It pays to be a rebel.
From the stage to the silver screen, female entertainers are breaking out of traditional roles and finding success in being different. Rather than accepting the mantle of “beautiful leading lady,” “token woman” or “funny sidekick,” they’re blazing their own trails and succeeding.
It’s hard to be a woman in the film industry, and even more difficult to be a woman of color. Women comprise only 15% of all protagonists in film, according to a 2013 study. Yet an increasing number of women are flourishing in strong, refreshingly atypical roles. The success of Scandal and Shonda Rhimes, The Mindy Project and films like Twelve Years a Slave are all a signs of this larger rebalancing, as more diverse women appear in front-and-center roles. And it’s happening because actresses and their allies are breaking down the door.
Seven rising entertainers are prime examples. These women are taking nontraditional paths to success — and reaping the rewards. Here’s what they’ve learned along the way.
1. You’re going to have to work harder than everyone else. (Mindy Kaling)
“Oftentimes, the showrunner will be like, ‘Hey, we don’t need everybody to stay. Who wants to leave?’ I have never volunteered. What if this is the time when they make some great discovery or there’s this great line of jokes and I would have not been a part of that?”
A year after graduating Dartmouth College, Mindy Kaling and her roommate, Brenda Withers, put on their own show. It kickstarted Kaling’s career. They were onstage performing “Matt & Ben,” their reimagining of how Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote Good Will Hunting, when Greg Daniels, creator of The Office, showed up. He was stunned by Kaling’s take on Ben Affleck. Two months later, Kaling was hired as a writer for The Office.
Fast-forward 12 years and Kaling is the star of her own show, The Mindy Project.
2. Always go with your gut. (Jessica Williams)
“I had to learn to trust my internal voice and my instinct.”
After Jessica Williams was persuaded to submit an audition tape to become a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, she thought it went terribly: “I remember driving back to school, being like, ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid!’”
But a few days later, she got an audition in New York City in front of Stewart himself. Two days after the audition, she was asked to move across the country and became the first-ever black female in the role. Now Williams has become one of The Daily Show’s most recognizable correspondents, tackling everything from stop-and-frisk policies to the realities of being catcalled on her daily commute.
3. Choose to do what makes you happy, even if it’s hard. (Lupita Nyong’o)
“I decided to go to drama school because I thought that when I’m 60 and looking back on my life, if acting hadn’t been a part of it, I would hate myself.”
Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o got her start in the business working as a production assistant on film sets during her summers off, where she met Ralph Fiennes. When Nyong’o told him she wanted to be an actress, Fiennes told her, “Only act if you feel you can’t live without it.”
Soon after, she applied to the Yale School of Drama. A few weeks before graduating, she was cast in 12 Years a Slave. Now, Nyong’o is an Academy Award-winner and set to star in Star Wars: Episode VII.
4. Start small, gain experience and work your way up. (Keke Palmer)
“Start out by being involved in everything possible within your own community. So many people want to run out to L.A. or New York before they have any experience. Preparation is...crucial. Just be ready when your opportunity comes.”
Most people still remember Keke Palmer as the young star of the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. She went on to have small parts in movies and TV and became the youngest TV talk show host ever after Just Keke debuted on BET.
Now she’s the first African-American woman ever to play Cinderella in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway production, which began Sept. 9. Though some called the move to reimagine the traditionally blonde, blue-eyed Cinderella “controversial,” most just called it “progress.”
5. Take charge of your own future. (Zoe Kazan)
“Nothing’s going to come to you by sitting around and waiting for it.”
It’s not unusual for young actresses to be Hollywood royalty, but Zoe Kazan comes from a long line of film industry elite. Her grandfather, Elia Kazan, directed A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. But Kazan refuses to tread on her family’s success.
Speaking with Time magazine, Kazan recalled her first week of college at Yale University in September 2001. She gave an interview to a reporter for the Yale Daily News, after 9/11, which was supposed to be about life as a college student during a national crisis. Instead, the reporter only spotlighted her for her famous family.
Kazan was crushed. Since then, she has become a successful actress-turned-screenwriter in her own right. She played Leonardo DiCaprio’s mistress in Revolutionary Road, wrote and starred in 2012’s Ruby Sparks and will appear in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, set to air Nov. 2 and 3.
6. Success may not come right away, but keep at it. (Lizzy Caplan)
“I’ve always felt like the underdog.”
In the 10 years since Mean Girls became a cultural phenomenon, Lizzy Caplan has graduated from the heavily made-up, snarky Janis Ian to the star of Showtime’s Masters of Sex.
During an August 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Caplan recalled feeling completely out of place at a 2012 meeting with the creators of Masters of Sex and Showtime executives. Michael Sheen, who plays Caplan’s costar, is a classically trained Welsh actor. He regaled the room with stories about playing Jesus and had everyone “eating out of the palm of his hand,” Caplan said. She went back to her car and cried.
Now, Masters of Sex is in its second season and Caplan has been nominated for an Emmy for best actress.
7. Do what you find meaningful and forget the rest. (Tessa Thompson)
“I’d like to make projects that have some lasting effect. I think you can tell a story and help people understand what it is to be human.”
In Dear White People, a film in theaters now that takes a bold look at race and identity, Tessa Thompson plays Sam White, the biracial protagonist and host of a campus radio show at a predominantly white university.
In an interview with Vogue, Thompson said she identifies with her character in more ways than one. Her freshman year at a diverse but still somewhat segregated high school, Thompson recalled not knowing where to sit to eat lunch. She said she didn’t know where she fit in at a school that put people in a box.
Next, Thompson will play civil rights activist Diane Nash alongside Common and Oprah in the biopic Selma.
She knows where she fits in now.
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