Aside from now being major cogs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s something else that links Florence Pugh, Tom Holland and Letitia Wright.
Before they were catapulted into superhero blockbuster megastardom, the trio were all part of BAFTA Breakthrough, an initiative set up by the British Academy in 2013 to help support future talent across film, television and video games.
Holland was actually among the 17 names selected for the scheme’s inaugural year (when it was still called Breakthrough Brits). Then just 17 years old, he joined off the back of his breakout film performance in J.A. Bayona’s real-life disaster drama The Impossible. Wright was picked two years later following her turn in TV series Top Boy, and Pugh in 2016 after making a splash in indie hit Lady Macbeth. As part of the scheme, the three were given a year of specially curated career development and mentoring opportunities to aid them during this crucial ‘breakthrough’ moment. Underlining the sort of access at BAFTA’s disposal, Holland was mentored by both Harry Potter producer David Heyman and Cillian Murphy (who he would later star alongside in 2015’s Moby Dick inspired In The Heart of the Sea from Ron Howard).
“I think the Breakthrough program is very unique in that it offers bespoke support that caters to the individual’s needs,” says Matthew Wiseman, BAFTA Los Angeles CEO. “So rather than treat them as a single entity and have a one-size-fits-all experience, it’s tailored for that individual, which I think is special.”
It’s now been eight years since Breakthrough first launched in the U.K, and, superheroes aside, its growing alumni includes some of the most celebrated and in-demand talent now working on screen. Among the list of names are the likes of Josh O’Conner (an Emmy winner for The Crown), Malachi Kirby (BAFTA TV winner for Small Axe), Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), and Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You). But the focus isn’t just in front of the camera, with other Breakthrough graduates including Ammonite director Francis Lee, The End of the F***ing World writer-creator Charlie Covell, Saint Maud director Rose Glass and Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn.
Over the last two years, since Netflix joined as the scheme’s main supporting partner, BAFTA Breakthrough — now something of a flagship program for the British Academy — has also gone global, first to China in 2019, then, since 2020, to India and the U.S.
Wiseman says BAFTA had been looking expand programs that had “achieved great things in the U.K.” internationally, and, given the Academy’s “big footprint in North America,” Breakthrough felt like a great fit. Breakthrough was also helping establish the British Academy beyond just its world-famous film and TV awards. “It was an initiative that really put BAFTA on the map in terms of the education work and new talent programs that we do,” he notes.
Among the first crop of U.S. Breakthroughs, announced in late 2020, was Lauren Ridloff. At the time, the actress was best known for The Walking Dead, but has since joined Pugh, Holland and Wright in the superhero world as one of the stars of Marvel’s Eternals (becoming the MCU’s first deaf hero in the process).
As for all other Breakthroughs, a program was was tailored to meet Ridloff’s needs and, despite the pandemic limiting the possibility for physical events, she says she was able to have a series of non-formal online conversations with a number of industry heavyweights, including Kerry Washington, Delroy Lindo and CODA writer-director Sian Heder.
With Washington, she says she was able to ask the sorts of questions that someone just experiencing their breakthrough for the first time might want to ask, and questions she wouldn’t usually ask her publicist or manager.
“I had a premiere coming up — my first big film, Eternals — and I was just wondering about the little things,” says Ridloff. “So I could ask Kerry — and as a mom like myself, she was the perfect person — things like if she brings her kids.”
Over several conversations with Heder, Ridloff honed more in on the filmmaking process, specifically working with deaf actors (with the exception of its lead star, CODA’s top cast are predominantly deaf).
“I was able to benefit from seeing her perspective, what she wishes she knew coming into the project, what she already knew and how she prepared for working with deaf actors,” she says. “It really helped me understand how to better interact with directors.”
For Ridloff, the Breakthrough program’s chief impact — on top of the clout that BAFTA can bring in terms of its talent pulling power — is in helping provide the essential tools and resources for those “not right at the beginning of their careers, but at the beginning of getting recognized for their careers” and take it to the next level.
And this is something this year’s intake of Breakthroughs can expect too. Among the list from the U.K. is Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond. Like Ridloff, she’s someone currently in the midst of her breakout moment, having made a major splash in Sundance earlier this year with her psychological horror directorial debut Censor, later released via Magnolia, and is now in development on her second feature, Things We Lost in the Fire.
Bailey-Bond, whose lead star in Censor, Niamh Algar, was picked to be a Breakthrough during the film’s shoot in 2019, says there were plenty of workshops and advice available to her when it came to making the leap from shorts to features, but less once this hurdle had been made.
“I have found that on the other side of your debut feature, there’s a whole new part of the industry to navigate,” she says, adding that she’s hoping the Breakthrough program gives her the opportunity to help understand this new post-debut landscape.
“I think it’s just about having that conscious space to think about what’s happening now and what the next steps could be, and how to navigate that. I feel like it’s a really healthy thing because you’re just thrown into the other side of a feature film coming out.”
This year, 24 Breakthroughs have been selected from the U.K. — a list that includes the casting director and costume designer from We Are Lady Parts and stars of both Sex Education and It’s A Sin — and 12 from the U.S., including the cinematographer from The Farewell and Shiva Baby’s production designer.
Wiseman in LA says there’s an “ambition and a scope” to develop Breakthrough in the U.S., which could be through expanding the level of support for participants or expanding the number of participants. But he notes that in the space of less than two years it’s already managed to establish itself as one of the key components in BAFTA’s year-round activities.
“It’s refreshing that when you now talk to people and ask them what they know about BAFTA, it’s not always awards and it’s not always nominee celebrations,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, those will always be important and they’re a core part of our DNA and celebrating excellence is so instrumental in what we do, but an awareness of what we do 360 days a year rather than five days a year is very rewarding.”