While American male actors in their early 20s seem to be concentrating on plucking their eyebrows and sculpting their abs, American actresses are blossoming into brave and beautiful Streeps. “Where are the boys?” Lawrence asked me. “Where are the Robert Redfords and Paul Newmans of my age group? I love James Franco, but where’s the next James Franco? Where are the hunks who can act?”
It’s not just the lack of guys—since Streep’s career began in the Seventies, there are new obstacles to cinematic greatness. Actresses like Lindsay Lohan squander their talent in exchange for tabloid fame. And all too many young actresses have a tiny bit of success and then become, essentially, models—known more for the labels they’re wearing than for the difficult parts they’re tackling. With discipline and some luck, Lawrence and her generation will not, let’s hope, become addicted to the paparazzi or fashion, sacrificing their dreams of artistic integrity for high-end-product placement. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, Greta Gerwig, 27, who first became known for her work in the genre called Mumblecore, which stresses honest emotion over pyrotechnics, selling out her talent. This year Gerwig starred in Greenberg as a vulnerable, kindhearted girl who was somewhat lost. Gerwig’s portrayal was naturalistic yet layered—which made the character both unique and instantly familiar.
It’s that quality of complication that defines this generation of actresses: While the guys preen, the girls are taking chances. Emma Roberts, with her debutante looks, could have been a classic ingenue, playing the perfect princess again and again. Instead, at 19, she has chosen to portray a psychiatric patient in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which is in theaters September 24. Opposite her in the film is Zoë Kravitz, 21, who made her first notable film appearance in The Brave One as an abused prostitute. “My part in The Brave One was actually written for a blond with a European accent,” Kravitz told me. “My part in It’s Kind of a Funny Story was originally written for an Asian girl. They didn’t initially think of me for those roles. It’s my job to change minds.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Jessica Chastain, who graduated from Juilliard in 2003, first garnered attention when she starred opposite Al Pacino in the play, and then the film version of, Salome. Every night she would bare all at the finale of the Dance of the Seven Veils. “To learn that dance,” Chastain told me, “I went to strip clubs in L.A. just to be, like, Okay, this is normal. There’s nothing taboo about it.” Yaya DaCosta, 27, who costars in The Kids Are All Right, had a similar challenge: She had to hold her own (and establish a character) in a sex scene with Mark Ruffalo. DaCosta’s role could have easily become a cliché—the exotic lover—but she gave the character a heartbeat.