2021 Academy Awards: First-Time Acting Nominees

The 2021 Academy Awards are slated for April 25, wrapping up an unparalleled year for the film industry. The challenges of 2020 were unprecedented to be sure, but they also created unforeseen opportunities that resulted in brilliant performances. Of the twenty total nominees for the acting categories, eleven are first-time nominees. A few familiar faces are included— such as Anthony Hopkins, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, and Frances McDormand— but the fresh blood is overwhelming. They include talented newcomers and screen veterans who finally found their signature role. Here are the 2021 Academy Awards first-time acting nominees.   

Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal (2019)

Image is from the film Sound of Metal (2019). A shirtless man, with a chest covered in tattoos, plays the drums. He looks angry.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

The London born rapper and actor is nominated for Best Actor in the American drama Sound of Metal. Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer in a hard rock band who suddenly begins to lose his hearing and struggles to cope with that abrupt realization. It is rumored that director Darius Marder spent more than a decade trying to find his ideal lead actor before casting Ahmed. To prepare for the role, the 38-year-old spent eight months studying American Sign Language and learning how to play the drums. His hard work paid off. Ahmed’s Oscar nomination is not only the first of his career— it made him the first Muslim ever to be nominated for Best Actor.

Maria Bakalova  – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Image is from the film 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' (2020). A young woman wearing bright red lipstick and a pale blue dress smiles.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Bakalova is nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She plays Tutar Sagdiyev, the daughter of the infamous fictional Kazakhstani journalist Borat. The Bulgarian actress and model is only 24, but her star is certainly on the rise. She was named New York Film Critics Online Breakthrough Performer of 2020, and is starring in the new Judd Apatow film The Bubble. Bakalova’s co-star Sacha Baron Cohen cast her in the Borat sequel after auditioning over 500 actors. He stated of her performance, “If she doesn’t win an Oscar then I don’t know what the Academy is for.”    

Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Image is from the film 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' (2020). A young black man wearing a striped shirt and a grey patterned suit begins to assemble a trumpet.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Boseman is nominated for Best Actor for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the period piece set in 1920’s Chicago, he plays trumpeter Levee Green. After starring as real life heroes Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall— as well as superhero Black Panther— Boseman has been one of the most successful actors in Hollywood over the last ten years. After winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, Boseman is the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor at the Oscars. Sadly, his first Academy Award nomination is also a posthumous one. The actor died in August after losing his battle with colon cancer at 43. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is dedicated to the memory of Chadwick Boseman.

Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Image is from the film 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' (2021). Andra Day, who portrays Holiday, sings on stage with her arms wide open. She is smiling with her head back. She wears a black dress and a white flower in her hair.
Image courtesy of Hulu

Day is nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of the iconic vocalist. Known primarily as a singer-songwriter, the Billie Holiday biopic is only Andra’s third feature film, but no one would know it. In fact, her performance as Holiday is getting better reviews than the movie. According to film critic Brian Truitt, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday isn’t perfect but Andra Day is as the jazz legend.” With a victory at the Oscars, the 36- year-old actress would be the second Black woman to ever win the award— and her chances look pretty good. In February, Day surprisingly won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama, becoming only the second Black woman to win that award. 

Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman (2020)

Image is from the film 'Pieces of a Woman' (2020). A blonde woman wearing a red coat sits in a subway carriage. She is looking at something in front of her.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Kirby is nominated for Best Actress. The 32- year-old actress plays Martha Weiss, a woman coming to terms with the broken pieces of her life after tragedy.  Fans of Kirby will remember her as Princess Margaret from the hit show The Crown; however, her work in Pieces of a Woman is simply on another level. Variety Magazine stated that it is “her most impressive screen performance to date.” Kirby’s is the only Academy Award nomination for Pieces of a Woman, which hurts her chances. But she also won Best Actress at The Venice Film Festival earlier this year, so she might be poised to pull off an upset in this category.  

Leslie Odom Jr. – One Night in Miami (2020)

Image is from the film 'One Night in Miami' (2020). Leslie Odam Jr. portrays Sam Cooke, and is singing on stage in a black suit. In front of him an audience applauds and behind his is a brown curtain and drumkit.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.

 The 39-year-old actor, singer, and songwriter first came into prominence starring as Aaron Burr in the hit musical Hamilton, for which he won a Grammy and a Tony Award. One Night in Miami tells the fictional tale of a 1964 meeting between civil rights influencers Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. Odom Jr. plays Cooke and is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. As the legendary “King of Soul,” Leslie naturally embodies the singer’s debonair persona and suave style.  Speaking of his role, Odom Jr. stated, “I was thrilled that I got to bring more of myself to the project.” In addition to his acting nod, his song “Speak Now” is also nominated for Best Original Song. Odom Jr. is the first male actor to be nominated for both acting and songwriting Oscars in the same year.

Paul Raci – Sound of Metal (2019)

Image is from the film 'Sound of Metal (2019). A man in his fifties sits in a office with his head resting against his fist. He is wearing a brown plaid shirt.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

 The Chicago-born actor has toiled in relative obscurity until his powerful performance in Sound of Metal. The 72- year-old Raci plays Joe, a recovering alcoholic and hearing impaired war veteran. It is Joe’s mission to help Ruben (Riz Ahmed) come to terms with his encroaching “handicap”. Paul Raci has had a successful acting career since 1987, appearing mainly on the Chicago stage and in character parts. His numerous television guest star roles include L.A. Law, C.S.I., Scrubs, Parks and Recreation, and Baskets. When he was notified of his unexpected nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Raci exclaimed, “During my 40-something-year acting career, I have always been about the work…but to be validated in this way is gratifying on a level that I can only describe as heavenly.”

Amanda Seyfried – Mank (2020)

Image is from the film 'Mank' (2020). A young woman in a fur lined coat sits in the back of a car. She is wearing dark lipstick and has her hair curled in a 1920s fashion. The image is in black and white.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Seyfried is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Mank. The movie details infamous Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his involvement with the 1941 film Citizen Kane. A Pennsylvania native, Seyfried first opened eyes as Sarah Henrickson on the HBO original series Big Love. In Mank, the 35-year-old portrays Marion Davies, a renowned American actress and mistress to William Randolph Hearst. Seyfried felt a very personal responsibility towards the role, and has expressed thanks “for the honor of reintroducing the world to the Marion Davies that I’ve come to know.” Mank leads the 2021 Oscar field with ten total nominations.    

LaKeith Stanfield – Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Image is from the film 'Judas and the Black Messiah' (2021). A young black man wearing a dark jacket and a black hat rests his hand above his head.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

LaKeith Stanfield, 29, is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. In Judas and the Black Messiah he plays “Bill” O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. The historical drama set in the late 1960s details O’Neal’s role in the assassination of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Stanfield is no stranger to playing real people, such as civil rights leader Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma and rapper Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton. But his portrayal of O’Neal is his most impressive to date in what the New York Times called a “twitchy, vulnerable, quick-witted performance.” Kaluuya is also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah; however, it is not his first Oscar nomination. He was nominated for Best Actor in 2017 for Get Out, which also featured Stanfield.  

Steven Yeun – Minari (2020)

Image is from the film 'Minari' (2020). A man in his thirties looks down at the ground. He is wearing a red baseball cap and a blue plaid shirt.
Image courtesy of A24

Steven Yeun is nominated for Best Actor for Minari. The 37-year-old is the first Asian-American actor to be nominated for the award. Fans of the AMC series The Walking Dead will know Yeun as Glenn Rhee, appearing in 66 episodes of the hit apocalyptic television show from 2010-2016. Minari is an American film, and nominated for a total of six Academy Awards. It is the semi-autobiographical account of director Lee Isaac Chung’s assimilation to Middle America from South Korea in the 1980s. Steven plays Jacob Yi, the patriarch of the family that the story focuses on. Yeun called the film an “emotional journey,” and as a Korean immigrant himself, he drew upon his own experiences for the role. 

Youn Yuh-jung – Minari (2020)

Image is from the film 'Minari'. An elderly woman in a forest leans down and smiles. She is wearing a yellow shirt.
Image courtesy of A24

Upon learning of her nomination, Youn Yuh-jung professed, “Never in my dreams did I ever think a Korean actress would be nominated for an Oscar, and I can’t believe it’s me!” At age 73, Youn is the oldest first-time 2021 Oscar acting nominee. She is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Minari which is also her first Hollywood film. Youn is a living acting legend in Korea, and has been appearing in movies and television since 1966. In Minari, she plays the eccentric Korean grandmother who develops a surprising yet heart-warming bond with her Americanized grandchildren. Her performance helps to balance the movie with elements of tenderness and humor. After her win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role, the seasoned actress is the clear favorite in this category— and deservedly so. According to IndieWire, “Youn is nothing short of extraordinary in the role.”