RANKED! Our 20 Favorite Breakthrough Actors and Actresses of the Last 20 Years
Many actors and actresses have “broken through” over the last two decades. A lot of their success has been due to good decision-making when choosing a potential breakthrough role. Take Chris Pratt, who was always low-key popular in Parks and Recreation but achieved some serious fame after Guardians of the Galaxy was released (Marvel and Disney being a lightning rod for fame). Kristen Wiig was popular on SNL but hit superstardom after the release of Bridesmaids. In honor of instant success, here are our top 20 stars whose careers catapulted them to celebrity status over the last 20 years.
Cover Photo: Columbia Pictures
More stars: Star Wars Casts Another Middle-Aged Breakthrough Actor, Pedro Pascal, For ‘The Mandalorian’
20. Saoirse Ronan
It may seem like Saoirse Ronan just appeared on the scene recently with films like Lady Bird; however, some will remember her from 2007’s Atonement. At the humble age of 14, Ronan received an Oscar nomination for her performance in that heartbreaking film. After that, it was on to The Lovely Bones (2009), Hanna (2011) and now, she is one of the most respected and sought-after actresses in Hollywood.
19. Gabourey Sidibe
Gabourey Sidibe’s debut role was in 2009’s Precious for which she received an Academy Award nomination. At the heart of her lottery ticket success story is a stellar performance as Claireece "Precious" Jones, a 16-year-old mother of two. What makes Gabourey’s story so endearing is her unconventional (for a “Hollywood” actress) look, something the world very much needs to see.
18. Keira Knightley
Everyone remembers Keira Knightley taking the 21st century by storm. Bend It Like Beckham (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Pride & Prejudice (2005, for which she received her first Oscar nomination), and so on. Today, Knightley is a certified A-lister who some people forget was a no-name 20 years ago.
17. Lupita Nyong'o
Lupita Nyong’o burst onto the scene in 2013 when she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 12 Years a Slave. Boy, was that a fucking doozy. Since then, she has been in blockbusters like the newest Star Wars trilogy, Black Panther (2018), and very recently in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019).
16. Hugh Jackman
The Wolverine himself. When X-Men came out in 2000, everyone was talking about his take on Wolverine. To this day, few believe anyone else can play the role as well as he did; what he did with the character is in the same realm as what Robert Downey Jr. did with Iron Man and what Johnny Depp did with Jack Sparrow. Jackman was nominated for an Oscar in 2012’s Les Misérables and although he has left the claws behind, he continues to impress.
15. Kristen Wiig
Easily one of the funniest women in the world. Sure, Kristen Wiig had fans before Bridesmaids (2011), but it was this world-renowned brainchild that launched her to superstardom. Now, she’s everywhere—rocking a type of feminine irreverence that is uniquely her own.
14. Steve Carell
You could argue that Steve Carell was a recognizable actor before The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), but it was that film that made him a leading man. The Office obviously took his fame to a whole different (Emmy-winning) level. He most recently landed an Oscar nomination for his role in Foxcatcher (2014).
13. Jennifer Lawrence
It was Winter's Bone (2010) that began the reign of J. Law. She was nominated for an Oscar for that film, which opened the door to other high-profile roles. The Hunger Games (2012) made her a household name and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Her success is not only due to the creative choices she has made, but her (seemingly) relatable persona.
12. Michelle Williams
Maybe one of the most underrated actresses out there. She rose to mild fame in Dawson's Creek before excelling on the silver screen. Killing it in Brokeback Mountain (2005), she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, her first of four total Oscar nominations.
11. Bradley Cooper
This dude used to be in that show Nip/Tuck but 2009’s The Hangover made Bradley Cooper a hot commodity. Three years later, he was nominated for an Oscar and momentum just kept building from there. A Star Is Born (2018) was his directorial debut and holy shit that was good, like crying-on-the-drive-home good (not us, but probably you).
10. Peter Dinklage
Obviously, someone from Game of Thrones had to make our list, and if it’s going to be anyone, it must be Dinklage. His turn as Tyrion Lannister might have made the show (winning him three Emmys). Whether seeing him on screen as a delightful Marvel cameo character or watching him decide what corner of Hollywood he wants to tackle next, Peter Dinklage is here to stay.
9. Rooney Mara
Her career has seemed to stay within the realm of smaller, more independent films, but Mara has carved out a well-respected niche for herself. In 2011, she received an Oscar nomination for her role in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. After that, she probably could have risen to the top of the A-list, but she continues to mob in smaller films (and received another nomination for 2015’s Carol). And yes, she does have a sister.
8. Benedict Cumberbatch
The best Sherlock Holmes to ever don that weird hat, and that’s saying a lot. The exposure he gained with his role in the BBC series launched his career to blockbuster heights. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2014), and Doctor Strange (2016) are just a few of his stand-out roles. He even received an Oscar nomination for his role in The Imitation Game (2014).
7. Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali has had small roles in films like The Hunger Games trilogy and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), but it was his role 2016’s Moonlight that showed everyone this guy can act. He won an Oscar for playing the mentor and drug dealer Juan and then won again for Green Book (2018). Now he has been cast as Marvel’s new Blade. Can’t wait.
6. Ryan Gosling
Pretty much every guy with the last name Gosling claims to be related to this guy in order to win girls over at the bar. Regardless, the actor can, well, act. From Remember the Titans (2000), Crazy Stupid Love (2011), to Oscar-nominated roles in Half Nelson (2006) and La La Land (2016), the Mickey Mouse club alumni acts a lot and he acts well.
5. Oscar Isaac
He sung his heart out in the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and now flies his heart out in Star Wars. Oscar Isaac is in everything. If you don't recognize him, it's because you haven't been paying attention.
4. Tom Hardy
It’s not like Tom Hardy has been in a lot of high profile films -- OK, Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and The Revenant (2015, for which he received an Oscar nomination) -- but it’s his smaller standout roles in films like Bronson (2008) and The Drop (2014) and shows like Peaky Blinders and Taboo that really show off what Hardy is capable off, which is a lot, emotionally and physically. He can act without speaking or ever really seeing his face (The Dark Knight Rises).
3. Emma Stone
Emma Stone needs no introduction. She's quite possibly among the best actresses around today. Superbad was obviously her breakout role, and she has made us laugh and cry ever since in films like Easy A (2010), Zombieland (2010), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), and La La Land (2016). The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is a whole other conversation, but two Oscar nominations and one Oscar win are a testament to her talents.
2. Javier Bardem
Not only is he the greatest breakthrough actor of the past 20 years, but he is arguably the greatest actor working today. Already an established thespian in Spain, it wasn’t until Before Night Falls in 2000 that Javier Bardem began to get noticed in the states. In 2007, he wowed in No Country for Old Men and in 2010 he dismantled our souls with Biutiful. Although he hasn’t been in the greatest films recently, his acting chops are still top tier.
1. Amy Adams
Here she is. The contemporary Meryl Streep. The queen of the acting world. Amy Adams. She broke out with Junebug (2005) and has been nominated for six Oscars since. It's only a matter of time before someone decides to put on crown on this woman's head.