Toronto International Film Festival: Actors poised for stardom

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The Toronto International Film Festival is famous for its star-studded, Oscar-caliber lineup, but it showcases films featuring stellar turns from lesser-known performers too. Before the festival’s conclusion Sunday, The Times’ film staff caught up with some of the players poised to break out of this year’s pack.

As many stars have found, it can take a small film to finally move an actor from the side to center stage. “The First Grader,” which rests heavily on Naomie Harris’ slim shoulders, may be that film for her.

The role of Teacher Jane — a headmistress in a rural Kenyan school who puts her job, her marriage and indeed her life on the line to fight for an 84-year-old’s right to an education — captivated the 34-year-old actress when she read the script, based on a true story.

And the film satisfied her desire for a smaller project; after spending much of her time in the machinery of major studio movies (the two most recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and “Miami Vice” among them), she wanted a break.

“I wanted to go back and do something really small, really intimate, where I felt like I could be part of the creative process. And meeting a director like Justin Chadwick, who’s always allowing you to contribute — that’s really liberating,” she said the morning after the film’s premiere. “I wanted my passion to be re-ignited, and that’s definitely what happened on this piece.”

Audiences here responded with tears, standing ovations and buzz that Harris could be an awards contender. But the beginnings of the production — when Harris had to actually teach first-graders for two weeks in Kenya before filming — were difficult, she recalled.

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