Breaking out is the stuff of dreams for millions of aspiring actors. And for their managers or agents, too. For some performers, transformation follows years of treading the boards — hundreds of auditions that end up in minor roles before serendipity, or the right director, that allows their star quality to shine through in a role that was just right.
For others, success is fairy-tale, overnight sensation stuff. The social media and streaming era means that major new stars can be hatched from one day to the next. The producers of Netflix’s “Squid Game” have spoken of knowing that they had delivered a major hit within hours of the show going to air. But that spotlight can also be harsh.
Variety’s international writers have picked out a handful of 2021 hatchlings who few honestly saw coming, but who we trust will continue grabbing headlines for years to come. See the full list below.
Toheeb Jimoh (U.K.)
If you’re like most pandemic-fatigued TV viewers who found unexpected joy in Apple TV Plus comedy original “Ted Lasso” in the last year, you’ll know that Sam Obisanya, the big-hearted player on the show’s fictional football club AFC Richmond, played by British-Nigerian actor Jimoh, stole the show in Season 2 with a scandalous storyline involving club owner Rebecca Welton (Emmy winner Hannah Waddingham). Raised in the U.K., the 24-year-old Jimoh won’t just be a key player in “Ted Lasso” next season: The charismatic Guildhall Drama School graduate can be seen in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and will also star in Amazon’s keenly anticipated thriller adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power.” — Manori Ravindran.
Keung To (Hong Kong)
Arguably the brightest new star Hong Kong has seen in two decades, the 22-year-old Keung has already established himself as a charismatic singer and performer on stage, a talented actor and a sought-after target among advertisers for celebrity endorsement. Keung first caught the eyes of many when he was a contestant of ViuTV’s reality show “King Maker” in 2018. But he did not rise to superstardom in the city until he became the youngest person to win the coveted My Favourite Male Singer Award at Commercial Radio’s Ultimate Song Chart Awards in January 2021. The young star, together with his comrades of 12-piece boy band Mirror formed from the ViuTV show, rocketed to fame. Besides selling out their in-person concert series in May, Keung and Mirror have sparked new levels of fandom that now stretched to overseas markets. At a recent concert, Keung performed a medley of Cantonese pop classics, saying that he is determined to shoulder the responsibility of spreading Canto-pop to audiences outside of Hong Kong. In 2021, he appeared in TV series “Ink at Tai Ping” and “Sometimes When We Touch” and completed the filming of his big screen debut “Mama’s Affair,” in which he stars opposite Teresa Mo. — Vivienne Chow.
Swamy Rotolo (Italy)
Rotolo’s tour-de-force debut performance as the titular character in Jonas Carpignano’s “A Chiara,” in which she plays a 15-year-old who gradually discovers that her close-knit family has ties to organized crime, has been eliciting critical plaudits all year. Variety described the 17-year-old actor as “radiant” in its review. Most recently, Rotolo picked up the best actress award at the Cairo Film Festival, where Emir Kusturica presided over the jury. Carpignano, whose naturalistic style involves working with non-professional actors, wrote the film for Rotolo and inserted elements of her real life into the screenplay, which could raise doubts about her ability in a different context. But the range she displays as Chiara, and the depth of her performance, leave many wanting to see more. — Nick Vivarelli.
Ondina Quadri (Italy)
Quadri, who is 27, broke out in 2015 as the protagonist of Italian director Carlo Lavagna’s gender identity drama “Arianna,” for which she won several prizes and was praised as a “compelling performer” by Variety‘s Guy Lodge. More marginal parts followed in Mario Martone’s ensemble pic “Capri-Revolution” and Paolo Virzi’s “Magical Nights.” This year Quadri’s turn as a gender-fluid character, a young woman who pretends to be a man in the drama “Small Body,” by newcomer Laura Samani that launched from Cannes, has put her back in the spotlight. Though the substantial role – which required mastering an archaic Northern Italian dialect – is not the film’s central one, Quadri’s character is undoubtedly the pic’s standout, and her powerful, yet very understated, performance is what has stuck with audiences after the “Small Body” credits roll. — Nick Vivarelli.
Almudena Amor (Spain)
Amor had only appeared in a pair of shorts before this year, but 2021 saw the 27-year-old PR-grad-turned-actor cast by Spanish horror legend Paco Plaza as the lead in his San Sebastian competition film “La Abuela.” Next, she was picked by Fernando León in what has proved to be her international break-out role, as a foil to Javier Bardem’s lead in the Spanish Oscar submission “The Good Boss.” The role earned her a best new actress nomination at the Spanish Academy’s Goya Awards. In November, she also starred in an entry of Amazon’s acclaimed Spanish horror anthology series reboot “Stories to Stay Awake.” — Jamie Lang.
Milena Smit (Spain)
Smit’s debut feature performance came just last year when she starred alongside Mario Casas, one of Spain’s most marketable leading men, in the award-winning thriller “Cross the Line.” She was quickly picked out with a Goya nomination for best new actress. This year, Smit’s talents went global as she starred with Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” earning her another Goya nomination, this time for best supporting actress. In 2022, she will feature in Netflix’s sci-fi horror series “The Girl in the Mirror” before returning to the big screen in “Tin & Tina,” one of Spain’s most promising indies of the coming year. — Jamie Lang.
Benjamin Voisin (France)
A boyishly handsome and quick-witted 24-year-old actor born and raised in Paris, Voisin broke through with his role as a rebellious and sexually ambiguous teenager in Francois Ozon’s coming of age tale “Summer of 85.” The movie was part of Cannes’s 2020 selection, played at San Sebastian and garnered a flurry of laurels, including a best actor nod which Voisin shared with his co-star Félix Lefebvre. This year, Voisin delivered a critically lauded performance in Xavier Giannoli’s Venice competition title “Lost Illusions,” an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s literary masterpiece. Starring opposite a prestige cast including Cecile de France and Xavier Dolan, Voisin is present in almost every shot of the operatic movie and plays an ambitious young writer from a modest background who moves to Paris from his small town hoping to have a brilliant career. The gifted newcomer has several projects lined up, including André Techiné’s “Les Pieds sur Terre,” in which he will star opposite “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” actor Noémie Merlant.
Don Lee (South Korea-U.S.)
Ma Dong Seok, better known as Don Lee in Hollywood, started his acting career late in his thirties. Ma told the media he’d originally wanted to be a boxer but took up several odd jobs to make ends meet after his move to America. Ma was successfully casted for Korean action-comedy film “Heaven Soldiers” and gradually grew interested in becoming an actor. His breakthrough came through a supporting role in Korean zombie film “Train to Busan,” which propelled him to leading roles in “Derailed,” “The Bros” and “The Outlaws.” This year, that trajectory has taken Lee back to the States, where he made his Hollywood debut in Marvel Studios’ “Eternals.” Ma calls the step a matter of “good timing,” but his die-hard fans credit him with laser focus, a larger than life persona and the tenacity to make it as an action movie star. — Rebecca Souw.
Jung Ho Yeon (South Korea)
By far the biggest breakout from the biggest TV show of the year, “Squid Game” star Jung began modeling way back in 2010. She strutted the runways of Seoul Fashion Week for two years before scoring runner-up position in Season 4 of Korea’s “Next Top Model.” She made an international debut in 2016 at the New York Fashion Week and became exclusive for Louis Vuitton. As a world-class model, Jung took up acting courses and landed her debut fiction role as the scratchy North Korean defector on Netflix’s “Squid Game.” Her success has had supernova qualities. She is seemingly on every billboard and magazine cover and has leapfrogged established stars to be the most followed Korean actor on Instagram. Jung says seems to thrive on keeping busy. Acting roles are piling up, but she tells the media that she worries when the workflow slows. — Rebecca Souw.
Adarsh Gourav (India)
After debuting as the young Shah Rukh Khan in Karan Johar’s “My Name is Khan” (2010), Indian actor Gourav was noticed in Anurag Kashyap’s 2016 short “Clean Shaven,” and then in “Mom” and later in Deepa Mehta’s 2019 Netflix series “Leila.” But it was Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Booker-winning novel “The White Tiger” that was Gourav’s international breakout role. His central performance as a scheming, social-climbing driver earned him BAFTA, AACTA and Independent Film Awards nominations. Gourav is now on his way to both Bollywood and international fame, signing plum roles in Farhan and Zoya Akhtar’s “Ho Gaye Hum Kahan” and Scott Z. Burns’ anthology “Extrapolations.” — Naman Ramachandran.
Azmeri Haque Badhon (Bangladesh)
Bangladeshi model and television actor Badhon broke through internationally this year with her first major role in a feature film, “Rehana Maryam Noor.” Formally trained in dental surgery, and a single mother who lives in Dhaka with her 10-year-old daughter, Badhon plays a single mother who teaches in a medical college, who speaks out against a sexual assault and, in doing so, challenges a wall of authority. The tough but rewarding “Rehana” was the first Bangladeshi film to be selected in the official competition at Cannes, and Badhon went on to win the best actress prize at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. She is now playing one of the leads in Netflix’s spy thriller “Khufiya,” by Indian auteur Vishal Bhardwaj. — Naman Ramachandran.