Entertainment’s Top 8 breakthrough artists
The overnight success story in Hollywood is as much of a fairytale as its movies. Years of training, sacrifice and failed attempts at stardom typically define the experience of entertainers before that breakthrough moment occurs.
But when it happens, things change overnight — as Daniel Kayuula found after he starred in “Get Out.” He went from playing bit parts in movies to having deep conversations about race with total strangers at music festivals.
Millicent Simmonds, the 12-year-old star of “Wonderstruck,” found herself at Cannes Film Festival, where none other than Will Smith called her acting “amazing,” leaving her thunderstruck.
For the first time, the Associated Press is spotlighting key entertainers who had that breakthrough moment in 2017. The Breakthrough Entertainers includes relative newcomers, such as actors Beanie Feldstein and Brooklynn Prince and singer-songwriter SZA. But it also includes established names — director Patty Jenkins, actress Bianca Lawson and actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani — who had a transformative year that took them to another level.
All had indelible moments in entertainment — making them AP’s Breakthrough Entertainers of the Year.
‘Wonder Woman’ director Patty Jenkins
New York — Some people have breakout years. Director Patty Jenkins had one with “Monster” in 2003, a movie that earned Charlize Theron a best actress Academy Award.
And then there are breakTHROUGH years.
This year, Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” starring Gal Gadot, was a mega-hit worldwide. Pulling in $816 million worldwide last summer, it was the most successful live-action film ever directed by a woman. And it was clearly a breakthrough in what was otherwise a less-than-spectacular summer at the box office.
“I think we tried very hard to stay true to the spirit of the Wonder Woman that I love and grew up loving,” Jenkins said. “But really, it’s an opportunity to rediscover what that Wonder Woman is and because that Wonder Woman is so near and dear to my heart, it actually ended up being an opportunity to make this incredibly personal film for many of us about just struggling to be a good person and find her inner hero.”
Jenkins personal vision of “Wonder Woman” obviously appealed to anyone who loves a great action movie.
“Keeping up with the phenomenon of what it was meaning to people, what people were taking it on to be and what people were finding … it was something that I really wasn’t prepared for,” Jenkins said. “But, obviously is an incredible honor to do.”
While the silence-breakers of the “#MeToo” movement were Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” Patty Jenkins was No. 7 on the short list. The tagline said it all: “The director re-defining how the world sees women.”
Gina Abdy and Austin Haeberle
‘Get Out’ star Daniel Kaluuya
New York — When Daniel Kaluuya read Jordan Peele’s script for “Get Out,” he had one question: “Are you allowed to make films like this?”
Peele proved that you are; Kaluuya, a 28-year-old British actor, landed the lead role. Ever since then, his life hasn’t been the same. “Get Out” became a box-office sensation, a cultural landmark and an unlikely Oscar contender. Previously an up-and-coming actor with a few notable roles in film, theater and television, Kaluuya has been catapulted not just into awards season, but has since co-starred in two much anticipated films: Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Steve McQueen’s “Widows.”
“It’s been a life-changing year,” Kaluuya, who was just nominated for a Golden Globe best actor trophy, said in a recent interview.
It started with “Get Out.” Kaluuya anchors the thriller as the protagonist Chris Washington, a black man whose first visit to the family home of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) becomes a terrifying descent into a racist reality seldom depicted on screen from a black perspective.
The movie, recently nominated for a Golden Globe, has stirred a multitude of conversations.
“I go to music festivals and people want to talk to me about racism. I’m like: ‘Bro, I’m trying to have fun!’ ” said Kaluuya, laughing. “But a lot of non-white men come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been there in that house.’ ”
Brooklynn Prince of ‘The Florida Project’
New York — Seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince is sitting in a darkened TV studio with lights, cameras and control panels all around her. “Mission to Mars, mission to Mars,” she says. “This is Apollo.”
Brooklynn, the cheerful star of “The Florida Project,” has indeed lifted off. Her performance as Moonee, a brash, troublemaking pipsqueak living with her mom (Bria Vinaite) in a low-rent Orlando motel, may be the most spirited thing of 2017. Brooklynn is the exuberant energy at the center of one the year’s most acclaimed films, and some believe she should be the youngest Oscar nominee ever. Brooklynn included.
“I really want to be nominated,” she says. “Even if I get close to nominated, that’s a real honor.”
None of the year’s breakthrough performers has enjoyed their moment more than Brooklyn. She has shot a selfie with Gary Oldman, shaken hands with Adam Sandler and met Margot Robbie, whom she confirms was “super-duper nice.”
“I never thought I would have this chance,” Brooklynn says. “It’s this crazy little movie that’s everywhere.”
New York — Yes, SZA is easily in the running for best new act of 2017. But her uber-successful year really puts her in the running for female artist of the year: She’s had multiple songs chart in the Top 40 in a year when male acts overwhelming dominated, and she’s the most nominated woman at the upcoming Grammy Awards with five.
“It’s wild. It’s awesome. … Like, I’m in awe. Like, in full blown awe,” said SZA, competing for honors like best new artist and best urban contemporary album.
SZA, born Solona Rowe and signed to Top Dawg Entertainment along with Kendrick Lamar, won critical praise six months ago with the release of her major-label debut, “Ctrl,” earning a rapid fan base online for her honest lyrics and vocal delivery. This month she performed her platinum hit songs, “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott and “The Weekend” — named the No. 1 song of the year by the Associated Press — on “Saturday Night Live.” She’s co-written hits for Rihanna and Beyoncé, recently picked up two Soul Train Awards and is nominated for four honors at the NAACP Awards.
Even LeBron James and J.R. Smith are supporters, braving the snow to attend her Cleveland concert on Wednesday night.
“It’s too overwhelming. I didn’t even know what to say,” the 28-year-old said of her successes. “It almost felt like, ‘Be quiet because you don’t even know how this is happening to you. So you need to just thank the Lord and move forward.’ ”
Beanie Feldstein of ‘Lady Bird’
New York — Beanie Feldstein was a Broadway buff since she was a kid. She was obsessed with musicals, hung with the “theater crowd” in high school and spent years watching shows on the Great White Way. So when she was cast opposite Bette Midler in the revival of “Hello, Dolly,” she had already hit a career milestone.
“It’s like if my 7- or 9-, 10-, 14-year-old self knew that this was happening she would be hysterically crying,” Feldstein said. “It just has always been my dream, and then to be there with Bette Midler, and David Hyde Pierce and Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin who are all huge theater legends — if you are in that world, it’s just like, everything I could have asked for.”
The universe gave Feldstein even more in 2017. Besides starring on Broadway, the 24-year-old is also getting raves for her role in “Lady Bird,” one of the most acclaimed movies of the year and a likely Oscar nominee. Feldstein plays Julie, the best friend of the title character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan.
It’s been an enchanted year indeed for Feldstein, but there was a time when singing and acting — her lifelong dream — was in jeopardy.
“When I was 9 and 10, I couldn’t speak, and I completely had to relearn to sing and talk,” said Feldstein, who said she struggled with vocal issues while growing up. “So, that was the moment when I was like, will I be able to do this?”
She eventually regained her voice and fresh out of college, landed her first movie role. Following in the footsteps of her older brother, actor Jonah Hill, she started her film career in comedy with “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.”
Soon after, she got the part in “Lady Bird” and her performance has gotten attention from critics and fans.
Kumail Nanjiani of ‘The Big Sick’
Los Angeles — “The Big Sick” star Kumail Nanjiani is heading into awards season with a mix of fear and excitement.
After grossing nearly $43 million at the box office, the charming crowd-pleaser picked up two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations and is considered a front-runner for Academy Award nods.
“It’s very scary. It’s not something that we had really considered at all,” said Nanjiani of his film’s Oscar buzz. “It’s cool to be in the conversation with so many great movies.”
What started as a deeply personal, indie love story, co-written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, became the must-see romantic comedy of the summer.
“It has certainly exceeded expectations,” said Nanjiani during a recent interview at his Los Angeles home. “It’s been a lovely surprise.”
Set in Chicago, “The Big Sick,” which also earned two Screen Actors Guild nominations, follows the couple’s unique courtship through cultural conflicts, family ties and sickness. Nanjiani stars alongside Zoe Kazan in the Michael Showalter-directed film.
Nanjiani is now back to work filming season five of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” as he and Gordon plot their next move.
“There’s a feeling of confidence. There’s also pressure. I don’t know how to follow this,” he said with a bulletin board of colorful post-it notes bearing plot points and character ideas looming nearby.
“It’s going to be hopefully funny and hopefully serious, but it’s a totally different genre,” said Nanjiani, who is careful not to divulge too much just yet. “I don’t think we can write another lady-going-into-a-coma movie for a little while.”
Bianca Lawson of “Queen Sugar”
Los Angeles — Now more than ever, “Queen Sugar” actress Bianca Lawson is thankful to work on a nurturing, female-led set helmed by Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey.
“It’s a gift because now you’re hearing about all the stories,” said Lawson, referencing the barrage of sexual harassment allegations rocking the entertainment industry. “It’s like, wow, it’s this prevalent? It makes you even more grateful to be on a set where you feel so safe, so taken care of.”
Lawson has had a steady stream of television roles in shows like “The Vampire Dairies,” “Teen Wolf” and “Pretty Little Liars,” but said her most recent work on the OWN family drama has felt like a breakthrough moment in her career.
“People are seeing me in a new light, in a different way,” she said during a recent interview.
Before tackling the role of Darla, a recovering drug addict, Lawson did her research. The actress watched documentaries, poured through moving audio from Narcotics Anonymous meetings, visited chat boards and talked to people in her life that have been affected by addiction.
“My whole life I’ve been waiting to play a part like this, quite honestly. … To work with these directors and to work with Ava, I could cry talking about her,’” said Lawson, 38, tearing up. “This material and this environment, it’s really like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
It may seem like Lawson was destined for stardom. Her parents, Denise Gordy and Richard Lawson, are actors and her stepmother is Tina Knowles, making Beyoncé and Solange Knowles her step-sisters.
Lawson is overwhelmed by fan reactions and how Darla is resonating with audiences. Her work also moved Winfrey, a “Queen Sugar” executive producer, who pulled Lawson aside after her first day on set.
“She took my hand and she was like ‘amazing work.’ Can you imagine? … She was like, ‘I can tell you love Darla. I can tell because I can tell in your work,’ ” Lawson beamed. “End scene! What else do you need in life?”
Millicent Simmonds of ‘Wonderstruck’
Los Angeles — Adjusting to life in the spotlight has been quite a transition for Hollywood newcomer Millicent Simmonds. The 14-year-old deaf actress, who earned rave reviews for her breakout role in Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” said being away from her family in Utah has been one of the toughest challenges.
“It’s a new world for somebody who’s going through this, so you have to get used to both things that happen to you — both the good and the bad,” said Simmonds during a recent interview.
The “good” includes rubbing elbows with actors like Will Smith, whom she met while premiering “Wonderstruck” at the Cannes Film Festival.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Your acting was amazing. I love your movie.’ And I was blown away by that!” Simmonds excitedly recalled. “He was so terribly sweet.”
The talented ninth-grader says she hopes to inspire young fans and people with disabilities to follow their dreams.
“Deaf people should challenge the status quo and should be represented out there. You know, even deaf-blind people or people who have other physical disabilities should also be supported,” she said. “I think it’s important that we show them that we can all be in this together and support and help one another as one big family.”