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The Best Break-Out Actors Of 2021

After a year of uncertainty from both fans and the industry, 2021 was the year a lot of people went back to the movies. We got to see a lot of familiar faces on the big screen again. Movies, shows, and limited series options on streaming services were full of star power. Some of 2021's biggest actors even made the pivot from musician to movie star in a single year. 

Viewers also got to meet many break-out actors and actresses who came into the spotlight in a major way this year. From the love for Phoebe Dynevor slowly trickling in as viewers caught up on "Bridgerton" after the holidays to millions discovering Simu Liu in Marvel's "Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings" over the summer, a diverse young group of new voices burst into Hollywood. These are the best break-out actors we saw in 2021.

Simu Liu

Marvel movies are able to turn actors into household names almost overnight. That was arguably the case with "Shang-Chi" star Simu Liu, who is now a key player in the next phase (at least) of the MCU. Liu didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but the Canadian actor had a monumental 2021.

Before taking the title role in the kung-fu influenced "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," Liu was best known for his role on "Kim's Convenience." This Canadian sitcom eventually made its way to Netflix. In the US, the show was something of a cult hit, slowly gaining a large following. Liu also did some voice work in multiple animated projects for streaming this year, like in Netflix's original movie "Bright: Samurai Soul" and the dub for an episode of Disney's excellent "Star Wars: Visions" series. "Shang-Chi," which was a box-office smash domestically and internationally, really put him on the map. 

Evan Mock

Hawaiian model Evan Mock made his acting debut this year in HBO's "Gossip Girl" reboot. The teen drama is set in a preppy New York private school prone to gossip and disaster. Mock plays Akeno "Aki" Menzies, a queer student coming to terms with his sexuality. LGBTQ+ representation and a diverse cast have done a lot to modernize the original show's concept and make a more relatable set of characters. 

Mock first rose to fame in 2019, when musician Frank Ocean posted a video of Mock skating on his Instagram. The 21-year-old became instantly recognizable for his pink buzz cut and sense of style, starting a modeling career shortly after gaining a huge new following. "Gossip Girl" has only elevated his profile further. Mock is one to watch in both the entertainment and fashion industries going forward into the rest of the decade. 

Alana Haim

Before making an electrifying acting debut in the coming-of-age romance "Licorice Pizza," Alana Haim was already a successful musician, having formed the rock band Haim alongside her two older sisters. The band's 2020 album "Women in Music Pt. III" was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. The Haim sisters worked with director Paul Thomas Anderson on music videos prior to Alana working on "Licorice Pizza."

The youngest Haim sister plays a character who shares her name first name. Alana Kane is a 25-year-old with long-dead dreams of Hollywood. She happens to fall in love with a 15-year-old boy, young actor Gary Valentine, played by "Licorice Pizza's" other excellent newcomer, Cooper Hoffman (more on him later).

For now, it's clear Alana Haim has a future in acting if she wants it. "Licorice Pizza" will be out in theaters across the country on Christmas.

Cooper Hoffman

Alana Haim wasn't the only break-out star to come from one of this year's best movies. As fans of his earlier movies know, "Licorice Pizza" writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson was a frequent collaborator with late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the award-winning role of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd in Anderson's "The Master." The acclaimed actor also appeared in PTA's early work, including "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." 

When you watched the "Licorice Pizza" trailer, you may have noticed a resemblance in this film's star. The lead of Anderson's latest movie is the late actor's son, Cooper Hoffman. The younger Hoffman takes on the role of Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old too mature for his age (Cooper is 18 in real life). Like Haim, Hoffman came to the major project having done no prior acting work and still blew audiences away. It's quite possible his career could be as storied and successful as his father's. 

Thomasin McKenzie

One of the youngest up-and-coming actors on this list, Thomasin McKenzie had more roles in big 2021 movies than most actors. You might recognize the New Zealand actress from "Jojo Rabbit," Taika Waititi's award-winning WWII satire from 2019, which perhaps could properly be called her break-out role, but this year alone, the 21-year-old was in three major theatrical releases.

To kick off 2021, McKenzie starred in M. Night Shyamalan's over-the-top thriller "Old" as Maddox, the teenage daughter of the family that takes a vacation to the beach that makes you old. Of course, McKenzie only plays the character when she is a teenager, because, you know... she gets old.

Just this fall, McKenzie starred in Edgar Wright's "Last Night in Soho" in her first of what is sure to be many leading roles. McKenzie also had a smaller part in acclaimed director Jane Campion's first feature since 2009, "The Power of the Dog," which got a simultaneous release on Netflix and in limited theaters. 

Phoebe Dynevor

"Bridgerton" dropped on Netflix at the tail end of last year, but most viewers caught the period drama's first season in 2021. British actress Phoebe Dynevor became a break-out star over this past year thanks to her performance as Daphne Bridgerton, the eldest daughter of eight. Each season will follow a Bridgerton daughter on their own classic Victorian love story. The pseudo-anthology has been renewed for a second season, for which Dynevor will return, albeit as a supporting cast member.

Dynevor had been a working TV actress before "Bridgerton" exploded her career. Her largest recurring role was as Clare O'Brien on the Sutton Foster and Hilary Duff comedy "Younger." Her character was featured frequently in the final season that aired in 2021. Dynevor is set to star alongside some heavy hitters in the upcoming UK remake of the French comedy series "Call My Agent." The series stars Helena Bonham Carter, Kelly Macdonald, Dominic West, and David Oyelowo.

Regé-Jean Page

Phoebe Dynevor was not the only actor to make a splash in 2021 for their starring role in "Bridgerton." Regé-Jean Page made a dashing debut to many International viewers as Daphne's lover, Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings. The British actor was nominated for a Lead Actor Emmy for his turn as Simon in "Bridgerton," turning him into one of 2021's critical darlings.

Unlike his co-star Dynevor, Page is not set to return for the second season of "Bridgerton." The actor decided to not return, claiming his character's story was "a one-season arc." Presumably, Daphne's husband will still be around, albeit offscreen, but will play no significant role in the story going forward — for now, anyway. Instead, Page is turning his eyes to larger projects, starring in the Russo brother's next blockbuster, "The Gray Man," which is set to premiere on Netflix in 2022. The espionage action thriller also stars Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, and Ryan Gosling and is going to have the biggest budget in Netflix history. Movin' on up indeed. 

Jodie Comer

You probably know Jodie Comer from her TV work, particularly her award-nominated turn as the serial killer Villanelle in "Killing Eve." Villanelle is evil and charming in equal measure, and the role allowed Comer to display her aptitude for accents. Adapted from the series of novels named after Comer's femme fatale, the series is named after the woman who hunts her down (played by Sandra Oh). Both Oh and Comer are fantastic and have received great acclaim for their work on "Killing Eve."

"Killing Eve" has a healthy viewership, but it wasn't until 2021 that Comer got wider recognition. Comer got her start doing TV work, mostly in British shows. Before 2021, her only film role was a tiny appearance as Rey's mother in a "Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker" flashback. This year, Comer appeared opposite Ryan Reynolds in the simulated game world movie "Free Guy." Lately, she has been getting Oscar buzz for her performance in Ridley Scott's "The Last Duel." The period drama lets Comer shine alongside Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Adam Driver.

Rachel Zegler

Critics are raving, but most people still have yet to see Steven Spielberg's apparently extraordinary and remarkably faithful take on "West Side Story." Still, the young star playing Maria has already had an incredible beginning to her career. As a 16-year-old, New Jersey high schooler Rachel Zegler put out an audition for a Twitter casting call for "West Side." When Zegler received a phone call from Spielberg directly telling her she had the role, her life was forever changed.

Now that the movie is finally out after some delays, Zegler is about to be a big name in Hollywood. In the interim, she's also gained traction for her singing on her YouTube channel. But the wheels are already turning for Zegler's big future. She has been announced to join the DC universe in 2023's "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" and she is also set to play Snow White in a live-action adaptation of the Disney movie.

Sophia Di Martino

It is easy to focus on actors whose careers break open in their youth, but there is always something refreshing and rewarding when an experienced actor finally gets their big role. For 38-year-old English actress Sophia Di Martino, that role finally came this year in "Loki." She charmed Marvel fans as Sylvie, the other-dimension Variant Loki, in the very well-regarded short series. The ending of "Loki" had major game-changing implications for the MCU, so it is safe to say we will probably see Sylvie return at some point in the near future. The question is "when," not "if." 

Before "Loki", Di Martino was in BBC shows and other British TV of the mid-2000s through the late 2010s. In 2011, she appeared in her first feature film, a British indie named "Black Pond." The first big-budget role she showed up in was in Danny Boyle's "Yesterday," the musical rom-com from 2019, but the buzz around "Loki" really helped her take off. 

Leslie Grace

Leslie Grace is another musician who made the successful pivot to acting this year. Grace is a bilingual singer-songwriter born in the Bronx. Before getting cast in "In the Heights," her work as an artist had earned her three Latin Grammy nominations. In 2019, it was announced that Grace would be playing Nina, one of the lead roles in Jon M. Chu's adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical, "In the Heights."

Filmed in 2019, the movie didn't end up getting released until this year due to COVID-19 delays. It showed up in theaters and HBO Max over the summer. Her performance in particular garnered critical acclaim. Since then, Grace has been cast to play Batgirl in the DCEU. She is currently filming the upcoming "Batgirl" movie directed by Adil El Arbi. The 2022 release will be a reboot of the character.

Angourie Rice

Angourie Rice exploded onto the scene as a teen actor to watch when she entered the MCU at age 16. The Australian actress actually had a leading role in Shane Black's dark 1970s-era comedy "The Nice Guys" a year before she could be seen as Betty Brant in "Spider-Man: Homecoming." Rice has starred in more movies and TV shows, as well as "Far From Home," but 2021 is proving to be her big break-out year.

The main reason for Angourie Rice's imminent stardom is her breakthrough performance in the Kate Winslet-led HBO limited series "Mare of Easttown." Rice plays Mare's daughter, Siobhan. The two grieve the suicide of Siobhan's brother Kevin. Their methods of grief conflict, but neither is perfect and both make rash choices and end up with messy relationships across the board. Rice's performance was a very nuanced look at a teenager dealing with loss. Rice will also be in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," when it hits theaters on December 17.

Moses Ingram

When "The Queen's Gambit" came to Netflix in late 2020, all anyone could seem to talk about was Anya Taylor-Joy. Now that she is a superstar with "Last Night in Soho" as another notch in her belt, and her stellar "Queen's Gambit" performance has been showered with award nominations, we can turn our attention to the true break-out of the Netflix show: Moses Ingram. 2021 has proven that Ingram, who played Beth's orphanage friend Jolene, is a force to be reckoned with. Her empathetic and complex portrayal of Jolene has landed her major TV and film roles already.

Ingram is one of the principal characters in the Joel Coen adaptation of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. Coming out later in theaters this month, and in January to Apple TV+ subscribers, "The Tragedy of Macbeth" stars Ingram as Lady Macduff. The visionary take on "Macbeth" will star Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth.

Ingram's biggest project to date is next year's "Obi-Wan Kenobi” show coming to Disney+. Her role is yet to be disclosed, but Ingram is going to be a featured character appearing in all six episodes.

Toheeb Jimoh

While he appeared in the first season, Sam Obisanya, Toheeb Jimoh's character on "Ted Lasso," didn't really shine until its second season this past year. The feel-good soccer comedy focused more on the private lives of individual members of the team in this season. Sam benefited the most from this focus. Jimoh's characterization of Sam and the stressful decisions he had to make throughout the season has made him one of the show's most compelling heroes. Going into season 3 of "Ted Lasso," he is expanding his ambitions, becoming one of the few characters in the show with a bright future.

In 2021, Jimoh also made his way to the big screen in Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch." The anthology film is filled with small roles from well-known actors and blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos. While his role is small, it's worth noting Jimoh's short appearance rivals the screen time of household names like Elizabeth Moss or long-time Anderson collaborator Jason Schwartzman.