We’re going to start off a little different than usual. We’ll begin by telling you what this list isn’t. This isn’t a list that lists every actor who starred in horror films early in their careers. If it wasn’t their first feature film or their first ever performance, you won’t find them here. It’s super confusing hearing that names like Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Kevin Bacon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Paul Rudd and more got their start in horror films because they didn’t get their start in horror films. They acted in horror films, yeah, but so have a lot of actors. Everyone knows McConaughey got his start in Dazed and Confused for starters. Paul Rudd’s first movie was Clueless, even though his appearance in Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers came later that same year. Naomi Watts’ debut film, For Love Alone, came out a full 10 years before she was in Children of the Corn: The Gathering, and Kevin Bacon was in Friday the 13th, yeah, after he was in Animal House. Finally, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was already an established actor by the time Halloween H20 came out in 1998, so he most certainly did not get his start in horror films. There are countless examples like these that you’ll find circulating out there.
You opened this up because you expected to find which actors really and truly started their acting careers in horror films, so that’s what you’ll get. Here is a list of actors who actually started in horror. We will look at what the role was and see if they ever came back to their roots later in their careers.
18. Patricia Arquette – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
Patricia Arquette appeared in 3 films in 1987, but her very first was A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. If you’ve not seen A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors because you think it’s another lazy sequel in a horror franchise, you’re missing out. Arquette is phenomenal in the role and she was all set up to reprise her character, Kristen Parker, in the fourth installment, but she needed to back out because she was pregnant. Even though Arquette hasn’t come back to horror films much, only performing in Stigmata as far as we can recall, she will always be considered one of the greats in the field because of her very first performance.
17. Johnny Depp – A Nightmare On Elm Street
By now, most people know that Johnny Depp got his start on A Nightmare On Elm Street, playing Glen Lantz, Nancy’s boyfriend. After getting going in this genre, Depp has come back to horror from time to time, such as in Sleepy Hollow, From Hell and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber from Flint Street. He even came back to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in 1991 with a brief cameo in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Going back to that first role, Depp, like Arquette, looked quite comfortable on camera and it seemed like a sure bet that he would become something big in this industry. It would take him a few more years, but he hit it big when he was cast on TV’s 21 Jump Street and then Edward Scissorhands soon after.
16. Amber Heard – SideFX
Technically Amber Heard‘s first major release was in Friday Night Lights, but the independent film SideFX actually had a limited release the same month, October 2004. Considering the film is a Halloween movie, it makes sense that it came out in October and not March of the following year, like some sources have it listed. Her breakthrough role came in horror as well, specifically in the film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. From there, Heard would go on to play in the horror films The Ward and And Soon the Darkness. Even though they’ve split from each other, it’s interesting to see this little connection between Depp and Heard. Both started in horror. If only they had more in common.
15. Jason Alexander – The Burning
Long before Seinfeld, Jason Alexander was starring in one of the most underrated horror films of all time, The Burning. Because of its similarities to Friday the 13th—both films are inspired by the camp urban legend of Cropsey—The Burning was a little overshadowed (Friday was released the year earlier even though The Burning had submitted their script earlier). In hindsight, like many horror films, The Burning ended up being the launching pad for several other future stars including Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens. Over the next 35 years, Alexander would appear in a few more horror films, such as Jacob’s Ladder and the amazing Hood of Horror.
14. Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Troll
Today, the 1986 film Troll, is best known for its hazy relation to Troll 2, the best worst movie of all time. Truthfully, these two films are not related at all other than by name. Troll 2 was simply trying to leverage the success of Troll to better position itself. After Saturday Night Live, Julia Louis-Dreyfus decided to give film a try, so she got a weird role in Troll, one in which she laughs a lot and frolics around with the troll in her apartment. Even though IMDb has Hannah and Her Sisters listed as Louis-Dreyfus’ first role, Troll actually came out before it. The experience must have been too scary for Louis-Dreyfus because she would never again come back to the horror genre. We’re still hoping she does. Troll also has the first appearance of a character named Harry Potter. Sneaky, sneaky J.K. Rowling.
13. Jennifer Aniston – Leprechaun
After a few short-lived TV roles, a TV movie and an uncredited role in Mac and Me, Jennifer Aniston was ready for the bigtime. Bigtime, in this case, means the 1993 film Leprechaun. Aniston may not have been the star of the film but my god, did she ever look the part. It was clear from the minute you saw her that she had a real future in the industry. Her acting wasn’t all that bad, either (incase you were wondering). Actually, Leprechaun is a great film and even though Aniston is embarrassed about it these days, she really shouldn’t be.
12. Charlize Theron – Children of the Corn III
She may not have had any lines in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest, but Charlize Theron stole the show in her first ever film performance. Her role went uncredited as one of “Eli’s Followers,” but Theron had a very memorable death scene. She would say later that she thought this was going to be her big break, so she went out and bought herself a beautiful pair of white sneakers. After they had shot one scene in the church, Theron was instructed to run outside, screaming. Her character is then attacked by vines and branches, eerily similar to the scene in Evil Dead, and then she was squirted with blood, all over her new white shoes, ruining them. When she finally got to see the final cut, her scream sounded strange to her. They had dubbed over it with someone else. Maybe that’s the reason Theron hasn’t come back to horror since.
11. Eva Mendes – Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror
Another Children of the Corn alum, Eva Mendes had a more prominent role in her first ever film. Though it was direct-to-video, Mendes was so disappointed in her acting abilities in Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror, she went home and hired an acting coach, vowing never to have such a lackluster performance ever again. A couple of years later, Mendes would return to horror in Urban Legends: Final Cut with a decidedly improved performance. The year after the 2000 film Urban Legends, Mendes met her breakthrough performance in Training Day and she said goodbye forever to B-horror flicks.
10. Rachel Weisz – Death Machine
Rachel Weisz might be a bigshot Hollywood movie star these days, but it wasn’t always so. Back in 1992, she was coming off of several TV shows and mini-series, looking to break into film. Then along came the sci-fi horror film, Death Machine, and Weisz blew everyone away. No, not really. In fact, the role is so small you can miss it even if you’re paying attention, but she’s there. Trust us. It wouldn’t be until 1999’s The Mummy where Weisz gained some international acclaim. Since 1992, Weisz hasn’t really appeared in any horror films, unless you count Dream House as a horror movie, which it really isn’t.
9. Josh Hartnett – Halloween H20
Josh Hartnett was pretty lucky to have found some success on TV before coming to film. His acting debut on TV was with the show Cracker: Mind Over Murder, so he already had some industry cred when he was cast in Halloween H20. That same year, 1998, Hartnett appeared in another horror film, The Faculty. Outside of that, He’s only appeared in the vampire flick, 30 Days of Night. Beginning in 2004, however, Hartnett went back to his horror roots on television by playing Ethan Chandler in the series Penny Dreadful, so he still has a bit of love for where he came from.
8. Mariska Hargitay – Ghoulies
Mariska Hargitay has been on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for 17 goddamn years, so you’re forgiven if you thought that’s all she’s ever done, but she actually has a decent horror genre background. Her film debut, first of all, came in Ghoulies, that bloody awful 80s horror comedy film. Then she was in an episode of the TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares in 1988. And no one could ever forget the role that she did immediately before taking on Law & Order: SVU, the monster film, Lake Placid. So if ever you run out of episodes of Law & Order to watch and need a little more Hargitay in your life, check out these horror titles and see her darker side.
7. Rooney Mara – Urban Legends: Bloody Mary
It might feel like Rooney Mara has been around for a long time, but she’s still relatively new to the industry. Obviously, she got her start in a horror film, the delightful, straight-to-video Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, in which she had a very small part. Then in 2010, Mara returned to horror, starring in the fairly underwhelming A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. Here’s a neat little piece of trivia. Jackie Earle Haley auditioned for the role of Glen Lantz in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. He and friend Johnny Depp went to the audition together and competed for the role. Obviously Depp got the part and the rest is history. But wait. Haley would eventually get another crack at a part in the franchise, this time landing the role of Freddy Krueger in the remake 32 years later.
6. Sharon Stone – Deadly Blessing
Sharon Stone technically had a few roles before her appearance in the 1981 horror film Deadly Blessing, but her parts prior to that were either uncredited or unnamed. In Deadly Blessing though, she got a name and it was Lana Marcus. Best known for her performances in thrillers, such as in the iconic Basic Instinct, Stone has been in other horror films, like Diabolique and Catwoman… Since she did appear in Stardust Memories in a ridiculously brief role, Stone is seemingly the only questionable entry on this list.
5. Hilary Swank – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
OK, so Buffy the Vampire Slayer may not really be a horror film, but there are vampires in it and horror is their domain, so we’ll allow it. Oh, and Hilary Swank made her film debut in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the film, not the TV show of the same name obviously. After this brief role, Swank would struggle to find her footing in the industry. Truth be told, she still struggles, even after winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress. She wasn’t a one and done kind of girl when it came to horror either. Swank came back to the genre in 1996 with a role in Sometimes They Come Back… Again. Then in 2000, she was part of The Gift and she starred in The Reaping in 2007. She’s kind of a horror veteran when you break it down, even with the questionable beginning in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
4. Leonardo DiCaprio – Critters 3
Unless you consider Shutter Island a horror film, DiCaprio has only ever appeared in one horror film, but it was his first film ever, so there’s more weight to it. Leo’s so damn famous that almost everyone knows his entire film reel, but his first role is also one of his least known roles. The year was 1993 and the film was Critter 3. Sure, Leo had been acting in some form or another most of his life. He was on the TV show Romper Room when he was five, but he was kicked off for being a jerk of a kid. Seriously, that’s a true story. Then he did commercials and TV, but it would be in film where he made his lasting mark and that all started with Critters 3. It’s funny to think that such a legendary career started with such a strange film. Why couldn’t it have been Critters or even Critters 2? Oh well, even Leo has to start somewhere.
3. Chloe Grace Moretz – The Amityville Horror
There’s a bit of a debate here about what counts as a first film because Chloe Grace Moretz appeared in The Amityville Horror which was released before Heart of the Beholder, but The Amityville Horror was actually filmed later. Either way, we’re counting it. Moretz started in horror. Not only did she start in horror, but she’s made a career in it. She’s been in the horror films Wicked Little Things, Room 6, Hallowed Ground, The Eye, Let Me In (2010) and Carrie (2013). Really, once you’ve been in more than five horror films, you’re automatically initiated into the horror legends club, a group that we just made up on the spot. You can come too if you want.
2. Mila Kunis – Piranha (1995)
In 1978, director Joe Dante and producer Roger Corman got together and tried to come up with something that could use the massive success of 1975’s Jaws. The idea was the parody Piranha. Almost 20 years later, in 1995, Roger Corman wanted to remake this film to try and double his profits. Well, the result was abysmal. Instead of redoing the 70s special effects with new-age technology, Corman just used the exact same shots. In fact, the entire film is just a complete remake except it’s missing the best parts, the humor. The only good thing to come out of this film was Mila Kunis. This would prove to be her debut film and what a disastrous debut it was (not that it was her fault). Kunis would only go back to horror once again, which was in 2002 with American Psycho II: All American Girl. We don’t blame her for having mixed feelings about the genre.
1. Tom Hanks – He Knows You’re Alone
Tom Hanks is one of the greatest actors to ever live. He’s won two Best Actor Awards at the Academy Awards in back-to-back years with Philadelphia and Forrest Gump and he’s one of the highest grossing actors of all time. On top of all that, he started his acting career in a horror film. This legendary film is called He Knows You’re Alone. Remember it? Probably not. It wasn’t received well, but it served as the launching pad for Mr. Hanks. Later in his career, he would return to horror, if only briefly, for Vault of Horror I and a Tales from the Crypt television episode. He would also voice Woody in Toy Story of Terror, which was super spooky, so we’ll count it. He may not be considered a horror legend, but that won’t stop horror fanatics from claiming him as one of their own.