal Court and the Young Vic.

Born in Nigeria, Mosaku came to England with her parents and two sisters and, excelling at singing, joined the Manchester Girls Choir. "That was the hardest thing about leaving Manchester – I'd been with these 43 girls since the age of seven."

She's still looking for a choir to join in Brixton, where she now lives, but she's hardly ever there, so busy has she been filming – in Newcastle for the ITV detective drama Vera, in which she plays Brenda Blethyn's police sidekick, and in Manchester for the upcoming Waking the Dead spin-off The Body Farm. She also plays a social worker in the new BBC1 human-trafficking drama Stolen. She was, though, back in London for last month's Baftas, where the gruellingly excellent drama I am Slave was nominated. Mosaku had the title role, a young girl trafficked into domestic slavery – almost mute throughout and expressing everything with her eyes.

It's the type of role that gets a girl noticed, and she's going to try her luck in the US, despite knowing she'll have to drop a dress size. "I've been told there's no point in going unless I am at least as thin as I was in I am Slave. I eat carbs, I eat Nigerian food... it's sad, but that's the industry."

Role model: "Lubna Azabal. Working with her on I am Slave, I was struck by how she made her 'bad' character so shaded."

See her next in... The Body Farm (BBC1, September)

Vicky McClure

That best Actress Bafta has been a long time coming. Plucked as a 15-year-old in 1999 from Nottingham's Television Workshop to play the sister of the title character in Shane Meadows' A Room for Romeo Brass, Vicky McClure, now 28, played skinhead heroine Lol in Meadows' 2006 feature This is England, then this year won both a Royal Television Society award and the Bafta for reprising the role in C4's This is England '86.

Yet only 15 months ago she was filling vending machines in the offices of a Nottingham valuation firm. "So much has happened," she says at home in Nottingham, on holiday after filming a Meadows Christmas special for Channel 4, This is England '88. "I've worked there for eight years – they'd let me come and go between filming. You need to pay the bills."

Such are the contrasts of McClure's fledgling career, never starker than when she was co-starring in Madonna's 2008 directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom. "It was very surreal because I'd be on Madonna's private jet one day, and at my desk the day after. I've tried not to get down about it. You just need some persistence."

That persistence is starting to pay off. Other new projects include an episode of the upcoming Waking the Dead spin-off The Body Farm, and playing Damian Lewis's police sidekick in human-trafficking drama Stolen. "It was great to act with Damian," she says. "We joked that we were a bit like Mulder and Scully."

Her work on This is England has earnt McClure an eclectic fan base, including Ben Drew, aka the singer Plan B, who cast her in his "She Said" video, and the owner of Illamasqua, who made her the face of the Goth-inspired make-up. "It's my glamour time, as I get to wear lots of make-up, which is unusual for me. If this had happened a few years ago I might not have embraced it in the way I am. I feel very lucky."

Role models: "Judi Dench, Julie Walters, Helen Mirren... They've been in the game a long time and have worked on some great projects."

See her next in... Stolen (BBC1, August)

Amanda Hale

Amid the general acclaim that greeted BBC2's adaptation of Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White earlier this year, Amanda Hale's performance as mad, bed-ridden Agnes received the stand-out plaudits. Not that the 28-year-old sees Agnes as mentally ill at all. "I'm surprised people call her mad – if you go back to the book, you realise she was just a child," she says, as we pick apart a Wikipedia entry that has her down as being Welsh.

"I was born in London but my family are Irish," she corrects. "My mum has worked for M&S for about 40 years, and my dad has just retired but he delivered furniture for John Lewis in his last job."

After doing theatre studies at A-level, Hale was offered a place at Oxford to study English, but realising she wouldn't have enough money to do that and go to drama school, she decided to hold out for the latter.

She then spent four years "working in loads of terrible jobs – in a betting shop, bars, cycling round delivering sandwiches" – until she won a place at Rada. "I'd audition for about 10 drama schools every year and get into all of them except the one I wanted. Rada was where my heroes went."

After graduating, she was nominated for two Evening Standard awards as Jessica Lange's daughter in a West End version of The Glass Menagerie; was Cordelia to Pete Postlethwaite's King Lear; and had TV roles in Spooks ("I got drowned in the bath... it was one of those"), the Robbie Coltrane detective drama Murderland, and Channel 4's Richard is My Boyfriend, playing a woman with a mental age of five who becomes pregnant during a relationship with a man with Down's syndrome.

"I have to be quite careful what I ask my parents to come and see because most of the stuff I do on stage is really dark and weird," she says. "If I was in Coronation Street they'd be glad – that's the only thing they watch."

Role model: "Madeline Kahn, who was around in the 1970s – I'm a bit obsessed with her."

See her next in... No confirmed roles; The Crimson Petal and the White is out on DVD now

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