Meet 10 of the most exciting big-and little-screen actors working today -- and check out the wildly diverse ways they redefine the theme of our April issue: the American Dream.

Photo by Stella Berkofsky; Ellar wears pants and coat by GANT, sweater by Howlin and a knit by Pari Desai; Styling by Tiff Horn, grooming by Hayley Farrington; Location: BOXeight Studios

Ellar Coltrane
With the accolades surrounding Boyhood -- the Oscar-nominated family epic that Richard Linklater shot around Texas over the course of 12 years -- it's understandable that star Ellar Coltrane has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles lately. It's equally understandable that Coltrane, an amiably slouchy 20-year-old, isn't used to all the attention. "It's really been a culture shock to come out here and be in the middle of all this craziness," he says.
 
Out west, Coltrane is making friends and has a clandestine project in the works. Still, he doesn't plan to move to Hollywood. "Austin is home," he says. In addition to the film gigs, he paints, writes, models (thanks to a freshly inked contract with Wilhelmina) and hopes to attend college in the next year.

Coltrane's American Dream is as lucid and sincere as the performance that has launched him into the mainstream. "We've gotten ourselves into an uncomfortable 
position in this country and the whole world," he says. "My dream for America? To heal and learn to love each other."
[Liz Ohanesian; read our extended interview with Ellar here.]

Photo by Albert Sanchez; Gina wears earrings by Lauren Harper; Styling by Dana Goldenberg at Wilhelmina, hair by Paul Norton at Tracey Mattingly LLC, makeup by Carissa Ferreri at Tracey Mattingly LLC; Location: the Forge LA

Gina Rodriguez
Countless American eyes welled up when Gina Rodriguez, accepting her Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, said that the award "represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes. My father used to tell me to say every morning, 'Today is going to be a great day. I can and I will.' Well, Dad, today's a great day. I can, and I did."

Thanks to her titular role in the breakout CW series Jane the Virgin, Rodriguez has become a high-profile activist for a sorely underrepresented community. "I hope Jane the Virgin has contributed to that letting go of the fear that it's a risk [to cast Latinos]," she says. "You hire a good actor, they're going to deliver, regardless of their color."

Rodriguez will appear alongside Ray Liotta in the forthcoming film Sticky Notes and join Mark Wahlberg in 2016's Deepwater Horizon. But true success came when she was 24 and starring in a play in St. Petersburg, Florida. "My father was like, 'Man, you're good.'" she recalls. "My parents' acceptance of my art? Recognizing my talent in their eyes? The American Dream for me is to live happily." [Emily Warman; read our extended interview with Gina here.]


Photo by Danny Baldwin; Desiree wears a dress by Vivienne Westwood and rings and watch by Daisy Knights; Styling by Adele Cany, hair by Nuriye Sonmez using Bumble and Bumble, makeup by Violet Zeng using M.A.C. Cosmetics

Desiree Akhavan
"I think I'm the poster child for American Dreams," says filmmaker Desiree Akhavan; "a female, bisexual child of immigrants who makes movies."

From Park City to Sydney, the 30-year-old writer/director/actor has been wowing festival crowds with the semi-autobiographical romantic comedy Appropriate Behavior. Akhavan's knack for finding humor in intimate details -- like an awkward lingerie shopping trip -- has earned the film more than a few comparisons to Girls. (In fact, Akhavan recently appeared in the fourth season of the series, as Hannah's Iowa classmate, Chandra.) Akhavan has more stops ahead, but Appropriate Behavior is just the start for this New York auteur: she's been developing a television series and is currently working on her next feature.

Akhavan, whose parents came to the US from Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, grew up hearing her dad say that she could do whatever she wanted with hard work. That lesson is coming to fruition with the success of Appropriate Behavior, which was made with a tiny budget and features no major screen stars. Says Akhavan, "I feel like every viewer was a coup." [Liz Ohanesian]


Photo by Rodolfo Martinez; Arielle wears a shirt by Diesel, vest by Edun and a skirt by Sandro; Styling by Jessica Zamora-Turner, hair and makeup by Christy McCabe at Utopia the Agency

Arielle Holmes
It wasn't supposed to end this way. In the final scenes of the Josh and Benny Safdie movie Heaven Knows What, a pair of homeless and heavily addicted kids board a bus from New York to Florida. The Safdies intended to wrap up the story down south, but they moved the last scene back to New York when actor Arielle Holmes kicked a bus window till it cracked. "If [the character] broke a bus window in real life, they'd probably throw her off," Holmes explains. "So that's where the different ending came from. I love that it worked out that way."

One explanation for Holmes' extreme investment in the part is that Heaven Knows What is based on her life: when she met the Safdies, she was a homeless 19-year-old, hooked on heroin and soon to do a stint in Bellevue Hospital's psych ward. But living your life and recreating it in front of a camera are two very different things. And though her previous acting experience amounts to a couple of grade-school plays, Holmes carries the film masterfully -- and mercilessly.

Now based in L.A., with her second movie already wrapped, Holmes has once again shown a miraculous gift for adaptability. No wonder her American Dream is simply "to be open to anything." [James Rickman; read our extended interview with Arielle here.]

Photo by Gilles Toucas; Styling by Franzy Staedler; Grooming by Sarah Dougherty For Exclusive Artists

Shameik Moore
The Atlanta-bred 19-year-old is the star of the very '90s Sundance darling Dope, and was scooped up by ICM Partners months before the premiere. Now he's headed for 1970s Bronx as the star role in the upcoming Netflix series The Get Down. All this in addition to multiple music credits on Dope's Pharell-produced soundtrack and millions of clicks as a singer and performer. As his website says, "You are now entering Meak's world, a world where anything is possible."  [Jacob Muselmann]

I embody the American Dream by choosing to live in each moment, making the most of every situation, keeping a positive mindset, and by operating on excellence.
-- Shameik Moore

Photo by Getty

Aubrey Peeples
Hot off her part in ABC's Nashville -- where, when she wasn't singing, she was dealing with divorce and suicidal tendencies -- Aubrey Peeples is stamping onto a different stage: the big-screen, neon proscenium of Jem and the Holograms, in which she plays the lead. Reflecting on the theme of our issue, Peeples says that "empty words like 'the wealthiest' and 'the skinniest' have crept their way into our dialogue, and I think today, the American Dream is about ridding ourselves of these and redefining success on an individual basis, thus taking back the ideal that once was." [JM]

Photo courtesy of Comedy Central
Anders Holm
Workaholics was never meant to be about actually working, necessarily, but star and co-creator Anders Holm is beginning to live up to the name. The show's fifth season just closed, hot on the heels of Holm's roles in the notorious Rogen-James comedy The Interview and Chris Rock's Top Five. And with his surprisingly understated performance in the film Unexpected, Holm just might be our next Adam "Where the Hell Did All That Gravitas Come From" Sandler. [JM]

Leslie Jones
Just months into her stint as a writer at SNL, 47-year-old comedienne Leslie Jones made her extremely edgy Weekend Update debut -- with comments like, "Back in the slave days, I would have never been single" -- and was catapulted to the sketchy limelight for good. She became the oldest cast member to get hired for the job, which marked the first time two African-American women have been in the cast at once. Now she's been drafted into the SNL super-elite with a starring role in 2016's all-female Ghostbusters reboot. But above all, it's the fearlessness that Jones brings to her comedy that landed her in our class of 2015. [JM]


Photo courtesy of Fox

Bryshere Gray

You might've heard Bryshere Gray in the rap world, but chances are you know him as the privileged Hakeem on Empire, the Fox show that just wrapped its record-smashing first season. The 21-year-old from Philly, who also goes by Yazz the Greatest, has come a long way since spending his last Pizza Hut paycheck on his first music video: moving to Hollywood, performing on The View and, oh yeah, doing a love scene with Naomi Campbell. [JM]


Lily James
Between her role as Downton Abbey's Lady Rose MacClare and her ascent as the star of Disney's Cinderella remake, Lily James has a knack for portraying both sides of the aristocracy. And while her ability to sell period parts is obvious, her range within that category is remarkable: next year she'll star in the miniseries War and Peace and the timeless flesh-ripper Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. [Molly Beauchemin]

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