Breaking Big: 10 rising stars poised to make waves in 2021

Actors, writers, and musicians that we're banking on to make this year in pop culture the best yet.

Paul Mescal

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: Dublin's Gate Theatre can claim credit for discovering the actor, but the BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People — streamed more than 62 million times in the U.K. alone — made Paul Mescal, 25, a household heartthrob.

Lessons From Quarantine: Alone time, especially in Sydney, where he's prepping for a film shoot, tested Mescal — "I lost my mind a lot" — and offered the chance to deepen his résumé. "Seeing everybody learning new skills, I was like, 'Jesus, I've got to do something,'" says the actor. "So I bought a nice guitar and I'm learning now."

2020 Highlight: "To see the final figure [of Normal People's reach] was quite amazing," says Mescal. "[As was] working hard with people that you adore, achieving the things you dreamed up in your head."

When the World Is Back to Normal: You'll find Mescal at the pub: "I can't wait to go to a proper bar where you can dance."

Up Next: He's set to star in Benjamin Millepied's reimagining of the French opera Carmen. "I'm really excited that it's original music and not attached to soundtracks that everybody has very fixed views on," he says. But will he be singing and dancing? "Time will tell." —Ruth Kinane

Taylour Paige

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: Taylour Paige's first major role was in the VH1 basketball drama Hit the Floor — and she notes a growing particularity about roles as she matures. "[I think], Why am I telling this story, what is this going to do for my soul?'" she says. Fittingly, Paige, 30, now has critics abuzz with her scene-stealing turn as Dussie Mae in Netflix's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Lessons From Quarantine: "I've accumulated so much clarity: learning how to speak up for myself, how to say no politely, and how to be an engaged listener without having to say anything."

2020 Highlight: The release of Zola, A24's firebrand interpretation of an iconic Twitter thread, may have spent much of the year in limbo, but the actress describes her resulting friendship with Riley Keough (the antagonist to Paige's titular Zola) as a career high.

Up Next: Zola, at long last, will come out on June 30, and Paige teases a just-finished project: "I can't talk about [it], but I am so proud of it. It was one of the best experiences to date. It was such a wild character." —Marcus Jones

Brandee Evans

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: The former high school teacher worked as a choreographer and dancer for acts like Katy Perry and Lil Wayne before she landed the gig as main attraction Mercedes on the Starz strip-club drama P-Valley. "I can't go anywhere," says Brandee Evans. "People know me by my walk, by my voice.…It's been overwhelming."

2020 Highlight: "The biggest thing I did [shopping in quarantine] was upgrade my iPhone — it was good and raggedy — but I really haven't done anything [more]. I'm still driving that same little old Ford Fiesta that I booked P-Valley in."

When the World Is Back to Normal: "I have never taken a vacation in my life," admits the actress. "I traveled the world, [but] everything has been about work. So the first thing I'm going to do is leave the country — but with no work."

Up Next: Evans will return for the second season of P-Valley. "I know the fans want to see [Mercedes'] last dance; they tell me every day," she says. "But I actually want to see her get her daughter back and get stable." Fans can also look for her on BET's The Family Business — she'll be reprising her role as the assassin Sage — and in several films set to debut (if all goes as planned) later in 2021. —M.J.

Mateo Askaripour

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: After pivoting to publishing fresh off a successful tech-sales career, Mateo Askaripour's debut novel, Black Buck — about a Black man thrust into the start-up world — nabbed him a six-figure book deal. "My first thought was, s---, maybe we can get more," he says with a laugh, ever the salesman. "But the support from the publisher was just so positive."

2020 Highlight: Beyond the health of his family and friends, Askaripour, 29, is especially thankful for the collaborators that Black Buck has brought into his life — the book agent who negotiated his deal (a former editor of Colson Whitehead), for one. "It feels weird to talk about highlights, but we still have to be able to celebrate all the time. That's a form of resistance."

When the World Is Back to Normal: "I'm going to do something I'm calling seven crazy nights, which is where I go to the movie theater every day," he says. "I don't care what's playing."

Up Next: At press time, Askaripour was at the center of a multi-production-company bidding war for the rights of the novel, and will continue building out his Hollywood career — after celebrating the book's recent publication and pick as Jenna Bush Hager's January Book Club selection, of course. —Seija Rankin

Haskiri Velazquez

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: The actress plays Daisy Jiménez, a student with Zack Morris-like powers to freeze time, on Peacock's Saved by the Bell revival. "A lot of people said Daisy reminded them of Rosa, my character in The Forty-Year-Old Version," Haskiri Velazquez, says of her other breakout role. "Both have been so instrumental to my success."

2020 Highlight: "My boyfriend moved [to Los Angeles] during the pandemic and he's helped me book all the roles I've had so far," the actress, 25, says. "And playing Daisy, who my Latinx community has really embraced. Young girls tell me how much she has inspired them and what she means for representation."

When the World Is Back to Normal: "I'm going to see every one of my family members and give them a hug, and really be present in that moment. I want to hear all about their experiences during the pandemic face-to-face, hopefully while eating delicious food."

Up Next: Velazquez has been shooting a thriller and performing her own stunts. "I'm trying to get my feet wet doing a variety of roles so I don't get boxed in," she says. "I keep an open mind when roles come my way because I want to show I have range. Maybe I can be a female Terminator one day." —Rosy Cordero

Omar Apollo

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: Since the day Omar Apollo's song (2017's "Ugotme") was added to a popular Spotify playlist, the singer's career has snowballed into two EPs, a world tour, and his new project, Apolonio. He still remembers his mother's reaction to his first big paycheck: "I think she was crying — I was like, this is crazy to me, too!"

Lessons From Quarantine: "I learned to do more of what I want — I'm blocking out the noise."

2020 Highlight: In addition to releasing Apolonio last fall, the singer, 23, performed a (socially-distanced) concert on the hallowed grounds of Paisley Park in Minnesota. "I still don't believe I did that — like 'What?!' I'm a really big Prince fan."

When the World Is Back to Normal: "I'm going to go to, I don't know, Jamaica or something — get a hotel and make a bunch of music by myself."

Up Next: "The album I'm working on right now [is] definitely my favorite music I've made," says Apollo. "I've just been really focused on what I want to say, what I want to do, and where I want to go sonically. And I think I finally have a direction and thematic things that can happen throughout the album chronologically." No word on a release date yet, but he ensures that it'll drop this year. —M.J.

Simu Liu

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: Known for the sitcom Kim's Convenience, Simu Liu debuts this summer as Marvel's first Asian-lead superhero, in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Lessons From Quarantine: "I always thought I was a very quiet, contemplative person [and] really valued alone time," the Chinese-Canadian actor, 31, says with a laugh. "Then I realized, 'Oh, I am as extroverted as it gets.'"

2020 Highlight: Not only did Liu wrap filming on Shang-Chi (after spending months getting into superhero shape), he also wrote a memoir (out later this year) reflecting on his family's immigration.

When the World Is Back to Normal: "The first thing I want to do is hug people" he says. "The second thing will probably be going to a movie.… We all know popcorn only tastes good when at a theater."

Up Next: Shang-Chi hits theaters July 9, pitting Liu's master martial artist against notorious Marvel terrorist organization the Ten Rings. "It's going to surprise a lot of people in how small and intimate it can feel," Liu teases. —Devan Coggan

Emma Corrin

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: Emma Corrin's first role was on the British series Grantchester (followed by four episodes of Pennyworth in 2019), but she stunned audiences with her uncanny portrayal of Princess Diana in season 4 of The Crown — which she calls "the happiest job."

Lessons From Quarantine: Not one for R&R, the actress, 25, began writing and developing her own material. "It's confirmed, I'm the most restless person," she says. "I like working a whole day." Though she does admit to binging Tiger King, The Queen's Gambit, and The Undoing.

When the World Is Back to Normal: London-based Corrin is looking forward to restarting her dinner-party tradition with friends: "We used to cook communally, eat loads of food, put on '80s music, and just dance all night."

Up Next: Corrin's eager to get back to the stage. As a student at the University of Cambridge, she was a member of the famed Footlights theater group — and is also developing a project based on an as-yet-unnamed article she read and subsequently fell in love with: "It's slightly terrifying but amazing!" —RK

Jasmine Cephas Jones

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: As an original Hamilton cast member, Jasmine Cephas Jones, 31, made waves for her portrayal of Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds. She introduced her stellar pipes to new audiences when the Broadway show hit Disney+ in July 2020, before taking home an Emmy for her role as Tyisha, a young woman caught in a police stand-off, on the Quibi series #FreeRayshawn.

Lessons From Quarantine: "I've been to a lot of protests in the middle of the pandemic, and it just shows you there's a lot of love in the world. I saw the beauty of communities coming together and fighting for what's important."

2020 Highlight: The actress, along with her dad, Ron Cephas Jones (of This Is Us fame), became the first father-daughter duo to win Emmys in the same year. "We're peers now, and it's a full circle thing," she says.

Up Next: Cephas Jones will reprise her role as Ashley from the 2018 film Blindspotting for a Starz spin-off based on her character. "I've never, ever seen anything on TV that is like the show," she teases. "The way they use their storytelling, with heightened verse, [it makes me] so excited for the world to see it." —Maureen Lee Lenker

Reid Miller

Credit: Sami Drasin for EW

Breakout Moment: Reid Miller received the part of a lifetime playing opposite Mark Wahlberg and Connie Britton in the film Joe Bell, but he counts his titular role in the award-winning short film Marty: A Wild West Neverland as the start of everything. "It turned out really funny," he tells EW. "But I think back and I cringe because I was so young and little."

Lessons From Quarantine: "If I ever had any doubt that I was supposed to be an actor, that's all gone now," Miller, 21, says of his time in isolation. "A lot of people haven't been working, so having that cut off has been eye-opening. I need this."

2020 Highlight: The shutdown happened just after Joe Bell was finished, and Miller says he felt lost not knowing when the film would see the light of day: "The fact that it premiered in Toronto, did as well as it did, and people are reacting to it how they're reacting to it, is such a blessing," he adds.

When the World Is Back to Normal: "[I want to] go to a bar. I just turned 21 — I want to have that experience with my friends."

Up Next: Aside from a few "really cool" projects he can't discuss yet, Miller reveals he's dying to star in an action film — something his Joe Bell costar Wahlberg knows a thing or two about. —Sydney Bucksbaum

A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly. Order the issue — featuring cover stars LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya — or find it on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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