20 On-the-Rise Performers You Need to Know in 2021

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No acting career is the same as the next. Some are made after years of training, rejection, and perseverance; others are made seemingly overnight with one stellar self-tape and a leap of faith. From newly minted Netflix stars to award-worthy feature film breakouts, you’ll find a mix of it all in Backstage’s Emerging Talent portfolio, where we’re spotlighting not only some of our favorite performers of 2020–21, but the performers we haven’t seen before—and will be sure to see again.

Fin Argus (“Clouds”)
There’s always pressure when a performer plays a real person, but with Disney+’s “Clouds,” the pressure was especially on for Argus, who embodied Zach Sobiech’s final year as he rose to musical fame and navigated life with osteosarcoma.

What do you love most about being an actor?
What I love most about being an actor is being provided a space where exploring my vulnerability and different manifestations of my emotions is encouraged. It allows me to test my own limits and constantly find new, unique ways of expressing myself and being honest while still performing.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
While you should always take direction if it is given to you, don’t force yourself into being the character you think they want you to be. Find your take on the character that fits with what you have to offer. Make the character your own, and have fun with it. If you are contriving yourself into a performance that doesn’t feel honest, it won’t work for anyone. If you lean into your unique perspective, you may surprise the casting director and be exactly what they didn’t even know they wanted.

 

Matilda De Angelis (“The Undoing”)
A European Film Promotion Shooting Star in 2018, De Angelis has several Italian films under her belt. She made her stateside debut with a tragic and sensual turn on David E. Kelley’s HBO must-watch “The Undoing.”

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break? 
Francesca Borromeo. She was the first casting director to believe in me, even when I wasn’t an actress yet. The castings for “Veloce Come il Vento” [“Italian Race”] were open to everyone, but she wanted to see me after a friend of mine showed her a picture of me. I will always be grateful to her for that opportunity.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
Go to the audition with a strong idea, and be ready to completely twist it. Don’t be afraid to take risks.

 

Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
As Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen takes no prisoners in his dedication to comedy performance; the fact that 24-year-old Bulgarian actor Bakalova not only holds her own but elevates the material is a testament to just how special a performer she is. She’s even getting Oscar buzz for it. (Credit: Felicity Kay)

What do you love most about being an actor?
The reason I got into acting was the ability to escape from reality. I’m a dreamer. One famous line from a Bulgarian play called “The People From Oz” has driven me—and, I believe, many of my colleagues back at home—from the beginning of my artistic journey. It goes, “In the theater, my dears, every Tin Man has the opportunity to find their heart.” I know I can’t ever truly escape myself, but at least for a bit, while wearing my characters’ shoes, I feel like I am living their lives, and that makes me feel free. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice? 
Let your intuition guide you. Forget about what you’ve been thinking before. Preparation is useful only for confidence. Your instincts and flexibility will get you the part.  

 

Ciara Bravo (“Cherry”)
At 23, Bravo has spent nearly half of her life onscreen, but it’s thanks to her turn as a young wife nursing an opioid addiction in “Cherry” that the industry is sitting up and listening. Opposite Tom Holland, she breaks your heart from the first frame. (Credit: Heidi Tappis)

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break?
I have such a hard time answering this question, because how do you even define a “break”? I constantly feel like I’m cracking new barriers in my career, and that is largely in part to many wonderful casting directors to whom I owe so, so much. That being said, my first role as a regular on a TV show, on “Big Time Rush,” was cast by Geralyn Flood. That was 11 years ago, and we remain friends to this day. 

What’s one screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why? 
This changes every year with all the gorgeous new art we get to see. Some of my favorites recently have been Michaela Coel in “I May Destroy You,” Noah Jupe in “Honey Boy,” and FKA Twigs in her music video for “Cellophane.” Each performance holds such a subtle, heartbreaking beauty that left me reeling for days. 

 

Otto Farrant (“Alex Rider”)
Already a hit in the U.K., “Alex Rider” rests on the shoulders of small-screen newcomer Farrant. And he’s more than up to the challenge, always hitting his mark on this absorbing teen espionage thriller based on the book series by Anthony Horowitz, streaming now on IMDb TV. (Credit: Ruth Crafer)

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break?
Gary Davy. The man, the legend. He cast me on “Alex Rider.” That was a giant step up for me and a huge break. Special mention to Maggie Lunn, who cast me in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which went to New York. It was a dream of mine at the time, and the project made me want to have an [acting] career. 

What’s one screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
I saw Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name” a number of times and was totally inspired. It came out of nowhere and was such an honest, sensual performance.

 

Midori Francis (“Dash & Lily”)
If you binged Netflix’s holiday rom-com series “Dash & Lily” and didn’t immediately fall head over heels for Francis, we advise you to stop reading this list. Her emotional dexterity and heart-on-her-sleeve sincerity are no doubt what took her from New York theater to the small screen. (Credit: Nathan Johnson)

What do you love most about being an actor?
I love the fear of going into a new place and watching that fear shrink as I find my way. I love finding chemistry and trust with my scene partner and playing with them. I love when the words breathe. And, of course, I mostly just love to pretend. 

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break? 
I suppose my real first “break” was when I booked a play called “The Wolves,” written by Sarah DeLappe. Telsey + Company cast that, and [casting directors] Karyn Casl and Will Cantler have since become part of my theater family. 

What’s one screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why? 
Sandra Oh in the first season of “Killing Eve.” From the moment she wakes up in Episode 1 and her hair is all over her face and she is screaming, she takes us on a journey of a messy, human person that I really appreciated. 

 

Fred Hechinger (“News of the World,” “The Woman in the Window”)
Believe you us: Hechinger is about to be everywhere. Projects in the pipeline include Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” Joe Wright’s “The Woman in the Window,” and Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” so he’s clearly doing something right! (Credit: Stephanie Diani)

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break?
Richard Hicks and Matt Glasner cast me in my very first movie, “Alex Strangelove.” I remember running lines with my dad on the corner of 38th Street right before.

What’s one screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
I watched “Bay of Angels” for the first time a couple weeks ago. Jeanne Moreau in that movie is unstoppable. I think it’s a very inspiring thing when an actor can be so many opposites at once—a trickster and genuine, beaten down and fresh, past her time and restarting her life. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
There’s no mark to hit, no correct answer. Auditioning is much more like writing a book than it is like taking a test. Does that make any sense? I have not written a book, so maybe it doesn’t, but what I mean is: Casting directors are as searching and eager to find the character as you are. They want to meet this character, but they don’t fully know who that person is yet. Two very practical pieces of advice that have also helped me and may be of use: When self-taping, pick someone you really want to act with. Even if the camera will just be on you, audition scenes are still scenes about two people changing one another, not one person acting. I find the more I think about it like an actual scene, the more fun it is and the more interesting stuff comes out. And slate in character. We’re sometimes pulling off a magic trick in convincing folks we’re someone we’re not. Why reveal that trick right before your tape starts?

 

Myha’la Herrold (“Industry”)
After just a few professional credits, Carnegie Mellon grad Herrold is blasting onto the scene in a big way: leading Mickey Down and Konrad Kay’s “Euphoria”-meets-“Wall Street” series for HBO, “Industry.” 

What do you love most about being an actor?
Being an actor has taken me to places I never imagined I would go—both in the imaginary world and in the physical world, which is a gift. But most of all, I love that what I do can bring other people joy.

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why? 
Lupita Nyong’o in “Us.” Unbelievable voice and physical character work. Seamless, beautiful, and terrifying. The kind of performance I strive to give.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
Always enter a room 100% yourself. Come in confident, prepared, and, most of all, enjoy yourself! Casting folks want you to be “the one” just as much as you do, so [there’s] no need to try and convince them of what you’re capable of—just share it with them. And if it doesn’t end up going your way, it usually means life is making room for whatever is meant to be.

 

Adam Hugill (“The Watch”)
Add “The Watch,” Simon Allen’s new series based on Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels, to our growing list of BBC America obsessions—and Hugill is its breakout star. The “1917” actor’s journey to his first leading role is proof of why, when it comes to auditions, you book the room, not the job. (Credit: Joseph Lynn)

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break?
There have been several casting directors who have trusted me and taken chances on my work so far in my career, but a casting director named Victor Jenkins has really followed me from the beginning. I’d recently completed drama school in autumn 2018, and I had just lost out on a lead in one of Victor’s projects. However, he subsequently found a part for me elsewhere within the show, which gave me my first real taste of TV work. Then, less than a year later, he called my agent and got me straight in to meet the team for one of the leads in the new BBC America show “The Watch,” and two weeks later, I got the part. Since Day 1, it has felt like Victor was always in my corner and had my back. His support and belief in me has been incredible. 

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
There are many different screen performances that inspire me; it depends on where I am in my life or what audition or job I’m doing at the time. But a film that constantly inspires me to keep searching for the truth in human emotion is a French-Belgian film called “Rust and Bone.” Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts go toe-to-toe in this beautifully made film about loss and love.

 

David Iacono (“Grand Army,” “Social Distance”)
LaGuardia High grad and Brooklyn native Iacono made a splash earlier this year with two Netflix series that premiered during quarantine, “Grand Army” and “Social Distance,” followed by HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant.” But what we’re really eager to see is what’s sure to be a breakout performance in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, “Tick, Tick...Boom!” which is currently filming. (Credit: Nathan Johnson)

What do you love most about being an actor?
Man, there’s a lot to love. If I had to pick what I loved most, it’d probably be the fact that being an actor allows you to help tell a story that might be able to reach into someone’s heart and let them feel seen. As most everybody knows, life is typically pretty hard. And, especially with today’s technology—which definitely does have its immense amount of upsides—it can be so easy to feel as if you’re the only person going through what you’re going through. As an actor, the fact that we get to be able to reach out to somebody and tell a story that in some way guides them is just priceless.

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
I’ll forever be moved by Russell Crowe’s performance in “A Beautiful Mind.” His ability to convince the audience that his character truly believes in the false circumstances he’s experiencing is crazy immersive. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
I could still use a whole lot myself, but the one piece of advice that always comes to mind is that nine times out of 10, you’re not gonna get the job, so you might as well have fun when you’re in there.

 

Jaden Michael (“Vampires vs. the Bronx,” “Colin in Black & White”)
Sure, Michael led his own comedy-horror Netflix series this year (preceded by another New York–set streamer, “The Get Down”), but his real break is yet to come when he stars as a young Colin Kaepernick in the ultra-timely “Colin in Black & White,” written by Michael Starrbury and executive produced by Kaepernick and Ava DuVernay. (Credit: Daniel D’Ottavio)

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
I am really admiring Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s work at the moment. His work feels so authentic and emotional. He does such an excellent job of speaking directly to the audience and moving them. I would love to tell the stories he does at some point in my career.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
I’m not really sure, myself; I haven’t exactly “cracked the code.” I am still learning. I think the art of acting is very much centered around actively educating yourself and embracing personal experience. So, what might be good audition advice for me might be awful advice for you. By some loophole in the Matrix, I suppose that I actually answered the question though. Learn about the world, yourself, [and] the casting director, and be ready to be flexible.

 

Ebony Obsidian (“Sistas”)
It’s wild to think that just a few short years ago, Obsidian was getting cast through Backstage and contributing to our own #IGotCast series. Now, after performances in “If Beale Street Could Talk” and on “Master of None,” she’s starring on Tyler Perry’s BET hit “Sistas” and has second seasons of Amazon Prime Video’s “Hunters” and Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” in the pipeline. (Photo credit: Nuru Dorsey; makeup: Maria Cristina)

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
There are countless performances; more recently, Aunjanue Ellis’ performance on “Lovecraft Country.” I had the absolute honor of having her as a mother in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and it’s always a master class watching her work. There’s a certain intricacy she carries with every word, tone, and physical movement, and it’s all so entirely effortless. Her performance on Episode 7 of “Lovecraft” was breathtaking, inspiring, earth-shattering. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice? 
As is true with all things, practice makes confident. Not perfect, but confident. I’ve learned over time that the most important thing to me about auditioning is to ensure that I leave that room or tape feeling like I left everything on the table. No regrets.

 

Misha Osherovich (“Freaky”)
Actor and LGBTQ activist Osherovich has more than just “NOS4A2,” “The Goldfinch,” and Christopher Landon’s horror-comedy “Freaky” to their name. A vet of the New York stage (notably New World Stages’ 2017 production of “A Clockwork Orange”), you can also find their work as a producer and actor on the indie film circuit with their award-winning short “E.very D.ay.” (Credit: Chris Bogard)

What do you love most about being an actor?
I think what I’ve come to love about acting is that it is both very self-contained and also has virtually endless possibilities. On one hand, there is a script with lines and a set with walls and very defined roles; all of that appeals to the nerd in me. I can memorize and research and hit my marks; it’s all very technical. That part of the craft makes me feel safe. On the other hand, this is the business of pretending to be another human being. That has so many nuances and possible approaches. There’s a freedom in building a character from the ground up. So I guess having the rigid structure combined with total freedom is what excites me about this job.

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
Frances McDormand in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” has always stuck with me. The whole film is incredibly stylized and heightened; it would be so easy for her performance to cross over into farcical, over-the-top land. But instead, she almost aggressively grounds her character in real human messiness—and still maintains the heightened comedic style of the story. A true lesson in how to play in a stylized sandbox and maintain a grounded character.

 

Michael Rainey Jr. (“Power Book II: Ghost”)
We have a feeling the best is yet to come for Rainey, who at age 20 has gone from acting on Starz’s über-popular “Power” to leading his own spinoff series, “Power Book II: Ghost.” (Credit: @jussobrooklyn)

What do you love most about being an actor? 
What I love most about being an actor is that I get to meet different people, travel, [and] experience different cultures. I get to inspire people, I get to make people laugh, and I get to be different people through my characters.

What’s one screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why? 
I don’t have any specific [performance], but I do like Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, and Samuel L. Jackson. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice? 
When you go in for an audition, go in with confidence.

 

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (“Never Have I Ever”)
Ramakrishnan has experienced the journey that so many actors dream of. The Ontario native made her professional acting debut on Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” after being selected from 15,000 young hopefuls. (Credit: Vinsia Maharaj)

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break?
Collin Daniel and Brett Greenstein were the casting directors who were a part of a worldwide search initiated by Mindy Kaling for “Never Have I Ever.” A whole team was behind it, and I am grateful to all of them for their efforts. 

What’s one screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why? 
I really love Audrey Hepburn’s performance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I think she was just so expressive, even without dialogue, and sometimes by only using her eyes. Her character, Holly Golightly, is a multilayered, complex character, yet she does it so effortlessly.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
Use the nerves that you may be feeling to fuel your performance, and channel that into your scene. Do what you need to get into the right head space, because you know yourself best at the end of the day. Besides, if you’re nervous, it means you care. That’s good.

 

Nell Tiger Free (“Servant”)
From 2011–2019, a U.K. actor couldn’t ask for a better breakout vehicle than “Game of Thrones,” and Free got just that when she was cast as a young Myrcella Baratheon. Nothing could prepare us, though, for the eerie perfection she brings to the titular guest in Tony Basgallop and M. Night Shyamalan’s Apple TV+ series “Servant,” which returns with Season 2 in January 2021. (Credit: Heidi Tappis)

What do you love most about being an actor? 
I’ve always loved to be challenged. If I find something too easy, I become instantly apathetic. Acting challenges you to access parts of yourself that are incredibly personal, not necessarily things you even should be comfortable with sharing. I love finding out new things about myself through other people’s voices and ideas. I also find it impossible to stay in the same place for too long; I’m lucky that my job affords me the possibility to see new places and new people. Also, there’s a lot of fit boys, which is a tasty bonus. 

What’s one screen performance every actor should see and why?
I think the performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in “Blue is the Warmest Colour” are two of the most profound and honest performances I have ever seen. The way they convey joy, lust, heartbreak—it’s just spot-on, really. If I can achieve something like that with a fraction of the eloquence that they do, I’ll be very proud of myself. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
I remember when I was first auditioning, I thought it was so important to be smiley and bouncy and likable. Of course, it is important to be kind and personable, but I’ve found in my later years, the best way to leave an impression is to say as little as possible. Show them you’re there because you deserve to be. You don’t need to dumb yourself down to be more likable. It’s OK to be strong and sure of yourself. 

 

Micheal Ward (“Small Axe,” “Blue Story”)
Fresh off winning the coveted EE Rising Star Award earlier this year for “Blue Story,” Ward astounded us in “Lovers Rock,” one of the films in Steve McQueen’s Amazon Prime Video series “Small Axe.” He’s helped raise the bar this year for putting a voice to timely Black-centered stories that are too rarely told. (Credit: Mark Gregson)

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break?
My first role was on “The A List,” which was cast by Rob Kelly. But in terms of the first breaking role and my biggest role thus far, I would have to say Jamie on “Top Boy,” which was cast by Des Hamilton.

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
There are so many performances that have inspired me, but I would say that recently, it has to be Asante Blackk’s character on “When They See Us.” Especially because when I watch something onscreen, I want to connect with that character, I want to feel how they are feeling, and his performance in that did it for me. I still think about it today.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
I haven’t been acting for long, but what I have learned so far is to always be prepared. Be prepared with the material, if you have any. Be prepared to take risks. And be prepared to hear the answers you don’t want to hear, because it’s not always a bad thing.

 

Amir Wilson (“His Dark Materials”)
Colin Firth, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson, and Julie Walters are just a few of the actors Wilson has called his colleagues in his first three projects alone. He’s now co-leading the second season of HBO fantasy series “His Dark Materials,” and we can’t wait to see what he does next. (Credit: Nick Thompson)

What do you love most about being an actor?
I love putting myself in other people’s shoes and being able to almost think like a different person. I also love getting to travel the world and meeting amazing people whilst doing the thing I love.  

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break? 
Karen Lindsay-Stewart for “The Secret Garden.” I owe so much to her for that role.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
It doesn’t matter if you don’t land the audition every time, and the decision isn’t always directly affiliated with your acting ability. I’ve learned that not all roles will suit you. It’s all about timing.

 

Shahadi Wright Joseph (“Them: Covenant”)
Joseph proved that she had the acting chops for horror with her Critics’ Choice Award–nominated performance in Jordan Peele’s “Us,” so after voicing Young Nala in Disney’s “The Lion King” (a role she also played on Broadway), we’re thrilled to see her getting back to the spine-tingling on Amazon Prime Video’s “Them: Covenant.” (Credit: Geoff Levy)

Who is the casting director who gave you your first break? 
Mr. Jason Styres. He cast me in my first role as Young Nala in “The Lion King” on Broadway when I was 9 years old. He brought me into the industry and launched my career, and I could not be more grateful. He gave me a chance to take on the role at such a young age, and it’s had the biggest impact on me and my love for theater. It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be the Shahadi that you know today without him.

What’s a screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why? 
My favorite screen performance that still inspires me today is Shelley Duval in “The Shining.” That film is what created my love for horror, so I love watching it. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
Be as prepared as possible. Preparation is key, but try not to be so rehearsed with your character’s nuances, because the production will always ask you to change things because they want to see how you take direction. I wish that was something I’d learned when I was younger, but it really helps me now when I’m auditioning for a role.

 

Helena Zengel (“News of the World”)
Every once in a while, there comes a young performer who acts with grace and emotional virtuosity well beyond their years. With her award-worthy turn in “News of the World,” the German-born Zengel proves to be a force—and quite possibly Tom Hanks’ 12-year-old match! (Credit: Magdalena Hoefner)

What’s one screen performance that inspires you as an actor and why?
The one who inspired me the most is for sure Tom Hanks. After I found out that I would be acting alongside him in “News of the World,” I watched a lot of the films that he made. “Forrest Gump” took my breath away. And when we started working together, Tom became more than a colleague; he became a mentor. I already knew a lot about working in front of the camera, but every day I was totally surprised with how deeply he could let himself get into character, and watching him act was a big gift. “News of the World” is my first movie in America, and I cannot describe how thankful I am that I had the opportunity to work with him.

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
Be yourself, jump into every emotion, and ride the wave.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Dec. 3 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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