There’s no better feeling than sitting down to a movie and watching a fresh face (or even one very familiar singer) become a star. Here’s a salute to the 15 breakthrough performances that formed a new constellation over the Hollywood sky—and here’s to what we’ll get to see them do next in 2018.
“The queen is in the building!” hollers a pharmacist (Siddharth Dhananjay) when Danielle Macdonald’s aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski — aka Killa P — saunters into a New Jersey drug store grabbing her tits. Damned straight. Patti Cake$ is Macdonald’s big entrance as the next ballsy, blonde Australian to conquer a movie since Rebel Wilson. And as much as I love weirdo Wilson, Macdonald can actually play a human being. In Patti Cake$, a Sundance flick that should have been a big hit, Macdonald is street-smart, stubborn, and insecure, a self-described “boss bitch” shackled down by her neighborhood’s malaise. Look fast and you can catch her in Lady Bird credited as “Another Young Lady.” With five lead roles on her plate in 2018, she’ll never go nameless again.
For the last 12 years, hailing Tessa Thompson has been like building a mansion out of matches, stacking her solid performances in Veronica Mars, For Colored Girls, Dear White People, and Creed and waiting for her name to catch spark. (Not to brag, but I saw her do Shakespeare in LA in 2003.) If she’s been impatient, it doesn’t show in Thor: Ragnarok where her Valkyrie stalks down a plane catwalk looking powerful, calm… and so wasted on space booze she trips. Thor is the indie actress’ most expensive movie by eight zeros, but in the middle of CG chaos, she’s grounded and charming, qualities she’s also brought to her sudden blockbuster fame. Now Thompson’s on fire — no Viking funeral, but a career rebirth.
Chilean actress Daniela Vega started her career as a nine-year-old opera mezzo-soprano. She transitioned at 17, spent a year depressed in bed, and then rebloomed as an actress who takes her cues from Bette Davis and Pedro Almodóvar’s wild and wonderful femmes. A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s drama about a trans woman barred from her boyfriend’s funeral, was custom-built for Vega. Her suffering is at once naturalistic and surreal, a series of small, painful indignities capped by a fantasy scene where a sequin-clad Vega flies into the air. And when she sings opera for a posh crowd—the only people in the film who see her as an idol, not an interloper — we, too, want to cheer.
21-year-old Timothée Chalamet is a paradox, or really, a prism. The slender, fragile actor plays boys who look sensitive, but tilt the angle, and they’re obnoxious. In Lady Bird and Call By Me Your Name, he constructs dramatic roller-coasters from teenage inertia. His smallest actions — a lit cigarette, a shrug — make the audience’s hopes soar and plummet. Chalamet has the looks and potential of a baby Daniel Day-Lewis. Since the Phantom Thread star claims he’s retiring this year, what perfect, Oedipal irony that they’re competing head-to-head for the Golden Globes’ Best Actor.
Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige is the most famous person on this list by a factor of millions. She’s been selling out stadiums since before most of these newbies could speak. The R&B legend is known for letting fans see her heartbreak. On this summer’s “Strength of a Woman” tour, she crumpled onstage while singing about her ex-husband. Yet Dee Rees’ Mudbound is the first time in her career Blige has allowed audiences to see her — no hair, no nails, no eyelash extensions — in a performance that’s practically transparent. Her WWII-era sharecropper housewife Florence barely speaks, but Blige radiates energy like a woman with her own internal fire. She’s cameoed before in musical-based comedies like Burlesque and The Wiz, but Mudbound makes us look at one of the most celebrated artists on the planet in a whole new way. Lucky for every actress in LA that she already has a gazillion-dollar career, or Blige would scoop up every role.
Kelly Marie Tran
How unknown was sketch comedian Kelly Marie Tran when she was cast as The Last Jedi‘s idealistic engineer Rose Tico? Rian Johnson whispered she had the part on her lunch break, and then the 25-year-old office assistant had to go back to work and answer phones. From there, things moved at light-speed as Tran quit her day job to run across Pinewood Studios next to John Boyega and BB-8. In a universe of special effects, Tran is one of the most dazzling discoveries — a character who morphs from Finn fangirl to the film’s moral center, insisting that the galablue-collarollar workers, exploited by the profiteers of the franchise’s endless civil war, deserve their chance, too, to fight back.