Right on cue: Meet the new generation of hot young British actors taking the world by storm

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There's no waiting in the wings any more: rather than spending years in repertory, the new generation of British male actors are coming camera-ready to Tinseltown courtesy of fledgling careers on television

The actors featured in this article may not be household names yet, but over the coming weeks and months they will become a whole lot more familiar – as famous, perhaps, as Daniel Radcliffe or James McAvoy. And what's interesting is the route they have taken to imminent celebrity: television.

It used to be fairly straightforward for a young British male actor with big ambitions: you went to stage school, paid your dues in repertory theatre and finally made it on to the London stage – Rada-rep-Royal Court, if you will. Then, and only then, did Hollywood start taking notice. For the rest, in the absence of a plausible native film industry, there was plenty of worthwhile work on television – Dennis Potter rather than Harry Potter – and that, more or less, was that.

Things are much more fluid now. The repertory system died in the 1980s, and of the young British male actors now firmly established in the movie industry, only a minority ' went to drama school, and an increasing number have not done any professional theatre at all. In fact, theatre – the West End, at least – is something to be done once you've arrived. Radcliffe didn't star in the stage version of Equus until he had five Harry Potter movies under his belt, as a way of saying he was now a grown-up, serious. Robert Pattinson (Twilight) and Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean) also owe their stardom to blockbuster franchises, while McAvoy (Shameless), Nicholas Hoult and Dev Patel (Skins) all have hip TV shows to thank for their leg-up.

Dominic Cooper is one of the few to have done it the old-fashioned way – graduating from Lamda, before treading the boards at the National Theatre (he was involved with Alan Bennett's The History Boys from its first reading right through to its movie translation) – but even he had one sparkling piece of good fortune (or good judgement) on his CV: his participation in the Mamma Mia! movie.

However, the coming generation of male stars predominantly have television backgrounds – of the six featured ' here, only Adetomiwa Edun has a largely theatrical grounding. As Edun explains on page 18, he now understands the importance of transferring his stagecraft to the TV studio, and is grappling with the different disciplines involved.

Television acting was never as despised in this country as it was among movie folk in America (although no longer, thanks to the blossoming of HBO and cable TV generally). Now, though, it is positively seen as beneficial. Within the profession a few episodes of Casualty or EastEnders is more important on your CV than above-the-pub theatre runs or understudying Shakespeare.

"The route to success is through television," says Michael Bray of Arts Educational Schools London, the drama academy that recently became the first to create a BA specifically in acting for film and television. "The industry has completely and utterly changed in the past 10 years. We have listened to the industry and it is saying, 'We're fed up with actors who simply don't know what to do in front of the camera.'" '

So do actors need drama school at all any more? It was a moot point for another of our chosen potential stars-of-tomorrow, Christian Cooke, when his girlfriend, Vanessa Kirby, was having to decide between taking up a place at Lamda and the offer of three plays at the Bolton Octagon theatre. Cooke, who was on a publicity tour for the Ricky Gervais film Cemetery Junction at the time, sought the advice of his co-stars.

"Ralph Fiennes said definitely go to drama school, it's the best experience you can have, it's an opportunity to mess up without consequences," he says. "Emily Watson said, 'Do the plays.' She said that she had learnt more in two years as an understudy at the RSC than she ever did at drama school."

For the record, Kirby took Watson's advice, and has had a whirlwind year that also took in the National Theatre and a nomination for the prestigious Ian Charleson Award. "Acting is a career – it's not a religion," says Cooke. "There aren't any set rules as to how you go about it".

'I made quite a precocious speech at the age of 16 and got an agent out of it'

Christian Cooke

See him soon in: The Promise

It helps to be single-minded as an actor, and Bradford-born Christian Cooke has been displaying that quality since childhood, when he was in two TV ads for Birds Eye. "I've never really wanted anything else," he says. "I remember being 10 and worrying I could become interested enough in something else to give up acting. It's a bizarre worry."

He was engaged by ITV's cosy Where the Heart Is for the following six years, the show acting as a bridge between juvenile and adult roles. Cooke then paid his dues in Casualty and Doctors before playing the male totty in three flop ITV shows: the mock-soap Echo Beach, the would-be British Gossip Girl, Trinity, and Demons, for which he was dubbed "Buffed the Vampire Slayer". "I don't know about that," he says.

"Everything so far has been a stepping stone. Things have only really got going for me in the past year or two." These "things" include Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's film comedy Cemetery Junction, and now, in a seeming transition into truly demanding roles, Cooke has the lead part as a British Army officer in Peter Kosminsky's four-part Channel 4 drama about the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Promise. This could be the year that Cooke, already a veteran at 23, comes of age.

Role model: "Philip Seymour Hoffman – his choices are good and his films varied."

Advice to the next generation: "Take every opportunity you can to act. I go to auditions even if I don't want the part, just for the experience."

Freddie Fox

See him soon in: Any Human Heart, The Three Musketeers

A scion of the Fox dynasty – son of Edward, nephew of James and brother of Emilia – it seemed inevitable the 21-year-old Freddie would become an actor. But no: "We have a house on the Dorset coast," he says, "and this fisherman, Barry Bust, would always come in with his lobster pots. For a long time that's what I wanted to be."

Then, "I began to do a few school productions before playing leads and directing my own productions. I had an inkling my dad wanted me to have three years at university to consider what else is out there, but there was only one thing I loved."

After three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Fox's career has exploded into life – first with a magnificent turn as pop singer Marilyn in BBC4's Boy George biopic Worried About the Boy, and now in a rush of high-profile performances, starting later this month with Channel 4's adaptation of William Boyd's Any Human Heart, and, in December, an Old Vic production of the farce A Flea in Her Ear.

He's also filming Hugo Blick's BBC2 thriller, The Shadow Line (as "a sort of hitman") and has just flown in from Munich, where he's King Louis in The Three Musketeers. "High-octane, in the Pirates of the Caribbean mould," he explains.

Role model: "My dad has always been one of my great heroes. It's corny, but true."

Advice to the next generation: "Be dangerous, be naughty and try to surprise yourself with everything you do."

Arthur Darvill

See him in: Doctor Who

"It's so bloody secretive," says Arthur Darvill recalling the auditioning process for Doctor Who. "I thought I'd have a few episodes and then be off – I didn't know it'd be this long-standing thing."

As Tardis regular Rory, the 27-year-old is having to face the fact that he is now public property. "It's a funny thing to deal with." Darvill was already friends with Matt Smith, the current Doctor, after performing with him in the West End production of Swimming with Sharks. That was after being nominated, just a year out of Rada, for an Evening Standard Award for most promising newcomer, playing Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, in Edmund White's Terre Haute.

He also writes musicals – his show Been So Long was performed at the Young Vic last year – and plays guitar, recently touring with the Guillemots' Fyfe Dangerfield. The musical gene comes from his father, Nigel, keyboard player for the 1980s pop band Fine Young Cannibals.

Until Doctor Who, Darvill'smost high-profile TV rolewas as Tip Dorrit in BBC1'sLittle Dorrit, which gave himthe chance to work with hishero, Tom Courtenay. "Therewas a point when I thought,'OK, I'm not going to act at alltoday, I'm just going to soakit all up and listen to you.'"

Role model: "Tom – he has had such a varied career – and I admire anyone whodoesn't get swept up by thehorrible fame side of it."

Advice to the next generation: "The profession can be good, but you have to understand it won't always go your way."

Domhnall Gleeson

See him soon in: When Harvey Met Bob, True Grit

We're about to get the first full-blown screen impersonation of Bob Geldof, and the actor playing him, Domhnall (pronounced doe-nul) Gleeson, is every bit as fleet of tongue as the erstwhile Boomtown Rat.

The son of the versatile Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall stars in upcoming BBC2 drama When Harvey Met Bob, about the relationship between the impetuous rocker and the pragmatic concert organiser Harvey Goldsmith as they put together Live Aid.

It is just one of a slew of projects Gleeson is involved with, including the Coen brothers' retread of the John Wayne western True Grit, a dream come true for the 27-year-old: "When I joined my agency four years ago, they asked what I wanted to do; I said a Coen brothers movie."

It's been said Gleeson is fed up about being asked about his father, but, he says, "It's no skin off my nose – I'm really proud of my dad." It wasn't inevitable he would become an actor, he adds. "I wanted to be a writer and director, but I accepted an award for my father on live TV when I was 16, made quite a precocious speech that made everyone laugh, and got an agent out of that."

Role model: "People such as my father or Gabriel Byrne. Or closer to my age group, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy."

Advice to the next generation: "The advice my father gave me was: don't wait for the phone to ring. If no one will hire you, write something yourself, or get a friend to."

Adetomiwa Edun

See him in: Merlin

The biggest audition that Adetomiwa Edun flunked was when he went to work in a bank. "I did an internship at Citigroup," he says. "At the end of it, one of the guys said, 'Your heart doesn't seem in this,' and I felt like I'd failed to act well... I'd been busted."

The Nigerian-born actor (he arrived in Britain at 11) considered banking only as his father, a financier, felt that after an education at Eton and Cambridge, he should find a secure profession. "He didn't understand. But I went to Rada and it was great when he came to see one of my first plays. I could hear raucous chuckles, and I thought, 'He gets it now.'"

Last year Edun became only the second black actor to play Romeo at the Globe, where his turn in Dominic Dromgoole's production won praise for its freshness and, after more plaudits for his role as the sole black warder in a prison in Rex Obano's play Slaves, the 26-year-old is now honing his skills for the camera. He recently played a soldier returning from Afghanistan in ITV's Law & Order, and Gwen's estranged brother in BBC1's Merlin . "Theatre is drama at its most essential – you can see me and I can see you – and it depends on a mutual contract. The thing I'm trying to explore [in TV]," he says, "is how you achieve that when the audience isn't there."

Role model: "I love seeing shows by the ensemble Complicite – they don't shy away from theatricality."

Advice to the next generation: "Ultimately people connect with acting if it's honest."

Iwan Rheon

See him in: Misfits

Iwan Rheon is atop a mountain in the Welsh borders, England laid out at his feet. It could be a laboured metaphor for the 26-year-old Cardiff actor's career. He is here filming Resistance, an adaptation of the poet Owen Sheers' first novel, set in 1944 and imagining D-Day had gone wrong and the Germans had staged a counter-invasion.

His co-stars are Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen, and it's all a long way from the Welsh-language BBC soap Pobol y Cwm, in which Rheon had his first acting job at the age of 17. "I was there for two years playing a typical teen, into rugby, girls and having a drink," he says.

Rheon, however, is more often cast as introverted outsiders, most recently as Simon in E4's Bafta-winning Skins-meets-Heroes show Misfits; a second series begins later this month. "People seem to love it," he says. "It's brilliantly British, not taking itself too seriously."

Before Misfits, there were three years at Lamda and the London transfer of rock musical Spring Awakening, for which he won an Olivier. And this summer Rheon was in the National Theatre of Wales's staging of John Osborne's long-lost The Devil Inside Him. Little wonder he hasn't found much time to devote to his "Mod" rock group the Convictions.

Role model: "Michael Sheen. He's played a lot of real people; I'd like to play Steve Marriott of the Small Faces."

Advice to the next generation: "Be a really hard worker, easy to get along with, and be on time. Nobody wants to work with a diva."

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