It’s hard to sit in the middle of your career and discuss what the best decisions you ever made were. This kind of self-reflection is best suited for the very end, when you’re looking back, thinking about your life and how each decision may have altered it. Yet, people don’t necessarily want to read about the stars of yesteryear. We want to know about the household names of today. What are their regrets? What are they grateful for? Well, it’s the latter that we’re looking at today, and their answers can be hard to come by. Working actors don’t want to necessarily say that one role or one decision is better than all the others. Most actors, whether they’re contractually bound or not, wish to speak kindly about all their roles. Even still, there are always some actors who don’t mind being honest about their decisions. For some, it’s not hard to see what decisions had the positive impacts on their careers.
Whether it’s choosing to do a role that isn’t necessarily a guaranteed success, taking an opportunity to try something they had never done before, or simply making a life decision that greatly benefitted their careers, the choices on this list made these stars very successful, very rich or both. For many of the actors on this list, their careers weren’t necessarily going the way they had hoped and one decision changed it all. Some of these decisions were easy to make, but that shouldn’t alter how we view them. After all, many actors have gone against the grain with seemingly easy decisions before, so we shouldn’t take anything for granted. So let’s check it out: 15 stars confess the best decisions of their careers.
15. John Travolta – Pulp Fiction
This is sort of part John Travolta‘s decision and part Quentin Tarantino‘s decision, but Travolta’s star was fading and up-and-coming director Tarantino wanted to have him in Pulp Fiction. This was unlike anything Travolta had done before and Tarantino was putting his very new reputation on the line. It worked out to be both of their greatest decisions. Travolta was in a very dry period in his once-great career. Tarantino needed to fight with the studios to include Travolta in the casting. The result was nothing short of brilliant. Travolta fit yet didn’t fit, something that worked better than either the actor or the director could have imagined. Though he said that he did have some “moral” reservations about the role and the film, Travolta took on Vincent Vega and it revitalized his career tenfold. At least, until Battlefield Earth several years later.
14. Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
It seems like an easy decision, Christoph Waltz accepting the role of Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Waltz has called it “the role of a century.” He’s called the character one of the best characters in dramatic literature. But let’s not forget where Waltz was at the time that the role was offered to him. He had become disillusioned with Hollywood and had all but given up on the profession: “I went to a few castings on US films in my career and it was very frustrating because you could smell it was about the production looking for soft-money in Europe,” said Waltz. “So when my agent called saying Tarantino wants you to audition, I said ‘No, no, no. I know what will happen. I’ll go, they’ll get the money and then they’ll cast a US actor instead.’” He went. Tarantino demanded he take he role. The rest of the story you know well.
13. Jon Favreau – Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man
Not many people would deny that it was Iron Man and, in part, Robert Downey Jr. that had a large hand in the massive success of comic book movies today, specifically the Marvel Comic Universe. The decision to cast RDJ may have been easy to make at first for the director, Jon Favreau, because of how he saw the character and the actor overlapping: “Everybody knew he was talented… Certainly by studying the Iron Man role and developing that script I realized that the character seemed to line-up with Robert in all the good and bad ways. And the story of Iron Man was really the story of Robert’s career.” Yet, even with such strong feelings, Favreau needed to fight for RDJ to get the part. It was through his determination and commitment to RDJ that it was eventually greenlit, and obviously that decision proved very, very fruitful for everyone involved. Favreau would defend his choice by saying this: “It was my job as a director to show that it was the best choice creatively… and now the Marvel Universe is the biggest franchise in film history.”
12. Jack Nicolson – Batman
Jack Nicholson holds nothing back when he speaks of the role he played in Tim Burton‘s Batman. He made the Joker iconic on the big screen and, for many years, it was impossible to see the Joker as anyone but Nicholson. But it wasn’t his decision to play the role that was so major for the acting legend, it was the contract he set up behind-the-scenes. At the time, the biggest stars were earning close to $10- $15 million per role. Nicholson agreed to take less than that, around $6 million, but he would also get a percentage of profits made on all the films AND, the kicker, on all the sequels. This blew his salary up well over $100 million making this role one of the highest paying in the history of film.
11. Dennis Hopper – Blue Velvet
Dennis Hopper was coming out of a crazy period in his life at the time that Blue Velvet came around. He was an insanely heavy drinker and would snort three grams of coke a day to “sober up.” Then came 1986 and he had truly sobered up. The script of Blue Velvet came to him as an offer. Hopper’s agency and his manager told him not to do it, but Hopper had other ideas. He said, “David Lynch is an important director. I don’t know how popular this film will be, but everyone in the industry will see it, and I know I can do a good job with this part.” So he took the role and it turned out to be colossal for the actor. Hopper went from Blue Velvet to Hoosiers to River’s Edge and this collection of films led to a huge resurgence in the actor’s career. Even late in his life, Hopper looked back fondly at Blue Velvet and credited it as one of, if not the, best decision of his career.
10. Matthew McConaughey – Time Off and The Lincoln Lawyer
Matthew McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s top-billing actors as of today. That certainly wasn’t always the case and, for him, the best decision of his career was more about changing the decisions that he used to make. He felt he needed to change the way he was approaching his work: “[Some] years ago I said I want to recalibrate my relationship with my career. That means saying no to some things I’ve been doing. I knew it was going to get dry. And it did get dry,” the actor said. “Meaning no work came in. Luckily I had enough money in my account to pay the rent and put food on the table… I went through that two-year period. I shifted gears. I think in that two years off I gained anonymity. Then I became someone’s new good idea.” That “new good idea” was to have McConaughey play in The Lincoln Lawyer, the role that many credit as the one that allowed him a rebirth. Since that film, McConaughey hasn’t really missed. He’s won an Academy Award and has participated in some of the biggest films to date. Not bad for a guy who was in Fool’s Gold.
9. Liam Neeson – Taken
Way back when, Liam Neeson was best known for his dramatic work like in Schindler’s List, but that’s not the case at all anymore. Ever since the success of Taken, Neeson has made a great living in action films, which, at his advanced age, is somewhat surprising. Earlier in his career, Neeson turned down action roles like James Bond because he wasn’t interested in the genre, but later in life, especially after the passing of his wife Natasha Richardson, Neeson has chosen action films as an escape: “I think I survived by running away”, he said. “Running away to work. Listen, I know how old I am and that I’m just a shoulder injury from losing roles like the one in Taken. So I stay with the training, I stay with the work. It’s easy enough to plan jobs, to plan a lot of work. That’s effective. But that’s the weird thing about grief. You can’t prepare for it. You think you’re gonna cry and get it over with. You make those plans, but they never work.” But his decision to choose Taken in the first place was basically just sheer luck. He expected the film to wallow away in DVD-land when, instead, it took off and catapulted him back into superstardom.
8. Tom Hanks – Forrest Gump
Tom Hanks is a very thoughtful man, so he tends to avoid discussing things in absolutes like “bests”, but he doesn’t shy away from the impact that his decisions on Forrest Gump had on his life. Not only did Hanks act in and win awards for the film, but he also helped fund it: “The studio was one day away from pulling the plug on [Forrest Gump], and the director came to my house and said, ‘Look, this is going to fall apart because they won’t give us the budget for shooting this one sequence, and we’ve got to have this sequence.” Basically, Robert Zemeckis asked that he and Hanks split the costs to get the necessary shots in. Considering that Hanks was not earning a salary for the film, just getting a share of the profits, this was important to him. “I said, ‘All right.’ And the sequence was Forrest running across the country,” Hanks said. “And we were 48 hours away from it being shut down. So I’m glad that worked out.” In the end, the film amassed almost 700 million dollars and Hanks earned over $70 million for the role. Good choice, Tom. Now if only he knew that there were only 24 hours in a day.
7. Ben Affleck – Switch to Directing
After toiling away in bad flick after bad flick, Ben Affleck made the decision to start directing and it truly saved his career. When he looks back, it’s this decision that changed his outlook on the industry as a whole and made him appreciate his life and his career all the more. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “I took that sense of responsibility to directing and really took it to heart, because that’s a place where you can control all the different facets of the movie instead of just the little box of your performance. But, anyway, yeah, I got sick of being that guy and I tried to do stuff that was different and I made some mistakes. I did some things right, and then I got married and had kids and that helped a lot, and then I decided to just do movies that I believed in.” Since that point, he’s directed the massive hits The Town and Argo, and is set to try and keep the DC comic book series thriving with Batman.
6. Neil Patrick Harris – Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle
It’s obvious that no one other than Neil Patrick Harris could have played Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, but that doesn’t mean that he was in on the joke from the beginning. Originally, when that character was written, Harris had no idea about it. His agent approached him about the role and he thought he would give it a shot. Today, most people credit that part as the role that reinvented the actor. Even he agrees, saying that it’s “so weird to think that Harold and Kumar would be responsible for it. Just goes to show that you can never predict what project will accomplish what.” After that role, NPH found himself back in demand in Hollywood and even starring on the hugely popular show How I Met Your Mother.
5. Shailene Woodley – The Descendants
Even though Jennifer Lawrence told Shailene Woodley that taking part in a huge franchise like the Divergent films would be the best decision she ever made, that franchise hasn’t necessarily been all that they were hoping it would. That being said, she’s made a ton of money and has become instantly recognizable everywhere. When asked to look back and reflect on what she feels is her best decision to this point, Woodley said, “I don’t know whether it’s decisions I’ve made, or opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have. I guess doing The Descendants was a big turn for me, but at the same time, it wasn’t really a decision because I would’ve given anything to be a part of that film.” Thanks Shailene, you’ve just ruined this amazing list.
4. Chris Evans – Captain America
It might seem like it was an easy decision for Chris Evans to take on the role of Captain America, but remember that he had already gone the superhero route and it didn’t work out all that well. The Fantastic Four films might have actually done more harm than good, at least everywhere but Evans’ bank account. As Evans tells it, the decision wasn’t all that easy, but it paid big dividends: “When I first got the offer to be a part of this franchise, the thought of a multi-picture contract that could last eight years of my life was stressful and scary. But doing these movies was the best decision of my life.”
3. Kaley Cuoco – Boob Job
We often hear about stars regretting their plastic surgery or surgical enhancements and focusing too much on image, but for Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory), a breast enlargement was “the best decision of [her] life.” Rightly or wrongly, Cuoco noticed that if she wanted to be noticed, she needed to put more effort into her appearance: “I started reading and thought, ‘Maybe I need to make more of an effort and not go out in my UGGs and be disgusting.’ So I started putting on make-up.” Today, Cuoco is one of TV’s biggest sex symbols and her looks, in part, have helped her to become one of the highest paid women in the industry.
2. Milly Bobby Brown – Stranger Things
Even though Milly Bobby Brown may not be a household name just yet, she’s slowly working her way to becoming one. After Stranger Things came out, people instantly latched onto the star, loving her acting and loving her look. Allowing the crew to shave her head was a brave choice for the young actress but one that made her recognizable everywhere. “I sat in the chair, and, one by one, they cut it off,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Oh no. What have I done? And they told me, ‘I want you to have the mind-frame of Charlize Theron in Mad Max.’ And we did this sort of split-screen of her and me, and the resemblance was amazing! I thought, ‘Wow, that’s such an amazing way to put it, you know?’ It was the best decision I’ve ever, ever made.”
1. Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
When Peter Dinklage was first asked to take on the part of Tyrion in Game of Thrones, he was hesitant. He was hesitant because of how the fantasy genre typically portrays dwarves. He was told this wouldn’t be the case, so he investigated the opportunity further. It’s largely because of these morals and his steadfast feelings about playing the typical “dwarf” characters on film and TV that Dinklage was sought out in the first place. His decision to stay true to himself has led him to become one of the most celebrated actors on television today. “I feel really lucky, although I hate that word — ‘lucky,'” Dinklage said. “It cheapens a lot of hard work. … I don’t think I felt myself lucky back then, doing plays for $50 and trying to be true to myself as an artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun… I won’t say I’m lucky,” he said, “I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me.”