50 Great Pre-Fame Performances by Famous Actors

Today, the Criterion Collection is releasing a double bill of the mid-‘60s Westerns The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind, a treat not only for fans of revisionist Westerns and director Monte Hellman, but also for those who admire Jack Nicholson, here seen in two terrific performances that predate his breakthrough in Easy Rider. There’s a specific kind of pleasure in revisiting the early work of actors who would later become famous — not the roles that made them stars, but their earlier, quieter gigs, in which we glimpse an actor just trying to do good work, yet already exhibiting the spark that would mark them for fame. Here are a few of our favorites.

Amy Adams in Drop Dead Gorgeous

Amy Adams in Drop Dead Gorgeous

Adams exhibits her trademark spunk and good humor right off the bat in this, her very first film, playing a spirited beauty pageant contestant who’s hiding a little something from the festival judges (and her boyfriend).

Alec Baldwin in Talk Radio

Alec Baldwin in Talk Radio

Baldwin was still making the transition from soap opera to movie star, and hadn’t yet made his way to The Hunt for Red October, when he co-starred in Oliver Stone’s 1988 adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s stage play. As Dan, the skittish station manager, Baldwin perfectly embodies the kind of corporate yuppie scumbag that he would later give a more sinister edge in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Angela Bassett in Boyz N The Hood

Angela Bassett in Boyz n the Hood

Bassett was still three years away from moving to above-the-title status with her electrifying turn in What’s Love Got to Do With It. She co-starred in that film with Laurence Fishburne, who also played her husband in John Singleton’s influential 1991 coming-of-age movie. Singleton’s never been much for strong female characters, and the writing of Reva Styles (our protagonist’s mother) is thin at best. But Bassett invests the character with the kind of credibility and dignity that would become her trademark.

Kristen Bell in Spartan

Kristen Bell in Spartan

David Mamet’s 2004 thriller is one of the great underrated action movies of the era, moving easily from run-of-the-mill political kidnapping picture into something smarter, chattier, and more complex. The focus of the film is the president’s daughter, played by a then-unknown Bell — whose Veronica Mars would debut the following fall. It’s a tough assignment for such a young actor, particularly a lengthy, centerpiece scene in which she faces off with Val Kilmer, doing Mamet’s trademark rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, and she crushes it.

Halle Berry in Jungle Fever

Halle Berry in Jungle Fever

Berry made her screen debut in Spike Lee’s 1991 interracial romance/drug drama — not that you’d ever recognize the actress, who plays the crack addict love interest of an equally strung-out Samuel L. Jackson. But this isn’t a surface de-glamming à la Monster’s Ball; she disappears into the role, her oft-noted beauty nowhere to be found in this portrait of a woman who’s hit absolute rock bottom.

Jack Black in Jesus’ Son

Jack Black in Jesus’ Son

Black seemed to come out of nowhere with his scene-stealing turn in High Fidelity, but he’d been quietly carving out a niche as a character actor for nearly a decade. The most notable of those pre-Barry roles came a year earlier, in Alison Maclean’s adaptation of Denis Johnson’s book, playing an orderly who becomes a buddy and partner in crime to protagonist Billy Crudup. Best scene: “That was the worst fair I’ve been to. Where were the rides?”

Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love

Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love

Blunt was a mostly unknown actor whose credits were primarily in the television realm when she was cast in the 2004 adaptation of Helen Cross’ novel. The impact was immediate: The New York Times’ A.O. Scott praised her “seductive poise,” and two years later, she appeared in the breakthrough role of Emily in The Devil Wears Prada.

Marlon Brando in The Men

Marlon Brando in The Men

Brando had a relatively easy climb to movie superstardom — he became an icon with the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, in the role he’d originated on Broadway. But before that, he logged one other film appearance, in Fred Zinnemann’s 1950 film The Men, as an infantryman rendered paraplegic by a battle wound. Raved the New York Times: “Mr. Brando as the veteran who endures the most difficult time is so vividly real, dynamic and sensitive that his illusion is complete.”

Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire

Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire

Another future matinee idol, another stunning turn as a man in uniform. Damon — a year ahead of Good Will Hunting famously wrecked his body with a crash diet to play the before-and-after versions of a haunted Army medic, gone AWOL and addicted to drugs. It’s a soulful, harrowing turn that shows the lengths he’ll go to for a character (and was a transformation he’d reverse a decade or so later to play the pudgy protagonist of The Informant!).

Viola Davis in Out of Sight

Viola Davis in Out of Sight

Davis’ appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s Elmore Leonard adaptation is brief and not terribly consequential to the plot — she answers a door, talks briefly to Jennifer Lopez’s Marshall Karen Sisco, and calls for her brother. But in that brief scene, she puts across the character’s entire history and day-to-day misery, making it feel less like she’s wandered into Lopez’s movie than the other way around. (For her effort, and after a similarly small but memorable turn in Traffic, Soderbergh would cast her in a far more substantial role in his 2002 remake of Solaris.)

Robert De Niro in Greetings

Robert De Niro in Greetings

Moviegoers may have been surprised when Robert De Niro started turning up in comedies like Analyze This and Meet the Parents, but not cinephiles; in fact, he’d made his first impressions in several subversive comedies by writer/director Brian De Palma (who would also become better known for his serious efforts). As an urbanite voyeur conspiracy theorist in 1968’s Greetings and its 1970 sequel Hi, Mom!, De Niro exhibits ace comic timing while already displaying the intensity that would become his trademark.

Benicio Del Toro in Fearless

Benicio Del Toro in Fearless

Del Toro’s turn in The Usual Suspects was another of those seemingly out-of-nowhere thunderbolts, but he’d been grinding away for years, in pictures like Big Top Pee Wee, The Indian Runner, and Money for Nothing (which also features early spots by James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman). But the best of those early roles comes in Peter Weir’s grim, powerful, and moving 1993 film Fearless, where he plays the husband of Rosie Perez, who finds himself utterly helpless in the face of her crippling survivor’s guilt.

Zooey Deschanel in Almost Famous

Zooey Deschanel in Almost Famous

Actress and future filmmaker Sarah Polley was originally set to play Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s critically acclaimed, semi-autobiographical 2000 comedy/drama; when she dropped out, Kate Hudson took over the role and reaped its rewards for the better part of a decade. But there was another beneficiary of Polley’s exit: Deschanel, who took over the role that Hudson was originally to play. Playing the quintessential cool big sister, Deschanel is warm and wonderful, and her return late in the narrative is one of the picture’s emotional high points.

Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse Now

Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse Now

When cameras rolled on Francis Ford Coppola’s notoriously difficult production of his Vietnam War epic, Laurence Fishburne — then going by the less-formal “Larry” — was only 14 years old. He’d lied about his age to nab the role of 17-year-old “Clean,” but if anything, his baby-faced youth contributed to the performance, which Coppola and Fishburne engineered as a stand-in for all of the kids who found themselves serving their country before they could even vote in it. Fishburne is so young that it’s almost difficult to recognize the maturity and gravitas that would become part of his persona; it’s a different kind of performance, but a powerful one.

Morgan Freeman in Brubaker

Morgan Freeman in Brubaker

“Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” Pauline Kael famously asked in 1987. She asked it, provocatively, in the opening sentence of her review of Street Smart, the film that would ultimately land him an Oscar nomination and name recognition. But it was a question prompted for the critic by his stage and television appearances, and his role in this 1980 Robert Redford vehicle. “As a death-row prisoner who broke out of his hole and started to strangle another convict,” Kael wrote, “he gives the film a sudden charge that the moviemakers didn’t seem to know what to do with.” She noted that the actor “just shot out onto the screen” — and at this age, when he’s become our go-to source of wisdom and authority, it’s worth remembering that in early films like Brubaker and Street Smart, he had a scary intensity, an edge that time and bankability has sanded down.

James Gandolfini in True Romance

James Gandolfini in True Romance

Gandolfini’s “overnight success” as the star of The Sopranos was one a decade in the making; most savvy moviegoers had been watching Gandofini since his electrifying appearance in Tony’s Scott’s 1993 film True Romance, penned by Quentin Tarantino. A flop upon its initial release (it wouldn’t find its audience until after Tarantino’s subsequent success), it’s overflowing with terrific character actors, and Gandolofini’s disturbing scene — complete with a lengthy monologue about Texas clock tower shooter Charles Whitman — is one of its best. What’s more, it gives Gandolfini an early opportunity to try out both his “Tony Soprano voice” and the character’s distinctively complicated menace.

John Goodman in True Stories

John Goodman in True Stories

In 1988, John Goodman would shamble his way into America’s living rooms and become one of TV’s most beloved dads via Roseanne. Two years earlier, he’d ingratiated himself with art film fans, in a memorable turn leading the ensemble cast of David Byrne’s bizarre, funny, and wonderful True Stories. As Louis Fyne, who only wants to marry, Goodman had already perfected the teddy-bear charm and quiet pathos that made him one of our finest character actors.

Paul Giamatti in Donnie Brasco

Paul Giamatti in Donnie Brasco

In March of 1997, Giamatti got his first taste of screen immortality by appearing as “Pig Vomit,” the much-maligned station manager in Howard Stern’s Private Parts. But eagle-eyed viewers noted that just a month earlier, the skilled character actor made a brief but memorable appearance in Donnie Brasco, playing one of the FBI guys working with Johnny Depp’s title character. His manages to transcend the clichés of the surveillance nerd, while also playing beautifully off Depp in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, a detailed explanation of the gangster’s favorite all-purpose expression, “fuggedaboutit.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights

Not every great character actor gets to make the transition to leading man, but in the case of Hoffman, his talent was simply too great to be contained by supporting roles. One of his richest comes in the 1997 masterpiece by his frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson, who supplied him with the role of “Scotty,” the porn movie sound guy and hanger-on harboring a painful crush on Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). It’s a performance full of tiny, perfect moments, but none are as raw and heartbreaking as the New Year’s Eve confession, and the agonized self-flagellation that follows.

Terrence Howard in The Best Man

Terrence Howard in The Best Man

Howard had done a handful of bit roles and some undistinguished television work when Malcom D. Lee cast him in this sleeper hit from 1999. The role of Quentin is a bit of a cliché — everyone fills a type, and his is the misogynistic ladies’ man — but Howard invests him with an undeniable spark, and seems incapable of muttering (or, in some scenes, growling) a single inauthentic syllable.

Felicity Huffman in The Spanish Prisoner

Felicity Huffman in The Spanish Prisoner

Huffman was a founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company, alongside future husband William H. Macy and writer/director David Mamet, who cast her in her first role of note. She’s just plain fabulous in Mamet’s 1997 con drama, playing an FBI agent who, along with just about everybody else in the complicated tale, is up to more than it seems.

Samuel L. Jackson in Coming to America

Samuel L. Jackson in Coming to America

Jackson’s scene in this Eddie Murphy hit was among his first screen credits, and runs barely over a minute — yet proves how much impact you can make in a short period of time. As a holdup man trying to rob “McDowell’s,” Jackson’s primary purpose is to show the heroism of Murphy’s Prince Akeem. But he invests the role with such danger and fury that he stops the movie cold; you wanna know who the hell that crazy guy is. Luckily, we’d have plenty more opportunities to find out.

Gillian Jacobs in Choke

Gillian Jacobs in Choke

The role of “Cherry Daiquri,” the secretly wise stripper of Clark Gregg’s Palahniuk adaptation, could have easily been a cliché (or, even worse, a Mr. Skin blip). Instead, Jacobs’ razor-sharp comic timing turned it into the most memorable thing in the movie; watch, just as an example, not only the way she leans in and stage-whispers “It’s not my real name” after introducing herself to our heroes, but the perfect little beat she takes afterwards. This is an actor who can make just about any line funny — as anyone who’s seen Community can tell you.

Allison Janney in The Ice Storm

Allison Janney in The Ice Storm

Janney was two years from the riches of C.J. Cregg when she stepped into the role of Dot Halford, neighbor and would-be swinger in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel. In fact, she made something of a specialty of these suburban types — but she never repeated herself, investing each role with the intelligence and wit that are present in her best work.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World

Long before she was a sex bomb or an action star, Johansson was just a regular high school girl — albeit one with a dry wit and a drier delivery. As Rebecca, best friend of heroine Enid (Thora Birch), Johansson showed she wasn’t just another child actor growing up; she was becoming an actress of skill and precision, and her rhythms and relationship with Birch are still sharp.

Angelina Jolie in Playing God

Angelina Jolie in Playing God

These days, this 1997 crime drama is mostly remembered as Exhibit A in the case for why David Duchovny didn’t become a movie star. But it’s a surprisingly energetic little genre picture, and Angelina Jolie is absolute gangbusters in it, searing the screen with a femme fatale turn of smoldering intensity.

Anna Kendrick in Rocket Science

Anna Kendrick in Rocket Science

Stage actor and Camp co-star Kendrick is dynamite in this 2007 coming-of-age comedy/drama, crafting a rich portrait of a slightly fucked-up type-A personality who talks fast and thinks faster. Critics dismissed it as Wes Anderson Lite and audiences mostly stayed away, but one of the few who did see it was Jason Reitman, who subsequently wrote the role of Natalie Keener in Up in the Air with her in mind.

Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm

Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm

Before she was an Oscar winner, a box office attraction, or the wife (and then ex-wife) of Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman was just a hard-working Australian actress trying to get a break. Her Flirting was something of an art-house fave, but she started getting attention thanks to Phillip Noyce’s white-knuckle thriller from 1989. It’s a tightly constructed three-hander, with Kidman expertly engaging in physical and mental battle with a psychopath (Billy Zane) on the high seas.

Jude Law in Gattaca

Jude Law in Gattaca

With his Oscar-nominated big break in The Talented Mr. Ripley two years away, Law was still on the way up when he turned in the memorable supporting role of Jerome Morrow in Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi drama from 1997. And Law shines in the complicated role of the genetic donor to Vincent (Ethan Hawke), contributing the samples that allow him to go beyond his class in the DNA-obsessed future; he invests the character with a quiet tragedy and understated intelligence.

John Leguizamo in Carlito’s Way

John Leguizamo in Carlito’s Way

The opening credits to Brian De Palma’s 1993 crime drama insist that the film is “introducing” Leguizamo — odd, since he’d appeared in several big films previously (including De Palma’s own Casualties of War). But he makes a hell of an impression in the role of “Benny Blanco from the Bronx,” dazzlingly shifting from sycophantic hanger-on to dangerous crime climber.

Melissa Leo in 21 Grams

Melissa Leo in 21 Grams

Though she’d done several seasons on Homicide and countless other film and television roles, Melissa Leo didn’t really become a “name” actor until her Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter. Before that, she crafted plenty of memorable performances, chief among them her turn in Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s 21 Grams as Benicio Del Toro’s wife, a complicated figure who supports her husband while insisting he put aside his guilt and grief.

Mary Louise-Parker in Grand Canyon

Mary Louise-Parker in Grand Canyon

Parker was still on her way up when Lawrence Kasdan cast her in his 1991 ensemble comedy/drama — and not yet playing the kind of fierce, confident women that would become her stock-in-trade. Yet she brings real dimension, depth, and pathos to the potentially mousy role of Dee, the “other woman” to star Kevin Kline.

Jane Lynch in Best in Show

Jane Lynch in Best in Show

Glee made her a household name, but savvy comedy fans had been watching Jane Lynch since her delightful turn as a dog trainer in Christopher Guest’s uproarious 2000 comedy Best in Show — a performance that, with the help of game co-star and improvisation partner Jennifer Coolidge, is something of a case study in the humor of what is spelled out and what is left unsaid.

Frances McDormand in Blood Simple

Frances McDormand in Blood Simple

This crackerjack 1984 thriller didn’t just introduce the world to the clever moviemaking machinations of the brothers Coen; it also introduced us (and them) to the wonders of Frances McDormand. In her film debut, McDormand takes a film noir standby — the cuckolding wife — and anchors her with a reality and relatability that helps the film rise above mere genre homage.

Viggo Mortensen in Crimson Tide

Viggo Mortensen in Crimson Tide

There’s a moment in Tony Scott’s 1995 submarine thriller where Viggo Mortensen does… something. Maybe it’s a wink, maybe it’s a twitch, it’s just this little thing with his eye that recalibrates the entire scene, and makes you wonder exactly what he’s up to — “he” meaning both the actor and the character. It’s a great moment, the one that made this viewer sit up straight and ask myself, Who the hell is this guy?

Jack Nicholson in The Shooting

Jack Nicholson in The Shooting

Nicholson toiled away in B-movies, as both a writer and actor, for something like a decade before finally hitting pay dirt in Easy Rider. Some of those roles are embarrassing (see The Raven — Nicholson should not play the ingénue); some are fascinating, like his turn as gunman Billy Spear in Monte Hellman’s existential Western, which The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps notes “could just as readily as Easy Rider have served as his star-making role.”

Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park

Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park

The Godfather made him a star, but Al Pacino first tore up the screen with his deeply convincing turn as a New York junkie in Jerry Schatzberg’s harrowing 1971 portrait of addiction and desperation. Not yet the collection of tricks, tics, and affectations he would become, Pacino is stunning; he seems less like a formally trained actor than a street weirdo who wandered into the frame.

Ellen Page in Hard Candy

Ellen Page in Hard Candy

Page is mesmerizing in a remarkable two-part performance: first she seems like a flirtatious bad girl willfully getting in over her head, before revealing herself as something much more complicated (and, perhaps, nefarious). Throughout, there’s never a moment’s doubt that she’s in total control — the character of the situation, and the actor of the character.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Flesh and Bone

Gwyneth Paltrow in Flesh and Bone

Before she was an Oscar winner (and, later, a cultural punch line), Paltrow was turning in wildly divergent performances in everything from Seven to Emma. But her most interesting pre-fame performance comes in Flesh and Bone, Steve Kloves’ sadly overlooked follow-up to The Fabulous Baker Boys. Paltrow’s turn as a mysterious and deceptive young woman was rightfully singled out for particular praise; the New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote that the role was played “with startling aplomb by the scene-stealing Gwyneth Paltrow, who is Blythe Danner’s daughter and has her mother’s way of making a camera fall in love with her.”

Parker Posey in Kicking and Screaming

Parker Posey in Kicking and Screaming

While 1995’s Party Girl would help make Parker Posey the Indie It Girl of the mid-to-late ‘90s, her buoyant turn in Noah Baumbach’s debut picture that same year remains one of her most enjoyable. As Miami, the wise girlfriend who sees through the dopey boys at the movie’s center, she’s got a wonderful, off-handed way with Baumbach’s dialogue; she also uses a Sharpie and a notebook to create one of the best confession scenes in modern cinema.

Ving Rhames in Dave

Ving Rhames in Dave

In 1994, Rhames would use Quentin Tarantino’s distinctive dialogue and a carefully revealed visage to create one of the screen’s most iconic Big Boss characters in Pulp Fiction. But the year before, he’d turned in a quietly wonderful performance in Ivan Reitman’s political comedy Dave, playing the body man to the President (and the man’s subsequent stand-in). Throughout the film, Reitman uses Rhames’ stone face and molasses delivery to great comic effect, though his finest moment comes at the end, when he pinpoints the emotional truth of the character (and all of those who do his job).

Zoe Saldana in Center Stage

Zoe Saldana in Center Stage

The fact that Zoe Saldana made it out of the comically inept Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads with a career intact — much less going on to co-star in some of the highest-grossing movies of all time — is a bit of a miracle. But before even that film, she’d contributed an impressively nuanced performance in the ballet drama Center Stage, playing a gifted but bitter student who can’t break to the front of the ranks. Center Stage is by-the-numbers melodrama, but it’s full of little touches that make it seem told from the inside out.

Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross

Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross

It’s hard to imagine anything more intimidating for a young actor than sharing the screen with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin — but if Kevin Spacey was nervous in James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winner, he sure as hell didn’t show it. As hard-assed, humorless “company man” Williamson, Spacey makes for an alarmingly loathsome villain among the story’s ensemble of con men and scumbags; you absolutely hate him, yet there’s a smug power to Spacey’s performance that you can’t help but admire.

Emma Stone in Paper Man

Emma Stone in Paper Man

Having not yet found the star-making turn of Easy A, Stone was still “the girl from Superbad” when she appeared in this mostly forgotten Jeff Daniels/Ryan Reynolds comedy/drama. She’s not the focus of the movie, but she’s the star of it; it’s a firecracker of a performance, where her whiskey-voiced punch puts a spin on even the weakest of lines and most tiresome of tropes.

Meryl Streep in Manhattan

Meryl Streep in Manhattan

It’s not easy to steal a scene from late-‘70s-era Woody Allen — the odds are kind of stacked against you, all things considered. Yet Streep walks away handily with every scene she plays in Manhattan, as the bitter ex-wife who has no compunction whatsoever with spilling his secrets in a tell-all book. Streep wasn’t yet the institution she’d become, and that makes her performance here so exciting to watch; she’s powerfully present, and her fury packs a punch.

Channing Tatum in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Channing Tatum in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

The forthcoming Foxcatcher notwithstanding, Tatum’s recent roles haven’t exactly shown off his acting chops. But anyone doubting the existence of said chops is encouraged to check out this 2006 coming-of-age drama from writer/director Dito Montiel. Tatum is stunning and soulful as Antonio, the neighborhood tough guy who turns out to be a good deal more self-aware than you might think — much like the actor himself. The movie is a bit of a Scorsese-lite mixed bag, but it’s a fine reminder of what Tatum can do (and that goes double for co-star Shia LaBeouf).

Charlize Theron in 2 Days in the Valley

Charlize Theron in 2 Days in the Valley

John Herzfeld’s 1996 crime picture might be dismissed and forgotten (as so many were) as yet another Pulp Fiction rip-off were it not for the film debut of Theron, who appears in the supporting role of Helga Svelgen. You can’t take your eyes off her, and not just for the obvious reasons; she plays the role with high style and a wicked glimmer, slyly indicating that she’s smarter than all this nonsense, and knows it.

Denzel Washington in A Soldier’s Story

Denzel Washington in A Soldier’s Story

Washington had toiled away in tiny roles and undistinguished vehicles before he was given the opportunity to reprise his off-Broadway role in this screen adaptation of A Soldier’s Play. As Pfc. Peterson, Washington already displays what would become his specialty: quiet rage, brewing under an exterior of fierce intelligence.

Kerry Washington in I Think I Love My Wife

Kerry Washington in I Think I Love My Wife

Before landing the signature role of Olivia Pope, Washington had been banging out interesting work on film and television for well over a decade. But her turn in Chris Rock’s 2007 Chloe in the Afternoon remake may be the most interesting, less for what it was than what it wasn’t: Washington takes what could have been a generic sexpot role and makes it something far more complex, all the while putting across the full intensity of her temptation to Rock’s family man.

Rachel Weisz in Stealing Beauty

Rachel Weisz in Stealing Beauty

The press surrounding Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1996 drama mostly consisted of panting over star Liv Tyler; little did anyone know there was a much more interesting player lurking on the edge of the frame. Weisz’s performance as the appropriately named Miranda Fox is the one you end up remembering. In contrast to Tyler’s self-conscious and slightly awkward work, Weisz is sharp, sophisticated, and almost criminally sexy.