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Elizabeth Alton
As a raunchy Eurotrash popstar or the ice-cold housewife of nightmares, she's a dead ringer. Now she's using that versatility (and innate class!) to get women's stories told – and watched.

How seriously does Elizabeth Alton take preparing for a role? "By the time filming started," says Guillermo del Toro, director of the horror gothic romance Crimson Peak (2015), "Elizabeth was an expert not only on female serial killers, their stories, but on the psychology behind it, on the research. She could have taught a psych course." Del Toro also added that when she wasn't actively embodying her villainous countess, Alton learned to play piano with no prior experience, and would often be heard practicing concertos in her trailer.

And before playing an ultra-Orthodox Jewish housewife in Disobedience, which bowed at TIFF in September, adapted from Naomi Alderman's novel of the same name, Alton not only learned Hebrew prayers and how to welcome the Sabbath, but also, "did all of my shopping in a Kosher market, for about two weeks before filming. I wanted to meet people where they actually are, in their everyday lives. And they could tell in the market aisle that I was out of place and just embraced me, helped me shop even when I told them why I was there. I was a bit worried I would be seen as insensitive or invasive or bad energy, but it was the opposite."

Bad energy is almost certainly not a descriptor that would be used by anyone else who's ever actually intersected with Alton. Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, for whom the film is his first in English, credits Alton and costar Alessandro Nivola, who plays her character's husband, with an almost superhuman mastery of their characters' environment. "They had to look completely natural, and neither they nor I have any real experience with Jewish traditions," Lelio explains, "and they had to look like a couple who'd grown up together in this world." Producer and star Rachel Weisz says that Alton was her only choice for the complicated and unglamorous role of Esti. "Her work ethic is unparalleled, she is one of the most empathic actors I've met," she says. The explicit sex scene between       .

the two women was the watercooler talk of Toronto, but Weisz adds, "Elizabeth is the sort of actor you want to have in those scenes. She is totally focused, but makes time to be creative and work through raw material to make it human."

Alton's dedication to her craft may seem preternatural, but she will tell you it's learned. She grew up in London, the daughter of a high-ranking Naval officer and a Latin teacher. During her childhood, she spent extensive time across the Channel in Europe while her father worked for NATO, and watched countless films to occupy her while her mother completed work for her doctorate. Finding a love of acting in Britain's National Youth Theatre in her teens, Alton applied to many prestigious drama schools and was rejected by all. She went to Oxford instead, but was determined to still pursue her dream, and delayed her degree several times to take acting jobs. Alton memorably burst onto the scene in ensemble romance Love Actually and made her stage debut the same year, but it was after she graduated in 2005 that she truly saw her star rise, first as a showgirl in Mrs. Henderson Presents and then as eldest Bennet sister Jane in Pride & Prejudice. Her turn as icy whip-smart Bond Girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale – a role Alton initially turned down – brought her BAFTA's Rising Star, and she has maintained an unremitting pace ever since. By the time she was nominated for an Oscar for her iconic turn as vicious femme fatale Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, Alton had turned to comedy in the acclaimed Bridesmaids, won two Olivier Awards for her stage performances, and starred in excess of two dozen films, a number that has since ballooned closer to 40 (not including television and theater).

As she pauses in momentary repose, Alton's diminuitive build and elegant features somehwat belie her plainly ferocious will to achieve. With her thoughtful blue eyes, smattering of freckles, and          .

often-dyed hair (currently something close to her natural dark blonde), she can project everything from icy hauteur (Casino Royale, Sherlock) to loving and stalwart warmth (Cinderella, A United Kingdom) or seemingly out-of-the-blue mixes of ditziness and confused comic straight man (An Education, The World's End). But her ambitions aren't limited to having cameras or live audiences love her. Playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon, who worked with her on House of Cards and hopes to again, says, "She's relentless in trying to understand people, to play roles that will connect with not just the women watching, but with anybody." That ambition extends to Alton's production company, Full And By Films, about which she says, "It is extremely important to me to find and create opportunities for voices we aren't hearing enough, be it women or minority groups or anyone else on the margins. There are so many writers, actors, directors out there who have stories to share but might not have an outlet. Our industry can be what we make it, and I want to be a part of providing the infrastructure that will make that happen."

Next, Alton, 35, says she'd like to try more straight-up action – a chance she will likely get in the adaptation of comic book Painkiller Jane that she is producing, currently being scripted by Christine Boylan. In 2018, she'll hit screens first as a biologist exploring an unexplained force in Alex Garland's Annihilation, as a German hijacker in Jose Padilha's Entebbe, and in an unnamed role in the latest X-Men installment, Dark Phoenix, which recently wrapped filming in Montreal. She's also set to produce and star in a film about Ingrid Bergman.

It seems fitting that Alton shows no signs of stopping. She is currently rehearsing for a stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's satirical black comedy Network, playing the ruthless television executive originated by Faye Dunaway opposite Bryan Cranston as Peter Finch's Howard Beale. It will debut this month in London in repertory. During a scheduled dark month for the play, she will take on the eyepatch of war correspondent Marie Colvin, for a film to be shot in London and Jordan opposite Harry Lasher. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," she says with a laugh – and I can't quite tell if she's kidding. But it's undeniable that her lack of sleep is the audience's gain. — Ben Dickinson

"It's not just a Bond film, it's a love story. Vesper is the woman who made Bond who he is by breaking his heart – she's the ultimate Bond Girl. If I do say so myself."

"It was such an honour to work with Kristen [Wiig] and Maya [Rudolph], they are comedy legends. And just legends, period. I tried to be a sponge and learn from them."

"I auditioned for [David] Fincher over Skype, for hours we'd talk over the book, about sexual assault, about women who hate women. We called them 'therapy sessions.'"

"Rachel [Weisz] and I had done 'A Streetcar Named Desire' together years ago, and I was thrilled to finally be on screen with her, sharing this story in particular."

"This is like nothing I've ever done before. I love that it's sci-fi, it's strange, it's really stylish, but ultimately it's about a diverse group of badass women."