There are young people of all ages who dream of making it big in Tinseltown. These starry-eyed hopefuls sit in front of their laptops streaming the latest awards shows to get a glimpse of glamour and fame. For most, Hollywood recognition is simply a whimsical fantasy, but for a select few, their dreams are a reality.
Sure, there’s a lot to be said about the talent and finesse of older actors like Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, or Al Pacino with decades of experience. However, sometimes age really is just a number. This is particularly true of the young actors and actresses in their 20s who have the acting chops to carry a whole critically acclaimed television series or an Oscar-winning feature film.
It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz of awards shows and forget the processes that these budding artists have gone through to get where they are today. What audiences don’t see are the sometimes grueling, long days on set, the hundreds of unrecognized auditions, and the years of both formal and informal training that make these actors stellar and globally noteworthy. It takes a lot of grit to stay relevant, continue to impress, and rise through the ranks, especially at such formative ages, because the competition nowadays is fierce.
From child stars who were able to break the mold of typecasting to college grads who weren’t born into the industry, the following actors aren’t at the top of their game by chance. They each have a unique drive, talent, and character perspective that captivates audiences of all ages on the big and small screens. These are the top actors in their 20s.
Notable Role: Rue Bennett (Euphoria)
Most actresses who start out as Disney Channel stars have a very difficult time breaking the mold of “child actor.” They either fizzle out as they age or have a pretty public and rocky transformation, à la Miley Cyrus. It’s also never an assurance that actors who begin their careers as kids are going to continue to grow into successful and serious artists.
Zendaya is the exception to the child star trope. She’s made a seamless transformation from her early days of Shake It Up on Disney to her Emmy Award-winning performance of complicated and drug-addicted teen Rue Bennett in HBO’s Euphoria. She has an innate ability to hop from children’s movies—The Greatest Showman—to huge blockbusters—Spider-Man: Far from Home—back to more artistic films—Malcolm and Marie. She’s effortless and relatable, making her slot perfectly into every fictional situation.
Notable Role: Emerald (Nope)
Keke Palmer has been on our TV and movie screens since she was 10 years old. After Barbershop 2, she went on to star on her own Nickelodeon show True Jackson, VP, and she has since continued landing roles left and right throughout her 20s. After a successful stint as a child star, Palmer has continued her ascent as an actress, host, and singer, and in 2022 she starred in Lightyear, Alice, and Nope. Her role as Emerald in the Jordan Peele film is her most career-defining role, and there is no telling how far her star will continue to rise after delivering the strongest performance yet.
Notable Role: Korey Wise (When They See Us)
Only a few years after Moonlight swept the Oscars winning eight awards, Jharrel Jerome won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie at the Emmys for his portrayal of Korey Wise in When They See Us. The show is based on the lives of five falsely accused Black men in New York City after a white female jogger was assaulted in Central Park. Spending an entire miniseries portraying a real person is not a challenge for the faint of heart. Jerome handled his role beautifully and was rightfully acknowledged for his hard work with his Emmy win. If you were captivated by Jerome’s performance, you can also catch him in Mr. Mercedes as Jerome Robinson as well as Concrete Cowboy. With such successful projects in his past, he’s sure to have an exciting future.
Notable Role: Starr Carter (The Hate U Give)
Amandla Stenberg first broke our collective heart with their portrayal of Rue in The Hunger Games. Since then, the nonbinary actor has made poignant statements with their performances in films like The Hate U Give, which follows a community in the midst of racism and police violence. Activism comes naturally to Stenberg, as they’re an outspoken ally for LGBTQ+ youth. To explore more of Stenberg’s career, check out The Eddy,The Darkest Minds, and Dear Evan Hansen. With both an acting and budding music career, Stenberg is sure to become a staple in your media consumption.
Notable Role: Olivia Mossbacher (The White Lotus)
Sydney Sweeney is barely in her mid-20s and yet she’s been an integral part of some of the most noteworthy TV series created in the past few years. Although her first credits appear in 2009, your first recollection of her may be from the unrenewed show Everything Sucks! on Netflix. That same year, Sweeney swept the small screen in poignant roles, such as Eden Spencer in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and HBO’s Sharp Objects. These projects were quickly followed by her strong and heartbreaking portrayal of Cassie Howard in Euphoria. If you haven’t tuned into The White Lotus, you don’t want to miss her subtle, infuriating, and moving performance. She also nabbed two Emmy nominations in 2022 for the two HBO shows.
Notable Role: Shuri (Black Panther and other MCU films)
You’ll probably recognize Letitia Wright from her portrayal of Shuri in Black Panther and other Avengers films, but even outside of playing her recurring role, her career has been prolific. You may have also caught her in Doctor Who, Humans, Death on the Nile, or Chasing Shadows to name a few. She was even nominated for an Emmy Award for playing Nish in Black Mirror’s episode “Black Museum.” An Emmy nomination for one episode of a show is pretty incredible and shows that her performance always packs a punch and stays fresh in viewers’ minds. Keep your eyes out for her next performances and make sure to pay attention.
Notable Role: Zoey Johnson (black-ish/grown-ish)
Yara Shahidi may have become a household name thanks to her role as Zoey Johnson in Kenya Barris’ black-ish, but she is another star on this list who has been acting since she was a little girl. She starred in Imagine That alongside Eddie Murphy and made appearances in shows like Wizards of Waverly Place and Scandal. Shahidi was the first out of the ABC sitcom’s cast to get a spin-off show of her own with Freeform’s grown-ish, which she has successfully led for five seasons, and in that time she also starred in 2019’s The Sun Is Also a Star and landed the role of Tinker Bell in the upcoming Peter Pan & Wendy. Somehow she managed to graduate from Harvard University and has used her fame and platform to speak out on societal issues regarding equality and racism. Shahidi is a star in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and definitely someone we will continue to see in Hollywood for years to come.
Notable Role: Peter Parker / Spider-Man (Spider-Man: Homecoming and other MCU films)
It’s always a risk entering into the MCU when you’re taking on roles that have been formerly filled by great actors such as Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, but Tom Holland has absolutely taken Marvel by storm with his quirky and endearing portrayal of one of the world’s favorite superheroes. The MCU has kept Holland so busy that he honestly hasn’t had a lot of time to branch out into other roles. Although, he is in the Apple original film Cherry, and you may recognize his voice in Disney’s Onward when you listen to the protagonist, Ian Lightfoot. Hopefully, he’ll stick around as Spider-Man for many more films, but even after his time comes to an end, he’s sure to move on to equally exciting projects.
Notable Role: Amy March (Little Women)
Florence Pugh is a fascinating actress because it feels like she’s never working within the same genre or role type. Although she’s done her fair share of period dramas—she received an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Amy March in Little Women—she has had just as much success with modern horror films, like Midsommar, and in the sports comedy-drama Fighting With My Family. Most recently, she’s been added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as Yelena Belova in Black Widow. She has performed alongside several people on this list, as well as Scarlett Johansson, Maisie Williams, Chris Pine, and Michael Shannon to name a few fan favorites. Florence Pugh is sure to continue to surprise and captivate audiences with her impending roles.
Notable Role: Elio (Call Me by Your Name)
You may try to overlook Timothée Chalamet, because of his “heartthrob” status, but don’t be fooled. This 27-year-old has some serious acting chops. At the time of his Oscar nomination for Best Lead Actor, he was the third-youngest nominee ever for that category. His success, obviously, hasn’t stopped since. A favorite actor of Greta Gerwig, you’ll find him in both Lady Bird and Little Women as the love interest of real-life friend, and frequent co-star, Saoirse Ronan. He’s also notably in Beautiful Boy and The French Dispatch. If you need a laugh, check out the particularly funny episode of Saturday Night Live that he hosted, which proves that Chalamet doesn’t just brood, he’s also got a pretty wicked sense of humor.
Notable Role: Beth Harmon (The Queen’s Gambit)
Anya Taylor-Joy made chess look so satisfying that everyone in America wanted their own chess set after watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Artistic and intriguing, her work never disappoints; whether you’re watching her as Thomasin in The Witch or Gina Gray in Peaky Blinders. If you loved The Witch, get pumped about her recently announced a collaboration with its director, Robert Eggers, on a Nosferatu remake. Although she didn’t officially win an Emmy for The Queen’s Gambit, with all of her other projects—Laughter in the Dark, Last Night in Soho, Furiosa—there’s almost certainly a golden statue with her name on it in the near future.
Notable Role: Nell Crain (The Haunting of Hill House)
Victoria Pedretti’s haunting performance in The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix may have kept you up at night when you found out—spoiler alert—she was the bent neck lady all along! This graduate of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama is proof that you don’t have to have famous parents to make a serious name for yourself. The Haunting of Hill House was so successful that she was brought back to also star as troubled, but loving nanny, Dani Clayton, in The Haunting of Bly Manor. You can also catch her in Shirley, a biographical drama about the author who wrote the original story for The Haunting of Hill House as well as Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. If you just can’t get enough of Pedretti, make sure to check her out in You as Love Quinn. It’s only a matter of time before this “Scream Queen” gets her Emmy nomination.
Notable Role: Patrick Chandler (Manchester by the Sea)
Although you can catch Lucas Hedges in fun, small roles in your favorite Wes Anderson films, like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom, you’re much more likely to remember him for his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea. Hedges brings an emotionally connected performance to every role he plays. His versatility across genres is one of many reasons he makes this list, so don’t be surprised if you continue to see this promising young actor in a variety of roles in the coming years.
Notable Role: Sabrina Spellman (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)
Kiernan Shipka isn’t just the little girl from Mad Men anymore. She’s moved on from Sally Draper and is taking on bigger challenges. Perhaps most notably, she carried the popular Chilling Adventures of Sabrina series as the precocious Sabrina Spellman with a spellbinding performance. If you’re interested in animated series, you may not have realized that you can hear Shipka in 25 episodes of The Legend of Korra as the voice of Jinora. In 2018, Kiernan Shipka won an IMDb Top 10 Breakout Stars Award. As long as Shipka continues to act, there are almost certainly more awards and nominations in her future.
Notable Role: Chiron (Moonlight)
Ashton Sanders auditioned for his role in the film that would go on to win Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars while he was still attending theater school at DePaul University in Chicago. Despite the initial uncertainty over who won that Oscar—the announcers were given the wrong envelope and read the winner originally as La La Land—what is certain is that Sanders’ career is just getting started. Since Moonlight, he’s gone on to play roles in Captive State, Native Son, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Sanders isn’t just known for his filmography, either. You can also catch him starring in the Hulu original Wu-Tang: An American Saga as hip-hop legend RZA/Bobby Diggs. With such an impressive résumé, it’s clear that Sanders is one to expect even more from in the coming years.
Notable Role: Jenn (Sweetheart)
Kiersey Clemons is not new to the film and TV industry, although she may have just popped up on your radar. Much like Zendaya, she got her start on the Disney Channel, and worked on several projects with Disney, even starring in the live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp as Darling. Don’t let her Disney past fool you. Clemons also has an edge, which you can experience in her characters in Sweetheart, Ghost Tape, Easy, and Antebellum. This kind of versatility makes her the perfect actress to keep tabs on as her career matures and continues to progress.
Notable Role: Daphne Bridgerton (Bridgerton)
Audiences fell in love with Phoebe Dynevor during the early days of the pandemic for her portrayal of Daphne Bridgerton in the titillating romance/drama Bridgerton on Netflix. Her natural chemistry with co-star Regé-Jean Page is undeniable and highly enjoyable to watch. If you’re a fan of the series Younger with Hilary Duff and Sutton Foster, you may also recognize Dynevor from her role as Clare O’Brien. As the daughter of actress Sally Dynevor and screenwriter Tim Dynevor, she was always destined for greatness. Keep your eyes peeled for Phoebe Dynevor in upcoming projects like I Heart Murder and Exciting Times.
Notable Role: Miles Morales (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)
It doesn’t matter if you’re just listening to Shameik Moore’s voice in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or watching his physical performance in Dope and Cut Throat City, you know almost immediately that there’s something really special about this actor. His earnestness and youthfulness radiate in everything he works on. It’s his vocal performance in the animated Spider-Man that solidifies a serious emotional payoff from the first film. That same ability to tune into his own emotions served him well when he portrayed Raekwon/Sha Raider in Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga and he even impressed RZA with his performance.
Notable Role: Molly (Booksmart)
Beanie Feldstein might be Jonah Hill’s little sister, but she never needed his last name to stand on her own two feet. She’s humorous, but with a surprising amount of gravitas. Her comedic timing in roles such as Molly in Booksmart and What We Do in the Shadows is enough to leave you cackling. At the end of the day, though, it’s the heart she brings to her characters that makes her so watchable. It’s an exciting time to be paying attention to Feldstein as she transitions into a more serious role American Crime Story as Monica Lewinsky.
Notable Role: Lady Bird McPherson (Lady Bird)
With four Oscar nominations under her belt, Saoirse Ronan is an absolute star. It was difficult to choose which role is her most notable, because she’s had so many that linger long after you’ve left the movie theater. There’s something so delightful about when Ronan and director Greta Gerwig partner up. The trusting relationship that the two women have cultivated is evident in every shot, whether you’re watching Lady Bird or the revamp of Little Women. The fragile, complicated strength that Ronan brings to every role is her “it” factor. This trait will continue to serve her for many years to come, even when she transitions from ingénue to leading lady.
Notable Role: Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before)
This actress might not have an Emmy or Oscar nomination yet, but you best believe she’s on her way. Known for her portrayal of Lara Jean in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its follow-up films, she was a winner of the Hollywood Critics Association’s Next Generation of Hollywood Award in 2020. This Vietnamese-born actress got her debut in X-Men: Apocalypse as Jubilation Lee/Jubilee and has been working ever since. She appeared in Moonshot as well, and is set to appear in Girls Night. She was also cast in a lead role in the Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes live-action/animated film Coyote vs. Acme alongside John Cena and Will Forte. She’s also set to star in and executive produce the action-comedy series Take Out for Hulu. Hopefully, audiences will start to see even more of her in their favorite TV shows and movie franchises as other casting directors begin to recognize her talent for bringing relatable characters to life with subtlety and charm.
Notable Role: Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair)
Olivia Cooke accepted a breakout star award at the 2018 IMDb Awards, and has been working ever since. Her rise in mainstream popularity started with her starring role in Bates Motel and solidified itself with her roles in Ready Player One and the miniseries Vanity Fair. You can also catch her in Sound of Metal and Thoroughbreds. Fans of Cooke and Game of Thrones have also reveled in her performance in House of the Dragons, where she plays Alicent Hightower.
This article was originally published on complex.com.