After discussing the year’s breakthrough directors, it’s time to traverse to the other side of the camera. Whether it’s their very first performances or a talent who’s been seen in a variety of features yet, for whatever reason, hadn’t been allowed to command the screen, this year’s breakthrough actors are an eclectic group. Ranging from some of the highest-grossing features of the year to minuscule independent dramas, check out our rundown of a dozen breakthrough actors that left the biggest impression on us in 2015.
Christopher Abbott (James White)
In the five months found within James White, our title character is at the most difficult chapter of his life thus far. Grieving the loss of his father and attempting to assist his ailing mother, the drama authentically depicts the brutality of the process. Commanding every scene of the film — and in most sequences, nearly all of the frame in extreme close-up — is Christopher Abbott. Although he’s worked with director Josh Mond since Marthy Marcy May Marlene, and taken part in major projects like Girls and A Most Violent Year, James White ushers in his leading man breakthrough performance. Abbott shows formidable range in not only the darkness, but giving us some spare humor as he clearly envisions himself being in a better state than he’s actually in. As an audience, we can see the outcome a mile away, but one can’t help but root for White, a notable accomplishment considering the dark edges surrounding the character. – Jordan R.
Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation)
There is something innately disturbing about seeing a child used as a tool of war, especially in our sheltered world. This basic disparity could be rested on to provide much of the impact and context for a film like Beasts of No Nation without relying on actually finding a capable actor to sell the transformation. In Abraham Attah, though, Cary Fukunaga found the perfect performer to inhabit the character of Agu. Beginning with a winning, sweet personality, Attah invests Agu’s transformation with shades of everything from fear to exhilaration. He explores the full gamut of emotion that Agu experiences, creating a vivid, living portrait of a child turned into a cog in a great civil war. The performance is disturbingly convincing, making some of the more intense scenes deeply uncomfortable, but the total effect is so rattling and moving that one cannot deny the power and importance of the performance and the film as a whole. Attah had to carry this whole movie on his small shoulders, and he does it so well that it becomes a little scary, in all the best ways. – Brian R.
Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the Starz series The White Queen before seeing Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, your first thought while watching co-star Rebecca Ferguson run away with the film was likely on par with “Who is that?!” A star in the making, it turns out. As undercover MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, Ferguson was both fierce and fiercely intelligent, a fresh character who injected life into the fifth Ethan Hunt installment. While she may be most remembered for the film’s wildly entertaining snipers-at-the-opera sequence, Ferguson most impresses during the film’s later, more dramatically complex scenes of this Christopher McQuarrie-directed smash. Happily, her success in Rogue Nation has led to a role in the much-buzzed Girl on the Train adaptation and possibly Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Perhaps most exciting of all is the news that Ferguson will be back alongside Ethan Hunt and co. in Mission: Impossible 6, due in 2017. Clearly, McQuarrie and Cruise know a good thing when they see one. – Chris S.
Arielle Holmes (Heaven Knows What)
Arielle Holmes’ performance as Harley, the addict vagabond, lures viewers further into Heaven Knows What’s harrowing world. Although she’s surrounded by heroin addicts, squalor, and violence, we sense that her environment isn’t the source of her addiction. Instead, Holmes taps into Harley’s steadfast romanticism and naïveté in a complicated performance. In one of the film’s most compelling sequences, Harley challenges her dealer to front two days worth of drugs immediately so she can achieve something of a super-high. It’s a devastating but seductive moment. Further complicating our reading of her work, Holmes’ acting is informed by her real life outside the film. Her recollections of addiction and time on the streets formed a book which then became the foundation for the Safdie’s kinetic and potent film. The result provided an opportunity for Holmes to channel her natural talents, her mystery, and her life’s experiences. We hope that acting and filmmaking will remain a positive outlet for this young, tortured talent, so it’s good news that she can next be seen in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. – Zade C.
Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq)
From the outset, Chi-Raq is focused on Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata, whose namesake comes from Aristophanes’ classic character that loosely translates to army disbander. In the play, Lysistrata uses sexual repression as a means to corral the men and end war. But director Spike Lee’s version takes a twist by turning her into the beautiful girlfriend of the leader of a gang that has left her streets bloody over the years. It’s here that Parris not only has to be both sexual force in all of the ways you might expect, and she adequately fills that role, but she also has to stand toe-to-toe with the various women and men that try to stop her. She is unwavering but also earnest and open. Smart but never demeaning. She manages this through words but also something as simple as her body language and look. Her plan is cocky and becomes a comedy that spirals, but throughout it all you can’t wait for Parris to be back on screen. Even when she delivers her lyrical and florid lines of rhyme, she gives them character and charm you simply can’t find every day. Parris has served her time in small roles, and the future is bright for her. – Bill G.
Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl)
One of the most accurate, honest and vibrant coming-of-age portraits in some years, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is all told through our lead’s perspective. With the use of some beautiful hand-drawn animation, an enlightening and funny narration, and Bel Powley‘s versatile performance, this is about as intimate as a subjective picture gets. We experience the world as this young girl does. What’s exciting for Minnie feels truly exciting, and the same goes for any moments of pain and confusion she experiences. One doesn’t need to be a female or have had intercourse with their mother’s boyfriend to connect with The Diary of a Teenage Girl. This seemingly wild story, including drugs and plenty of sex before the age of 18, is actually fairly universal. Seeing the world through Minnie’s eyes holds one’s attention from beginning to end, but once one exits the theater, it’s impossible not to reflect on the decisions we’ve all made as a teenager — namely the mistakes. – Jack G.
Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Taking on the weight of hype and anticipation and expectation that come along with a new Star Wars film would be a herculean task for any performer. The last new trilogy marked the beginning and end for many young actors’ careers. Luckily, Daisy Ridley won’t have to worry about falling victim to the same fate as Hayden Christensen, and not just because The Force Awakens is a greater film than his two goes at the saga. In playing Rey, a brand-new character who consists of equal parts Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Ridley pulls off the incredible feat of portraying both vulnerability and fierce self-determination. Her eyes do more heavy lifting than most performers’ entire body, and her full commitment to and embodiment of her character is stunning. In both scenes of wordless action and dialogue-driven drama, Ridley emerges fully formed and utterly compelling. When people line up for the next film, it is doubtless that many will be doing so purely to see what Ridley gets up to next. – Brian R.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor (Tangerine)
While it’s rare for a film to give us one breakthrough star nowadays, it’s even rarer to see two of them manifest in front of our eyes, and yet this was precisely what happens in Sean Baker’s Tangerine which introduced audiences to Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. They play two transgender sex workers who struggle to survive one chaotic Christmas Eve in Hollywood, while filling the screen with pure star quality. Where Rodriguez is explosive and fiery, Taylor is introspective and subtle, the two play off each other like classic screen starlets, each of them basking in the spotlight without obliterating the other from the scene. They are so funny, heartbreaking, and at times painfully raw to watch that the only surprise about their performance is realizing they’d never been in a movie before. – Jose S.
Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
While a film as tightly wound as Bridge of Spies probably didn’t change much when going from a shooting draft to completed film, it’s nevertheless clear, and immediately so, that the film has a supreme confidence in Mark Rylance. His Rudolf Abel is rarely illustrated in terms more specific than national alliance, the actor turning those vestiges of personality that peek through in his many conversations with Tom Hanks’ James B. Donovan (the only man to whom he shows any interest in speaking) into pieces of a bigger puzzle — one that’s never quite solved. This is little issue, the movie seems to say, when the mystery created by his cadence and posture can be as compelling as the Cold War dealings going on elsewhere. With a limited range of screen time that feels twice as large in the memory, Rylance’s performance is among the finest that Spielberg’s ever directed. – Nick N.
Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul)
Géza Röhrig completely monopolizes the space of the screen, but he’s almost invisible in the lead role of László Nemes‘ Son of Saul. Where either a visual distinction as a movie star or an active reaction to the horrors in front of him would have firmly tipped the entire film over into nightmarish tourism, Röhrig’s power as an actor comes from his numbed, never-blank reaction to the world. As Nemes’ roiled camera movements surge around him, Röhrig initially moves with a clockwork mechanical precision, but a remaining sliver of humanity is enough to jolt him into a life beyond survival. His transformation isn’t gradual, but still subtle enough to not be recognized immediately. His movements are soon prickled with a frenzied tenseness, and every errant conversation with another prisoner is rendered with a breathless immediacy. It’s not just his newfound spark of action; something resembling an expression has even emerged from his glazed wasteland of his face. There’s almost a Schrödinger sensation of humanity and inhumanity in Nemes approach to Saul’s character. From the back, he moves with a singular, anonymous purpose, rendered entirely into a source of action. But every time the camera revolves to the front, Röhrig’s weathered eyes are a reminder that there’s a human in there. – Michael S.
Jacob Tremblay (Room)
While Brie Larson is gathering steam as awards season nears, it is Jacob Tremblay who steals Room. His vivacious Jack is frustrated by the world around him, confined to a tiny room with few amenities and a single skylight. They are kept there against their will. Filming mostly in sequence, director Lenny Abrahamson smartly gets the most out of the young then-eight-year-old. But from interviews and various articles on the film, it appears that Larson may be the key to how well Tremblay did. They spent a few months getting to know each other and even spending time in the location beforehand, and on set she would be the filter for any and all requests, including the director’s. That rapport is apparent on screen, and it is heartbreaking to see them fight at any moment — which crops up early but really comes into focus later in the film. It’s a rich, nuanced portrayal of curiosity and anger that fuels Jack, which aren’t words you’d normally correlate to such a young actor. Without Tremblay, the film might fail. With him, it soars. – Bill G.
What was your favorite breakthrough performance year?