In a year like no other, our six (technically, seven) cover subjects gave performances that were iconic and unforgettable. Plus, we celebrate 10 more honorees who enthralled and entertained us throughout 2020.
You may not see his face on The Mandalorian (an occupational hazard of playing a character who famously won’t remove his helmet) and he may share the spotlight with an adorable animatronic puppet, but Pedro Pascal definitely made his presence known on the Disney+ series and throughout this year — a streak that will continue later this month when Wonder Woman 1984 hits theaters and HBO Max. (Read his full cover story here.)
Kerry Washington started 2020 playing Mia Warren in Hulu’s addicting adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere, earning an Emmy nomination for her performance. She’ll end the year with a role in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of The Prom, starring (and singing!) as a woman trying to stop a gay student from attending a high school dance. And between those very different roles, Washington also flexed her producer muscles, directed her third episode of television, and hit the campaign trail for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ahead of the presidential election. (Read her full cover story here.)
By his own account, 2020 was a very productive year for Sacha Baron Cohen — “Normally I come out with one [film] every four years, so it’s eight times my normal,” he told EW. But in addition to the one-two punch of The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the actor also felt it was time to step out of character and make his true voice heard with his Stop Hate for Profit campaign. (Read his full cover story here.)
Taylor Swift’s Entertainers of the Year cover also served as a Folklore reunion of sorts — reuniting her with Beth Garrabrant, the photographer who captured the album’s woodsy, cardigan-filled looks. In a wide ranging interview with EW, the pop star reflected on making her surprise eighth album, her “Last Great American Dynasty” muse Rebekah Harkness, and much more. (Read the full Q&A here.)
The creator, writer, director, and star of the acclaimed HBO series I May Destroy You made a huge impact. Here, she's honored by Tracee Ellis Ross, the Emmy-nominated star of the ABC comedy Black-ish.
Her face gives you everything. I was going to say, it gives you planes, trains, and automobiles, but it kind of does! It gives you valleys. It gives you peaks. It gives you depth. She elevated storytelling. She expects so much of the audience in a way that, I think, is exactly where we need to be right now. Because to a certain extent, because of social media, storytelling has gotten lazy because we spoon-feed everybody. I felt like she changed the way you tell a story. It reminded me of what happened when we watched Atlanta, where we were just like, "Oh my God, wait, you can do that on TV?" She changed the expectation of what the audience has to bring. She doesn’t answer it. She shows you the complexity and the nuance without at all sugar-coating it — the confusion of an experience. It’s just all in there. And it’s all in there from every aspect. It’s the acting, it’s the writing, it’s the cinematography, it’s the font of the writing on the screen. Every aspect of that show illuminated how you can tell a story and share an experience. I was truly blown away and uncomfortable and all of it. Michaela’s work constantly shows us who we are instead of what TV says we are. —As told to Sarah Rodman
In a blockbuster book year, The Vanishing Half had the ultimate staying power — and was just what we needed, as explained by best-selling author Samantha Irby (Wow, No Thank You).
In 2017, Brit’s debut novel, The Mothers, was recommended everywhere. What struck me was that she was 17 when she started the book and worked on it for almost 10 years. The weekend the book came, while my wife was gone camping, I read it in a single day. I hunted Brit down on social media just to tell her I was a big fan. Based on my own personal anxieties, it is my nightmare that someone would see my name in their inbox and then be like: What does she want? But after The Mothers I just needed to tell her how much I loved the book. When I read The Vanishing Half, it just felt so real. She’s able to bring levels to her stories that make me wonder: How does she think of that? It’s incredible. Even when the characters make decisions I don’t agree with, I’ll be furious for a hot second and then realize: I get it. It’s a real gift to make people feel so many different things. And it’s comforting to see that The Vanishing Half is still everywhere. So many books come out that I often look at a release, and then the next week’s big releases, and think, “Oh no, did everyone forget the person from last week?” But Brit’s work has become too large for that. —As told to Seija Rankin
The country trio made their long-awaited return with their eighth album, Gaslighter, a raw and powerful reproach to cheaters everywhere. Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Annie Clark, who performs as St. Vincent, co-wrote “Young Man” and played guitar on “Texas Man,” both off Gaslighter, describes the everlasting appeal of the Chicks: Emily Strayer, 48; Natalie Maines, 46; and Martie Maguire, 51.
Great artists always find a way to be there when you need them. They tell us it is going to be okay. That don’t worry, they feel that way too. The Chicks have been those artists for us for years. Relatable yet tough. Funny yet wise. Sassy and yet utterly sincere. They make truth you wanna harmonize to in a car full of tears. Truth you wanna dance to at Texas weddings full of friends and family and booze. Truth you wanna sing along to in an arena full of lighters. The Chicks are the girl gang you wanna commiserate with about a heartbreak. The gang you wanna join to help give an ex what is coming to them. The girls you wanna have hook their arms in yours and pick you up when you think you just can’t fight anymore. They made Gaslighter as all of America was being gaslit by the powerful. They told us it’s going to be okay. They feel that way too. And we will get through it like always… together.
Jonathan Majors is just relentless in his pursuit of the craft. We all benefit because of that. To witness his creativity is to experience the mystical power that artists are capable of achieving, when the art rises to a level in which we can’t quantify what we’re witnessing or experiencing. We feel it. Art for Jonathan is a mechanism, not just for expression and growth, but for survival. Jonathan must create art by any means necessary.
I was blessed to have many moments in which he and I were just in the flow [on Lovecraft Country]. The demands on our minds, bodies, [and] spirit were quite great. But in Jonathan, I had a partner that I trusted [and] leaned upon. We had rituals together. Every morning, we’d begin in prayer with the understanding that we were about to ask our hearts to break. There was this real pouring into each other artistically that I’m grateful for.
His work was stunning in Da 5 Bloods. He’s completely at home with whomever he’s in a scene with because he’s listening and responding. You watch Da 5 Bloods and he’s surrounded by legends, and then you think, “Oh, Jonathan Majors is a legend in his own time.” —As told to Chancellor Agard
SNL is where I fell in love with Maya. She has an amazing command of using the sounds of her words to make anything funny. Her Aunt Jemima impression [on the post-election episode] — just listen to her say “mouthwatering.” It makes me laugh every time I think about it. It’s always been, and will probably always be, a fantasy [of mine] to be as talented as she is. I’ll probably die with that feeling of “I wish I could be Maya Rudolph.” She really has done everything. I would love to follow my heart the way that she followed hers. Talking to her just feels like a warm hug.
When we got the green light to make [Everything’s Fine], she said, “I love when good things happen to good people.” I was so taken aback by that, because I didn’t really know her that well, and I was like, “How do you know I’m a good person?” I was able to finally meet her in person when we went to L.A. to shoot the special, and even from six feet away, she was so lovely to talk to. Every time she speaks, it’s like it’s coming from this deep, guru-like place. Everybody gets quiet when she talks, because we just want to savor every word. —As told to Tyler Aquilina
Grammy winner Abel Tesfaye, 30, hit 2020 hard with his No. 1 album After Hours — and managed to make pandemic performances captivating. Singer-songwriter-performer Christine and the Queens pays tribute.
The Weeknd has a very interesting narrative arc. He started with an insular vocabulary. I remember him emerging as this very mysterious, almost faceless singer. And then he became a mainstream pop artist. But he managed to keep the character he has — that tormented guy. After Hours might be one of my favorites from him because he feels really confident in the landscape. It sounds massive. It’s probably very European of me to say, but he has this American sound that goes well with cars. “Scared to Leave” is just the perfect pop song. "Snowchild" sounds like early Weeknd. I adore “Blinding Lights.” I decided to cover it because I could hear the very bare version of that song. Like, it can be very fragile. I think he has a knack for writing good melodies and very good stories. It’s just very melodic, but quite daring. I’m obsessed with what a good pop song is, and I don’t know if anybody will ever fully understand it, but I like to dissect his work to just find where the magic operates. —As told to Alex Suskind
With two No. 1 hits and a fiery debut album, Meg, 25, turned 2020 into the Endless Hot Girl Summer. Here, singer Ciara professes her love for the Houston rapper.
The first time I heard Megan’s music I knew she was an absolute force as an artist and performer. In a short period of time she has permeated pop culture, which is a testament to her authenticity as an artist. And she did all of that while still attending college. She is unapologetically herself and exudes a level of confidence young girls should aspire to. She took what it means to be a “Hot Girl” and gave it power and purpose. And I love the visuals for the “WAP” music video and its representation of boss women including Normani, Kylie Jenner, Mulatto, Rosalía, Sukihana, and Rubi Rose. It is female empowerment on every level. In a male-dominated industry that is still adjusting to the idea of strong females owning their own narratives and shaping their own careers, Megan is masterfully navigating through it with positivity and grace. She does not shy away from calling out the injustices and fighting for what’s rightfully hers. She is an important voice for not only women but especially Black women. I think we will be feeling her impact on the music industry for a long time.
To say that the rise of her career has been meteoric would be an understatement. Her career’s growth mirrors the evolution of the characters she’s brought to life, almost intentionally: as though Peggy Olson (Mad Men) cautiously navigated the daily antiquated braggadocio of the 1960s only to evolve into the unconventional hero kicking ass and taking names in the darkly dystopian future given to us on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Chill, relaxed, and down-to-earth: Those were the first things that came to mind the moment I met her on [the Invisible Man] set. When I think back to her approach to the film, her character, and the story, it all makes sense. Watching her work with [director] Leigh Whannell was a master class in developing suspense and understanding tone, timing, and depth. She was so engaged in the details and the subtleties of who her character was because she understands the genre so well, and it paid off. She’s an impressive tour de force, and I’m glad I got to see her in action. I’ll also be forever grateful to her for turning me on to Sushi Park. Liz, you were right, it was completely worth it!
The Oscar winner, 53, powered two big — and wildly different — films in 2020 and lent his voice to the national Black Lives Matter protests. Here, he's honored by his Project Power costar Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
I got to know Jamie on Project Power, and, man, he’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with. I’ve been a fan ever since In Living Color; he’s made me laugh and cry. When the opportunity to be in this movie came to me, working with him was the number-one appeal. He’s one of the most engaging and talented conversationalists I’ve ever met, because he’s seen such a wide variety of the world and he’s so empathetic towards everybody — and you can feel that in his art.
It feels like, wow, that’s a long time coming, to have a Black actor be the star of a Pixar movie [Soul], but you really couldn’t ask for somebody better than Jamie. The work he’s been doing, both in the context of entertainment and of participating in the cultural conversation and the reckoning that our country is going through right now, this is an artist using his talent to move the world forward in a positive direction. It’s where the difference lies between an actor and an artist who becomes a legend, and I think he’s really deserving of that mantle. It just makes me all that more honored to get to be his collaborator and his friend. —As told to Derek Lawrence
The Emmy winner, 46, starred in FX on Hulu's Mrs. America and the Hulu movie Run, but it's her work as the titular nurse on Netflix's Ratched that had audiences going cuckoo. As a frequent collaborator — in the American Horror Story franchise and Ratched — Finn Wittrock has had a front-row seat to Paulson's prowess.
The first time I worked with Sarah, she was portraying conjoined twins. It was on American Horror Story: Freak Show, and she had to play both Bette and Dot, sisters who shared a body below the neck. When she was playing Bette, who my character was in love with, we would banter, joke, and laugh. The set was fun and carefree. Then she’d become Dot, the twin on the other end of the neck who wasn’t so into me. Suddenly the time in between takes was quieter, the mood colder. I’d think, “Is Sarah mad at me, or is that just Dot?” Many people this year may have had a similar experience watching both Mrs. America and Ratched. Two parts wildly opposite, for reasons much deeper than the blessings of makeup and hair and accent. She is an actress who can change her temperature, her frequency, the vibration in which she operates. It’s subtle, it’s energetic. It’s a scalpel, not an ax. You can admire her technique, marvel at her versatility, but more than anything, you feel her. I’m pretty sure that means she’s an artist.
Entertainers of the Year illustrations by Lizzie Gill.