The Difference Between a Debut and a Breakout


Since quarantine orders began, I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on movies — many of which are considered classics, yet I somehow hadn’t gotten around to seeing them. Watching these movies has prompted invigorating conversations with those around me; what lines and quotes aged well? Were these movies premonitions of what was to come? What happened to some of these actors and actresses who seemed very promising at the time?

All politics, morbidity, and existential uncertainty aside, one question I’ve asked the cinephiles around me remains constant: “Would you consider [x film] [y actor/actress’] breakout?”

While sometimes an actor or actress’ debut role launches them into stardom, it’s not until after they have a few roles under their belt. For example, actress Reese Witherspoon made her onscreen debut in 1991 in The Man in the Moon. While the coming-of-age film was very much well received by critics, including Roger Ebert, who included on a list of his favorite movies of that year, it’s not often regarded as her breakout film.

When people hear Reese Witherspoon’s name, they often associate her with Cruel Intentions or Legally Blonde.

Similarly, actor Tom Cruise is often associated with the 1986 film Top Gun, despite making his film debut in Endless Love five years prior.

So what defines a breakout role? The number of awards the actor or actress receives for their performance? Media input? Box office sales?

There’s really no clear definition or criteria for a breakout, but one could say that an actor or actress’ breakout role is the one role for which people of all ages and backgrounds will know the actor or actress. For example, even though Sophie’s Choice was released in 1982, many millennials consider the role of Sophie Zawistowski as Meryl Streep’s breakthrough, despite not having been born at the time of the film’s release. While many of us can name what we consider a performer’s breakout, with there being a general consensus in many cases, everyone has a different idea as to why a certain work is a breakout for said performer.

The same principles can be applied to music. For example, Rihanna released her debut album Music of the Sun in 2005, which contained her hit debut single “Pon de Replay.” While the song proved to be a summer hit, it peaked at number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rihanna didn’t get her first number one until almost a year later with “S.O.S.” from her sophomore album A Girl Like Me. “S.O.S.,” albeit her first Hot 100 chart-topper, isn’t the song people credit for making her a superstar in the realm of pop music.

If you ask a group of gen-Xers or boomers what their favorite Rihanna song is, chances are, a fair portion of them will say “Umbrella,” from her third album, Good Girl Gone Bad. Meanwhile, most millennials and gen-Zers, who have grown up with her catalog, will probably have a different favorite song of hers, but still have memories associated with “Umbrella.” They still recognize the impact of the song and how it’s become one of Rihanna’s signature cuts. Rihanna will probably include “Umbrella” on the setlist of every one of her future tours.

While an artist or performer’s debut work isn’t often considered their breakout, the criteria for a breakout varies from person to person. Words like “breakout” and “breakthrough” have fairly simple definitions. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a breakthrough is “an instance of achieving success in a particular sphere or activity.” So really, it depends on the consumer’s ideas of success and achievements.

UNT Alumnus | 26 | Lover of music, food, baseball, dogs and world cultures | Curator of incredibly dope playlists

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store