A major scene in La La Land is when Emma Stone’s Mia goes to an audition, giving her all only to be dismissed quickly. She sadly walks down a hallway, passing a dozen other girls who look like her, all wanting the same gig. It showcases how the audition process in Hollywood is a tough game as every year thousands of actors and actresses try for roles that can make their careers. One good audition and you’ve got a part that can launch your career. A bad one and you spend the rest of your days working at a coffee shop. Every actor has their audition horror stories, even the mega-stars as everyone has to start somewhere.
It’s fun to look back at some of these actors before they were famous and see how they started out. In some cases, they’re able to impress with the auditions and win the wanted roles which led to major success. In other cases, they lost out on the role but still showed some skill that they would utilize for their later successful career. In so many cases, they were truly stars in the making, they probably would have gotten ahead without these roles. In others, they’re rougher and clear they weren’t right for the part they were going for. Yet it’s always fascinating to look back and see them as they once were before they were household names. Here are 15 audition tapes of actors before they were famous and shows how every career has a beginning.
15 Brad Pitt
1991’s Backdraft is still a favorite to many viewers for its fun score and exciting story of Chicago firefighters. Kurt Russell was cast early as the veteran fire captain with a push to find someone handsome for the role of his rookie younger brother. Keanu Reeves was a favorite after Bill & Ted but doubts he could handle an action role. Robert Downey Jr. was also a candidate but decided he wasn’t action-oriented either. Also trying out was a newbie by the name of Brad Pitt who had a good look but his tape showed he wasn’t quite a natural talking about the politics of the fire-fighting and politicians blocking them. Thus, the producers decided instead to go with William Baldwin for the movie.
Pitt had no reason to complain however. Just months after Backdraft was released, Pitt was featured in Thelma & Louise and his part as a handsome drifter made him an instant star. It launched the career of one of Hollywood’s most famous leading men who’s impressed by going from just blockbusters to an acclaimed actor in his own right. So while he may have lost out on this role, Pitt would end up getting the one that launched his career far better.
14 Sandra Bullock
Some actors do specific auditions for an offered role. However, it’s also common for them to put together a tape of their own where they show off different characters to try and show talent scouts they can pull off something bigger. A case of the latter comes from 1991, a set put together by a young Sandra Bullock. At the time, Bullock’s only major credit was starring in an NBC sitcom called Working Girl, which only lasted eight episodes. It’s funny to see Bullock doing her best to emulate a Jersey accent as she has arguments with a guy and playing on knowing his late father. It’s unsure what role she was shooting for here yet it showcases the easy charm and humor that Bullock would make into her trademark.
Bullock kept at it in minor roles with some getting more attention like Demolition Man. Her turn in Speed made her an instant star and led to box office hits from thriller (The Net) to slews of romantic comedies (The Proposal). She won massive respect winning the Oscar for The Blind Side then sympathy over her well-publicized divorce. Still one of the biggest box office actresses around, Bullock may not have been convincing as a Jersey resident but it’s hard to argue with her success since.
13 Rachel McAdams
This is a tape that’s astounding to see just how perfect an actor was for the part. Rachel McAdams had been doing some TV work in her native Canada, including the acclaimed comedy Slings & Arrows. She was an unknown in the U.S., her biggest part being the flop The Hot Chick. In 2003, she auditioned for The Notebook, an adaptation of the Nicolas Sparks best-seller about star-crossed lovers. The audition shows McAdams going full out for the role of Allie, the wealthy Southern belle, crying and arguing with her lover about a bad meeting and giving her all. The producers stated she won the part on the spot and even better when she and Ryan Gosling had a screen test and showed huge chemistry. That paid off with the movie a huge hit still loved by romance fans.
That was part of a one-two punch for McAdams as the same year as Notebook had her major role in Mean Girls that made her an instant star. She added to it with hits like Wedding Crashers and Red Eye to establish herself as a dependable actress. McAdams has kept it up, earning an Oscar nod for her turn in Spotlight and this audition showing how her grasp of her breakout role helped make her a famous name.
12 Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio has been noted by many for how he barely looks like he’s aged since the hit Titanic. Yet the actor is able to capture characters much older in great ways, balancing box office hits with critically acclaimed films. After so long as a revered actor, DiCaprio finally got his due by winning the Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant and on top of his game as both actor and activist. Yet there was a time when he really was a little kid doing commercials and some minor TV parts. In 1989, DiCaprio auditioned for The Outsiders, a Fox series based on the acclaimed novel of a bunch of street kids uniting as a family. DiCaprio showed skill right here with his character acting up and snapping at people while trying to act tougher than he really is. He didn’t get the part and the show only lasted a few months anyway.
DiCaprio got roles on Parenthood and then Growing Pains to get some headway in Hollywood. That led to his turn in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that earned him his first Oscar nomination and instant recognition. Titanic made him a mega-star but didn’t change his choice in often quirky roles that paid off with the Oscar. Yet it’s fun to look back at this truly baby-faced Leo and how this audition was one of the first sights of one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men.
11 Gwyneth Paltrow
As the daughter of Blythe Danner, it’s no surprise Gwyneth Paltrow would get into acting herself. She started slow with roles like a bit part in Hook but still showed some promise. In 1992, she tried out for the role of Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park and the audition tape shows she had some promise but a bit too light for the role. She wasn’t alone as Helen Hunt also tried for the part and showed some of the same fun that Laura Dern ended up bringing to the role. While she lost out on this blockbuster, Paltrow would end up getting a role in Flesh and Bone that year which would get her attention. She got more attention for her relationship with Brad Pitt with a role in Seven and pushing herself more.
Another audition tape changed things as her turn a woman playing a man in Shakespeare in Love won her the Best Actress Oscar. While she’s had her share of flops, she’s gotten attention for her turn as Pepper Potts in Iron Man and still looking hot (despite some of the controversy over her health articles). Paltrow’s career might have turned out differently if she had won the role in Jurassic but it’s hard to argue with how well she’s turned out since.
10 Miley Cyrus
It’s been easy to forget a time when Miley Cyrus was an innocent young girl. However, that’s what she started out as, the daughter of one time country music star Billy Ray Cyrus. Hannah Montana was conceived first as a sitcom starlet going to a regular school but soon evolved into a music superstar hiding her identity as a regular kid. Among those trying out for the role (then called Chloe Stewart) were Taylor Momsen and JoJo. Cyrus tried out for the role of Lilly, the best friend but her nice charm and personality got producers to thinking she’d be good for the lead. She tried out again and won the part with the producers renaming the character Miley after her. Also, as part of the audition, Cyrus’ dad Billy Ray joined her to help in a song and his own performance made them realize he’d be perfect for the TV dad.
The show was not just a hit, it was a full-fledged phenomenon with a sold-out concert tour and Cyrus elevated to massive stardom. Since the show ended, she’s infamously changed her image to a far sexier lady, even baring it all in magazines and a major tabloid fixture. Yet it all started with this tape that showed the little girl who transformed into one of the hottest ladies alive.
9 Robert De Niro
A famous story about The Godfather is that Marlon Brando was never the studio’s choice for Don Corleone due to his bad reputation. However, he humbled himself with a great audition and won the part. He wasn’t alone as the search for the actors to play the Don’s sons was very intense. Among those trying out for the hot-headed Sonny was Robert De Niro. The audition tape shows De Niro cutting loose for the scene of Sonny chastising Michael for wanting to kill a corrupt cop and De Niro shows he really could have done well in the role. However, it ended up going to James Caan instead as the movie turned into an Oscar-winning hit.
Francis Ford Coppola was still impressed by De Niro and remembered him when casting the movie’s sequel. He sought out De Niro to play the role of the younger Don Corleone in flashbacks showing his rise to power. De Niro threw himself into the part, learning Italian and won massive raves for his performance. He and Brando became the only men to win the Oscar for playing the same character, launching De Niro’s legendary career. Thus, by missing out on one part, De Niro was able to latch onto the other that would make him a star.
8 Emma Stone
Emma Stone had been building a resume in the late 2000s. She had gotten attention for her role in the comedy hit Superbad and also in Zombieland but still wasn’t a household name in any way. That all changed with the hit comedy Easy A that made Stone an overnight star and led to major roles in various studio fare. The movie focuses on Olivia, a teenager whose little lie about sleeping with a guy soon gets out of control and leads to her being considered the school slut despite the fact she’s a virgin. Stone’s audition recreates the opening of the film with Olivia talking about how “every story has two sides” and relating how this entire mess happened. It’s almost perfect how the movie starts out and no surprise Stone got the part. The movie was a hit that put Stone on the A-list and she added to it with Crazy Stupid Love, The Help and Amazing Spider-Man in no time. Her career has culminated winning the Oscar for La La Land and showcased how one great audition was enough to elevate Stone from bit player to leading lady in no time.
7 Matthew McConaughey
It’s truly astounding to see how Matthew McConaughey’s career has evolved. He had a big debut in the mid-1990s with roles in A Time to Kill and other flicks and looked like a true star in the making. He then spent years stuck in various romantic comedies and known for bizarre behavior that had him seen as a joke. But then between True Detective and his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey won wide respect back as a true great actor. It all started with Dazed and Confused, the 1993 comedy where McConaughey’s turn as a goofy stoner got him major attention. This audition shows he had the part down cold at the very beginning, laughing and perfectly capturing the air of a man constantly on a high. Many can joke it’s not too far off from McConaughey’s true persona in the 2000s yet it seems so natural that it barely looks like a performance. It took a long while for him to finally reach the top of his craft but this audition showed the easy charm that McConaughey would utilize to be among Hollywood’s biggest names.
6 Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson
Few things are as daunting for a casting director than to figure the right actor for a character loved by millions. It’s even bigger when you have to figure out two. When Warner Brothers began to bring the Harry Potter saga to life, they faced the task of finding the right actor to play the title role. Over a thousand hopefuls were looked at with many more wanting a shot as they knew the Boy Who Lived would be a major break. Finally, it came to Daniel Radcliffe as his audition tape showcased how he captured the eagerness of Harry taking to his destiny and his joy of finding out he’s magic. His resemblance to drawings of the character helped to land the role.
He wasn’t alone as Emma Watson was soon impressing with her auditions for the role of Hermione Granger, showing the character’s intelligence and charm. It all came together when the duo did a screen test with Rupert Grint, who was up for the role of Ron. Instantly, the trio showed the perfect chemistry for the roles of Harry, Hermione and Ron and won the parts. They would be raised to stardom by the iconic eight-film series and Radcliffe and Watson both moving on to further fame in roles and this showcased how grasping these famous roles led to their major success.
5 Jennifer Lawrence
It took only six years after her debut for Jennifer Lawrence to win the Best Actress Oscar and become a box office attraction. That speaks volumes to her amazing talent but even she had to start somewhere. Lawrence had been doing minor roles in TV shows like Monk and a run as the teenage daughter in The Bill Engvall Show. In 2009, Lawrence auditioned for a role in what was called Enclosure, a drama of a family dealing with their father’s impending death. Lawrence was trying out for one of the daughters and the audition has her complaining why their long absent brother is back. Even at this young age, Lawrence shows amazing talent beyond her years and imbues the character with a lot of spirit. She didn’t get the part as the movie went through a protracted production before being released in 2014 as Lullaby. It didn’t make much of a splash and by that time, Lawrence was a mega-star thanks to The Hunger Games yet this tape shows the future star in the making.
4 Scarlett Johansson
It’s always interesting to see a future sexpot back when she was just a kid. Jumanji was conceived as a vehicle for Robin Williams, the story of a kid sucked into a strange board game and emerging years later. A smaller but important role was Judy, one of the modern-day kids who accidentally reopens the game and unleashes its monstrous beasts. As the film was considered a future hit, several actresses tried out, among them a young Scarlett Johansson. The future Avenger shows a good charm in the role, innocent but excited as she gets into the adventure and eager to help out. In the end, the part went to Kirsten Dunst who was a bit more of a “name” at the time thanks to Interview With the Vampire. Johansson would keep slugging it out in minor roles until she got attention with The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World. It was Lost in Translation that boosted her to fame and soon gained iconic status with her role as the Black Widow. But even as a child, Johansson showed some nice skill with this tape that would lead to far hotter fame down the line.
3 Natalie Portman
It’s very rare that an actress can stun critics with her very first performance. It’s even more impressive when that performance is as a child. In 1994, noted action director Luc Besson put out what many call his best movie, Leon (named The Professional in the United States). Jean Reno played the title role of a cool but naive hitman who ends up befriending a young girl hunted by a corrupt DEA agent. Besson wanted a total newcomer for the part of Mathilda and was struck by the tape of Natalie Hershlag. Only twelve at the time, Natalie nailed the character, her offbeat brushing off her lousy family being killed and openly excited to find out her new guardian is a hitman. She won the part and, to protect her family, changed her name to Natalie Portman.
The movie was a hit with critics gushing over how Portman took to acting like she’d been doing it for years and older than she seemed. It led Portman to her career that went from Star Wars to winning an Oscar for Black Swan to massive acclaim for Jackie. It should be no surprise as this audition proved that Portman had the goods early on to be a great actress.
2 Hugh Jackman
It’s one of the greatest “could have been” castings in movie history. After years of development, X-Men was finally prepared to jump from the comic books to the big screen. While the cast was good (fans having said for years Patrick Stewart was born to play Professor X), the role of Wolverine got the most attention. Dougray Scott was cast, known best for Ever After and seemed ready to wield the claws. But Scott was forced to back out due to a commitment to Mission Impossible II. Thus, director Bryan Singer went to the man who’d secretly been his first choice: Hugh Jackman.
The Australian actor was a complete unknown which Singer thought would be a bonus. His audition tape showed that Jackman had the character down well, the gruff nature of Wolverine and the way he carried himself as a man ready to go off at any moment. Jackman also showed an energy that Singer thought could do well for Wolverine to sell him as a hero for audiences. It was a great move as Jackman would play the role eight more times as well as scoring various other parts and a key ingredient in turning comic book films into box office success.
1 Harrison Ford
It’s well known that Star Wars went through a unique creative process. Virtually no one expected it to be successful, let alone the biggest movie of all time that would change pop culture. Many actors auditioned for the iconic lead roles including Christopher Walken, Stockard Channing, Bill Murray, Jodie Foster and more. George Lucas had the intriguing idea of having the actors be in groups so he could get a feel for their chemistry. Lucas had worked with a young actor by the name of Harrison Ford on American Graffiti but didn’t want to reuse actors from that movie, wanting fresh faces. Still, he brought Ford in just to read the lines for Han against Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. Ford just related lines, one scene with Hamill realizing the Death Star had destroyed Alderaan (called Organa Major at the time) and another with Leia where Han makes it clear he just wants the money, not to help some cause.
Ford was never meant to be more than just a line reader. But his delivery of the dialogue won Lucas over as he saw Ford had an instant grasp of the character and gelled with Fisher and Hamill. He captured Han’s recklessness, his mercenary nature but also the inner hero inside. By the time the auditions were done, Lucas decided that Ford was perfect for Han and while amused, Ford agreed. Like Hamill and Fisher, Ford became a star thanks to the movie and soon added to it with Indiana Jones and other blockbuster hits. It was a true lucky break that pushed Ford higher than his co-stars to fame.