From next-gen Gandolfini and Hoffman to 'Bridgerton' heartthrob Regé-Jean Page, these were 2021's biggest breakout stars

·8-min read
Breakout stars of 2021 include, clockwise from top left, Regé-Jean Page of Bridgerton, Emilia Jones of CODA, Rachel Zegler of West Side Story and Michael Gandolfini of The Many Saints of Newark. (Photos: The Everett Collection)
Breakout stars of 2021 include, clockwise from top left, Regé-Jean Page of Bridgerton, Emilia Jones of CODA, Rachel Zegler of West Side Story and Michael Gandolfini of The Many Saints of Newark. (Photos: The Everett Collection)

It can’t be easy to follow in the footsteps of a late and legendary acting parent. But among the biggest entertainment stories in 2021 was the emergence of both Michael Gandolfini and Cooper Hoffman, sons of James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman, respectively, in projects that certainly carried on family tradition.

Both were co-leads of major films, with Gandolfini playing a younger version of his father’s iconic mobster Tony Soprano in the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, and Cooper teaming up with PSH’s longtime collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson for the coming-of-age love story Licorice Pizza. And both were met with major kudos in doing so.

Gandolfini and Hoffman highlight our list of 2021’s biggest breakout stars in film and television, which also includes a superhero, a Squid Gamer and at least a few folks who can also seriously sing and/or dance.

Ariana DeBose

Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' (20th Century Studios)
Ariana DeBose in West Side Story. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)

Where you saw her: It was Rachel Zegler’s casting as co-lead Maria in West Side Story that garnered the most attention (more on her later), but it’s DeBose that’s danced out of Steven Spielberg’s wondrous-if-underperforming musical with serious Oscar buzz. The 30-year-old So You Think You Can Dance alum and Broadway star (Hamilton, Bring It On) follows in Rita Moreno’s heels in stealing the show as the strong-willed, “America”-belting Anita. DeBose also impressed opposite Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in the Apple TV+ musical parody series Schmigadoon!.

Where you’ll see her next: DeBose moves out of the musical realm with the space thriller I.S.S. alongside Chris Messina and John Gallagher Jr., and Matthew Vaughn’s star-studded spy flick Argylle with Henry Cavill, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, John Cena and Dua Lipa.

Hannah Einbinder

Hannah Einbinder in 'Hacks' (HBO)
Hannah Einbinder in Hacks. (Photo: HBO)

Where you saw her: Jean Smart may have won an Emmy for the ultra-buzzy HBO Max comedy Hacks, but Hannah Einbinder won the audience’s respect for going toe-to-toe with a TV legend. The daughter of founding Saturday Night Live Not Ready for Primetime Player, Laraine Newman, Einbinder was a real-life stand-up comic before landing her Hacks role as the writer/punching bag for Smart’s fictional comedian. But even though she’s repeatedly knocked down, Einbinder’s alter ego is never knocked out and her persistence in the face of industry indifference gives the show a necessary glimmer of hope amidst all the hilarious cynicism.

Where you’ll see her next: Einbinder is currently shooting Season 2 of Hacks, which is expected to premiere on HBO Max in mid-2022.

Michael Gandolfini

Where you saw him: Gandolfini paid his dues in small projects and bit parts (he was “Bus Boy” in Ocean’s Eight) before landing a recurring role in Seasons 2 and 3 of HBO’s porn drama The Deuce, which certainly didn’t hurt when it came to casting for a prequel film for one of the network’s most popular series of all time. It wasn’t just the physicality that made Gandolfini the right fit to play a teenage Tony Soprano in The Many Saints of Newark, but he delivered a soulful performance with a subtle edge that teased the murder and mayhem he’d be capable of later in life.

Where you’ll see him next: Gandolfini is part of an intriguing ensemble that also includes Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Meryl Streep in Disappointment Blvd., an apparently more comedic shade of horror from acclaimed indie mind-melder Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar). He also joins recent Succession breakout Nicholas Braun, CODA breakout Emilia Jones (see below) and Blockers breakout Geraldine Viswanathan in Susanna Fogel’s dramatic thriller Cat Person.

Alana Haim

Where you saw her: Haim brought a hilarious ferocity to Alana Kane, the acerbic and frustrated 25-year-old San Fernando Valley photographer’s assistant who can’t quite decide how she feels about child actor-turned-entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) in PTA’s vibey will-they-or-won’t-they Licorice Pizza. The singer-turned-actress is also one-third of the popular pop-rock band Haim along with sisters Este and Danielle.

Where you’ll see her next: Haim doesn’t currently have any upcoming film or television projects thus far announced, but it’s hard to imagine she’s not on plenty of casting lists right now given the milkshake-drinking she does for PTA in Pizza.

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in 'Licorice Pizza' (MGM)
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza. (Photo: MGM)

Cooper Hoffman

Where you saw him: Unbelievably, Licorice Pizza marked the acting debut of Hoffman, whose father worked on five films with Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master) before he died in 2014 and whose mother is costume designer Mimi O’Donnell. You would never know from the confidence Hoffman exudes as a 15-year-old acting “pro” who hustles his away into the waterbed and arcade businesses, all seemingly to impress his 20-something crush Alana (Haim).

Where you’ll see him: Like Haim, Hoffman doesn’t currently have any other projects on the docket, but that’s not likely to last.

Emilia Jones

Where you saw her: The 19-year-old Welsh actress and singer (Locke & Key) proved an absolute revelation in the crowd-pleasing Sundance sensation CODA. Jones learned American Sign Language (ASL) and how to fish for the role of Ruby Rossi, the musical wunderkind daughter of deaf parents in a blue-collar New England seaside town; she also mastered an American accent (an ability often overlooked when it comes to U.K. performers) and, perhaps most impressively, sings her tail off in nailing the film’s Motown soundtrack.

Where you’ll see her next: As mentioned, Jones will costar with Gandolfini in the upcoming dramatic thriller Cat Person, her only project currently announced. But it’s only a matter of time before Marvel, DC or Lucasfilm come knocking.

HoYeon Jung

HoYeon Jung in 'Squid Game' (Netflix)
HoYeon Jung in Squid Game. (Photo: Netflix)

Where you saw her: The South Korean model-turned-actress struck gold with her first TV series, Netflix’s global phenomenon Squid Game. Playing a North Korean defector who joins the deadly titular game in the hopes of getting the necessary funds to transport her parents across the border, Jung quickly emerged as the emotional center of the series. And her new fans got plenty emotional themselves, swarming her Instagram account, which now boasts nearly 24 million followers — the highest of any South Korean female star.

Where you’ll see her next: Jung recently inked a deal with one of America’s biggest talent agencies, CAA, which means you’ll see her making her English-language debut sooner rather than later.

Simu Liu

Where you saw him: The 32-year-old Chinese-born Canadian best known for the cult TV comedy Kim’s Convenience proved Marvel made the right call in casting their first lead Asian superhero with a sensational turn in the early fall hit Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, bringing the perfect blend of charm, humor and brawn to his valet/secret martial arts master Shaun. He’s also a master of social media, where he hilariously referenced his past as a stock photo model in taking a victory lap around skeptics who thought Shang-Chi would falter at the box office.

Where you see him next: Unsurprisingly, Shang-Chi 2 is already in the works, though a release date has yet to be announced. In the meantime Liu will star opposite Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo and Point Break’s Luke Bracey in the love triangle rom-com One True Loves before teaming with Mark Wahlberg on the dog-friendly racing adventure Arthur the King.

Regé-Jean Page

Where you saw him: The stage-trained British-Zimbabwean actor broke out in a big way on Netflix’s blockbuster period romance, Bridgerton. Page’s dashing good looks and haughty yet sensitive portrayal of hottie bachelor Simon Basset instantly made him the Mr. Darcy for the binge-viewing generation. Slaying it on Saturday Night Live only added to his mystique, as did his bold decision to walk away from Bridgerton after a single season. We’re expecting things to go better for him than they did for David Caruso.

Where you’ll see him next: Page’s dance card is quickly filling up with roles in two Netflix feature films — including The Gray Man, directed by Marvel superstars, Anthony and Joe Russo — as well as action-heavy blockbusters. He’ll be starring alongside Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez in an all-new Dungeons & Dragons film, and will be playing master of disguise, Simon Templar, in a reboot of The Saint. And then there are those James Bond rumors

Rachel Zegler

Where you saw her: As the 20-year-old New Jersey native told us in a recent interview, Zegler got wind of Spielberg’s West Side Story in “the most Gen-Z way”: She saw a casting call on Twitter when she was 16. Zegler was selected for the lead role of Maria from over 30,000 applicants after uploading performances of the film’s music to her YouTube channel, and responded with a magnetic, undeniable performance that proved for a 1,000th time this Spielberg really seems to know what he’s doing.

Where you’ll see her next: Has a young actor ever hit Hollywood with their first three films as high-profile as Zegler? Next she’ll costar in the 2023 DC sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods and headline Disney’s live-action Snow White film in the same year. It’s hard to think of anyone, but let us know if you can.

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