Changemakers: 22 Women Who Saved Entertainment and Media in 2022
From Lizzo to Shannon Watts to Quinta Brunson to Jamie Lee Curtis, here are the extraordinary women who made a mark this year
This has been another whirlwind year of changes, with every corner of media adjusting to the new, post-pandemic normal — or at least this beta version of the new normal.
For the first time since 2020, film festivals resumed in-person screenings and celebrations, and awards shows once again broadcasted live from rooms brimming with beaming (and mostly unmasked) famous people. But not everything was a party. Executive shuffles, mega-mergers and economic downturns led to major layoffs, and Hollywood grappled with how to respond to the war in Ukraine and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
TheWrap’s third annual Changemakers list (in conjunction with the Power Women Summit, now in its fifth year) recognizes 22 women who achieved greatness in 2022 — whether on screen, on stage, on the page, behind the scenes or on the frontlines of political activism. They were the driving forces behind a blockbuster about 19th-century African women warriors; two dramas about the power of women’s voices; a network comedy about an underfunded public elementary school; two remarkable memoirs and much, much more. We chose the women for their fearlessness, creativity and drive. It’s thanks to them that the entertainment industry and the culture at large keep moving forward, forever pushing for positive change.
THE ACTRESSES PERFORMERS
Actress, “The Woman King”
From an early age, Thuso Mbedu knew she wanted to be an engine for change. She knew that acting was her path. She didn’t always know how it would happen. And sometimes she found it so difficult she considered quitting. Or worse — ending her own life.
Now, as she finds herself at the center of a transformative film for Hollywood and beyond, “The Woman King,” she feels prepared to be that driving force that brings progress to others. It makes her a Changemaker in so many ways, starting with playing Nawi, the young warrior in training who follows Viola Davis’ General Nanisca in an all-female army in 19th-century Africa. The fact that the story is based on historic fact makes it all the more powerful.
“People come up to me and say the movie changed them,” Mbedu told TheWrap in a conversation crammed between red carpet appearances and photo shoots during awards season. “They say they feel seen for the first time. Not just Black women, (but) Caucasian women too. We have parents coming and saying they’ve shared the story with their children. That they feel nothing is impossible for them going forward.”
To play the role, the 31-year-old South African had to learn to fight with a spear, do hand-to-hand combat and inhabit the skin of a soldier. And while “Woman King” is her first feature film, it was not her first project to break barriers or require intense sacrifice. In 2021, Mbedu played the lead in “Underground Railroad,” Barry Jenkins’ Amazon Prime series about American slavery. She was the first African to lead an American series of its kind.
But back in 2016, Mbedu was bereft — out of work, out of money and without family to speak of except her older sister. “I felt like I hit rock bottom,” she said. “For me, I’m in this industry because it’s my purpose. This was what I was created to do. At the time I hadn’t worked for six months. That is devastating when you don’t see another option of what you could be doing.”
She pulled herself out of that deep hole and went on to move to the U.S. — a daring gambit for a young woman on her own. Now, she has created meaningful, challenging performances that create pathways for other actors. “My ‘why’ in being in this industry was to bring healing through my craft,” she said. “To use my craft as a tool for social change and one day, to use my influence in a manner that will empower other people.” She added: “What I can do is try my best to make life better for the next person.” —Sharon Waxman
Jamie Lee Curtis
Actress, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Halloween Ends”
Jamie Lee Curtis has been beaming lately. And with good reason: In 2022, she played her iconic horror heroine Laurie Strode one last time in the worldwide hit “Halloween Ends.” And in the bonkers breakout indie hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” she let loose as a hard-nosed IRS agent who wields a stapler like a lethal weapon. For that delightfully uninhibited performance, she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and is now generating Oscar buzz.
“I feel light as a feather, like a leaf in the wind,” Curtis told TheWrap. “And a little curious.”
Curiosity is part of what keeps Curtis, now 64, ticking. After 45 years in the business, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis is every bit the national treasure her parents were, and she’s determined to make the most of what her hard work has brought her. “‘Halloween’ created the life I have,” she said. “I never had the agency. And now I do. I am running with it. I really do not have that much time. My motto is: ‘If not now, when? If not me, who?’”
Keeping her busy: Her production company, Comet Pictures, where she is developing a TV series based on Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels and will make her feature directorial debut in a horror film about climate change; raising $1 million for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles through her retail site, My Hand in Yours; and cherishing her time husband ,Christopher Guest, and their two adult daughters, Annie and Ruby.
After all these years in Hollywood, life can still surprise Curtis — like in October, when she cast her hand- and footprints for posterity outside L.A.’s legendary Chinese Theater. (“At the hand, foot and mouth disease event!“ she cracked.) Hands pressed in cement, she realized that her parents had never left their marks on this particular stretch of Hollywood Blvd. “So on that sunny day in the California where I grew up, I felt the momentary ‘Holy f— of it all! All the work,” she said. “I felt it for a second. I remember thinking, this feels weird. Wow!” — Mary Murphy
Actress, “Nope”; host, “Password”
Keke Palmer’s reign as Hollywood royalty began more than 20 years ago, with her breakout role in “Barbershop 2: Back in Business.” A slew of hit movies (and memes!) followed. This year, the actor-producer-singer knocked us out again with her starring role in Jordan Peele’s horror hit “Nope,” for which the New York Film Critics Circle named her Best Supporting Actress. She also lent her inimitable voice to the animated series “Human Resources” and “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder,” as well as the Pixar movie “Lightyear.”
When she’s not acting, she’s become yo girl as a ubiquitous on-air host. Palmer took over Megan Thee Stallion’s judge’s seat on HBO’s ballroom competition series “Legendary,” began co-hosting the revived game show “Password” with Jimmy Fallon and made her “Saturday Night Live” debut — where, during her opening monologue, she proudly revealed her pregnant belly and told the audience, “Baby, I’m Keke Palmer.”
Throughout her career, Palmer, now 29, has been a force for women and people of color, speaking out on social issues including colorism, abuse against women and the marginalization of the LGBTQ community. She recently launched her network KeyTV, a digital platform for Black creators.
Palmer says she’s been inspired by performers she admires, especially Queen Latifah. As she told BlackTree TV recently, “I did not necessarily foresee a career like this. What I did do, and what my mom encouraged me to do, was attach my idea of what my future could be like to women who have done things like this.” —Raquel “Rocky” Harris
Michaela Jaé Rodriguez
In 2021, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez made history as the first trans person to be nominated for a lead Emmy acting category with her nod for FX’s groundbreaking drama series “Pose.” A year later, she bested herself by becoming the first trans person to win the Golden Globe in the analogous category. She is, quite literally, changing the industry.
“Change can’t happen if there isn’t something different in the space, right?” Rodriguez said. “I feel like there has to be something that is considered quote-unquote not of the norm to be normalized and understood. And I think my existence as a Black person, as a Latina person and also as a trans person, alone, is a great way to exemplify the title of Changemaker.”
Since her breakout role in “Pose” as Blanca, a small House Mother with big dreams, the actress has continued broadening her horizons: This year, she starred as the straitlaced Sofia opposite Maya Rudolph’s existentially floundering Molly in Apple TV+’s billionaire spoof comedy “Loot,” where she’ll keep flexing her comedic chops in Season 2. Up next, a voice role in “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” due in June 2023. She’s also branching out into music, following up her 2021 funk single “Something to Say” with a new track, “Greenlights,” which she describes as a mix of pop and R&B.
When asked what motivates her, Rodriguez said, “I always want to make sure that the youth know that they are OK and that there will always be space for them to feel safe and comfortable knowing that I’m still here doing the work that I’m doing.” — Natalie Oganesyan
Creator, Exec Producer, Writer, Actress, “Abbott Elementary”
Calling 2022 a landmark year for Quinta Brunson is putting it mildly. “Abbott Elementary” — which Brunson created, writes, exec-produces and stars in — premiered to much acclaim in December 2021 and garnered seven Emmy nominations in 2022. The show went home with three wins, including one for Brunson for writing for a comedy series, making her only the second Black woman to win an Emmy in the category.
Amid all the buzz surrounding her this year, Brunson has made a point of championing the people and communities who helped her along the way — like her former BuzzFeed collaborators Justin Tan and Kate Peterman, who are on the series’ writing team. “Abbott,” which she based on her own mother’s experiences as a public school teacher in Philadelphia, explores the challenges that schools face today, including the realities of underfunding and the ramifications of teacher burnout. Set in a fictionalized elementary school in Philly, the show spotlights what so often remains unseen in film and TV and provides a nuanced, hopeful — and ultimately very funny — picture of public education. “I do wish the system was just fixed, but I find ordinary people’s resistance to be fascinating and the strongest thing there is,” Brunson told TheWrap earlier this year. “That’s what was really appealing to me about making a show like ‘Abbott.’ These people just have to teach these kids. They just have to.”
Brunson has made an impression with her loyalty to her past collaborators and her commitment to offer opportunities to rising talent. Several former colleagues from her time as a video producer and creator at BuzzFeed have played roles on “Abbott,” and Brunson has spoken about the importance of opening doors to those who have historically been boxed out of the industry. — Mary Murphy
Actress, “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” “The Rookie: Feds”
Niecy Nash is on top of the world. Her wildly productive 2022 included stand-out performances as an FBI agent in the new ABC spinoff series “The Rookie: Feds” and a concerned neighbor in Netflix’s limited series “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” — the latter of which earned her a Critics Choice Award nomination. She also resumed her role as the supportive therapist on “Never Have I Ever” and launched the revived television game show “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!”
No matter how in demand she is, though, Nash always prioritizes what matters the most to her: her family. “Being an actor is what I do, but who I am is to be of service to the world and to love,” she told TheWrap. “I don’t fit my priorities around my work. I fit my work around my priorities.” And she couldn’t do it without her spouse of two years, Jessica Betts. Speaking of their relationship, Nash said, “It is the first time in my life that I felt fully seen. And there is a value that that gives you that is immeasurable.”
In February, Nash and Betts made history as the first same-sex couple to appear on the cover of Essence magazine, which only confirmed her status as a pillar of inspiration to women and the LGBTQ+ community. When asked what it means to be a Changemaker, she said, “I think you change the world by living your truth and by speaking up for those who don’t have a voice to amplify their cause.” —Elijah Gil
THE FILMMAKERS THE PRODUCERS
Director, “The Woman King”
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s box office success with “The Woman King” was long overdue. The film, starring Viola Davis as the leader of a group of female warriors in 19th-century West Africa, has grossed $94 million worldwide since opening in September and is exactly the kind of movie Prince-Bythewood has longed to make her entire career. Prince-Bythewood — whose 2000 debut feature “Love & Basketball” marked the arrival of a gifted filmmaker — has made it her life’s work to carve out a space for Black creatives and Black stories told thoroughly and authentically.
“You know, I love what I do, I love making movies — I love to entertain. But if I was not using this platform to say something to the world to try and change perception and culture, it would not be near as meaningful,” said Prince-Bythewood, who also exec-produced and directed the pilot for ABC’s limited series “Women of the Movement.” “I know the power of film and television, it’s affected me deeply throughout my life. Whether it be the lack of being able to see anyone that looks like myself to the response others have had when I have (the Black community) up front and center. This industry needs it, the world needs that. The world needs to see us in ways that we are not often reflected, which is heroic, vulnerable, complicated, beautiful and worthy of love.”
As awards season heats up, Prince-Bythewood has already been honored with the FIlmmaker Tribute at the Gotham Awards and will be crowned ACE Golden Eddie Filmmaker of the Year next March. “I take great pride in the work, and I do that because of the enormous amount of fight that has taken over these 20 years to tell these stories, and to make the films that I have,” she said. “I have much more to do, but I do believe all my work up until this point has led me to be able to do ‘The Woman King,’ and tell it in the way that I did, with a film of this magnitude. When I first started out in this industry, it’s the exact film I wanted to make. I didn’t think Hollywood had caught up to my dream yet and finally it feels like they have.” —Raquel “Rocky” Harris
Creator, Exec Producer, Writer, “Pachinko”
When Soo Hugh set up “Pachinko” at Apple TV+, the series was unprecedented. The adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel about a multigenerational Korean family would star a predominantly Asian cast, shoot on two continents and unfold almost entirely in Korean and Japanese. And Hugh was able to get the green light for her prestige epic before the South Korean pop culture boom (“Parasite,” “Squid Game”) shook up Hollywood’s idea of what a hit could be.
In the end, the lack of precedent proved liberating for Hugh. And her show became a hit with audiences and critics, earning a speedy Season 2 renewal from Apple. Hugh, who previously exec-produced the 2015 sci-fi series “The Whispers” for ABC, said she was still processing the idea of being a force for positive change in Hollywood. “I still sort of feel like I have to pinch myself that I’m even trying to be in that category,” she said.
She hopes that “Pachinko” will help chip away at the arbitrary categorization of TV or movies based on where they’re from or what story they’re telling. “The fact that people are watching a show that is in multiple Asian languages with casts that are fairly unknown to Western audiences — I’m hoping that shows like ‘Pachinko’ and ‘Squid Game’ and ‘Money Heist’ can get rid of that distinction between global/international and domestic,” she said, “and content can be just content.” —Dessi Gomez
Exec Producer, Writer, “House of the Dragon”
Despite being one of the preeminent series of the 2010s, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has often drawn criticism for its shortcomings in representation, from its depictions of violence against women to its relegation of people of color to the sidelines. With the blockbuster prequel “House of the Dragon,” on which the twice Emmy-nominated Sara Hess serves as writer and executive producer, the fantasy world of Westeros has bolstered its inclusion, as well as the scale of its storytelling.
Set two centuries before the events of “Game of Thrones,” the epic follows princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy) and queen Alicent Hightower (Emma Carey and Olivia Cooke) as their childhood friendship is bent and broken amid political and familial pressures. The series has a female point of view. No longer is the “Game of Thrones” universe so thoroughly, aggressively male.
Hess, whose previous writing and producing credits include “Orange Is the New Black” and “House,” was so integral to the conception of the prequel series that co-showrunner Ryan Condal told TheWrap that he “could not have done this show without her. She was the very first person I recruited in the building of the writing staff.”
The series sprawls across decades and touches on sociopolitical issues that are still relevant today, from patriarchal oppression to the horrors of childbirth. “Let’s just say that the themes of our show are very relevant IRL,” Hess told Vanity Fair. —Natalie Oganesyan
Producer, “She Said,” “Women Talking”
In the 15-plus years that Dede Gardner has been producing movies, she has built a rich filmography that includes “The Tree of Life,” “Selma” and “The Big Short” — as well as “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight,” which made her the first female producer to win two Best Picture Oscars. This year, the president of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment has thrown her weight behind two more prestige films, both of which center women’s voices both in front of and behind the camera: “She Said” and “Women Talking.”
Director Maria Schrader’s “She Said” tells the story of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault and harassment — the bombshell reporting that helped bring the #MeToo movement into the mainstream. In “Women Talking,” director Sarah Polley adapts Miriam Toews’ novel based on the true story of Mennonite women in Bolivia who were routinely drugged and raped by the men in their community.
Both films reflect Gardner’s passion for bringing women-led and underrepresented stories to the screen. “I consider it a genuine privilege to get to do what I do,” said Gardner, who also produced this year’s Netflix adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blonde.” “I just feel that if there is any sort of platform in which to widen the aperture of what narratives are being told, it’s our responsibility to do so. It feels essential that you spend your time telling stories that haven’t been told, or stories that are being told by underrepresented voices and communities.” —Raquel “Rocky” Harris
Director, “The Janes”
Director, Producer, “The Janes”
It’s hard to imagine a crueler irony than the timing of “The Janes,” Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ acclaimed documentary about a clandestine network of women who banded together to provide safe, affordable abortions in late-1960s Chicago, when abortion was illegal in the U.S. The movie arrived in theaters in June, just before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to resume or enact bans on abortions. What was conceived as a cautionary tale was now a reality.
“It’s been surreal to be having the same conversation 50 years later, as if nothing had changed — that we’re still fighting for control of our own bodies in the ways that the Janes were facing in the ‘60s,” Lessin told TheWrap. “We understood as we were making the film that things were dire. But when the decision finally came down, it was still quite shocking.”
Through poignant interviews with former members of The Janes as well as patients who benefited from their care, the film shines a light on the heroism of the activists and the mortal danger of back-alley abortions. The message could not be clearer: Reproductive rights save lives. And as Lessin and Pildes travel around the country to screen their film, engaging with audiences has been a powerful, invigorating experience.
Lessin is grateful “to have a way to channel my outrage and my anger and to not feel powerless in this moment. Because when we show the film, every time we talk about the film, it feels like we’re making some contribution to this conversation.” In a larger sense, she added, “The story in itself is about agency: It’s about women stepping into their own power.”
And as Pildes said, “We want to remind people of the power of collective action and the power of decency and that these women did what they had to do and put it all on the line to save women’s lives. We all have the ability to do that.” —Missy Schwartz
President, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences
Janet Yang is often called The Godmother of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry. But Yang, who in June became the first person of Asian descent to be elected president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, is ambivalent about the title. “Sometimes it makes me feel really old,” she told TheWrap, laughing.
Affectionate nicknames aside, there is no denying Yang’s pivotal role in increasing Asian representation in Hollywood. In the ’80s, after serving as an unofficial ambassador for Hollywood studios selling movies to China, she worked as a liaison between Steven Spielberg and the Chinese government for the filming of 1987’s “Empire of the Sun.” She exec-produced the groundbreaking 1993 adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club” and later founded Janet Yang Productions, the company behind 2020’s Oscar-nominated animated feature “Over the Moon.”
Looking back, Yang is open about how tough it was to rise through the ranks of the overwhelmingly white and male studio system of the ’80s and ’90s. “When I first came into the industry, there were other Asian Americans and they felt they had to be white,” said Yang, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. “They could not fully be themselves.” When Yang arrived in Hollywood, she said, she wore a “big thing across my forehead that said ‘China.’ There was no mistaking I was Chinese. I was hired by American movies to sell movies to China. I spoke Chinese. That is what I was hired for, so I did not have to mute or dilute that part of me. I felt very empowered.”
Since then, she has tried to pass that affirmation on to others. Even before she was elected president of the Academy, she was instrumental in the organization’s efforts to diversify its membership. “In the last four years, our goal was to double the number of women and people of color,” she said. “We have more or less reached that. Diversity is at the top of my mind.” Now, as president, she plans to run AMPAS with the same philosophy that has driven her career: “I can fully be myself, with my values, my style, my approach, my perspective.”
As for her vision for this year’s Oscars ceremony, Yang knows everyone is still thinking about The Slap. “That is what people remember from last year. But I can definitely deal with adversity and challenges,” she said. “It was pretty horrific what happened last year, but there is so much emotion out there now — good emotion. It will be really different.” —Mary Murphy
Chief Creative Officer, Skydance
Skydance chief creative officer Dana Goldberg embraces the “sweet spot” that her production company has found in the sci-fi/action-adventure realm of worldbuilding. Think: this year’s $1.5 billion hit “Top Gun: Maverick” (plus several “Mission: Impossible” movies and two “Terminator” films). And to Goldberg, flexibility and innovation have always been the priorities.
“No matter how brilliant the visual effects, no matter how incredible the stunts, it’s about the characters and it’s about the story,” she told TheWrap. “I’ll use an old hockey phrase: We like to go to where the puck is going, not where the puck has been.”
Part of that quick-footed movement included the decision to delay the release of “Top Gun: Maverick” for two years, which Goldberg credits to star Tom Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski, writer Christopher McQuarrie and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
“Collectively, Skydance, Paramount, the filmmakers — we knew we didn’t want to release this movie into a depressed marketplace because we believed in it so much. And so everyone held hands and said, ‘No, we’re going to wait till the moment when the most audiences possible will be going back to a theater … because that’s how this movie was meant to be seen. It is the definition of a theatrical event.”
The company plans to follow up the biggest hit of 2022 — and the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time in North America — with its second Skydance Animation project, the upcoming “Spellbound” with Rachel Zegler. There are also two “Mission: Impossible” films and “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.” Oh, and “Top Gun: Maverick” is on track to complete its second run in theaters. — Natalie Oganesyan
Chairman, Disney General Entertainment Content
As chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, Dana Walden oversees a rather massive portfolio: Disney +, Hulu, FX, ABC, Freeform, 20th Century Television, Nat Geo and more. This year alone, she helped shepherd such Emmy-winning projects as “Dopesick,” “The Dropout” and “Only Murders in the Building,” in addition to nominees “Pam & Tommy” and “The Girl From Plainville.” In the Hollywood parlance of the past, she would have been known as an executive with a “golden gut.”
But Walden is quick to share credit her team. “A golden gut is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of different people,” she told TheWrap. “The keys to success involve hard work and determination, along with commitment to your company, colleagues and your leaders. It takes discipline and a rigorous approach to your work, with no shortcuts.”
Not to mention the ability to weather tumultuous storms: Walden was promoted to her current position in June after Peter Rice’s controversial ouster by then Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who was himself recently booted and replaced by Bob Iger.
Walden has long been known for building strong relationships with talent, which she says is always a priority. “You can never be too busy to create new relationships and nurture long-standing bonds with creative partners — it is integral to our roles in this business.” —Mary Murphy
Grammy- and Emmy-Winning Superstar
Three-time Grammy award-winning artist Lizzo added to her list of accomplishments this year when her fourth studio album, “Special,” received six Grammy nominations (not to mention loads of critical praise), and her hit single “About Damn Time” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. She’s kicking off the second leg of her worldwide “Special Tour” in 2023 — but if you missed out on seeing her in person, there’s good news: HBO Max is streaming “Lizzo: LIve in Concert” on New Year’s Eve.
And then there was the Emmy win. In September, she won the Outstanding Competition Program for her Amazon Prime Video series “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” which chronicled her search for dancers and put the body neutrality movement she has always supported center stage. In her acceptance speech, an emotional Lizzo delivered one of the best moments of the night when she emphasized the importance of representation: “Let’s just tell more stories. When I was a little girl, all I wanted to see was me in the media. Someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me.”
That theme is also front and center in her new HBO Max documentary, “Love, Lizzo,” a fascinating behind-the-scenes chronicle of her rise from classically trained flutist to international superstar. During a recent appearance on the morning radio show “The Breakfast Club,” Lizzo shared, with characteristic candor, her perspective on her success. “My dream was always to be, like, a marginally successful touring musician,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this forever.’ I had a built-in audience. I grossed a million dollars on my own. Independent. Touring. You know, I have a fan base. I could have done this forever without being a global superstar. But I am, bitch. I’m a global superstar now.” —Raquel “Rocky” Harris
Author, “I’m Glad My Mom Died”
In a year full of loving celebrations of mothers (“The Fabelmans,” “Till,” “Women Talking”), one bestselling book took a different approach to the topic: Jennette McCurdy’s “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” As you can probably guess from the title, this memoir dives head-first into the complex relationship that McCurdy experienced with a mother she calls both narcissistic and abusive.
A former child star best known for playing Sam Puckett in the Nickelodeon sitcom “iCarly,” McCurdy proved to be an elegant writer with her acclaimed debut book in which she recalls how her mother pushed her into show business and, among other horrors, taught her how to be anorexic. Now 30, the former actress tackles her childhood and young adulthood with brutal honesty and an engaging voice that, even when lighter in tone, never diminishes the seriousness of what she endured.
Finding that voice was a long time coming. “I think my experience was way more common than anyone would care to admit,” McCurdy told Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” recently. “This is what I spent 10 years in therapy to be able to talk about.” —Michele Willens
Playwright, “Topdog/Underdog,” Sally and Tom;” Playwright and Performer, “Plays for the Plague Year”
She was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That was in 2002. Now, that play, “Topdog/Underdog,” is back on Broadway to much critical acclaim, while three of her other works are rolling out elsewhere. No question: Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is the theatrical force of 2022.
In October, the ambitious play-within-a-play “Sally and Tom” (as in Hemings and Jefferson) opened to positive reviews at the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. She recent starred in an Off Broadway production of “Plays for the Plague Year,” a musical-poetic-personal piece that she wrote about the first year of COVID. And her musical adaptation of “The Harder They Come,” the 1972 crime film famous for its reggae soundtrack, is being prepped at New York’s Public Theater.
Parks, 59, is revered by the theater community and beloved by those who know her well — like Oren Jacoby, who spent almost a year making a documentary about her called “TopDog Diaries” (now available to stream). “She is the most hard-working, open, free flowing talent,” Jacoby told TheWrap. “I remember going into a voodoo store with her when she was looking for some kind of charm that would fit into her play. No one does more research.” And no one puts it to more brilliant, creative use. —Michele Willens
Author, “Rough Draft”
We knew Katy Tur had guts. She did, after all, prevail under a constant barrage of insults from Donald Trump when she covered his 2016 presidential campaign. In “Rough Draft,” her acclaimed memoir published in June, the NBC reporter and “MSNBC Reports” anchor gives us an even greater sense of her strength, confronting her childhood of abuse and confessing her struggles with imposter syndrome. That kind of frankness about mental health is still rare for public figures, especially award-winning journalists.
In the book, Tur charts her life as the child of two Los Angeles news pioneers, who, from the cockpit of a helicopter, covered the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, the Rodney King beating and the infamous wedding flyover of the Madonna-Sean Penn wedding. As she writes in “Rough Draft,” “My childhood smelled like eucalyptus trees, the Pacific Ocean and jet fuel.”
According to Tur, her father was prone to fits of rage that he took out on his family. He would beat, belt-whip and throw objects at Tur and her brother, as well as her mother, Marika Gerrard. The memoir explores the mental abuse she suffered (which prepared her for Trump’s volatility), as well as a rocky start to a career weighed down by self-doubt, sexism and gossip following a relationship with reporter Keith Olbermann. The book also covers how, in 2013, while Tur was covering the Boston bombings, her father told her he was transitioning to become a woman. She now goes by the name Zoey Tur.
Katy Tur credits the pandemic for her willingness to share her story. “I was stuck at home,” she told TheWrap. “I was in my own head, wondering whether I was making the world better or worse.” Getting it all out there has been a relief. “I am in a better place in December 2022 than January 2022,” Tur, a mother of four who’s married to “CBS Mornings” host Tony Dosoupil, said. “I was coming out with the memoir and it had me in a very weird place mentally. I had written it, I was honest, but now people were going to read it. It turns out it was cathartic. I confronted it. I admitted it and I feel a lightness that I have not felt (before).” —Mary Murphy
Journalist, Activist, Political Commentator
For the past 20 years, Masih Alinejad has been one of the leading voices in the battle for human rights in Iran. As a journalist in the early aughts, she frequently criticized the Iranian government for corruption and abuses of power, which made her a target of threats and intimidation — and earned her legions of supporters. (She has 8.5 million followers on Instagram.) She has written multiple books, and in 2014 launched a campaign against the Iranian law requiring women to wear hijabs. That movement attracted worldwide attention this year as thousands of Iranians took to the streets following the death of Masah Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by Iran’s morality police for not wearing a headscarf and died while in police custody. “This year has been about pain and power,” Alinejad told TheWrap. “For me, it’s not a time to mourn but to keep the revolution going.” Her work certainly is making an impact: In early December, Iran announced that it was abolishing the morality police.
Alinejad now lives primarily in New York, where she is a frequent guest on CNN and MSNBC. The day we spoke to her, the United States was playing Iran in the World Cup. “I’m a woman and half the population of my country is not allowed to go to a stadium,” she said. “How would that be accepted in your country? These teams are part of a gender apartheid.” (For the record, she said she was supporting the U.S. team, which won the game, 1-0.)
Despite her feelings about her country’s leadership, Alinejad wants to be able to return to Iran someday. “The regime has taken everything but my hope,” she said, “which is for a secular and democratic Iran where women do not get beaten to death for showing a few strands of hair.” —Michele Willens
Founder, Future Generations Now
Between SAT prep and deliberations about college, Harvard Westlake junior Skyler Griswold is trying to overhaul the perception of who can enact change. “It’s not about how big a difference you’re making, but at least the effort that you are trying to make a difference,” said the Future Generations Now founder, whose nonprofit prioritizes activism and youth engagement in the sectors of equity, education and the environment.
A self-described “chatterbox” as a child, the 17-year-old said her parents enrolled her in public speaking classes in the third grade, which quickly grew into a passion for slam poetry. Following a speech recital at an Operation Smile gala led by Brooke Burke, Griswold became further involved in the medical organization’s mission trips, traveling as a volunteer to Lima, Peru and Cebu City, Philippines. At the UN’s Nexus Summit in 2018, she launched her own platform.
Griswold credits her parents for instilling in her an awareness of her privilege — that she never had to worry about having a roof over her head or food in the fridge, as she put it. FGN has collaborated with orgs like Blessings in a Backpack to provide food for low-income children, hosted “wellness festivals” for COVID vaccine drives and spearheaded free self-defense classes.
“It’s no longer a charity or just a nonprofit,” she told TheWrap. “It’s people helping people and it’s not about what we can do for them, but also what they’re doing for us and how they’re able to teach us something about their lives. I think that that’s what connects not just us, but the older generation to our generation — them being able to pass the baton and recognize that just because we’re young, it doesn’t mean that we don’t care or that we’re not able to.” —Natalie Oganesyan
Founder, Moms Demand Action
It’s been another harrowing year of gun violence in the United States. Uvalde. Buffalo. Chesapeake. Charlottesville. Colorado Springs. There have been more than 620 mass shootings nationwide in 2022, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. And as we reach the 10th anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, it’s hard not to despair over the lack of stricter gun control. But Shannon Watts — who in 2012 founded Moms Demand Action, the nation’s largest grassroots group against gun violence — has a more optimistic perspective.
“We are winning,” Watts told TheWrap. “We’ve elected over 130 of our volunteers this year to various (public) offices. We have helped to flip legislatures. And we did bring about the first federal action — within a polarized Congress — in nearly 30 years. We’re not just playing defense, but offense.”
Optimism drives Watts. Over the past decade, she has weathered constant attacks from the NRA and other gun rights activists but has never lost sight of the goal. “She is a force to be reckoned with, a true inspiration,” said actress and activist Sophia Bush, who is on the Creative Council for Everytown Gun Safety (the Mike Bloomberg-founded umbrella organization of which Moms Demand Action is a part). “She has proven that by building both local and national communities and harnessing the ferocious love we carry for our families, we can change the culture and the conversation around sensible gun laws.” The Bipartisan Gun Safety Bill that President Biden signed into law in June is a major victory for the cause Watts champions: It expands background checks, increases funding for mental health services and, critically, bans domestic abusers from buying firearms.
The bill won’t solve the country’s gun problem, but Watts views it as a leap forward. And looking to the future is what matters to Watts: “We step back after every heartbreaking report and ask, ‘Can we do it better next time?’” —Michele Willens