From ghosts to cannibals, here are the 10 breakout TV performances of the year

Check out these captivating performers who may not be household names yet, but it's just a matter of time

Published December 28, 2021 7:00PM (EST)

Lee You-mi in "Squid Game" | Danielle Pinnock as Alberta in "Ghosts" | Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack in "Reservation Dogs" | Samantha Hanratty as Teen Misty in "Yellowjackets" (Photo illustration by Salon/Noh Juhan/Netflix/CBS/Ryan Redcorn/FX/Colin Bentley/SHOWTIME)
Lee You-mi in "Squid Game" | Danielle Pinnock as Alberta in "Ghosts" | Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack in "Reservation Dogs" | Samantha Hanratty as Teen Misty in "Yellowjackets" (Photo illustration by Salon/Noh Juhan/Netflix/CBS/Ryan Redcorn/FX/Colin Bentley/SHOWTIME)

This year brought a new crop of talent, and we couldn't be more grateful. Whether it's as a teenage cannibal, future supervillain, doomed death-game participant or lively ghost, these roles were given life by actors who hadn't yet made a name for themselves. But we're paying attention now.

There's nothing better than discovering a new face, especially onscreen. Not only is it galvanizing to witness a bright talent exercising their craft, but there's an excitement in looking them up to see what else they may have done.

Some of the performers  who made Salon's breakout list have been playing supporting roles that haven't allowed them to shine until this year. Some have proven their acting chops before – either in foreign TV or in a different medium, such as the stage. Occasionally we can watch them on YouTube in other productions or interviews. But in some cases, this is their official debut.

RELATED: 2021 was a very nonbinary year

No matter what their history is, it's clear that these are actors to watch in the future. Here's Salon's 10 breakout performers of the year you should check out:

Paulina Alexis from "Reservation Dogs" (FX on Hulu)
Role: Willie Jack
Why they're a standout: It's not often that a complete newcomer makes a role so entirely theirs that it looks like they were born to it. This is the feat Alexis pulls off with Willie Jack, the second quietest member of her four-person crew fresh in the mourning of their fifth friend's absence. While much of the action in the first season of "Reservation Dogs" centers on the dual journeys of Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), along with Cheese (Lane Factor), Alexis' Willie Jack is always ready with a deadpan joke or a gutsy move that saves the day. But it's in the pensive sixth episode written and directed by series creator Sterlin Harjo, "Hunting," where Alexis proves how naturally she travels through heartrending drama. Willie Jack spends a day hunting with her father Leon, and the two of them finally grieve the loss of her cousin Daniel. Father and daughter share gentle tears while sitting in wait for their quarry, and while waiting for the other to unburden themselves of the weight of their mourning. The episode's quietude enables Alexis to hold the tension between being the child her father adores and the adulthood towards which she's inexorably advancing, a clue of the array of tones to which we can look forward in her second season performance. Before that, you can check her out in "Ghostbusters: Afterlife." – Melanie McFarland

Darnell Besaw in "Hawkeye" (Disney+)
Young Maya

Zahn McClarnon and Darnell Besaw in "Hawkeye" (Marvel Studios)Why they're a standout: There's a good reason why Darnell Besaw, young Maya in Disney+'s "Hawkeye," looks like the mini me of Alaqua Cox, the actor who plays Maya as an adult. Besaw is a cousin of Cox's, and both actors are from the Menominee tribe. Besaw and Cox play a deaf role: Maya, who will grow up to be a high-ranking mob boss set on avenging her father's death. I've read conflicting reports as to whether Besaw herself is deaf, as Cox is, but Besaw's sign language is better than most adult actors, and from her very first appearance on screen, she conveys the watchfulness, isolation, and loneliness of deaf life like I've never witnessed before: silent in a busy classroom, nervously studying other children for clues as to what to do. Her portrayal of a deaf child is almost too painful for me, too real—which is why I think it's important that hearing people watch it. Besaw's eyes contain worlds, and her smile is nervous, slight, uncertain if the situation warrants smiling, or if she should draw attention to herself. She conveys so much with so little. You can feel the love and tenderness between young Maya and her father (Zahn McClarnon), which makes his loss more devasting. In her acting debut, Besaw is unforgettable. We know that Maya will become the villain Echo. But she's a villain with a soul, and as Echo is getting her own spin-off, I hope that Besaw joins that cast and plays a major role. Besaw brings empathy to her character's backstory and is a big reason why, villain or not, I root for Maya/Echo and always will. – Alison Stine

Carl Clemons-Hopkins in "Hacks" (HBO Max)
Why they're a standout: Carl Clemons-Hopkins takes the role of beleaguered manager to a fading celebrity legend (Jean Smart) and deepens it, playing Marcus on HBO's "Hacks" with the quiet desperation of someone who has always wanted more — though he struggles to speak up about it — and has had to fight for everything he has. Marcus is super organized and has the patience of a saint, but beneath the hyper-competent exterior, he struggles to find personal happiness and even to know himself. Clemons-Hopkins, who is nonbinary, describes the queer character as "a bit repressed, nonpracticing homosexual with a full-time job." Marcus doesn't allow himself to want too much, to feel, and when the professional facade cracks, the grief and loneliness makes a gulf wide enough to swallow Las Vegas. Emmy-nominated Clemons-Hopkins has a tall presence; the actor could dominate any scene in any room, but the sadness radiating from their eyes as Marcus makes you realize how small Marcus feels sometimes. And Clemons-Hopkins makes dancing in sprinklers with a cocktail, deliberate sabotage to try to lure a flirty city water official over for romance, an act of radical joy. – AS

Elliot Fletcher in "Y the Last Man" (FX on Hulu)
Why they're a standout: One of the new aspects of "Y the Last Man," the television adaptation of the comic book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, was the addition of characters not found in the original, including Sam. It was not enough for FX, or it was too much, and "Y the Last Man" was canceled after only one season. Sam is a trans man, played with quiet strength by Elliot Fletcher, known for roles in "The Fosters" and "Shameless." A performance artist in NYC, Sam can't go back to his small town in Maine, where he survived a difficult childhood, and he also can't leave the side of Hero (Olivia Thirlby), his best friend who he may be more than a little in love with. Fletcher takes the relatively minor role of Sam and turns the character into something heartfelt and unforgettable. His power is in subtlety. Emotional and complex, he says more with a searching glance than other characters do with a whole speech (looking at you, Yorick), and his pleas to common sense turn him into one of the show's moral compasses. He had my partner and I screaming at my laptop screen, at bad decision-making Hero: Stay with Sam! In a world with few men, Sam is the definition of a good one, and Fletcher, named the Hollywood Reporter's Next Big Thing in 2020, a rising star. – AS

Samantha Hanratty from "Yellowjackets" (Showtime)
 Teenage Misty Quigley, the Yellowjackets' equipment manager
Why they're a standout: Whether she's annihilating high school bullies with a Plato quote or impulsively amputating and cauterizing her coach's injured leg, Misty never fails to keep us on our toes. The ostracized and unhinged teen emerges from the sidelines as a newfound leader following a harrowing plane crash that leaves the surviving Yellowjackets stuck in the wilderness. Misty is quick to save her teammates and tend to their fresh wounds. But in subsequent scenes, she smashes the plane's emergency transmitter and poisons her coach with warm tea.

Hanratty meticulously feigns Misty's innocence with wide-eyed stares, toothy smiles and a timid demeanor. Her perky voice and displays of unabridged enthusiasm give life to Misty's sadistic ploys. It's a daunting role to tackle at any age, much less as a young actress, but Hanratty walks that tightrope, never letting Misty get too over-the-top, while maintaining that smiling menace. Her attention to detail – such as establishing how Misty pushes up her glasses just so – pays off with a seamless transition to adult Misty, as played by Christina Ricci.  Episode after episode, it's clear that Misty will do whatever it takes to get whatever she wants —  she is a force to be reckoned with. We can't help but wonder how Hanratty will tackle Misty's slow yet brutal descent to cannibalism.  – Joy Saha

Lee Yoo-mi from "Squid Game" (Netlfix)
Role: Ji-young, aka No. 240 (not to be confused with the new "Sesame Street" character of the same name)
Why they're a standout: Ah, 240, we hardly knew ye. Lee steals every scene she's in, whether she's wordlessly transfixed by pulling a thread taut between her fingers or sassing a religious game player. Joining the show midway through the season, she nevertheless leaves a mark in the infamous episode "Gganbu" when she and fellow young woman Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) realize that by the end of their marbles game, one of them must die. Instead of battling it out, they spend the next half hour swapping background stories, and it's bittersweet to see the friendship develop even as we know it will end in tragedy. When Ji-yeong daydreams about them drinking mojitos on Jeju Island together after the game, her mirth stops short. "Oh . . . right," she reminds herself. At times sardonic, nihilistic, even joyful but never maudlin, Lee makes the viewer feel the heartbreak of losing such a vibrant young character through her sacrifice, not just in the game, but in the stacked game of life against her. We can't wait to see where she turns up next, hopefully in a sunnier, mojito-filled role. – Hanh Nguyen

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Rose Matafeo from "Starstruck" (HBO Max)

Jessie (Rose Matafeo) talking to a film bro in "Starstruck" (HBO Max)Why they're a standout: Move over, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. There's a hilarious new actress-creator on the TV scene. OK, as the lead in her own TV show Kiwi comedian Rose Matafeo (watch her stand-up special "Horndog") may not be a household name yet, but her British rom-com "Starstruck" was such a solid first endeavor that a second season is already on the way. In the series, she stars as part-time nanny/movie theater concessionist Jessie, an expat in England who has a one-night stand with Tom (Nikesh Patel), only learning afterward that he's an uber-famous British actor. Their initial meet-cute in the men's bathroom on New Year's Eve captures the entirety of Matafeo's hilarious oddball appeal. Wearing a rainbow-striped sequined dress, she's a drunken, glam optimist who owns her sloppiness while also somehow being both funny, adorable and vulnerable. When her best friend marvels that a celebrity deigned to sleep with such a "little rat nobody," Jessie crows, "I am forever a stain on his sexual history!" Despite her declarations, for both Tom and the audience, time spent with Matafeo is nothing to regret. – HN

Thuso Mbedu from "The Underground Railroad" (Prime Video)
Role: Cora
Why they're a standout: This South African actor is still early in her career and Barry Jenkins' 10-episode masterwork represents Mbedu's introduction to an international audience. But as Cora, a young woman who escapes enslavement, she conveys an expressiveness that holds decades' worth of emotion – anger, bliss, sorrow, relief, joy, fright, all in her eyes and the corners of her lips. Mbedu styles Cora as an adventuress more than a fugitive, a woman daring to hope for better places where she and her brothers and sisters can have true freedom, who never resigns herself capture of conquest by the man hunting her. But she also does more than simply laugh or smile brightly in Cora's joyful moments or weep when that's all she can do. In every second that she draws our gaze, Mbedu and Jenkins remind us of the blamelessness of every person ensnared in captivity. Whether waltzing at a party in a fictional South Carolina town or drinking the wine of freedom at Valentine Farm, an independent Black community in Indiana, Mbedu never lets us forget the legacy Cora carries – that even as she tumbles unpredictably through circumstance, she's the daughter of a people's great hope. Appropriately her next role casts her beside Viola Davis in Gina Prince-Bythewood's historical epic "The Woman King." – MM

Danielle Pinnock from "Ghosts" (CBS/Paramount+)
Role: Alberta Haynes
Why they're a standout: If you must live in a haunted house, you could do a lot worse than having the spirit of a jazz queen from the Harlem Renaissance to keep you company. Pinnock is a familiar face to CBS comedy viewers, having played Sheldon Cooper's eternally patient algebra teacher Ms. Ingram. As Alberta, however, she's able to showcase more of her boisterousness, not to mention her powerful singing voice, whose range is impressive enough for Alberta to reach out of the beyond and be heard by the living. "Ghosts" is generous to every member of his ensemble, dead and living. But Alberta, draped in her wine-colored velvet and ropes of pearls, does the improbable by making being stuck in an old mansion with strangers from different centuries and circumstances look like a blast. Through Pinnock's performance, Alberta's joie de vivre is unassailable, a product of a life luxuriously lived cut short at the height of her revelry.  We are only starting to get a sense of this underappreciated songstress' life story. But even if we now know the circumstances of the singer's demise, revealed in the hilarious episode "Alberta's Fan," Pinnock never allows Alberta to descend into the shadows of regret. Granted, discovering that her superfan collected one of her toenails does give the otherwise unflappable spirit a serious case of the willies. Even so, think of it as one of the ways Alberta, and Pinnock, remind us that if we play the right notes, any situation can be entertaining. – MM

Lucie Shorthouse from "We Are Lady Parts" (Peacock)
Role: Momtaz, manager

We Are Lady PartsLucie Shorthouse as Momtaz, Faith Omole as Bisma, Anjana Vasan as Amina, Juliette Motamed as Ayesha, Sarah Kameela Impey as Saira in "We Are Lady Parts" (Laura Radford/Peacock)Why they're a standout: Frankly, every member of the all-female Muslim punk band that is the namesake of "We Are Lady Parts" deserves recognition for creating a lively, magnetic ensemble. (The show a true joy.) But Shorthouse – despite not having the same angsty performance outlet as the band members – commands attention as their manager Momtaz. She's bluntly practical, opinionated and wisecracking with an intense energy that jumps off the screen. When she enters a room and tosses out, "Salaams, everyone," it's a greeeting that speaks volumes – from her harried tone to her begrudging adherence to manners before she gets down to business. When dancing in a field during a much-needed escape from town, her grand arm sweeps and undulating form reveals her openness and confidence. That she delivers such a performance almost completely covered with the exception of her eyes is a testament to her mastery. While she has a handful of TV credits to her name, it's her musical theater chops (she was Pritti in 2017's "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" West End production) that reveals why she has such control of her vocal and physical performance. Sign us up for any gig Shorthouse books next. – HN

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.