There's no easy way to define a generation (trust us, because we've really tried with millennials), but who wants to do that anyway? Rather than trying to put a whole cohort of people born within the same 15-year span into some kind of box, let's just celebrate them, in all their distinctiveness.
More specifically, let's celebrate Gen Z, a generation who refuse any attempts to be seen en masse, and instead can best be understood through their individuality, their unique hopes and dreams, desires and demands. They are idealistic and unafraid, motivated and headstrong; they are icons and iconoclasts, and they make us excited for the future.
Last year, we took a look at
25 Gen Z'ers changing the world, a group that included activists, musicians, and actors. This year, we narrowed our focus to Hollywood, and are excited to share with you five young actors who are all primed to be the next big thing. Get to know them, below, and get ready to see them everywhere, soon.
Director: Dani Okon
Co-Producers: Charlotte Prager & Alexandra Hsie
Production Manager: Alison Yardley
She's got a utopian vision for the world—one that might just be possible
By Kristin Iversen
It was about two minutes into our conversation that 22-year-old Tati Gabrielle not only revealed to me her vision of a utopian future but, also, what was preventing the world from achieving it: "Utopia means a place where peace comes first. And while I do think humans need conflict, because we grow from conflict, I believe that with the proper utopia, it's peace first, chaos second, and everybody moves with a mindset of:
Let's spread light and love." Then, Gabrielle looked right into my eyes, concluding: "Let's try to make the world a better place from the inside-out."
In other words, it took about two minutes before I started thinking to myself, Maybe utopia is possible after all? Well, maybe I wasn't quite sold—but that's probably because I'm part of a far more cynical generation than is Gabrielle. Still, though, talking to her made me want to believe in a better future for everyone, and even made me believe one might be possible.
I wasn't necessarily expecting to discuss utopian possibilities with Gabrielle, and certainly not within a couple of minutes of meeting her. But Gabrielle is the kind of open person who seems almost incapable of small talk—she just lets loose with whatever is on her mind, talking about everything imaginable, moving fluidly from topic to topic, encouraging your mind to race right alongside hers.
Gabrielle credits her openness to her upbringing; she grew up in northern California, in the Bay Area, which, she told me, "has such a good vibe; it's such a welcoming, open place and I'm really blessed to have grown up in that, because I think that environment is a big reason why I am who I am now."
And while who Gabrielle is now is a curious, quick-witted, sunbeam of a person, you'd perhaps be forgiven for thinking that she might instead be a reflection of the character she plays on Netflix's Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, the deliciously wicked, ultra-devout witch Prudence Blackwood. Originally serving as a sinister foil to Sabrina, Prudence has evolved over the show's two seasons from a mere antagonist and into a complex antihero, as, Gabrielle told me, Prudence "starts to reconcile with her identity and builds strength from that, despite being neglected or jaded."
And while it's always a mistake to mix up actors with their characters (and particularly so in this case), Gabrielle is so skilled at embodying Prudence that I understand why I had half-expected she'd be similarly goth in real life, while instead, she's more the type of person to talk about her obsession with fairies (Gabrielle really wants to go to Iceland and explore the country's "fairy doors") than with witchcraft. But, Gabrielle said she connects to Prudence in that she's "always been a firm believer in the supernatural," and said, "at the end of the day, we only think things aren't real because we haven't witnessed them—but just because you haven't witnessed something doesn't mean it's not real, that it's not there."
This sensitivity to the feelings surrounding a thing, this acknowledgment that there is probably more to a person than what you see when first meeting them, has allowed Gabrielle to give a multidimensional portrayal of Prudence, instead of what might have otherwise happened with the character. Television, after all, is filled with many examples of white hero narratives, where characters of color—and specifically Black women characters—are presented in a reductive way. In less capable hands, it's possible to see that this could have happened with Prudence, who is set in opposition to Sabrina—the blonde, white "chosen one" played by Kiernan Shipka. But this didn't happen, because Gabrielle has made Prudence the most nuanced character on the show, imbuing her with a sensitivity and depth that's uniquely compelling.
Gabrielle explained to me the challenges of playing Prudence, saying, "I'm very spiritual in the way that I deal with my characters, in that I believe they are a soul that's in the world, and that they have a story that needs to be told—and that shouldn't be judged." Gabrielle said she's been frustrated when Prudence is just "called this mad Black woman," and explained to me that what she brings to the role is an "understanding of where Prudence came from, how she had to fight—literally—for her place and fight for her importance as an orphan, and respect for her climb and respect for her feelings."
"I believe that with the proper utopia, it's peace first, chaos second, and everybody moves with a mindset of: Let's spread light and love."
Gabrielle is highly empathetic, and that's also something she brought to the part; she told me, "Prudence definitely presented quite a few challenges—especially in the beginning. She's someone who is seen as evil but doesn't believe herself to be evil. And I don't believe Prudence is evil. That's the stance I knew I had to take from the jump. I had to see her side."
Perhaps Gabrielle is so good at seeing other people's sides because, as she told me, she grew in such an open environment. And perhaps it's partly innate; she told me, "My mom called me her bohemian child because when I was a kid, I was very affectionate, very loving." And, Gabrielle continued, "My mother's Korean, and my father's African American, so living in a dual-cultured household really automatically set me up for this merged world—because that's the world I lived in, and I could see outside of that, but I saw the world moving more toward that aspect, of opposite sides of the spectrum coming together." She laughed, telling me all this, finishing: "So, yeah, all that put together made little hippie me!"
It's this openness that makes Gabrielle seem so emblematic of her generation, one which has become known for wanting to be a force for good and to heal the damage that prior generations have caused. Gabrielle said that's something she hopes will be in her future, telling me, "I'm excited to see how far I can grow artistically, and see how many different outlets I can reach. I'm also really excited to use my platform and see how I can leave my footprint on this world in the best way possible. That's probably the thing I'm most excited about, figuring out how I can be of service, whether through my career or through philanthropic efforts, or whatever, but just using my platform for good."
It's easy to see that whatever future Gabrielle imagines for herself is one she can make happen—not because she's magic, but because she believes in herself and other people, in what's around us, in what we have to work with. She knows it's a lifelong project, doing good, and it's one that, in addition to her acting, she's happy to be working on, telling me before we say goodbye: "You have to allow your consciousness to develop on its own and not be socially conditioned; you have to figure out who you are and what you have to bring to the world and how you can best contribute to what's already there." Sounds pretty utopian to me.
He went from Tumblr to Netflix and into a whole other dimension
By Bailey Calfee
Ian Alexander isn't the first teenager to find a community on Tumblr, but he might be the first one to find an acting role that was basically tailor-made for him. It was on Tumblr that Alexander heard about a casting call for an Asian teenager—specifically, a trans boy. It was a description that fit him perfectly, Alexanders says now, telling me, "It felt so specific to me that I just had to go for it." And going for it led the Salt Lake City-raised Alexander into the role of Buck Vu on Netflix's megahit The OA.
Only 14 when he got the role, Alexander, who is now 18, has two seasons of The OA under his belt, as well as some small parts in a couple of films. But, more than that, Alexander now has a platform from which to showcase his individuality, and make his followers see the beauty and freedom and power that comes from being true to yourself.
Of course, it wasn't always easy for Alexander. He tells me, "When I first came out, I definitely felt pressure to conform to masculine stereotypes, and it just didn't feel authentic to myself, because that's not who I am." Who he is, though, is someone who loves wearing big earrings (which, same), and, he tells me, he's "always enjoyed things that are considered 'feminine.' I enjoyed wearing makeup, and I enjoyed wearing nail polish and jewelry and stuff like that."
For Alexander, those loves didn't die just because he changed his pronouns. "I don't want to hide any aspects of who I am just because of my gender identity. I can be just as masculine as a cis man, but wearing makeup, because makeup and things like that are genderless anyway, and anyone can wear them," he tells me. "I also think it's really important to just be who I am and express myself fully, because then it gives other people courage to do the same."
Alexander is aware of the impact that his onscreen presence could have on all people's understanding of trans identity—not just those who identify similarly. "It's great that my audience is mainly other people my age, particularly other LGBTQ people," he says, "but I would also like to reach people who might have never met a trans person that they know of, and be their first exposure to the trans community."
It can feel like a big responsibility for an 18-year-old, that feeling that they need to be a role model for countless other people. But Alexander embraces it, and recognizes the importance in doing so. "I feel like it's really important to be visible, and to have people know that trans people exist, and that we're just regular people," he tells me. "We're not scary or dangerous or anything like that."
That visibility is attained both by being a main character of a popular TV series, but also by using tools like Twitter and Instagram. "I feel like, because of social media, it's so easy to educate yourself about different issues and raise awareness for issues," he says. "It's really important to [do that], because there are things that would otherwise be ignored on the news. A lot of people in my generation feel a sort of responsibility to make the world a better place, and you can do it in the palm of your hands."
"It's really important to be visible, and to have people know that trans people exist, and that we're just regular people."
A quick scroll through Alexander's Twitter feed shows him speaking up about the continuing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and joining a fight to make proms more inclusive of all genders and sexualities. He also shares links to other trans individuals' fundraisers for gender-affirming surgeries, and has been open about his feelings about finally getting to start taking testosterone. Unlike some people who spend a lot of time online, Alexander sounds grateful for all that virtual spaces have to offer, telling me, "The internet is an amazing resource for finding other people who feel similarly to you, or who are going through the same things, so it's really easy to find a community of people online who you can connect with and talk about your feelings."
He's a powerful example of the way Gen Z utilizes social media, wielding it as a tool for positive change—maybe that comes in the form of a groundbreaking role on a Netflix series, or maybe it comes in the form of bringing marginalized communities into the mainstream, and letting people know they're not alone. Alexander says that he feels like that's his mission, more than anything else: "That I can make someone feel more comfortable with expressing themselves the way they want to… That's my main goal in life, is to just make people happy and love themselves more." He's definitely on the right track.
Call her, beep her, if you want to reach her
By Allison Stubblebine
It would take someone super level-headed to stay calm once they knew they'd be starring in a much-anticipated reboot for Disney. But for Sadie Stanley, aka the new Kim Possible, it wasn't much of a problem—she'd been too young to watch the show when it first aired. Still, though, as Stanley recently told me, the new Kim Possible film was more than just the perfect first audition: "I knew exactly what it was when I heard about the project, so I knew how important it was, and how iconic the character is."
But while Stanley knew the role was a potential launching pad for her career, she didn't realize just how much she would relate to the character she'd soon inhabit. "Kim and I are both very ambitious. We both like a lot on our plate, sometimes to a fault," Stanley told me. "She's so multidimensional—so strong and powerful, but she's also flawed."
It's hard to see Stanley's flaws, but it's easy to see that she's got real determination—even if it is hiding under a sweet, bubbly exterior. But it takes real drive to get to where Stanley is now, especially at such a young age. After all, it wasn't so long ago that the 17-year-old was just a kid in South Carolina, doing local theater. But Stanley knew she could be more and begged her mom to fly "out to L.A. for the first time just to see what would happen." And now, she's sitting atop a Disney franchise—not too bad.
But perhaps the most exciting thing about Stanley's career is how much is still unknown. She's ready to jump at the next opportunity but doesn't have it all planned out. Stanley says she hasn't "really fully grasped" what she's looking for in her next role, but knows she wants the chance to "fall in love" with her characters and with their "idiosyncrasies," and bring them to life on screen.
Until then, though, Stanley is heeding the words of her Kim Possible director, Adam Stein, who gave her a note on their final day of filming. "I read it all the time," she tells me, "One thing he said was, 'Stay grounded, and stay humble, but never stop believing in yourself.'... Coming from him, that meant a lot."
Stanley has no shortage of people who believe in her, and she says that's what she reminds herself of when she looks back and thinks, " Wow, how did I get where I am?" She knows "it was all about the right timing, it was just the right role for me; I was just what they were looking for; it was the right combination of hard work and opportunity," and so is determined to keep moving forward. She's also pretty open about believing in a higher power, saying: "God has his plan for me. It is weird to think that all of it happened so quickly, but I'm just so grateful for every second of it, and I'm never going to take that for granted."
"It is weird to think that all of it happened so quickly, but I'm just so grateful for every second of it, and I'm never going to take that for granted."
What strikes me most is that while Stanley speaks with the assured confidence of someone who got their dream gig on their first try, there is an uncanniness to everything she says—though I guess that's representative of her generation, which is well aware that everything they say is on the record. So whereas many teens would be word-vomiting when given the chance to speak about their hopes and dreams, and give their thoughts on pop culture, and on their friends and family, Stanley chose her words wisely, apologizing to me for being "all over the place" after giving a carefully thought-out answer—with perfect grammar to boot—about what she's learned, and would impart to other young women in her generation who want to pursue their dreams.
"This career is incredibly difficult," she tells me, acknowledging it's not for the faint-hearted, despite how easy she may make it look. "I didn't realize before going into it. There is so much living in limbo, and so much rejection; so much constant uncertainty, so it can really take a toll. But if you love acting and you love what you do, you want to learn more about it, you want to prove yourself because you're the most passionate about it as you can possibly be, then all of that other stuff just gets pushed to the side."
No, not Rihanna—but she totally understands that mistake
By Sesali Bowen
The coolest thing about Rhianne Barreto isn't that she went to the same performing arts school as Amy Winehouse. The coolest thing about Rhianne Barreto isn't even that she only mentions this very cool fact in an offhand way when she's giving me all the details of her life, as we hang out after she shoots the video portraits for this story. No, the coolest thing about Rhianne Barreto is that she has the kind of chill confidence that can't be learned; it has to be a part of who you are. And it's definitely a part of Barreto. She's so in possession of it that, when I mentioned how many times my computer and phone autocorrected her name to "Rihanna," she simply smiled and said that made her "deeply sad," because she's constantly reminded that she'll never be the Bad Gal. And while that's true—there's only one Rihanna—it's pretty clear that there's also only one Rhianne Barreto.
Barreto was born and raised in London and is the second oldest of nine children—all of whom have names that begin with the letter R. Her acting career began, unofficially, when she was still in grade school. Her older sister was tapped to play a part in the school play and, when one of the other actors backed out, Barreto volunteered to play the part. She had learned all of the lines in her free time and stepped right up to the plate. "None of the boys wanted to do the play, all the girls wanted to wear dresses, and I was playing a man—wearing my brother's holy communion suit and putting dirt on my face as an orphan," she said. And the positive response to her performance led Barreto's mom and dad to "keep an eye" on their daughter's interest in acting, which resulted in her eventual transition to a performing arts school (yes, the one Winehouse attended). And it was a showcase put on by that school that led to Barreto getting noticed by agents and booking her first two roles.
Currently, you can catch Barreto playing Sophie, the titular character's BFF in the Amazon Prime Video original series Hanna. But up next, she'll front and center in Share, a feature film directed by Pippa Bianco and set to be released on HBO later this year. It's a conversation-starter of a movie, and opens on Barreto's character, 16-year-old Mandy, waking up on her front lawn after a night out, with no memory of how she got there; the film follows Mandy as she goes on an emotional journey to figure out what happened that night, and it grapples with issues related to sexual assault, retribution, young women's agency, and so much more. Barreto describes the film as an "elastic band [of anxiety] that is being pulled from the beginning, and you're just waiting for that thing to snap." Share powerfully complicates the onscreen narrative of sexual assault, due in no small part to Barreto's compelling performance.
Barreto told me that she was drawn to the role because of the openness of the film's message—or lack of any specific one. She told me, "If you want to be a survivor and speak out for these things, fucking do that. That takes bravery. But it also takes bravery not to do those things and to not speak out. We need to have the same amount of compassion for victims that [do both]." This is what Barreto wants people to take away from Share. When it comes to sexual assault, there is a real lack of clarity, and that's important to acknowledge. She told me, "[Consent is] not a pancake. It's a whole layered tiered cake of confusion, and it's not just one-sided. It's much fuller, and it takes a lot of teaching."
Another revolutionary aspect of Share is that it doesn't do what so many mainstream narratives do: center a white woman as a victim, as a "perfect" victim. Barreto—whose mother is, she joked, "just a white lady from England," and whose father was born in Iraq, and is Indian and Portuguese—cites director Bianco as the reason for this; she said, "It takes a certain kind of creative to champion people who got the job because of the ability and not because of the color. It would have been easier for her to hire a white girl from America."
And Bianco's support of Barreto extends to other things, too: Barreto had to deal with hostile American immigration policies when the time came to film Share. She explained to me that, after her application for a work visa had been approved, she was told she would just need to visit the U.S. embassy and get the final stamp of approval from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). It was supposed to be easy; she said everyone told her, "Just go in and be nice and normal and you'll be fine."
"If you want to be a survivor and speak out for these things, fucking do that. That takes bravery."
Instead, when Barreto got to the embassy, she was hit with a barrage of questions like: "Where are you from?" "Where are your parents from?" "Do you speak Arabic?" She was then even told: "You don't look British." So even though Barreto was twice approved for a visa, she was also twice denied once immigration representatives saw her in person. And so, with only a few weeks before filming was supposed to take place in New York, Bianco made the decision to move the entire shoot to Canada.
The difficulties didn't end there, though: When it was time for Barreto to attend the premiere of Share at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it took calls to the embassy from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Grace Meng to finally get approval for Barreto to enter the U.S. Barreto still can't quite believe it, and said, "They had senators fighting my case to get me to go to my premiere. If I have that and I still can't get an 0-1B visa [classified as a nonimmigrant visa for individuals with "an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry"], then what about people who don't have money and need to get in for safety?"
This kind of questioning of a larger cultural context is typical for Barreto; she might identify her own experiences as being problematic, but she quickly links them to the bigger problems that people face all over the world. Whether related to immigration, sexual assault, or the media's representations of people of color, the important issues of today are ones with which Barreto is acutely engaged, and actively looking for answers to the world's most persistent questions. If she's at all representative of Gen Z, there might just be hope for the future after all.
She's unafraid to use her voice
By Taylor Bryant
Sydney Park wanted to be an entertainer since before she even knew what an entertainer was. "There's actually a videotape of me at three years old saying, 'I wanna be on that TV!' to my mom," she told me. "It's kind of been in my head and in my brain since before I can remember."
While some of our mothers might have dismissed our pleas, Park's mom did mock interviews with her daughter and played an integral role in the beginning of Park's career. And that career? Well, it started only three years after Park first declared she wanted to be on the small screen.
At just six years old, Park, who is 21 now, became the youngest comedian to perform at the famous Hollywood Improv, where her mom was working as a server at the time. Even though the Improv stage would be the pinnacle for many other performers, for Park, it was just a launching pad. Soon enough, she brought her stand-up routine to an even bigger stage and auditioned for America's Got Talent under the name Syd the Kid. Although she got to the next round of the show, she ended up leaving because she was swooped up by a Disney executive who wanted Park to appear in their hit series, That's So Raven. Park's role on the show was a riff on her persona as a comedian, and she was known as "Sydney the insult comedian." It was, Park told me, "my first official gig. Before that, I was really doing fun commercials here and there."
But there would be a lot more to come: Following Raven, Park made appearances on everything from Entourage to Hannah Montana to Instant Mom, before finally landing a recurring role on The Walking Dead in 2016. Since then she's worked on other, similarly intense sets, landing roles in the horror film Wish Upon; Netflix's dark zombie comedy, Santa Clarita Diet; and, most recently, The Perfectionists, the Freeform spin-off to the mega-hit, Pretty Little Liars.
Though it seems like Park made a sharp turn, career-wise, shifting from comedy to much darker things, it actually seems like this is Park's true niche. After all, her birthday falls on Halloween, and though she says she wasn't a fan of the holiday as a kid ("I wouldn't really last very long when we went trick or treating… I was so terrified of the dark and Scream masks were the worst ever"), she's come to appreciate it more now: "I was just watching a horror film last night, and I was saying to myself, That would be a great role, to get the lead of a really solid, cool indie horror film."
But before any of that happens, Park is busy playing Caitlin, the straight-A student-athlete on The Perfectionists. "I was really drawn to Caitlin because I loved her poise, I loved that she comes from a political family… I loved how quirky she was, too," Park said. "And, on top of that, the character in the book is of Korean descent, and me being half-Korean was perfect." While That's So Raven was Park's first major gig, this is, in a lot of ways, Park's breakout role. She's the main cast member on a show with a built-in, devoted audience; this is the kind of thing that gets you stopped on the street. Of that kind of sometimes overwhelming fandom, Park said: "It's been a dream, because most projects don't get the recognition, but they're great. And so the fact that we have a great cast and a great project, but it actually gets the push, the love, the attention... it's really amazing."
A big part of that push is thanks to social media, and Park has embraced it, building up robust Instagram and Twitter presences. But whereas many members of her generation are very conscious of every word they say on their platforms, Park isn't afraid to speak her mind—no matter how others might react. When I asked her about what she hopes other generations might learn from hers, she said, "I hope they learn that tradition is okay, and it's okay to be more conservative or be more out there, you don't always have to follow the trend of the millennials, the Gen Z'ers, of being outrageous or being hypersensitive to social issues."
This can be surprising to hear from someone Park's age, but it makes sense when you remember that Park started out as an insult comic, back in a time—the early '00s—when that sort of comedy was expected, and even encouraged. Still, it can be startling to watch Parks in her 2006 America's Got Talent routine, and see her, at eight-years-old, riff on Black people and their weight: "If I see another fat Black lady in a tiny dress, I think I'm gonna die." It's even more startling to see Park's mother and all the show's judges—Brandy, Piers Morgan, and David Hasselhoff—laughing in the background. It's hard to imagine that happening now.
"We all get the same 24 hours in a day, just go out there and be great—whatever that is. Be good at what you do, and strive to be better."
And yet, Park doesn't see it as something to get upset about. "I think stand-up is all controversial anyway and that's kind of the point of stand-up comedians is to be offensive and be weird and have opinions," she told me when I asked about the clip. "I am a Black person, and this is part of my culture, and at the end of the day a lot of hard work went into performing stand-up at such a young age, and I'm proud of that accomplishment."
Perhaps there's something to learn from Park's stance, a reminder that Gen Z is not a monolith, and not totally filled with people who see the world in only one way. Perhaps this is also a reminder that, even though today's young people are often criticized for being too sensitive, their exposure to so much media has made some of them—like Park—push back against this perception, and use their voices however they want, even if some people get upset.
As for what's next on Park's docket: using her voice in a totally different way. "I was always so busy with acting, which is great, and I tried working with some music producers when I was younger and doing little girl groups here and there, but my acting career really took off, which is a blessing, but now I have this different platform that I can use, and I really love using my voice," Park said. Her preferred genre is alternative R&B but not, she made clear, the, like, depressing kind. "A lot of music from some of our female artists is about relationships and can be a little whiny," she said. "I'm thinking of starting something that's more like the female Anderson .Paak in a way."
No matter the medium, the one message that Park hopes to pass along through her ever-growing platform is that anyone is capable of everything. "I came from a working-class family, and my parents have reinvented themselves like 10 times," she said. "They came from nothing, so the fact that they sacrificed so much and poured their love into me so I could pursue my dreams, it's inspiring. We all get the same 24 hours in a day, just go out there and be great—whatever that is. Be good at what you do, and strive to be better."