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We pick the 5 TV breakout stars of 2003

From ”The O.C.” to Keira Knightly, here are this year’s 15 hot young newcomers in TV, movies, and music

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Mischa Barton, Benjamin McKenzie
Image credit: The OC Photograph by Mark Liddell

The O.C.

”The O.C.” ranks among 2003’s top breakouts

In a pretty sucky season for Fox (and for TV as a whole), the feels-like-Spelling-but-it-ain’t soap ”The O.C.” managed to be one of the few bright spots, drawing more teen viewers than competition like ABC’s ”The Bachelor.” In the process, the disconcertingly sunny actors at its center — Adam Brody, 23; Mischa Barton, 17; Benjamin McKenzie, 25; and Rachel Bilson, 22 — have become instant favorites. Barton recalls the show’s initial summer run, when airing against reruns helped it build a solid core of watchers. ”You air for six episodes, and then suddenly you’re gone for a month,” she says, her husky voice — so muted as confused rich girl Marissa Cooper — erupting in a squawky tumble. ”People kept asking me how long it would be before we returned. It usually takes years for shows to find audiences like that.”

Josh Schwartz, the show’s 27-year-old creator, doesn’t need to tell us he never set out to emulate Fox’s long-running ”Beverly Hills 90210” — that’s clear when he reveals that ”The O.C.”’s New Year’s Eve episode will be staged like a screwball comedy, and that another hour will ape the high-minded 1974 paranoia thriller ”The Parallax View.” ”We’re seen as a soap, and that’s because I’m doing a soap without understanding what that means,” he says. ”The O.C.” has been more brutally honest about the partying habits of privileged teens — coke! bongs! threesomes! — than ”90210” or the many WB dramas that helped pave the way for its unique mix of earnestness and self-mockery.

”So often, we see teen romance but we don’t feel like those characters have earned it,” says McKenzie, whose soulful portrayal of tough guy Ryan Atwood has earned plenty of ”Baby Crowe” comments. ”They’re not allowed to be funny yet dark, or knowing yet completely ignorant.” Adds Brody, who plays gangly geek-hunk Seth: ”It stays personal instead of aiming for…now, some shows shall remain nameless” — and here he mouths ”Skin,” the name of Fox’s highly touted October bomb — ”the political. It’s also got a lot of irony. You watch my character spouting one-liners and you realize what we’re all about.”

Sacha Baron Cohen
Image credit: Ali G: Oliver Upton /HBO

Ali G

Ali G ranks among 2003’s top breakouts

So really, how does it feel to break out? Just ask Ali G (a.k.a. comic Sacha Baron Cohen), who’s now recognized all the time. ”It’s gettin’ so bad,” says the star of HBO’s ”Da Ali G Show,” ”dat I is finkin’ of takin’ off de sign on me car dat says, ‘Inside dis car is Ali G — you know, de one wiv de glasses and hat from HBO.”’ Thanks to irreverent interviews in which he dupes the likes of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and, um, frank roundtable discussions about religion and drugs, the ethnically ambiguous rapper/host — already a star in the U.K. — has conquered the States (he’s currently at work on season 2). But he isn’t sweating fame just yet. No, sirree. ”I ain’t been dis excited since me Julie shaved her punani Afro into de shape of Jamaica.” We totally sympathize.

Kathryn Morris
Image credit: Kathryn Morris: EJ Camp/CBS

Kathryn Morris

Kathryn Morris ranks among 2003’s top breakouts

After years of just looking familiar (Remember Tom Cruise’s wife in ”Minority Report”? How about the bookish girl in ”The Contender”?), Morris has us putting a name to the face. ”Being versatile worked against me. I wasn’t recognizable,” says Morris, who plays smart, sexy detective Lilly Rush on CBS’ ”Cold Case.” ”Now people say, ‘Oh, she’s that blonde.”’

Josh Duhamel
Image credit: Josh Duhamel: Chris Haston

Josh Duhamel

Josh Duhamel ranks among 2003’s top breakouts

When Duhamel signed on to play lothario Leo du Pres on ”All My Children” in 1999, he pledged he’d spend only three years on the soap opera. ”I didn’t want to look back 10 years from now and wonder, What if?” No chance of that now. Within months of leaving ”AMC” earlier this year, he hit prime time with NBC’s ”Las Vegas” as Danny McCoy, a protégé of the casino’s head of security who’s also been popular with the ladies. ”I don’t want him to be a male slut, but he’s got the best job in the world, so he should have a little fun, right?” Duhamel, 31, will ratchet up the charm as a pampered movie star in January’s romantic comedy ”Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” For now, he’s just pleased to see his fan base broaden: ”I took the car in to get the tires changed and the guy was like, ‘I love your show!’ That never happened when I was on the soap.”

Amber Tamblyn
Image credit: Amber Tamblyn: Daniel Hennessy

Amber Tamblyn

Amber Tamblyn ranks among 2003’s top breakouts

This 20-year-old has blessed CBS with her girl-next-door looks, irresistible wit, and viewers under 40 (TV’s holy trinity!). But don’t compare Tamblyn’s gal-talks-to-God series to ”Touched by an Angel”: ”’Joan of Arcadia’ is not about religion!” she insists. Okay, but for CBS and millions of fans, she’s heaven-sent.

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