The Next Meryl Streep: A New Generation of Talented Actresses Take Center Stage

By February 1, 2016

We’re in the middle of Oscar Season and as we celebrate the films of 2015, it’s become clear that the ladies really stepped up last year. The Queen of the Oscars, Meryl Streep herself (19 nominations, 3 wins, and counting), may not be in the awards mix this time around, but it’s easy to see the many young actresses who are hoping for careers even half as successful as hers. And I do mean many…because look out Jennifer Lawrence, you are no longer Ms. Streep’s only heir apparent in Hollywood! There are a bunch of new(ish) ladies in town showing that it’s not about what they’re wearing to the Oscars, but rather the roles garnering them awards consideration in the first place.

No disrespect to J. Law (say what you will about the unevenness of both the final installment of The Hunger Games franchise, and Joy, she is the anchor in both films), but I think 2015 was a big year to show she’s not the only fresh young face in town who also happens to be ridiculously talented. And we’re finally talking about them as a group, rather than just a standout here or there, which is a nice change of pace considering how many times we’ve heard the phrase “wow, the Best Actor category is really stacked” over the last several years.

So here is a list of some young actresses to watch. A few of them will be walking the red carpet on February 28 alongside awards veterans like Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet, as well as a few familiar faces finally getting their turn in the awards spotlight, like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Charlotte Rampling, and Rachel McAdams, while a few others are simply ones that stuck out to me as young women who have big careers in front of them.

So here we go!

Vikander2015: The Year of Alicia Vikander

Though some may remember Vikander from her starring role opposite Mads Mikkelson in 2012’s A Royal Affair (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Danish) at the Oscars), or for her supporting turn in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina (starring Keira Knightly), for most people she burst onto the scene in 2015 as she appeared in five different films (I’m getting shades of Jessica Chastain from 2011). With supporting roles in The Seventh Son, Burnt, and Ex Machina, and co-starring roles in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Danish Girl, Vikander took Hollywood by storm in a huge way. Two of those roles, as an artificially intelligent android named Ava in Ex Machina and wife to transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, Gerda, in The Danish Girl are, hands down, awards worthy (she should be up in both the Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress categories, respectively, but because Focus Features pushed to count her role in The Danish Girl as supporting (ha), I believe her role in Ex Machina got pushed out).

Vikander certainly has the “it” factor as far as Hollywood is concerned. She has a classic beauty and style, which many of the period pieces she has been in have benefitted from. But she also has incredible range, as evidenced by her performance in Ex Machina. She more than holds her own against co-stars Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson, bringing a physical and emotional presence to the android Ava in a way that could have felt very derivative, but instead is fresh and nuanced. Between that and her absolutely moving (not to mention scene stealing) performance as Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl, Vikander has solidly staked her claim as an Actress To Watch.

room-brie-larsonThe Indie Darling Who is Ready to Break Through: Brie Larson

Independent film lovers knew Brie Larson was one to watch after her wonderful turn in 2013’s Short Term 12. Some more mainstream movie-goers may remember her from supporting roles in films like 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Don Jon, The Spectacular Now and last year’s Trainwreck. But Larson’s role as Ma in Room should change everything for this talented young woman. She’s considered pretty much a lock to win the Best Actress Oscar next month, and for good reason. Not only did she get to work alongside the most adorable kid actor since Jonathan Lipnicki; Jacob Tremblay, she gave the most honest and emotionally fraught performance of the year as a mother held captive with her five year old son. Larson feels approachable in much the way that Jennifer Lawrence does, but at the same time has a quiet reserve about her that is just as compelling.

The next few actresses on the list aren’t exactly unknowns, but each showed audiences something different in 2015 that made them stand out in a new way.

RonanThe Precocious Child Actress All Gown Up: Saoirse Ronan

Ronan made a lot of noise as a child actress in 2007’s Atonement, but has since grown into a poised young lady. Along the way she starred in the high profile, but ultimately disappointing film, The Lovely Bones, and the surprise cult action hit, Hanna, but her role as Eilis in last years Brooklyn showcased a lovely, yet mature, vulnerability. Ronan says so much in one look as a young Irish woman choosing between two cultures, and if it’s even a small glimpse of what Ronan is capable of as an actress, look out Hollywood!

Rooney-Mara-CarolFlipping the Script: Rooney Mara

Actresses like Streep, Blanchett, Julianne Moore, and others have achieved their elite careers in large part due to the variety of their performances over the years. Mara’s 2015 turn in Todd Hayne’s Carol, as a young 1950’s woman exploring her identity and sexuality, is about as far from her career-making performance in 2011’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as you can get…and it’s an absolutely stunning transformation. Mara is positively luminous in Carol as she holds her own with the equally dazzling Cate Blanchett and if she continues to expand her range (even if it occasionally means taking on roles like Tiger Lily in 2015’s critically derided Pan…), then there’s no telling what heights she can achieve.

StewartReally Flipping the Script: Kristen Stewart

Talk about putting a particular role behind you! Say what you will about the Twilight series of films, it was a huge moneymaker, made millions of screaming fans around the world swoon with happiness, and launched the careers of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart (among others). Since then, Stewart has starred in a number of high and low profile films, but it’s been an uphill battle for her. Slowly but surely, however, she is proving the naysayers wrong with each role she tackles, and in last years Clouds of Sils Maria she gave her best performance yet as a smart and lively young assistant to an aging actress, played by the graceful Juliette Binoche. She’s completely won, not just me, but a large number of critics over with this role and it may be a sign that putting Bella Swan behind her is possible.

Concussion_2015-7Learn to Pronounce This Name: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

 After first bursting onto the silver screen in 2013’s Belle, Mbatha-Raw has stealthily put together quite a resume and in 2015 didn’t get near as much talk for her role in Concussion, co-starring Will Smith, as she should have. In lesser hands, the role of Prima would have come across as a two dimensional background character, but Mbatha-Raw makes the most of every second of her screen time, creating a very earnest and believable character. 2016 is likely to be a big year for her as well, with roles in Miss Sloane (with Jessica Chastain) and Free State of Jones (with Matthew McConaughey). It is my sincere hope that actresses like Mbatah-Raw and the already award winning Lupita Nyong’o continue to chip away at Hollywood’s reticence to put black actresses front and center, because it would be a huge waste of talent if they did not.

It FollowsMore Than Just a Scream Queen: Maika Monroe

I’m not much of a horror film person, but last years It Follows blew my socks off. The film is both a throwback and a very contemporary look at horror as metaphor, and the very talented cast is led by one Maika Monroe, a young woman whose capability and vulnerability shone on the big screen. Some people may recognize her from another indie genre film from 2014, The Guest, and she’s already on to bigger things having been cast in the Independence Day sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence as well as the Liam Neeson spy drama, Felt (about the man who was Deep Throat). If she continues to mix indie fare with blockbusters, she could easily shoot to the top of everyone’s “must” lists thanks to a genuine mix of youth, grit, and plain old star power.

Jeenifer LawOf Course She Belongs on the List: Jennifer Lawrence

If I’m serious in talking about actresses whose roles in 2015 put them in contention for Ms. Streep’s crown, I couldn’t possibly leave out Jennifer Lawrence, who, quite frankly, has already had a career actresses of any age would envy.  Since winning much deserved recognition for her performance in Winter’s Bone, she has steadily climbed higher in Hollywood’s ranks thanks to the one-two punch of headlining the Hunger Games films and becoming director David O. Russell’s muse. With her best actress nomination for Joy, she is now a four time Oscar nominee (with one win)…at the age of  25! She shows no signs of stopping either, having claimed in many interviews that she loves working and plans to continue doing so as much as possible. Lawrence has proven to be much more than an onscreen talent as well, becoming an advocate for equal pay in the industry. She’s approachable, but also clearly determined to hone her craft and it may be that more than anything that reminds me most of Meryl Streep.

Well, there you have it – proof that 2015 was one hell of a year for actresses (and I’m only talking about the young “up and comers” here! Cate Blanchett, Blythe Danner, Kate Winslet, Juliette Binoche, Rachel McAdams, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Joan Allen, Jane Fonda, and many other women also turned in fantastic performances last year). I think it’s a sign of things to come, so watch out, boys! The ladies of Hollywood are headlining films, stealing the show, moving audiences to tears, and just plain having a blast.  Keep it up!

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Rachel Cushing
Rachel is a television editor by day and either a Jedi knight, vampire slayer, or elvish warrior by night. In between she makes time for movies, movies, and more movies (plus a few books, television shows, and then…more movies). When she’s supposed to be sleeping, she writes about movies as well, both here on and on her own blog. Tweet her @RachelJCushing