When we look back at the history of Hollywood, we always remember the greats. The heartbreak of Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. The crazed genius of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. The understated conflict within Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. We will always remember these legends as the pinnacle of great acting. Many of them are still giving breathtaking performances to this day. De Niro is in theaters as we speak. But there comes a time when the veterans must step aside to usher in a new generation. On the heels of these historic actors is a class of talent that’s just as daring and versatile as the thespians who preceded them. They’ve found box office success, adoring fans and unrivaled critical reception. This new crop of actors already has some impressive performances under its belt. These are the new legends.
Ryan Gosling recently dominated the 2017 awards season, scooping up a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for La La Land. But his greatness extends far past this single performance. From his lovable lothario in Crazy, Stupid, Love to his heartbroken divorcee in Blue Valentine to his star-making turn as a drug addicted teacher in Half Nelson, Gosling has never met a role he couldn’t sink his teeth into. He’s ultimately one of today’s most beloved and watchable stars because he completely transforms into his characters onscreen. For those with a soft spot in their hearts for The Notebook, it was clear back in 2004 that Gosling would become a superstar. And at only 36 years old, there’s still plenty of time for him to dazzle us.
Adam Driver might seem like an unlikely entry on this list, but hear us out. He first caught our attention as Lena Dunham’s dubious, socially awkward love interest on Girls. Even in a supporting role, he captured a depth, anger and frustration that hinted at something greater waiting in the wings. He quickly ascended from Dunham’s hipster Brooklyn to the intergalactic universe of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He went on to be cast in Martin Scorsese’s epic Silence and in the critically lauded Paterson. From blockbusters to indie films to the small screen, Driver has already shown an agility that most actors will never develop. There’s a promising future ahead of him.
For Leonardo DiCaprio, his 2016 Oscar was the icing on the cake. He’d practically grown up on film. His place in film history was forever solidified thanks to the historic success of Titanic. Even before then, he’d shown great promise in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and other 90s classics. However, as he’s aged, his acting skills have become finely tuned. He’s turned in some of the best performances in Hollywood history including his turns as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Billy in The Departed, Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, and the lead role in Romeo + Juliet. Time and time again, DiCaprio has fully committed himself to telling the story of the men whose features he inhabits. The Revenant, for which he won his Oscar, was a testament to his skill and dedication to his craft. He is truly an actor for the ages.
Matt Damon burst into Hollywood with a ballsy move, writing and starring in the emotional Good Will Hunting. It was clear back in 1997 that he’d have an impact on film. Today, he’s one of the world’s highest paid actors, raking in more than Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and his Good Will Hunting co-writer Ben Affleck. Looking at his career, it’s the characters in his films that we remember most. He’s the strength of the Jason Bourne film franchise. The comic backbone of the Ocean’s Eleven film trio. The dramatic driving force of The Martian. He’s a lovable star who makes the audience sympathize and identify with his characters whether they deserve it or not. With every role, he reminds us why he’s lasted in Hollywood for more than two decades.
Matthew McConaughey had his first brush with cult status in 1993’s classic Dazed and Confused. It was there, as Wooderson, that he uttered his unmistakable catchphrase “Alright, alright, alright”. That phrase, along with his undeniable star power, have kept him at the upper echelon of Hollywood’s A-list for 25 years. After winning the box office in romantic comedies like Failure to Launch and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, he showed that he had depth. Movies like Dallas Buyers Club and Mud showed he wasn’t afraid to get dark. That darkness is what fueled the popularity of HBO’s hit drama True Detective. He continues to take on challenging roles that push him to his limits as an actor and remind us of why we continue to champion his career.
There’s something enthralling and captivating about watching Denzel Washington onscreen. His roles are memorable for their intensity. He feeds on his characters with a voracious appetite. From drama to action, indie to blockbuster, he seems to shatter our hearts and make our palms sweat with ease. He made us root for the bad guy as Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day. He filled our eyes with tears as Coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans. He made us sympathize with the underdog father in He Got Game. He gravitates toward characters with authority, and as the audience, we trust him. We follow his direction and find ourselves pulled into these theatric worlds where he controls our emotions. That’s the sign of a truly great actor.
Whether they’re less than a decade into their career or almost four decades in, the signs of a great actor are easy to spot. Their effectiveness is weighed by their reviews, their box office intake, our memories of their character and their agility. Every actor on this list meets these criteria ten times over, and it’ll be exciting to watch how their careers continue to grow as time goes on.