A quick search for “action stars” online draws up a fairly predictable list of names — almost all male, white and towards the upper end of the age spectrum. Most noticeably, all have been doing their action thing for many, many years. Among the Arnold Schwarzeneggers, Sylvester Stallones, Tom Cruises, Jason Stathams, Jackie Chans, Liam Neesons and Gerard Butlers, there are a couple of “younger” faces towards the end of the lineup, including Chris Hemsworth and Henry Cavill, but what becomes immediately apparent is that this mostly still-busy assortment of machine gun-toting, baddie-dispatching and film-fronting heroes is looking rather … fatigued.
Fresh blood is needed to, well, shed some fresh blood.
And it’s something that the industry appears to agree with. Fred Kogel of German film and TV group Leonine (which distributes both the Expendables and John Wick franchises), recently noted that most of today’s action stars were the same ones he saw on the big screen in the 1980s, calling for the emergence of a new generation. “I think it’s on us to build up new stars again, with the physicality, with the looks and with the sympathetic, great-acting factor,” he said.
Others concur. “We need stars who can fill some of these iconic roles that Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson and other action heroes before have done, because we don’t have enough,” says Jeffrey Greenstein of genre powerhouse Millennium, which has worked with practically every bicep-busting actor in the book (and, historically, gave many their first break).
But who are the new generation that can pick up the bloody baton and carry on the legacy left by the greats?
The Hollywood Reporter has consulted action aficionados, directors, producers and writers to draw up a list of names. From rising talent who have already displayed some decent action chops and are ready to move to the next level, established actors who may be primed to leap into the ass-kicking world, or older faces who could make a later-in-life Neeson-style career pivot, here — in alphabetical order — are 25 potential new action stars.
Despite starting out playing the baddest of them all (the Lord of the Rings himself, Sauron, in Peter Jackson’s trilogy), New Zealander Baker, 47, has spent the last two decades plying his trade as a stuntman and bit part actor on various Hollywood blockbusters, appearing as a henchman in the likes of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Equaliser, Jungle Cruise and The Mandalorian. Thanks to David Fincher, he’s finally getting his chance to shine with a major, meaty role as key baddie The Brute in assassin thriller The Killer (and a particularly vicious extended fight sequence with Michael Fassbender). “You may not know the name, but you definitely know the face,” says Timon Singh, author of Born to Be Bad: Talking to the Greatest Villains in Action Cinema.
Netflix’s The Night Agent may have been a slick yet somewhat paint-by-numbers spy thriller, but it proved to be incredibly bingeable, amassing the streamer’s third highest audience for a new series in its first four days when it launched in March 2023. It also established its lead Basso, 28, who played a lowly FBI agent who gets caught up in a major conspiracy at the highest levels of the U.S. government (because of course), as an action star in the making. “I think, with the right movie, I would certainly cast him,” says one established action producer.
Since breaking out in Atlanta, Beetz has made a name for herself as someone boasting a significant amount of range, with significant roles in blockbusters such as Joker and Deadpool 2 alongside quieter art house fare. She’s had some fights along the way, most notably in The Harder They Fall and Bullet Train (in which she went toe-to-toe with Brad Pitt as the deadly assassin The Hornet) but it feels like the time is now right for Beetz, 32, to front an action movie herself.
Millie Bobby Brown
When Stranger Things finally comes to and end after its fifth season, there’ll be much interest in what the kids of Hawkins do next, especially its biggest star. Brown, 19, has already shown she can front a franchise with both Godzilla and Enola Holmes, but Netflix’s upcoming adventure Damsel — in which she plays a fearless, sword-wielding, dragon-battling princess — could well push her deeper into action territories.
Ana de Armas
For all the status of being a Bond girl, Ana De Armas wasn’t in No Time To Die for long. But as Cuban spy Paloma she had the film’s best action scenes — a ferocious few minutes spent athletically taking down henchman and showing off a physicality not seen from the actress before (and all achieved while in high heels and a cocktail dress). Her action stock is set to take a giant leap into leading lady status, with John Wick spin-off Ballerina, in which she’ll play a young assassin and battle Keanu Reeves’ Baba Yaga himself. Having previously claiming Ballerina would be final action film, Armas, 35, has now corrected herself, saying she’d do more “if the project is right.” Hopefully the right projects keep coming her way.
Dorisu marked himself out as the most exciting new British action star in years with the very first episode of Gangs of London, and a scene in which his undercover cop Elliot Finch takes out an entire pub’s worth of bruisers using fists, feet, pint glasses, ashtrays and a solitary playing dart. As per strict U.K. rules, bookmakers quickly tipped him for the James Bond role, with his 007 odds dropping again with second season of the blood-soaked crime drama (season three is now in production). Although Dorisu, 32, has flexed his leading man pecs with style across other genres, including horror (His House) and period drama (Mr. Malcolm’s List), he’s shown that has what it takes to deal with whatever type of action is thrown his way.
Maxwell Jacob Friedman
Dwayne Johnson, John Cena and Dave Bautista have helped mark out a very well-trodden and star-studded path from wrestling ring to action film set. At 27, Friedman — better known MJF, the All Elite Wrestling champion whose seemingly naturally villainous and always entertaining ringside persona has seen him become a firm fan favorite as the so-called “People’s Scumbag” — could well be the next to make the journey and will soon be seen opposite Zac Efron in A24’s upcoming wrestling drama The Iron Claw.
Marvel series Iron Fist and The Defenders may not have made much of a mark on the superhero landscape, but they did single out newcomer Henwick as an ass-whooping badass. The Brit, 31, who previously had roles in Game of Thrones and Star Wars (she originally auditioned for Rey), was later labeled by many as the best thing about The Matrix Resurrections and last year appeared in both The Grey Man (sadly stuck in a control room watching the action unfold) and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (as Kate Hudson’s assistant). Surely it can’t be too long before that major break-out turning her into a household name arrives.
Lee Chang-dong’s Cannes 2018-bowing Korean mystery Burning marked Jong-seo out for greatness (and from not just her first film, but first audition), selected by The Hollywood Reporter as as one of its international breakout talents of the year. The sooths weren’t wrong, with the rising star, 29, soon adding psychological thriller The Call and the Korean version of Money Heist to her resume, alongside her first English-language film, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. But it was her titular role in Netflix’s frenetic and bloody 2023 action-thriller Ballerina as a revenge-seeking former VIP bodyguard who sets out to kill a notorious sex trafficker that underlined her action credentials, her performance as a “cold-as-ice angel of vengeance” hailed by critics and likened to a “female version of John Wick” (interestingly, Ballerina is also the name of the Ana de Armas-fronted John Wick spin-off).
Epic martial arts period series Warrior (which began life on Cinemax and shifted to Max for season 3) catapulted Brit Andrew Koji, 35, from film stunt double to TV action star, and someone with the swagger and charm to match his exceptional fighting prowess. He’s since landed decent roles in Snake Eyes and Bullet Train, and will appear in upcoming action comedy Boy Kills World. “But it’s clear he need to be put front and centre of his own action blockbuster,” says Singh. “Here’s hoping Chad Stahelski is taking notes for his upcoming Ghost of Tsushima adaptation.”
Ang Lee didn’t have to look very far to cast the most important role in his upcoming Bruce Lee biopic, turning to his son Mason Lee, 33, for what could and should be a career-defining turn as the martial arts master. Although the news wasn’t formally announced until late 2022, it seems the young Lee — whose credits including The Hangover Part II, Lucy, his dad’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Chinese mystery fantasy Legend of Demon Cat — had known about it for some time, having reportedly spent the last five years undergoing extensive training to master Lee’s signature style. There may be screams of nepotism, but Mason happens to be “the spitting image” of Bruce Lee, according to producer Steven Weintraub in a recent interview.
French actor and stuntman Lenoir spent over a decade playing small parts across film and TV — including Pierre Morel’s Taken (as a security guard) — until he was given a chance to showcase his own unique set of leading man skills with 2015 hit French Blood. The grounded energy Lenoir, 42, brought as a former neo-Nazi and skinhead he’s since taken with aplomb to the growing new wave of French action cinema, including Netflix’s acclaimed Fast-and-Furious-esque franchise Lost Bullet (a third instalment is incoming), and the streamer’s newly released AKA in which he plays a special-ops agent faced with that old classic, his most dangerous assignment yet.
The reboot of 1980s swords and sorcery epic Red Sonja has a been almost two decades in the making, with numerous directors and actors coming and going as it languished in ongoing development hell. A full 41 years after the Brigette Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring original, 2024 will finally see the film hit screens, with Italian American actress and model Lutz, 31, front and center of what is hoped to spark a new fantasy franchise. After a series of smaller film parts — including recent Netflix hit Reptile — playing the flame-haired comic book superheroine should propel the actress, who gained 13 pounds of muscle for the role, into an instant action star.
Having honed his martial arts skills on Cobra Kai, which he first appeared in aged just 16 as a budding karate champ, Maridueña, now 22, entered the superhero world earlier this year with Blue Beetle. While the film may have broken new ground in terms of Latino representation and landed some solid reviews, its box office was far less impressive, only adding to the woes of the DC Extended Universe. That said, it did earmark its fresh-faced star out as a rising action hero who’s more than capable of leading his own major film.
Mazepa gave U.S. audiences — and a rather shocked-looking Simon Cowell — a taste of her mind-bending contortion and acrobatic abilities on America’s Got Talent in 2019. The Ukrainian model and dancer, 26, may have only reached the quarter-finals of the talent show, but her flexibility caught the eye of horror maestro James Wan, who hired her to do the physical performances of his terrifying lead villain Gabriel in 2002’s Malignant. Sam Raimi’s The Unholy would follow and then Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City. But it’s John Wick TV spin-off The Continental — and a finale in which her bowl cut haired Gretel is finally unleashed in a ridiculous extended fight scene (over-the-head scorpion kicks, anyone?) — that should get the tongues of action casting directors wagging.
The former UFC champion, 35, will make his film debut alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Doug Limon’s “reimagining” of 80s action classic Road House. While the film could help kick-start a whole new post-ring career for the Irishman, just like fellow ex-MMA stars Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Randy Couture, the interest in whether McGregor can act or not may well be overshadowed by those wanting to see just how ripped Gyllenhaal has gotten for the role.
Dan Trachtenberg’s Predator prequel Prey, which landed on Hulu in late 2022, was widely praised for reinventing the flagging franchise, with many critics saying it was best since the Arnie-fronted first. At the center of it all was Midthunder, 26, playing a young Native American woman who not only eludes bears and dispatches trappers but proves that you don’t have to be a hulking great Austrian (or even have a machine gun) to take on the galaxy’s deadliest hunter. Midthunder, 26, has since lined up parts in Nicolas Cage’s much-hyped Dream Scenario and the upcoming live-action TV adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it would be a cinematic travesty if she wasn’t given another lead role in a major action movie.
Ngo was already a martial arts movie star in her native Vietnam before she began landing small parts in major Hollywood titles, first in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and later Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard and, most recently, Gareth Edwards’ The Creator. In the upcoming The Old Guard 2, her role as immortal warrior Quynh (thought to be dead in the first outing, only to appear in the final scene) is set to take center stage, potentially laying the ground for bigger things for the 44-year-old. But for a true showcase of Ngo’s action skills, look no further than 2019’s Furie, in which she plays an ex-gangster who takes on an endless array of thugs to rescue her kidnapped daughter. The film became the highest grossing domestic film of all time in Vietnam, and was followed by 2022 sequel Furies, in which she leads an all-female vigilante group (and which she directed herself).
Hollywood’s latest heartthrob soared into the big league thanks to Top Gun Maverick and has been landed plum roles since, including steamy rom-com Anyone But You (alongside Sydney Sweeney) and Richard Linklater’s darkly comic thriller Hit Man, playing a straight-laced teacher who becomes an undercover cop. While the film — which scored raved reviews in Venice and was bought by Netflix for $20 million — may not have been the shoot-em-up that the title suggested, it certainly showcased the 35-year-old’s leading man capabilities, with many now suggesting he has the physique and charisma to make the move to action man status. He has experience in that arena, of course, having played a gun-toting mercenary in The Expendables 3.
Several producers have pointed to Quaid, 31, as a potential action hero in the making. The son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid has an impressive and growing list of credits to his name since his debut appearance in The Hunger Games, including Logan Lucky, Scream, Oppenheimer and one of the main roles in Amazon’s superhero series The Boys. But with recently announced project Novocaine — a high-octane thriller in which he plays an introvert with a genetic disorder than makes him impervious to pain — he appears to have what could be his very own superhero-ish action franchise.
Despite already having an impressive array of genres under her belt, making her one of the most in-demand talents around, Taylor-Joy, 27, hasn’t seen a great deal of action (and she let Alexander Skarsgard do much of the bloodletting in The Northman). But that’s all set to change with her lead role in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max prequel Furiosa (rumoured to be hitting Cannes next year). For anyone wondering how Charlize Theron became such a one-armed badass in Fury Road, this should explains things.
Liam Neeson was 54 when he made Taken, a film that transformed the Oscar-nominated Schindler’s List star into an unexpected action hero (a title he’s not letting go of almost 20 years on). Finnish actor Tommila, 64, could be making an even later career shift. His lead role in the absurdly ultraviolent WWII thriller Sisu as a battered yet seemingly immortal one-man death squad who gruesomely dispatches every Nazi in his path was praised by action enthusiasts and likened to both Rambo and John Wick, neither of which were remotely as bloody.
Given the number of Skarsgards now doing their thing on screen, it was inevitable that one would end up an action star. For a while it looked like Alexander would be the anointed muscular mo-fo, but younger brother Bill, 33, has emerged to claim the bloodied crown thanks to roles in It (as Pennywise the clown) and John Wick 4 (aristocratic antagonist the Marquis). Turning the dial up further, Skarsgard — now newly shredded — leads upcoming action-comedy Boys Kills World as a mute assassin, although all eyes will be on what he does as the original avenging angel in The Crow reboot, due out next year and a film that could cement legendary action status.
Every list has to have a comedy entry (or does it?). Sure, Squibb isn’t likely to be fronting a John Wick-style guns-and-fists-a-blazin’ action thriller anytime soon. But the 93-year-old does have her long-overdue lead role in upcoming action-comedy Thelma — billed as “Nebraska meets Mission: Impossible” — and playing a grandmother who gets duped by a phone scammer and sets out on a quest to reclaim what was stolen from her. According to one source, Squibb “kicks ass… metaphorically” on her motorized scooter. Maybe the Fast & Furious franchise beckons?
Having shot somewhat dramatically onto the scene thanks to Euphoria and The White Lotus, Sweeney, 26, has been topping casting directors most-wanted lists for the last couple of years, lining up numerous projects. While there hasn’t been a brush with action as yet, she is playing Julie Carpenter in Marvel’s Madame Webb (comic book fans will know that Carpenter became the second Spider-Woman) so could become a key part of Sony’s Spidey universe expansion plans. And on the distant horizon is the Barbarella remake.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter