With entertainment casting news spreading faster than ever before thanks to instant email updates and the wildfire effect of Twitter, you can begin to critique, debate, and form your opinion on the potential stars of a film or TV series months before it will ever hit small or large screens. And there are some names, when they pop up in your feed or inbox, that have you eagerly counting down the days on your calendar waiting to see their latest performance. These actresses tackle three-dimensional, complex, and realistic characters that demand exceptional talent and charisma from their leading ladies.
Although the list could be miles long due to the seemingly never-ending stream of superb television and uniquely voiced independent films being made in the U.S. and abroad, these outstanding women are the ones who have us handing over our money before the release date for their next film or show has even been set. Here are the 15 Most Exciting Actresses Working Today.
14 JENNIFER LAWRENCE
At the tender age of twenty-five, it is strange to think that Jennifer Lawrence may no longer be considered a “fresh face.” But with four nominations and one win at the Oscars as well as starring in two multi-billion dollars franchises as Katniss Everdeen and Mystique, she can hardly be thought of as a new kid on the block. Despite the massive amounts of attention and fame thrust upon her rather rapidly in recent years, you won’t find Lawrence resting on her laurels. In fact, the relative balance of awards-worthy performances and blockbuster cash, points to a savvy and talented actress who is still tackling varied and exciting roles.
The biggest stars in Hollywood collide for her upcoming film, Passengers, starring Lawrence and Chris Pratt—testing if both can be continually bankable. She works next with Steven Spielberg in what is sure to be a bid for Oscar gold as she suits up for the role of a wartime photographer who is taken captive in It’s What I Do. It seems Lawrence’s professional drive and growth won’t have her slowing down any time soon.
13 DAISY RIDLEY
Daisy Ridley burst onto the scene in about the most explosive way one can. As not only the starring woman, but the central character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ridley has secured herself a place in cinematic history and among the most wanted women in Hollywood. Ridley’s portrayal of Rey, the scavenger with a mysterious connection to the Force, was universally praised by Star Wars fans and moviegoers across the globe.
Aside from the world being voraciously curious about what’s next for Ridley’s Rey, any other project she attaches herself to is likely to also become the subject of intense interest and discussion. So far Ridley appears to be reluctant to start committing herself to other films, what with a large chunk of her time for the next several years being filled with Star Wars filming and international press tours. But, even hints that she may be joining a rebooted Lara Croft series have spurred animated discourse throughout the industry and fan communities alike. There’s no doubt that Daisy Ridley will be in the limelight for any part she signs on for in the coming years.
12 KATE MCKINNON
Although Kate McKinnon has already made every “Comedians to Watch” list in recent months, she’s likely to find herself chumming around with a new crowd of industry elite as she begins her career as an “it” actress. She’s had smaller roles in comedies like Sisters before, but this year will hopefully be the one where everyone learns just what she can do with a meatier movie role. Her consistently hilarious impressions, ranging from Justin Bieber to Hillary Clinton, as an SNL cast member have made McKinnon a household name and landed her on one of the most-coveted teams in town—the rebooted Ghostbusters squad.
Starring alongside comedic geniuses and SNL darlings Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones, McKinnon is in the precarious position of bringing a classic to life with a modern spin. And though not everyone is enthusiastic about adding a new movie to the Ghostbusters legacy, you can’t help but fall for McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann after watching the trailer. No matter the critical and cultural reception of this remake, you can bet that McKinnon will be watching the offers roll in after Ghostbusters premieres.
11 GAL GADOT
After the somewhat critically catastrophic release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the one thing all reviewers (and audiences for that matter) seem to agree on is that Wonder Woman saved the day. As Batman, Superman, and Lex Luthor battled, trying to add gravitas to a fairly pointless conflict, Wonder Woman kept her cool and was there to help clean up their mess. All the best press for this film came from the excitement now building for Wonder Woman’s impending film, and much of the credit should be given to the woman who brought her to life on the big screen for the first time in years, Gal Gadot.
Previously best known for the role of Gisele in the Fast and Furious series, Gadot was recently part of the incredible ensemble (Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, and Kate Winslet to name a few) that made up the dark crime thriller Triple 9. You can see her soon in the Kevin Costner starrer Criminal, but there’s no question that Gadot’s most anticipated next title is the eponymous Wonder Woman film coming in 2017.
Saoirse Ronan has been a force of nature in the acting world since adolescence, receiving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar Nomination for her role in the World War II drama Atonement at the age of thirteen. Since then, she’s chosen mostly independent films with challenging characters to stretch her acting muscles: from a child assassin in Hanna, to a reluctant vampire in Byzantium, to a girl lost at the end of the world in How I Live Now. Although not always box office successes, the roles she has taken on are diverse and entrancing.
In the last year, she’s gone from indie darling to an awards-circuit regular as she collected the appropriate praise for her deeply moving performance in the immigrant tale, Brooklyn. A relatively simple story of an Irish girl journeying to New York City was made captivating by Ronan’s sincerity and endlessly expressive eyes. It appears she is continuing to make adventurous and intelligent film choices with an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and a leading role in Greta Gerwig’s directional debut, Lady Bird, on the horizon for her.
10 FELICITY JONES
Prior to winning the 2011 Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her heart-wrenching performance as half of a long-distance relationship in Like Crazy, Felicity Jones was a relatively unknown English actress. Jones had most certainly made the rounds on British television, but it was her role in Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy that made her an up-and-coming actress to watch. Equally engaging leading roles in a series of films like Albatross and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding led to the tremendous opportunity to play Jane Hawking in the awards-friendly The Theory of Everything.
Jones brought humanity to the complicated and intricate story of Jane and Stephen Hawking’s life together, which was rightly acknowledged by the Academy with a best actress nomination in 2015. Despite not taking home the trophy, her acting chops did not go unnoticed as Jones was cast as the lead in the forthcoming Star Wars film, Rogue One. A lot of mystery still surrounds the film, but there’s no question that the world is waiting with baited breath for the latest story in the Star Wars canon as well as Jones’s sure-to-be-fantastic performance coming to theaters at the end of this year.
9 MARGOT ROBBIE
With her upcoming role as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, it seems that Margot Robbie is out to prove she’s more than just a pretty face. And what better way to do that than by playing a criminally insane character with a lot more to her psychotic personality than just her looks. Suicide Squad is Robbie’s first foray into the superhero genre, but she’s been building up her name in the U.S. for quite some time—starting with the memorable role of Leonardo DiCaprio’s femme fatale in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Since sharing the screen with DiCaprio, Robbie has been a part of a post-apocalyptic love triangle in Z for Zachariah and made a friend of Will Smith, one of her co-stars in Suicide Squad, in the con artist flick, Focus. The true test of her popularity though may be her inclusion as a celebrity guest star in The Big Short, suggesting that Robbie is among the ranks of Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain in her fame. Here’s hoping her performance in Suicide Squad earns her interest for her acting abilities that she can parlay into continued challenging work.
8 MELISSA MCCARTHY
It’s impossible to make a list of top female actors without including the one-woman comedy machine that is Melissa McCarthy. She’s a classic example of patience paying off in a town full of one-hit wonders that disappear after a brief moment in the spotlight. A respected working actor and beloved character from Gilmore Girls, McCarthy’s big break came with her raucous turn in the international hit, Bridesmaids. She even achieved the almost impossible, an Academy Award nomination for a performance in a comedy.
Since then, McCarthy has leveraged her popularity like a seasoned pro, headlining six movies (including The Boss and summer release Ghostbusters) since Bridesmaids premiered. Her physical humor, original concepts, and skill at bringing together amazing comedians have resulted in a slew of hits including The Heat, Tammy, and Spy. Even minting herself as a box office hit outside of the U.S. with Spy earning more abroad than at home. It’s no wonder that every studio in town is eager to get into the Melissa McCarthy business.
7 LUPITA NYONG'O
In her first full-length film, Lupita Nyong’o captured the attention of the Academy members and the hearts of the public with one core-shaking performance. As Patsey, a slave who dared to expect more than the cruel treatment of her “station,” Nyong’o showed agony, depth, and pride all in one moving character in 12 Years a Slave. For this she earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Hollywood favorites Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence, and a spot on the list of most-desired actresses to hire.
She’s since joined the Star Wars universe as Maz Kanata, a clever and penetrating CGI character brought to life by Nyong’o expressive face and voice. Along with joining the Ugandan chess biopic, Queen of Katwe, Ava DuVernay has tapped Nyong’o to star in her follow up feature to Selma entitled Intelligent Life. Nyong’o brings an intelligence and realism to each performance that is sure to lead to many more powerful roles.
6 ROBIN WRIGHT
Simultaneously the ice queen of the White House and the most relatable and emotional character in House of Cards, Robin Wright keeps the audience and Frank Underwood eating out of the palm of her hand. Part of a new generation of women on streaming TV that take no prisoners, but emote in thoroughly human ways—her portrayal of Claire Underwood is one that demands your attention and also makes you want to look away. The most recent season in particular puts Claire on very even ground with Frank, somewhere one can assume she always knew she was meant to be.
It would be disappointing to have any less of an actor take on the role of General Antiope in Wonder Woman, one of the titular lady’s trainers and mentors. And with an actor and woman as strong as Robin Wright in your corner, there’s no doubt that Wonder Woman will be every bit the hero everyone is hoping for. Wright will be performing some heroics of her own in a key part in the Blade Runner sequel alongside Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling expected in early 2018.
5 BRIE LARSON
It’s likely no shock that the winner of this year’s Best Actress Academy Award is an actress worth paying attention to. But, despite appearing to be a relative newcomer, Larson has had this success coming for a long time. From roles in teen comedies like Sleepover and 21 Jump Street to fan hits like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to indie dramas like Greenberg, Rampart, and The Spectacular Now, Larson has been a working actor for well over half of her life.
Her heartbreaking and naturalistic performance in Short Term 12 should have been Larson’s first Oscar win, but wasn’t seen by many until it came onto Netflix much later. To those who have seen it, it’s entirely unsurprising that Larson was able to nail the role of a victim of sexual abuse, captivity, and post-traumatic stress in Room. Larson will venture into tentpole territory with Kong: Skull Island, but also keep up her dramatic work in a Ben Wheatley period gang story Free Fire and a reunion with her Short Term 12 director in The Glass Castle.
4 ZOE SALDANA
If there’s one actor whose talent is taken for granted, it’s Zoe Saldana. No other working actress can touch the bankability she possesses that allows her to anchor three major franchises at once: Star Trek, Avatar, and Guardians of the Galaxy. And in each case, she is not merely a background character or throwaway romance, the roles that Saldana takes on in these sci-fi adventures are always resilient, insightful, and complex. On top of the massive undertaking that is filming and promoting three gargantuan series, Saldana manages to work in the independent film world as well.
Even if movies like Infinitely Polar Bear and Out of the Furnace may not have been box office successes, it is difficult to find any fault in Saldana’s consistently strong performances. Her casting as Nina Simone in the upcoming biopic Nina has received significant criticism, but don’t put it past Saldana to silence many doubters with a stellar performance. Saldana will continue to build an untouchable oeuvre of films that show the strength of her acting and instincts.
3 ALICIA VIKANDER
2015 was the year of Alicia Vikander—that is, until 2016 and 2017 most likely also become her years. Her name may not be as familiar yet, but moviegoers would have a hard time missing her appearances in no fewer than six films released in the U.S. last year. Perhaps actors should try Vikander’s method for scoring Oscar glory—the more films you release, the higher your chances. This proved to be true for Vikander who took home the Supporting Actress prize for her role as transsexual icon Einar Wegener’s wife in The Danish Girl.
On top of that, she received raves for her work as disturbingly realistic AI Ava in Ex Machina and more than matched Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill in the remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. She seems to be everyone’s first choice for upcoming films, and will be starring in the new Jason Bourne, Wim Wender’s Submergence, and Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans. At this point it’s just a matter of which of the numerous projects she’s being sent Vikander decides to accept.
2 EMILY BLUNT
One of the biggest slights of last year’s Oscar nominations was not acknowledging Emily Blunt’s harrowing turn in the drug cartel film Sicario. Her stripped down outsider’s look at a violent and radical world imploding mere miles from our own border gripped the viewer and refused to let go. It’s no surprise that Blunt handled the role effortlessly when one considers her lengthy and manifold body of work that includes a cutthroat fashion assistant, a young queen, and a time-traveling war hero—each as pitch-perfect as the last.
There is not a movie that does not benefit from Blunt’s range and willingness to inhabit any character, which is likely why the biggest films in the business are seeking her as their star. From the action-packed fairy tale The Huntsman: Winter’s War, to the much-buzzed-about book adaption of The Girl on the Train, to a potential reboot of the beloved Mary Poppins. Blunt is the epitome of versatile actor, and it doesn’t look like she plans to make a misstep anytime soon.
1 CHARLIZE THERON
It’s virtually impossible to imagine any other actress pulling off the tour-de-force performance that Charlize Theron brought to Imperator Furiosa in0 Mad Max: Fury Road. After all, it takes an extremely skilled actor to so thoroughly overshadow Tom Hardy in all his raw, talented glory. But, Theron blazed into Mad Max with such a genuine ownership of the character that there was no question who you would trust to take the wheel of the movie. One of the true tests of a great actress is the ability to bring honesty to any role, something that Theron has perfected.
In Young Adult the audience dove deep into the selfish and psychotic mind of a middle-aged hack. The Evil Queen gained some serious credibility thanks to Theron’s portrayal of her in Snow White and The Huntsman. And even Fast & Furious 8 is sure to be much improved because of the character Theron will be bringing to the next installment. And, perhaps best of all, you won’t ever find Theron being cast as a non-essential female character. Because that would be absolutely ludicrous.
Do you have a favorite actress who didn’t make the list? Are you dying to see Daisy Ridley in another movie as soon as possible? Tell us in the comments!