15 Actors Who Got Their Start in Small Roles

It’s always so much easier to believe that most famous actors and actresses have never had to struggle. Especially when we see where they are now, with a highlight reel of incredibly good movies and insanely high paychecks to match. But, every story has a beginning, just like some of the celebrities we are going to discuss here today.

Some are Oscar winners, some have only garnered nominations, but the fact remains, they all started somewhere. Sometimes, the very bottom. It’s humbling to know that even in the beginning no role was too small. I’m not sure how the attitudes of some are off-screen and in their personal lives, but humble beginnings typically breed better character. In fact, I just saw a YouTube clip of the comedian Louis CK talking about how rich kids always turn out to be a-holes because everything has been handed to them. He said something like, no boy at the age of 17 who has been given a Porsche is appreciative of efforts and what it takes to make that kind of living. Well, in Louis CK’s words, anyway.

Even Louis CK had to start somewhere. I wonder if it’s always talent, or sometimes just the right place at the right time kind of circumstances? Perhaps a mixture of both. So, without further ado, let us get into some actors/actresses who started from the bottom now they here.

15 Jennifer Lawrence

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Although now known for roles such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series (2012-2015), Rosalyn Rosenfield in American Hustle (2013), and Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Lawrence wasn’t always a household name. We love to see her tell it how it is in interviews, on the red carpet, and in her acceptance speeches, but before the Oscar-winning actress graced us with her relatability, she got her first acting gig on a television show called Monk. In 2006, she made her acting debut as “Mascot” in an episode called “Mr. Monk and the Big Game,” on season 5.

So in just under eleven years, Jennifer Lawrence went from playing a high school mascot on a television show to winning an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Silver Linings Playbook. Dreams are possible, folks.

14 Bradley Cooper

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When Bradley Cooper’s name is brought up, films like The Hangover (2009), The A-Team (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), or American Sniper (2014) come to mind. It only seemed fitting to move on to Cooper when starting off with Jennifer Lawrence. They’ve been in around 3 or 4 films together, so when I think of one, I always think of the other.

Moving along, Cooper played a role in one of the most popular shows on HBO in the late 1990s/early 2000s. What show? Sex and the City. It was an episode called “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?” on season 2 of the HBO hit. I wasn’t really into this show when it was first released, but having gotten older, am now an avid fan. When I first saw this episode with Cooper in it, let’s just say he looked just as amazing then as he does now.

13 Michelle Rodriguez

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If you hear the name Michelle Rodriguez and the entire Fast and the Furious franchise doesn’t come to mind, I have no words. It’s Letty, people! That entire franchise has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. The first one was released in 2001 and is still going strong. "Family" is a big part of that franchise and even with my being an audience member, they feel like family to me. It’s hard not to mention Paul Walker when you think of these movies either (may he rest in peace). But, not to take any shine away from Rodriguez herself, her first ever film was Girlfight (2000) where she played the character, Diana Guzman.

For Girlfight, Rodriguez beat out 300 other women for this role. Oh, and as if that wasn’t impressive enough, it was also her very first audition. To say she was meant for this is putting it lightly. Much respect to you, Rodriguez.

12 Leonardo DiCaprio

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DiCaprio, who is probably one of the most talented and diverse actors of our generation, wasn’t always at star status. I remember him as far back as the television show, Growing Pains (1985-1992). This show was the first series he was in for more than one episode. It’s been an uphill climb for his career ever since. Even the movies that were not my favorite were never movies I hated. It’s at a point where whatever he’s in, I want to see because there’s a good chance I will love the film. For example, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The film was long, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I thought he was going to win the Oscar that year, but his time did eventually come around (we’re so proud of you, Leo).

Also, let’s not forget his role as Romeo in the 1996 remake Romeo and Juliet. I own it, and yes, still watch it from time to time. And, if I were to name every good movie he has been in, this post would get unbearably long.

11 Jennifer Aniston

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Also known as Rachel Green from the ever popular television show, Friends (1994-2004), Aniston has been around a long time. With that said, it doesn’t look like she will be going anywhere anytime soon (which is more than fine). However, her very first TV appearance was in the short-lived series Malloy where she played the character Courtney Walker. Who knew years later her best friend’s name would also be Courtney? Sounds like real life foreshadowing.

If we delve even deeper, we would also take note that her first ever silver screen debut was in the movie, Leprechaun (1993). A year and some small parts later, Friends was born, and Aniston was put on the map. Her career and personal life have been highly publicized, but throughout it all, she has remained a class act.

10 Samuel L. Jackson

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Seriously, this man is in every movie ever. And I love it so much. Honestly, half of the time I’m watching a movie, I have no clue he’s in it, but he always is. It’s superb. Before being a household name and playing one of my absolute favorite characters, Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction (1994), he had small roles. One of the first films was Coming to America (1988) where he played the very generic “Hold-Up Man.”

That was then, this is now. Samuel L. Jackson has been in a plethora of movies, so it’s hard to keep track. His IMDb page lists 168 credits. Impressive? You bet it is. With his status, it’s only a matter of time before he wins a Golden Globe or an Oscar. Give it to the man just for being in a movie. He has earned it.

9 Mila Kunis

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Mila Kunis started out very young. She played in an episode here and there on shows like Days of Our Lives, Baywatch, 7th Heaven, and Walker Texas Ranger. It wasn’t until she landed the role of Jackie Burkhart on That 70s Show (1998-2006) that she became very well-known.

I believe I watched a television special about her once on VH1 or something, and when she landed the role of Jackie, she was only 14 years old but had lied and said she was 18 years old. I don’t remember when or how they figured out she wasn’t truthful about her age, but it obviously didn’t hinder how much she was loved on the comedy series. She has since been in other films like Black Swan (2010), Friends With Benefits (2011), and most recently Bad Moms (2016), but much like Rachel Green, she will forever remain Jackie to us.

8 Johnny Depp

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Lately, Depp’s films have mainly been flops (as much as that pains me to say), but he still is one amazing actor. Before the Mad Hatter and Captain Jack Sparrow, he started off in horror as Glen Lantz in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). This was his first movie ever. I watched the Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010) documentary (which if you didn’t know is almost 4 hours. That’s right, dedication), and Wes Craven spoke about Johnny Depp and how he was this fresh-faced kid who was very nervous on set.

Gone are those days. From 21 Jump Street (1987-1990) to Edward Scissorhands (1990) to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), it can never be said that Depp hasn’t earned his place in Hollywood. Regardless of the controversy surrounding his current personal life, he was meant to act. The end.

7 Jennifer Love Hewitt

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As I’ve gotten to Jennifer Love Hewitt, I noticed there are three Jennifer’s I’ve listed so far. That was purely coincidental. Now, I’m going to kick it way back to 1990 because this is when I first remember seeing Hewitt. She went by “Love Hewitt” back then. It was on a show called Kids Incorporated that aired from 1984-1993. I still remember the theme song. Needless to say, I have followed her career since I was a kid. Hewitt’s been in some of my most fond memories of film and television alike. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), and of course, Ghost Whisperer (2005-2010).

If you didn’t know, she sings as well. That’s what she mainly did on Kids Incorporated (if memory serves me correctly). Hewitt is one of my faves because those shows and movies shaped so much for people my age at that time. She may not win awards, but she is aces in my book.

6 Robert Downey Jr.

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Downey seems like the kind of actor who has never not been famous. He has had some very public ups and downs in his personal life. We all know him best (well, most of us in this day and age) as Iron Man. Now, whether it’s because he's been the only Iron Man or because he’s just that good, no one could play that role as brilliantly as he has.

Downey’s first ever role was at the tender age of 5 when he portrayed a puppy in his father’s film “Pound,” where humans portray the featured animal. He was also in Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985), as one of the party crashers.

Be he Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark, I’m at the movies with a ticket in hand on opening weekend.

5 Viola Davis

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Where do I begin with my love for Viola Davis? Honestly, could she be more talented? Her first acting credit dates back to 1996 where she played “Nurse” in a filmed called The Substance of Fire.

I remember her most clearly from Disturbia (2007) as Detective Parker. She was tough but fair. When the world took notice of how talented she was, I believe, would be when she portrayed Aibileen Clark in The Help (2011). Then, let’s not forget How to Get Away With Murder. Also, Suicide Squad (2016) as Amanda Waller. It’s a hit or miss of opinions when it comes to that movie, however, a consensus of Davis being a badass rings true with everyone I’ve encountered.

She has yet to win an Oscar (of which I have no doubt her time will come), but she did snag a Golden Globe for her role in the movie Fences (2016) this year. Congrats!

4 Paul Rudd

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Clueless (1995) was Paul Rudd’s film debut. And technically it wasn’t that small of a role. He was actually a pretty prominent character in this iconic film. Clueless holds a special place in my heart, and I can honestly say I have probably seen it more than 200 times over the past twenty years. Don’t judge me.

Rudd had some television roles prior to this, but his role as Josh was a memorable one. Does anyone remember when he played Dave Paris in Romeo and Juliet (1996)? When I rewatched that film a while back, I didn’t remember him being in it at all and got a good chuckle out of it.

As for now, catch him as Scott Lang/Ant-Man in the highly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe films. It looks as though the MCU will have a lot of use for him in the near future.

He is easy on the eyes, so bring it!

3 Lucy Liu

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Before we got to know Lucy Liu as Alex in Charlie’s Angels (2000) or O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), she got her start in the television series Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000). She played the character Courtney in the episode “Pass, Not Pass.”

From there, she was in an episode here and there on some pretty popular television shows at the time: Home Improvement, ER, The X-Files, and Nash Bridges. After that, she had a small role as the former girlfriend of Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire (1996).

To be honest, I cannot remember a time where I didn’t think Liu was a total badass. Although Charlie’s Angels was incredibly cheesy, it was still entertaining. Now, we can see her opposite Jonny Lee Miller in the show Elementary (2012-?). This particular show is on my list to be watched. Whenever time affords me.

2 Tom Hanks

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Before winning two Academy Awards for Best Actor, Tom Hanks had small roles on television shows such as The Love Boat (1977-1987), Taxi (1978-1983), and Happy Days (1974-1984).

My first fondest memory of Hanks was when he played opposite Shelley Long in The Money Pit (1986). That movie made me laugh so hard, with one thing after another falling apart. Then there was Big (1988), also a very enjoyable movie. Either I’m a sucker for older movies, or they were just made better back then. I know these days we have all of this cool technology and can do things we never dreamed of, but there is something to be said for movies from the 80s and 90s.

Forrest Gump (1994) was explosive for Hanks’ career. The talent was always there, but his portrayal of Forrest was inspired. He then played Chuck in Castaway (2000), then let’s not forget Woody from the Toy Story films. The list is endless with this man’s career. And you know who is hot on his trails? His son, Colin Hanks, who is also a great actor (and a carbon copy of his father).

1 Robin Williams

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Robin Williams may be gone, but he is not forgotten. Where to even begin with the versatility of this man? Good Will Hunting (1997)? Dead Poet’s Society (1989)? Aladdin (1992)? One Hour Photo (2002)? Death to Smoochy (2002)? What Dreams May Come (1998)?

The man was infectious. His stand up was infectious, he was infectious. There are some people who you just know are inherently good people. I have a hunch that he was one of those people.

So for his very first big screen debut, we can look to him as Popeye, in Popeye (1980). For his television work, he is most known for playing the character, Mork in Mork and Mindy (1978-1982). Quite frankly, I don’t believe there is anything I’ve seen him in where he didn’t completely win me over with whatever character he was playing. Whichever role you remember him most for, remember him for how he made you feel.


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