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Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

Somewhere between the hyper-visibility of Vogue cover and the obscurity of straight-to-DVD, Hollywood has a small silver crescent of limelight reserved for those teetering on the brink of celebrity, and who happen to be legitimately talented. It's a nice place to be. Just ask these people: 10 people from our 2012 People issue you've never heard of who are changing what you watch.

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

10. Allison Anders: The Edge of Altadena

You could forgive Allison Anders' neighbors on her tree-lined street in Altadena for thinking she is just like them. Her house is pleasantly messy; her garden, a work in progress. In the driveway are a Kia and a Hyundai. And there is Anders herself, a warm, funny earth mother padding around in slippers and a caftan, not one but two pairs of glasses absently propped atop her cloud of auburn hair.

But there are clues: the framed movie posters on the walls, the impressive tattoo spanning her clavicle. And the names that crop up in her conversation -- Quentin, Martin, Wim.

As in Tarantino, Scorsese, Wenders.

Anders, after all, isn't just the nice grandmother-to-be next door. At 57, she's one of the most respected indie filmmakers of her generation. A survivor of a hardscrabble childhood, Anders loved the movies, but it wasn't until she was a single mom on welfare that she wanted to make one of her own. After graduating from UCLA's film school, she released her first movie, Border Radio, in 1987 -- two years before sex, lies, and videotape changed the indie landscape.

Unlike Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh, Anders never made the leap from indie icon to studio darling. But she has worked steadily, selling screenplays and taking on TV work to pay the bills and subsidize artier projects, which include Mi Vida Loca (about girl gangs in Echo Park) and Gas Food Lodging (about a single mom in a trailer park). A self-described survivor, Anders will take funding wherever she can find it. She and longtime collaborator Kurt Voss actually financed Strutter, the recently completed final chapter in the Border Radio trilogy, through Kickstarter.

"It doesn't get any better than that," she says of the crowd-sourcing website. "My God. Not only can you make work on your own terms, at your own pace, but you can also invest in other people's stuff. There's cool stuff I want to see out there in the world -- you can have a hand in that."

Anders' work is famously rock & roll (with her daughter Tiffany, she started the Don't Knock the Rock Film and Music Festival, now in its ninth year). And that's why even she is amused by her Altadena address. "So Ozzie and Harriet," she muses, and gives one of her loud laughs.

Her partner of six years, punk-rock icon Terry Graham, talked her into leaving the city. "Between the two of us, don't we have enough bohemian cred that we can move to the suburbs?" he asked.

Now Altadena is inspiring her work. This summer, she'll start production on a movie called The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, about two people having midlife crises -- and she plans to film it right here in her house.

"I moved in here and got a slightly David Lynch-y vibe from the neighborhood," she explains, and "ended up with this little drama that's also kind of a comedy."

Gabriel Byrne, Mandy Moore and Patricia Clarkson have signed on to star. "It's gonna be great," she promises.

--Sarah Fenske

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

9. Liz Meriwether: Nice Quirk if You Can Get It

If you haven't seen New Girl -- the Fox sitcom that premiered last September to stellar ratings -- you've probably seen the billboards all over town, featuring star Zooey Deschanel in lime-green vintage, grinning alongside the slogan, "Simply Adorkable."

Its almost-cringeworthy tagline may have been the work of buzzword-happy marketers, but New Girl itself is the creation of 30-year-old Liz Meriwether, who based Deschanel's character Jess -- a gorgeous but almost pathologically quirky young woman who moves into a loft shared by three dudes -- on herself.

New Girl's fans and detractors alike have zeroed in on the very specific brand of femininity Deschanel's character defends. In one oft-blogged speech, Jess insists her love of glitter, ribbons and desserts "doesn't mean I'm not smart and tough and strong."

What's actually genius about New Girl is the way its girly-girl often is used as a catalyst to humanize her male roommates, turning potentially stereotypical characters -- the slacker, the douchebag -- into multilayered, endlessly surprising people.

"The idea for the show [came] from my experiences, and my friendships with my guy friends," says Meriwether, who came to TV via playwriting (Heddatron, an adaptation of Hedda Gabler involving robots) and screenwriting (last year's Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman sex-com No Strings Attached).

As she talks to a reporter in a conference room next to her office on the Fox lot, Meriwether is getting her makeup done for the Weekly's photo shoot, a submission from a would-be New Girl writer open on her lap. She was in the editing room the night before until midnight -- it's not unusual for her to arrive on the lot at 7 a.m. and leave at 3 a.m. Today she's so tired that she actually forgot to have coffee. "I feel like I live in my office," she says.

She actually lives in Laurel Canyon, near Mount Olympus, where her neighbors include screenwriter friends Diablo Cody, Lorene Scafaria and Dana Fox, a unit immortalized as "The Fempire" in a New York Times story a few years back.

"I think the word fempire" -- Meriwether laughs just saying it -- "was a joke that got a little bit overused. I certainly don't call myself that, or call my friends that or anything. But I think it's great to know that there are a lot of women screenwriters in Hollywood who are supportive of one another and not competitive -- they're not trying to bring each other down."

With her tousled blond mop, high cheekbones and bashful eyes behind big, black-framed glasses, Meriwether is unmistakably fetching. Given the general invisibility of writers in Hollywood, is there perhaps any upside to being -- you know -- a young, female, attractive ...

Meriwether cuts off our awkward inquiry. "You can say 'hot,' " she deadpans, then bursts into a self-deprecating grin that defines the middle ground between awkward and alluring, making the case that if Deschanel is the glamorized TV version of adorkability, Meriwether is the real thing. --Karina Longworth

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

8. Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger

The first time Isaac Aptaker and his partner, Elizabeth Berger, were on a professional soundstage together, everyone kept trying to take their clothes off.

"Hair and makeup kept coming up to us," Aptaker reports, "saying, 'OK, let's get you guys in your nude cover; let's get you guys in body makeup; your scene is probably coming up!'"

"They kept thinking Isaac and I were a couple," Berger interjects.

"And we had to be, like, 'No, we're not shooting a sex scene -- we're the writers,' " he says.

That day, the pair was supervising the filming of a montage of 20 midcoitus couples for the NBC sitcom Friends With Benefits. Such situations, however, have become a recurring problem for the boyish Aptaker, 24, and Berger, 26, who might pass as an ingénue if not for her dry wit.

And while it can be an inconvenience -- like the time a security guard on the Universal lot refused to believe they had a meeting and radioed in their driver's license information to make sure -- their youth is also part of their cachet. Studios care what the kids are up to.

"We were in a meeting with this guy who couldn't be more than, like, 32," Aptaker laughs, "and he wouldn't stop being, like, 'So what are the kids doing nowadays? What are the kids into?' "

The friends have been writing as a team for five years -- since they were 19 and 21 -- but both got started even earlier. Aptaker, who grew up outside Boston, amused himself as a 10-year-old by writing a script for Boy Meets World. Meanwhile, Berger, who grew up in Queens, began doling out advice to the head writer of Sesame Street (who happened to be her father) at a very young age.

The pair met as freshmen at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in 2005; as seniors, they won a $10,000 grant to write and film a sitcom. The Walk-Up was about five post-college strangers who meet on Craigslist and live together in a cramped, sixth-floor apartment.

Life imitated sitcom a year later when Berger joined Aptaker in Los Angeles. She couldn't afford her own apartment, so, Aptaker remembers, "We built this wall in the living room out of IKEA bookshelves and she found this amazing girl on Craigslist to live behind it."

"Not to live behind it -- to, to, to sleep behind it. It was cool; it was a partition," Berger protests.

"It wasn't quite a partition," he insists.

"It was almost a partition," she concedes.

After a little hustling, the pair landed Friends With Benefits, followed by another series about early-20somethings, MTV's I Just Want My Pants Back. Now they are working on two projects: an adaptation of the popular young-adult novel The Future of Us, and another MTV series, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, the brainchild of 21-year-old YouTube wunderkind Bo Burnham. The latter will mark the first time the two have worked with someone younger than themselves -- not that anyone is keeping track. --Tessa Stuart

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

7. Jenna Marbles: The YouTube Star

One Friday in July 2010, Jenna Mourey drove home from her job at a tanning salon in Boston; she had to shower and change for her night gig as a go-go dancer. As she walked into her apartment, she decided to film herself getting ready.

She enjoyed go-go dancing (getting paid to dance -- in flats!). But she had a master's degree from Boston University in sports psychology and counseling. Her life was, as she says, "ridiculous."

"I went to school, tried really hard, did everything I was supposed to do, and now, like, what the fuck is this mess I'm in right now?" the 25-year-old recalls thinking. "I'm going to work dancing in my underwear, making myself look like a whore on purpose."

That night she edited together a video called "How to Trick People Into Thinking You're Good-Looking" and posted it on YouTube. By the time she got to her night gig, the other dancers had already passed it around Facebook. It has since been watched 38 million times.

Jenna Marbles, as she now calls herself, eventually started posting weekly to her YouTube channel, which has 2.9 million subscribers (No. 6 on the site), and almost half a billion views. Most of her fans are teenage girls, who relate to her foul-mouthed, brutally straightforward comedy sketches on the plight of young womanhood.

Her video "How to Avoid Talking to People You Don't Want to Talk To," for example, was inspired by a guy who was pestering her in a Rhode Island nightclub. She gave him a bizarre look -- picture a scared clown -- and didn't say a thing. The technique spread among her female fans, to the point where the creepy guys now know what it is and give it back. Articles about "the face" painted her as some kind of YouTube feminist but, like most entertainers, her process is instinctual. "I fucking hate that," she says. "They're giving me way too much credit."

L.A. is a magnet for successful YouTubers, so in September Marbles moved from Boston with her boyfriend to a three-story townhouse on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. She'll meet with production companies ("Those are so stupid") and occasionally audition ("I'm terrible"), but traditional Hollywood doesn't yet know what to do with her, and she already probably makes six figures from YouTube ad revenue.

Marbles' power has started to dawn on her. She's often recognized while hanging out with her boyfriend on the Santa Monica Pier. One fan who has cancer emailed her to say that she watched Marbles' videos from her bed, and her mom cried because it was the first time she had seen her daughter laugh in months.

But despite her success, Marbles still films her videos with her laptop camera in her bedroom, which, one recent day, was littered with T-shirts and shampoo bottles. Her weekly deadline is Wednesday at sundown, as her only light source is the window.

"The way I work is not necessarily effective," she says. "It's pretty messed up." --Zachary Pincus-Roth

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

6. Jessica St. Clair: Sitcomely

There's never dead air when you're with Jessica St. Clair, who has a giant personality to go with her big blue eyes and blond hair. Taking a break from filming her new NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever at a Rampart Village studio, the Santa Monica-based comedian and actress delivers a delirious barrage of quips, observations and one-liners. "I was so flat-chested in high school," she explains, "that I thought I'd better be funny if guys were going to like me."

She is certainly that. (Funny, that is.) In fact, she's easily among the most hilarious of the rapidly expanding sphere of prominent female comedians, spurred, in part, by last year's surprise hit Bridesmaids. St. Clair had a memorable role in that film, as the bridal shop owner. (You know, the spot where the ladies lose their lunch.) "For some reason, we're having a moment," St. Clair says of her fellow Hollywood funnywomen.

Still, she's not exactly sure how to characterize the female-centric vibe of Best Friends Forever -- perhaps a "ho-mance" between "friend-bians"? It's a fictionalized portrait of the obsessive-yet-platonic relationship between her and Lennon Parham, her co-star, writing partner and real-life bestie. After St. Clair's character gets divorced, she moves back in with Parham, only to find out that her roommate's new boyfriend has set up shop. They promptly deflate his beloved Michigan Wolverines blow-up chair.

The New Jersey-bred St. Clair met Parham at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where the alt-comedy institution's co-founder Amy Poehler discouraged female performers from dressing "hot" for their shows. In this spirit, St. Clair remains uninterested in stereotypical wife or girlfriend roles. "I'd much rather play the homeless person jerking off in the corner," she insists.

Landing in L.A. just before the 2007 writers strike, she feared her career would crater -- "I spent a lot of time crying in the Target parking lot," she says. But things rebounded with a prominent role in She's Out of My League, and television and movie parts followed, not to mention a memorable turn on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast as Marissa Wompler, a precocious 15-year-old awkwardly coming to grips with her sexuality. Wompler consumes nothing but candy and is prone to excessive enthusiasm, which is what makes her so likable.

At 34, St. Clair has the same quality. Talking today with her show's writers about promotional spots, she's tickled about one pairing her with Betty White, star of the senior citizen candid-camera show Off Their Rockers, the lead-in for Best Friends Forever. The plan is for St. Clair to punch the nonagenarian in the face. "This," she says of her TV odyssey, "has been my dream since I was 12." --Ben Westhoff

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

5. Lauren Faust: Let's Hear it For the Girls

"I've always looked at my work feeling like I was trying to make stuff for girls," says animator Lauren Faust, "and then accidentally getting guys interested as well."

Faust, 37, grew up near Annapolis, Md., with three brothers, no sisters and no female cousins. While she loved the toys that were marketed to little girls in the 1980s -- Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony were favorites -- she wasn't a fan of the related TV shows and books. She preferred her older brothers' comic books and thought Transformers and G.I. Joe were pretty cool, too.

What Faust wanted to do, she later realized, was give the cute characters in her toy box the action-packed lives that seemed reserved for boys.

As an adult, Faust found the chance to do just that. While attending California Institute of the Arts, she landed her first animation gig, a summer stint on MTV's cult classic The Maxx. Eventually she got a job as a storyboard artist for The Powerpuff Girls, a show where the artists actually wrote the episodes. Faust's claim to fame, though, is reviving her own favorite childhood toy. She developed My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the cartoon series that has captured the hearts of children and adults, women and men.

Yes, men. Have you heard of Bronies? They're grown men, often the same guys who obsess over comic book superheroes and sci-fi movies, who are rabid fans of My Little Pony. Faust is essentially responsible for that phenomenon.

The Bronies caught Faust by surprise. The show was geared toward 6- to 8-year-old girls, and she had already prepared herself for criticism from male viewers.

"Think of the girls," she told herself as she worked on the show. "They need to believe that the stuff they like isn't stupid."

Then Faust and the team noticed something peculiar. The characters were popping up on 4chan, birthplace of some of the funniest -- and sometimes meanest -- Internet memes. Initially, the ponies were the subject of jokes. Soon, though, they saw that the anonymous 4chan users were becoming big fans. After that, there was no stopping the show's popularity. Young adults -- male and female -- were dressing up as "Pegasus pony" Rainbow Dash at comic conventions and parties, and viewers were posting homemade My Little Pony music videos on YouTube. They had a hit.

Super Best Friends Forever
Super Best Friends Forever

Faust left the Pony world after the show's second season, but she hasn't scrapped her mission to make badass cartoons for girls. She recently finished work on Super Best Friends Forever, five episodes of 90-second shorts for the Cartoon Network, focusing on the teenage adventures of female DC characters. The girls are relatable: They look like typical teens in superhero uniforms. Faust says Wonder Girl -- tall and lanky with large feet -- reminds her of herself as a teenager.

Though the buzz has been huge, there's no word as to whether there will be more Super Best Friends Forever episodes.

Faust is working as a co-producer and head of story on the upcoming Disney series Wander Over Yonder, created by her husband, Craig McCracken. The two met while working on The Powerpuff Girls, which McCracken also created; the pair worked together on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, too.

Faust's personal and professional worlds seem to overlap -- even her hobby of sewing plushies morphed into the toy line Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls. She's living the dream, turning her childhood fascinations into cool shows for today's young girls, and adults, too.

--Liz Ohanesian

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

4. Benjamin Millepied: Ballet's His Lady

Choreographer Benjamin Millepied favors Silver Lake's Sunset Junction for interviews. There's Intelligentsia for a cappuccino and the croissant that he gobbles (politely) before he's even paid for it, because he's famished, and eating doesn't seem to be scheduled into his overbooked life. And there's Café Stella's serene patio, hidden from the paparazzi who stalk Millepied when he's with his wife, Natalie Portman, Oscar-winning star of Black Swan, which is how Millepied, the film's choreographer, met her.

Plus, this part of town suits Millepied -- pronounced MEEL-pee-A -- who in November announced plans to found a major new experimental company, L.A. Dance Project, funded by the Music Center of L.A. County and aspiring to international acclaim. He fits in with the crowd, though you do make note of the bright azure eyes and the model physique (he has posed for an Yves Saint Laurent fragrance). His casual gait and slightly slouched shoulders mask not just his height, which is 5 feet 11, but also his pedigree as an elite classical dancer and celebrated (as well as celebrity) choreographer.

Millepied is a warmly accommodating interview, just not chatty. He's protective. No questions about his private life, he warns, even though his personal and artistic lives are still mixed together. Portman was the honorary chair of New York City Ballet's May 10 spring gala performance, at which Millepied premiered his fourth work for the company.

He reads inferences into questions that were never intended. Asked what makes his style unique, for instance, he begins by talking about the attributes of the ballets by Britain's Christopher Wheeldon and Russian Alexei Ratmansky. They are the other internationally prominent dance makers to whom Millepied is most often compared -- and not always favorably. But then, Millepied, 34, has risen quickly, and sniping is to be expected.

He does discuss the ingredients that shape his style: "I was born in France. I grew up in Africa. I studied African [music and dance]. I studied modern. Then I went to exclusively dance with New York City Ballet because that's the work that I believe in. And now, with my response to music, with my body, with my knowledge, with all of that, [it] makes for a different kind of thing."

He's had a busy winter and spring, with freelance assignments at the Metropolitan Opera House and La Jolla Playhouse. But he's ready to make Los Angeles his full-time home -- for now, at least. This summer, he will begin choreographing his first piece for L.A. Dance Project, scheduled to debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall in September.

He recalls how every major choreographer has advised him to get his own group of dancers and to focus on developing ballets just for them. That's when your best work will blossom, they told him.

"I definitely can't wait to see it," he says. "I picked these dancers very specifically. I have my team. I get to push them. I'm going to shape my piece with them." --Laura Bleiberg

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

3. Shorty Rossi: The Pit Man

Luigi Francis Rossi -- better known as Shorty, titular star of the Animal Planet "docudrama" Pit Boss -- was not, as some have said, "made for television." His recently released memoir, Four Feet Tall and Rising, is, as one fan put it, "an amazing must-read for anyone interested in showbiz, pit bull rescue, dwarfism and how to make pruno" -- aka prison wine.

Rossi, the son of dwarf parents, grew up in lily-white Reseda with two average-height older sisters. An enterprising youngster, he ran away from home, fleeing his abusive father and landing with his "second family" at Nickerson Gardens in Watts. He later joined the Bloods and served a decade behind bars for a gang-related shooting.

The ebullient, cigar-chomping Rossi then found lucrative work as an actor before opening Shortywood, a talent-management agency for little people, in 2000. His allegiance to the American Pit Bull Terrier compelled him to open Shorty's Rescue a year later.

"The funny thing is, we had a pilot for Shortywood, we'd go to each network, and we'd get, 'Well, people aren't really interested in little people,' or, 'They already have a reality show.' We only get one fucking show? Little People, Big World is like Ozzie and Harriet," he says. "I'm like the Connors" of Roseanne fame.

But when Animal Planet put out word for something edgy, "Then the light went on. 'Shorty runs a pit bull rescue? That's gold! He's gold!' "

Pit Boss' sixth season airs this summer. The show's valiant, seemingly spontaneous rescues have found Rossi and crew traipsing through cemeteries, paddling to houseboats, even busting out the windows of a repossessed SUV. As for its star, he's on fire, his sincerity palpable, his enthusiasm infectious. Pit bulls have no bigger champion: Rossi travels constantly, working to correct misconceptions about the breed wherever he goes.

Hero is a word rarely showered on an ex-con, but to dog lovers Rossi is one, and he's mobbed by fans from coast to coast. Before his stardom, he says, "I'd walk through LAX with [service dog] Hercules; it'd be like parting the Red Sea. Now it's, like, 'You can have one more photo. I'm going to miss my flight!' "

A recent visit to the Nicaraguan factory that makes his signature cigar, the Diesel Shorty, found Rossi doted on by factory workers; Pit Boss, after all, is carried on satellite.

"People don't realize the history of the pit bull," he says. "They were America's nanny dog. They sat on two White House lawns. These dogs don't have an enzyme, it's what we Americans have done -- made the dog bigger, stronger."

Dog fighting, he says, is an ongoing problem across the country, while pit bull bans "are not just found in Miami and Denver -- there's like another 900 little towns and cities," he says, incredulously. "I'm not going to wait till the show is done to make my platform bigger."

He's happy, too, that Pit Boss has facilitated more little-people programming, although his own stature seems to be the last thing on his mind. "We're lawyers, we're businesspeople, we're everything. Some of us are normal families," he says, and, charm dripping from his fedora, "some of us are crazy like Shorty." --Skylaire Alfvegren

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

2. Aubrey Plaza: Stare Appeal

Nobody does "jaded twentysomething" better than Aubrey Plaza. The 27-year-old NYU- and UCB-trained actress has mastered the art of the dry wit and judging stare.

And that's not just on the small screen.

Best known for playing human eye roll April Ludgate on NBC's Parks and Recreation, Plaza's deadpan humor has cracked up audiences in such films as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Funny People. It also has made her the poster child for Gen-Y apathy. (Although she cares, really she does -- in fact, she was nice enough not to cancel a phone interview despite being bedridden in a New York hotel room with food poisoning.)

Plaza stresses that she doesn't write the dialogue for most of her roles, although her Parks and Rec character was something of a collaborative effort. The part was written specifically for her after she made a strong impression on the show's co-creator, Michael Schur, and because the cast will occasionally improvise, she's had some impact on plot lines.

She understands that it can be hard for fans to separate the actress from the characters. Not only do her roles have a "feeling of realness," but, she admits, they represent her actual persona: "There's always a part of me that's like that character, because I'm me.

"There's a kind of self-deprecating thing to a lot of the characters that I've played so far," she adds. "I think if I played the characters as just sarcastic or mean, I don't think people would care as much. I think maybe a lot of the characters that I've been lucky to play are really three-dimensional, too, so they're funny because they're acting like they don't care, but really they do care."

Intentionally or not, some of this radiates off the screen. Plaza tweets under the handle @evilhag, where she takes on haters, ponders why John Goodman appeared in her dreams and responds to a marriage proposal with "Fine." She garnered a good deal of Internet buzz when a video was released of her onstage doing an impression of Sarah Silverman ("Hey guys, I'm Sarah Silverman and I just pooped ... out a Jewish person"); more recently, she showed off her wickedly intense smile in the video for "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," the new single from former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, now Father John Misty.

Born in Wilmington, Del., Plaza currently lives in Los Feliz, despite her claims that she never thought she'd ever call Los Angeles home. For that matter, she says, she "never thought I'd be on a TV show, to be honest."

This summer, in the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza plays a magazine intern helping New Girl's Jake Johnson research a man looking for a partner to join him in a time-traveling expedition. Her character is emotionally damaged with a heart of gold. And yes, she can cut you with her stare. --Whitney Friedlander

Hollywood Underground: 10 People You've Never Heard of Who Are Changing What You Watch
Kevin Scanlon

1. RJ Mitte: The Good in Breaking Bad

When RJ Mitte first moved to Los Angeles at 13, he never imagined he'd be an actor. "Sometimes I think about where I'd be right now if I weren't doing this," he says. "I'd be on a boat somewhere. Fishing!"

It was 2006 when Mitte's family moved here from Louisiana in order to support his younger sister's work as a print model. But a talent manager found Mitte photogenic, and Mitte agreed to work with him in the hopes that it would help him meet new friends.

Although Mitte didn't have Hollywood aspirations, he's always been a hustler. As a kid, he worked on roofs and helped his uncle fetch bait for shrimping. His earliest income dates back to age 8, when he discovered that he could make a few bucks each day by selling the sandwich his mother had packed him for lunch. To increase his earnings, he feigned a growth spurt and convinced his mother to increase her sandwich output to five a day. "When she found out, she got really mad," he recalls, "but only because I wasn't sharing the profits."

Mitte's first audition was for an anti-methamphetamine commercial; he didn't get the part. But a few months later, after a stint on Hannah Montana, he scored a supporting role alongside Bryan Cranston on the AMC series Breaking Bad as Walt Jr., the son of Cranston's high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth chef, and it's all been uppers from there. "I get to cuss on national television and get away with it," he brags.

Language aside, Mitte's character is appropriately innocent, earnest and strong-willed, and the lack of acting experience and formal training doesn't seem to be a problem for the 19-year-old. "There's a lot in this industry that you can't learn in an acting class, like working with crew and working with other actors," he says.

What would probably be the most challenging aspect of Walt Jr.'s character -- a severe case of cerebral palsy -- comes naturally to Mitte. Although his condition is mild, the actor has been in treatment since age 3 and has used his rather unexpected visibility as an opportunity for activism.

When he isn't on set in Albuquerque for Breaking Bad, he's likely on a high school or college campus speaking out about bullying or catching a board meeting for the Mitte Foundation, a charitable organization started by his grandparents. Or he might be working on Vanished: The Tara Calico Story, a documentary he's helping to produce about a woman who disappeared from Belen, N.M., in 1988. The Kickstarter page for the project shows $2,004 raised of the $50,000 goal and zero days left to pledge, but something tells us Mitte will figure out a way to make it happen. --Gendy Alimurung

Check out our entire People 2012 issue here.

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