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The Year's Biggest Breakout Stars In Film, TV, And Theater

From Empire to The Empire, these are the year's biggest breakout stars.

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1. Amy Schumer

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

It might feel odd to have Schumer on a 2015 "breakout stars" list, seeing as it feels like she's always been a part of our daily pop culture lives. But that just speaks to how wholly she owned the last 365 days.

In that time, she has graced the cover of every magazine, opened her first film, won a Peabody Award, took home an Emmy, earned a Golden Globe nomination, hosted both Saturday Night Live and the MTV Movie Awards, starred in an HBO stand-up special, advocated stronger gun legislation, and became an object of online fascination, thanks to her friendship with Jennifer Lawrence.

But most importantly, she gifted us with dozens of sketches from the inspired third season of her Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, and constantly set the internet on fire. The comedian tackled everything from ageism to sexism to rape culture. Few artists contributed so significantly in so many arenas this year — and Schumer is clearly just getting started. —Jarett Wieselman

2. Tituss Burgess

Netflix

Quick with a quip (“But I already did something today!”) and a song (“Pino Noir”), Tituss Burgess and Titus Andromedon — his like-named character on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — were two of the year’s most beloved new performers.

As a character, Titus was absolutely obsessed with everything...as long as everything was about him. As an actor, Tituss was an invaluable team player, working in sublime tandem with Ellie Kemper and Carol Kane to make the most of every syllable. Burgess was as generous as Andromedon was selfish, and as a result, the actor became the kind of star his character could only dream of. —J.W.

3. Melissa Rosenberg

Getty Images

Before 2015, Rosenberg was best known for writing all five films in the hugely profitable (although not that linguistically inspiring) Twilight Saga. But with the superhero Netflix series Jessica Jones, Rosenberg took many of the vampire franchise's defining characteristics — specifically undying love — and turned them on their head by making the object of affection an unwilling participant in the now-horrifying experience.

Through that ace lens, Rosenberg was able to deconstruct subject matter like rape, mansplaining, female friendships, and consent. But more than anything else, Jessica Jones was an absolute blast that offered actors Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, and Carrie-Anne Moss the best roles of their careers and proved David Tennant does villain just as splendidly as he did hero. —J.W.

4. Taron Egerton

20th Century Fox

Handsome white guys are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but Egerton stands out from the pack thanks to the infectious, joyous, unrelenting charisma he brought to two distinctly different roles in 2015: Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Mad Teddy in Legend.

And with a Kingsman sequel and the lead in Robin Hood: Origins on the horizon, it's clear that Hollywood is smartly betting big on this 26-year-old British actor. —J.W.

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5. Cush Jumbo

CBS

After the divisive ending to Alica Florrick's (Julianna Margulies) last friendship, it would have been logical for The Good Wife to throw its lead character into work and family, leaving no time for friends. But almost immediately, the seventh season of the CBS drama gave Alicia a new sparring partner in a fiery lawyer named Lucca Quinn, played to perfection by the delightfully named actor Cush Jumbo.

The character is perky, optimistic, eager, and focused, and in Jumbo's clearly capable hands, those characteristics are doled out in perfect measure, ensuring we're always given just enough to leave us wanting more. Lucca is truly one of the most welcomed new characters on TV in 2015 and one we hope to see far, far into the future. —J.W.

6. Billy Eichner

TruTV

Along with its equally sublime creator and writer Julie Klausner, Eichner co-stars on Hulu's oh-so-wrong but oh-so-perfectly-right Difficult People, but his real 2015 triumph came thanks to Billy on the Street.

The TruTV game show, which features the comedian careening through the streets of New York City with some seriously legit celebrities (Tina Fey, Julianne Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Will Ferrell, to name a few), is one of TV's most consistently enjoyable half hours.

But Eichner's true brilliance lies in how smartly and subtly his stunts satirize our collective obsessions: Whether it's mocking the false idols of a Thanksgiving Day parade or sending up our collective fascination with Scientology, Eichner has his middle finger on the pulse of society. —J.W.

7. Lin Manuel-Miranda

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Rarely does an artist create a piece of work so universally beloved that it transcends its medium — in this case, theater — and becomes a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. But that speaks to the magnitude of what Lin-Manuel Miranda has created with Hamilton, a historical musical with a score that's anything but old fashioned.

Equal parts hip-hop and pop, the endlessly repeatable songs not only provide an education in American history, but also musical theater. Miranda once again (see: In the Heights) raises the bar for anyone else attempting to create an original musical. —J.W.

8. Rami Malek

USA Network

In a year of star-making performances, none come close to matching the artfulness Rami Malek brought to every frame of the equally brilliant Mr. Robot. Tasked with executing one of the year's toughest character arcs, Malek was a frenetic, wild-eyed, sweaty mess by his own design as hacker Elliot Alderson, who navigated a fractured reality also — spoiler alert — of his own design. It's the kind of performance that not only elevates a show, but defines a career. —J.W.

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9. Taraji P. Henson

Fox

It's shocking to think that every GIFable glare, razor-sharp one-liner, and sartorial slaying Taraji P. Henson's Cookie has gifted the world with has been confined to 2015. But this was the year of Empire and no actor made the show more deliciously enjoyable than Henson, who is having as much fun playing Cookie as we are watching her. It's rare when an actor and a character converge to create a cultural moment, but that's the true kismet onscreen every week. —J.W.

10. Melissa Benoist

CBS

In order for Supergirl to work, the show needed a super lead. As the show's producers previously proved with Arrow and The Flash, they know how to cut through the clutter of a casting session and find the chosen one. The endlessly charismatic Benoist smartly plays Kara Danvers more than she plays Supergirl, ensuring the show is based around a person and not a symbol. We may have met Benoist on Glee, but she's really showing what she's capable of in that cape. —J.W.

11. Marti Noxon, Shiri Appleby, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and Constance Zimmer

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

Like any team of super-powered people, the great individual gifts these four women brought to the table combined to create something greater: Unreal, one of the year's most impressive, compelling, intelligent, and thought-provoking dramas. The series was also a game changer for Lifetime, the network that had the good sense to air this behind the scenes look at a Bachelor-like series and the beautifully broken people who create it. —J.W.

12. Lena Waithe

Netflix

There was plenty to love about Netflix’s freshman series Master of None — seeing Aziz Ansari back on TV again just a few months after Parks & Rec signed off! Ansari’s exceedingly adorable and heartwarming real-life parents! A majority nonwhite cast! — but its greatest discovery was definitely Lena Waithe, the actor behind Dev’s (Ansari) level-headed, straight-shooting friend Denise.

The former Bones writer’s queerness was included on the series but never exploited — after all, the character wasn’t originally scripted as a black lesbian, but Anzari wanted Denise to feel authentic to Waithe. And she certainly does. Watching her merely listen to voicemails from Michelle aka Princess Love aka Lil’ Funyuns was enough to win viewers’ hearts — and it only got better from there.

Also, if you haven’t creeped her Instagram, you’re welcome. —Jaimie Etkin

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13. John Cena

Universal

2015 was the year that the former WWE superstar showed the world how hilarious he could be with a pair of spot-on performances in Trainwreck and Sisters. If Cena left his action movie career behind and focused solely on cementing his status as Hollywood's most unexpected funnyman, there would be no complaints here. —J.W.

14. Brie Larson

A24

Brie Larson has consistently delivered awardworthy work — like on Showtime's United States of Tara and in 2013's Short Term 12 — but 2015 was the year the world at large finally took notice. thanks to her undeniable, unflinching, can't-miss work in Room.

As "Ma," a mother who's confined to a literal suburban prison with her son Jack (the equally astounding Jacob Tremblay), Larson brought the audience directly into a waking nightmare of constant worrying: for her son, for herself, for her sanity, and for her survival. She was hard to watch, but harder to tear yourself away from. Larson's performance is one of the year's most celebrated: She won nearly a dozen Best Actress accolades, is currently nominated for a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award, and is a lock for an Oscar nomination. —J.W.

15. Constance Wu

ABC

Onscreen, Wu is an absolute comedic gem as Jessica Huang, Fresh Off the Boat's stern but caring matriarch who loves her heritage almost as much as she loves her children. Offscreen, Wu is an absolutely necessary voice in the discussion about Asian-American representation in pop culture. Informed, thoughtful, and relentless, she's the kind of advocate Jessica would be proud of. —J.W.

16. Billie Lourd

Fox

It’s hard to stand out in a cast made up of Emma Roberts, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lea Michele, Keke Palmer, and Abigail Breslin, to name a few. But Billie Lourd, the little-known actor behind Chanel No. 3 on Scream Queens, did just that. Fresh out of NYU, Lourd was cast as a regular on the series and when it debuted in September, she killed every single line she was given, providing the kind of deadpan humor an over-the-top campy murder mystery series like Scream Queens needs. And, as an homage to her mother, Carrie Fisher aka Princess Leia, Lourd’s Chanel No. 3 wore earmuffs in nearly every scene, a look reminiscent of the double-bun hairstyle Fisher made famous in the Star Wars movies.

But that tribute got even better: In the latest entry in that franchise, The Force Awakens, Lourd took it to the next level, sporting the actual look in a quick scene that was a treat for fans of the space saga and the Fox series alike. And that wasn’t all: Lourd had more in store for the women who helped raise her — she attended the Governors Awards in November to accept an honorary Oscar on behalf of her grandmother, Debbie Reynolds’, who wasn’t well enough to travel to the ceremony. Yep, the force is very strong with this one. —J.E.

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17. Jason Mitchell

Universal

Jason Mitchell easily had the toughest job of his fellow cast mates in Straight Outta Compton: transform into a conflicted, complex, and gangsta rap music architect who died decades ago. His comrades were able to work out nuances with the rappers they portrayed in one of the best films of 2015; they were treated to one-one-one DJ sessions with Dr. Dre or were able to tap into what made Ice Cube so special.

But Mitchell — who before becoming Eazy-E was a line cook in New Orleans — brought the rapper back to life. He melted into the role with the help of Los Angeles rapper WC. “I’m a visual learner, and he was somebody that I could relate to. I had to understand not only California and Compton and South Central, but gang culture. I had to understand a lot of things in order for everything to be right,” Mitchell said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “There are so many undertones to the movie. We couldn’t be on the line of doing an impersonation.”

Thankfully, he did far more than that. —Kelley L. Carter

18. Hayley Atwell

Kelsey Mcneal / ABC

Since being introduced in 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, Atwell's Peggy Carter has popped up in a half dozen Marvel properties, but none have given her — both the character and the actor — the opportunity to shine quite like ABC's Agent Carter.

In one of 2015's criminally underrated TV shows, Atwell is a walking, talking, ass-kicking ode to gender equality, thanks to showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, who have crafted one of the year's most engaging TV universes. And in it, Atwell finally gets a chance to take the lead and prove one doesn't need superpowers to be a superhero. —J.W.

19. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley

Macey J. Foronda/BuzzFeed

While both actors had a dozen or so credits to their resumes before being cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it's safe to say that 2015 was the year the world fell in love with these two Brits. Their performances in the film are stellar — bringing heart, humanity, and humor to a genre that often lacks for all three — but their online engagement is what's truly endeared them to the fandom at large.

Whether they're leading sing-alongs on Instagram or surprising fans on Twitter, Boyega and Ridley clearly love the generations of people who love Star Wars, making them worthy successors to the franchise they will carry for a good, long time. —J.W.

20. Rebecca Ferguson

Paramount

On paper, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation's Ilsa Faust was already a lethal and self-reliant secret agent — quite the refreshing addition to Mission Impossible's testosterone-heavy canon. But in the hands of Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa became something greater: a superspy on par with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, something four films-worth of male characters have been unable to achieve.

Ferguson's mix of competency and mystery proved to be such a hit with audiences, she's being brought back for the upcoming sequel — and, if the producers are wise, she'll be positioned for her own spinoff. —J.W.

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21. Effie Brown

HBO

The fourth season of HBO's Project Greenlight was supposed to document the rocky road winning director Jason Mann faced — and, theoretically, triumphed over — en route to making his first feature film.

But the premiere episode quickly made it clear that chronicling the perseverance of the film's producer, Effie Brown, would be infinitely more interesting, important, and timely. Brown actively engaged her fellow producers in conversations about representation and responsibility in filmmaking. She was a constant beacon of hope in the show, and a guiding light for the industry at large. —J.W.

22. Rachel Bloom

The CW

While Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — The CW series co-created by, co-written by, co-produced by, and co-starring Bloom — is the very definition of hit and miss, there's no ignoring the unbridled enthusiasm the quadruple threat brings to every song, every line, and every moment of this charming musical comedy. —J.W.

23. Tessa Thompson

Warner Bros.

Maybe you didn’t catch Tessa Thompson as the not-so-beloved Jackie Cook on Veronica Mars or during her very successful 2014 as the sharp-tongued college radio host at the center of the Sundance Film Festival favorite Dear White People or as civil rights activist Diane Nash in Selma. But if you made it to theaters this fall to see Creed, a reboot of the Rocky franchise, then you certainly won’t forget her.

She took on the role of singer-songwriter Bianca in one of the best movies of the year and made the character, who suffers from progressive hearing loss, so much more than a love interest for Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). (Though the hug she gives Donny at the end of the movie is enough to warm even the coldest of hearts.) Bianca was a total boss on stage and off — and impressively, Thompson wrote all of her character’s music heard in Creed. Clearly, she’s everything. —J.W.

CORRECTION

Julie Klausner is the writer of Difficult People. A previous version misstated that Billy Eichner co-writes the show.