Whether it’s Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones scorching up the screen in Normal People, Alan S. Kim proving that an adorable kid can carry the emotional core of a tender drama like Minari, or Eli Goree giving us a kinetic portrait of an icon like Cassius Clay right before he became Muhammad Ali in One Night in Miami, this year’s list of breakout stars is as eclectic as a year like 2020 demands. Add to that a number of performers, like Michaela Cole, Radha Blank, and Jamie Demetriou, who wrote themselves some of the year’s most indelible characters, and you’ve got a truly remarkable roster of artists who helped us get lost in their work amid a year like no other.
Check out our list of this year’s 25 breakout stars below.
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There’s a gutsiness to Radha Blank’s feature film directorial debut, The Forty-Year-Old Version, which she wrote, produced, and stars in. Loosely based on her own experiences as a Black playwright, Blank’s titular character “Radha” is desperate for a big (albeit belated) break. Setting her sights on hip hop (as rapper RadhaMUSPrime, no less) Radha may seem like she’s flailing. But Blank’s endlessly quotable script, her disarmingly charming performance, and dynamic directorial sensibility make it clear The Forty-Year-Old Version is the fruit of an artist firing on all cylinders. The film was a smash at Sundance in 2020 and quickly got picked up by Netflix for a release.
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Had 2020 not derailed the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated remake of West Side Story, we’d no doubt be talking about Ariana DeBose’s sure-to-be vibrant take on Anita. No worry. With her scene-stealing work as “Bullet” and Alyssa Green in two of 2020’s buzziest screen musicals, the So You Think You Can Dance breakout performer-turned-Tony-nominated star (for her role in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical) firmly cemented herself as one of the brightest triple threats of her generation.
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The Boys has its fair share of wholly deplorable villains, many of whom are superheroes whose misogyny and jingoistic self-serving vanity make them perfect avatars for the corrupt society the Amazon Prime series depicts. Aya Cash’s Stormfront, a social-media–savvy heroine with an unsavory past, not only fit right in but stole the show in the drama’s second season, offering a welcome mix of biting humor and sadistic violence that made her the epitome of a scene-stealing villainess. She continued a strong 2020 breakthrough run with a role as a horror writer in Shudder’s acclaimed anthology-ish thriller, Scare Me.
Other roles: You’re the Worst (Gretchen Cutler), Fosse/Verdon (Joan Simon)
(Photo by Enda Bowe)
On-screen chemistry is so ineffable that when you see it, you can’t help but cherish it as a small miracle. Such is the case with the intense bond Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones accomplish in Hulu’s Certified Fresh adaptation of Sally Rooney’s critically acclaimed treatise on intimacy, Normal People. As Connell and Marianne, two Irish teens whose crackling magnetic attachment to one another is explored over the years, Mescal and Edgar-Jones are incandescent, imbuing the ebb and flow of their relationship with unspoken truths and tacit understandings. It’s little wonder that, stuck in quarantine, the world fell in love with them seemingly in unison.
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The last episode of Michaela Coel’s acclaimed I May Destroy You was one of the finest hours of television of 2020. Ostensibly closing out the story of Arabella, a writer grappling with the trauma of a sexual assault, the writer-performer crafted a thrilling examination of the promise of storytelling as a cathartic impulse. The incisive precision of Coel’s script, paired with her fearless performance as Arabella, made the HBO drama a timely character portrait that was one of the best-reviewed pieces of TV released this year and one destined to become a timeless classic.
Other roles: Chewing Gum (Tracey)
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There’s a lulling gentleness to Isabel Sandoval’s Certified Fresh Lingua Franca. It makes its seemingly simple premise, about an undocumented Filipino trans woman (played by Sandoval) living and working in New York City in hopes of sorting out her immigration status, feel ripe for turns toward a sweeping romantic melodrama one moment and a gritty drama the next. Throughout, though, you feel the mark of a filmmaker and performer finely attuned to the humanity of her central protagonist, whose story is given an epic emotional canvas with disarming and admirable efficacy.
(Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection)
The beating heart of Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s tender ode to his childhood experience living on a makeshift Arkansas farm, is young Alan Kim. He’s adorable as seven-year-old David, who bemoans the need to share his bedroom with his grandmother who moved from Korea to help take care of him and his sister and snickers to himself when he comes up with new playful ways to torment her. In a film that feels like a collection of frayed memories beautifully recreated, Kim’s David is the spark that makes them come alive. (At Sundance, where the film was a standout, Kim stole the show on the red carpet, rocking a cowboy-inspired outfit. Nice.)
(Photo by Patti Perret / © Amazon / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, has no shortage of big personalities. The film, like the play upon which it’s based, imagines what may have transpired when Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay got together the night after the famed boxer defeated Sonny Liston back in 1964. As Clay, Goree is electric, and he has been cited as a standout among an impressive cast that also includes Leslie Odom Jr. and Aldis Hodge. The Canadian actor is a bundle of energy and dynamism that captures the young boxer’s physicality, in turn bringing some much-needed warmth into the crackling dialogue-driven chamber piece.
Other roles: Riverdale (Mad Dog), Race (Dave Albritton)
(Photo by Anika Molnar/Netflix)
Based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, Unorthodox follows Esther “Esty” Shapiro, a young woman intent on building her life anew after leaving an arranged marriage back in Brooklyn. Haas, who shaved her head, learned Yiddish, and practiced playing the piano for the role, is a revelation. The young Israeli actress captured Esty’s anguish and tenacity in equal measure, conjuring up a fearless central performance that nabbed her an Emmy nomination for her work in the Netflix miniseries and made her a global talent to watch.
Other roles: Broken Mirrors (Ariela), Asia (Vika)
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There is perhaps no greater compliment Mae Martin could have gotten for her Channel 4/Netflix comedy series Feel Good than getting Lisa Kudrow to agree to play her mom. Spoiler alert: Kudrow nails it, but Martin more than holds her own as creator, writer and star of this droll, semi-autobiographical comedy about a queer Canadian stand-up comic in London grappling with her past drug addiction as she starts up a new relationship with a pretty (if uptight) middle-class English girl who’s drawn in by Mae’s self-effacing charm. (Another great compliment, if we say so ourselves: The first season of Feel Good is Certified Fresh at a rare 100% on the Tomatometer.)
(Photo by © Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection)
In the scene that gives Eliza Hittman’s quiet abortion drama its title, a 17-year-old teenager is asked about her sexual history by an unseen Planned Parenthood employee. The camera stays on Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who’s risked her livelihood to take a bus to New York City for this appointment, as she relives moments of abuse both big and small. Flanigan emotes so much with such restraint you instantly understand why Hittman plucked her for the part and why her performance is already earning her some much-deserved end-of-year accolades, including Best Actress at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
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Over 15,000 girls auditioned for the role of Devi Vishwakumar, the 15-year-old girl at the center of Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s teen series, Never Have I Ever. In her debut role, Tamil Canadian Maitreyi Ramakrishnan made Devi a charming anchor for this sweet-natured take on a coming-of-age tale that dealt as nimbly with issues of grief as it did with matters of thirst. Few young actresses, after all, could pull off a line like “popping my cherry, dawg” with such an assured sense of comic timing.
(Photo by Des Willie / Netflix)
The Crown has long turned its many fresh-faced stars into household names, and Emma Corrin – stepping into the role of a young Diana Spencer – is no exception. The English actress had a tall order, given how much of Diana’s image lives in our shared cultural imaginary. But beyond nailing the look of the beloved would-be Princess, as well as her much scrutinized mannerisms, Corrin made Lady Di’s beguiling shyness and the ensuing heartbreak at the center of the show’s Certified Fresh fourth season utterly captivating.
Other roles: Pennyworth (Esme Winikus)
(Photo by © Focus Features)
At only 10 years old, wide-eyed Azhy Robertson already has an enviable resume. Following his role in last year’s Marriage Story, Robertson made an even bigger splash in 2020. He played the youngest member of a Jewish family witnessing firsthand the rise of xenophobic populism in HBO’s buzzy alternate-history miniseries The Plot Against America and later turned heads as Oliver, a non-verbal autistic boy at the center of Focus Features’s horror film Come Play.
Other roles: Marriage Story (Henry Barber), Juliet, Naked (Jackson)
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Giri/Haji wears its lurid genre trappings with gusto, offering a bicultural thriller that shuttles between Tokyo and London. Amid its solid ensemble, Will Sharpe stands out for his delicious take on Rodney Yamaguchi, the ever charismatic rent boy whose fabulous outfits and quick-witted quips offered some much needed levity to the proceedings. Already a BAFTA Television Award winner for his 2016 scripted comedy Flowers, Sharpe’s part in Netflix’s high-octane drama made sure those outside the UK finally noticed the talented Japanese-English actor.
Other roles: Flowers (Shun/Greta), Defending the Guilty (Will)
(Photo by Miya Mizuno/FX)
Six years after making an indelible mark as Kyoko in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, Sonoya Mizuno reunited with Garland for his first foray into television in the equally chilly and timely sci-fi thriller Devs. As Lily Chan, a software developer at the center of an increasingly labyrinthian plot set off by the alleged death of her boyfriend, Mizuno was a captivating presence that helped humanize Garland’s ambitious puzzle box of a show, which often seemed too caught up in its own lofty concepts.
Other roles: Crazy Rich Asians (Araminta Lee), Ex Machina (Kyoko)
(Photo by Ashley Bean / © Amazon / Courtesy Everett Collection)
“They never take girls seriously. It’s a mistake the whole world makes.” So says Selah in Tayarisha Poe’s debut film. A queen bee at her east coast boarding school, Selah’s statement is an apt summation of Lovie Simone’s roles this year. The Bronx-born actress began 2020 with her striking turn here and closed it off with The Craft: Legacy‘s Tabby, a young witch you definitely do not want to underestimate, making it impossible for anyone to watch Simone at work and not take her seriously.
Other roles: Greenleaf (Zora Greenleaf)
(Photo by Katie Yu / ©Amazon / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Greg Daniels’s quirky comedy Upload imagines a future where, in death, humans can upload themselves into a gamified virtual afterlife. Such a premise all but requires a game cast who can thread that fine line between the Certified Fresh show’s silly gags and its grounded beating heart. Thankfully, Robbie Ammell, who plays Nathan, a recently uploaded 27-year-old, and Andy Allo, whose Nora improbably falls for Nathan even as she’s tasked with handling his virtual account in the real world, carefully balanced the sitcom’s tricky tonal shifts and created one of the year’s most winsome on-screen couples.
(Photo by Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX © 2020)
In a series full of mind-blowing twists and truly WTF turns, you could pick any number of the ones involving Wunmi Mosaku’s scene-stealing Ruby Baptiste (her infectious performance of “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” at a block party; her icky skin-shedding transformation in an alley; her heartbreak when speaking of Emmet Till) to explain why the Nigerian-born British actress and singer made such an indelible mark on audiences gripped by HBO’s ambitious fantasy drama. As if to hammer home the point, she delivered a scene-stealing, emotional performance in Netflix’s 100% Certified Fresh horror film, His House.
Other roles: Luther (Detective Sgt. Catherine Halliday)
(Photo by Ollie Upton/Hulu)
Jamie Demetriou’s rise to fame has been slow and steady, with roles in the OG season of Fleabag, Tracey Ullman’s Show and the beloved Paddington 2. But 2020 cemented his stature as a comedic force to be reckoned with. He began the year, after all, with a Fleabag-like sweep at the BAFTAS, winning awards for writing, starring and producing his Channel 4 sitcom Stath Lets Flats and followed it up with scene-stealing roles in The Great, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, and Miracle Workers.
Other roles: Four Weddings and a Funeral (Marcus), Fleabag (Bus Rodent)
(Photo by Netflix/NETFLIX © 2020)
Into every generation a kickass quippy heroine is born. And there’s a great case to be made that that is exactly what Alba Baptista offered up with her English-language debut in the truly bonkers but utterly watchable fantasy series that lives up to its pretty self-explanatory title: Warrior Nun. The Portuguese actress brought a winking wit and a dexterous physicality to the role of orphaned Ava, whose world suddenly turns upside down when she learns she must fend off demons with her newfound supernatural powers.
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“Do you know who you welcomed into your home?” The eerie question loomed large in promos for M. Night Shyamalan’s characteristically twisty Apple TV+ series, Servant, one of the best-reviewed shows on the new streaming network. And knowing how uncannily uncomfortable Nell Tiger Free made her utterly gripping character Leanne Grayson, the young nanny who takes up a job caring for a reborn doll in this suspenseful family drama, audiences soon found themselves wondering who, indeed, they’d allowed to so unsettle them in the comfort of their own homes.
Other roles: Too Old to Die Young (Janey), Game of Thrones (Myrcella Baratheon)
(Photo by ALISON COHEN ROSA/NETFLIX © 2020)
In a year that threatened to snuff out holiday cheer, making Scrooges of us all, Netflix’s delightful Dash & Lily found a way to warm our hearts. The joy at the center of this Christmas-set rom-com came through most clearly in Lily. Midori Francis, an Obie and Drama Desk award winner as part of the ensemble of the teen soccer-team play, The Wolves, effortlessly brought to life the kind of modern-day hopeless romantic whose optimism makes you root for a jolly happily ever after.