A celebratory showcase of the breakthrough actors that turned our heads this year.
Big names draw us to the box office, but sometimes, we leave the theater with a new name to Google. Whether their IMDb confirms them as a total newbie or reminds us we’ve seen them before – in a small TV role, or a fleeting shot of a movie hero’s family – breakthrough roles establish new talents and signal future potential in the most dramatic ways possible.
From a cussing kindergartener and a Resistance ship mechanic to two young men exploring their sexuality, 2017 has given us memorable performances and equally unforgettable performers. Here’s our list of the year’s 17 best breakouts:
Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk
Outside of his native Ireland and the UK, 25-year-old part-time boxer, part-time actor Barry Keoghan was relatively unknown – that is, until this year. His performance as the tragically impulsive, innocent young George in Dunkirk makes sincere use of his open, trusting face, while his turn in Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest uses his childlike features to the inverse effect. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Keoghan has surely given us one of the year’s most unsettling performances; his character Martin exudes, at once, an unblinking, face-value naivety and a deeply unnerving menace. Genuinely terrifying and darkly funny, Keoghan earns the edge amidst an already high-caliber cast here.
The contrasting displays of acting range he’s given us this year leave us with the distinct sense (and profound hope) that Barry Keoghan will have something to collect on the Dolby’s stage in the years to come.
Next seen in: American Animals
Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
If you were wondering whether director Sean Baker just got lucky with Tangerine’s excellent, previously undiscovered leads, the cast of his latest offering should put you straight. Instagram star Bria Vinaite and new kids on the block Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto show beyond doubt that the director has a God-given knack for unearthing latent talent out of nowhere – but it’s another newbie, Brooklynn Prince, who shines the brightest in The Florida Project. As six-year-old Moonee, Prince gifts audiences a childlike view that bubbles over with optimism and imagination, an outlook starkly juxtaposed with the reality of her down-and-out surroundings. Precocious but never precious, Prince’s Moonee is the wit, the heart, and the soul of the film, inspiring countless laughs and one, very crucial, cry. Such a phenomenal debut at such an early age is a rare, precious thing.
Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats
British breakthrough Harris Dickinson is totally plausible as Beach Rats’ lead Frankie, a young Brooklyn native who pops pills and trawls Coney Island’s boardwalk for girls to take the edge off things. What things? A long, hot New York summer, his dad’s impending death, and a struggle for clarity in his sexual identity. As Frankie explores his desires in public and in private, Dickinson deftly switches from classic, leering Brooklyn bro to clandestine lover and shy surfer of a gay cam site called Brooklyn Boys.
Dickinson’s conveyance of Frankie’s inner friction is not so much melodramatic as it is mellowly dramatic. He doesn’t resort to the clichés you’d expect from personal conflict of this kind, but instead understatedly conveys Frankie’s struggle to unite the parts of his identity he initially believes are incompatible. In a performance flush with great tenderness and subtlety – and a feature debut, no less – Harris Dickinson proves he has the dramatic reflexes of far more experienced peers.
Next seen in: Trust (TV), The Darkest Minds
Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip
In Girls Trip, Tiffany Haddish is a scene-stealer, for sure – you won’t forget that grapefruit lesson anytime soon – but not selfishly so. As Dina, she’s the comic foil crucial to making the film work: wildly uninhibited and bawdily hilarious, her presence pokes affectionate fun at her friends’ foibles and spotlights the group’s strengths. Haddish throws herself into the role with a wild bellyflop, making perfect use of her natural strengths in comedy – she’s been working the circuit for years – with her performance also revealing a few more. Fiercely loyal and fun-loving, her character’s antics are geared towards one thing only: orchestrating a great weekend for her girls. Thanks to Haddish, Dina’s caring intentions are always detectable under the comedy: there’s a moment in which Dina gives heavenly thanks for reuniting the Flossy Posse, and the way Haddish plays it turns what could have been a throwaway scene into a rightful, focused tribute to this sincerely sweet character.
Haddish gives us such a crowd-pleasing fusion of comedy and warmth here that it makes you retrospectively lament her absence in the comedies gone by. It would be criminal if, after her endearingly hysterical, balls-out turn in Girls Trip, she remained absent from our screens.
Next seen in: Night School
Jacob Batalon, Spider-Man: Homecoming
Restoring the good name of fanboys this year is lovable ball of geeky enthusiasm and best pal to Peter Parker, Ned Leeds. Newbie Jacob Batalon makes a delightful impression in the role, totally endearing us to a character that could otherwise have seemed a pesky distraction from the ‘real’ hero of the film. As easily excitable as Ned is, he never wavers from Peter’s side, setting him up with his crush and saving his Spidey skin when the opportunity calls. He’s also very funny, promptly following up his initial concern for Peter – “You could have died!” – with wacky curiosity – “Do you lay eggs?”. Jacob Batalon quickly established his character as a fan favorite, and in the process made himself one of this year’s most winning breakouts.
Next seen in: Every Day
Zendaya, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Greatest Showman
Younger audiences might have known about this Disney Channel alum for years, but for the rest of us, Zendaya is a new kid on the acting block. A triple threat – she’s also a singer, and started out as a dancer – Zendaya has enjoyed a big year in 2017, appearing in franchise blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming (her feature debut) and period drama musical The Greatest Showman. In the former, she’s a snappier Hermione Granger, sending stinging put-downs Ned and Peter’s way with as much ease as she devours books. In the latter film, she’s a circus trapeze artist who sings and swings her way through a romance made rocky by racism. The Greatest Showman affords her more screen-time than Homecoming, but the Spider-Man movie makes good, concise use of her oddball comicality, so it’s difficult to say which turn makes the bigger impression. Either way, both performances establish Zendaya as a strong, fresh presence, as equally capable of belting out mid-scene ballads as she is providing sharp, sarcastic comic relief.
Next heard in: Duck Duck Goose (voice)
Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$
What might have been just another formulaic, creative arts underdog story is elevated by a ground-stomping performance from charismatic Ozzie actor Danielle Macdonald. Even if her character’s journey doesn’t entirely convince, Macdonald is utterly persuasive as Patti Cake$’s blue-collar, Jersey girl rapper Patricia (stage name: Killa P), bending her tongue around those tricky Garden State vowel sounds with great confidence. In her capable hands, Patricia exacts enough sympathy from us to distract from the movie’s more hackneyed plot elements and weak sauce tunes.
With such a confidently vulnerable turn, Macdonald was, deservedly, a sensation at Sundance. All the better for us, because the praise she’s earned this year should mean we’ll be seeing much more of her in the years to come.
Next seen in: Dumplin’
Dafne Keen, Logan
Not many young actors making their big screen debut alongside Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart could command the same audience attention as their well-seasoned co-stars do. Even fewer could do so without uttering a word for much of the film. That Dafne Keen answers such a tough ask in James Mangold’s Logan is testament to her natural magnetism and an instinctive grasp of her character’s divergent nuances. From underneath that dark-eyed glower, Keen demonstrates a mute, feral ferocity, broken only by an astonishing emotional uncloaking late-on in the film.
As the junior partner in a Léon: The Professional-style cross-generational alliance, Keen’s Laura/X-23 proves a startlingly qualified candidate for the Wolverine school of combat. Her intuitive ability to match this wolf-like physicality with a cub’s heart-swelling vulnerability is a clear indicator that, should she want it, Keen will have a long future in the biz. Here’s hoping she does.
Next seen in: Ana
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
No other time in a person’s life is imbued with more intense and contradictory emotions as their teenage years. It follows that any self-respecting coming-of-age story requires nothing short of finely-shaded excellence from its lead(s). A coming-of-age story about a young gay man’s first tussle with love further complicates these demands, but in Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet matches this benchmark and then transcends it.
A long close-up in which Chalamet (as 17-year-old Elio) watches the object of his burgeoning affections lock lips with someone else is revelatory. The young actor is a master of his own face, perfectly conveying that heady emotive concoction so often served by first love. As he masochistically puffs on a cigarette, his wordless performance communicates envy, self-loathing, an inexplicable sense of betrayal, and abiding, aching longing. His polyglottal talents aside, Chalamet’s performances here and for his other roles this year (in Lady Bird and Hostiles) speak to a startlingly early-developed command of his craft. We shouldn’t be surprised if, in 20 years time, one of the highest compliments you’ll be able to bestow on a young actor will be that they are “the next Timothée Chalamet”.
Next seen in: A Rainy Day in New York
Kelly Marie Tran, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
CollegeHumor grad Kelly Marie Tran shines amidst a galaxy of big-name stars in Star Wars: The Last Jedi for her portrayal of Rose Tico, a lowly mechanical engineer working for the Resistance. Rose is modest, brave and committed to goodness; in short, she sums up the movie’s affirming central thesis. In the role, Tran is instantly likable and authentically so, ensuring her blue-collar hero gets the positive attention she really does deserve. This sneakily-shot video proves that, if Star Wars fans go to the cinema looking for old favorites, Tran’s performance will have them gushing about someone new by the time they leave.
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
An already phenomenally successful household name, it feels strange to describe Mary J. Blige as a ‘breakout’, but it’s technically true. While she’s a heavyweight musically, the handful of feature parts Blige has had in the past haven’t established her as the exquisite actor we now know her to be, thanks to Netflix hit Mudbound. Blige puts in an astounding, understated turn as the stoic Florence, a black woman who must suffer all manner of slights from her white neighbors if her family is to make ends meet. In de jure terms, slavery is over by the movie’s ‘40s period, but Dee Rees’ film works with quiet intelligence to make clear the ways in which it still ruled the South. As Florence, Blige is the film’s central pillar in this respect, her poetic monologue on the complication of black motherhood during the period being the movie’s pre-finale standout moment. A total bolt from the blue, Mary J. Blige’s perceptive, intelligent mastery of the intricacies of character make her a clear breakout and a deserving awards frontrunner.
Next seen in: Support the Girls
Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan made a risky choice in selecting complete unknown Fionn Whitehead as Dunkirk’s lead Tommy, but it paid off. Given an everyman character with no backstory and little dialogue, Whitehead was thrown in at the deep end from the get-go, but he does remarkable work from his first scene to his last.
Like everyone else on Bray Dunes beach, his character is hell-bent on surviving his nightmarish ordeal. That means difficult sacrifices will be made. There’s a claustrophobic scene in which Tommy grits his teeth and forfeits his morals and comradery for another chance at survival, and Whitehead navigates this tricky emotional manoeuvre with skill most of us knew nothing about before this year.
Next seen in: The Children Act
Hong Chau, Downsizing
Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has already earned a steady amount of critical backlash for the way one of its characters of color is written. Hong Chau plays the character, Ngoc Lan Tran, a one-time Vietnamese dissident who, in the film, is now house cleaner to wealthy playboy Dusan (Christoph Waltz). She speaks with a heavy accent that seems like it’s supposed to be the punchline to a big, casually racist and unspoken joke that permeates the movie. But this isn’t the fault of Chau, who puts in a charismatic turn nevertheless. Her performance is limited by the movie’s indiscretions, but her work here suggests that, given the right material, Chau can do wonders. Here’s hoping there’ll be worthier roles in this actor’s future.
Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
Putting in a breakthrough performance in the curtain-closer of a theatrical Goliath like Daniel Day-Lewis is no easy feat. But in Phantom Thread, Vicky Krieps matches any contest – staring or otherwise – that Day-Lewis’ despotic dressmaker Reynolds throws at her. Alma (Krieps) is Reynolds’ muse, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie complicates this relationship, demanding – and receiving – an intricate performance from an actor most of us hadn’t heard of before. If this really is Day-Lewis’ final film, then we should be thankful for one silver lining: Vicky Krieps.
Sophia Lillis, It
As the only girl member of It’s Losers Club, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) stands out from the get-go. But what makes Lillis particularly striking amongst the movie’s strong ensemble cast is the compelling, multi-faceted performance she puts in: as tough girl, abused daughter, caring friend, and tween at the onset of puppy love. Beverly’s is the darkest reality of all the kids’, but Lillis does right by her and then some. Her performance is a heart-breaking one that expresses both Beverly’s youthful innocence and her much-too-premature awareness of the depths of human depravity.
It’s curious to note that Lillis’ next role will be playing a younger version of Amy Adams’ Sharp Objects character; red hair aside, there’s something of Adams’ dramatic aptitude about this young actor. Here’s hoping that the roles that will inevitably come calling after this performance give Sophia Lillis a career as diverse and as glittering as Adams’.
Next seen in: Sharp Objects (TV)
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Get Out quickly established itself as a pop culture landmark upon its release earlier this year, and in doing so, it made Daniel Kaluuya an equally monumental creative presence. The most abiding image from this social thriller about race is a frame filled with nothing but Kaluuya, his tear-streaked face frozen in minutes-old grief and live, blind terror. This is perhaps the best screen-grab you could pick to illustrate the film’s message and to showcase Kaluuya’s performance; he delivers plenty of other brilliant moments, but it’s harder to capture the perfect, not impolite pauses and body language giveaways that make the film’s subtext abundantly clear. These millisecond-long flourishes aren’t caught by the movie’s white characters – which is the point – but to audiences, they’re unmistakable.
In Get Out, Kaluuya does many things, but in one respect, his turn here is reminiscent of another on this list. Theirs are very different films, but both Mary J. Blige of Mudbound and Kaluuya’s performances emphasize the tiny, daily concessions black people are made to make in the face of implicit and undisguised white supremacy. For a multi-faceted, beat-perfect performance that lampoons racism’s micro- and macro-aggressions, Daniel Kaluuya is a worthy awards recipient.
Next seen in: Black Panther
Pom Klementieff, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Standing out amidst Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s eclectic ensemble of characters is franchise newcomer Mantis, an empathetic, antenna-adorned weirdo whom we’re instantly endeared to, thanks to Pom Klementieff’s warm performance.
Dewy-eyed and instinctively trusting, Mantis is something of an earnestly eager-to-please child in a (sort of) woman’s body. Because of this, she’s the perfect complement to Dave Bautista’s Drax, both being oddballs with hardly any comprehension of social propriety between them. There’s a strange chemistry between the two, one that would feel weird to characterize as sexual, given Mantis’ childlike naivety. Whatever it is, it’s a joy to watch – so it’s comforting to know that Klementieff will return as Mantis in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, especially since it felt like we didn’t see enough of her unique ability to read people’s emotions via touch in this film. Both the scene in which she hilariously exposes Quill’s feelings for Gamora and the moment she gets an insight into Drax’s bereavement signal the world of potential Klementieff can bring to the franchise.
Next seen in: Avengers: Infinity War