What constitutes a ‘breakout’ actor? A great performance, absolutely; a cool background story, sure; a bunch of small-but-awesome tiny roles, maybe. What matters is that these young stars have made an early, lasting impression with roles in everything from the tiniest of indies to some of this summer’s biggest blockbusters.
We’ve rounded up Hollywood’s newest players that are capturing our attention, whether it’s by sheer acting talent, unique origin stories, or incredible scripts they got the luck to be a part of.
1. Gail Bean, 22
Unexpected, July 24
In Unexpected, Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) plays an inner-city high school teacher who unexpectedly gets pregnant, and Bean plays her student who ends up pregnant as well, but by a loser of a thug boyfriend. While the film is flawed, it’s Bean, who holds this movie together, with her emotionally honest performance opposite the always solid Smulders. Bean’s currently filming the psychological thriller The Belko Experiment from Guardians of the Galaxy writer James Gunn with an ensemble cast that includes Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) and John Gallagher, Jr. (The Newsroom).
2. Matthew Brown, 24
In the Treetops, June 12
Brown wrote, directed, produced, and starred in this coming-of-age drama that premiered at this summer's Los Angeles Film Festival. Brown, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, enlisted many students and alum for the roles and crew. As a result, the film carries a mantra heard in one of its lines: “When you’re with your friends all weekend, reality doesn’t set in until you’re alone again.” Teen angst to spare and complete with a montage of friends horsing around in a parking lot as an indie band croons, Brown has positioned himself well in an indie DIY world where lo-fi is the new black.
3. Olivia Cooke, 21
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, June 12
You guessed it: She’s the dying girl. While many have lauded this Sundance darling as the next Little Miss Sunshine, there is a contingent that finds it unnervingly contrived. That doesn’t negate the fact that the performances in it are pretty great, especially from Cooke, who made her professional acting debut as “girl on Harry Styles’ back” in the Autumn Tour music video. Since then, she made the rounds on BBC series and landed stateside in another “sick girl” role as Emma on A&E’s Bates Motel. We’ll next see her as a waitress-turned-prostitute in Katie Says Goodbye, from a debut director with a huge cast including James Belushi and Mary Steenburgen.
4. Ryan Destiny, 19
A Girl Like Grace, June 12
Another LAFF premiere, A Girl Like Grace is a coming-of-age film that wants to tackle it all -- femininity, sexual identity, suicide and cyber bullying -- in a small southern town where any of these issues might be held taboo. This role is Destiny’s biggest to date and shows promise in a still budding actress who was last seen in a recurring role on AMC’s Low Winter Sun, which shot in her hometown of Detroit, Mich. She’s also part of an urban/pop group, Love Dollhouse, which is signed to All Def Music/Capitol Records.
5. Natalia Dyer, 19
I Believe in Unicorns, May 29
Dyer has made the leap into drama after her 2009 screen debut in Hannah Montana: The Movie. Her new film, I Believe in Unicorns, is an experimental/experiential coming-of-age tale that weaves fantasy and reality together as much as a 16-year-old’s brain does. Making impulsive decisions and hanging out with a bad, but sexy, older guy (played by the excellent Peter Vack, who, at 28, is too old for this list), Dyer delivers a naïve and vulnerable performance. She will soon appear in the sci-fi thriller, After Darkness, as the daughter of Kyra Sedgwick and Tim Daly.
6. Julia Garner, 21
Grandma, July 21
You may have first seen her in the indie gem, Martha Marcy May Marlene, as one of John Hawkes’ many wives, and since then, can’t get her uniquely gorgeous porcelain face and mop of blond curls out of your head. Along with those looks, her acting prowess keeps shining through, even with smaller roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Sin City 2. In Grandma, she’s in her first major leading role as a pregnant teen who enlists the help of her nutty-but-amazing grandmother (Lily Tomlin) to find money for an abortion. We see big things for Garner, who has a recurring role on FX’s The Americans and is slated to share the screen with Ashley Judd and Michael Pitt in two new films coming out this year.
7. AJ Michalka, 24
Weepah Way for Now, June 16
The singer-actor thing seems to be a theme with our summer breakouts. Michalka stars opposite her real-life sister Aly Michalka in the LAFF premiere about two young 20-something sisters spending time with each other before the summer ends. The two also perform in a musical duo act called 78Violet. The Southern California native, who currently plays another fictional little sister on The Goldbergs, has just been promoted to a regular on the ABC family comedy.
8. Shamiek Moore, 20
Dope, June 19
In true breakout fashion, Moore went from a thin acting resume to the starring role in Dope, the Pharrell Williams-produced teen comedy about Inglewood, Calif. Now, he’s landed the lead role in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming original Netflix series, The Get Down, about the ‘70s hip-hop scene in New York City. The actor, who performed on Dope’s soundtrack, is working on a new mixtape, a follow-up to 2012’s I Am Da Beat.
9. Bel Powely, 23
Diary of a Teenage Girl, August 7
This gritty drama set in the 1970s premiered at Sundance in January. A student of the theater -- the Royal Court and West End in London and the New York Broadway scene -- Powely has the advantage of that commonality among many young British actors when a 23-year-old can seem 45 in stature and status. She’s sure to be turning heads with five films coming out over the next 18 months, including one with director Drake Doremus, who broke another British beauty in the States, Felicity Jones. And if acting out sex scenes with Alexander Skarsgard doesn’t garner attention, we’re not sure what will.
10. Nick Robinson, 20
Jurassic World, June 12
It’s a good thing Robinson’s parents enrolled him in a theater class when he was nine years old because -- we’re not sure if you’ve heard -- he's got a coveted role in that massive dinosaur movie starring Chris Pratt and some Velociraptors. After earning quiet acclaim for his performance in 2013’s summer indie hit, The Kings of Summer, Robinson went straight in to filming Jurassic World. Now, he’s completed two major productions that are sure to shoot him to teen scream status: the Rob Reiner-directed Being Charlie about a drug-addicted teen, and the newest YA adventure The 5th Wave.
11. Nat Wolff, 20
Paper Towns, July 24
On the cusp of stardom, Wolff is following a supporting role in last year’s The Fault in Our Stars with two lead roles in Ashby -- which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival -- and the highly anticipated adaptation of Paper Towns. Oh, and did we mention he has a scene-stealing moment opposite Lily Tomlin in Grandma (see above)? With the help of his adult co-stars -- Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns), Mickey Rourke (Ashby), and Tomlin -- Wolff is leaving his Nickelodeon past behind.