It’s easy to look at all of the big success stories out there and feel like you’re never going to make it. There are so many tales of unknowns getting cast in a major film for their first ever role, and then going on to be superstars. It’s the kind of fairy tale that we would all like to be in. But when you dream of making it big in Hollywood, it’s easy to get a little disheartened when you are stuck in roles as an extra or double.
After all, once you’re stuck as an extra, you are never going to make it anywhere, right? Well, wrong. As it turns out, a lot of Hollywood A-listers actually started out as extras. Whether it was because their agent was finding them paid work before that first role came along, or because they kept failing other auditions, they were walking along behind the main act and trying to keep hold of their dream. Some of them were even scouted for their later big roles by directors or producers who saw them working as an extra.
It isn’t as faraway a dream as you may think, and if you have talent, you can even get noticed while you are trying to blend into the background. And even if you don’t ever make it, being a background artist isn’t a bad job. The pay is usually good, and you will be in excellent company. After all, these 15 people were once extras too, before they became superstars.
15 Renee Zellweger
Hard work and tenacity often pays off, as Renee Zellweger eagerly demonstrated in her early career. She took a few minor roles as an extra while she was starting out, including a bit part in the horror comedy My Boyfriend’s Back. That role was eventually left on the cutting room floor, and she had to work in a few commercials in order to earn her SAG membership. One of the background roles which did make it to the finished version was in cult classic Dazed and Confused in 1993. There you can see her sitting on a blue pick-up truck at the party. She stands out quite well now that you know who she is, but at the time the rest of the cast outshone her. Interestingly enough, many of them – including Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey – also went on to become A-listers later in their careers, and it wasn’t the only time she worked with McConaughey at that early stage.
14 Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone definitely had a hard time finding roles when he was just starting out. He is often used as an example of fighting against diversity to make it happen, and not just because of his appearances as Rocky. When he was looking to break the industry, he had a lot of problems. He didn’t have the right look, and he didn’t even sound right. There was no way he was getting any big roles. You can catch him as a background artist in Woody Allen’s 1971 flick Bananas, where he is credited as a mugger on the subway. He also starred in Klute that same year, a Jane Fonda thriller. He wasn’t credited, but was a patron at a disco in one of the scenes. Eventually, however, someone wised up and started giving him the bigger roles that he deserved. At the time, no one could have predicted how far he would go – and how iconic one of his roles would become.
13 Julia Roberts
It didn’t take long for Julia Roberts to hit the A-list. Her looks, no-nonsense style, and relatable personality helped to make her big in the early 1990s, and she hasn’t slowed down since. Now she’s one of the most recognizable people on the planet, but of course it wasn’t always this way. Pretty Woman is often credited with bringing her into the spotlight, but that wasn’t even her first major role – she took the lead in Mystic Pizza two years before it came out. Even earlier than that, she took a few odd roles to help start her career and make ends meet. Her very first big screen appearance was uncredited, in Firehouse in 1987. If it was released today, she would be right at the top of the credits! Her talent was recognized very quickly, and she only had to take a handful of small roles. But it just shows that even someone born to acting parents still had to start at the bottom!
12 Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt has been feted again and again as the most handsome man in the world, and he is still a dream catch for many women – even after his estrangement from Angelina Jolie. A man like that had to have had his pick of all the roles, right? Well, not exactly. He has previously admitted to working a lot of odd jobs to fund his start in acting, and he also had to take some small roles. In Less Than Zero, which was released in 1987, Brad can be seen in a background role. His credit is listed as ‘Partygoer/Preppy guy at fight’. He was paid just $38 for his work. These days you would have to add on a fair few more digits to that number! His good looks and talent were soon recognized however, and he did not have to labour in the background for too long.
11 Jennifer Garner
Unlike some Hollywood starlets, Jennifer Garner didn’t exactly have a helping hand in her early career. She didn’t have famous relatives – her mother was a teacher and her father was a chemical engineer. This was what forced her to work her way from the ground up, starting with minor roles in TV shows and made-for-TV movies which rarely saw her coming out from the background. While she started gaining credits in 1995, by 1997 she still had the dubious honour of taking roles such as ‘Woman in elevator’ in Deconstructing Harry. Her first larger role was in the TV series Significant Others, but she continued to work in TV until getting her bigger break with Alias. It was a long, hard slog to the top, so she certainly worked her way up there – and funnily enough, she ended up marrying another former extra, in the form of Ben Affleck.
10 Channing Tatum
Most people know by now that Channing Tatum actually has a background as a dancer – which is what made him an ideal choice for Magic Mike. But you may not be aware that it was dancing which managed to land him one of his first screen roles, too. He was actually first seen in a music video – for Ricky Martin’s "She Bangs". He also took roles as an extra in War of the Worlds, where he can be seen in the church scene, and a few other movies. Though he wasn’t known at the time, if you look at the War of the Worlds scene now, you can definitely recognize him. Still, he was stuck in small roles for a while. That all changed when he got his breakthrough role in Step Up. Thankfully, he was able to shed the dancer mantle after a while and transition into being more of a serious actor, and now tackles a whole gamut of genres from romantic to comedy to action and even sci-fi.
9 Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis is a man who has become so famous, it’s hard to imagine anyone not recognizing him. Put the man in a vest and give him a gun, and you’re normally about to watch a classic movie unfold. Even as he gets older, he still delivers those performances again and again. But where did it all start? Well, not in a leading role, that’s for sure. If you squint really hard, you can spot Bruce in one of his earlier roles as an extra. He was in The Verdict in 1981, in the courthouse scene. He was sitting in the benches behind the legal teams. He also worked as an extra in The First Deadly Sin, as well as the TV movie Ein Guru Kommt. So now you know – and you can hunt for him on the screen. Remember you’re looking for a man with hair, not the bald actor we know today!
8 Megan Fox
Her star may have faded a bit these days, but Megan Fox is certainly still around. She proved that with a role in the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. But while she isn’t exactly hot property right now, she has had a lot of major roles, and was one of the most talked-about actresses for a while. Her first role, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. It was in the film Bad Boys II, and you can’t really see her properly in the shot. She is credited as ‘Stars-and-Stripes Bikini Kid Dancing Under Waterfall’. Yes, that’s her character’s name. You can probably guess why she got the job. Anyway, Michael Bay decided that she deserved a bit more of a shot, and that’s how she ended up making it big in Transformers. She has turned out to be quite divisive amongst audiences, but no one can argue that her roles are at their best when they require a bikini.
7 Matt Damon
Coincidences abound: while Julia Roberts was getting her first big break in Mystic Pizza, another soon-to-be famous actor was grafting hard as an extra on the same set. That actor was Matt Damon, who can be seen as the (briefly visible) brother character in the movie at the age of just 18. Then there was also Field of Dreams, in which he appears as a fan in Fenway Park. Not only that, but he has a friend with him: Ben Affleck. This was very early in the careers of both men, who seem to have risen through the ranks together as friends. They have appeared together a few times, but this was the first. Who would have thought that right in the background of these films, both starring current A-listers, you would find actors who would join them on that list in the near future? Matt Damon is now, of course, much more used to the leading role.
6 Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood also had more of a humble start. He joined Central Casting in the 1950s and was an eager actor, wanting to do as much as he could on film sets. He took a large number of roles as an extra before starting to get noticed more often, particularly with the TV show Rawhide. Like fellow extra John Wayne, the image of a cowboy stuck to him in a big way. He did manage to break free from it later in his career, however, with notable roles including Dirty Harry in the series named after the character. He has even turned his hand to directing these days, and spent some time in politics. It just goes to show that even an icon has to start somewhere. Who knows what extras stumbling around on film sets today could potentially go on to redefine a whole genre later in life?
5 Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan is known the world over, and is probably the foremost martial arts actor of all time. The only person who could ever challenge that title would have to be Bruce Lee, the legendary fighter who died prematurely at the height of his career. Something that may amaze you is that the two of them actually acted alongside one another, though it was never billed as such. Thanks to his fighting skills, Jackie was an extra in Fists of Fury and Enter The Dragon, two classic Bruce Lee movies. He still tells stories about his encounters with Bruce Lee today, and was just as star-struck by meeting the man as any of us would have been. The lesson we can take here is that if you have a particular skill which is loved by audiences, you can take it far with hard work and a good personality. After all, don’t we all love Jackie Chan?
4 Audrey Hepburn
Who would you suspect is most likely to be a background artist rather than getting a major role right off the bat? You would have to guess that it was someone with plain looks and a lack of connections. But that couldn’t be further from the truth when it came to Audrey Hepburn. Not only is she lauded as one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived, but she also came from a wealthy background. Her mother was even a Baroness! Nevertheless, she started out small. Her first role as an extra was in Sauce Tartare in 1949. In 1951, with the release of We Go To Monte Carlo, her star suddenly exploded. It was her first lead role, and led directly to her casting in Roman Holiday. From there, her credits read like a list of classic movies from the era. No one was going to put someone like Audrey in the background for long!
3 Clark Gable
Clark Gable is now one of the most recognizable classic Hollywood film stars. He broke hearts all over the world with his performances, even in black and white. But because his career was so close to the early days of Hollywood, there was nothing like the acting dynasties of today. He couldn’t rely on a family connection to get him into roles. In fact, before the talkies came around, he didn’t have much success at all. During the silent film era, he took a number of roles as an extra in the background of the scenes. One of these was The Merry Widow, for example. When the upheaval of sound came, his fortunes were reversed. Who knows when a change like this could turn an extra into a leading star? You could compare it to recent changes too, such as the ability to act in a motion capture suit or against a green screen.
2 Rudolph Valentino
Rudolph Valentino was a real heartthrob in the early days of Hollywood. While the world was just getting used to the idea of films, they were also getting used to the idea of real celebrities – people who you could see whenever you wanted at a theatre, as opposed to the olden days when you would have to stare at a drawing or wait for them to perform in a town near you. His handsome looks took many viewers’ breath away, and he became known as the Latin Lover. But that wasn’t how it all started. In fact, he actually took a lot of background roles in silent films before he was given the chance to be a leading man. Even if you have all of the looks and the talent, sometimes you have to pay your dues by working hard out of the limelight until it shines on you at last!
1 John Wayne
Because of the length of his career, it seems kind of crazy to think that John Wayne was around when films were still silent. But he was – and he was already acting! One of the reasons that you probably don’t know that is the fact that he was a background character in a number of silent films during the 1920s, so it was nothing too memorable. His first starring role was in 1930, in The Big Trail. He quickly went on to embody the cowboy role, and though he tackled a few other genres in his time, he will always be best remembered with a cowboy hat on his head and a gun in his hand. He had to change his name and work hard in the background to get his big break, but when it came, it all paid off in spades. He is arguably the best-known cowboy actor, alongside someone else who is coming up in this list shortly.
Sources: Backstage, Project Casting
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