Sundance Actors, Ages 10 and 16, Join the ‘Breakthrough’ Ranks


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Markees Christmas, who stars in “Morris From America.”

Credit
Matt Sayles/Invision, via Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah — Many of the actors referred to as “breakthrough stars” each year at the Sundance Film Festival never go on to do much of anything. But Sundance is supposed to be about discoveries, so entertainment reporters dutifully compile lists of performers who — maybe, possibly, with any luck — could become The Next Big Thing. (It’s not that hard to find candidates; publicists do most of the work.)

This year, with Hollywood on notice to diversify casting, two newcomers have drawn a lot of attention: Markees Christmas, 16, and Royalty Hightower, 10.

Mr. Christmas, with no prior film experience, plays the titular role in “Morris From America,” a comedic drama about a black teenager who finds himself dropped into a very white corner of Germany. Ms. Hightower, also a newcomer, appears in nearly every frame of “The Fits,” about a tomboy who wants to join her vivacious school dance team, the Lionesses.

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Royalty Hightower in “The Fits.”

Credit
Paul Yee

“I just tried the best I could,” said Ms. Hightower, who is a fifth grader in Cincinnati. She added: “I thought I might be an extra. That’s all. My mom is the one who always said that I might be something special.”

Both youngsters have raw talent. (Variety’s critic called Mr. Christmas “a terrific discovery,” and Screen Daily deemed Ms. Hightower “radiant” and “beguiling.”) Both have names that pop off the screen. (It could have been even zanier; he was very nearly named Merry Christmas, and she has a sister named Yrmajesti.) Both now want their next stop to be Hollywood. “I want to do this for the rest of my life,” Mr. Christmas said.

The dream — and it’s a big one — is the path that Quvenzhané Wallis took in 2012, when she was plucked out of rural Louisiana to star in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” After wowing crowds at Sundance, that film brought her a best actress nomination at the 2013 Academy Awards. Another example is John Boyega. “Imperial Dreams,” starring Mr. Boyega as a young ex-con, played Sundance in 2014, helping to land him one of the lead roles in a little movie called “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Truth be told, Sundance, which wraps up its 11-day run on Sunday, has been a mystifying experience for both Mr. Christmas and Ms. Hightower.

“I’m not the boasting type,” said Mr. Christmas, who lives in Los Angeles. “With all these people coming up to me to congratulate me, I started blushing a little bit. I was saying to myself, ‘Cut it out. Cut it out. Just play it cool.’”

Correction: January 29, 2016

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of the sister of the actress Royalty Hightower. It is Yrmajesti, not Your Majesty.



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