The Breakout TV Stars of 2016

By  · Published on December 20th, 2016


Seven TV stars who turned heads this year.

Every year there are a few new television shows that give us hope for the future generation of actors. Whether they are new performers on brand new shows or just recurring characters that really got their chance to shine, they made us sit up and pay a little closer attention to our screens and their IMDb profiles. 2016 gave us plenty of those and here at Film School Rejects, we have compiled a list of the seven most exciting breakout television stars of 2016.

1. Sterling K. Brown

Brown has been quietly making a name for himself in the television and stage world for a number of years, but this year brought his big breakout on the screen with his turn as Christopher Darden in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. His role in People v. O.J. actually won him a Primetime Emmy award and earned him a Golden Globe nomination just Monday morning. But, the FX miniseries was not the only hit show he appeared in this year. Prior to People v. O.J. even airing, Brown was cast in Dan Fogelman’s ratings juggernaut This Is Us. The NBC drama has been breaking all sorts of ratings records and earning positive reviews since premiering this fall. With This Is Us likely getting renewed for a second season, we are looking forward to seeing more of Brown on our television screens.

2. Millie Bobby Brown

Over the summer, Netflix premiered this really small show that no one watched called Stranger Things. Maybe you’ve heard of it? And maybe you’ve heard of its star Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven? Created by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things is a fun homage to the classic movies of the eighties and Brown’s character has proved to be iconic. At just age 12, Brown fully committed to the demands of the role, like shaving her head, with power, energy, and depth. Brown’s performance was not an easy one for someone so young and took guts to pull off, but her willingness to go to the extremes required of her paid off. Bring on more Millie Bobby Brown.

3. Riley Keough

Her previous work in Magic Mike and Mad Max: Fury Road (she was the redheaded wife who became close to Nux) showcased her potential to be a leading lady. So, it is a shame that not too many people watched Starz’ miniseries The Girlfriend Experience, chronicling the life of law school student turned high price escort starring Riley Keough. Keough almost plays two different characters as Christine, the law student, and Chelsea, the escort and holy cow is she great. Keough is the type of actor who can tell a story and emotions just through micro-facial expressions or even just how she wears her hair. Her undeniable magnetism makes the show worth watching and revisiting. Be on the lookout for Keough in American Honey and any of the six titles she has slated for 2017. Also, watch The Girlfriend Experience now streaming on Starz’ site and root for Keough to win at the Golden Globes.

4. Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali is owning 2016. Viewers have really gotten to know him as Remy Danton on Netflix’s House of Cards for four seasons, but this year met him as many vastly different characters. In addition to Danton, we met Ali as the ferocious New York gangster Cottonmouth in a different Netflix show, Luke Cage. He introduced us to Jim Johnson who steals the heart of a NASA math whiz in Hidden Figures. And, viewers bonded with his father figure as Juan in Moonlight. He actually filmed Moonlight, House of Cards season four, and Luke Cage season one all at the same time. But, despite that, each of the characters never bleed over into one another. They are all vastly different in physical presence, to method of speaking, to even their way of walking. All of Ali’s hard work is clearly paying off as he is dominating the awards circuit this year for his supporting work in Moonlight and earns him a spot on our breakout television stars.

5. Desmin Borges

What season one of FXX’s You’re the Worst did for Aya Cash, season three did for Desmin Borges. The show had mostly treated Borges’ Edgar’s as a source for comedy, but with tension bubbling beneath the surface just waiting to be tapped into. Finally in the episode “Twenty-Two,” viewers got a deeply personal look into how the constant abuse from Gretchen and Jimmy really affected him. “Twenty-Two” gave Borges the opportunity to find that perfect balance of vulnerability, anxiety, and optimism within Edgar. This episode, as well as the whole season, elevated Edgar from comic relief character to one of the main stars of the show.

6. Riz Ahmed

Ahmed is also having a huge year. After turning our heads with a small role in last year’s Nightcrawler, we gave him our undivided attention in HBO’s The Night Of. Ahmed played leading man Nasir “Naz” Khan who spends a wild night with an enigmatic woman only to discover her stabbed to death the next morning and be accused of her murder. We never really learn what happened that night and if Naz is innocent, but that does not stop us from forming our opinions on him. Viewers watch as Naz goes from a shy young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time to a hard as nails prison inmate who absorbs everything he sees for his benefit. Regardless of the irritating finale, Ahmed’s performance was a series high point and set him up to be a huge star. Plus, a role in Rogue One can’t hurt either.

7. Bella Ramsey

When I first heard about Lyanna Mormont in the Game of Thrones universe back in season five, I never expected the person who staunchly defended the Stark clan to Stannis Baratheon to be a young girl. But, sure enough, when the pint sized Lady of Bear Island graced our television screens I was floored by her. As Lyanna Mormont, Bella Ramsey is fierce, formidable, and proud. Similar to Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, Ramsey does not let her size get in her way. She knows that she is a powerful person, but humbly recognizes that the only reason she is powerful is because all of her kinsmen died at the Red Wedding. Ramsey’s competency, humor, and loyalty offered a great contrast to all of the other young characters we have met.

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