Watch out, Keira: Meet the new generation of British actresses making waves on the small screen

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There was a time when British starlets would make their names treading the boards. No longer: now TV is king – and it's turning out a new generation of actresses ready-made for big-screen success

Keira Knightley, Gemma Arterton, Carey Mulligan, Emily Blunt, Claire Foy... there's a whole generation of British screen actresses who have now well and truly come of age, safely launched into what could well be the prime of their careers. Whether or not they can hold on once their youthful bloom begins to fade is an entirely different matter – especially without the theatrical training of earlier generations of British actresses, which facilitated a graceful transition to "character" parts. For, with the demise of the theatre repertory system since the 1980s, young talent today comes predominantly from the small screen.

"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've 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."

But how does this country steadily produce generation after generation of excellent female thespians? Is it all those lovingly crafted period dramas, or the quality of our acting schools, or, more traditionally, the rep system that no longer exists? "We do produce very fantastic actors in this country – a sort of by-product of a very crowded island, I think, and a very creative and imaginative world of the arts," says Bray. "And the great thing about British actors is their flexibility."

That's certainly why American casting directors like British talent. Flexible, better trained and, er, relatively cheap. And with a seemingly insatiable demand for a bit of British "posh", especially in their long-running TV shows, there doesn't seem a good reason why this conveyor belt of talent should ever grind to a halt. And when you reach the top? Well then you can do theatre. "You only have to look at Keira Knightley," says Bray. "She's done film after film – she's a massive film star – and eventually she's invited back to do The Misanthrope in the West End." So who are the up-and-comers looking to inherit Keira's crown?

Aisling Loftus

At a lunch break during rehearsals for her new play at the Royal Court, 19-year-old Aisling Loftus nearly chokes on her salad when I explain that I'm compiling an article about the hot new British actresses waiting to follow Keira, Carey and Gemma into the big time. "I don't count myself as one of that number," she says, with no hint of false modesty. "I feel proud of some of the things I've done, but if I can just be as good as some people have said that I can be, I would be very, very happy."

Two performances of which she can feel justly proud have been on television this year – as one of the quintet of young murder victims from Ipswich in BBC1's excellent Five Daughters and, earlier this month, as a pregnant teenage Olympic diving hopeful in Dominic Savage's BBC2 drama Dive.

Having started acting at nine, and cutting her teeth at Nottingham's Carlton Television Workshops (alma mater of Samantha Morton), Loftus's school days were peppered with small roles in TV shows such as Peak Practice, Casualty and The Bill. "I wasn't career-minded up until the point I had to start thinking about careers," she says. "That makes it sound like I don't have any passion for it, but what I'm trying to say is that I didn't do it on a whim."

Her breakthrough came in the title role of the 2009 short film Jade, which won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. "I know when I'm doing a good job, and that's when I'm not conscious that I'm doing a job. I like to think of acting as make-believe in earnest. It's a very self-indulgent thing to do for the rest of your life!" And if the future looks rosy, it is also, Loftus is at pains to point out, far from certain. "There are a couple of things lined up," she laughs, "but I'm not Kate Winslet, so I don't know. I'm acutely aware that I'm not owed anything."

Role models: "I admire certain performances, such as Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose and Amy Adams in Junebug."

Advice to the next generation: "I wouldn't want to do anything where I'm questioning 'Why is this story being told?' It's got to be stimulating." '

Emer Kenny

The brightest novelty to have struck EastEnders in a long time has been the introduction of characters from the soap's web spin-off, E20. And with her blue hot pants, hair extensions and bags of attitude, Emer Kenny's Zsa Zsa Carter has been the most memorable of the lot.

Kenny was originally hired as one of 13 writers on E20. "I was on a gap year after school, doing a bit of acting, with Dominic Savage (on Freefall), and little things with the National Youth Theatre, and I saw on its website a notice saying, 'Would you like to write an internet drama?' I entered something I'd written with no idea it was to do with EastEnders." Having penned the part of Zsa Zsa, Kenny was asked to play her. "It was only two days before they started filming. I was in shock."

Privately educated Kenny, daughter of a former actress and a civil engineer from north London, started modelling when she was 15 – she's now 20 — which, with her work at the Youth Theatre, helped get her an agent. "I got a film out of that, Coming Down the Mountain [a 2007 BBC drama written by Mark Haddon], and that got me to a bigger agency."

She is leaving EastEnders at the end of the year to try her hand at other things ("I'd love to do period drama – people say I've got the face for it"), but not because she feels soap is beneath her. "As a young actress you can be brainwashed into thinking indie films and awards are all that matter. But mainstream entertainment has broadened my horizons."

Role model: "I'm always writing stuff, always have ideas. That's why I admire Emma Thompson's career, because she's been able to do both very successfully."

Advice to the next generation: "Put something on, be in a play, write something, go to Edinburgh. Whatever you can, do it."

Lauren Socha

If Shane Meadows or Mike Leigh don't snap up Lauren Socha for any future projects, it won't be for want of Socha dropping hints. "I'd love to work with them – they're wicked," the 20-year-old Derby actress tells me, just as she did last time we met, on the set of Misfits – E4's Bafta-winning fantasy about a bunch of kids on community service who develop super-powers (Heroes meets Skins was always going to be a useful handle).

Those two auteurs of independent British cinema might have to wait in line behind Jennifer Saunders, however — Socha is off to a meeting with the Ab Fab creator when we catch up. And, anyway, Socha might almost be too obvious a choice for Meadows or Leigh: a straight-up, talkative (gobby, she'd probably call it) force of nature who can improvise as well as anybody – as she proved in The Unloved, Samantha Morton's semi-autobiographical directorial debut about growing up in a Nottingham care home. Socha was terrific as Lauren, the abused older girl who befriends the young heroine of Morton's drama and introduces her to the delights of shoplifting.

Indeed, the Saunders project might be the right move if Socha doesn't want to be typecast, in her words, as "the rude girl". "You know what? I'd really love to do a period drama, I really would. I'll have to work on my accent and everything." That wonderful, unreconstructed Midlands accent caused much merriment on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross earlier this year, when Ross said that he had presumed she put on the "chav" accent for the part of Kelly, her mind-reading character in Misfits. "I take it as a compliment – you don't get any other Derby actresses with a common voice like mine. He was wicked, Jonathan Ross. I was his favourite, he said, and that made me feel a little bit better."

Socha now shares an agent with such plummy thesps as Helena Bonham Carter and Joanna Lumley, but her roots are in the same Nottingham television workshop that produced Samantha Morton, Jack O'Connell from Skins and Aisling Loftus (see page 8). Socha's only professional work before The Unloved had been in an Arctic Monkeys video. Now there's talk of a Misfits film, as well as the upcoming second series. (The first series has just started a rerun on Channel 4.) "I think we all knew it was going to be a bit of a success," she says. "But it was only when it won a Bafta that it hit just how big a success."

Role models: "Sam Morton inspired me."

Advice to the next generation: "Be confident. You need confidence, and you have to have a spark."

Holliday Grainger

In a couple of weeks, Holliday Grainger is off to Budapest for six months to shoot The Borgias, and rather worryingly she hasn't yet read the script. The nine-part TV epic, directed by Neil Jordan and co-starring Jeremy Irons, is from the makers of those lavish historical bonkbusters Rome and The Tudors, and Grainger is playing Lucrezia Borgia – aka "the biggest whore in history". "Although, not according to this," says the 21-year-old actress, retrieving from her handbag a copy of Sarah Bradford's 2004 biography of the Renaissance schemer.

Grainger likes to read. She is in the second year of an Open University degree in English literature, having had to drop out of Leeds University because of the demands of a burgeoning career that has included a role as a vampire-fighting student in ITV's Demons, and the independent films The Scouting Book for Boys and The Bad Mother's Handbook – the latter co-starring the Twilight heart-throb Robert Pattinson. "He played a proper geeky guy in it. You know how magazines always do these 'before they were famous' pictures? Well, they always choose a picture from that."

She was recently reunited with Pattinson for the upcoming Bel Ami, a new take on the Guy de Maupassant story about a writer rising through Parisian society. The cast also includes Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Grainger's mother. ("She was amazing to watch – she has this scene where she breaks down and almost has, like, a fit because I'm marrying her lover.") Also in the can is a new Jane Eyre movie that has Tim Burton's Alice, Mia Wasikowska, as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester. Grainger plays one of the Rivers sisters.

The actress, who lives in Manchester with her mother, first worked in TV when she was six and had an agent by the age of nine, but didn't start taking it seriously until she was the grand old age of 14 – "I began to like acting for the challenge of it," she says. In the modern way, however, Grainger made her stage debut only last year, when she co-starred with Jonathan Pryce and Anne Reid in Douglas Hodge's Donmar Warehouse production of Athol Fugard's play Dimetos.

In the meantime, none other than Steven Spielberg has asked to see the screen test that Grainger did for The Borgias. "When my agent told me, I said 'You mean to say Steven Spielberg knows who I am?' Not that anything will probably come of it." Personally, I wouldn't bet on it.

Role models: "I really admire the body of work that Kristin Scott Thomas has done."

Advice to the next generation: "Go for it, but keep your options open."

Genevieve Barr

Nobody is waiting more keenly for the reaction to last week's BBC1 drama The Silence than its 23-year-old star, Genevieve Barr. Having left her teaching post at a south London comprehensive to take the role of Amelia, a deaf teenager who witnesses a murder, Barr (who is deaf herself) knows that her career depends on what those in the profession think of her performance. "I don't want to be typecast as a deaf person," she says. "I hope there is some movement towards deaf actors playing hearing roles."

If anyone can make this happen, it probably is Barr, who is currently undergoing speech therapy with Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley's vocal coach, and has landed on the books of Curtis Brown, agents to such exciting young talents as Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ophelia to Jude Law's Hamlet at the Donmar) and Skins' Kaya Scodelario (Cathy in Andrea Arnold's upcoming Wuthering Heights). "Disability made me stronger and more determined, and in a way, it's made me unique," says Barr.

A consummate lip-reader who had to learn sign language for The Silence, Barr has always been at home in the hearing world – and successful. At 15, she played rounders for England; at 16, she was a high-board diving champion in her hometown of Harrogate; at 19, she was captain of the Edinburgh University lacrosse team and played for Scotland. "I've never been afraid to fail and try again. I mean, when you're a high-board diver, you land splat in the water over and over again, until you get it right."

Role models: "Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet – they take on a huge variety of roles that are all vastly different."

Advice to the next generation: "Take every opportunity with both hands and don't let go."

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