Last year didn’t have many fabulous premieres of big-budget blockbusters — but a less glittering Hollywood let new talent shine through instead.
These actors starred alongside A-listers and Oscar winners, brought to life best-selling novels and, in one case, came out of total obscurity. But they’re the ones who’ve kept us talking for months.
When the red carpet comes back, you can bet your bottom dollar these folks will be on it for years to come.
Taylour Paige, 30
Taylor Paige plays Ahsha Hayes on VH1’s series “Hit the Floor” and Dussie Mae in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” She will star in Sundance-acclaimed dramedy “Zola.”Getty Images
Where you know her from: Playing Ahsha Hayes on VH1’s series “Hit the Floor” and Dussie Mae, girlfriend to the titular blues singer played by Viola Davis, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Where you’ll see her this year: In the title role of “Zola,” the 2020 Sundance-acclaimed (and then long-delayed) dramedy based on a 2015 tweetstorm about two strippers on a turbulent, violent road trip. Paige is also in the upcoming film “Boogie,” the chef-author Eddie Huang-directed story about a Chinese-American basketball player.
Why she’s a standout: The Inglewood, California, native has blown critics away with her two most recent performances. For Paige, it’s very important to choose roles that will resonate with audiences — black women in particular. “Being a black woman and being alive is to constantly be gaslit,” she told MTV. “To be black and to be a woman it’s to constantly be frustrated, it’s constantly feeling less than. Black women, we’re expected to handle it … Both Zola and Dussie for me have a through-line with the characters that I’m trying to play, which is: How do people internalize the world that they live in?”
Paul Mescal, 24
Paul Mescal plays Connell in Hulu series “Normal People” and will star alongside Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in “The Lost Daughter.”Dave Benett/Getty Images for Aud
Where you know him from: The Hulu series “Normal People,” in which the Irish actor plays Connell, one half of the couple at the center of the racy hit drama about an on-again, off-again couple making their way through high school and college. He also starred in the Phoebe Waller-Bridge-directed video for Phoebe Bridgers’ “Savior Complex,” as well as in the video for the Rolling Stones song “Scarlet.”
Where you’ll see him this year: Mescal’s first feature film role will be alongside Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in “The Lost Daughter,” an adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel under the directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal. He is also slated to star in a film adaptation of the opera “Carmen,” directed by ballet star and emerging film director Benjamin Millepied.
Why he’s a standout: Mescal’s quietly emotional, riveting performance in “Normal People” got fans so excited that even the omnipresent chain his character wore has an Instagram account dedicated to it. As GQ put it, watching “Normal People,” you got “the intensifying sense that you’re witnessing the making of a leading man, one who will be appearing on our screens for years and years to come.”
Sidney Flanigan, 22
Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn in acclaimed 2020 indie “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” and will star in “My Twin is Dead.”Getty Images
Where you know her from: The acclaimed 2020 indie “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” directed by Eliza Hittman, in which Flanigan plays Autumn, a pregnant Pennsylvania teen who takes a bus trip to New York to get an abortion.
Where you’ll see her this year: In mid-December, Flanigan announced on Instagram that she would be starring in “My Twin is Dead,” a drama from director Matthew Kaundart. She’s also the singer for the Buffalo, NY-based band Starjuice, as well as a solo performer.
Why she’s a standout: The singer/songwriter turned actor, who identifies as a nonbinary woman, had never acted before taking the lead role in Hittman’s movie; the director had been a fan of Flanigan’s music videos and asked the singer to audition. Flanigan, who has received critical praise for an intimately powerful performance, told the Hollywood Reporter that, as a newcomer, she relied on her skills as a musician: “I think that, as a musician, a lot of times I take another persona onstage. I have to get into a different emotional headspace in order to deliver a song a certain way. I kind of thought it applied a little bit.”
Ariana DeBose, 29
Ariana DeBose starred in Netflix’s “The Prom” as well as multiple notable Broadway roles. Next up, she will star as Anita, the role originated by Rita Moreno in the 1961 movie, in Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story.”Getty Images for Vanity Fair
Where you know her from: The Netflix film “The Prom,” in which she played Alyssa Greene, and her multiple notable Broadway roles, including playing the Bullet in “Hamilton.”
Where you’ll see her this year: As Anita, the role originated by Rita Moreno in the 1961 movie, in Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story,” now set to come out in December.
Why she’s a standout: DeBose is a true triple threat — in 2018 she scored a Tony nomination for her role as Disco Donna in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” and her performance as “Hamilton’s” the Bullet became a huge talker as audiences discovered that her character was a harbinger of the lead character’s death. Since then, she’s been pushing herself into new ventures. She’s told Broadway.com that her role in the film version of “The Prom” was particularly meaningful because it gave the world a chance to see the strength and beauty of her theater community: “I think the tone of it captures our spirits … I feel as though I gravitate towards work that has something to say.”
Jonathan Majors, 31
Jonathan Majors stars as Atticus Freeman in the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” and was in 2019’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” He will star in the Jay-Z-produced remake of the Western “The Harder They Fall” this year. Elizabeth Morris
Where you know him from: 2019’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” on Netflix this year, and as Atticus Freeman in the HBO series “Lovecraft Country.”
Where you’ll see him this year: In the all-black, Jay-Z-produced remake of the Western “The Harder They Fall,” alongside Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo and Regina King, and, next year, in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” in which he will reportedly play villain Kang the Conqueror.
Why he’s a standout: The intensely charismatic Majors commands your attention every moment he’s on-screen. As a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a devoted Method actor, he is known for deeply inhabiting the characters he plays: “He makes the whole making of the movie a Western,” director Jeymes Samuel told GQ. “He’ll come around with his cigarillo, his cap. He turned the entire environment into the Old West.” It didn’t hurt that he’s a Texas native, the director added: “Jonathan is a dope horse rider. His family in Texas, they are straight cowboys.”
Maria Bakalova, 24
Maria Bakalova played Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat’s daughter Tutar in last year’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”CBS via Getty Images
Where you know her from: She made international headlines as Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat’s daughter Tutar in last year’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” on Prime Video. And, if you’re a fan of Bulgarian cinema, she starred in the film “Last Call.”
Where you’ll see her this year: If pundits are correct, the next place you’ll spot this newcomer is at the Oscars, where she’ll likely be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. After “Borat” was released to fanfare, the actress reportedly signed with Creative Arts Agency.
Why she’s a standout: The biggest discovery of the year, Bakalova went from being a completely unknown, recent student in Bulgaria to an acclaimed comic genius. Amazon used some mischievous methods to keep her identity a secret till the last minute. In the months leading up to the film’s November release, on IMDB the studio called her Irina Nowak. Bakalova is also responsible for one of 2020’s hottest talkers — which, last year, is really saying something — when she fooled Rudy Giuliani in a hotel room by pretending to be a foreign journalist.
Josh O’Connor, 30
Josh O’Connor played Prince Charles on “The Crown” and will soon play the romantic lead in the starry World War I film “Mothering Sunday.”Dan Rowley/Shutterstock
Where you know him from: As Prince Charles on Season 3 and 4 of Netflix’s “The Crown” and as Vicar Elton in last year’s “Emma,” with Anya Taylor-Joy.
Where you’ll see him this year: The Brit’s time in Buckingham Palace may be over, but he’ll soon play the romantic lead in the starry World War I film “Mothering Sunday,” alongside Olivia Colman, Glenda Jackson and Colin Firth. He’ll also talk pretty as Romeo in “Romeo & Juliet,” opposite Jessie Buckley, who is on this list, too.
Why he’s a standout: O’Connor had a tough gig on Season 4 of “The Crown.” His cheatin’ Charles married doe-eyed Diana, moved into a distant bachelor pad and treated the princess like dirt most of the time. But despite his character behaving like a cad, O’Connor miraculously brought humanity and compassion to his performance. The actor also believes the controversy behind the show’s historical accuracy is overblown. “I’ve been in it — but I’m none the wiser about the reality of Charles and Diana or the queen,” he told Town and Country. “I think our audiences are intelligent enough to know that this is drama, this is fiction.”
Jaeden Martell, 18
Jaeden Martell starred in “Knives Out” and “It” and will soon star in “Tunnels” alongside Susan Sarandon.Getty Images for AFI
Where you know him from: He fought Pennywise the Clown as Bill in “It” and was in the middle of a murder investigation as the youngest member of the Thrombey clan in the 2019 whodunit comedy “Knives Out.” His most moving work came as an unusually hairy teen in “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” and in Apple’s “Defending Jacob.”
Where you’ll see him this year: Martell is starring in a hard-hitting school shooting drama called “Tunnels,” in which he plays the brother of a victim who befriends the shooter’s grandmother (Susan Sarandon).
Why he’s a standout: The “It” producers struck gold with these kids: Martell, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer all work a ton now. What Martell proved this year, however, with “Wolfboy” and “Defending Jacob,” is that he has endearing dramatic chops that bring to mind ‘80s stars who had long careers, such as Matthew Broderick and Michael J. Fox. The Philadelphia native is hugely popular on social media, with 3.7 million Instagram followers, but he says it’s no big deal. “Some people feel that if it’s not posted on Instagram, it didn’t happen, which I find to be untrue,” he told Rain magazine. “How many followers you have is not important in the grand scheme of things.”
Shane Paul McGhie, 27
Shane Paul McGhie was in the “After” film series on Netflix and indie drama “The Last Shift.” He will appear in the new comedy “El Tonto.”Getty Images
Where you know him from: The “After” film series on Netflix, as Joseph in the TV series “Deputy” and opposite Richard Jenkins in the indie drama “The Last Shift.”
Where you’ll see him this year: McGhie will appear in the new comedy “El Tonto,” actor Charlie Day’s directorial debut, which also stars Adrien Brody, John Malkovich, Edie Falco and Ray Liotta.
Why he’s a standout: Born in Los Angeles, McGhie has been well-known to younger viewers for years now for his role as Landon in the steamy “After” movies. But he’s leaving those behind to go make actual art worthy of his talent. The actor had a magnetic everyman quality — and a heavy dose of sarcasm — in his role as a trainee burger cook named Jevon in “The Last Shift,” which premiered last year at Sundance. For the part, McGhie told Forbes he used his past experience working behind the bar at a restaurant. “I was a horrible barback,” he said. “I mixed up the bottles. I almost gave somebody alcohol who didn’t want alcohol. I was really clumsy.”
Jessie Buckley, 31
Jessie Buckley played Lyudmilla on HBO’s acclaimed miniseries “Chernobyl,” and will star in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” alongside Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Paul Mescal.Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX
Where you know her from: As Lyudmilla on HBO’s acclaimed miniseries “Chernobyl,” as Queen Victoria in “Dolittle” and as a distracted girlfriend in Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”
Where you’ll see her this year: Maggie Gyllenhaal directs Buckley in “The Lost Daughter,” in which she stars with Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Paul Mescal.
Why she’s a standout: The Irish actress had one of the year’s weirdest roles in Netflix’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” She road trips with her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemmons, to visit his parents’ farm, and then reality begins to warp around her. Buckley brought her theater chops to the role — she’s sang in the West End in “A Little Night Music,” and competed on the reality show “I’d Do Anything” to snag a role in the revival of the musical “Oliver!” Now, she’s doing more high-profile gigs, but the fame hasn’t gone to her head. “I still feel the same as when I… I don’t know, did ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in the Killarney Town Hall,” she told IndieWire.