10 Great Debut Performances by Non-Actors

We’ve been looking forward to Friday for a while here at Flavorwire: it’s release day for Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s uncommonly smart, disarmingly taut, ridiculously entertaining action/spy picture, an unexpectedly frisky exception to the rule that January releases are generally terrible. The reason for its creation — and a big part of its success — is the leading performance of MMA fighter Gina Carano (more on her later). Though she had a minor role in one previous film, Gina’s terrific starring turn got us thinking about other non-actors who made a big splash in their debuts; after the jump, we’ve collected ten of them for your perusal.

Gina Carano, Haywire

Director Steven Soderbergh says he was just sitting around his house, contemplating the hole that opened up in his schedule after he was fired from Moneyball, when he started watching Gina Carano’s mixed martial arts bouts and became captivated by her presence and physicality. So he decided to build a movie around her, and good for him. She’s not an actor by trade, and some of her line readings are, it must be noted, a little flat. But she’s got cool charisma down pat, and does she ever bring it in those action scenes. Soderbergh plays most of them without music, fast cuts, or handheld camera; instead, he goes with long takes and wide shots that really let us see what Carano can do, and plays the scenes in a near-silence that borders on reverential. This isn’t a movie star playing at a skill — this is an athlete, and the filmmaker takes what she does seriously. Soderbergh is using her much as he used adult star Sasha Grey in 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience; he’s capturing an essence, of Sex with Grey, of Power with Carano. She’s not indestructible — she bruises, she struggles, she takes the occasional nasty spill. But she is a badass, and we don’t question, for a second, her ability to do every single spectacular thing she does here.

Debbie Doebrainer, Bubble

Soderbergh has shown an interest in working with non-actors for some time now; he used real politicos in Traffic, consultants on his “inside Washington” HBO show K Street, and Peking Acrobats member Shaobo Qin in the Ocean’s films. But his most intriguing experiment in directing non-professionals was 2006’s Bubble. The improvised film (Soderbergh and the cast worked from an outline by Full Frontal screenwriter Coleman Hough) was shot in Parkersburg, West Virginia and Belpre, Ohio, and the filmmaker cast the film entirely with locals, most of whom had no acting experience at all. The director found his leading lady, Debbie Doebrainer, in the least auspicious of places: working the drive-through at the Parkersburg KFC. But her unpolished performance taps into something real and heartbreaking; as an unhappy middle-aged woman who sees her only real friend being seduced by the new girl in town, Doebrainer’s work is subtle, restrained, and surprisingly effective.

Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives

Canadian-American Russell was one of many men compelled to serve his country after the attack on Pearl Harbor; he enlisted in the Army the very next day, and served three years, working his way up to instructor. But in 1944, while making a training film, an explosive he was handling detonated unexpectedly, and Russell lost both hands. He was given two hooks to replace them, and returned to the States, attending Boston University as a full-time student and appearing in an Army film about rehabilitation for veterans. Hollywood director William Wyler saw that film while he was casting The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama about the difficulties facing servicemen returning home after WWII. The character of Homer Parish lost both hands during the war, and Wyler was so taken with Russell that he decided to cast the non-actor in the role. His work in the film is astonishing — so much so, in fact, that he became the only actor to receive two Oscars for the same performance. Certain that he would not win the award for Best Supporting Actor that he’d been nominated for (since a non-actor had never won an acting award before), the Academy gave Russell an Honorary Oscar “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” But later in the night, Russell won the Supporting Actor Oscar.

Dr. Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields

It took nearly 40 years for another non-actor to win the Academy Award. The Killing Fields was director Roland Joffé’s look at the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, as told by two journalists, American Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian Dith Pran. For Schanberg, Joffé used Sam Waterston — not yet Jack McCoy-level famous, but still a known quantity with plenty of TV and movie credits. For Pran, though, he went with Cambodian doctor Haing S. Ngor, whom Joffé’s casting director had met at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles. A survivor of the regime who spent four years in a Cambodian labor camp before fleeing to Thailand, Ngor had never acted before, but his smashing performance won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He appeared in several more films (including Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth and Bruce Joel Rubin’s My Life) before he was murdered in Los Angeles in 1996.

Dr. Ken Jeong, Knocked Up

Ngor isn’t the only doctor to make the leap to the silver screen, though Ken Jeong had been moonlighting as a comedian for several years (and had made numerous TV appearances) before making his film debut in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up — playing, no surprise, a doctor. That scene-stealing turn led to appearances in Pineapple Express, Role Models, and the Hangover films, as well as a regular role on Community. But Jeong is taking nothing for granted; he renewed his license to practice medicine in June 2010.

Vinnie Jones, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Jones was one of the world’s most notoriously rough-and-tumble footballers, playing for Chelsea, Leeds United, and the Welsh national team, and acquiring a reputation as a particularly hard case (a notorious 1987 photograph captured him grabbing an opposing player by the testicles). Director Guy Ritchie was impressed by Jones’s impressive physicality and tough-guy demeanor, so he cast the footballer in his feature debut, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, as “Big Chris,” a shotgun-toting debt collector who is not to be trifled with. Ritchie brought Jones back for his follow-up film, Snatch, and Jones — who had by then retired from sports — subsequently appeared in dozens of films, including Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish, Mean Machine, and X-Men: The Last Stand.

Alex Shaffer, Win Win

To play Kyle, a kicked-around kid who turns out to be a champion high-school wrestler, Win Win director Tom McCarthy specifically looked for someone who could both act and wrestle out of a desire to avoid excessive fakery in the film’s matches. Shaffer had won the 2010 New Jersey State Wrestling Championship as a high school sophomore, so he nabbed the role in spite of his lack of acting experience. Luckily, he turned out to be a wry young actor with a marvelously dry way with a line. In the film, Shaffer and McCarthy slowly and deliberately lets us in; we don’t know who the hell this kid is, what his story is, and it has to be coaxed out of him (and the script). A more seasoned actor might have been afraid to underplay the role as masterfully as Shaffer does; he gives the character a rich inner life (presumably similar to his own) and lets us discover it.

Sean Combs, Made

Say what you will about him as a musician (and, for this writer anyway, that’s not much), Combs has consistently impressed as an actor — we wish he’d quit his day job and do more film work (or stage; he anchored the acclaimed 2004 Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun). His brief but powerful supporting work in Monster’s Ball was gut-wrenching; his comic turn in Get Him to the Greek was a jazzy treat. He impressed in his film debut, as well, playing tough-guy Ruiz in Jon Favreau’s 2001 film Made. Though it’s basically a comedy, Combs resists the urge to play for laughs; he gives Ruiz an utterly convincing sense of danger and menace.

Dolly Parton, 9 to 5

Miss Dolly was known only as a country singer — and the owner of one of America’s most famous bustlines — when director Colin Higgins cast her against screen heavyweights Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in the 1980 workplace comedy 9 to 5. But Parton ended up stealing the show — and the lion’s share of the praise in the film’s reviews. She is, Roger Ebert wrote, “on the basis of this one film, a natural-born movie star, a performer who holds our attention so easily that it’s hard to believe it’s her first film… she contains so much energy, so much life and unstudied natural exuberance that watching her do anything in this movie is a pleasure.” Parton continued to supplement her recordings with movie work, appearing in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Steel Magnolias, and this year’s Joyful Noise, among others.

Michael J. Smith, Ballast

Smith is an actor you may very well not have heard of, in a film that may also be unfamiliar to you, but it’s worth seeking out; a deliberately paced tone poem, quietly powerful, it is the story of a how the suicide of a young Mississippi man shakes up the lives of three other people. One of them is Lawrence, his twin brother, played by Smith, who (like the other two leads) was a non-actor cast by director Lance Hammer from the local folks near his Mississippi Delta location. It’s a heartbreakingly honest piece of work, with Smith creating a lumbering bear of a man who has literally lost his other half. Ballast is Smith’s only film to date, which is about all the proof we need of the film industry’s inability to recognize a good thing when they see it.