A scene-stealer from ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ A teen actress who brought aching realism to a movie about adolescence. A boundary-breaking country star. And a comedian who used everything from laughter to rage to make a searing statement on women and society.
Awkwafina, Elsie Fisher, Kane Brown and Hannah Gadsby are among the eight performers whose distinguished work earned them a spot on the Breakthrough Entertainers list. Other honourees for 2018 are Henry Golding, Ella Mai, Natasha Rothwell and John David Washington.
Hannah Gadsby says she knows it’s meant as a compliment to be chosen as one of the year’s Breakthrough Entertainers. But, as with many things, the Australian stand-up comic and actress sees the honour from a variety of perspectives.
“Like, what happens after ‘breakthrough’?” Gadsby asked. “Like, I could be a one-hit wonder or I go on to being a deserved star?” She notes: “I think I was doing really well before all this craziness around ‘Nanette.’”
‘Nanette’ is the 40-year-old Gadsby’s latest stage show, which debuted in 2017, and enjoyed critical and commercial successes during its runs throughout Australia, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in New York and Montreal.
But it wasn’t until late June that the “craziness” began. That’s when Netflix released a filmed version of the show, and Gadsby went from known Down Under to global phenomenon.
Many critics were blown away by the way Gadsby seamlessly segued from hilarity to humanity — quickly getting deep and dark about some harrowing experiences as a lesbian and as a woman.
And while ‘Nanette’ was written before the start of the #MeToo movement, Gadsby apparently felt it coming. In ‘Nanette,’ she takes direct aim at straight white males and sexual abuse.
What Gadsby didn’t expect was that so many would get her. In fact, Gadsby said she expected just the opposite: that her candour in ‘Nanette’ would divide, not conquer, audiences.
“What the magical thing was, what I realised, was, ‘Oh, a lot of people are thinking this.’ And what I thought was making me a marginalised figure — you know, sort of a niche human — actually, by being completely truthful about it, has given me the unexpected realisation that I’m not at all.”
So, what is next?
“Oh, the phone has been ringing,” she said, with a grin. “But I’m slow. I’m a slow person. So, I need to make my decisions slowly. They say that ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ But I’m more like the tortoise, but with the hare’s game plan. So, I’m moving as slowly as a tortoise, but napping like the hare.”
Even though Henry Golding garnered instant fame from starring in the smash hit ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ the British-Malaysian actor isn’t sure if he’ll ever eclipse his meteoric success in the box-office hit.
“I don’t know how I’m going to top this year. It’s all downhill from here,” he said recently, with a twinge of sarcasm.
Even Golding knows that viewers are clamouring for more of the 31-year-old actor, who starred in his first-ever movie role as the suave, Oxford-educated heir Nick Young in ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ the romantic comedy that spent three weeks at the top of the North American box office and grossed more than $173 million (Dh635.3 million) in North America alone.
It was the first Hollywood film to have a predominantly Asian-American cast since ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ which debuted 25 years ago.
For Golding, his rise has certainly been pretty wild ever since director Jon M Chu chose him to star in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ without any movie appearances. Golding had primarily worked as a television host for shows on BBC, Discovery Channel Asia and ESPN Asia networks.
Now, Golding is on the fast track as others are seeing the potential in him. After ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ he took on a much darker role in Paul Feig’s thriller ‘A Simple Favor’ starring Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick.
Next, Golding will be playing a gay British-Vietnamese man who travels to his birth country in Vietnam to scatter the ashes of his parents in the film ‘Monsoon,’ expected to be released in 2019. He’ll also star in Guy Ritchie’s ‘Toff Guys’ with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Beckinsale.
“If you’re looking for longevity, you have to be a hard worker,” he said. “You have to put in the due diligence. You’ve got to be that people person. Essentially you become a commodity. You need to be that showman... It’s a long road, but I’m getting to that point.”
John David Washington
John David Washington comes from a strong acting lineage, but he has carved out his own identity as a powerful actor, earning a Golden Globe nomination and generating Oscar buzz for his standout role in Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman.’
In his first starring role, Washington played a black police officer in Colorado who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s. The actor received praise for his portrayal of the gigantic Afro-wearing undercover officer, who notably used a “white voice” during his racist exchanges in scenes with a KKK grand wizard over the phone.
Washington credits Lee for choosing him for his acting abilities, and not because he’s the son of Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington and Pauletta Washington, his actress-mom.
“It’s just a compliment that [Spike Lee] believed in my ability,” said the actor, who is the eldest of the couple’s four children. “I didn’t feel pressured. I felt encouraged. [Lee] exemplified the true meaning of trusting your teammate... It was so liberating as an artist. It gave me the confidence I didn’t realise I needed.”
Along with ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ Washington made a few other big screen appearances in 2018, starring in ‘Monsters and Men,’ a film where he played a conflicted police officer who witnesses racism among his colleagues. He also appeared in the drama ‘Monster’ and ‘The Old Man & the Gun,’ featuring Robert Redford, Casey Affleck and Danny Glover.
Washington’s success on the big screen comes while he continues to star as Ricky Jerret on HBO’s TV series ‘Ballers.’ The 34-year-old actor said he is living out his “childhood dream,” but says the hard work must continue.
“[It’s] like go back to the gym and work on different aspects of your game. It’s like I’m on the right career path. This is what I should be doing for the long run,” he said. “I can’t wait to keep growing as an artist.”
He’s also proud to keep up the strong reputation of the Washington family name in Hollywood while striking out on his own.
“As their first born, my biggest fear was to disappoint them. I make mistakes, but I never wanted to disappoint them. I wanted to be a good son,” he said. “I have great parents, and great grandparents. It makes me emotional thinking about it. They were so proud of me. They’re happy for me because I’m trying to be my own man.”
Awkwafina became a household name this summer, stealing scenes from the likes of Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock in the heist movie ‘Ocean’s 8’ and then as a standout in the cultural phenomenon that was ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’
But even considering her blockbuster summer, the 29-year-old New York native, born Nora Lum, whose dad wanted her to be an air traffic controller, still feels pretty normal.
“Maybe when I open my phone there’s a couple more followers and a couple hateful comments, but my regular life is still the same. I’m Target pants and things like that,” Awkwafina said. “I love Target pants.”
She never even really planned to go into acting, but a viral YouTube video caught the attention of Seth Rogen and Nick Stoller, who cast her in a small part in ‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,’ then she got an independent film, ‘Dude,’ from Olivia Milch, who would go on to co-write ‘Ocean’s 8,’ and the pieces started falling into place.
“If this ended tomorrow, I wouldn’t be mad. I’m so grateful. And all of this I never expected,” she said. “I just go along with the ride.”
Still, it’s no doubt that Awkwafina is on the rise, with a Comedy Central show based on her life in the works, two films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this January and, of course, the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ sequel. She’s gunning for her character, Peik Lin, to get a boyfriend and her own place.
“Peik Lin needs to move out of the house, man,” Awkwafina said. “She lives with the whole family. She’s got to move out.”
The overwhelmingly positive response to ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was perhaps the most significant moment of this breakthrough year for Awkwafina.
“As an Asian-American kid, growing up I was looking for that movie,” Awkwafina said. “It was very emotional. We were having fun, but there was this lingering collective idea that we were there doing something big. I don’t think we knew how big at the time”
She remembers seeing comedian Margaret Cho on television when she was seven-years-old and having an “ah-ha” moment.
“She was an Asian woman who was so bold, so unashamed and she was funny,” she said. “Seeing her made it possible. And my end goal in all of this is to inspire this next generation because we need more of it.”
Singer Ella Mai appreciates how much ‘Boo’d Up’ has changed her life and jumpstarted her music career, but she wants to make one thing clear: “I know how to make songs. I’m not the ‘Boo’d Up’ girl.”
“Being someone who’s had an insane year off of one song, it can be a gift and a curse,” said 24-year-old Mai. “I felt like almost everyone was kind of like, ‘She’s a one-hit wonder.’ Everyone was waiting for me to fail, honestly. Like, ‘Ah, the next song she releases isn’t going to be as good.’”
But Mai, who was born in London and lived in New York from ages 12 to 17, proved the haters wrong. She followed her debut hit with ‘Trip,’ a platinum success currently spending its 10th week on top of Billboard’s Hot R’n’B songs chart. Overall, she’s topped the R’n’B charts for 23 weeks this year — and counting.
Her self-titled debut album, released in October, has already reached gold status and debuted at No 5 on the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart.
“Releasing the album was me saying, ‘I’m an album artist,’” she said.
Mai’s breakthrough year included an opening slot on tour for Bruno Mars, collaborations with Chris Brown, HER and Meek Mill, winning two Soul Train Awards and earning nominations at the MTV Video Music Awards and the American Music Awards — all while watching ‘Boo’d Up’ bring R’n’B back to the pop charts. The triple-platinum song spent 13 weeks on top of R’n’B charts and peaked at No 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“Being such a huge R’n’B fan and growing up listening to R’n’B, I never imagined that I could be on the forefront or one of the new faces of a genre that I love so much,” she said. “I think back to me being a little girl and looking up to Lauryn Hill and looking up to Alicia Keys — not saying I’m Lauryn Hill or Alicia Keys — but there’s a new generation that will look up to us.”
“Me, Kehlani, HER, Jhene Aiko, SZA — there’s a lot of us strong females trying to bring it back,” she added.
As each day goes by, Mai continues to notch one more thing off her list of goals. Winning a Grammy could be next: She’s nominated for one of the show’s biggest awards — song of the year — as well as best R’n’B song for ‘Boo’d Up.’
“I would love to win a Grammy. Not that it’s the be-all, or end-all, but I think the recognition, that’s the highest form of recognition we can get as artists,” she said.
Natasha Rothwell claims she is shy in real life, but her scene-stealing supporting roles in HBO’s hit show ‘Insecure’ and the film ‘Love, Simon’ have proven otherwise.
Rothwell’s outspoken TV character, Kelli, shines with witty one-liners and brash behaviour, sometimes even more than ‘Insecure’ series’ star Issa Rae.
One of her most epic moments came during an episode when Kelli urinates on herself after police used a stun gun on her after getting kicked out of Coachella because of a fight.
In ‘Love, Simon,’ Rothwell’s screen time was limited in the romantic teen comedy, but she made her presence felt as a passionate teacher with strong opinions.
Rothwell says both roles helped her become more confident in her skin as a woman.
“I get to put on someone who is truly unapologetic in every aspect of life,” said Rothwell, a former drama teacher in New York who used to write for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ She is also a co-producer on ‘Insecure.’
“As a black woman, I feel like much of my young adult life I was trying to apologise for being black or being a woman,” she added. “Kelli is someone who has never known that. Now, as a woman, I’m proud on both sides.”
Rothwell, 38, will have the opportunity to grow even more. She will join the cast of the Gal Gadot-led ‘Wonder Woman 1984,’ which will arrive in theatres in summer 2020.
Rothwell also will appear alongside Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne in the comedy ‘Limited Partners,’ set for next year. She’s also writing the upcoming film ‘Bridal Recall,’ which focuses on a woman who wakes up with amnesia on her wedding day.
In the future, Rothwell wants to play a lead in a romantic comedy and do animation voiceover work.
“I’m not afraid to be a superhero,” she said before bursting into laughter. “What continues to be true about the projects that I’m drawn to is: Am I working with people who inspire me, does the material challenge me, excite me and say something?”
Elsie Fisher was about to give up on acting right before Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age project ‘Eighth Grade’ came on her radar, and it’s a good thing she decided to take one last chance.
Her deft portrayal of a lonely teenage YouTuber in her last week of middle school has earned her Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Awards nominations, and now, being named one of The
It’s also earned her the attention of entertainment heavyweights like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alfonso Cuaron, who said her signature line (“Gucci!”) to her at the Governor’s Awards last month.
“He gave me a ‘Gucci’ and I was ready to cry,” Fisher said. “It was really cool. It was really intense, but good intense.”
A future in acting wasn’t also so bright, however. The now 15-year-old actress had had some success early on, voicing the role of Agnes in the ‘Despicable Me’ movies starting at the age of 4, but by age 13, the roles were drying up and auditions were getting a little meaner. Fisher said people even made rude comments about her acne.
“I wasn’t enjoying it,” Fisher said. “I just wasn’t working a lot either. It was taking me out of school. It was a lot of give and not a lot of get. But ‘Eighth Grade’ changed everything.”
Not only has the film led to multiple awards nominations, up against the likes of Glenn Close and Toni Collette (“I’m like please just let Toni win, she deserves it!” Fisher said) but she’s also now getting more work.
She’s voicing a role in MGM’s animated ‘The Addams Family’ and starring in a musical from ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ director Ken Kwapis called ‘The Shaggs,’ about three sisters who form a rock band in the late 1960s.
“It’s been great,” she said. “I love working. I hate auditioning. It’s been great to have work.”
And she’s made some friends in her peer group along the way in Thomasin McKenzie (‘Leave No Trace’) and Millicent Simmonds (‘A Quiet Place’). She met both on the awards circuit.
“They’re both like incredible actresses my age, so it has been really cool to connect with them and I think they both represent our age group really well,” she said.
And she’s had her ‘Eighth Grade’ director Burnham to help navigate the crazy world she’s found herself in, too.
“But I’ve been kind of winging it,” she added. “Going with the flow.”
Kane Brown wasn’t sure he was going to make it. But there was one thing he was certain about: He was never going to give up.
The singer from humble beginnings has become one of the brightest new singers in music and arguably country music’s most successful act of the year.
“I never had the ‘I-know-I’m-going-to-make-it’ mentality. I always had the ‘I’m-never-gonna-give-up’ mentality,” said Brown, who grew up in Georgia. “I’m very competitive. Like, it’s with anything. If you say you’re gonna beat me in a video game, no, you’re not.”
“I feel that’s the attitude you have to have if you’re trying to make it in this game,” he added.
Part of Brown’s competitive nature comes from playing sports. He said as a kid he wanted to become an athlete when he was older, but he also enjoyed singing. That’s when he began posting videos of himself singing cover songs to Facebook, where he built a solid fan base.
Now, the 25-year-old has three No 1 country hits with ‘What Ifs,’ ‘Lose It’ and ‘Heaven,’ the most played song on country radio this year. His self-titled debut album is a platinum success and his sophomore effort, ‘Experiment,’ debuted at No 1 on both the pop and country charts last month.
And Billboard named him second on its year-end list of top country artists — only behind the incomparable Chris Stapleton.
Despite all the success, Brown still wants more: “I’m in huge competition with myself and I always try to outdo myself.”
At times, Brown has been seen as an outsider in the country music world, mainly because he is biracial and has multiple tattoos. But he said his individuality is also an advantage, and he encourages other artists on the rise to embrace what makes them unique.
“Don’t try to fit in with anybody else or be anybody else because I feel like if you stand out and you’re unique, that’s what makes people fall in love with you,” he said.
“Don’t listen to anybody telling you, ‘You can’t do something,‘” he added. “I’ve been told ‘no’ my whole life and now I’m just trying to prove everybody wrong.”