Seven Names to Watch at Sundance 2016

Meet seven standout actors and directors set to break out of the festival this year.

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India Menuez

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For the role of hard-partying Katie in White Girl, India Menuez says she was certainly able to mine some of her own experiences: "I had a period where I would go hard—and then I kinda went too hard too many times; by the time I was hitting the legal age to drink, I was like, 'Just a glass with dinner, thank you.'" The actress and performance artist grew up in New York City, between Chinatown and Park Slope, attending high school at School of the Future before transferring to City-As-School. (Is there any other city that could produce such fantastically named alma maters?) 

In addition to her acting work of late, Menuez recently appeared in a show in the dome at MoMA's PS1 in New York City, and is bringing Booklub—the performance series she's curated for the last few years—to MoMA itself next month. "It's really insane—I'm having, like, 40 performers come, and it's going to be a seven-hour, hardcore...I'm going to die at the end of the day, basically," she says, curled up on a couch in an airy photo studio in New York City. Not only that, she has two features in post-production: Technology, a fantasy film she co-wrote and stars in; and Girl Props, which she co-wrote, co-directed, and in which she stars, as well. This marks her first visit to Sundance, but all signs point to it not being her last. 

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"It is very much a New York movie, and I love watching New York movies."

"For people outside of the city, everything about it is weirdly already familiar, because they've seen it in movies and music videos."

"To have a childhood in New York is a really specific experience and it does shape you in a really specific way. It was cool—lot of opportunities. You grow up fast. "

"I didn't even had a fake ID until I was 20. In Chinatown, it's not about going to clubs as much as it's about house parties."

"I really like going to film festivals. All the hard work of shooting is being celebrated, you're embraced by a community, and you get to reconnect with all these people you spent a whole month with. It's like a family reunion."

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Meera Menon 

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Considering the director Meera Menon's first feature, Farah Bang, was a fun, albeit political, road-trip comedy about women in their 20s, a Wall Street movie might not be the most predictable of follow-ups. But that very movie is what landed her in the director's chair for Equity, an entry in this year's U.S. Narrative Feature competition. Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, who both produce and perform in the film, approached Menon themselves. "Equity is very feminist in its concept," Menon explains one morning in a downtown loft in New York City. "It's about exploring the world of Wall St. through a female perspective, and they wanted a female director to harness that."

After securing the gig, she then received news that Anna Gunn would be appearing in the film's lead role. "I was just excited to meet Anna Gunn as a fan," says Menon, "let alone to talk to her about working together." With Equity, which comes along as another Wall Street deep dive, The Big Short is doing the award rounds, Menon was eager to sink her teeth into more sophisticated material. "My first film was definitely sophisticated but it was about youth and being young," she says. "This film is more somber in tone, and the portrait it creates is of women who are slightly older, at a certain point in their careers. So it's just a bit more mature in its tone, and that was definitely very exciting for me." 

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"The Wall Street environment—much like the film industry—is very male-dominated, and very competitive, filled with highly ambitious people. The people are incredibly smart—just watching them do what they do in such a fast-paced environment is really exciting—and that's a great hunting ground for drama."

"One of the comparables I thought of while reading the script is Mad Men. Beyond the fact that it's a beautiful show to watch because you love the time period, and you love the style, what makes that show so totally watchable is that you're watching really smart people who are excellent at what they do, doing it to the best of their abilities."

"I really loved the ensemble element of it: James Naughton, a two-time Tony Award-winning actor, coming to film one scene with Anna Gunn. The next day, Tracie Thoms is there. Every day, there was a another incredible actor coming to do a bit part."

"We completed the movie two hours ago. We just shipped it to Sundance today."

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Kate Lyn Sheil

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You've certainly seen Kate Lyn Sheil—perhaps in horror film V/H/S, 2012 indie The Comedy, or on the Netflix series House of Cards. She enters Sundance this year with two projects: The Girlfriend Experience, a TV show executive produced by Steven Soderbergh based on his film of the same name; and the documentary Kate Plays Christine, which follows Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, the news broadcaster who committed suicide on live TV in 1974. (Oddly, this is not the only film about Chubbuck in competition at this year's festival: Borderline Films also has Christine, directed by Antonio Campos and starring Rebecca Hall in the titular role.)

It's Sheil's lead performance as herself in Kate Plays Christine that looks to position her firmly in the Sundance spotlight. The film is competing in the festival's documentary category, but the ever-blurry line between fact and fiction is very much at the heart of this film. Who is Sheil? Is there even a film for which we are watching her prepare? Where can we draw the line between truth and performance?

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"I think that any time you point a camera at someone, they're going to perform."

"I'm acting the entire time, but it's totally a documentary. I think that's the conversation Robert (Greene, the filmmaker) wants to have. He is documenting me doing something, but I'm playing a version of myself."

"I would say there were fewer boundaries in a project like this, especially given the documentary nature of it."

"Because I felt a responsibility to Christine Chubbuck not to be flippant with her story, I was a little more consumed than I would've been otherwise."

Styled by Laurel Pantin. Hair by Kelsey Morgan. Makeup by Mark Edio


Elizabeth Wood

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Elizabeth Wood's new film White Girl, which she both wrote and directed, is very much based on the partying ways of her sophomore year of college, when she was living in Ridgewood, Queens, just a couple of years removed from life in Oklahoma City. Wood had always planned on being a writer, but found her way to experimental film while studying at The New School. She started showing at galleries, and figured she was headed straight for the world of installation and video art.

Then she had a realization: what if she could channel that exploratory energy into material relatable for people in Middle America, other countries, young people, old people? So she turned the camera on herself, effectively, and the result is White Girl, telling the story of one girl's effort to get back a guy, that premieres at Sundance this year, competing in the category of U.S. Narrative Feature.

" As I was living it, I knew it was going to be my first film. But it took me a number of years to process it, to know when the story began and when it ended, and to get some perspective."

"My test when editing is: if I want to look at my phone, then we have to fix the scene. It's the phone test; if I want to look at Instagram, the scene's boring."

"Well, you know, real life is much crazier than fiction—but you've got to make it fit in 84 minutes."

"I think it's weird sometimes when people jump to make a project about something that's currently happening in their life. You don't need to be in a hurry; you have time."

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Kika Magalhães

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Kika Magalhães moved to New York City from her hometown Famalicao in Portugal, a few years ago, after a stint working as a dancer. "I was traveling around Europe," Magalhães explains. "I was kind of lost, and didn't know what I was doing." Her epiphany came at a certifiably unexpected moment: dancing onstage in Ibiza during a Calvin Harris show. It was then and there she realized she wanted to be a performer.

She met director Nicolas Pesce in New York when she auditioned for a music video he was making ("I really needed the money"), and ended up landing the part. Shortly afterward, he called her with the news that he was writing a new film and wanted her to play the lead. That film, Eyes of My Mother, is the first feature from Borderline Presents, the new imprint from Borderline Films, the production company responsible for past festival darlings Martha Marcy May Marlene and James White.

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"I moved to New York City only to pursue acting. Having this movie in Sundance with me as the lead actress is a dream come true."

"If you're an actor in Portugal, you're either going to end up homeless, or doing really bad soap operas."

"I love playing crazy, disturbed people."

"I was dancing next to Calvin Harris on stage, and I realized this is what I'm meant to do with my life: be an actor, a performer, a dancer. Right after that, I decided to move to New York."

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Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

This is not Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's first Sundance rodeo: the directorial duo has been, in various capacities, behind some kick-ass documentaries—The Lost Boys of SudanInside Guantanamo, and The Island President are just a few of their award-winners—but Audrie and Daisy, which has its world-premiere in the U.S. documentary category at the festival, might be their most intense piece yet. Why? Because it hits close to home. Their latest film follows two teenagers' heartbreaking, and very public, stories of sexual assault, followed by horrific cyber-bullying—an occurrence that unfortunately is more common today than many of us would like to admit. 

Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman are two 14-year-old girls living on opposite sides of the country, both victims of sexual abuse and humiliation online as teenagers. Both of their cautionary stories speak to the unthinkable outcomes one awful night can create for an entire town, family, and individual. Cohen and Shenk dive into these worlds repeatedly over the course of three years, expertly navigating and weaving together small town politics, cyberbullying, ostracization, suicide, victim-shaming, and the other complicated factors that make situations like these so hard to cover. "When we started to track these cases, we realized there was this very unusual, very public square of shame going on amongst high school kids that was totally and utterly unlike anything we knew," Cohen explains. "No one wants to talk about this stuff, but in today's digital climate, it's really important.

The directors, who have teenagers of their own, hope this intimate look at such an emotional story can echo a larger issue and help initiate a conversation that will only continue to get louder, giving the issues more visibility. "Our kids are growing up with social media—it's this forum that is alive, it's a valid way to interact and have a relationship with another person," explains Cohen. "It's just so different from how we grew up." That's not to say that's it's bad—the double-edged sword has also provided an empowering space for these young women to investigate their own abuses, speak up for themselves, find support, and fight back.

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