Our six (well, make that eight, technically) inimitable cover subjects enthralled and thrilled us in 2019. Plus: 10 other honorees who blew our pop culture minds.
Check out the full list of EW’s 2019 Entertainers of the Year below and see all the photos from the cover shoots.
Awkwafina joins EW’s Entertainers of the Year list for the second time in a row (she appeared in 2018 as part of the cast of Crazy Rich Asians), but this time she assumes her position in the spotlight all by herself. The rapper-actress began 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival, where she debuted two titles — the dystopian Paradise Hills and the Golden Globe-nominated The Farewell. Her turn in the latter will work out to be a career-defining one. To hear what Awkwafina had to say about her banner performance — and the even bigger response to it — read her full cover story.
Renée Zellweger is notoriously press-shy, but she put herself front and center this season, all in the name of one Judy Garland. Her portrayal of the late star received praise from all of Garland’s admirers but, more presciently, Judy put her on the path to another award season run. She sat down with EW for her own cover story to discuss finding her purpose in 2019.
Regina King started 2019 by winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in If Beale Street Could Talk. That might be cause for a period of rest and celebration for some, but for King it served as momentum for her next project: starring in HBO’s hotly anticipated Watchmen. Read her full cover story to find out her favorite part about kicking all that white supremacist ass.
Taika Waititi might be the industry’s ultimate multihyphenate. In 2019 alone he worked on Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian, the reboot of What We Do in the Shadows, and directed the satirical — and Golden Globe-nominated — Jojo Rabbit, in which he also happened to play Hitler. He talked to EW about all things Marvel and Rabbit.
Lizzo took a DNA test and it turns out she’s one of the most significant artists of 2019. She spent seven weeks at the top of the Hot 100 with her single “Truth Hurts” and took home a whopping eight Grammy nominations. To find out why the rapper-singer-flautist is fighting back against the label “overnight success,” read her full cover story.
The cast of Succession
Perhaps you’ve heard of a little group of people called the Roy family. They didn’t join the pop culture conversation in 2019 — the show debuted on HBO in June 2018 — but semi-fictional media magnate Logan Roy and his brethren certainly dominated it. For the final Entertainers of the Year cover story, EW spoke to Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, and Jeremy Strong (otherwise known as Shiv, Roman, and Kendall Roy) and found out that they’re not filthy rich a–holes — they just play them really well on TV.
The 34-year-old Emmy-winning writer-actor behind Killing Eve is honored by her Fleabag costar Brett Gelman.
I knew I wanted to work with Phoebe when I was sent the Fleabag pilot. It was clear that she was very special and had a lot to say. Then…I read the scripts for the entire first season. It seemed raw, it had an impeccable sense of a comedic craft, and it felt like the feminist show that everybody was trying to make but that she was actually making. She can balance razor-sharp, word-perfect writing without losing this spontaneous, chaotic depth. You’re getting hard jokes, but then you’re also getting deep pain. There’s a complete lack of desperation, a desperation to convince yourself that it’s good, rather than working really hard and taking in all the feelings, the frustrations, the doubts, the joys, the fears, the sense of accomplishment that come with making a piece. She’s looking at it the most honestly out of everyone that’s involved, and she’s willing to be brutally honest with herself. I think brutal honesty is the antithesis of desperation. If the timing’s right, an honest piece of work really hits home. It’s one of those situations where Fleabag just matched up perfectly and it got the audience that it deserved. —As told to Nick Romano
The author, 44, became an Oprah-anointed sensation with his debut novel, The Water Dancer. Here, he’s honored by National Book Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson.
I’ve read The Water Dancer three times. The first time that I read it, I read it nervously: I like Ta-Nehisi as a person a lot, and I was scared that it was not going to be good! You have those friends who write books and you go, “Oh, no, this is painful to read.” So I was really happy to see how brilliant it was. I realized, through looking back at his other pieces, he was always coming to this place. Then the second time I read it was to study it in this way that writers study each other’s work when there’s a brilliance to it that you want to learn from. The third time, it was listening to the audiobook that Joe Morton did. It’s a whole different level of experiencing the story. Each time, I got something more out of the novel. People are hungry for narratives that help us understand this present moment. They’re hungry for narratives where we are heroic, and it’s not just a tired, sad slave song. It’s a book about people who are enslaved. That resistance is the shape we need right now. And it has magical realism: It’s a way to escape while also being engaged, to understand. What really blows me away about his work is how absolutely accessible it is. He bridges the gap. —As told to David Canfield
The “Bad Guy” singer, 18, conquered the charts — and ushered in a new era of pop stardom.
“I used to know what day of the week it was,” says Billie Eilish, reflecting on her whirlwind 2019, the year the Los Angeles native transformed from a breakout singer-songwriter with a cult following to an international pop star. “Everything that’s happened in the last year or two has been life-changing. It’s just thing after thing of ‘Wow, what the hell’s going on?!'” Here’s what’s been going on: To support her first album, the bass-thumping When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in April), Eilish embarked on a world tour. Her creeping, minimalistic singles continued to pop up on the Hot 100; at one point, 14 of her tracks coexisted on the chart. How has the explosion in popularity changed Eilish as an artist? “My stage presence has probably been the biggest difference,” she says. “When I watch videos of when I was starting out, I thought [at the time] I was going full out and crazy, but now I’m like, ‘Oh, I literally was just standing there.’ I feel so comfortable performing now and so happy and blissed out.” She might feel at peace on stage, but Eilish is still combating the reality of her success. “I thought it would end,” says the singer, nominated for six Grammys, including Best New Artist. “I didn’t think then that people would still give a f— about me two years later.” They seem to give quite a few — no matter what day of the week it is. —Ruth Kinane
Over 30 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the 80-year-old author blessed us with a best-selling sequel, The Testaments.
EW: Congrats on The Testaments tying for the Booker Prize this year.
MARGARET ATWOOD: People my age usually don’t get on those kinds of lists because “Been there, done that. You’ve won too many things already.” So it’s very nice of them. I expect I am representing the Old Biddy Cohort, which is shrinking by the minute.
How did you decide it was time to write a sequel?
Have you ever been swimming in a very cold lake? You put your foot in, you take your foot out. You think, “Am I really gonna do this?” And then you have to run in screaming.
Has your writing process changed over time?
Here’s a deep dark secret that I’m going to share with you: Everybody who goes on about their writing process is probably just making it up, because you can’t actually remember that much about how you wrote things. Unless you’re a much better organized person than I am. [My process] is skiing down a hill. When you’re skiing down a hill, you’re trying not to fall over — and you’re making a lot of unconscious decisions automatically. You’re not thinking about them because if you do, you will fall over.
What do you hope people will remember about your work?
It’s kind of not my business to decide the legacy of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s the author’s job to make the book in the best way that they can. If you don’t want people interpreting it, don’t publish it. Because once you publish it, it’s not yours anymore. —Seija Rankin
I auditioned for the first Coming to America, but I didn’t get to audition in front of Eddie. After three callbacks, I ended up losing the role to Eriq La Salle. But ever since I saw that movie, I’ve wanted to work with Eddie. Director Craig Brewer gave me the pitch on Dolemite and passed the message that Eddie had suggested me [for a role] and I thought that was pretty cool. I told Craig, “Any opportunity for me to be down with this, I am in.” Working with Eddie was surreal, joyful, hilarious, and, at times, a little scary. You know he lives in the world of funny and you want to at least be in the room. I don’t know if it was toe-to-toe…. I’d characterize it more like riding along, and, in some cases, hanging on. If you watch his films over the years, you can tell that a lot of the comedians have a residue of Eddie’s style, and I think it’s even the same for some of us actors from that era. He’s so great that you pick up little things, maybe it’s timing or a little look. Eddie can convey the subtleties and humor in life and materialize our inner thoughts. He can say everything that we wish we had the nerve to say. —As told to Derek Lawrence
The star, 30, had one of the year’s biggest records, launched her own music festival, and continued to fight for artists’ rights. Here’s she’s honored by “ME!” collaborator Brendan Urie.
I’d been a fan of Taylor’s for years. When “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” came out, I’d play [it] whenever an acoustic guitar was around. Still do. We met for the first time to record my parts for “ME!” Taylor greeted me with the warmest hug. I remember being sick as hell and her being so kind about me coughing everywhere. I swear my health got better immediately after. I made a voice memo the night before while nursing a 104-degree temperature and a voice that had dropped to a Barry White octave. Somehow she could make sense of it. As a songwriter, I love her choice of melodies against certain chords. What she writes is so honest, and it shines through the lyrics’ marriage to the melodies. I’m [also] not sure if people realize what a clever sense of humor she has. I’m amazed at her command of a room using humor. I’d say that the most admirable thing about Taylor is her kindness. Amidst all of the chaos that comes with her level of success, she never lets any of it take her out of her element. —As told to Alex Suskind
Lil Nas X
A salute to the meme-loving, cowboy-repping, record-breaking newcomer, 20, behind the ubiquitous “Old Town Road” by Grammy-winning songwriter-producer Ryan Tedder.
I won’t say who, but I had people in my world of A&R and writer-producers say, “Why are you doing a session with Lil Nas X? It’s [a] one-hit wonder.” My response was “I don’t know how to explain it, but something about what this guy’s doing is smart.” He’s figured out that memes will rule the universe. So yes, it’s about the song. The song was great, period. And I would argue with anybody until I’m blue in the face that it’s a unicorn record. The dude took two or three genres, mashed them together, and the lyric is great. But one of the smartest moves he [and his record company] made is they let the hit be the hit. They kept introducing new features, new collabs, a new video. And he was on his social media seven days a week, 10 times a day: “Old Town Road,” “Old Town Road,” “Old Town Road.” I love how irreverent and honest he is. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, which I think is a breath of fresh air in an era of artists that are so edgy and so dark. If Lil Nas X was on NASDAQ, I would be very bullish on that stock and would bet long, because I think that he’s so much savvier than anybody gives him credit for.
—As told to Sarah Rodman
The star, 56, earns praise from Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood writer-director Quentin Tarantino for two very different roles.
This is just a terrific year for Brad. It couldn’t be highlighted better by two roles on the opposite ends of the spectrum in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Ad Astra. [Once’s] Cliff Booth is this terrific performance where it’s completely lived-in, completely authentic, but you also want to be him. Most guys watch the movie and they go, Oh, I just want to be that guy. He’s, like, the f—ing coolest guy! And then you watch the performance he gives in Ad Astra, which is completely interior, and where most of his dialogue is done through his voice-over narration, yet at the same time he carries the entire film on his shoulders. Brad truly contributes to the scene aside from the truth of his own performance. He’s constantly adding little bits of dialogue and little bits of business that are just revelatory. In the [Once] scene where he and Leo are watching the show FBI? That’s just Brad, that’s just him watching the scene and commenting on it. He likes my scripts and everything, but usually he’ll have this idea to throw an extra line in or an extra moment in, and if you don’t like it, he’ll drop it the next take. But you don’t listen to him at your own peril. —As told to Clark Collis
Perennial internet crush Reeves, 55 and thriving, had one swoonworthy moment after another in 2019.
March 20/Bill & Ted 3 announces liftoff: Thirty years after the bodacious original, rad news of Bill & Ted Face the Music confirmed that Reeves and Alex Winter will return to the Circle K for even stranger things afoot.
April 27/Keanucon is born: The world’s first Keanu film festival (to not unofficially take place in an EW staff member’s basement) celebrated the movie star’s versatile career with a two-day convention in Scotland.
May 17/A Wick to Remember: The sleeper success of puppy-protecting hitman John Wick continued in cinemas with the record-breaking threequel John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, which was as intense in action as it was in punctuation.
May 31/A rom-com cameo: Ali Wong and Randall Park’s Netflix delight Always Be My Maybe zinged the zeitgeist with a wild cameo from Reeves as a vilifiable version of himself (that, frankly, made him no less attractive).
June 9/Upping his game: After appearing in Fortnite, Reeves doubled down on his pixelated presence by crashing an E3 press conference to announce his role as part-cyborg Johnny Silverhand in the video game Cyberpunk 2077.
June 21/Keanu goes Caboom: Reeves stole the animated show in Toy Story 4 as Duke Caboom, an audacious Canadian daredevil with a tragic Canadian past who broke new ground in mustache representation among action figures. —Marc Snetiker
Sterling K. Brown
This Is Us: Fans finally exhaled when Randall (Brown) resolved tensions with wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). “It was really touching to realize just how invested people were in this marriage,” says Brown. “All the relationship goals that people would bestow upon us became even more realized because they had to fight for it.”
Waves: Brown shines in this potent indie drama as a tough-loving, walled-off father who seeks reconnection after his son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) spirals out of control. “Through that loss, he recognizes that there has to be another way to be with your children.… Thank God, if there has to be tragedy, at least there’s some learning that transpires in the midst of that tragedy.”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Brown guest-stars as Reggie, fierce manager of Shy Baldwin (LeRoy McClain). “There’s something about being the guard dog that I find very satisfying. I have people like that in my life, so it was an opportunity for me to pay homage.”
Frozen 2: The sequel opened up its world with Brown’s loyal Lieutenant Mattias. “[Screenwriter] Jennifer [Lee] wrote something so incredibly nuanced and thought-provoking. When you take a second to examine whose version of history you are digesting, you realize that it can’t be objective.” —Dan Snierson
For more on Entertainment Weekly‘s 2019 Entertainers of the Year, the new issue will be available at select Barnes & Noble stores starting on Dec. 20, and all newsstands Dec. 26-27. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.