Meet TIFF Rising Star Sophie Nelisse

(Photo by Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press)

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

TORONTO -- Montreal actress Sophie Nelisse wasn't born with the urge to become a star.
There were practical reasons that pushed the 16-year-old into her acting career, which recently took her to the Cannes Film Festival. Next week she'll be at the Toronto International Film Festival, where she'll be recognized as one of four up-and-coming actors chosen for the annual Rising Star program.

"My brother wanted to become an actor and I used to do gymnastics and I kind of just fell into it to get money to pay for the travel expenses," Nelisse says.

"Throughout the years I continued and I eventually stopped gymnastics because it was too demanding and I wanted to pursue acting. And so here I am. I'm trying to make it more of a career now.

"It's getting a bit more serious."
Indeed, Nelisse's career has soared since she made a splash as insightful student Alice in Philippe Falardeau's Oscar-nominated 2011 teacher-suicide drama "Monsieur Lazhar."

"I have to say, it was the perfect way to start off a career in a way, because we were all kids, we were all young, we didn't feel like we were working," she says.

Nelisse's subsequent credits have included "The Book Thief" with Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, "Pawn Sacrifice" with Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber, and "Mean Dreams," which is at this year's Toronto film fest.

"Mean Dreams" stars Nelisse as a teen who flees from her abusive father with her boyfriend/neighbour, played by Josh Wiggins. The duo steals a bag of drug money to fund their getaway.

Nathan Morlando directed the script by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby. They shot last fall near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

"It was different for me because it was mostly scenes outside and I'm more of a city girl, so it was hard for me to always be out in the woods with spiders and stuff like that," Nelisse says, laughing. "But it was an amazing set. People were just so nice."

Nelisse felt even more out of her element when "Mean Dreams" screened at the Cannes festival's Directors' Fortnight program in May and got two standing ovations.

"It was overwhelming," says Nelisse, who was born in Windsor, Ont. "It was people everywhere on the streets, it was the big red carpet, it's not what I'm used to. It was fun getting to see the team again and I think we just really worked so hard on this movie.

"To be the entire team together and walk those steps was overwhelming and we were so proud of ourselves. It's a wonderful feeling."

Morlando says he's been watching Nelisse for seven years and is excited for audiences and fellow filmmakers to see more of her work.

"I needed a woman who was very emotionally and psychologically mature, who could understand this very complex character and play some very complex feelings and Sophie was just perfect for the part."

Nelisse says her character in the film is "not like the cute little perfect girl anymore" and "is very different than what I've played before."

She says she hopes to find more roles she feels passionate about.

"Obviously I want to win an Oscar one day, it's obviously a goal or a dream of mine, but I'm not ever going to choose a script just for that," she says.

"I just really want to do my best and if people recognize my work, it's always a plus."

Other actors in this year's Rising Stars program include Jared Abrahamson, Grace Glowicki and Mylene Mackay. Alumni of the program include Sarah Gadon, Tatiana Maslany and Stephan James.

TIFF runs Sept. 8 to 18.

-- With files from Cassandra Szklarski