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Meet the Stars of Sundance’s Buzziest Films — From ‘The Fallout’ to ‘Winner’

Name: Maisy Stella

Maisy Stella
Maisy Stella

Sundance project: “My Old Ass,” director Megan Park’s follow-up to “The Fallout.”

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Notable past credits: Musical TV series “Nashville.”

When director Megan Park called Maisy Stella to share the news that their film “My Old Ass” was headed to Sundance, the young singer and actress was “properly leveled,” she says. “My knees literally buckled.”

Stella felt a strong kinship with her character, a recent high school grad getting ready to leave her picturesque yet sleepy Canada hometown (and family cranberry farm) behind to start college in Toronto. During a camping trip with friends, she meets her 39-year-old self, played by Aubrey Plaza, who offers wisdom and advice from the future.

“I hadn’t read anything that was so funny and light, but was so weighted at the same time,” says Stella, who leads the comedic queer coming-of-age drama. “A young queer girl that’s figuring out herself — honestly, that in itself was very relatable to me, and I know to a lot of young girls.”

The Nashville-based actress also connected with the nostalgic tone of the film, which features a notable scene in which she performs Justin Bieber’s 2009 hit “One Less Lonely Girl,” in character as Bieber, with two of her costars as backup dancers.

“Doing the Bieber sequence was probably one of my favorite days of filming,” she says. “Once I embodied Bieber, I couldn’t shake it off. For the next couple days, I kept slipping back into my Bieber habits.”

Name: Emilia Jones

Emilia Jones photographed for WWD on January 20, 2024 in Park Slope, Utah, during Sundance Film Festival.
Emilia Jones photographed for WWD on January 20, 2024 in Park Slope, Utah, during Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance project: She leads “Winner,” a dark comedy about NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, directed by Susanna Fogel. The film is Jones’ fourth Sundance premiere.

Notable past credits: 2022 Oscar-winner “Coda,” which premiered at Sundance in 2021; “Fairyland,” and the Fogel-directed “Cat Person,” which both premiered at Sundance in 2023.

“Susanna told me about Reality’s story, and about ‘Winner,’ when we were filming ‘Cat Person,'” Jones says. Winner, an Air Force veteran and former translator for the NSA, was imprisoned for leaking a classified document about Russian interference in the U.S. campaign in 2016.

The movie comes on the heels of several other screen adaptations about the incident, but rather than focus on the leak or FBI interrogation, Fogel’s film begins in childhood and takes a comedic, character-first approach.

Jones calls the film “a fresh take on a traditional whistleblower-thriller.”

“We’re trying to humanize Reality and show people that she’s so much more than just a name and a headline,” she adds. “People like Reality don’t come along very often in life — and roles like that don’t come along very often.”

Jones is already preparing for her next role: in March she’ll begin shooting a crime series for HBO, alongside Mark Ruffalo. “I’m learning a Philadelphia accent right now,” she says. “It’s very hard, but I like a challenge.”

Name: Jay Will

Jay Will photographed for WWD on January 20, 2024 in Park Slope, Utah, during Sundance Film Festival.
Jay Will photographed for WWD on January 20, 2024 in Park Slope, Utah, during Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance project: “Rob Peace,” directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and adapted from Jeff Hobbs’ book “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.”

Notable past projects: Taylor Sheridan’s crime drama series “Tulsa King.”

Will marked his first film and onscreen leading role with the premiere of “Rob Peace” at Sundance in January.

The film, which costars Ejiofor, Mary J. Blige and Camila Cabello, is adapted from a biography written by Peace’s roommate at Yale University. Several years after graduating from with honors in 2002, Peace was murdered in his hometown of Newark, N.J.

“While reading the script I’m like, ‘I know this guy. I know who this is. I know what it means to have a specific loyalty to my family, no matter what the cost is,’” says Will, who portrays Peace in the film. “He’s a real human being that could be any one of us. And I really wanted to honor that.”

Will credits Ejiofor for giving him the room to explore and deepen his portrayal of Peace, rooted in sincerity. “Chiwetel took my acting to the next level, because it got so specific, just bringing it back to the truth.”

Ahead of the festival, Will screened the film for a small group of drama students at Juilliard, his alma mater. “It was a full-circle moment to go back to the studio where I first started to craft my art as an actor.”

Name: Katy O’Brian

Katy M. O’Brian
Katy M. O’Brian

Sundance project: “Love Lies Bleeding,” which stars Kristen Stewart as a gym employee with a complicated family history who falls for a new-in-town bodybuilder, played by O’Brian. The film, from A24 and directed by “Saint Maud” director Rose Glass, premieres March 8.

Notable past projects: O’Brian has been seen in “The Mandalorian,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania?” and “Black Lightning.”

She first learned of the role when a fan sent her a post on social media about a casting call for a queer bodybuilder.

“They tagged me and they’re like, ‘Look, Katy, do this,’” O’Brian recalls. “And then I just commented under it, ‘I’m free,’ and I posted a picture of me working out, which is really douchey, but I did it, and then I put a PowerPoint together with my bodybuilding history and all of that. And I told my agent if she didn’t get me an audition for it I would riot.”

The training required for the shoot was completely different from O’Brian’s bodybuilding workouts.

“I’ve competed in the past. I’ve kicked my ass. I’m just dying at the end of the day. I have no energy, whatever. This was the total opposite,” she says. “Steve Zim, [my trainer] catered it toward on camera. In a normal bodybuilding competition, we would want these muscles to pop more, but when you’re on camera, the light will highlight these. It really was just like a gift that wound up with [Zim] because he just really knew for my specific needs and scenarios what to do.”

Name: River Gallo

River Gallo
River Gallo

Sundance project: “Ponyboi,” written by and starring Gallo, follows an intersex sex worker named Ponyboi in New Jersey over the course of a rather eventful Valentine’s Day. The project was originally conceived by Gallo, who is intersex and from New Jersey, while at NYU (they graduated in 2013), first as a theater piece, then as a short film and then a feature film, directed by Esteban Arango.

When Gallo was at NYU, their focus was on theater, and they admit they’re surprised by their transition into screenwriting and screen acting, which initially came from an interest in playing with time more fluidly than stage work allows.

“So much of my experience as an artist has to do with memory and dream, and so it came out of a new desire that I had to express a deeper psychology that I experienced. I feel the world on a very deep emotional, psychic level, that cinema was the only language for that,” they say.

Now, they’re relishing the chance for people to finally see their acting and writing abilities on screen.

“It just makes me certain that my career ahead of me is going to be one marked by longevity and success,” Gallo says.

Name: Callina Liang

Callina Liang photographed for WWD on January 20, 2024 in Park Slope, Utah, during Sundance Film Festival.
Callina Liang photographed for WWD on January 20, 2024 in Park Slope, Utah, during Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance project: “Presence,” Steven Soderberg’s latest, is a psychological thriller shot from the perspective of a ghost haunting a dysfunctional family. Liang is the film’s lead, starring alongside Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan and Julia Fox.

Notable past credits: The film is Liang’s second movie, but her first to be released.

“Presence” shot in just 11 days, most of which were half days, in September 2023 with a SAG-AFTRA waiver.

“It genuinely felt like a fever dream. Even watching it felt like a fever dream,” Liang says. “Steven turned it around so quickly. Every day after we filmed, he would edit.”

The script initially blew her away, and so did the chance to work with such a legendary director so early in her career.

“When I read [the script], within the first five pages, you can really tell no film has ever been made like this before,” she says. “And I was very intrigued.”

Despite the intense nature of the film, Liang says working on it was a light and easy experience.

“Steven is so chill and fast and easy to work with. He doesn’t really say much at all. So us actors, we’d get together all the time in our free time, and we had a lot of free time since he worked so fast,” she says. “I was expecting it to be a little bit more stressful.”

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