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Breakthrough actors who may attract HFPA votes

A snapshot of thesps who had noteworthy perfs this year

America Ferrera, ‘Ugly Betty’
If there was ever a no-brainer about forecasting stardom for a relative newcomer, this was it. Ferrera, who made a name for herself with HBO’s “Real Women Have Curves” and bigscreen teen pic “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” is downright delightful as “Betty,” turning a seemingly one-note character into something fully dimensional. The ratings are boffo, reviews are positive, and Ferrera is well on her way to having a healthy career.

Forest Whitaker, ‘The Shield’
If there’s any justice, Whitaker will be a double nominee on Globes night. Not only for “The Last King of Scotland,” but his turn as Lt. Kavanaugh on FX cop drama “The Shield” was just as powerful. Kavanaugh had the guts — and some might say naivete — to investigate and attempt to arrest Michael Chiklis for the murder of a fellow cop on the pilot episode four years ago. Even though Chiklis is guilty, Kavanaugh has learned that being on the right side of the law isn’t always popular — even among fellow cops.

Masi Oka,’Heroes’
Who knew? Who would’ve thought that a relative unknown Japanese-born actor, with a handful of episodic TV guest appearances, would play an ultra-geeky character and become one of the biggest stars of the TV season? But such is the story for those on “Heroes,” a series that has exploded for the Peacock and has tapped in the highly lucrative and addictive world of sci-fi.

Alec Baldwin, ’30 Rock’
Supremely underrated, there are very few actors as versatile as Baldwin, who can be deadly serious (“The Departed,” “The Cooler”) or laugh-out-loud funny. After hosting “Saturday Night Live” a staggering 16 times, it makes perfect sense that he’s a riot in “30 Rock.” His deadpan deliveries make the comedy one of the best new shows nobody’s watching. NBC’s moving the series to Thursday, where expectations are lower. Baldwin, however, keeps rising to the occasion.

Aidan Gillen, ‘The Wire’
It’s virtually impossible to pick one actor from HBO’s seminal drama, which, by the way, may have received the best reviews of any show in the history of television. But Gillen, as the newly elected mayor of Baltimore, is as solid as any. Now that he’s in charge, Gillen — an Irish actor who hides his accent well — must figure out how to stem the drug trade, lower the murder rate and improve the school system. Welcome to Charm City, indeed.

Elizabeth Mitchell, ‘Lost’
The Others are a creepy bunch, no doubt, but Mitchell’s so sly, so deliciously deceptive, we’re not quite sure what to believe anymore. Is she really trying to help Jack by convincing him to off Michael Emerson in a purposely botched spinal surgery, or was that part of the master plan all along? Only the writers know, but with “Lost” characters having shorter lifespans all the time, it would be nice if Mitchell stayed around for a while.

Kyle Chandler, ‘Friday Night Lights’
While the NBC series faces a fourth down and long in the ratings game, Chandler is keeping his end up with a stellar perf as the multifaceted and conflicted coach of the Texas High School Dillon Panthers. Forced to win — or lose his job — by a town obsessed with football, while also trying to be a good husband and father, Chandler balances his personal values beyond the context of wins and losses.

James Woods, ‘Shark’
Woods has supplied the bite to “Shark” — shockingly, another CBS procedural that’s proved to be a Nielsen winner. As a defense attorney-turned-L.A. prosecutor, Woods is now using his smarminess to put the bad guys in the pokey rather than finding loopholes to send them back on the street. The relationship with his estranged daughter is a nice touch, and the way he schools his staff of young lawyers is like Bob Knight looking down on a freshman class of hoopsters. Tough love, primetime-style.

Michael C. Hall, ‘Dexter’
Hall has many fans after a stellar turn in “Six Feet Under,” and now his role as a serial killer with a heart of gold has lifted “Dexter” to become Showtime’s top-rated show. He only kills those who deserve to meet their maker, so even his most devilish deeds seem justified. The pay cabler always seems to do well come awards time, so Hall’s presence among the TV elite shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Gerald McRaney, ‘Deadwood’
Characters from the Old West have often been labeled as vicious, but McRaney’s vision of George Hearst was downright brutal. Hearst arrived in the camp — or the “organism,” as creator David Milch likes to call it — and aimed to get all the gold he could gather by harassing defenseless women, sending his henchman to intimidate the townsfolk and killings be damned. McRaney was so mesmerizingly menacing that town bogeyman Al Swearengen, brilliantly portrayed by Ian McShane, wasn’t sure how to act around him — even after Hearst cut off his finger. Now, that’s one tough hombre.

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