Emmys: 10 Breakthrough Actors to Watch

As of today (June 11), members of the Television Academy will begin the difficult task of deciding the nominees for the 2018 Primetime Emmy Awards. Unlike the Oscars, where new films are submitted each year, the various nominating ballots for the 2017-2018 TV season will feature many familiar names and programs from years past. In this era of passionate TV fandom, it can therefore seem nearly impossible for new faces to break through. But each year there are exceptions to rule.

The acting races in particular, seem ripe for change, as several former nominees/winners will be either be ineligible (Julia Louis-Dreyfus for “Veep”, Kevin Spacey for “House of Cards”) or “cancelled” (Jeffrey Tambor for “Transparent”) due to their involvement in scandal. With 728 programs in contention this year, however, there are many worthy actors ready to take their places. Sifting through those long lists (2,372 performers) can be daunting, but the AwardsCircuit team already has our eyes set on a selection of deserving candidates seeking their first nominations. As we await the official July 12 announcement of this year’s Emmy nominees, here are our 10 Breakthrough Actors to Watch:

Zazie Beetz – “Atlanta”

Much of the water cooler talk about FX’s “Atlanta” typically surrounds its central male trio of Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry and Keith Stanfield. But in the show’s stellar second season, its main female character Van ensured that she will not be ignored. Portrayed in all her bilingual glory by Zazie Beetz, this talented actress asserted Van’s invaluable presence with a string of standout performances across 4 episodes. Whether it was the contemplative identity crisis of “Helen” or the absurdist price of fame underpinning “Champagne Papi”, Van’s experiences were integral to expressing the show’s themes. And thanks to Beetz’ Emmy-worthy performance, the character never hit a false note through all her highs and lows.

When she wasn’t playing Van, Beetz also received “best in show” reviews for her big screen appearance as Domino in “Deadpool 2”. And with still more to come, it’s clear that 2018 is truly the year of Zazie Beetz. – Shane Slater

Cameron Britton – “Mindhunter”

Standing at an imposing 6ft 5in, Cameron Britton’s physical stature as real-life serial killer Ed Kemper was already a triumph of casting even before “Mindhunter” premiered in October 2017. When we are introduced to him, however, it’s the quiet intensity Britton brings to the role that really proved what a casting coup this was. Chilling and disturbing, yet ultimately beguiling, Britton embodies the show’s mysterious appeal. Though we only see him briefly for 3 episodes, he leaves an indelible mark on our minds. In essence, he’s exactly what you want from an impactful guest performer, making him an ideal contender for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series. – Shane Slater

D’Arcy Carden – “The Good Place”

Mike Schur’s “The Good Place” is a wacky series about the afterlife and in many ways the definition of high concept television. Despite the potential for a show like this to be extremely high brow, Schur’s assembled a cast capable of delivering any type of humor possible. One of the actresses responsible for this show’s versatility is D’Arcy Carden, who had an excellent 2017-2018.

One of the many things that make Carden stand out is her commitment to the role. On “The Good Place” Carden plays Janice, essentially the afterlife’s Siri. Yet that would be an undersell of what Carden does in the role. Carden simultaneously plays the most naïve character on the screen, seemingly brimming with positivity, and surprisingly the most human. As Carden continues to “reboot” she begins to lose her sheen, and become a real boy (so to speak). The actress is also able to play an evil version of the character, essentially allowing her to make inappropriate jokes and be the most annoying assistant you’ve ever had. Her ability to play both sides of the spectrum is amazing and showcases the comedic range Carden possesses.

Carden is likely the 2nd or 3rd best character on “The Good Place” depending on the episode. That is an extraordinary feat when your show has Ted Danson and Kirsten Bell as regulars. It’s a dynamite comedic performance that will make you laugh over and over. – Alan French

Jodie Comer – “Killing Eve”

With a name like Villanelle, you’d be forgiven if it immediately brings to mind the James Bond franchise. But while British Intelligence agents are indeed a key part of BBC America’s breakout hit “Killing Eve”, this character is, in fact, a more modern creation. Inspired by the eponymous assassin in the “Codename Villanelle” novella series by Luke Jennings, Villanelle is easily one of the TV’s most captivating characters. With a killer sense of humor to match her lethal methods of assassination, she’s a villain we can’t help but root for. Indeed, this juicy role would be catnip for any actress. And it’s Jodie Comer who rises to the challenge, with a twinkle in her eye and innate charisma that can make us forget the heartless psychopath she truly is.

Despite her young age, the 25-year old Comer is hardly new to the small screen, with notable roles in a number of British TV programs. But it’s her Villanelle that made us really stand up and take notice. Hopefully, the Emmy voters will too. – Shane Slater

Aisha Dee – “The Bold Type”

“The Bold Type” helped launch ABC Family’s rebrand to Freeform by being a fresh, honest and fun look at young women transitioning from college to adult work life. Among the three women in the center, Aisha Dee emerged as the clear best in show as Kat, the workaholic social media manager struggling with defining her sexuality. At work, Kat takes on as much work as she can handle. Dee relishes in the opportunity to show Kat as smart, capable and making moves and decisions far above her pay grade as the social media manager of this publishing house.

However, Aisha excels most when she explores Kat’s relationship to Adina (Nikohl Boosheri), a popular artist with Visa issues. Dee finds new, subtle ways to depict Kat’s newfound love and reckoning on who she is becoming. “The Bold Type” returns to TV this month, with Dee and company back in the trenches of the New York journalist scene. Here’s hoping Dee emerges as best in show in season two and finds continued success on the show. There is definitely a bright future ahead of her. – Christopher James

Betty Gilpin – “GLOW”

Based on a 1980s wrestling franchise (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) that consciously relied on various stereotypes, Netflix’s “GLOW” could easily have been an offensive disaster. Thankfully, “GLOW” triumphantly subverted these caricatures to emerge as one of the season’s best new shows. Much of the credit is due to the smart writing and sensitive direction, guided by the show’s pair of female showrunners (Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch). But ultimately, it was up to the diverse ensemble of actresses to do the heavy lifting in humanizing these characters.

This is certainly true in the case of Betty Gilpin as retired soap opera star Debbie Egan, who, much like the audience, is initially skeptical of this wrestling concept. But as she gradually embraces her “Liberty Belle” persona, her transformation is simply enthralling to watch, showing the fierce strength behind her “blonde bombshell” image. Gilpin has already secured a Golden Globe nod for her formidable work and will surely make for a respectable nominee at the Emmys too. – Shane Slater

Justin Hartley – “This Is Us”

Justin Hartley has spent most of his career in television, with roles in soaps, and a substantial arc on “Smallville.” He certainly had fans, but was still a relative unknown to many outside of those circles. But then came the phenomenon of “This Is Us.”

When season one hit, much of the buzz centered around three of the show’s stars, but didn’t really focus on him. In the series, Hartley plays Kevin Pearson, a celebrity and television star. Which is why it is somewhat ironic that his famous character took a backseat throughout the first season. Hartley played the role well, but his opportunities to really shine were few and far between.

That all changed in season two. Kevin – and by extension Justin – went through major upheaval when the show returned in the fall. This set off a brilliant arc for Kevin and allowed Justin to show exactly why he was the right person for that role. As the season unfolds, it is clear that this isn’t a course correction in an attempt to give Justin Hartley similar attention to his co-stars. Journeying through Kevin’s growth was the plan all along.

And now, as he gains more attention and momentum, Hartley is starting to move into more film roles, too. He had a spot in “Bad Moms Christmas,” and is starring in an independent film called “Another Time.” But he has used his time on “This Is Us” to develop his talents and to show just how good he is. He said himself that the show is a gift, and it really is. While this experience may be once in a lifetime for him, it will certainly launch him into new and exciting directions. – Karen Peterson

James Norton – “McMafia”

In the era of peak TV, there are often too many shows to keep up with. It feels like “McMafia” has been slightly swept under the rug due to the sheer number of series it must compete against. Yet that would be a mistake, as you’d be missing the interesting turn delivered by James Norton. While the show doesn’t always know what tone it is trying to strike, Norton is a consistent variable over the series. As the show dives into the world of organized crime during the age of globalization, Norton is our Virgil.

Norton’s work is tougher than some may expect after watching an episode or two. He is new to the world of crime after his cousin pushes his family into the deep end. The characters of “McMafia” were once part of a Russian organized crime racket, but they have since attempted to run a clean business. As Norton enters the seedy underworld, he plays with what that life has meant for him. He’s squeaky clean and naïve about the world when the show begins. By the end of the season, he is far more ruthless. Norton’s performance shows this transformation, which should build a solid foundation for the show moving forward. As a mafioso, Norton will be able to truly lean into the character, making the first season of “McMafia” the prelude before the real fun begins. – Alan French

Noah Schnapp – “Stranger Things”

Will Byers is found! Season one of “Stranger Things” excelled as a mystery piece on these group of kids searching for their lost friend. With Will found, actor Noah Schnapp gets to be reinserted into the narrative. Schnapp expertly conveys the almost PTSD effects of being trapped in the Upside Down. His visceral squirmings and convulsions around these creatures returning carry great weight throughout the season. In a show filled with great child actors, Noah Schnapp more than justifies his increased level of showtime. More things are on the rise for Schnapp as well. He’s got four film projects in various stages of development, such as “Waiting for Anya,” “Abe,” “Hallowaiian” and “Intensive Care.” – Christopher James

Frankie Shaw – “SMILF”

When the star and creator Frankie Shaw titled her new series “SMILF”, she obviously knew she would instantly grab our attention. But what wasn’t immediately clear was the amazing depth she would bring to this Showtime comedy, keeping us hooked on the personal journey of Shaw’s lead character Bridgette. In just 8 episodes, Shaw tackles a myriad of topics, including single motherhood, relationships, misogyny and the struggles of making it as an actress. And through it all, Shaw is always compelling, displaying a tenacity and endearingly bizarre sense of humor that has us rooting for her during this Emmy cycle and what will hopefully be multiple seasons of “SMILF” to come. – Shane Slater

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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