- Prior to making it big in Hollywood, actors appeared in TV commercials and had minor roles on shows and movies.
- Celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Garner, and Steve Carell started small before becoming familiar faces, leading their own TV series, and starring in franchises.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
From Pepsi and Bubble Yum commercials to failed sitcoms and small guest roles, A-list celebrities were once struggling trying to make it in the business, just like everyone else in Hollywood.
Samuel L. Jackson didn’t jump right into award-winning movies. He was trained and started on stage. Kerry Washington was popping up in educational videos before dominating on “Scandal,” and Nicole Kidman starred in a number of small Australian films before making it in Hollywood.
We took a look back at 53 A-list celebrities before they were the recognisable names we know today.
Nicole Kidman’s career started with a series of small Australian films.
She made her acting debut in two different movies in 1983: “Bush Christmas” and “BMX Bandits.” The actress won an Oscar in 2003 for “The Hours” and has scored numerous awards for her role on “Big Little Lies.”
Tom Hanks made his film debut in the low-budget horror film “He Knows You’re Alone.”
But before he landed his first movie, Hanks’s acting career started on the stage. He also co-starred in the cross-dressing comedy, “Bosom Buddies,” for two seasons. Hanks’s first leading role was in “Splash” a few years later, and he is now a two-time Oscar winner.
Before Jennifer Lawrence became an Academy Award-winning actress and franchise star, she started out modelling and acting in small commercials.
She earned her Screen Actors Guild card when she was 14 thanks to a promotional video for MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16.” She dropped out of school to pursue her dreams. That same year, she also appeared in a Burger King commercial as a potential girlfriend to the Whopper Jr.
Seven-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper made his TV debut with a guest spot on season two of “Sex and the City.”
He picks Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) up at a bar and the two briefly make out in a car, but Carrie leaves after he returns with her New York magazine cover story. His career skyrocketed after “The Hangover.”
Kerry Washington earned her SAG card after starring on an episode of “ABC Afterschool Special.”
She started to land more roles in the early 2000s, including “Save the Last Dance” and was the star of “Scandal.”
Brad Pitt popped up in some commercials, including some for Pringles back in the ’80s.
His career began to take off after his supporting role in “Thelma and Louise,” but Pitt’s earlier roles included uncredited appearances in film’s such as “Hunk” and “Less Than Zero.” He was a guest star on “Friends” while married to Jennifer Aniston. He later divorced and then married Angelina Jolie. They filed for divorce in 2016.
Watch one of his Pringles commercials here.
Jennifer Aniston’s first TV appearance was on the short-lived series “Molloy.”
She starred alongside Mayim Bialik, now known for “The Big Bang Theory.” Only seven episodes of the show aired. That same year, she starred on the “Ferris Bueller” TV series. Her professional breakthrough came after she landed the role of Rachel Green on “Friends.” She split from husband Justin Theroux in 2017.
Will Smith wanted to be a rapper. And at the age of 16, Smith and a friend dubbed themselves DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.
The duo won a Grammy in 1988. But after coming into some trouble with the IRS, Smith lost much of his income. He found critical (and financial) success in 1990 with “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” In that same year, before “Fresh Prince” premiered, Smith actually appeared in two ABC specials, including “The Earth Day Special.” You can watch him rap along with Quincy Jones, Queen Latifah, and Ice-T for the special.
He may be an Oscar winner, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s career began with television ads.
In a 1998 interview with People, DiCaprio revealed that one of his earliest roles was an ad for Matchbox cars when he was 14. Other ads included one for Bubble Yum. He finally won his first Oscar for his role in “The Revenant.”
Mila Kunis booked her first commercial for Glitter Hair Barbie.
That was about four years before she auditioned for “That ’70s Show.” She was 14 when she went for the role, even though actors for the new series were supposed to be 18. After the truth was revealed, Kunis was nevertheless deemed perfect for the role. She eventually married her co-star Ashton Kutcher, and they have two kids.
Robert Downey Jr. made his debut when he was 5.
He played a puppy in his father’s film “Pound,” in which humans portray the featured animals. Downey quickly rose to fame in movies like “Less Than Zero” and “Chaplin.” He helped launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Iron Man” in 2008.
Viola Davis began her career on stage in an off-Broadway production of “As You Like It.”
She earned her SAG card in 1996 for her small role in “The Substance of Fire.” One of her earliest screen roles was in “Out of Sight,” also starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Now, she stars on “How to Get Away With Murder.”
Chris Pratt’s first regular TV role was on the hit teen drama “Everwood.”
He was 19 years old, living out of a van in Maui, Hawaii, and waiting tables at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, when actress Rae Dawn Chong came to the restaurant to eat. She ended up casting Pratt in a horror comedy she was directing called “Cursed Part III.” It was never released, but Pratt soon found success on TV. The actor is now the front man in the new “Jurassic Park” franchise and a member of the “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Sofia Vergara’s first role was a Pepsi commercial when she was 17.
George Clooney’s career started to take off thanks to his TV roles.
Clooney’s acting debut came in “Grizzly II: The Concert.” The following year he made his TV debut in a hospital sitcom called “E/R.” Ironically enough, Clooney would have his breakthrough with the drama “ER.” He also starred on “The Facts of Life” and “Roseanne.”
Meryl Streep started her extensive career on the stage before diving into TV and movies.
She made her TV debut in 1977’s TV movie “The Deadliest Season.” She also made her film debut that same year in “Julia.” The following year, Streep earned her first Academy Award nomination for “The Deer Hunter.”
Denzel Washington’s prolific career began with a TV movie.
The actor made his debut in “Wilma,” a made-for-TV movie about track and field icon Wilma Rudolph. His film debut came a few years later when he starred in the comedy “Carbon Copy.”
Before hosting her own talk show, Ellen DeGeneres was doing stand-up and acting.
Harrison Ford’s career began with uncredited roles in films.
His first role was as a bellhop in “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.” He had other extra work and a few small TV roles before his breakout role in “American Graffiti.” The “Star Wars” actor is still doing action roles.
Halle Berry lived in a homeless shelter for a time before she landed her first acting gig.
Her first role was on the short-lived sitcom “Living Dolls.” She followed that up with a couple of other TV roles until she landed her first movie role in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.”
Reese Witherspoon has been acting since she was a young teen.
It took a few years for Chadwick Boseman to hit his stride.
Boseman’s career started with small guest parts on a variety of TV shows, like “Law & Order.” He eventually starred on “Lincoln Heights.” A few years later, he stood out in his first starring role as Jackie Robinson in “42.” Now, he’s known as the titular hero in “Black Panther.”
Saoirse Ronan is only 25, but she’s been nominated for three Oscars.
She made her screen debut on the English drama “The Clinic.” She earned her first Oscar nomination three years later for her role in “Atonement.”
Natalie Portman’s first onscreen role was starring as a child assassin in “Léon: The Professional.”
She was only 12 when she made her film debut and has since spent most of her career starring in movies.
After leaving college for a time, Samuel L. Jackson eventually returned and studied drama.
For nearly two decades, Jackson had minor roles in movies and TV but eventually had his breakthrough with Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.”
Julie Andrews established her career on Broadway before landing her film debut as the iconic titular character in “Mary Poppins.”
Andrews was a young pre-teen when she first started singing onstage. Her extremely prolific career has garnered her numerous awards, including an Oscar and two Emmys.
Angelina Jolie made her screen debut as a child in a brief appearance alongside her father in “Lookin’ to Get Out.”
She didn’t appear in her next movie until 11 years later when she starred in “Cyborg 2.” In between projects, she appeared in a few music videos. She’s won one Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted.”
One of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s earliest roles was a guest spot on “That ’70s Show.”
He landed his first lead role three years later with “The Scorpion King” in 2002. He hasn’t slowed down since. He earns millions of dollars per film, has numerous projects scheduled, works out for hours a day, and still spends time with his family.
Beyoncé was still a part of Destiny’s Child when she started acting.
Queen Bey played herself on episodes of “Smart Guy” and “The Famous Jett Jackson.” Her first movie was MTV’s “Carmen: A Hip Hopera.” Her first theatrical movie was “Austin Powers in Goldmember.” Though she’s mostly stuck with music, she was in movies including “Dreamgirls” and she’s voicing Nala in Disney’s upcoming “Lion King.”
Ryan Reynolds’s first role was on the Canadian teen drama “Hillside,” which was known as “Fifteen” in the US.
His career continued with roles in the TV movie for “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and the series “Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place.” He was mostly known for his romantic comedies until landing the role of the titular antihero in “Deadpool.” He married Blake Lively in 2012, and they have two daughters.
Emma Watson rose to fame because of the “Harry Potter” movies.
Watson made her breakthrough as Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” films. Her first part that wasn’t a “Potter” film was the British TV movie “Ballet Shoes.” She filmed while going to school and eventually graduated from Brown University. She also played Belle in Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” Much of her career has since focused on women’s rights.
Mindy Kaling was hired as a writer on “The Office” before being cast as Kelly Kapoor and made her film debut in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Sterling K. Brown’s earliest roles included playing a co-worker in “Brown Sugar” and an officer on “Third Watch.”
Other shows he was on include “Supernatural” and “Alias,” but his career really took off after “Army Wives.” He won an Emmy for “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” and another for his role on “This Is Us.” He was recently in “Black Panther.”
Oprah Winfrey was a news anchor before making her film debut in “The Colour Purple” and hosting her own talk show from 1986 until 2011.
Ryan Gosling started as a child actor thanks to “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
He kept with kid shows like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Goosebumps” for a while. He transitioned into more serious roles including “Remember the Titans” but became more recognisable for “The Notebook.”
Julia Roberts’s first role was the direct-to-video movie “Firehouse,” but she made her breakthrough a year later thanks to “Mystic Pizza.”
Roberts quickly became an acting darling, starring in movies including “Hook,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Notting Hill,” and “Runaway Bride.” She earned Oscar nominations for “Steel Magnolias,” “Pretty Woman,” and “August: Osage County.” She won for “Erin Brockovich.” She recently starred on “Homecoming.”
Mark Ruffalo was in a series of smaller films at the start of his career, including the horror movie “The Dentist.”
His theatre role in “This Is Our Youth” led to him starring in the Academy Award-nominated movie “You Can Count on Me.” He’s earned three Oscar nominations for “The Kids Are All Right,” “Foxcatcher,” and “Spotlight.” He has played the Hulk in Marvel films since “The Avengers.”
Laura Dern first appeared in film as a child with her mother, Diane Ladd, in 1973’s “White Lightning” but made her actual film debut in 1980’s “Foxes.”
She broke out five years later with “Mask” and began her frequent collaboration with David Lynch with 1986’s “Blue Velvet.” She’s well-known for starring on “Enlightened” and in movies including “Jurassic Park” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” She earned Oscar nominations for “Wild” and “Rambling Rose.” Her most recent roles were on “Big Little Lies” and in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Jeff Goldblum made his on-screen debut as a thug in “Death Wish.”
Goldblum earned an Oscar nomination for “Little Surprises” and has starred in hit movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Independence Day,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and “Thor: Ragnarok.”
Donald Glover’s career began with comedic YouTube videos and as a writer for “30 Rock,” on which he also appeared on a few episodes.
He starred on “Community” and was recently in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Star Wars: the Last Jedi.” Glover has won a Golden Globe and two Emmys for “Atlanta,” a show he created, stars on, and directs occasionally. He has also released three albums under the pseudonym Childish Gambino.
Armie Hammer’s first on-screen appearance was as a mean student on an episode of “Arrested Development.”
He was on episodes of “Desperate Housewives” and “Gossip Girl,” but he hit his stride in the dual role of the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network.” He went on to star in “J. Edgar” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and won critical praise for his turn in “Call Me by Your Name.” His most recent work is “Sorry to Bother You.”
Amy Adams made her on-screen debut in “Drop Dead Gorgeous.”
Adams has earned five Oscar nominations throughout her career for “Junebug,” “Doubt,” “The Fighter,” “The Master,” and “American Hustle.” She’s also well-known for “Enchanted,” “The Muppets,” and as Lois Lane in “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” and “Justice League.” She recently starred on “Sharp Objects.”
Sandra Bullock was on the short-lived sitcom “Working Girl” before breaking out in “Speed.”
She won an Oscar for “The Blindside” and earned a nomination for “Gravity,” but is also well-known for her comedic turns in movies like “Miss Congeniality” and “The Proposal.” She was recently in “Ocean’s Eight.”
Ted Danson’s prolific career began with small film and TV roles, but he broke out as Sam Malone on “Cheers,” a role which earned him two Golden Globe wins.
He also won a Golden Globe for “Something About Amelia.” He is well-known for “Becker,” “Damages,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” and now “The Good Place.”
Sandra Oh earned praise for one of her earliest roles in “Double Happiness.”
She won a Golden Globe for playing Christina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy” and earned five Emmy nominations as well. She recently won an Emmy for “Killing Eve.” She’s also known for starring in “The Princess Diaries,” “Sideway,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and on “Arliss.”
Penélope Cruz was 16 when she made her debut in “Jamón, jamón” where she met her now-husband Javier Bardem.
She earned Oscar nominations for “Volver” and the musical “Nine” and won for “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” Cruz earned her first Emmy nomination for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
Allison Janney started her career with small TV roles on shows like “Law & Order” and “Guiding Light,” as well as small movie roles like in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
The actress’s career has garnered her numerous awards, including an Oscar for “I, Tonya” and Emmy wins for “The West Wing,” “Masters of Sex,” and “Mum.”
Chris Evans’ career began with a small show called “Opposite Sex,” which he followed with a part in “Not Another Teen Movie.”
He’s best-known now as Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He also played the Human Torch in “Fantastic Four.” His other movies include “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” “Snowpiercer,” and “Gifted.”
Laurie Metcalf broke out on “Roseanne,” but one of her earliest roles was “Desperately Seeking Susan.”
She earned her first Oscar nomination for “Lady Bird” and won three Emmys for “Roseanne.” Metcalf also received Emmy nominations for “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Monk,” “Desperate Housewives, “The Big Bang Theory,” “Horace and Pete,” and “Getting On.”
Before performing stunts in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, Tom Cruise made his film debut in the 1981 drama “Endless Love.”
He had a minor role as Billy, who wore jean shorts and said that he was interested in arson at eight years old. In the ’80s, Cruise became a familiar face in Hollywood with lead roles in the star-studded drama “The Outsiders,” “Risky Business,” “Top Gun,” and the Oscar-winning movie “Rain Man.”
Jennifer Garner’s first on-screen role was in the TV movie Zoya, based on a romance book written by Danielle Steel.
The movie was released in 1995 and Garner played a young woman named Sasha. Shortly after, Garner appeared on “Law & Order,” “Spin City,” and “Time of Your Life.” Her big break came in 2001 when she landed the starring role as double agent Sydney Bristow on ABC’s “Alias.” She was nominated and won her first Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a drama television series in 2002, and went on to nab three more nominations in the years following.
Steve Carell’s first role ever was in a movie called “Curly Sue,” and he didn’t have a single line in it.
He played a waiter at a fancy restaurant in the 1991 movie. Carell went on to show off his comedic chops in movies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Evan Almighty.” Many people recognise him for his iconic role as manager Michael Scott on NBC’s iconic sitcom “The Office.”
Prior to her award-winning performance in “A Quiet Place,” Emily Blunt made her movie debut in the 2003 action film “Boudica.”
She starred as the daughter of Boudica, Isolda, and was described as “beautiful, gentle as a deer.” Blunt’s roles in ‘”Girl on the Train,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Mary Poppins Returns” led the British actress to receive Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations.
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