LIV TYLER

Liv Tyler has made five movies in two years, all without an acting lesson. If Hollywood gets its way, she'll never have one. "The first director she worked with [Bruce Beresford in 1994's Silent Fall] didn't want her to be touched," says her mother, former model Bebe Buell. "He said, 'If you put this girl in acting school, I'll kill you. Leave her alone.' " The toast of Cannes in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty and a headliner in Tom Hanks's '60s celebration That Thing You Do!, Tyler has the ingenue bit down pat. When she read for the role of the youngest daughter in a wealthy family in next spring's Inventing the Abbotts, Tyler "had this intuitive judgment," says director Patrick O'Connor. "There is no deception in her." So instead of standing around in a classroom pretending to be a tree, the 19-year-old daughter of Aerosmith's Steve Tyler hangs out at the Manhattan apartment she shares with her mom. ("I never see guys—I work all the time," she recently told Seventeen.) Her room is decorated with stuffed bears, a Pee-wee Herman doll and a Chinese tantric etching—which comes as no surprise to O'Connor, who calls Liv "a delightful combination of being very girlish and very wise."

CLAIRE DANES

The first thing that people notice about Claire Danes is how grown up she is. "You have to constantly remind yourself that you're dealing with a 17-year-old," says Martin Brown, coproducer of her current film, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. "With Claire, you feel you are dealing with a contemporary," echoes the movie's 34-year-old director, Baz Luhrmann. Back in 1994, her My So-Called Life costar Devon Odessa, now 22, told PEOPLE, "I feel like I'm the immature one. You would have thought that this girl had been married 25 times. I mean, she just knows." She certainly knows how to steer a career. After Romeo, Danes is testing the commercial waters of John Grisham's The Rainmaker and Oliver Stone's Stray Dogs. "It's almost impossible to make the transition from a child actor into an adult star, and yet Claire, I think, is definitely doing that," says Luhrmann. But Danes, a New Yorker who now resides in Santa Monica, also tries her best to lead a teenage life. She is getting over her split this year with musician Andrew Dorff, she's addicted to Gummi Bears, and she has just weathered the SATs. "It's all been pretty wild lately," Danes recently told Seventeen. "I'm not sure where I'll end up." Well, there's no time like the present. "She's at the top of every list in town," says New Line Cinema production president Michael De Luca. "Right now she's it."

LEONARDO DICAPRIO

Since he made his mark at age 18 in 1993's This Boy's Life, this boy's life has been chronicled as often as his movies. A creature of the club scene, he has been linked with model Bridget Hall and actresses Alicia Silverstone and Sara Gilbert—which only adds to his teen-idol résumé. On the Internet, fans can peek at his poetry ("Little gestures, little feelings, small strands of hair in your lips"), order a pair of autographed blue jeans and read about the house he's building for his mom in West Virginia. But a wary DiCaprio, 22, maintains strong acting chops through a careful choice of roles and the attentive nurturing of his parents, Irmelin and George, now divorced, who help manage his career. "He has a lot of family support. They keep him sane," says Mark Wahlberg, DiCaprio's costar in 1995's The Basketball Diaries. The laid-back DiCaprio, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a mentally handicapped boy in 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape, also releases tension by cutting up on the set. While filming this month's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes in Mexico City, he was impersonating Michael Jackson "every five minutes," according to costar John Leguizamo, and grooving to hip-hop music. But when the director called "action," DiCaprio snapped to attention. "He has an innate ability to get under the skin of a character that I believe even he himself doesn't quite understand," says the film's casting director, David Rubin. "He's one of the most instinctual young actors today."

EDWARD NORTON

He's known as the unknown who saved Primal Fear. When Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role of the altar boy/murder suspect defended by Richard Gere, Paramount launched an international search and auditioned 2,100 actors with no success. Gere was ready to walk when Edward Norton showed up to read for the part. "He nailed it, and I thought I was hallucinating," says Deborah Aquila, who cast him. Norton's southern accent was so good that he had her believing it was authentic: "He told me he was from Appalachia, and I bought it hook, line and sinker." She couldn't have been more wrong. Norton, 27, was reared in Columbia, Md., and is the grandson of the late James Rouse, who developed Boston's Faneuil Hall marketplace and Baltimore's Harborplace. After graduating from Yale, the boy with the out-of-kilter features and off-center charm headed for Manhattan, where playwright Edward Albee cast him as a lead in his Fragments. "What are those seven things people say about Boy Scouts? Honesty, truthfulness, duty—Edward is all those things," says Albee. Not to mention captivating. "He reminds me of Dustin Hoffman when Hoffman came on the scene 25 years ago, not so much for glamor but for his sheer ability," says Primal Fear director Greg Hoblit. "Edward didn't really work his way up the food chain," adds Larry Karaszewski, who cowrote Norton's December film, The People vs. Larry Flynt, costarring Courtney Love, whom the actor reportedly is dating. "He blasted his way to the top." Next, Norton croons love songs in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. "Edward has a beautiful soul and heart," says his Everyone love interest, Drew Barrymore. "He is not out there self-destructing. He is Old Hollywood. He's classy. He's genuine."

ALICIA SILVERSTONE

She is not Cher Horowitz—and don't you forget it. Since playing the dizzy high school princess who beguiled audiences in 1995's Clueless, Alicia Silverstone, who turned 20 last month, has been doing all she can to escape the character's well-dressed shadow. She spent two months studying Romeo and Juliet and other plays at Shakespeare & Company, a respected acting institute in Lenox, Mass. And according to family friend Garnet Batinovich, who visited her at a weight-reduction spa in Northern California last summer, "her room was filled with books. A lot of classics. She's very serious." But the best way to give Cher the slip may be by playing Batgirl opposite George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell in next summer's Batman and Robin—a role for which Warner Bros. handed her a reported $2 million. "She's the sexiest, hottest, coolest young actress in the business," says the film's director, Joel Schumacher. Silverstone also has higher ambitions. Her company, First Kiss, bankrolled for $7 million, makes her the youngest actor-producer in Hollywood. For her first effort, next year's Excess Baggage, Silverstone stars as a rich girl who gets kidnapped by heartthrob Benicio Del Toro, whom she handpicked for the role. Offscreen, Silverstone, who is currently without a boyfriend, shares her new $900,000 San Fernando Valley ranch house with Samson, her black Lab-pit bull mix. Fame and fortune, it seems, haven't KO'd her innocence. It's there "even in how she drinks," says Clueless director Amy Heckerling. "She dips her head over the straw like a little kid. Watching her just breaks my heart." Ours too.

MALIK YOBA

In Love Changes, the romantic comedy he is currently filming, Malik Yoba has to say that he hates kids. He can't bring himself to do it. "I've read this scene over and over and over again," says the 29-year-old star of Fox's New York Undercover. "People know how passionate I am about kids. How are they going to buy me saying that line?" Since surviving a gunshot wound at 15, the East Harlem-born Yoba has devoted his life to community service, first as a member, then as vice president of CityKids Foundation, a multicultural youth organization in New York City. "I wasn't pursuing an acting career," he says, noting that he did auditions "when they were convenient." One such outing led to a turn as a member of the Jamaican bobsled team in 1993's cult comedy Cool Runnings. "He had this sparkling aura, and everybody was taken by him," says Jaki Brown-Karman, a casting director for the film. "I knew he'd be a movie star." Next, Yoba plays Robert De Niro's partner in the police film Copland. "Obviously this is the place I'm supposed to be because this is a greater platform for the work I do with young people," says the unmarried Yoba, who grew up in a strict Muslim household with no television. "Now there are millions of kids who track me every week and will listen when I say put a gun down."

ALISON ELLIOTT

Onscreen and off, Alison Elliott is cooking. After portraying an ex-convict waitress in The Spitfire Grill, she wore an apron again recently to dish treats for the Meals on Wheels American Wine and Food Festival in L.A. "I got to put on my chef's whites and I know how to debone quail," says Elliott, 26, who specializes in garlic chicken and yaki soba, a Japanese fried noodle dish. She just wrapped Wings of the Dove, based on the Henry James novel, but has been slow to pick another project. "I turn down a lot of roles," says Elliott, who lives in a one-bedroom West Hollywood apartment where she sleeps "on one of those makeshift futon numbers" and accumulates antiques. "If I feel like I'm not the best person for a part or don't feel passion about it, I'll step out real early in the game." But such pickiness suits her. "She's been likened to Holly Hunter, Lauren Bacall and Jodie Foster," says Spitfire director Lee David Zlotoff. "She's a real actress more than a starlet." That should keep her on the Hollywood menu for many seasons to come.

EDWARD BURNS

Edward Burns recently found himself backstage after a Bruce Springsteen concert schmoozing with the Boss about John Ford's classic film The Grapes of Wrath. "Eighteen months ago I wouldn't have been sitting there," says Burns, 28. "I would have been asking for his autograph." The status bump comes from his sudden fame as screenwriter, actor, director and producer or—as the buzz in Hollywood has it—an Irish-Catholic Woody Allen. He's already the stuff of legend. Burns's first film, The Brothers McMullen, won the 1995 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. Made for $25,000 (Burns saved money by casting himself and his girlfriend of eight years, Maxine Bahns, in major roles and having his mother cook for the crew), Brothers took in $10 million at the box office, the kind of return on investment that makes moguls switch on the green light. Burns had no trouble recruiting The Mask's Cameron Diaz and Friends' Jennifer Aniston for last summer's She's the One, which earned back its $3.5 million cost within two weeks. Currently he is in preproduction on Long Time Nothing New, about a woman turning 30. He takes his newly acquired power in stride. "I don't think Ed has a temper," says Bahns. "He's so mellow that he cools me off. He's like a perfect guy." Now that he has some folding money, though, Burns can afford to eat out. Says his younger brother Brian: "No more peanut butter sandwiches for dinner."

GWYNETH PALTROW

One day on the set of Emma, the star was out of control. "She would get halfway through her speech in a Dorset accent," says producer Steven Haft, "and all of a sudden she would start sounding like Woody Allen. She had the whole crew in stitches. She does a mean Woody." Wouldn't you just know it? Here's Gwyneth Paltrow, 23, Hollywood's Girl Who Has Everything: the right man (Brad Pitt), the right parents (actress Blythe Danner and TV producer Bruce Paltrow), the right clothes (Calvin Klein) and the right look (impossible prep school pale). Now we have to live with the fact that she's funny too. Of course she's more than just the face that launched a thousand magazine covers. We'll grant her talent. She mesmerized in Seven with her beau at her side and captivated as Emma Woodhouse without him. And she knows what the shouting's about. "She seems very grounded to me," says John Lyons, who produced the forthcoming drama Hard Eight, in which Paltrow heads in yet another screen direction by playing a Reno call girl. "Growing up in the business, she understands the vagaries of being famous." With her diamond-studded friendship ring firmly in place, Paltrow shuns bicoastal nightlife. She prefers to hunker down at her Greenwich Village apartment with Pitt or at his 32-room Hollywood Hills mansion (formerly owned by horror hostess Elvira), when they're not visiting each other in exotic locales. Still, Paltrow told Long Island's Newsday, she was sappy enough to fall hard for her legend. "I'm like, are you insane? You can't get a crush on Brad Pitt. Get a hold of yourself." Gwyneth Paltrow feeling out of control? There is a God.

JENNIFER ANISTON

"On the set, we could tell when it was a Jennifer Aniston day because the Entertainment Tonight cameras would suddenly appear," says Scott Winant, director of next winter's romantic comedy 'Til There Was You, which Aniston filmed on her days off from Friends last year. Forget about a Jennifer Aniston day. It has been a Jennifer Aniston year. In her third season as ditsy Rachel Green, Aniston, 27, continues to grind beans and collect kudos as the sexiest Friend. Thousands of women have paid her homage by demanding that their hairdressers give them blown-out, layered Rachel dos. "I'm sick of it," she recently told INSTYLE. With every hair in place, though, Aniston is making a smooth move from the little screen to the big picture. While Friends pals David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc fared so-so in feature forays, Aniston's flippy turn as a frustrated wife in director Edward Burns's She's the One garnered good notices. And all the glitter has not gone to her head, claims Marlo Thomas, who plays her sitcom mother. "Jennifer is adorable," she says. "Sweet and giving." It can't hurt that Aniston has lived through the ups and downs of the biz. Her father, John, plays Victor Kiriakis on NBC's Days of Our Lives, mom Nancy was a model, and her godfather was Telly Savalas. Aniston, who has spent her free time this year with actor Tate Donovan, seems to have the legs for the long haul after the blow-dryers are finally turned off. "Eventually," says Winant, "the focus will become about her talent and not her hair. And that's where it should be."

EWAN McGREGOR

If you can't place Ewan McGregor's face, it may be because it keeps changing. He shaved his head and lost 28 pounds for his role as a heroin addict in Trainspotting, then donned a wig and top hat to play a devious bachelor in Emma. This month he'll be seen as an American law student in Nightwatch with Nick Nolte. And next year he plays a kidnapper in A Life Less Ordinary with Cameron Diaz. "I would get terribly bored if I was playing the same kind of character all the time," the Scottish-born McGregor, 25, told the Irish Times last summer. Despite his new fame, McGregor eschews the spotlight for time with wife Eve Mavrakis, a production designer, and their 9-month-old daughter, Clara, whom he carries around film sets on his back. "He's not one of those drop-dead-gorgeous Brad Pitt types," says Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, "but there's something enormously attractive about him, because he's more human."

KATE WINSLET

When Kate Winslet is on film, chances are she's done up in long skirts and bonnets—or at the very least, bobby socks. She played a murderous 1950s teen in Heavenly Creatures and the more romantic Dashwood sister in Sense and Sensibility (for which she won an Oscar nomination). So convincing is she in a corset that Kenneth Branagh cast her to star opposite him as Ophelia in next month's Hamlet without even asking her to audition. But when the cameras stop rolling, Winslet rolls her own cigarettes. She also prefers workmen's boots to dainty heels and was once spotted necking in a London restaurant with actor Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch). She's a thoroughly modern star and "a regular 21-year-old," according to Sense and Sensibility producer Lindsay Doran. Winslet, who grew up in an acting family in Reading, England, told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that she'd one day like to "do something contemporary," but her next project is the summer's $122 million Titanic. Her career seems unsinkable. "I don't think she will be typecast," says Branagh. "She is very versatile." She's also focused. "What is so remarkable about her," Branagh adds, is that "she is sane."

SCOTT WOLF

You know you watch too much TV if your first reaction to Scott Wolf's appearance on Fox's Party of Five was, "That's the guy from the Frosted Flakes commercial," and not, "He looks like Tom Cruise." Of that 1991 assignment, Wolf recalls, "I played tennis with Tony the Tiger. Tony and I beat the crap out of two other guys." A thoroughly atypical moment for the 28-year-old George Washington University grad who sets young hearts aflutter as PO5's well-intentioned Bailey Salinger, tortured teen and spiritual center of five orphaned San Francisco siblings. "On the set, one thing he does, no matter how busy he is, is give you a good-morning hug," reports costar Jennifer Love Hewitt, who plays his girlfriend. "He checks on everybody." Meanwhile, Wolf's film career, which includes 1994's Double Dragon and this year's White Squall, continues apace. "I was impressed with him from the start," says casting director Jennifer Shull, who chose Wolf to play Juliette Lewis's boyfriend in Evening Star, December's much-awaited sequel to Terms of Endearment. "He was able to give the character some special little twists." Having weathered a 1994 engagement to actress Alyssa Milano ("that and the Tom Cruise questions don't go away," he complains), Wolf now has a new (unnamed) girlfriend and a new Hollywood Hills home—but some old fears about his success. "When Party of Five is over," says the West Orange, N.J., native, "I'm going to be looking for work again." Not likely. "He's the real thing," says Star director Robert Harling. "I wouldn't be surprised if in five years we hear them say, 'Oh, you want Scott Wolf? You can't have him. He's booked.' "

JARED LETO

According to the unofficial Jared Leto Web site, maintained by legions of smitten Leto-heads, the 24-year-old high school dropout "doesn't eat Spam, his first kiss was bad and sloppy, and he hates shaving." Thanks to his role as Jordan Catalano, the shy kid on ABC's award-winning '94 series My So-Called Life, Leto has become the '90s James Dean: the angst-lite guy. "Just wait," he told Seventeen magazine, " 'til they make the Dazed and Confused of my generation." He should be able to handle it. "Jared walked in, and you went 'whoa,' " says MSCL producer Marshall Herskovitz. "This is somebody who really has something." Playing against type in this winter's Going West, with Dennis Quaid and Danny Glover, he portrays a suspect in a search for a serial killer. Between projects, Leto keeps busy with mountain climbing, snow-boarding and, he said to YM magazine, "I immediately fall in love with every beautiful new girl I meet." Ladies, start your modems.

JENNY McCARTHY

Sorority president on cappuccino overload? Prom queen from Mad Max High? Former Playboy Playmate of the Year and cohost of MTV's hormonal dating game Singled Out, McCarthy, 24, is a Hollywood spitfire whose mix of comeliness and comedy (she likes to sniff her armpit and make a face onscreen) has gen-Xers glued to the tube. "She breaks the stereotype of what you think a gorgeous blonde babe might be," says Lisa Berger, an MTV vice president. "She loves to take her beauty and screw with it." Or, as her Singled Out cohost Chris Hardwick says, "She's an attractive woman who can still be a pig like a man." But the Chicago-born Irish-Catholic girl, who now lives in L.A. with manager-beau Ray Manzella, is too canny to rest on her hype. She has issued a CD, Jenny McCarthy's Surfin' Safari, and is developing a variety show for MTV and a network sitcom. "I'm hoping people see the longevity of me and not just see me as the girl of the summer," says McCarthy. In her case, the summer seems endless.

JADA PINKETT

Don't let the look fool you. She's only 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, but when this performer needs a pep talk, she channels professional boxer Christy Martin. "She's a pit bull," says Pinkett, 25, admiringly. "And that's how I am about life. I love to fight. When people underestimate me, I come back like a roaring, raging tiger." Lately, though, the Baltimore native, who once thought of becoming a litigator, hasn't had to put up her dukes. Since making her film debut in 1993's Menace II Society, after two seasons on TV's A Different World, Pinkett has steadily bulked up her résumé. This year she melted Eddie Murphy's heart in The Nutty Professor. "The camera begs to be right there in her face," raves F. Gary Gray, director of this month's Set It Off, starring Pinkett and Blair Underwood. Maybe more important, "Jada doesn't have that self-destructive, immature, tragic thing about her," says Doug McHenry, who directed her in the 1994 drama Jason's Lyric. "She's got the maturity to take the ride to the top and stay there." Along the way she snagged Independence Day's Will Smith, with whom she shares a Spanish hacienda northwest of L.A. "He is so precious to me," she says. "Not only is he my lover, he is my best friend." Their circle includes the Wayans clan and Martin stars Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold. "In young, black Hollywood, you don't get a lot of bickering," says Pinkett. "We function as a unit because we will as a unit keep ourselves working. We're very focused, and we're on a mission. We will not be denied!"

BILLY CRUDUP

The meteoric rise of the charming, cleft-chinned, 28-year-old actor left Hollywood crying for "the next Billy Crudup"—even before most of the world had heard of him at all. New Yorkers were jolted into appreciation back in 1995, when the Long Island-born Crudup gave a standout turn as a rakish tutor in Broadway's Arcadia. Then came the double slam: big-screen portrayals of a haunting Sleepers killer and an intellectual hunk who bursts into one of Everyone Says I Love You's songs. "You can't really explain Billy's talent, but you can feel it in the pit of your stomach," says Sleepers casting director Louis DiGiaimo. "Even if he only had one line, you'd remember him." Luckily he'll have many more in February's Pre, in which he portrays distance runner Steve Prefontaine, and in spring's Inventing the Abbotts, a domestic drama. With such abundance, who needs another Billy Crudup? We'll stick with the original.

MIRA SORVINO

"It's a tough life, and she handles it well, she really does," says David Mirkin, director of Mira Sorvino's next effort, Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion. But how bad can it be? Since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite in March, Sorvino gets her pick of roles, and with boyfriend Quentin Tarantino on her arm, she attends premiere parties dressed in Armani and Cynthia Rowley. "I have yet to be accustomed to the whole baseball hat, sunglasses thing," she told PEOPLE in April. Still, says Reunion costar Alan Cumming, "it must be difficult for her because so much has happened to her so quickly. You can tell that sometimes she's like, 'Oh, my God, what is all this?' " Sorvino is not blinded by the klieg lights, though, according to her father, actor Paul Sorvino, because the 29-year-old Harvard grad is too smart to buy the hype. "She never wanted to be a movie star, and she still doesn't strive for that," he says. "She strives to be successful at her art." For now she's lucky enough to be both.

BRAD RENFRO

He has got the line on playing mischievous boys. Whether they be distant past (Huck Finn in 1995's Tom and Huck), recent past (a young Brad Pitt in Sleepers) or contemporary (his 1994 debut in The Client), Brad Renfro is your teen. "I'm really lucky—to love what I do and get paid for it," he says. "I'd do it for free if it's good." The rough-and-tumble Renfro, 14, who knows the inside of a principal's office all too well, draws from instinct in his work. "I think Brad had lived a great deal by the time he was 10 and had experienced many, many emotions," says Client director Joel Schumacher. "When any actor brings that emotional experience to their gifts, there is an honesty coming from understanding." Some of it rubbed off on his Client costar Susan Sarandon. "I learned a lot working with him," she says. "Brad is full of surprises." For one thing, casting agents must find him in Knoxville, Tenn., where he lives with his grandmother and his father (his parents divorced in 1987), playing guitar and jamming with local musicians. And if Hollywood won't come to him? can always play the blues here," he says.

CHRISTINA RICCI

Seeing her schoolmate Macaulay Culkin hounded by paparazzi has put Christina Ricci on her guard. That kind of fame she can do without. "Once you're in the public eye, you become so much more subject to other people's views of you," says the 16-year-old star of Casper and the Addams Family films. "I don't ever want to be picked apart by any media or any public." Instead, Ricci, who lives with her mother in Manhattan (her parents divorced last year), avoids gossipy club scenes and prefers going to the movies with friends. "I love movies because no matter what mood I'm in, I can go and all of a sudden be in another world," Ricci says. She's applying to college on the West Coast, where the frequently visits her best friend, Now and Then costar Gaby Hoffman. In the future, Ricci wants to produce and write screenplays. She has already mastered acting. "I have to do the least to get the most out of her," says Ang Lee, director of Ricci's December release, Ice Storm. "As long as she knows what the text is about, she's fine. You just shoot her."

TOM EVERETT SCOTT

The days when he was slinging wings and pouring beers at the Firehouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side are close enough that you can still see them on his shirts. "As much as I wanted it to come out," says Tom Everett Scott, 26, "I was stained with buffalo sauce." Not to worry. Scott can well afford new clothes since he exploded on the scene last month in his first film role as the soulful drummer in Tom Hanks's That Thing You Do! "What impressed me about Tom was his extraordinary poise," says Ed Saxon, one of the movie's producers. "This was a leap of faith for us, and I can only imagine it was a big gulp for him." The 6'2" Scott, who was raised in East Bridgewater, Mass., started out with small sips in Diet Coke and McDonald's commercials, and a recurring part as the son Brett Butler gave up for adoption on ABC's Grace Under Fire. With Thing behind him and the May release of An American Werewolf in Paris ahead, Scott thinks he has a fighting chance for roles he used to lose to the likes of Ethan Hawke. And since, he says, he has "no reference" for the celebrity life, he hopes to keep his low-key existence with his boxer Dutch ("the coolest animal I ever met") and girlfriend, actress Jenni Gallagher, 25. "I hope I'm always the same person," he says. "When people start going through my garbage, we'll see what happens. I'm sure I'll be cool about it. 'I threw it out, I guess you can have it. Sure.' "

OMAR EPPS

"There's been a buzz on Omar for a while. He has that star aura. It's an accepted notion in Hollywood that he's the next in line," says John Singleton, who directed Epps, 23, in his breakout performance as a jock caught up in racial turmoil in last year's Higher Learning. Funny, then, that the Brooklyn-raised performer likes to imagine himself on the other side of the camera. This season he has joined ER as eager new resident Dennis Gant, but, he says, "When I'm not in the scene, I just sit back and actually take notes." Epps, who has already directed music videos for the rappers Special Ed and Heather B., predicts that "50 years from now, I'll be sitting behind a desk, president of my own studio." Until then, it's his presence in front of the camera that's commanding. "When he's onscreen, you watch what he's doing," says John Wells, ER's executive producer. "He stands out very well."

ALICIA WITT

"You look at Alicia and think, 'What a young girl,' " says Scott Kroopf, executive producer of last year's Mr. Holland's Opus, in which Witt played a shy high school student. "Then she starts talking, and you realize what an old soul she is." That's probably because Witt, 21, who plays Cybill's disaffected daughter Zoey, raced through her childhood on the accelerated plan. Schooled at home in Worcester, Mass., Witt began reading at age 2 and recited Shakespeare on TV at 4. At 14, she passed her high school equivalency exam and headed for Hollywood. Last year she played Madonna's lover in Four Rooms. She also began her stint on Cybill—and a second childhood. "Through Zoey, I got to go to a prom. It's fun to see what the life of a normal teenager would be like," Witt says. Still, she leaves her castmates in the dust. "Hey, she's way too smart to play my daughter," says her TV dad Alan Rosenberg. "Which is in no way meant to insult my son."

JENNIFER LOPEZ

Growing up in The Bronx, Jennifer Lopez glued herself to the TV set to watch West Side Story. "There were zero Latinos on TV, so Rita Moreno was the only one I identified with," recalls Lopez, 26, whose parents are from Puerto Rico. With Lopez around, today's young Latinas won't have that problem. After solid appearances in films like Money Train and Jack, she is fast becoming one of Hollywood's busiest actresses. In 1997 she'll take on Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine and Nick Nolte in Oliver Stone's Stray Dogs. Not to mention the lead in the film about slain Tejano star Selena—for which she is reportedly earning $1 million. "She's beautiful and phenomenally gifted," says Gregory Nava, who directed Lopez in Selena and 1994's My Family/Mi Familia. Tough too. Jokes Train costar Woody Harrelson: "She spurned all my advances." But Lopez, who lives alone in L.A., is just getting started. "When I look to the future," she says, "I don't see the pinnacle of what I'll reach, I see this endless hallway."

DAVID CONRAD

The way David Conrad sees it, he's performing a public service each time he and Kimberly Williams do a tender love scene on their Saturday-night ABC drama Relativity, about two mismatched twentysomethings who fall head over heels. "I always feel it's 'Here's to all the lovers who lost someone.' You're there to show a glimmer of hope," says the pensive, 29-year-old Pittsburgh native. Conrad, whose electricity with his costar landed him his role, should know from hope. "I'm trying to hang on to a relationship with someone who is a dancer [Twyla Tharp member Sandy Stanton], and she's touring the world right now," he says. That vulnerability keeps the 6'1", blue-eyed Conrad, who plays the romantic lead in the forthcoming film Snow White in the Black Forest, from being just another pretty face. "It's not in David's nature to say or perform anything that doesn't ring true," says Relativity creator and co-executive producer Jason Katims. The packaging doesn't hurt, though. "He's a sexy guy," says Lisa Edelstein, who plays his TV sister. "He's easy on the eyes, that's for sure."

MINNIE DRIVER

She lost her English accent to play a street-smart New Yorker in this year's hit Sleepers and gained 25 pounds to play an Irish frump in last year's sleeper Circle of Friends. London-raised Minnie Driver, 25, "is a chameleon," says Hollywood casting agent Jane Jenkins. "She's a different person in different roles. And she can do a convincing American accent"—which is important for a U.S. career. Then there's that extra ingredient: "Likability," says Circle producer Frank Price. "That's a very important thing. Circle of Friends worked partly because audiences identified with her." Driver, who moved to L.A. in January, is now getting tapped for starring roles—as John Cusack's girlfriend in February's dark comedy Grosse Pointe Blank and as a church restorer in the action-adventure flick The Flood, now filming north of L.A. Alas, her time off-camera has not been as happy as her time in front. "If I wasn't working, I think I'd go a bit barmy," says Driver, who is unattached. "I am realizing that I have to create a life outside of my work, and I haven't been very good about doing that so far." Still, she has plenty of time to adjust. Says Jenkins: "She'll be one of those actresses who works nonstop."

CHRISTINE TAYLOR

For all her mastery of the Marcia Brady hair flip in the Brady Bunch movies, Christine Taylor, 25, admits that she's probably more like the nerdy Jan. "I was one of those students who killed herself to get good grades," says the 1989 graduate of Allentown Central Catholic High in Allentown, Pa. "I was very anal-retentive." She still is, according to live-in fiancé Jason Bloom, 28, who directed her in Overnight Delivery, slated for a February release. "There's a pile of scripts and comic books on my side of the bed that irks her every day. Her organization keeps us from living in squalor." And how. Taylor, who plays the lead in the troubled Fox sitcom Party Girl, is fast getting used to the L.A. lifestyle. "For the first time in my life, I just bought two Armani suits—my first real Beverly Hills outing," she says. "When the bill came, it was very scary." Whatever the fate of Party Girl, it looks like there will be plenty more Armanis in her future. "Christine's like every TV woman who I fell in love with as a kid—Gidget, Elizabeth Montgomery, Mary Tyler Moore, the Flying Nun," says Party Girl co-creator Efrem Seeger. "She's America's sweetheart."

MATT DAMON

No one ever accused Matt Damon, 25, of taking things easy. To play a soldier turned junkie in last summer's Courage Under Fire, Damon lost 40 pounds in 100 days, eating only chicken, egg whites, steamed broccoli and plain baked potatoes—then running 12 miles a day. "By the end of it, if I stood up, I didn't have any energy," he recalls. "I'm still taking medication to right my body." Even when he's playing, Damon, who completed three years at Harvard, goes full-throttle, taking on marathon basketball matches with his brother Kyle in Boston, their hometown. "We're about to die by the time it's over, but neither of us will give up," says Damon. Lately the boyish-looking actor, who dates Elite model Kara Sands, has been able to parlay his intensity into leading-man status. He is now shooting his first starring role, crusading lawyer Rudy Baylor in John Grisham's The Rainmaker, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Then he'll film Good Will Hunting, which he cowrote with pal actor Ben Affleck, who says, "Matt isn't the kind of person you can count on with dirty dishes, but when it comes to acting, he's the most focused, disciplined person I know."

NATALIE PORTMAN

When directors want precocious, they turn to 15-year-old Natalie Portman. "She was camera-ready when she arrived," says Todd Thaler, casting director for The Professional, which Portman starred in at age 12, playing a kid who falls for a middle-aged hit man. "They literally could have gone into production without a stitch of rehearsal." The straight-A, Long Island 10th grader, who adopted Portman as a stage name to retain her privacy, "is like a gift to mankind," says her friend, designer Isaac Mizrahi. This year she stands out among experienced ensemble casts in Beautiful Girls and Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. Next month she'll star in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! and in the spring she'll begin filming The Horse Whisperer for director Robert Redford. But Portman turned down the lead in Adrian Lyne's Lolita because "she thought there were enough images of children exploited by adults," says Thaler. The daughter of an Israeli infertility specialist and his American artist wife knows the importance of keeping a level head. "I see these 20-year-old actors who do nothing but smoke cigarettes and go to clubs every night while they wait for their next part," she told Newsday, "and I couldn't stand living that way." Doesn't look like she'll have to. "In 10 years she's going to run the entire world," says Beautiful Girls director Ted Demme, "and I want to be one of her assistants."

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY

Even down in his hometown of Longview, Texas, everyone is beginning to get the idea. "If he don't do somethin' stupid," McConaughey's brother Rooster told Vanity Fair, "he might be a big movie star." A virtual unknown when he convinced director Joel Schumacher and author John Grisham to sign him for the lead lawyer in A Time to Kill, the 27-year-old, who is being hailed as this generation's Paul Newman, is settling back for the Hollywood shuffle—Texas-style. His asking price has reportedly shot up from $200,000 to $2 million, and he's being hounded by every director in town. Still, he calls his new production company J.K. Livin', for Just Keep Living, after a line he improvised in 1993's Dazed and Confused. "Power on a film can determine the size of your trailer," says Lynda Obst, producer of McConaughey's next project, the sci-fi thriller Contact. "But when you're from Texas, I don't think that matters too much." Lately, McConaughey has been hanging out with his Time to Kill costar Sandra Bullock, but he still lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Malibu with his University of Texas film school buddy Todd Gustawes and Lab-chow mix Miss Hud. "Matthew would be a star whatever he'd chosen to do," says Schumacher. "If he were a cowboy, he'd be the best. If he owned a restaurant or bar, you'd want to go there every night." Especially in your dreams.