From 'Borat' prankster Maria Bakalova to 65-year-old Leslie Jordan, these were the breakout stars of 2020

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·10 min read
2020 Breakout Stars
Normal People, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Call Me Kat and I May Destroy You. (Photo: Hulu, Focus Features, Fox, HBO)

The coronavirus could not stop an influx of new talent from demanding everyone’s attention in 2020. In fact, our attention may have been more focused than ever on what films and television shows were streaming during nine months of quarantine (and going), and how young (and sometimes older) actors were bringing us some small measure of relief.

From Maria Bakalova’s hilarious, very newsworthy performance in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm to the dual threat of Hulu’s Normal People to a 65-year-old character actor owning social media, here are our 15 (technically 16) favorite breakout stars of 2020.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' (Netflix)
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Photo: Netflix)

Where you saw him: Watchmen premiered in 2019, but the HBO limited series became even more resonant in 2020 with fans and media connecting summer’s racial reckoning to the show’s historical portrayal of bigotry in the U.S. He also won an Emmy for his buzzed-about, twisty role as Cal Abar, and now has to be considered an Oscar contender for his simmering portrayal of Black Panther Bobby Seale in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Where you’ll see him next: We were supposed to see him face off against Candyman in the eagerly anticipated horror reboot, but that shifted to Aug. 27, 2021. He’ll also join another highly anticipated series with The Matrix 4 (Dec. 22, 2021) in an unannounced role, then join Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth in George Miller’s Mad Max spinoff Furiosa.

Emmanuel Acho

JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! Ð "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EST and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Tuesday, November 10, included Gillian Anderson (ÒThe CrownÓ), Emmanuel Acho (ÒUncomfortable Conversations with a Black ManÓ), and musical guest Ty Dolla $ign. (Randy Holmes via Getty Images)EMMANUEL ACHO
Emmanuel Acho on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. (Photo: Randy Holmes via Getty Images)

Where you saw him: The former Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and current Fox Sports analyst became an unlikely YouTube sensation, with his series Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man becoming a quarantine hit and drawing 65 million views. Guests included Matthew McConaughey, Chelsea Handler and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, while a book deal from the series soon followed, with the November release becoming a New York Times bestseller.

Where you’ll see him next: We’re guessing he’ll have more uncomfortable conversations on YouTube.

Maria Bakalova

Maria Bakalova in 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' (Amazon)
Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. (Photo: Amazon)

Where you saw her: The (previously) relatively unknown 24-year-old Bulgarian actress did the unthinkable: She stole a Borat movie from Sacha Baron Cohen. There is no question that Bakalova owns many of the biggest laughs in Borat Subsequent Film, to which she also helps add surprising emotion. And this is all before the madcap comedy’s most shocking and highly publicized scene, where Bakalova lures Rudy Giuliani into… doing whatever he was doing while lying down on that bed.

Where you’ll see her next: Bakalova doesn’t yet have anything especially notable on her slate, but having been signed to CAA in November, we’re guessing the offers are pouring in like a glass of whiskey during an inappropriate interview in a hotel suite. Bakalova could also be the rare comedy performer to score an Oscar nomination. That could really happen.

Kingsley Ben-Adir

Kingsley Ben-Adir in 'One Night in Miami' (Amazon)
Kingsley Ben-Adir in One Night in Miami. (Photo: Amazon)

Where you saw him: The London native appeared opposite Zoë Kravitz in seven episodes of Hulu’s High Fidelity, played one of many of Anna Kendrick’s love interests in HBO Max’s Love Life, starred in the first episode of AMC’s anthology series Soulmates alongside Succession's Sarah Snook and portrayed President Barack Obama in Showtime’s The Comey Rule, but what really has folks talking is his magnificent turn as Malcolm X in Regina King’s stage-to-screen adaptation One Night in Miami, which could have Ben-Adir being honored One Night at the Oscars.

Where you’ll see him next: Ben-Adir has nothing major (announced) on the docket right now, but that should change soon enough.

Tiffany Boone

Tiffany Boone in 'The Midnight Sky' (Netflix)
Tiffany Boone in The Midnight Sky. (Photo: Netflix)

Where you saw her: Boone has been booming. The Baltimore native and The Chi alum starred opposite Al Pacino and company in the Nazi-tracking drama Hunters, caught more heat with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere and now owns one of the most shocking scenes of the year in the George Clooney-directed Netflix sci-fi drama The Midnight Sky.

Where you’ll see her next: Surprise, Boone will once again be in the orbit of some serious star power with Hulu’s 2021 miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers. The David E. Kelley-co-created drama also features Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Regina Hall and Michael Shannon.

Michaela Coel

Michaela Coel in 'I May Destroy You' (HBO)
Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. (Photo: HBO)

Where you saw her: Hopefully you saw her destroy you on I May Destroy You. Coel created, writes, co-directs and stars in the HBO hit from across the pond, playing a popular Millennial novelist whose fast-rising career is upended when she’s sexually assaulted. Both devastating and darkly hilarious at times, it’s been one of the best reviewed shows of the year, including kudos from a certain former president.

Where you’ll see her next: One of the biggest questions in television right now is if we’ll see Coel return for more destroying with a second season.

Emma Corrin

Princess Diana (EMMA CORRIN) in 'The Crown' (Netflix)
Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in The Crown. (Photo: Netflix)

Where you saw her: The 25-year-old Brit brought a new spark to Netflix’s royal darling The Crown as she introduced a young Princess Diana and drew wide acclaim for a high-pressure role. Corrin also played Miss South Africa in another period piece, Misbehaviour, about the 1970 Miss World competition.

Where you’ll see her next: Folks might be sad to hear Corrin will not be returning to The Crown for Season 5, with Diana aging up (a little bit) and being portrayed by 30-year-old Elizabeth Debicki (Widows, Tenet).

Sidney Flanigan

Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn in NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, a Focus Features release.   Credit: Angal Field/Focus Features
Sidney Flanigan as Autumn in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. (Photo: Angal Field/Focus Features)

Where you saw her: The Buffalo, N.Y. native delivered a devastating performance (opposite Talia Ryder, also deeply impressive) as a pregnant teen in rural Pennsylvania who journeys to New York City for an abortion in Eliza Hittman’s potent Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Flanigan has already won honors from critics groups in New York and Boston, and awards season just got started.

Where you’ll see her next: Flanigan hasn’t yet announced her next role, but she does also front a Buffalo rock band called Starjuice.

Mary Holland

Mary Holland in 'Happiest Season' (Hulu)
Mary Holland in Happiest Season. (Photo: Hulu)

Where you saw her: The Virginia native and UCB alum has been a regular on TV (including this year’s season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm), but deserves her biggest notice yet for her hilarious turn as the lovably oddball aspiring fantasy author Jane in the Hulu hit Happiest Season, which she cowrote with Veep co-star Clea Duvall. Jane is a national treasure, so might be Holland.

Where you’ll see her next: According to IMDb, Holland has a few shorts on the way. We want longs.

Daisy Edgar-Jones & Paul Mescal

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in 'Norrmal People' (Hulu)
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Norrmal People. (Photo: Hulu)

Where you saw them: Ripping our hearts apart (and occasionally shedding lots of clothes in the process) over 12 episodes of Normal People, Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name about star-crossed Irish lovers moving from a secret high school romance to even more complicated challenges in adulthood. Instant stars, the Brit Edgar-Jones and Irishman Mescal are now both primed to lead anything but normal lives.

Where you’ll see them next: Unsurprisingly, both actors have quickly notched follow-up acts. Edgar-Jones will star in the thriller Fresh opposite Sebastian Stan as well as the drama Where the Crawdads Sing, while Mescal will appear in the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed The Lost Daughter and the musical-drama Carmen.

Leslie Jordan

Where you saw him: The 65-year-old Tennessean has been acting since the mid-’80s, most notably in shows like Murphy Brown, Will & Grace and American Horror Story. But 2020 became the year millions recognized just what a gift the short-statured but huge-hearted performer is thanks to his hilarious, candid and very up close and personal quarantine posts on Instagram. It may have just have become the year Leslie Jordan became the Michael Jordan of social media.

Where you’ll see him next: Jordan was tapped for 13 episodes of the upcoming Fox sitcom Call Me Kat, starring Big Bang Theory alum Mayim Bialik. As he told the New York Times in June, he had three publishers vying for a book deal with him. “It’s a good time to be Leslie,” he said. Who could disagree?

Jonathan Majors

Jonathan Majors in 'Lovecraft Country' (HBO)
Jonathan Majors in Lovecraft Country. (Photo: HBO)

Where you saw him: Majors stunned in last year’s Last Black Man in San Francisco, and the industry quickly took notice. Spike Lee enlisted him to play the key younger role in his Netflix war drama Da 5 Bloods, and Jordan Peele recruited him to HBO’s Lovecraft Country where he starred opposite Jurnee Smollett. Majors delivered major performances in both.

Where you’ll see him next: The projects are getting bigger and bigger. Majors will be a part of an intriguing ensemble with Idris Elba, Regina King and Lakeith Stanfield in the Western remake The Harder They Fall (2021) before stepping into the MCU as antagonist Kang the Conqueror in 2022’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Cristin Milioti

Cristin Milioti in 'Palm Springs' (Hulu)
Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs. (Photo: Hulu)

Where you saw her: Prior to 2020, Milioti was probably best known for being revealed as the eponymous mom on the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother. She’s also a Tony-nominated stage actress. But the Sundance/Hulu hit Palm Springs — in which Milioti delivered a charming, sometimes dark, always funny performance opposite Andy Samberg in the year’s best comedy — sure feels like a star-maker.

Where you’ll see her next: Milioti gets her own TV series, praise J.K. Simmons. She’ll headline HBO Max’s dark comedy Made for Love (based on the 2017 novel), playing a woman who’s tracked by her crazy ex-husband with high-tech gadgetry.

Ashley Park

Ashley Park in 'Emily in Paris' (Netflix)
Ashley Park in Emily in Paris. (Photo: Netflix)

Where you saw her: Lily Collins plays the titular Emily Cooper in Netflix’s American abroad comedy Emily in Paris (remember the title rhymes!), but the 29-year-old Glendale, Calif. native has sure been getting her flowers for her lovable turn as Emily’s aspiring pop star pal Mindy. It shouldn’t be a surprise: Prior to Paris, Park was already a Grammy and Tony-nominated Broadway star who appeared in Mamma Mia! and Mean Girls.

Where you’ll see her next: Park will bring more tunes our way as part of a reuniting one-hit-wonder girl group from the '90s in the Peacock comedy Girls5Eva.

Helena Zengel

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in 'News of the World' (Universal)
Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World. (Photo: Universal)

Where you saw her: The 12-year-old Berlin native has already racked up a handful of credits in her native Germany, but meets international audiences as the young girl Tom Hanks must protect over the course of a treacherous trek across the Texas frontier in the post-Civil War-set News of the World. Zengel’s soulful turn opposite Hanks is reminiscent of another unknown actor from the across the globe who held their weight against the acting titan, Captain Phillips Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi.

Where you’ll see her next: Zengel doesn’t yet have any major roles lined up post-World, but there’s a chance you’ll be seeing her at the Oscars, too.

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