16 Biggest Breakout Stars of 2016: Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, Millie Bobby Brown & More

2016 wasn’t all bad! Immensely talented performers finally got their due; new, essential voices made their debuts; plus, there was Stranger Things

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/ the Daily Beast

Issa Rae

In the performative age of social media, personal brands, and dating apps, it’s a revolutionary idea: What if we were happy to just be ourselves? The journey to that sort of peace, if she ever finds it, is at the heart of Issa Rae’s Insecure, the HBO comedy that Rae created, produces, writes, and stars in. Written in Rae’s singular voice, the series is personal, hilarious, current, and both matter-of-factly and groundbreakingly black. Awkwardness defines so much of the series, but the poise with which Rae rose to fame and to a platform to speak her truth this past year was anything but.

Ruth Negga

After years of steady, quite excellent work in TV and film, it’s almost fitting how quietly and assuredly Ruth Negga arrived to a new level of attention and fame this year. First came her crackling performance in Preacher, the kind of spectacularly reckless work that had TV fans rubbernecking: Who is that? Negga, it so happens, is the Irish-Ethiopian actress who, if there’s any justice, will be an Oscar nominee for her role in Loving, as one half of the couple responsible for taking the fight for legal interracial marriage to the Supreme Court. She gives a measured, restrained performance that’s a testament to Mildred Loving’s own quiet grace, but also Negga’s own confidence: resisting histrionic fireworks to tell the story with honesty. She’s a shining example, in character and talent, of what the rest of Hollywood should be aspiring to.

Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali has been great for years. You might have known that, whether it’s from his work on Treme or in the Hunger Games films or the underrated Syfy series Alphas. But 2016 marked the year that everyone knew it. He received his first Emmy nomination for House of Cards, and played the year’s most interesting villain on Netflix’s Luke Cage. He shows up to charm Taraji P. Henson—and the rest of us—in Hidden Figures, and, most importantly, is on his way to winning an Oscar for his performance in Moonlight. It’s always kind of a thrill when a journeyman actor gets his due, but it’s poignant that Ali’s is coming for a role that exemplifies not just his great talent, but his mission: humanizing and giving a heart to the bad guys, villains, and stereotypes he, and so many black actors like him, are so often saddled with playing.

Sterling K. Brown

Brown’s alternately subtle and gregarious performance in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story demanded our attention—and an Emmy Award, to boot. It’s one thing to hold that attention, as he did with NBC’s smash-hit This Is Us. It’s another to turn his role in that series into a provocative conversation piece about race, adoption, parenthood, forgiveness, and self-worth, all thanks to his wonderful and, as often as it is devastating, wildly entertaining performance. Next up: more ratings records with This Is Us, and a role in a biopic of Thurgood Marshall.

Justice Smith

Regardless of what you thought of Baz Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle musical treatment of 1970s the Bronx, when the projects were burning and hip-hop was rising from its ashes, the talent of the show’s young leads was undeniable. Especially when it comes to Justice Smith, who played a poetry-spewing Romeo named Ezekiel, who fights against a resigned destiny while pining for his Juliet (played by Herizen Guardiola). Amid the distraction of Luhrmann’s kaleidoscope bombast, Smith’s centered performance and palpitation-inducing bass voice is so transfixing he manages to calm the chaos—a talent that will come in handy when he joins the upcoming Jurassic World sequel.

Ashley Graham

This year, Ashley Graham became the first plus-sized model to grace the cover of the hallowed—roll your eyes at that if you wish—Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. It’s a milestone that meant more than just a bikini when Graham turned the platform into an opportunity to discuss body positivity and industry double standards, amplifying her profile and, in turn, her message. It’s trite to call her inspiring, but 2016 could use a little earnestness. More, she’s a skilled on-camera presenter—a talent, as we know too well, not every supermodel is equipped to execute—which she’s turned into a gig as the most palatable part of VH1’s America’s Next Top Model reboot.

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Riz Ahmed

In the month of December alone, Riz Ahmed scored a Golden Globe and SAG nomination for his work in HBO’s zeitgeist-seizing crime thriller The Night Of—his Naz easily being one of the year’s most captivating, complicated characters—made his debut in a little movie called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and surprised TV bingers by popping up in the mysterious Netflix series The OA. Also this year, he appeared in the new Jason Bourne film, released a hip-hop album as one of the Swet Shop Boys, and used his press tours for all these projects to speak candidly about racial profiling and the crisis in Syria. It’s a remarkable range of work for one breakout year. Also: my god, he’s dreamy.

Anya Taylor-Joy

The Witch was a claustrophobic triumph of anxiety, paranoia, and unsettling tension—no small feat for a film that takes place in the woods. At the center of it all is Anya Taylor-Joy, this blank canvas on which all those emotions are painted, twitching from virginal innocence to guilelessness to even deviance and menace in one of the most horrifying and thrilling character arcs of the year. It’s a performance that contrasts her turn as Charlotte, girlfriend to none other than Barack Obama in the Netflix film Barry. And versatility is evidently Taylor-Joy’s calling card: She plays the lead in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split as well as the indies Thoroughbred and Marrowbone next year.

Sasha Lane

Sasha Lane was a college freshman on spring break in Florida when Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold saw her on a beach and asked her if she wanted to be in a movie. A few years later, Lane is riding the wave that crests when you deliver the kind of startling, rebellious, explosive performance that she gives in American Honey, the critical darling Sundance favorite that earned Lane an Indie Spirit nomination for Best Female Lead. The excitingly diverse trio of films she has in the works for next year should make us all excited for where the surf takes Lane next.

Millie Bobby Brown

If you didn’t end the year obsessed with the kids of Stranger Things, we question whether you were actually alive in 2016. While the entire young ensemble was adorable, it’s Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven that stands out. Hardly speaking a word, Brown moved between menace, fear, bravery, vulnerability, mysteriousness, and innocence with a nimbleness that would be difficult for any actress, let alone one who is only 12. It’s fitting, then, that rising star Brown found herself a SAG Award nominee this year alongside her industry icon Stranger Things co-star, Winona Ryder.

André Holland

André Holland has starred in sitcoms you never watched (Friends With Benefits, 1600 Penn), small roles in films you did (Selma, 42), and did brilliant supporting work in a star vehicle critics loved (to Clive Owen in The Knick). But 2016 was the year that the actor made the nation collectively swoon. He arrives midway through the third act of Moonlight. With little screentime he embodies a combination of regret and hope with a vibrancy that has barely dimmed in the lingering weeks since we first saw the film. This year he also appeared as Cuba Gooding Jr.’s counterpart in American Horror Story: Roanoke—a franchise that’s akin to an acting Olympics for TV performers—and was cast in Ava DuVernay’s feverishly anticipated adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Not too shabby.

Ben Platt

What’s the next Hamilton? Could there possibly be one? If there’s a musical that comes close—in that it’s Broadway’s hottest ticket, challenges the way we think about the impact and form of musical theater, and features star-making performances from its lead—it’s Dear Evan Hansen, which transferred from off-Broadway to the Great White Way this winter to rapturous reviews. Leading the way is star Ben Platt, best known for his adorkable work in the Pitch Perfect films. Suffering from depression, possibly on the autism spectrum, and saddled with the anxieties of a teenager, Platt’s Evan is a musical theater role like we haven’t seen, performed exquisitely by the prodigiously talented actor (whom we’ll likely watch accept a Tony award in June).

Lucas Hedges

Former Oscar nominees Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are understandably getting a lot of attention for their devastating turns in Manchester By the Sea. But nothing about the film would work if not for 19-year-old Lucas Hedges, whose performance as a teenage boy adjusting to life after his father’s death is an achingly alive and flickering portrait of how young people handle grief. In the wake of his breakout, he’s exhibiting excellent taste, too: a film from writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and Greta Gerwig’s new film that she will direct from her own script are both in production.

Riley Keough

For much of her early career, Riley Keough found herself defined by being Elvis Presley’s granddaughter. After this year, she stands on her own. There was the haunting precision with which she played the detached, calculating, magnetic lead in The Girlfriend Experience, the peculiar (and, in turn, outstanding) Starz drama that earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Then there was her scene-stealing work in American Honey as a tough-as-nails taskmistress, which was just as hard to turn away from thanks to Keough’s unshakable command. And with six films on the docket for 2017, we won’t be looking away any time soon.

Cynthia Erivo

You couldn’t ask a Broadway lover about the year in theater last year without them gushing about Cynthia Erivo’s transformative performance in the revival of The Color Purple, which took an emotional, triumphant role and turned into an experience that was downright spiritual. The rest of the country got a taste of that when she performed the ballad “I’m Here” at the Tony Awards—which she won—and lucky New Yorkers got a taste of what more Erivo has to offer when she co-starred in the color-blind production of Last Five Years this fall. To tie up her huge year, she was cast in her first film role, Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows, co-starring none other than Viola Davis.


Throughout 2016, Zendaya was the much-needed embodiment of #BlackGirlMagic, eschewing wisdom far beyond her 19 years to body-shamers, hair-shamers, and, not to mention, anyone who could use her inspiring, unapologetic brand of self-help. It’s a role that earned her the honor of interviewing first lady Michelle Obama for Teen Vogue. And while Zendaya’s always been at home on camera, be it in Disney series (Shake It Up!, K.C. Undercover) or as a member of Taylor Swift’s squad, her on-screen star is set to explode next year, with plum roles in both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum musical, The Greatest Showman.