The 15 Breakout Stars of TV Critics' Summer Press Tour

From a Food Network personality to a slew of outspoken comedians, discover the lesser-known talent who impressed critics this summer.
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From left: Gina Yashere, Derek Mio, Abby McEnany

Plenty of big-name stars discussed their new series with reporters throughout the two and a half weeks of this year's Television Critics Association's summer press tour: Anne Hathaway, Orlando Bloom, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Regina King, Jim Carrey, Kirsten Dunst and 50 Cent. But the biannual event, as always, introduced plenty of new talent to critics who overshadowed some of their more famous peers.

While Gina Rodriguez is now a Golden Globe winner, she first charmed reporters at her debut TCA tour by giving an impassioned speech about the quality of roles available to Latina actresses, and not wanting to play a stereotypical character.

The below lesser-known stars might not be household names yet, but they did manage to stand out among the hundreds of people trotted out in front of the reporters confined to the Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom for the past few weeks.

Who: Sabrina Jalees
Show: Carol's Second Act (CBS)
Why: The comedian, who has written for TV and has a stand-up special as part of Netflix's The Comedy Lineup, landed her first big acting gig in the Patricia Heaton CBS sitcom about an empty-nester divorcee who changes careers and becomes a doctor. Previously a comedy writer, Jalees held her own alongside the sitcom titan and co-star Kyle MacLachlan, and charmed critics with her well-timed wisecracks and stories about her own hospital experiences.

"Good comedy comes from a real place. So we’re all real people," Jalees said about how the writers have shaped her and her co-stars' characters."Patricia does a lot of work with World Vision as, like, her real second act. And [MacLachlan has] a winery. I’m literally just bragging for everyone. But what I meant to say is I think we play close to our real experience. And so good, real comedy can come from that, not, like, someone in the writers room reads an article about avocado toast and it’s, like, 'That’ll be a runner.'"

Who: Beth Ditto
Show:
On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime) 
Why: Those who know the sometime rock star and fashion designer from her days as the lead singer of the indie rock band The Gossip wouldn't have recognized the sweet, Southern Ditto in her floral-patterned dress, looking every bit the born-and-raised Arkansan she is. The panel was full of strong personalities, but Ditto offered up tales of growing up poor in Arkansas and her own experiences with multi-level marketing companies (the series follows a Florida woman, played by Kirsten Dunst, caught up in an MLM scheme).

"My friend was in Amway, and she was, like, 'Hey, get your boyfriend to talk to his mom and dad, see if they’ll come to a meeting.' I was, like, 'I am not doing that.' And she was, like, 'Why? I’m sorry, I want my parents to get rich,' you know, very defensive. Like she even bought into it. They were all, like, doing chants and stuff," Ditto related. "It was pretty sad, because, as a teenager, I was even, like, 'Oh, y’all, this is never going to work.' Because everything — the toilet paper was Amway, the shampoo. And it was really expensive! That’s the other thing, too. It wasn’t cheap. It was very 'keep the poor poor.'"

Who: Derek Mio
Show:
The Terror: Infamy (AMC)
Why: The second season of AMC's horror anthology touches on the Japanese-American experience with internment camps during World War II — a personal experience not only for star George Takei, who was imprisoned in those camps as a child, but also for lead Mio, a fourth-generation Japanese-American whose own family members were imprisoned as well. He drew from his own family's experiences living on Terminal Island, where the season takes place.

"In the research for this, I went straight to my family. My aunt is still alive, my grandfather’s sister," Mio said. "I came across some interviews of my great grandmother and of my aunt, as well. One of these stories is about that very night [where] the elders of Terminal Island are being rounded up. ... When the FBI came, my great-grandfather was a community leader, so they took him away in the middle of the night and my grandfather was pleading with them to take him instead. All I know about my grandfather is how strong he is. He was the rock of our family. But reading that, it takes you back to that time, it puts you in his shoes. And so, when we shot that scene, it was hands down the most emotional experience I’ve ever had acting."

Who: Simone Missick
Show:
All Rise (CBS)
Why: The ensemble legal comedy is anchored by Luke Cage star Missick, who plays a prosecutor turned Los Angeles County Superior Court judge navigating her first days as a justice. Missick was in the middle of filming the second season of Netflix's sci-fi epic Altered Carbon and had just completed some tough stunt sequences when she flew down from Vancouver to audition for All Rise, then flew immediately back to fight some more. Three days later, she learned she'd gotten the role. It excited her, she said, because she's able to show the human side of an authority figure with a lot of power.

"She’s strong, and she’s capable, but she’s also funny and clumsy, which I am and I relate to," explained Missick. "We see all of these beautiful women on TV, women of color, women of all shapes and sizes in this cast, beautiful women of all different backgrounds. And yet ... we are flawed. We go to the bathroom. Do you know what I mean? And I’m tired of seeing perfect characters on TV. So I think that people will relate to the imperfections of Lola and everyone else in this cast."

She added, "When we see judges, they’re normally in the back of our legal system. And this character was a woman who was vulnerable and flawed and still dealing with emotions, but also extremely capable and smart and has a very strong sense of who she is and what she wants to see happen. I’ve had the fortune of playing very strong women, and I’ve been blessed to play characters that are capable and intelligent. But this woman is all of those things and still has a very soft side to her that I’m excited for the world to see."

Who: Molly Yeh
Show:
Girl Meets Farm (Food Network)
Why: The Chinese and Jewish chef amassed a large online following before her Food Network series debuted in 2018 — but it became clear as Yeh charmed the press that her following is completely organic, comprised of an audience who responds to her genuine personality.

"Next month, I’ll have had my blog for 10 years. And from the beginning, it was very clear that I was into creating food that I didn’t see anywhere else — food that combined my heritages, scallion pancake challah. Chinese and Jewish. Pastrami eggrolls. Chinese and Jewish. And just taking my unique heritage and my experiences to create foods that I had never seen before," she said. "I’m really bad with trends and really bad with rainbow bagels and stuff like that. I just stuck to what I was really passionate about. ... I never wrote a post just for the sake of getting traffic. It was always something that was a creative outlet for me — it still is a creative outlet for me — and it’s food that tells a story. Anytime I create a recipe, I want there to be a reason that I create that recipe. I don’t want to create a recipe that is on the internet in a million different places already, I want to create something that takes people to another country, or takes people to another time, or tells a story about something that I just learned about in my mother-in-law’s vintage church cookbooks, or talks about a new spice that my friends might not have heard of before. And so for me it’s just about exploring new things, new flavors, flexing my creativity and having fun, too."

Who: Kennedy McMann
Show:
Nancy Drew (The CW)
Why: The actress had two guest-starring credits on her résumé before landing her role as The CW's newest star. The daughter of a YA and middle grade author was working as a nanny in New York City after graduating from Carnegie Mellon as she began auditioning for film and television, and her young charges helped her with her preparation.

"I was working as a nanny in New York for a great family. They were really awesome and super supportive, thankfully. I would always do after-school time, so usually I would be auditioning in the day every morning and then, like, running to go catch a train and change into my nanny outfit and go work," she said. "And it became a thing where usually I would be like, 'Hey, guys, you know what’s a fun playtime? Help me learn my lines.' So they would sometimes help me learn some lines for auditions that were coming up, if homework was done and chores were done. ... I had quite a long commute to work. I would read scripts and work on stuff on the train. Probably looked like a crazy person as I’m talking to myself on the train. When I got the Nancy Drew script, I was just out-of-my-mind excited, and I was reading it as my kids were eating dinner and watching some show."

Who: Robin Thede
Show:
A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO)
Why: The first-ever woman of color to be a head writer on a late-night talk show is no stranger to TCA, having hosted the organization's 2018 award show. But Thede proved as engaging and friendly as ever as she discussed her new sketch comedy series, which is written and performed entirely by women of color.

"We had a lot of fun in the writers room. It was all black women so there was no, like, weird things to learn about each other — although every one of them is very different. They all came from different backgrounds and all bring something very different to the table. So it was really interesting to get the variety of comedic input from each of our writers," Thede said. "We have so many rich ideas and we work in so many different genres in this show. It’s like 40-some-odd individual short films. There’s horror. There’s action thrillers. There’s musicals. So we just wanted to show that black women can be more than one thing and that we can be dozens and dozens and limitless numbers of things."

Who: Kirby Howell-Baptiste
Show:
Why Women Kill (CBS All Access)
Why: With recent stints on The Good Place, Barry and the Veronica Mars revival, the British actress is no stranger to U.S. audiences. On Marc Cherry's CBS All-Access soap, which follows women in relationships in three different time periods, Howell-Baptiste plays a woman in an open marriage who represents a new type of partnership.

"My nana’s always wanted me to be a lawyer, and I said, 'I’m not going to be a lawyer, but one day I’ll play one.' And then this role came along, and I got to play a lawyer," she said. "This role was really fun and interesting. She’s such a strong woman. I think it’s a unique challenge as well to represent an entire era, a generation. I thought that was pretty incredible being given the opportunity to be the face of what a woman in 2019 looks like, sounds like, acts like. That was really, really exciting to me, being in a show where I could represent an entire era and represent how that has changed and how women have changed."

Who: Abby McEnany
Show:
Work in Progress (Showtime)
Why: The Chicago improv comedian made an impressive TCA debut, managing to win over the aloof crowd nearly immediately. When asked about why her character in the upcoming comedy Work in Progress is vocal about her hate for Saturday Night Live veteran Julia Sweeney, she explained that she never had a problem with the actress herself — just her iconic SNL character Pat.

"Pat ruined my life," McEnany cracked. "I’ve been called Pat a lot, and the storytelling show that this show came out of, one of the stories is called 'Julia Sweeney Ruined My Life.' It’s just Pat, the character. It’s not really about the character. It’s about society, and people feel that they can take things, characters and art and whatever, and then choose those as forms of bigotry and harassment or whatever. ... I was called Pat by lesbians in lesbian bars, so it just permeated even what I thought would be a safe space. Julia Sweeney, she is so talented, and I would hear her storytelling on This American Life, and I am enamored and in awe of her. Pat really was really rough. That character was rough."

Who: Gina Yashere
Show:
Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS)
Why: It became immediately clear during the CBS sitcom's panel that the Chuck Lorre series, about a middle-aged white man who falls for his Nigerian nurse, has Yashere to thank for its authenticity.

"A lot of the stories that you see in the show are basically incidents from my life and a lot of other immigrant lives," said the British-Nigerian actress. "It’s not about anybody Nigerian. It’s about anybody coming from anywhere. You could be Indian, Pakistani, German. It doesn’t matter. It’s just you’re going somewhere else and starting a new life."

Added Yashere, "A lot of American TV, when they do immigrants, we’re either very downtrodden, poor, or criminal, or our accents are never quite right. You’re never seen as three-dimensional people. It’s always an immigrant doing something wrong or being done wrong by somebody else or being killed or just living in poverty, and it’s always one similar story. And the good thing about this show is they’re not immigrants; they’re people. They’re people working. It’s a mother trying to put her son through school and have him be successful in a country that she wasn’t born in. It’s not about the fact that yes, she is from Nigeria. She’s from a different country. But they’re three-dimensional people with dreams and loves and hates and jobs and a life. ... When I’ve seen Africans played on television, they’re usually played by American actors who, you know, the casting people go, 'Just do an accent.' 'Where from?' 'Just Africa.' 'Yeah, but it’s, like, how many countries are in Africa?' 'Pick a place.' You wouldn’t have a guy from Louisiana and go, 'Oh, look, make him play New York. It’s fine. Nobody will notice.' But that’s what tends to happen. So I like the authenticity of this show and that we specifically wanted the lead actors to be Nigerian."

Who: Leo Sheng
Show:
The L Word: Generation Q (Showtime)
Why: Most trans narratives in media focus on people's transitions, but Sheng's character on Showtime's L Word reboot gets to simply live his life.

"Micah is a young social worker, which I love because I was actually studying social work before I got this role and it’s not a far reach from me. He is a very kind young man. He cares very deeply for all of his friends. So there’s this connection with the people he’s around," said Sheng. "I can’t say too much about it, but it’s very special, and I think that it’s something that’s really relatable. I can definitely relate to it, and I think it’s going to hopefully open doors to what some trans folks might experience. ... Unfortunately in our history of representation, stories around trans folks have often been very tragic, and those are a reality for many trans people, but I’m really excited that we are going into a different direction for Micah. There’s a lot of excitement, and not everything is necessarily about his transition, and that’s kind of fun."

Who: Emily Osment
Show:
Almost Family (Fox)
Why: While critics pressed the Fox drama's creators about the show's medical rape premise — a fertility doctor (Timothy Hutton) inseminates women with his sperm without their knowledge — star Osment, who plays a woman who discovers that Hutton's character is her biological father, brought levity to the panel. The former child actress discussed moving to New York, her first time living in a cold climate.

"We do a lot of karaoke. This is my first time living in New York. I grew up here in L.A., and I stayed in L.A. for school. So this is kind of my first — it’s like I’m going to college. I’m moving across the country with these wonderful people and feel very lucky that we all live in the city. And in so many ways we are paralleling our story, because we are all coming together as a family to help tackle the beast that is New York City. It’s hard there, you guys. It’s very cold and rough," she said.

Who: Geno Segers
Show:
Perfect Harmony (NBC) 
Why: The deep-voiced, 6-foot-4 actor is an imposing presence, but revealed to critics that before his career as a professional rugby player, he was a member of his high school's Madrigal choir. But it's really Seger's bass voice that turns heads.

"I just woke up one morning and scared the hell out of my mama. You know, she didn’t know what to think, and she literally wanted to know who that man was in my bedroom wanting Fruit Loops," he joked. "I was about 12 years old, and I woke up one morning, and I couldn’t talk. She made me some grits. She’s a Southern mother. She made me some oatmeal, rather. And then the next morning, I couldn’t talk. She made me some more oatmeal with honey and nuts and cinnamon and nutmeg. Thought that would be good for my throat, she would say. Then another morning, I woke up and she said, 'What do you want for breakfast, baby?' I said, 'Fruit Loops, Mama.' And from that day on, she just tells that joke at every family gathering."

There's also the fact that anytime Sheng is in public, people pay attention to what he's saying: "It’s an interesting phenomenon at the Starbucks or anywhere I go. They try to repeat what I say, or a lot of times guys’ voices will get a little bit deeper. And I’m like, 'Dude, just relax, man.'"

Who: Joel Kim Booster
Show:
Sunnyside (NBC)
Why: Booster plays a self-described "hot idiot," but the stand-up comedian and comedy writer is much more insightful about life than his character, an ultra-rich twentysomething whose parents live in "International waters."

"I love being a joke machine. I love being sort of frivolous and vacuous on the screen," Booster said. "But I know that [executive producer] Matt [Murray] and the writers have a lot of stuff planned for both Poppy [Liu] and I to ground our characters a little bit more in some reality of the show. The first couple episodes, it does seem like we’re space aliens, but I think we’re going to be tethered to Earth a little bit more as the series goes on — but I don’t think we’ll ever lose some of the frivolity and the absurdness, because that’s just who we are."

Who: Octopus
Show:
Octopus: Making Contact (PBS)
Why: The orange blob — credited on the official TCA transcript as simply "Octopus," but actually an unnamed Pacific red octopus from the Heal the Bay Aquarium — overshadowed her human handlers (incidentally, one of them is the cousin of ABC boss Karey Burke). The film follows octopus expert David Scheel, whose teenage daughter, Laurel, has a pet octopus of her own named Heidi. The best fun fact to come from the panel: Heidi watches TV with the family, particularly The Big Bang Theory.

Cracked Scheel, "In all honesty, the major characters there are physicists, and I think Heidi was more interested in the minor characters, some of whom are biologists."