This year saw plenty of memorable performances from some of the Texan actors we know best: The ever-versatile Woody Harrelson going for broke as a comic-book supervillain. Jesse Plemons doing typically subtle work in The Power of the Dog (and totally hamming it up in Jungle Cruise). Matthew McConaughey pretending like he was gonna run for governor. But 2021 was also a year of breakout roles for local talent, including some up-and-coming actors in their first major roles, veterans getting a long-overdue spotlight, and one of the world’s biggest pop stars adding comedy to her considerable portfolio. Here are ten Texans who made film and TV their own this year.
Selena Gomez, Only Murders in the Building
When Hulu first announced that Only Murders in the Building would feature the comedy team of Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, it sounded a bit odd—like a joke BoJack Horseman would have made about studios shamelessly pandering to millennials. Considering that Gomez hasn’t exactly been known for her acting in nearly a decade, expectations probably couldn’t have been lower. But the Grand Prairie native doesn’t just acquit herself in the true-crime satire. Her Mabel becomes the show’s mysterious, melancholy heart; it’s easy to see why Short’s and Martin’s characters are so smitten with her, forging a friendship that is as protective as it is playful. Gomez shows such formidable comic spark against these two seasoned partners, they’d probably be fine swapping her for Chevy Chase in a Three Amigos sequel. In the meantime, there’s another season of Only Murders on the way.
Mckenna Grace, Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Grapevine’s Mckenna Grace is only fifteen, but she already has a résumé that most actors could retire on. After a long run playing the younger versions of main characters in movies like I, Tonya and Captain Marvel, as well as this year’s Malignant, Grace finally stands on her own in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Yes, her character, Phoebe, may be related to Egon (played by the late Harold Ramis), and she shares some of his aloof mannerisms. But Grace makes Phoebe feel like a true original: She’s unapologetically smart and comfortable with her social awkwardness in a way that seems destined to inspire the next generation of Ghostbusters fans. (Proving herself to be a multiple threat, Grace even wrote and performed a song on the film’s soundtrack. Did Bill Murray ever do that? No, he did not.) In a year that also saw her nab an Emmy nomination for The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s clear that Grace is just getting started.
Jonathan Majors, The Harder They Fall
When Jonathan Majors hosted Saturday Night Live this year, he spent his monologue wondering aloud at how he’d come so far, so fast. The rise of the Dallas-bred star from small indies to the Marvel universe has indeed been remarkably swift, a leap embodied by Majors’s lead role in Netflix’s The Harder They Fall. Jeymes Samuel’s revisionist Western boasts a lot of big, popular names—Idris Elba, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield—but they all revolve around Majors as the Texas Panhandle legend Nat Love. Majors provides a necessary, grounding center amid so much stylized spectacle and powder-burn flash, playing Love as a swaggering gunslinger who’s also charmingly understated in all the ways the movie feels over the top. It’s a true leading-man performance from a guy who seems to have been destined for it—so much so that the cancellation of Majors’s HBO series, Lovecraft Country, over the summer already feels like a minor footnote.
Natalie Zea, La Brea
The Monahans-bred clutch performer Natalie Zea has spent most of her career sidelined in the “Underwritten Wife Character on an Otherwise Brilliant TV Show” club, as she once put it, often playing the neglected, imperiled love interest on series such as Justified, The Following, and The Shield. She’s been reliably great across the board, but she’s long deserved a show where she, not some overworked lawman, is the hero. Zea finally got her chance this year with NBC’s La Brea, a labyrinthine, borderline-ludicrous sci-fi drama about Los Angelenos who fall through a massive crater and find themselves marooned in a prehistoric wilderness. La Brea is goofy as hell (and knows it), but it can also be loopy fun—as evidenced by the fact that NBC already gave it a second season. Plus, the show has an ace-in-the-sinkhole in Zea, who’s allowed to be dynamic and funny in a role that, for once, doesn’t revolve around her romantic life. That’s La Brea’s best twist.
William Jackson Harper, Love Life
In season two of HBO’s anthology series Love Life, Dallas native William Jackson Harper has become that rarity of rarities: a Black male romantic lead. Harper’s lovelorn book editor, Marcus Watkins, is in many ways the chaotic opposite of Chidi Anagonye, Harper’s breakout role on NBC’s The Good Place. Marcus is inclined toward messy hookups and impulsive, world-upending decisions, in a way that would leave the ever-stressed Chidi riddled with stomach ulcers. Yet Marcus is just as lovable and tender; he aptly describes himself in one episode as “a complicated softie,” which is proving to be Harper’s niche. Harper, who also serves as an executive producer on Love Life, imbues his character with uncommon sympathy, making Marcus seem innately charming—even as he reminds us just how frustrating dating (or being) a man like Marcus can be.
Kendrick Sampson, Insecure
Insecure’s Issa (Issa Rae) has been with lots of guys across the HBO comedy’s five seasons, but few of her relationships have been as confounding, yet ultimately curative, as the one she’s shared with Nathan, played by Houston actor Kendrick Sampson. Nathan’s the kind of soft-spoken, down-to-earth dude that Issa truly needs in her life, but his Southern-gentleman charms—like Sampson, Nathan hails from Houston—are often complicated by Nathan’s struggles with bipolar disorder. Playing that kind of character without reducing it to Very Special Episode mawkishness is a tricky line to walk for any actor, and it’s doubly complicated for Insecure, considering that mental health, as Sampson himself has said, continues to be such a third-rail subject for people of color (and Black men especially). But Sampson plays Nathan with just the right amount of vulnerability, while also making him seem like a genuinely fun guy. It’s a testament to Sampson that Insecure fans are now, in the show’s final season, fully invested in seeing whether Nathan finds happiness—with or without Issa.
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Girls5eva
We already knew Renée Elise Goldsberry could sing. She proved as much with Hamilton (for which she won a Tony for playing Angelica Schuyler), not to mention several other Broadway roles and a couple of albums. But until Peacock’s Girls5eva, who knew the Houston star had such a knack for screwball comedy? As Wickie, the self-styled “fierce one” in Girls5eva’s nineties pop group, Goldsberry swans about like she’s Beyoncé, living her life like it’s one showstopping, melismatic vocal run. Wickie is also a delusional narcissist: she acts like a spoiled diva, but she can barely hold down a job shooting geese at the airport. Yet Goldsberry so acutely taps into Wickie’s desperation, you can’t help but cheer her on when she gets a second chance at stardom. Goldsberry also throws herself into the show’s biggest, broadest physical gags—like scooting up an escalator on her behind, or starring in a musical based on Jim Carrey’s The Mask—with a fearlessness that affirms she should have always been doing this too.
Tig Notaro, Army of the Dead
Spring-raised comedian Tig Notaro landed her role in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead under some exceptionally difficult circumstances: after Chris D’Elia was accused by multiple women of predatory behavior, Snyder was forced to replace him in the already-finished film at incredible cost (“a few million,” as Snyder told Vanity Fair) and with awkward logistics that were further complicated by COVID-19. Still, it ended up being worth it. It’s true that Notaro never quite slots into the Netflix zombie thriller as seamlessly as you’d hope; there’s some “subtle uncanny valley-type stuff,” as The Wrap notes, if you look at it too closely. Still, Notaro’s performance excuses the occasional cardboard-cutout flatness, giving her helicopter pilot character, Peters, a welcome shade of Notaro’s own deadpan wit that balances all the brain-splattering shenanigans around her. Knowing that Notaro filmed the entire thing alone against a green screen—she’s never even met her costars, as she told Stephen Colbert—makes it all the more remarkable.
Owen Wilson, Loki
Okay, so Owen Wilson is one of those established, old-guard movie stars I mentioned up top. He’s so reliably great that he should have long ago lost any ability to wow us. Wilson also spent 2021 doing some of his most forgettable work (the hokey sci-fi romance Bliss), as well as more or less coasting in another Wes Anderson film. But this year, Wilson’s first time hosting Saturday Night Live—and especially his role in the Disney+ series Loki—showed us that he can still surprise. Wilson’s Loki character, Mobius, is quintessential Wilson: laconic, bemused, and just slightly above the fray, which makes him a perfect foil for Tom Hiddleston’s blustering, self-important God of Mischief. As with everything else Wilson does, there’s a hint of sadness, too—the weight of a world that happens to be all possible worlds stretching infinitely through time, all of it resting on Wilson’s wan, mustached smile. It’s a subtle performance that made us look at both the Marvel universe and Owen Wilson with a fresh perspective, and this year, who couldn’t have used a little more of that?
Catherine Cohen, What We Do in the Shadows
Houston native Catherine Cohen makes comedy for the age of social media–fueled self-promotion. In her popular New York cabaret show, she portrays herself as shamelessly egotistical, mocking her desperate need to overshare through tunes like “Look at Me.” (“Boys never wanted to kiss me,” Cohen sings. “So I need all of you to look at me.”) Her scene-stealing role in season three of FX’s What We Do in the Shadows takes that meta pushiness to mythical extremes: playing the siren Sheila, a half woman, half chicken who’s fully in love with herself, Cohen essentially just performs her act—all karaoke-diva singing and kittenish, baby-doll coos—while occasionally pausing to hork down some poor guy’s severed limb. It’s one of the most grotesquely funny things the show has ever done. And along with Cohen’s supporting roles in films such as Netflix’s Dating & New York and the Disney+ sequel Home Sweet Home Alone, it guaranteed that this year has seen the most people looking at her yet.