Over the next two weeks, members of the Television Academy will be filling out their ballots to determine this year’s nominees for the Primetime Emmy Awards. And in this age of “Peak TV”, their job will be a hard one. With freshman and returning shows reaching new heights of quality and cultural relevance, there are endless worthy contenders to choose from. This is especially true in the acting categories, where the plethora of outstanding ensembles has frequently required the Academy to invoke the 2% rule to include extra nominees.
For the 2016-2017 season, the competition will be as fierce ever for the actors. Along with the rise in quality, this current Golden Age of television has also seen an improvement in diversity. When Emmy voters peruse their ballots, they will see a myriad of fresh faces representing people of all different ages, genders, shapes, sizes and ethnicities. In recognition of this, the Awards Circuit staff has decided to shine a spotlight on 10 such talented performers who made their mark on the small screen this season. As we prepare for what is sure to be a nerve-wracking Emmy nominations announcement, here are 10 Breakthrough Actors to Watch:
The cast of “Dear White People”
Few ensembles are as uniformly wonderful as “Dear White People.” Netflix’s adaptation of Justin Simien’s titular film raised the bar in every level, including casting. Logan Browning does an incredible job anchoring the series with resolute sound and fury as the crusading Samantha White. However, the talent doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the strongest performance belongs to Brandon P Bell as supposed golden child Troy Fairbanks. Bell is able to turn the charm on for his fellow students, but unravel and lower his guard around gay roommate Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton). Horton also manages to make his character’s coming out journey specific and unique. Antoinette Robertson embodies a really unique perspective that runs counter to Samantha in Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners. Marque Richardson carries the strongest episode of the series as renegade Reggie Green. The rest of the cast is just as great, building out a believable, fleshed out campus. – Christopher James
Millie Bobby Brown – “Stranger Things”
It’s one thing to become the breakthrough actress on a TV show. It’s another when you’ve become so big, you nab a SAG nomination (alongside stars like Robin Wright and Winona Ryder) at just 12 years old and the Golden Globes covets your rap skills. Millie Bobby Brown didn’t just show that she has superstar potential in this year’s TV sensation “Stranger Things,” but instead she went supernova. Despite the fact the show boasts impressive performances from established TV and film veterans, Brown became a household name last summer. Her character, Eleven, may already be the most famous character in Netflix history. There may be no character with as dark of origin, let alone one willing to embrace this darkness, since “Hannibal” in 2013.
Here’s the craziest thing about Brown’s ascension. It’s one hundred percent deserved. How many other actresses can seize an iconic role at this age, let alone one as dark and weird as this one? Her career trajectory has her looking like the second coming of Natalie Portman after “Leon” and “Heat” kick-started her career. Brown brings the emotional gravitas to the young adult side of this show, and it’s quickly apparent she does not belong with these kids. Even though she wants a life like Mike and Will, she’s simply not capable. She brings emotion and pathos to her role, and while the kids are all extremely talented, it’s obvious she’s at another level. – Alan French
Micah Fowler – “Speechless”
Micah Fowler may be the least known actor on this list, but he may deserve his spot here more than anyone. He’s the breakthrough actor on ABC’s hilarious “Speechless,” but that’s not half the story. Fowler was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age but has fought to pursue acting as his career. There’s almost certainly not a story more inspiring than Fowler this year, but he wouldn’t be on this list if he was simply inspiring. Instead, he showcased for 22 episodes that he is ridiculously talented as well.
Fowler can speak, yet plays a character with CP that cannot. This has forced Fowler to essentially play a silent movie star surrounded by actors that exist in technicolor. Yet Fowler remains the center of attention the moment he is on screen. He emotes in ways few actors can, and his comedic timing is absurdly good. He makes the cast around him better, especially Minnie Driver and Cedric Yarbrough, who shares the most time with him. It is because of his charisma that most of the season’s heartbreaking and beautiful moments flow. Without his talent, it’s possible the show wouldn’t have made a full season. To have the burden of being the only actor on TV portraying a disability would destroy some actors. However, Fowler has taken what some would see as a challenge, and shown why he deserves his place in Hollywood. – Alan French
Claire Foy – “The Crown”
Netflix’s magnificent drama series “The Crown” isn’t lacking for brilliant scenes, but there was one in particular that stood out and put everything into sharp perspective. It involves the show’s star Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, as she asks her disgraced uncle Edward for an apology for setting events in motion that forced her to be queen. She explains that she would have preferred to grow up out of the spotlight, living a simpler, happier life as an ordinary, English countrywoman. Spoken with a delicate subtext of sadness and resentment while projecting the utmost grace and composure, it exemplified Claire Foy’s skillful portrayal. Throughout the 10-episode first season, she is constantly adding layers to this iconic figure, causing us to reconsider our assumptions about the presumed privilege and glamour of being the queen. Indeed, while “The Crown” may have showier supporting roles, she is its steadfast anchor.
Two years ago, the Emmys overlooked Foy for her inspired take on another famous figure of the Court (Anne Boleyn in “Wolf Hall”). But this time, she will not be denied. With SAG and Golden Globe wins already in the bag, she is a deserving frontrunner for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. – Shane Slater
Brian Tyree Henry – “Atlanta”
When we first meet Brian Tyree Henry’s aspiring rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, he is in the middle of parking lot altercation, with guns drawn eventually being drawn. In less responsible hands, this character could have resorted to all the worst stereotypes associated with urban rap culture. Thanks to the vision of Donald Glover and Henry’s interpretation of the character however, there’s more than meets the eye.
Indeed, “Paper Boi” quickly becomes an audience favorite in Glover’s FX sensation “Atlanta”, due in no small part to Henry’s inherent likability. He effortlessly subverts our expectations, bringing a wry sense of humor and sensitivity that exceeds what’s written on the page. From his perfect chemistry with Lakeith Stanfield, to his dynamic turn in the hilariously surreal “B.A.N.” episode, he makes it look so easy. Fans of “Atlanta” may have to suffer through a long wait for more of “Paper Boi”, but with the natural talent Henry displayed on “Atlanta” (as well as a guest stint on “This is Us”), we will surely be seeing much more of him in the near future. – Shane Slater
Katherine Langford – “13 Reasons Why”
Katherine Langford might be Australian-bred, but her breakout role as Hannah Baker in Netflix’s zeitgeist phenomenon “13 Reasons Why” certifies her as the most globally appealing teen icon in eons. Playing a bullied high school student who viewers know committed suicide from the onset, one expects an intentionally detached performance. However, instead of making the tragedy of her death the focal point (which the show and its ensemble do just fine on their own), Langford humanizes the “victim of bullying” statistic. The tapes that reveal the “why” do little to truly illuminate the “who,” a glaring omission that occurs with most sensationalized true crime stories involving teenagers.
Langford demonstrates that Hannah’s victimization is complex, elongated, a series of character attacks that climax to the unthinkable. She’s desperate to fit in because she believes that people are generally good, that optimism is the greatest weapon a teen can wield in an arena billowing with judgment. Langford imbues Baker with an indomitable spirit that forgives, that is adaptable, that treats those around her how she’d want to be treated. That spirit is rejected out of fear and envy, as though her strength of character and upbeat confidence is an indictment on everyone else with insecurities. And so they break Langford’s Hannah Baker and even in death vilify her to cover up their own guilt. But Langford’s truth of grace transcends powerfully so viewers undeniably know the “real” Hannah. Langford’s shining benevolence even when tackling the darkest subject matter makes her rising star who will likely never fall. – Joseph Braverman
Justina Machado – “One Day at a Time”
It’s hard to consider Justina Machado a breakout after a fantastic supporting performance in “Six Feet Under.” However, she transcends to new heights in the starring role in Netflix’s Norman Lear remake “One Day at a Time.” As Penelope Alvarez, a single mother and war veteran, there is more to her character than meets the eye. Machado is able to toss off a one-liner just as well as the best of them. However, she embodies what it means to be a Cuban-American veteran just trying to get her family by. “Hold, Please,” in particular, showcases all of her acting gifts. Penelope reveals her humor and exasperation as she tries to book a simple medical appointment through the VA. On top of that, Machado brilliantly realizes Penelope’s journey after her eldest daughter, Elena, comes out to her. It’s a very real and emotional journey, but one that always resonates. – Christopher James
Chrissy Metz – “This Is Us”
One of the strongest elements of “This is Us” is its depiction of what it is like to be overweight in today’s society. Chrissy Metz emerges as Kate, a Los Angeles woman who falls for a man in her overweight support group. The key to Metz’s performance is that she refuses to define Kate solely by her weight. The looming mystery of the show is answering how her father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died. Kate still seems consumed by grief, something that unravels as her relationship with Toby (Chris Sullivan) becomes more and more serious. Metz is more concerned with Kate’s internal demons and figuring out why Kate is the way she is. Her journey from being her brother’s personal assistant to forging a unique path for her own life is compelling. Metz has made Kate a unique voice on TV that we cannot wait to hear from more. – Christopher James
Issa Rae – “Insecure”
If you want a perfect example of the evolution of media and our new age of television, look no further than Issa Rae. Starting out in 2011 as a viral sensation with her YouTube web series “Awkward Black Girl”, her rise to fame is the stuff dreams are made of. Five years later, her concept was developed by HBO into the acclaimed series “Insecure”, for which she serves as creator, writer and star. And shortly after the debut season, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
Indeed, it was a great year for Rae and it’s easy to see why. Her self-deprecating, awkward persona both in and out of character gave a fresh perspective on what it means to be a young black woman in America. Unlike, the idealized “strong black woman”, she captured her character’s flaws and angst in a way that was instantly recognizable. As she heads into the show’s second season and a possible Emmy nomination, Issa Rae is on her way to becoming a household name. – Shane Slater
Yara Shahidi – “Black-ish”
Having just completed her third season on “Black-ish”, 17-year old Yara Shahidi is a relative veteran on the TV scene. But as a young actress growing up right before our eyes, she truly came into her own this season. While maintaining her character Zooey’s stylish confidence and intelligence, she displayed a newfound maturity that confirmed her place as one of the most popular teen actresses of her generation. She handled herself with great poise in “What Lies Beneath” for example, as Zooey proved that today’s youth don’t need to submit to peer pressure in order to be cool. As such, she has given Zooey broad appeal, becoming a role model for young women today, a trait shared by the Harvard-bound actress herself.
Shahidi has made such a strong impression that ABC created a spin-off to follow her character as she goes off to college. And on the basis of the backdoor pilot episode “Liberal Arts”, she’s more than ready to take on this new challenge. – Shane Slater
Phoebe Waller-Bridge – “Fleabag”
Few characters are as self-aware as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s titular character on Amazon’s “Fleabag”. As she states at the end of the pilot episode, “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” In other words, she’s a hot mess.
But that doesn’t tell the full story. The beauty of her performance is how she manages to deliver punchlines with deft comic timing while also conveying a deep pain that gradually rises to the surface. Indeed, the dark tragedy underpinning the show would leave us in tears if Waller-Bridge weren’t so endlessly hilarious. And it’s this masterful character work that makes this BAFTA winner an Emmy contender for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. – Shane Slater