Introducing PEOPLE's Ones to Watch 2021: Get to Know Hollywood's Rising Stars

Get to know these 15 rising stars, from the new Bridgerton love interest to a onetime Bieber backup dancer

01 of 12

Sydney Sweeney

ones to watch gallery

Why She's Hot: After haunting performances in The Handmaid's Tale, Sharp Objects and Euphoria, Sweeney, 24, mesmerized in the acclaimed HBO drama The White Lotus as a calculating, entitled daughter in a wealthy family. Next, she's producing and starring in the HBO Max series The Players Table alongside Halsey.

She Worked Hard for Her Shot: "When I was 13, I created a five-year business plan for my parents so they could see what I could do if they let me audition,"says Sweeney, who grew up in Spokane, Wash. "We couldn't afford plane tickets, so we would drive to L.A. for an audition and back the next day." Eventually her parents agreed to move to L.A., where they initially struggled, which makes sharing her current success even sweeter. "Sometimes I get teary thinking about it," she says.

02 of 12

Kirby Howell-Baptiste

Kirby Howell-Baptiste
Frazer Harrison/Getty

Why She's Hot: The London-born actress, 34, who stars in the Paramount+ comedy Queenpins and Netflix's upcoming DC Comics series The Sandman, credits her in-demand status to the best advice she ever received: " 'Be yourself, because there's no one else like you.' When I tapped into that, I started working a lot more."

Dream Costars: Howell-Baptiste, who starred with Emma Stone in Cruella, says she'd love to work with Forest Whitaker, Viola Davis, Joaquin Phoenix and Seth Rogen. "I know that is really running the gamut from drama to comedy. But I have a wide variety of tastes!"

03 of 12

Demi Singleton

demi singleton

Why She's Hot: The New Orleans native, 14, plays Serena Williams in the upcoming biopic King Richard, which stars Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father of tennis phenoms Serena and Venus. "Will was so dedicated to the role," says Singleton, who was starstruck when Smith's daughter Willow, 20, came on-set. "I was trying not to freak out!"

Offscreen Sisters: Singleton says she and Saniyya Sidney, who plays Venus, "call each other every day. She's now one of my closest friends."

04 of 12

Saniyya Sidney

Saniyya Sidney
Rachel Luna/Getty

Why She's Hot: Sidney, 14, plays Venus Williams in King Richard. Her favorite day during filming was when the sisters came to visit. "Serena and Venus surprised us onset! They are the funniest people you will ever meet," she says.

An Ace Performer: "I want to make sure the world knows exactly what they went through and how strong they are," Sidney says of the Williams sisters. Next she'll portray Sasha Obama in Showtime's The First Lady series. "It felt like I was really living in the White House," she says of the production. "It felt legit."

05 of 12


aespa. SM Entertainment

Why They're Hot: Last year the quartet—GISELLE, 20, NINGNING, 18, KARINA, 21, and WINTER, 20—launched in South Korea with their chart-topper "Black Mamba." The single's music video made history, becoming the fastest debut by a K-pop group to notch 100 million YouTube views. Now, with the release of their genre- spanning first EP, Savage, Aespa is eyeing global superstardom.

Fierce Foursome: "It's just so cool thinking that we have fans not only in Korea but over the whole world. We're so grateful that everyone is listening to our music," Giselle says. "We really hope we will be able to see everyone face-to-face and actually go on tour soon."

06 of 12

Himesh Patel

Himesh Patel
Mike Marsland/WireImage

Why He's Hot: He starred in the 2019 Beatles musical Yesterday and Christopher Nolan's 2020 sci-fi epic Tenet. Next, the U.K. native, 31, appears alongside Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio in the Netflix comedy Don't Look Up and contends with the aftermath of a fictional pandemic in HBO Max's limited series Station Eleven. "I don't want to do the same thing again twice," he says.

On-Set Education: After working on the BBC soap EastEnders as a teen, Patel pursued his career in lieu of college. "I always try to learn from everyone and from every job I do," he says. "It's been surreal working with actors who I've admired for so many years."

07 of 12

Alaqua Cox

Alaqua Cox
Alaqua Cox/Instagram

Why She's Hot: In her very first acting role, Cox, 24, stars with Jeremy Renner in Disney+'s Marvel series Hawkeye (premiering Nov. 24). Her character, Maya Lopez, "is a badass woman," she says.

She's Come a Long Way: Cox was born deaf on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, and she's an amputee with a prosthetic leg. Before being cast, "I was a college dropout," she says. "It's crazy how much my life has already changed. I'm so excited to show people what I can do."

08 of 12

Tate McRae

Tate McRae
Tate McRae performs at MTV & EXTRA GUM Present: PUSH to the VMAs at Terminal 5 on Sept. 9, in New York City. Arturo Holmes/Getty

Why She's Hot: The 18-year-old alt-pop star—whose single "You Broke Me First" cracked the top 20—will open for Shawn Mendes on his fall 2022 tour and drop her debut album next year. She also used to be a backup dancer for Justin Bieber!

Dancing Queen: Competing on So You Think You Can Dance when she was 12 "prepared me for the stress and pressure that comes with being an artist," McRae says. "But it's funny—there's still two sides to me: the normal one and the work one. I'm pulling a Hannah Montana!"

09 of 12

Brian Michael Smith

Brian Michael Smith
Tommaso Boddi/Getty

Why He's Hot: Smith, 38, who is trans, stars alongside Rob Lowe as firefighter Paul Strickland on Fox's 9-1-1: Lone Star, which returns for season 3 next year.

A Point of Pride: The Ann Arbor, Mich., native sees it as a "gift" that a character like Paul exists on network TV. "I've never seen a trans hero in this way, shown as a hero, not struggling with his identity," says Smith. "People have emailed me that it gives them courage. One guy is going through firefighter training and didn't think he would ever be able to because of his trans experience."

10 of 12

Simone Ashley

simone ashley
Dave Benett/Getty

Why She's Hot: Three seasons on Sex Education has led Ashley, 26, to Netflix's crown jewel: The British actress stars in the highly anticipated second season of Bridgerton as the headstrong Kate Sharma, who will beguile Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey).

Her Pinch-Me Moment: When her Bridgerton casting was announced in February, Ashley, who studied musical theater before watching Quentin Tarantino movies inspired her to audition for screen roles, tried to stay focused— until Mindy Kaling congratulated her on Instagram. "I grew up looking up to her," she says. "I messaged back with loads of emojis."

11 of 12

Emilia Jones

emilia jones

Why She's Hot: The actress, 19, stars on Netflix's Locke & Key (season 2 premieres Oct. 22) and earned acclaim as the hearing child of deaf adults in the Apple TV+ movie CODA. "I thought, whoever gets to play this character is incredibly lucky," she says of reading the CODA script. "Little did I know it was going to be 17-year-old British me!"

Oscar-Winning Mentor: For CODA, Jones spent nine months learning sign language. Costar Marlee Matlin "helped me with my signs and was always checking to see if I was warm enough—she was like a mom to me."

12 of 12

Brittney Spencer

Brittney Spencer
Jason Kempin/Getty

Why She's Hot: With her raw, wrenching single "Sober & Skinny," the country singer, 33, found famous fans in Nashville stars like Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, with whom she's touring.

Making Waves: "I'm a plus-size Black woman, and sometimes that narrative gets lost in the shinier ones. Being comfortable with who I am changed so much for me," says Spencer. "I hope the generation coming up behind me gets to see the representation that I didn't as a kid."

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