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The 21 Biggest Indie Breakout Actors of 2014

The 21 Biggest Indie Breakout Actors of 2014

Ellar Coltrane, “Boyhood”

“Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane is one of the best-known faces of 2014 for anyone who goes to the movies. As the boy at the center of Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making opus, Coltrane grew up onscreen from his childhood years up until early adulthood. Watching him evolve over the course of 12 years, both in his appearance and as an actor, makes for a viewing event unlike any other. For Coltrane, the experience of watching the completed film was intense and “very therapeutic,” according to an interview he did with Indiewire. “Even doing interviews, it’s good to talk through your emotions,” he said. “To watch it and have that intense catharsis, and then go in and revisit it from a more stable perspective is beautiful. It’s a thing that very few people get to do. It’s a cool thing that Rick has given me.” [FULL PROFILE

Tessa Thompson, “Dear White People

The Gotham Awards gave Tessa Thompson a deserved win for Best Breakthrough Performance, and let’s hope some more groups follow suit. Her performance as biracial media arts major in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” (currently making some decent dough at the box office) is arguably the best in a film filled with breakout actors (Teyonah Parris also deserves some consideration in that regard). Thompson fleshes out her character well beyond what it could have been, offering a sharp and complicated characterization that stays with you long after you leave the theater.

Jack O’Connell, “’71,” “Starred Up” and “Unbroken”

At 23, Jack O’Connell has been a mainstay in British cinema for close to a decade, having made his screen debut in Shane Meadows’ “This Is England” and starring in the gritty teen drama “Skins.” But the actor’s star got a whole lot brighter this year. Tribeca Film released “Starred Up,” in which O’Connell plays an angry prisoner clashing with authorities. While “Starred Up” premiered to great acclaim at Telluride and found more support at the Tribeca Film Festival, O’Connell has already surfaced again as the lead in the Berlin Festival selection “’71,” a brutal war drama featuring the actor in nearly every scene. He also recently surfaced with a supporting role in “300: Rise of an Empire,” and will also be seen as main character in Angelina Jolie’s latest directing effort, “Unbroken,” a biopic about Olympic champion Louis Zamperini’s experience in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. In short: O’Connell is about to be everywhere. And for a young man who acted out as a teenager — to the point where he had a track record that delayed his American work visa — this moment has been a long time coming. [FULL PROFILE]

Jenny Slate, “Obvious Child”

If you aren’t already familiar with Jenny Slate from her stint on “Saturday Night Live,” you probably know her as the voice behind the title character in “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” the stop-motion short she made with her husband Dean Fleischer-Camp that became a viral smash and screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Then there are her zany, impossible-to-forget appearances on “Parks and Recreation,” as “total klepto, nympho and pyro” Mona-Lisa Saperstein, or as Jason Schwartzman’s food co-op love interest Stella in “Bored to Death,” or as the title character in JASH web series “Catherine.” But, Slate’s breakout role was in this year’s”Obvious Child.” The movie’s awash in the uncertainties that dominate her character, Donna’s, life and seep over into her comedy. Through it all, Slate’s rascally screen presence maintains a friendly quality: Never as acerbic as an episode of “Girls” or condescending to its setting, “Obvious Child” makes its premise go down easy. [FULL PROFILE]

Josh Wiggins, “Hellion”

Many teen actors would kill for the opportunity to act opposite Emmy winner Aaron Paul. 14-year-old Houston native Josh Wiggins got to do it on his very first feature film. In Kat Candler’s “Hellion,” which debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Wiggins goes head-to-head with the “Breaking Bad” star playing the rebellious son to Paul’s heavy-drinking father. It’s a performance that tears up the screen, much like Paul’s fiery turn in the show that made him a star. The actor, who got discovered via YouTube for the role was highly praised by critics. Next up for Wiggins is a starring role opposite Josh Duhamel in “Lost in the Sun” and the Warner Bros. family drama “Max.” [FULL PROFILE]

Bill Hader, “The Skeleton Twins”

No actor surprised more at Sundance this year than former “Saturday Night Live” mainstay Bill Hader. In Craig Johnson’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award-winning sophomore feature “The Skeleton Twins,” acquired by Roadside and Lionsgate at the festival, Hader reunites with his “Adventureland” co-star and “SNL” alum Kristen Wiig, to play one of two deeply depressed siblings, in desperate need of a change in direction and a firm slap to the face. Wiig’s showed off her formidable dramatic chops before in films like “Imogene” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” so it’s Hader’s performance that’s the true revelation. Morose and flawed yet totally lovable, Hader’s deeply humane take on a gay man at his wit’s end will make casting directors see the actor in a new light.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle” and “Beyond the Lights

It’s fair to say that no actor quite broke out in 2014 as big as British stage and film actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. First came Fox Searchlight’s sleeper summer hit “Belle,” in which she went period to play the mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th century England. Then this fall she showed her versatility by going very modern to play a troubled pop star in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s critically acclaimed love story “Beyond the Lights.” The 31 year-old has range to spare, which bodes very well for her future.

Earl Lynn Nelson, “Land Ho!”

Who said all breakthroughs had to be under 30? Newbie actor (he’s an oculoplastic surgeon by trade) Earl Lynn Nelson bucks the trend. Spewing sexist remarks with salacious glee, Nelson is a complete riot in Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz crowd-pleaser, “Land Ho!” His hilariously endearing performance as Mitch, a wealthy elderly man who embarks on a holiday to Iceland with his ex-brother in law (“This is Martin Bonner’ star Paul Eenhoorn), plays a huge part in the film’s success — his effortless delivery is responsible for almost every laugh in the film (and there are plenty). [FULL PROFILE]

Katherine Waterston, “Inherent Vice”

Katherine Waterston’s been a working actress for close to a decade, but chances are you’ve never heard of her, despite appearances in “Michael Clayton,” “Robot & Frank,” this fall’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” and a stint on HBO’s now defunct drama “Boardwalk Empire.” Her anonymity is soon to be a thing of the past however, thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson. The auteur is back in theaters now with “Inherent Vice,” his hugely anticipated follow-up to “The Master” — and Waterston features prominently in the loopy comedy, opposite Joaquin Phoenix who plays her ex-boyfriend. In a film full of nutty turns from the likes of Phoenix, James Brolin and Martin Short, it’s Waterston who grounds the proceedings with a raw, memorable performance that drew raves upon the film’s unveiling at the New York Film Festival last month. [FULL PROFILE]

Heloise Godet, “Goodbye to Language”

When Jean-Luc Godard’s peculiar 3-D movie “Goodbye to Language” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the absent director’s cryptic persona hogged the spotlight as usual. But the movie has found another spokesperson in the form of newcomer Héloise Godet, one of two main actors who appear in the film. “Goodbye to Language” finds Godet acting alongside Kamel Abdeli as a married couple whose relationship starts to crumble in conjunction with the world around them. Godet spent a year waiting for Godard to shoot the movie and over the past year has promoted it without him. The upshot: a whole lot of publicity for the emerging actress. The actress has done mainly French films, but is clear about her future. She said, “I don’t wish to just do blockbusters. What’s the point? OK, I was just in a Godard movie, and now I’m going to do ‘Twilight 5’? No. I don’t want to think in terms of production budget. I want to think in terms of acting and whether, as an audience member, if I’d like to see this.” [FULL PROFILE]

Alba Rohrwacher, “Hungry Hearts”

“I Am Love,” “Come Undone” and “Bliss” — Alba Rohrwacher is no stranger to romantic dramas. The Italian actress has completely graduated from bite-sized roles and stars alongside Adam Driver in “Hungry Hearts,” which won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival (the films opens early next year). We’ll see her in Albanian drama “Virgin,” Italian drama “Alaska,” and “The Tale of Tales” (with Salma Hayek and “Nymphomaniac’s” Stacy Martin) sometime next year. 

Muna Otaru, ” The Keeping Room”

Chilling dramas are her thing. Muna Otaru has worked as a crew member on “Syriana” and “The Wire,” and had small roles onscreen in “Taken By Force,” “Lions For Lambs,” and “Rendition.” In “The Keeping Room,” she stars as one of three southern women who must fight to defend their home from rogue soldiers during the Civil War. The other women? Hailee Steinfeld and Brit Marling. It’s a perfect breakout role. The film was recently acquired by Drafthouse Films and opens sometime next year.

Charlie Tahan, “Love is Strange”

This year, 17-year-old Charlie Tahan played Joey in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” as a teenager forced to share his bedroom with his great uncle played by John Lithgow. In the drama, Tahan gives a subtle, but powerful performance, one that is up to par with the likes of Molina, Lithgow and Tomei who also star in the film. Tahan began his career by winning a role alongside Will Smith in “I Am Legend” and has impressed in other films including Oscar-nominated “Frankenweenie,” the Natalie Portman-starring “The Other Woman” and in his guest stint on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” [FULL PROFILE]

Scott Haze, “Child of God”

Actor Scott Haze is nothing if not committed: To prepare for Franco’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation “Child of God,” Haze moved into a cabin in the middle of the woods in Tennessee. The intense preparation paid off. In Franco’s hard-to-watch character study, Haze is mesmerizing as Lester Ballard, a man who decides to live a life outside of the social order after his father passes away and his family land is auctioned off. The project marks one out of four films the actor’s embarked upon with Franco, the others being “As I Lay Dying” and the yet to be released films “Bukowski” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Haze, an alumnus of the Stella Adler Conservatory and founder of The Sherry Theater in the North Hollywood Arts District in California, is currently filming the documentary “Ghost & Goblins,” about champion wrestler Lee Kemp. [FULL PROFILE]

Evan Bird, “Maps to the Stars”

Canadian actor Evan Bird plays a teen actor from hell in David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars,” which premiered in competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Abrasive, conceited and incredibly foul mouthed (he calls his assistant something so vulgar we can’t publish it here), Bird’s character, Benjie Weiss, no doubt reads a total demon in Bruce Wagner’s acidic script. Birds’s performance is such a revelation not because he nails the insults Benjie frequently hurls with total confidence (which he does), but because he makes the little twit oddly endearing. It’s a star-making performance for the Vancouver-based actor, who is only 15 years old. [FULL PROFILE]

Dorothy Atkinson, “Mr. Turner”

As anyone familiar with Mike Leigh would probably tell you, the man doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The filmmaker famously demands a lot of his actors, requiring that they improvise in his projects, and rehearse extensively before stepping foot on set. The results of his method speak for themselves: Brenda Blethyn (“Secrets & Lies”), Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) and Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”) are among the celebrated actresses who have worked with Leigh, and come away with an Oscar nomination. Though it’s extremely early to gauge, Dorothy Atkinson makes a solid bid to join them with her scene-stealing supporting turn in Leigh’s latest, “Mr. Turner,” which world premiered at Cannes to rave reviews. In the deeply affecting period biopic, Atkinson plays the shy but extremely devoted house maid of 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), who suffers from a deteriorating skin condition. In a film ripe with improvised dialogue, Atkinson stands out for not saying much at all while still commanding your attention and breaking your heart. Atkinson has collaborated before with Mike Leigh on “Topsy-Turvy” and “All or Nothing.” Her role in “Mr. Turner” marks her biggest one to date with the filmmaker. [FULL PROFILE]

Maika Monroe, “It Follows” and “The Guest”

You might remember her as Zac Efron’s quasi-girlfriend in 2012’s underrated “At Any Price.” Thankfully, she’s been steadily working her way forward, whether as the “girl on the beach” in “The Bling Ring” or Mandy in Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day.” Last seen at Sundance in the indie horror “The Guest,” Monroe takes the lead in “It Follows,” in which a seemingly innocuous sexual encounter leaves her with the haunting sense that she’s being followed. It’s the perfect big role to really put her on the map. The film premiered to rave reviews at Cannes and opens next year.

Jake Lacy, “Obvious Child” and “Intramural”

Those who watched NBC’s “The Office” are already familiar with fresh-faced actor Jake Lacy, who starred as customer service rep Pete Miller. With that show now off the air, Lacy is now busy proving himself as a big screen player, and he’s off to a great start. In the Sundance hit comedy “Obvious Child,” Lacy plays the straight man to Jenny Slate’s adorable mess. The Tribeca Film Festival sports comedy “Intramural” finds Lacy in similar mode, embodying the only sane member of an intramural football team, engaged to a domineering basket case (current “SNL” player Kate McKinnon). In both projects, Lacy displays a quality that all the best leading men possess: a seemingly effortless charisma. He’s impossible not to love. Next year, he’ll put that quality to use as Rooney Mara’s fiancé in Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” which also stars Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson. [FULL PROFILE]

Mozhan Marnò, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

If you subscribe to Netflix, as millions around the world do, you’re probably familiar with actress Mozahn Marnò by face and not by name. As one of the new additions to the second, wildly popular season of “House of Cards,” Marnò made a big impression as Ayla Sayyad, a badass reporter who proves resistant to the threats of powerful political players. Art house audiences may also know her from her scene-stealing role as a prostitute in Ana Lily Amirpour’s ecstatically received Iranian vampire film, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Marnò, a Yale MFA acting graduate, has been working on stage and screen for the better part of the last decade, most memorably appearing in the Perisian language drama “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” which made its debut at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. She’s also a playwright, and speaks French, German, Farsi, and Spanish. [FULL PROFILE]

Peter Vack, “I Believe in Univorns,” “Fort Tilden”

Before Peter Vack went to the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, he was best known for the now-defunct MTV comedy-drama “I Just Want My Pants Back” and for getting his start on CBS’s soap opera “As the World Turns.” By the time he left, he’d seen the premiere of his first short film “Send,” which he wrote and directed (it stars indie ‘it girl’ Julia Garner); starred in the coming-of-age drama “I Believe in Unicorns;” and appeared in the Grand Jury Prize winner “Fort Tilden.” He also stars in Amazon Prime’s new show, “Mozart in the Jungle,” which is available to stream. [FULL PROFILE]

Desiree Akhava, “Appropriate Behavior”

Desiree Akhavan, co-creator of the brilliant short web series “The Slope,” is about to make it big. She, along with Ingrid Jungermann, has appeared in every episode of the short, which takes a look at spacey, homophobic lesbians who reside in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. She has a great sense for situational comedy, clever banter and is a hilariously awkward physical presence. All of which is magnified in her feature film debut “Appropriate Behavior,” which was warmly received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is a more elaborate exploration of her unique voice. It’s a singular effort about a bisexual Iranian coping with a recent breakup in New York and all the woes that accompany being alone. She is also about to appear in season four of “Girls.” [FULL PROFILE]

READ MORE: The 2014 Black List Announces 70 Screenplays for 10th Annual Edition

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