7 stars who blew us away doing something entirely new in 2019

Andrea Mandell


Published 9: 21 AM EST Nov 28, 2019

We’re getting introspective as 2019 edges to a close, thinking back to movies that moved us and stars who surprised us.

Some stars explored new roles off-camera, while other famous faces, like Awkwafina, hopped outside of their usual genres.

“I was really insecure at first about carrying a movie and dramatic acting and also (speaking) Chinese,” Awkwafina told us earlier this year after learning Mandarin for her serious role in “The Farewell.” “But at the end of the day, the thing I was scared about the most was being vulnerable.”

Vulnerability, coupled with risk, is what links all these famous names. Here are seven stars who took big swings in 2019 and knocked it out of the park.

Olivia Wilde 

“Booksmart” arrived with a tidal wave of support from critics, who christened the film the Generation Z-defining high school comedy. Despite an anemic box-office take, the movie (which just arrived on Hulu) scored 97% fresh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and cemented Wilde’s reputation as a director to watch. (According to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, she’s already re-teaming with “Booksmart” screenwriter Katie Silberman on a holiday comedy.) And if you miss her onscreen, don’t worry: Wilde appears in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” on Dec. 13.

Jillian Bell 

Bell has provided gut-busting comedy as supporting characters in films over the last decade, but in Amazon’s “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” she broke our hearts – in the best way possible. Playing an overweight aspiring comic whose self-esteem is on the floor, Bell took audiences on a journey of fitness and self-discovery in the film, which earned raves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We can’t wait to see what else Bell has in store.

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Eddie Murphy

Murphy insists he’s just been “sitting on my couch” in the three years since his last movie, the drama “Mr. Church,” but he was setting us up for the most outrageous surprise. His pimp attire as real-life comedy pioneer Rudy Ray Moore in Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name” has landed Murphy right in the middle of awards discussion. Not only does he play his movie hero for big-screen belly laughs, he gives the 1970s underdog guerrilla filmmaker an unexpected infusion of heart. All in daunting platform shoes.


She’s been a bold presence in films like “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” but this summer Awkwafina took us on an emotional journey to China in “The Farewell.” The comedian took a subtler approach playing a Chinese-American 20-something who confronts her family’s customs when journeying home to say goodbye to her beloved grandmother. The heartwarming film, based on a true story, has sent Awkwafina into awards season as a contender, and she couldn’t be more deserving of the praise.

Florence Pugh 

Pugh made the entrance of a lifetime in the hellish breakup indie “Midsommar” and is closing out the year by bringing new life to Amy March, the youngest sister in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” The British newcomer infuses the historically less likable March sister with fresh verve and heart, going toe-to-toe with her headstrong eldest sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan). “While there’s nary a weak link among the cast, Ronan and Pugh are standouts portraying the growth of their characters over time but also the combustible dynamic between Jo and Amy,” USA TODAY movie critic Brian Truitt wrote. And Pugh isn’t going anywhere: Next May, she stars alongside Scarlett Johansson in “Black Widow.”

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Shia LaBeouf

Shia LaBeouf held nothing back in his searingly personal screenwriting debut for “Honey Boy,” in which he also plays his real-life dad: a washed-up rodeo clown and abusive alcoholic. LaBeouf turned introspective during his court-ordered rehab after being arrested in July 2017 and used the time to write the script. Now sober and making the pre-awards season rounds, LaBeouf is experiencing what USA TODAY’s critic declared the actor’s “Shiassance.”

Kate McKinnon 

McKinnon has spoiled us weekly on “Saturday Night Live” playing a rotating cast of newsmakers, including Elizabeth Warren, Rudy Giuliani and Kellyanne Conway. But in the upcoming Roger Ailes-focused drama “Bombshell” (in select theaters Dec. 13), McKinnon plays it straight as a Fox News producer who’s learned how to survive in a newsroom operating in a culture of fear. It’s the second film McKinnon added a pop to in 2019; in June she starred as a powerful music manager in the Beatles-themed romantic comedy “Yesterday.” Aside from being a major reason we tune into “SNL” each week, we can’t wait to see what McKinnon has in store for us in theaters in 2020.

Contributing: Patrick Ryan, Brian Truitt and Bryan Alexander

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