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Kate McKinnon & Cecily Strong
Even die-hard Saturday Night Live fans might have trouble telling the show's six new cast members apart. (So many white dudes!) But it's easy to pinpoint SNL's brightest emerging stars: newly minted ''Weekend Update'' coanchor Cecily Strong, who doubles as a frequent sketch MVP (we could watch her ex-porn star hawk Manolo Blahniks all day), and her good pal Kate McKinnon, who's got a knack for impersonating everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to Ann Romney. —Hillary Busis
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No other group charmed the music world as swiftly and completely as Haim did this year. The California-bred, AM Gold-loving trio of sisters — lead singer and guitarist Danielle, 24; bassist and singer Este, 27; and keyboardist, guitarist, and singer Alana, 22 — had a stellar 2013: Their debut full-length, Days Are Gone, took them from buzz-band status to the Billboard top 10, and its deep well of soulful-but-sharp pop-rock anthems is a fixture on year-end lists. In the meantime, they've made fans of everyone from British prime minister David Cameron to Katy Perry to rap president Jay Z (whose Roc Nation now manages them), and bewitched audiences at muddy festivals and the Saturday Night Live soundstage alike. ''Like, that was the goal,'' says the onetime theater kid Este about SNL. ''To finally be on the show is insane. It doesn't even compute to me now.'' She thought she had the perfect plan for 30 Rock domination: ''There was a dinner celebration after the show. I sat next to Lorne Michaels and started eating his French fries — I was basically finishing his food for him. I talked to him about how they've never had three people host SNLat once. So why can't they have me, Danielle, and Alana? He just shut me down.... And of course, my sisters are looking at me like, 'Are you insane?''' —Ray Rahman
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With such formidable names as Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender on the call sheet, the set of 12 Years a Slave could have been an intimidating place for a first-time actor. But newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who arrived at the movie's Louisiana plantation set only weeks after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, more than holds her own on screen. The 30-year-old Kenyan native earned a Golden Globe nod for playing Patsey, the favorite slave of sadistic owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who is so despondent she begs Ejiofor's character, Solomon Northup, to end her life.
Nyong'o plays the part with an honesty that astonished her seasoned costars. ''I was blown away by how new she was to it and how extraordinary and deep her performance is,'' says Ejiofor. ''When I watch the film, I get caught up with her on that journey.'' For Nyong'o, replicating her first movie experience will be tough. ''This film was one of the hardest things I've ever done,'' she says. ''But it was also one of the most joyful experiences of my life.'' —Nicole Sperling
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Rainbow Rowell had two very different novels come out this year: Eleanor & Park, a quirky teen romance, and Fangirl, a coming-of-age tale set in the fan-fiction world. ''They're totally different experiences, and I was really surprised when people embraced them both,'' she admits. ''It's really profound to have people respond to Eleanor & Park and Fangirl,, which were written in such a personal way. Sometimes you're compelled to tell a story, and to have people respond to those stories, to get them, to like them — there's a name for that, right? When you send out a wave and it comes back twice as hard? I don't know what that's called. But I feel bowled over.'' —Breia Brissey
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Michael B. Jordan
Actors get praised for having the ''bravery'' to portray famous historical figures, but it's a heavier burden to embody a real person whom few know. Show only one aspect of a character and that is how history will remember him. So as Oscar Grant III, the victim of a 2009 shooting by a transit cop, Michael B. Jordan, 26, carried the hopes and fears of Grant's family on his shoulders. He could have played the father/son/ex-con/pot dealer as sinner or saint. Instead, he chose to play him as neither. In a single grocery-store scene in Fruitvale Station, Jordan chats up his pal, flirts with a young woman, has a sweet phone call with his grandmother, and then confronts his former boss with genuine menace. ''Real people are like that,'' Jordan says. ''Flaws and all, that is who Oscar was. We wanted him to be truthful. To be able to play all those things, man, it's why I do this.'' Is that brave? Maybe. Star-making? Definitely. —Sean Smith
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There's little precedent for the notion of a ''videogame star.'' Gaming's earliest and most enduring characters are typically a laconic bunch; you never saw Pac-Man deliver a blistering soliloquy. Enter Troy Baker, whose work in three of this year's hottest triple-A releases (as private investigator Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite, hardened survivor Joel in The Last of Us, and a cackling Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins) has made him one of the biggest names in a relatively small but rapidly growing profession. ''At this point we pretty much all know each other,'' says the 37-year-old actor. ''But each day we're seeing more and more fish in this pond.''
The gig they're signing up for is not an easy one. To create Joel, one of two primary characters in The Last of Us who traverse the ruins of a zombie apocalypse, Baker spent nearly 80 days — comparable to most Hollywood productions — on a motion-capture stage, acting out the numerous scenes that make up the title's 15-plus hours of gameplay. ''Troy's performances are so different from each other,'' says Ken Levine, BioShock Infinite's creative director. ''He's not about creating a persona of 'Troy Baker,' but creating characters players can disappear into.''
An avid gamer himself, Baker confesses to having little interest in acting outside the medium. ''I know I can do TV and film,'' he says. ''I know that I can go on a set in front of four or five cameras with the hair and makeup and props and deliver a performance there. My challenge to someone who has only done that is: Can you set foot on my stage? Here is your wardrobe: a spandex suit with [motion-capture] disco balls all over it. You have a camera six inches from your face, and you're pantomiming everything. Go!'' —Keith Staskiewicz
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Attention, residents of Wilmington, N.C.: There's a stealth star in your midst. His name is Tom Mison, and he plays Ichabod Crane on Fox's North Carolina-shot surprise hit Sleepy Hollow. But when Mison removes Crane's trademark coat and scraggly hair (that's right, it's a wig), something curious happens: ''No one recognizes me,'' he laughs. Mison has even had the surreal experience of overhearing two locals discuss Sleepy Hollow in a bar...blissfully unaware that the show's headliner was sitting mere feet away. (Thankfully, ''they were saying nice things.'') Perhaps Mison, 31, should enjoy the anonymity while it lasts. He has ambitious plans for Sleepy's hiatus in early 2014 (the show won't return till next fall), including possible film work — maybe even a role that'll let him show off his vocal dexterity. Explains Mison: ''It's become very important for all of us [British actors] to have a good grasp of an American accent — especially as we keep stealing American actors' jobs.'' —Hillary Busis