Download: The Ten Breakthrough Performers of 2022
Now in its 14th year, the annual tradition of recognizing actors who have potential to be the “Next Big Thing” in Hollywood continues. For a brief history of the list, you can visit last year’s write-up, where Ariana DeBose joined the archives of fellow thespians that include Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet, all of whom topped the memorandum in previous years. DeBose would go on to win the Oscar for Supporting Actress, joining Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Brie Larson, and Mahershala Ali as previous titleholders who would go on to win gold. Nine of the 13 title-bearers have been nominated for an acting Oscar.
The history of those who appeared elsewhere on the list contains over 20 actors would receive Oscar nominations and/or wins, including Jeremy Renner, Carey Mulligan, Anna Kendrick, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Lakeith Stanfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Rooney Mara, Lupita Nyong’o, Alicia Vikander, Lucas Hedges, Ruth Negga, Naomie Harris, Daniel Kaluuya, Margot Robbie, Adam Driver, Cynthia Erivo, Riz Ahmed, Chadwick Boseman, Jessie Buckley, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
I covered the eligibility requirements in last year’s article as well. The “rules” loosely prohibit a contender from previously being recognized for an individual SAG, Oscar, Globe, or Emmy nomination. There is the rare exception to every rule, however. It is also rare that anyone under 18 makes the lineup, since it is often difficult to project the future career path of a juvenile.
2022 saw some sensational new talent burst onto the scene. There were several contenders that made the list that could have been argued for the top spot. While I think there was a clear number one, I’d be interested in hearing differing thoughts.
In recent years, one of the most satisfying elements of doing this post is seeing how diverse the top ten ends up being. The last few years have brought on a slew of diverging talent, which is a good indicator of real change taking place in the Hollywood system. This is echoed by contemporary voices popping up in screenwriting, directing, producing and other behind-the-scenes capacities as well.
The 2022 slate of performers was a rainbow of race, gender, and sexuality, and the 2023 list is pretty much the same. When creating the ballot, there is no energy spent ensuring the list will turn out all-encompassing. It is solely built on the performances, presence, and upcoming projects listed for the actor (and, of course, my opinion). The inclusivity just continues to happen naturally the last few years. And when it happens like that – organically and without pretext – that’s when real change is occurring.
Without further ado – and thanks in large part to the contributing staff of Awards Daily – I present the Breakthrough Performers of 2022.
10. Diego Calva – by Ryan Adams
In Damien Chazelle’s epic recreation of the early decadent days of Hollywood, Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, taking his place among classic portrayals of aspiring film artists whose dreams turn to nightmares. The 1920s time period makes it hard not see Manny’s resemblance to Nick Carraway, who serves as both narrator and participant in The Great Gatsby.
Manny’s point of view in Babylon is designed to be the quiet eye of the hurricane with whom the audience can most easily identify, as the era’s reckless whirlwind of moviemaking around him creates awesome spectacle and wreaks horrific devastation. Like Nick Carraway, Manny Torres provides us with the urgent sensation of a first-hand witness to extraordinary events. His unique position as an outsider/insider gives him intimate access to the relationships and actions of all the characters. Manny is not only an observer of the events but also plays a role in them. Through dint of his talent and ambition, he becomes close friends with the high and mighty of studio culture, and his entrancement leads him to be embroiled in a doomed love affair with the vivacious and self-destructive Nellie LaRoy. Anyone who knows anything about Hollywood’s history will quickly see how the parallels and metaphors abound.
Manny’s moral compass serves as a contrast to the moral decay of almost all the other characters. His dual role as observer and participant adds depth and complexity to the story, as it allows us to see the events through his eyes and understand his personal connection to the characters and their actions. His tender-hearted sincerity also provides a stark commentary on the moral decay of the characters and the society they inhabit.
All this is a massive task to assign to an actor starring in his first English speaking feature film role, asked to carry a 3-hour Hollywood blockbuster on his shoulders. Calva is up to the assignment, as one of my favorite layers of echoes in Babylon demonstrates. Early on, we see Brad Pitt do a comic riff on John Gilbert, a debonair silent film star whose voice and demeanor famously failed to translate to talkies. Playing a scene in an overblown costume drama when Pitt’s character Jack Conrad professes his adoration for his love interest, he intones with a phony cadence: “I love you, I love you, I love you.” The 1920s audience giggles at the singsong repetition and artificial melodrama, and we snicker along with them.
An hour later, Chazelle hands a similar passionate situation to Diego Calva’s Manny, to show us what the magic of movies can do when done right. Nellie and Manny face a life-and-death plight and must outrun the pursuit of murderous mobsters. Nellie’s cavalier dawdling has put them at grave risk, so Manny has to implore her to take the situation seriously. “What the fuck I’m gonna do without you? I’m not going anywhere without you. ¡Despertar! ¡Entiendes! Te amo. ¡Te amo, Nellie! Te amo, te amo, te amo, te amo, te amo, te amaré siempre.”
With every desperate repetition of “te amo” I felt another agonizing stab in my chest. Those words as spoken are not even written in Babylon’s FYC script but, for me, Calva gives them the most powerful and heart-wrenching line delivery of the year.
Can’t wait to see what Diego does next, and we won’t need to wait long. In 2023, Calva will star in a TV series, Midnight Family, and two films – Bonded, an immigration drama co-starring Jason Patric, and A ciegas, a sci-fi/horror flick.
9. Thuso Mbedu – by Shadan Larki
South African-born Thuso Mbedu made her international debut leading Barry Jenkins’ 2021 Amazon series The Underground Railroad. Her raw and heartbreaking performance as Cora, a runaway slave, earned her a Critics Choice award nomination and a win at the Indie Spirits, but despite rave reviews for her revelatory work, the miniseries remained criminally under-rated and underseen.
Along came The Woman King, the action-packed historical epic that has launched 31-year-old Mbedu into a new phase of her career. Starring alongside Viola Davis, Mbedu plays a new member of the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors who fought to protect their West African kingdom of Dahomey. Set in the 1820s, the film follows Mbedu’s Nawi as she trains to join the women, forging a delicate bond with Davis as her commanding general.
Performing many of her own stunts, The Woman King showed that Mbedu has the makings of a major action star. But it’s Mbedu’s quieter moments that proved the most compelling. The tenderness and vulnerability that peaks through during her toughest moments on screen propel you to keep watching and make Mbedu impossible to ignore.
Mbedu’s next project has yet to be announced.
8. Jenna Ortega – by Mark Johnson
Jenna Ortega has been a busy actress the last few years, starring in 37 television and film roles coming into 2022. The first time I noticed Ortega was in her small role on Netflix’s You, playing Ellie Alves – Joe’s (Penn Badgley) precocious 15-year-old neighbor – in the hit thriller’s second season. Ortega’s presence was small but mighty and is a big part of what led to her sensational year.
Ortega starred in four films in 2022, including a major role as the asthma-inflicted Tara Carpenter in the fifth adaptation of the Scream franchise. She also landed a supporting role in Ti West’s slasher-horror, X. Her big star-making performance, however, came in another Netflix series, playing the Addams family’s morbid and emotionally aseptic daughter, Wednesday. Ortega played the titular role with aplomb, capturing the sardonic essence and deadpan delivery of the character to perfection. She received critical acclaim for her work and was nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance.
Wednesday has been picked up for a second season at the streaming giant, and there is rumor that Ortega could appear in a future season of You. She has four films in production or in post, including Brian Helgeland’s crime/thriller Finestkind – opposite Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Foster – and is reprising her role as Tara Carpenter in the sixth installment of the Scream series.
7. Gabriel LaBelle – by Sasha Stone
It’s not easy being the actor chosen to play the young Steven Spielberg while being directed by Steven Spielberg. He could not have chosen a better avatar than the Gabriel LaBelle.
The young actor was named as one of the Toronto International Film’s Rising Stars of 2022 just before The Fabelmans won the Audience Award. The Fabelmans doesn’t work without a strong actor playing the young Spielberg. We had to believe him in the part and understand how this awkward teen could have become nothing less than one of the greatest directors of all time. Labelle’s Sammy comes of age nurtured by his mother’s encouragement of his talent just as he discovers she’s been having an affair. It’s complicated emotional terrain to navigate for anyone, especially a teenager. Labelle’s career is just beginning yet he understands that the key to Sammy was in keeping his emotions simmering beneath the surface as much as possible.
Labelle previously starred in Showtime series American Gigolo. Labelle’s lucky break in The Fabelmans has landed him a key role in an upcoming coming of age film called The Snack Shack, written and directed by Adam Carter Rehmeier set in Nebraska in the early 90s.
6. Mia Goth – by Clarence Moye
Prior to 2022 Mia Goth wasn’t someone who stood out to me in the few films in which I’d seen her (Suspiria and Emma to name a few). To me, she was primarily notable for her tabloid-friendly love affair with actor Shia LaBeouf. However, her cinematic output in 2022 completely changed all of that. First up, Goth headlined Ti West’s brilliant slasher throwback flick X in which she, spoiler alert, played two roles: porn actress Maxine Minx and the murderous Pearl. The roles obviously could not have been more different, yet Goth expertly delivers two fully realized characters within the context of a genre film. Her Maxine burns with a drive to be a great actress, granted within the confines of the porn industry. She and screenwriter Ti West twist the expectations of the “final girl” horror film trope. Maxine is a survivor, but she’s also a sexual being, unafraid of embracing and putting on display her sexual prowess.
It’s that openness to sexuality that attracts the character of Pearl, an older woman jealous of Maxine’s youth and beauty but still boasting the sex drive of a much younger woman. It’s an unusual characterization for a horror film, but Goth as Pearl sells it with a force beyond her years. An early scene between the two characters pits Goth against Goth in an uncomfortable and odd moment where Pearl expresses her longing and resentment. Even at a very old age, Pearl remains a sexual being, driving her murderous rage throughout the remainder of the film. Had 2022 only seen Goth in X then it would have been an interesting and promising new note in her career.
However, Goth and West became fascinated with the character of Pearl, her sexuality, and her seemingly endless sense of loneliness. And the gonzo, go-for-broke Pearl was born. Collaborating with West, Goth designed a fascinating experiment that expanded upon Pearl’s backstory in a technicolor fantasia. The younger Pearl lives in a world driven by the magic of her local cinema. While she is arguably shackled by the expectations put upon her by her ailing German immigrant parents, Pearl obviously suffers from an undiagnosed and deep-seated mental disorder. One scene shows her tripping the light fantastic a la Fred and Ginger but with a scarecrow, one of many allusions to the classic The Wizard of Oz. Another scene shows her abusing her incapacitated father. And there are of course the three show-stopping sequences that arguably rank as some of 2022’s greatest cinematic offerings: an extended monologue where Pearl expresses her innermost frustrations and sadness, an audition sequence where Pearl channels every ounce of her ambition only to be soundly rejected, and the unforgettable closing credit sequence where Goth stares at the camera for several minutes sporting a maniacal, pained, and deeply disturbed grin.
Goth’s now legendary performance, one that captured the attention of and instilled nightmares within the great Martin Scorsese, doesn’t truly ask us to sympathize with Pearl as a character. Instead, we understand how the nightmarish vision of Pearl from X came into being, and Goth, working with West, brought this into fruition with her own talent, drive, and ambition. In a way, Goth embodies the upside of Pearl’s lifetime of ambitions, forging a path forward for herself using her own talents and creating a character through which she can thrive. Where does Goth go next? We will see Goth and West close out the X trilogy with MaXXXine sometime in the near future. After that, Goth will appear in Carl Tibbets’ (Black Mirror) Sweet Dreams, described as “Fargo in England.” Here’s hoping Goth will expand upon her impressive 2022 body of work and create further opportunities to channel her unique individual talents.
5. Stephanie Hsu – by Joey Moser
The first time that I saw Stephanie Hsu, her character, Mei, was giving Joel Maisel a hard time on the third season of Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He bought an empty space and was planning to transform it into a nightclub, but her family has connections to the building, and they want things done their way. From that season, I knew that she could flirt, banter, negotiate, and dance around with her words, but I was not ready for what she could do in The Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Hsu’s Joy wants to disappear as much as she wants to be heard when she’s around Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn. Watch how she hides her hands in the sleeves of her hoodie or how her downward expression affects her posture. When she transforms into Jobu Tupaki, however, Hsu’s body is her biggest asset. She harnesses that childlike wonder but wields it with a terrifying power, unleashing a playful danger that only gives her villain more depth. Jobu has given herself over to the darkness, but she is determined to watch the world burn. When the lines between Joy and Jobu eventually become blurred, we witness the light and darkness in all of us–we can all be a whimpering mess, but we can also take glee in destruction. It’s a performance that runs the gamut of stupid and tragic.
Hsu is a theater kid through and through, so she knows how to use her words and her entire body to tackle a role. She will next be seen in Rian Johnson’s Poker Face before reuniting with her Everything Everywhere parents (Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan) for Disney’s American Born Chinese and co-starring in the final season of Maisel.
4. Daisy Edgar-Jones – by Shadan Larki
Daisy Edgar-Jones first made a lasting impact in 2020’s Normal People, with Edgar-Jones delivering a vulnerable, head-turning performance in her first leading role. If 2020 was Edgar-Jones’ introduction to Hollywood, 2022 marked the 24-year-old’s official arrival with three key projects.
Headlining Netflix’s adaptation of Delia Owens’ book club darling, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” Edgar-Jones stars as Kya, a young woman reflecting on her harsh and isolated childhood in the marshes of North Carolina, as she stands trial for the murder of an ex-lover. In Mimi Cave’s Sundance horror hit Fresh, Edgar-Jones fights against the peculiar appetites of her charming new boyfriend. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Edgar-Jones plays Brenda, the victim of a brutal murder that rocks the LDS church, receiving her second Golden Globe nomination for her work in the miniseries.
What stands out about Edgar-Jones’ performances is how wildly different they are—a self-taught social outcast, a charismatic young woman trying to navigate modern dating, and a devout wife and mother with big dreams— across genres these three roles showcased Edgar-Jones as a true chameleon, not only in her physical transformations, but in her accent work and ability to tackle the full range of human emotion with nuance and compassion. She is able to make outlandish moments feel genuine and pack seemingly throw-away glances with a world of meaning. Edgar-Jones is a captivating performer with an impressive range, but what is most exciting is that it feels as if she has yet to show us all that she is capable of.
Up next for Edgar-Jones is the film adaptation of the Tony-winning musical, “Beautiful” where the London native is set to play legendary American songstress Carole King.
3. Sadie Sink – by David Phillips
When Sadie Sink joined Netflix’s Stranger Things in 2017, the series was coming off a phenomenal first season and had quickly attained the sort of buzz and rabid following that most shows can only dream of. Entering the fray as a new character, with so many of her fellow actors seen so affectionately by the Stranger Things faithful, Sink was not necessarily dropped into the easiest show to stand out. Being a true ensemble with multiple storylines already in play, when Sink got her opportunities, she had to make them count. Remarkably, she did so from the first moment she was on screen. As the tomboyish character “Max,” Sink immediately presented as a teen who was wise beyond her years without coming off as too mature to be plausible. You could see that her sullen, even surly responses to teachers, classmates, and family was a defense mechanism protecting her from secret hurts that didn’t stay secret for long.
Sink has been so good and so popular with the loyal Stranger Things fanbase one could argue that she may just be the most popular character on the show now, and, in its most recent fourth season, the most significant character. As a fan of the show, I found season four of Stranger Things something of a disappointment, with episodes that were bloated and storylines too wayward. It’s as if the show has been so popular for Netflix for so long that no one considered the possibility of telling the Duffer Brothers “no” when they suggested that nearly every episode be of feature length. What saved the season for me was Sadie Sink. As her character has gained agency and become more central to the plot machinations, there was always her incredibly expressive face to connect with, even when my mind wanted to wander away from the show’s often tedious, overstuffed plotlines. And of course, there were the two absolutely iconic moments in the show set to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” with Sink at the center of both. Those two segments aren’t thrilling just because the song was an inspired choice, they are thrilling because the camera focuses on Sadie Sink, an actor full of inner life who makes you feel something is always at stake – whether she’s running from demons, or just glancing over at a classmate.
Sink also gave an extraordinary performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale this year. In playing the daughter to a morbidly obese father (Brendan Fraser) trying to connect with his estranged child before he dies, Sink brings a lot of what works so well for her on Stranger Things. Sink has an uncanny ability to be caustic and defensive, while also revealing the pain that lives just on the inside of her eyes, no matter how brave a front she puts up. The Whale has become a bit of a polarizing film for many, mainly due to how depressing some find the film to be. While almost no one denies the great work done by Fraser as the lead, or Hong Chau as his dutiful friend and nurse, it is Sink’s performance that is perhaps the most important in pulling off the film’s grand and even spiritual climax. Up until then, Sink had been steadfast in keeping up her guard and not allowing any warmth come through to the father who had abandoned her. But just at the moment when Fraser is nearing his last breath, and that fact washes over Sink, we finally see her break, and it is wrenching. For that scene to hold together, both Fraser and Sink have to be entirely locked in and believable, and they are, but its success also depends on the work Sink has done up to that moment. We must believe that she could let all of her armor fall away before there is no time for a reconciliation to take place between her and her father.
Sadie Sink is just twenty years old, and while it’s always a significant risk to prognosticate on any young actor’s future, there are times when it’s hard not to think of the vulnerability, composure, and breadth of her work and be reminded of the young Jodie Foster. Sink may just be her spiritual successor, and one can only hope for a similar career trajectory for her.
Sink will next be seen in the fifth and final season of Stranger Things, and is currently in production on the film Berlin Nobody.
2. Danielle Deadwyler – by Benjamin Rendall
Danielle Deadwyler has been working steadily for almost ten years in movies and television including small parts in major shows like Atlanta, Watchmen, and Station Eleven. While she has gotten praise for this work, it has been nothing like what she has gotten for her performance as Mamie Till-Mobley in Till. She had to take on the emotional weight of not just losing a child, but knowing her child was tortured and murdered due to racism. Adding to that horror and pain is knowing who did it and that everything is working to keep them free.
This is a daunting task for any actress, and she embodies that pain with her like a second skin. It is always there, be it when she is completely broken by the pain or her getting angry, planning on how to get justice, or just quiet moments with family members. She keeps it present yet it never overwhelms her performance, she has to have it to make her character work but it isn’t everything she is. She lets us see her character’s mind working on how to deal with getting justice and not becoming overwhelmed. Willing to challenge so many conventions of the time and those with different agendas. Letting her emotions out in ways that advance that cause and hold it in when it doesn’t. It’s a master class in action, letting us see Mamie’s mind work while always having her pain present. Deadwyler has been already awarded with several critics groups nominations and has won the Gotham Independent Film Award for Outstanding Lead Performance. Even in a year when this one performance could have taken up all her time and energy she was also in From Scratch, a TV miniseries on Netflix, and she has not slowed down, with three upcoming movies–Parallel, I Saw the TV Glow and Carry-On.
1. Austin Butler – by Mark Johnson
Playing a larger-than-life figure on the big screen must be one of the most daunting tasks an actor can take on. Especially when that figure is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. Talk about a legend among legends, right? Until Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular film, Austin Butler might have been best remembered as Tex Watson – another real-life character – in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And most of us might have forgotten he played Watson, a supporting role that is overshadowed by the outrageous Tarantino screenplay, had it not been for his breakthrough turn in Elvis.
Ambiguity is something that will no longer be an issue for the 32-year-old California native, as no star rose as high as Butler’s did in 2022. In the wake of his stardust is an abundance of awards the extraordinary actor has accrued for his compelling dedication to the role. Butler’s explosive interpretation of Elvis – from the physical gesticulations to the big, burly voice – humanized The King, pulling down the bright lights to show us the distressed man behind the immortal God of Rock. Commanding the screen against another legend, Tom Hanks, Butler’s energetic and charming presence honors The King with compassion and tenderness, providing us with not only more than a typical caricature, but a performance that is beyond worthy of winning the Academy Award. His devotion to becoming Elvis is something Butler is still trying to pull himself away from, as many are wondering if his voice will ever return to it’s original intonation.
Butler has been nominated for Breakthrough Artist by at least a dozen critics’ groups and film festivals and has already been bestowed the prize by nine different organizations. But the title of Breakthrough Artist category is small fries compared to the amount of Best Actor nominations Butler has been piling up. He has hit every major precursor leading up to the Oscar, including SAG, CCA, HCA, the BAFTA longlist, and the Golden Globe, where he won the prize for Lead Actor in a Drama on January 10.
In 2023, Austin Butler will star in two major films. The Bikeriders, a Jeff Nichols crime drama co-starring Michael Shannon, Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer, and Norman Reedus, has wrapped filming and is in post-production. You might have heard of his second film due in 2023, a little project titled Dune: Part Two. Butler takes on the role of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, portrayed in the David Lynch 1984 version by another rock star, Sting. On the small screen, Butler will act alongside Barry Keoghan – another actor who once made this list – in the TV miniseries Masters of the Air, a World War II set drama depicting the story of the eleven men inside a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
Another year, another new cluster of stars to get excited about. The future of Hollywood continues to look very promising as far as talented actors are concerned. Now I will turn it over to you. Who did I leave off the list that you feel should have been there? Which of these actors do you see as future Oscar-winners? And finally…