Shoukath Ansari – "Master of None"
Some actors were born for their role. Shoukath Ansari had to have a kid before he could find his. Aziz Ansari’s father was such a delightful presence on "Master of None," he’s been making the circuit with his son to help promote the show. Let me rephrase that slightly: The "Parks and Recreation" actor who’s sold out Madison Square Garden doing stand-up and wrote a national bestseller brought his dad along to help promote his new Netflix series. That’s how good Shoukath Ansari is at playing Dev’s dad on the show. In just a few scenes, he became as beloved as his superstar son. Congratulations to them both.
Shiri Appleby – "UnREAL"
Everyone knew Shiri Appleby before 2015. You just didn’t know you knew her. The dexterous character actress had popped up in a variety of television series and films, including a key guest stint on "Girls" and a starring role in the early aughts favorite "Roswell." She’s been in "Code Black" and "Chicago Fire." She’s stolen scenes in "Charlie Wilson’s War" and "E.R." So what makes her landmark performance in "UnREAL" so special isn’t just that she was finally given the lead role she so richly deserved, via a character deeper and more complex than any past opportunity. It’s that she made it count so memorably on a show designed to draw attention to the system that had let her down until this year. "UnREAL" is the smartest, most vital piece of television Lifetime has ever made, and it needed an actress at its core who could carry that weight. Appleby did and then some, providing delicate shadings to reality producer Rachel Goldberg that were vital to our understanding of her. After all, if you’re going to critique a show by recreating it, you need someone who can wink at the camera without winking at the camera. Be it her experience or natural talent, Appleby was ready for the rigors of her role.
Emily Beechum – "Into the Badlands"
AMC’s martial arts drama is a hard one to quantify because there are so many elements in flux. That said, there’s no denying that much of its draw comes from its gloriously violent action sequences and, in particular, the combat surrounding The Widow (Emily Beecham), who brings power and strength and brutality and beauty to this show with every moment she’s on screen. There are a lot of intriguing players on "Into the Badlands," but if it suddenly became the all-Widow-all-the-time series, we wouldn’t complain.
Rachel Bloom – "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"
You can just sense the talent oozing (in a non-gross way) off Rachel Bloom, every moment she’s on screen. Between her musical abilities and comedic chops, the one-time viral video star is more than worthy of being handed her own network dramedy, and the ambition, fueled by that aforementioned talent, is delightful to see in play.
Tituss Burgess – "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"
Given that the role of Titus Andromedon was pretty much written for Tituss Burgess by creators Robert Carlock and Tina Fey, it’s hardly a shock that he’s so perfect for it. But what could have been a stock "gay best friend" role became rich with humor and nuance over the course of the show’s first season, as Burgess’ performance got real about the fact that being a gay man in America right now isn’t easy, and that being a black man in America is also not fun. Plus, "Peeno Noir." "Peeno Noir," now and forever, always.
Jamie Clayton – "Sense8"
Quite honestly, nearly every member of this show’s young cast might have qualified for a place on this list — when the Wachowskis brought together an ensemble representing a hugely diverse range of cultures and points-of-view. But Jamie Clayton was one of the show’s key anchors, vulnerable and gentle and also fierce in her determination to maintain control over her identity and her life. Here’s the thing with trans actors getting more opportunity these days: We get more amazing performances like this.
Jay Duplass – "Transparent"
In 2014, it’d be kind of hard to think of anyone with the Duplass name breaking out. After all, the beloved brothers of the indie film scene have become popular enough to introduce new stars via their various film and TV productions — just look further down this list for Example A. But Jay Duplass came into his own as an actor in 2015, finding new levels of depth in Josh Pfefferman, the only cisgender male in his family. In Season 2 of "Transparent," Josh was forced to deal with a number of new external factors shaping his emotional state — from a long-lost son to perhaps his first passionate, adult relationship — but his general demeanor all related back to an internal struggle he’s been struggling with since Season 1. Duplass dug deep, and the results were well worth it. I guess we just have to add one more expertise to the mounting pile.
Rami Malek – "Mr. Robot
Indie film fans were already aware that Mr. Malek was an acting powerhouse, but it really can’t be said enough: He took one of the most complex and demanding roles ever written for television and made it real, and lived in, and beautiful, and brutal. As Elliot, the hacker at the center of "Mr. Robot’s" chaos, Rami Malek was the show’s anchor as well as its most random variable, in the best possible way. In a show stacked with great actors finding great moments in their scenes, including Christian Slater and Carly Chaikin, Malek was the textbook definition of a star.
Ben Mendelsohn – "Bloodline"
No matter what you first saw Ben Mendelsohn in, you knew he was something special. HIs most popular film is likely "The Dark Knight Rises," but he was also stealing scenes in "Killing Them Softly" and "The Place Behind the Pines" before he broke it big in 2015. Along with films "Mississippi Grind" and "Slow West," the Netflix drama "Bloodline" served to boost the Australian actor’s profile way up. Going toe to toe with the likes of Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard — often literally, as the actors’ characters did not exactly get along — is no easy feat. Surpassing them might have seemed out of the question heading into Season 1, but then he went and did it. Mendelssohn is a magnetic actor, finding empathy and attraction in a character even when he’s at his most reviled. The way in which he’s able to balance motivations is uncanny, and it helped the audience feel exactly the same way about the black sheep son, Danny Rayburn, as his family did: constantly worried he’d do something awful, but never really wanting him gone.
Randall Park & Constance Wu – "Fresh Off the Boat"
One of the many joys associated with seeing a veteran character actor become a popular lead is going back to their past work — the movies or shows you may have missed them in — and appreciate their body of work all over again. With Randall Park, there is a bevy of material just waiting to be rediscovered. From "Veep" (where he played Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ political opponent Danny Chung) to "The Interview" (where you can see him as the hilarious and hot-tempered President Kim…Jong-Un), Park has been delighting us for years and now has an ideal pedestal for us to admire him weekly — that is, if Constance Wu doesn’t steal the spotlight. Wu, too, has a bevy of past performances to look back on, but she’s doing her best work yet on "Fresh Off the Boat," creating an instantly iconic sitcom mom, family patriarch and business woman. Separate, these two were cruising along just fine. But together, they’re unstoppable.
Sam Richardson – "Veep"
Sam Richardson may have technically broken out on "Veep" in 2014. After all, that was when he first appeared on the Emmy-winning HBO comedy, serving as the world’s worst campaign staffer to future President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Sure, he had his moments in Season 3, but it was Season 4 when Richarson became a series regular and when Richard Splett became a fan favorite. Richardson has been perfectly in step with the uniquely rapid rhythms of Armando Ianucci’s biting political drama since Day 1, and somehow he’s become his own man all while serving as Jonah’s shit-shoveling assistant. And he shovels that shit into gold, as Richardson provides just the right amount of ignorance behind Richard’s eternal optimism. To be that convincingly naive, the actor has to be incredibly smart. And Richardson deserves every accolade thrown his way.
Mel Rodriguez – "Better Call Saul" & "The Last Man on Earth"
Mel Rodriguez’s first screen credit, as listed on IMDB, is a 1999 episode of "Law and Order." But in 2015, he did exactly what this list is meant to recognize: He made us pay attention to him as a real player. While playing three major roles in "Getting On," "Better Call Saul" and "The Last Man on Earth," Rodriguez was, in every instance, a heartfelt and endearing presence. As Marco on "Better Call Saul," Rodriguez gave Slippin’ Jimmy a reminder of his humanity. As Todd on "The Last Man on Earth," he made it clear that a good man can survive during the end of days. This was a great year for Rodriguez, made all the sweeter for how long it took to happen.
Steve Zissis – "Togetherness"
Mark and Jay Duplass have said one of the reasons they were so excited to make this wonderful HBO comedy is that it provided a platform for their friend and past collaborator, Steve Zissis. As Alex Pappas, a struggling actor looking for his big break years after it was supposed to happen, Zissis could’ve fallen prey to a number of ugly stereotypes associated with actors playing actors; one of which is specific to his situation — the actor playing himself. Instead, Alex became a highlight of a show filled with peak performers. His natural charm feels perfectly honed, making this would-be sad sack a lovable anti-loser — Zissis may be a veiled version of Pappas, but his incredible range and screen presence prove he’s capable of playing so many more roles. We can’t wait to see them.
Indiewire’s Year-End TV Coverage:
The Top 10 TV Shows of 2015
The 10 Best New TV Shows of 2015
The 25 Best TV Episodes of 2015
The 15 Best TV Scenes of 2015, From ‘Ash vs. Evil Dead’ to ‘You’re the Worst’
The 15 Biggest Dick Moves of the Year, or What Enraged TV Fans in 2015
The Most Shocking TV Moments of 2015, Ranked
The Most Disappointing TV Series of 2015