In 2009, I started a Breakthrough Performers list on my personal site. The list was inspired by the fantastic performances and instant star power of Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds, Fish Tank) and Carey Mulligan (An Education, Public Enemies). I was so taken by these fresh faces and incredible portrayals that I wanted to document their immediate rise. I created a list of ten actors that took the biggest steps forward in their careers, with the intent of making it an annual tradition. In 2011, I carried that practice over to Awards Circuit where it ran every January for nine years. It became my favorite annual article and is something I enjoy keeping an eye on throughout the year. I am now happy to bring the list home to Awards Daily.
Each year, I assess actors who have burst onto the scene and forecast the impact they may have in cinema for years to come. It’s an exciting custom that has yielded former champs seen in the image above. Most were big hits, some were small misses (hey, I still believe in the potential of Scoot McNairy!)
The big debate always arises around what technically makes for a “breakthrough” performance. Is it someone who might have been previously unknown and is suddenly cast in a few films, becoming more identifiable to the public eye? It could be. Jennifer Lawrence came out of nowhere to top this list in 2010. Could a breakthrough also come from an actor who has been around for a while but finally nails that one major part that catapults them from minor roles to leading star? Absolutely. I don’t believe you have to be new to the screen to have a breakthrough year. Consider Mahershala Ali, who topped the list in 2016 (Moonlight, Free State of Jones, Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) after having decent parts in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and House of Cards prior to that. Sometimes you must work from the bottom up. Not everyone can be as lucky (or as talented) as Ms. Lawrence. My one stipulation is if they have previously been nominated for an individual SAG, Oscar, Globe, or Emmy, then they would be ineligible. I also tend to hold back on anyone under 18 making the list, since it is often difficult to project the career arch of someone so young.
Speaking of youth performers, 2021 was a great year for underage actors getting pivotal roles in big films. Let’s put a spotlight on three of our favorites before diving into this year’s Ten Breakthrough Performers list.
Youth Performance Spotlight
Saniyya Sidney (King Richard), Woody Norman (C’mon C’mon), and Jude Hill (Belfast)
In Belfast, Jude Hill plays Buddy, a young version of Kenneth Branagh in the film inspired by the writer/director’s childhood in Northern Ireland. Taking on such a personal role was perhaps a daunting task, but Hill delivers a confident performance in his feature-length acting debut. He adeptly fits in alongside his onscreen family members Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, and Ciarán Hinds.
The film is told from Buddy’s perspective as the family decides whether to leave Northern Ireland in the midst of political turmoil. Change is in the air and Buddy’s blissful childhood is, in many ways, coming to an end. The tension is cut with small moments of happiness that accompany daily life – discovering a lifelong love of movies, being handed down wisdom from your grandfather, and experiencing the simple joy of chasing a ball down the street – Hill playing all of this with an abundance of ease and charm.
Following his wonderous introduction to the acting world, Hill can be seen this February in the TV drama Magpie Murders, a remake of the horror film Mandrake, alongside Lesley Manville.
You’ve seen Saniyya Sidney in Fences, Hidden Figures, and American Horror Story, but it was her portrayal of a young Venus Williams in King Richard that has cemented Sidney’s as one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood.
Will Smith may be King Richard’s marquee name, but Sidney more than holds her own, capturing Williams’ magnetism and charisma. She brings an electrifying energy to her scenes on the tennis court and infuses her emotional moments with warmth and wisdom. When Sidney’s on screen, it’s hard not to cheer and impossible to look away.
Up next, Sidney will reunite with former costar Viola Davis for the Showtime limited series, The First Lady, where she’ll play former first daughter Sasha Obama.
In Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, Woody Norman plays the precocious nephew opposite workaholic uncle, Joaquin Phoenix. The wise-beyond-their-years role is a difficult one to portray, and is an archetype we’ve seen before. In the wrong hands, the character could become a distraction. But Norman delivers beautifully, capturing all the fear and turmoil that comes with circumstances you can’t control and a world that seems too big to handle. He also captures the pure joy of childhood; the joy that comes with play and the wonder that comes with discovery.
In a film that rests almost entirely on the chemistry of its actors, Phoenix and Norman are natural together and their banter is a delight to watch. You never feel like you’re watching actors act. It’s more like you’re getting a window into the blooming relationship between two people who have a lot to teach each other and a lot to learn, with much of the performance coming through Norman’s physicality and behind his big, brown, doe eyes. It’s sublime work for any actor of any age and one of the best performances of the year.
Norman’s next projects include Last Voyage of the Demeter, inspired by Bram Stroker’s “Dracula,” and the upcoming drama Cobweb.
– Youth Performance Spotlights by Shadan Larki
The Ten Biggest Breakthrough Performers of 2021
10. Cooper Hoffman (Licorice Pizza)
Cooper is the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and boy was that obvious the second he appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age drama, Licorice Pizza. Aside from resembling the late actor, Cooper Hoffman had the same strong magnetism and charm in his debut performance that we came to know from his father. Starring as Gary Valentine, an ambitious 15-year-old entrepreneur with dreams as big as his crush on the much older Alana, Cooper’s onscreen presence felt much more mature and seasoned than expected.
Anderson worked with Cooper’s father on five occasions (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and The Master), so it felt nostalgic and proper for the younger Hoffman to kick off his career with the heralded filmmaker. Cooper has a lot of the same mannerisms we came to know from Philip (the way he touches his forehead when deep in thought, for example) and is clearly adept to getting to the heart of a character who we might despise or who comes off objectionable. This ability, in both his approach and execution, gives me high hopes for the young actor.
Hoffman won the National Board of Review’s Breakthrough Performance prize (which he shared with co-star Alana Haim). While Cooper has nothing listed on IMDB for upcoming projects, my guess is we will be seeing a lot more of him very soon. – by Mark Johnson
9. Robin de Jesus (tick… tick… Boom!)
Robin de Jesús needs to be in more movies. A three-time Tony Award nominee, the actor has always appeared in roles that capitalize on what he does best. With tick…tick…BOOM!, he pays tribute to the legions of gay men who lived through the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s.
As Michael in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical adaptation, de Jesús gets two huge musical moments. In “No More,” he sings with Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson about finally taking control of his finances and leaving his fairytale, twenty-something dreams behind. Towards the end of the film, he sings “Real Life,” an emotional high point of the entire film. He sings the same line repeatedly, and de Jesús infuses every delivery with pain, confusion, and heartbreak.
Looking back at de Jesús’ other two major film roles, Camp and The Boys in the Band, he is on the trajectory of becoming a major star. He has never hidden his sexuality and gives his characters shades of humanity and humor – his characters lift off the page. In Camp, he played a young actor with a knack for drag and his performance as Emory in Band should have garnered more awards attention. His characters always live out loud whether he is coming out of the closet, mooning over lost love, or facing a revelation that will change his life forever.
IMDB has no listed feature films in production for de Jesus, but we believe his performance in tick…tick…BOOM! will have suitors calling shortly. – by Joey Moser
8. Simu Liu (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)
Simu Liu burst onto the scene this year playing the titular role of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The Chinese-born, Canadian actor had previous television work on his resume before landing the coveted role, the first Marvel film with an Asian-centric cast. Liu twice worked on scripts for an Asian superhero film, betting on the X-Men character Sunfire as his best shot to adapt the comic book character to film.
Shang-Chi, thanks in large part to Liu’s charismatic presence, resonated with audiences both on the big screen and on Disney Plus. This became even more apparent when Liu was awarded the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Action Movie Star.
He will appear in One True Loves with Hamilton star Phillipa Soo this year, and is currently filming Arthur the King alongside Mark Wahlberg. We know Marvel has plans for Simu to reprise his role as Shaun/Shang-Chi in upcoming sequels and collaborations, including the possibility of joining the next-generation of Avengers. – by Mark Johnson
7. Mike Faist (West Side Story)
Mike Faist is a Tony-nominated, New York stage performer who originally came from the great state of Ohio. He was a natural fit for the role of Riff in Steven Spielberg’s outstanding adaptation of West Side Story. Playing the finger-snapping, tribalistic ringleader of the Jets wasn’t an easy task, no matter how effortless Faist seemed to explode into the role. Each scene he is in is lit-up with the passion and delight that he brought to the portrayal. Taking from Riff’s inspiration – Shakespeare’s Mercutio – Faist brought an added element of neglectfulness and vitality to the character, and a more emaciated appearance to his performance. He embodied the live-fast-die-young persona with such perfection that his work is being recognized by multiple critics’ groups as a result.
Gifted with a natural magnetic talent, if Faist continues to pour himself into each role the way he inherently did with West Side Story, then we might be talking about him as one of the great actors of his generation before too long. He, like many of his castmates, is a revelation with an incredible career ahead of him. Up next for the young Buckeye is Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game, a comedy in which Faist will play the young version of the titular savior. – by Mark Johnson
6. Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Thirteen years ago, 12-year-old Kodi Smit-McFee stole scene after scene from Viggo Mortensen in John Hillcoat’s The Road. The Australian Film Institute nominated him for Best Actor, tacitly acknowledging his prodigy status as co-lead. That set a precedent for many films to follow, as the impact of his performances consistently matched or surpassed whatever actors got top billing. (In fact, our Mark Johnson had already tagged Kodi Smit-McPhee in his 2009 edition of Breakthrough Performances. I had to lobby a bit to have him represented again this year.)
From Let Me In (2010) to Slow West (2015) Smit-McPhee has shown his knack for bringing secondary supporting roles into the forefront. Maybe it’s the way he capitalizes on the unsettling impression of someone who looks younger than his age, yet turns out to be wise beyond his years. As Peter Gordon in The Power of the Dog, a sensitive boy bullied by a menacing villain, Kodi Smit-McPhee once again deploys that knack to full advantage. And once again, he vaults from a supposedly supporting role into dominating the narrative, a startling astute protagonist who wields the film’s real power.
Smit-McPhee won the Golden Globe for his performance in The Power of the Dog, received nominations from SAG and CCA, and currently leads the Supporting Actor contenders in critics’ citations. We will see him next in Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis Presley project, playing singer-songwriter and actor Jimmie Rodgers. – by Ryan Adams
5. Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)
When looking over 2021’s slate of breakthrough/newcomer awards, no one has more citations than the next two actors on this list. With over a dozen mentions to her name, Alana Haim has also won more prizes for this sort of thing than any other actor this year, including sharing the National Board of Review title with her Licorice Pizza co-star Cooper Hoffman (see number 10 above).
So, what do all these different groups see in Haim’s potential for stardom? For one, there is an abundance of confidence in her feature film debut. She carries herself like a seasoned star, not a burgeoning one. She’s also conquered the girl-next-door vibe – the type of looks and allure that many of us had crushes on in our youth – fresh-faced and wild-eyed, with unmistakable high-level smarts about her. And that’s exactly how she plays Alana in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film – the sweetheart and side-hustle cohort of Cooper Hoffman’s Gary Valentine.
Aside from breakthrough commendations, Haim has been nominated by over 20 critics groups for her performance. She was nominated by the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice as well, and oh, did I mention she is also up for Grammy’s Album of the Year?
While she is currently focused on her musical career (she is in the band Haim with her sisters), there is an acting path ready and waiting should she decide to continue balancing both courses. I’m very much hoping she will. – by Mark Johnson
4. Emilia Jones (CODA)
Breakout star Emilia Jones spent months learning sign language for her starring role in Apple-TV’s CODA, in which she plays the only hearing member of a deaf family. Gifted with a beautiful singing voice, and with the encouragement of her music teacher, she seeks to leave the small town where her family runs and operates a fishing business to pursue a career as a singer at Berklee. If that wasn’t enough, Jones also learned how to operate a fishing trawler to prepare for the part. That explains the level of authenticity she brings to her first major film role. Jones navigates the complicated emotions of guilt, responsibility, ambition and youth so well but it’s the last scene of the film, where she sings Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now while also signing to her family that really makes her a standout this year. It is as moving as it is unforgettable.
Aside from appearing in over a dozen newcomer lists, Jones was the Gothams’ choice for Breakthrough Performer of the year. She stars in Netflix’s series, Locke & Key, which will begin its third season in 2022. On the big screen, Jones will appear opposite Succession’s Nicholas Braun in Cat Person, which is in post-production. – by Sasha Stone
3. Anthony Ramos (In the Heights)
As a person who holds no great affinity for musical theater, I was not overly familiar with the work of Anthony Ramos when I (on a bit of a lark) cued up In The Heights on HBO Max during its 30-day streaming window this summer. I must confess, I’ve never seen anything beyond the occasional clip of Hamilton, Ramos’ big stepping-stone.
I had seen Ramos in both A Star Is Born and Monsters and Men, but he didn’t register with me in either. So, from the opening seconds of In the Heights, Ramos was, in all practical ways, a fresh face to me. And oh, what a face it is! Strikingly handsome, the camera (as the cliche goes) just loves him. Of course, Ramos is much more than pretty to look at. He practically oozes charisma, and the width and depth of his talent absolutely jumps off the screen. I suppose his gifts with rhyme and song should have been no surprise considering his pedigree, but it’s not just that. Ramos has an ebullient screen presence, facility in both comedy and drama, and, at the risk of repeating myself, you simply can’t take your eyes off him.
He gives the kind of performance in In the Heights that makes you wonder, “How the hell is this guy not already a massive star?” Because good lord, he’s got it all. I’m a little concerned that the commercial disappointment of In the Heights will delay Ramos getting further traction on the path to much-deserved stardom. I hope I’m wrong about that, because based on his work here, Ramos has everything an actor could ask for and then some. Let the A-level opportunities follow. Please.
In 2022, Anthony Ramos will appear in the sci-fi/comedy Distant and the new animated Dreamworks film, The Bad Guys. Ramos will also star in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, set to release in 2023. – by David Phillips
2. Rachel Zegler (West Side Story) – by Mark Johnson
Rachel Zegler, an American of Colombian descent, captured the coveted role of Maria in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story. She can dance, she can sing, and boy, can she act. Between Zegler and her West Side Story co-star Ariana DeBose, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater thanks to their heartbreaking performances. The pair is brimming over with talent making this one of the hardest calls since Fassbender and Mulligan kicked this whole thing off back in 2009. Like that original pair, both ladies have an incredibly bright future ahead of them.
Rachel Zegler appeared on several breakthrough performance lists this year, and recently won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy/Musical). Zegler has two big films planned for 2023 release. Currently in post-production, Zegler will star opposite Zachary Levi, Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Adam Brody in Shazam! Fury of the Gods. She will then play the titular role in Marc Webb’s live action adaptation of Snow White, alongside Gal Gadot as the Evil Queen.
1. Ariana DeBose (West Side Story)
I first heard about Ariana DeBose from, weirdly enough, my son. He was in the eighth grade at the time and took a history class from a Mrs. DeBose who told the class that her daughter was in Hamilton on Broadway at the time. It wasn’t until Netflix’s 2020 musical The Prom where I fully realized the potential star power of Ariana DeBose. In that film, she played Alyssa Greene, a closeted cheerleader who just wanted to go to the prom with her girlfriend. In a star-studded cast featuring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and many others, DeBose stood out to me as the one performer who mastered everything asked of her. She sang beautifully. She danced with a grace and fluidity that we almost never see in film. And she so believably conveyed Alyssa’s internal struggle in balancing her own sexuality and her struggle for authenticity with her love and respect for her mother (Kerry Washington).
With Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of West Side Story, DeBose cements everything I loved about her performance in The Prom and boasts more than a just little touch of star quality. Her performance as Anita is pure fire. We’d caught glimpses of how it would turn out through early photos and trailers showcasing the show-stopping “America.” The actual experience of seeing DeBose recreate that classic song and dance number is an experience in pure joy.
It would have been the highlight of any actors’ career, but she follows it with an emotionally wrenching, gut punch finale where her Anita seethes with grief and rage, inadvertently setting into motion another tragic event. And DeBose carries it all off with the air and grace of a seasoned professional. West Side Story truly marks her Breakthrough moment in what I suspect will be a long and lush career on stage and screen.
DeBose appeared on several breakthrough performance lists this year (winning NYFCO), recently won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, was nominated by her peers at SAG, and just hosted Saturday Night Live this weekend. This year, DeBose will appear in two films: Argylle, opposite Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, and Dua Lipa; and I.S.S, with Chris Messina, and John Gallagher Jr. – by Clarence Moye
So there you have it. The 2021 Breakthrough Performers list is complete and DeBose is archived with the former and future Oscar winners above.
The 2021 film year will likely be remembered for all the great musicals we had: West Side Story, tick…tick… Boom!, Cyrano, In the Heights… the list goes on. I hope it will also be remembered as a huge year for Latinx actors and filmmakers. Aside from West Side Story and In the Heights having clear Latinx roots, the animated genre gave us an additional taste of Latin culture with Netflix’s Vivo and Disney’s Encanto. A few established, veteran Latinx actors graced the big screen, including Oscar Isaac (The Card Counter, Dune), Salma Hayek (Eternals, House of Gucci), Ana de Armas (No Time to Die), Clifton Collins Jr (Jockey), and Benicio del Toro (The French Dispatch). We had plenty of fresh Latinx faces in film, including Camila Cabello (Cinderella) and the previously listed Anthony Ramos, Rachel Zegler, and Ariana DeBose.
Another mark of progress that should not go unnoticed was the amount of colorblind casting decisions that went to Latinx actors (roles that weren’t specifically Latinx) – including Tessa Thompson (Passing) and Colman Domingo (Zola). Behind the camera, Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley), Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard), and Lin Manuel Miranda (tick…tick… Boom!) delivered a few of the best films of the year. It is fitting that the top three on this list come from the Latinx community, including the Breakthrough Performer of 2021, the incomparable Ms. Ariana DeBose.