20 Renowned Actors & Their First Big Break

Hollywood is the ultimate dream of many aspiring actors and actresses. Some have worked from the very beginning towards their goal of becoming actors. Others, who had never imagined themselves acting, were spotted on the street and were offered to step into the wonderful world of TV and movies. However, there are some who didn’t get their break until later in their life.

Read on to find out how these 20 actors and actresses got their big break. Make sure you don’t miss #17, #12 and #3.

#20. Mel Gibson

Can you imagine Mad Max without Mel Gibson? We certainly cannot. The actor received classical theater training at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, Australia. There, he also acquired some theater experience. So before being cast for Mad Max, Mel didn’t have any stage actor experience. Little did Mel know that his break would come after giving a ride to a friend to an audition for the post-apocalyptic movie.

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The night before, Mel was involved in a bar fight. When he showed up at the Mad Max audition with a face like “a black and blue pumpkin” together with his friend, the Mad Max director thought Mel would be ideal for a villainous role. The filmmakers told the actor to come back after he healed up. Two weeks later, when Mel showed up for work, George Miller had a change of heart and cast Mel as the hero. As a result, Mel became popular around the globe for his performance.

#19. Sarah Michelle Gellar

Any fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? If there is, did any of you know that Sarah was spotted by a talent agent when she was only four years old? In the particular moment when this happened, young Sarah was eating at a restaurant in New York, her hometown. Since then, the actress worked hard to become a star. Her first gig was in the TV film An Invasion of Privacy. She also starred in different commercials.

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Sarah also earned the role of the long-lost daughter of Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane on the daytime soap All My Children. However, Sarah’s big break was yet to come. In 1996, the actress became widely known for her portrayal of Buffy Summers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Do you want to know what she did with her first big check?

I’m a saver…” Sarah said. “I know you can’t take it with you, so it’s not necessarily about saving it for a rainy day, but making sure I was in a place where I could always have a roof over my head.”

#18. Johnny Depp

At first, Johnny did not intend to become a stage performer; instead, he wanted to become a rock musician. He was earning his living out of music gigs and different odd jobs when his former wife, who was working as a makeup artist, introduced him to Nicolas Cage, who advised Johnny to pursue a career in acting. One day, he decided to go with his friend, Jackie Earle Haley, to an audition for Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Director Wes Craven wasn’t sure about casting Johnny but his teenage daughter vouched for Johnny’s star quality. So the actor made the cut and ended portraying Glen, the boyfriend of lead character Nancy. From then on, the actor landed different roles in other movies and TV series. Always grateful for his first break and for helping him become a star, Johnny paid tribute to the late director in 2015.

#17. Charlize Theron

Born in South Africa, the beautiful actress didn’t see herself as neither a model nor an actress at first. In fact, this Academy Award winner saw herself as a dancer. However, when she was 16, the actress won a modeling contract and started a modeling career. After moving to Hollywood, Charlize moved to a hotel room, which she paid with the dwindling savings she had earned while modeling in NY as well as with the help from her mother.

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The Monster actress had several meetings with agents in Hollywood without any success. One fateful day, Charlize was trying to cash a check from her mother and the teller refused. They started to argue until a nice man assisted the girl. This wonderful man happened to be no other than John Crosby, a talent agent, who offered to represent the astonishing Charlize and sent her to acting lessons. A year later, she landed her first role in a movie.

#16. Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey, born and raised in Texas, wasn’t interested in a career in the oil industry, very much unlike his father. Instead, Matthew wanted to become an actor and began working in TV commercials and student films. A couple of years later, the actor met a producer who would later introduce him to Richard Linklater, who was holding auditions for Dazed and Confused. However, it wasn’t an instant sell for the director.

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When I first met Matthew, he came in and he’s, like, this really good-looking, clean-cut guy, and that threw me off, cause I never saw Wooderson like that,” the director explained. “And then he did his audition and he kind of, like, fell into this character. His eyes turned into little quarter slots – he’s like, ‘Hey, man, you got a joint?’ And I was, like, ‘Holy shit’.”

It seems that director Linklater saw the actor’s true potential behind his pretty looks, and pushed Matthew’s career to what it is today.

#15. Jennifer Lawrence

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence always loved to perform. Actually, she performed in church plays and school musicals. When she was 14, Jennifer and her family were vacationing in NY when a talent scout saw her. Thanks to this encounter, the actress got to audition for different talent agents. While her mother wanted Jennifer to become a model, JLaw wanted to pursue acting as her career.

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JLaw then received a minor TV role in Company Town and guest roles in other TV shows such as Monk and Medium. Afterward, she landed a role on the sitcom The Bill Engvall Show. Her performance was so good that, in 2009, she won a Young Artist Award for Outstanding Young Performer in a TV Series for the role on the sitcom. Her breakthrough role, however, came in the film Winter’s Bone, which earned JLaw her first Academy Award nomination.

#14. Eva Mendes

At first, this star wasn’t planning to become an actress or a model. Studying to get a degree in marketing, Eva was in college when she reconsidered her future and decided to drop out and pursue acting instead. The reason for this was that a talent manager had caught a glimpse of her photo in a friend’s portfolio. It seems that the agent fell for Eva and wanted to represent her.

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As a result of meeting the talent agent, Eva landed onto minor roles in films, including A Night at the Roxbury and Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror. Unsatisfied with her acting skills, Eva decided to hire an acting coach. The lessons paid off as her breakthrough came in 2001 in the film Training Day.

You’ll never guess who comes next!

#13. Peter Dinklage

Although Peter majored in drama at Bennington College, he didn’t pursue acting after graduating from college. Before we saw Peter as Tyrion Lannister, the star wanted to build a theater company. His dreams shattered when he couldn’t afford rent in NY and, to make ends meet, the Game of Thrones star worked in an office job and played in a punk-funk-rap band named Whizzy.

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Peter made his credited film debut in Living in Oblivion, a low-budget independent comedy-drama. The acclaimed actor had to wait until 2003 to finally get his deserved breakthrough in the film The Station Agent. Originally, the director didn’t have Peter in mind when planning the movie. As the script was being developed, Tom McCarthy decided to write the role for Peter.

#12. Meryl Streep

There’s no doubt that Meryl Streep is one of the greatest actresses of our time. However, she didn’t have in mind pursuing acting as a career until later in life, which is odd because the versatile actress had appeared in many high school plays. Once she attended Vassar College, Meryl changed her mind and became interested in theater. After this, she enrolled in Yale School of Drama and played several roles on stage.

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Inspired by Robert De Niro’s performance in Taxi Driver, Meryl was lured into becoming a stage actress. At first, she wasn’t successful and even wanted to stop working in movies. But Meryl was cast in The Deer Hunter, apparently under Robert De Niro’s suggestion, and the rest is history. The renowned actress has appeared in several films since then and has earned international fame.

#11. Jason Statham

Never in his wildest dream did this Brit imagine that he would become a model, let alone pursue a successful career as an action movie star. Jason was young when he started practicing kung fu, kickboxing, and karate recreationally. Additionally, he became passionate about high diving. He became so good at diving that he competed for England at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. To pay his bills, Jason sold jewelry on the streets in London.

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First spotted by an agency specializing in sports modeling, he landed some modeling contracts. Also, Jason appeared in a few music videos, the most relevant of which is Run to the Sun by Erasure in 1994. The model was still working on the street when he was spotted by a talent agent, who took him to an audition for Guy Ritchie. Apparently, the director was in need of an actor to impersonate a street vendor selling fake jewelry for his film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Jason got the job and since then he has become a popular actor.

#10. Harrison Ford

Did you know that Harrison Ford is a self-taught professional carpenter? He had to choose an alternative career as he had to support his family. Before becoming an international star, Harrison had only had small parts in films and TV series. Director Francis Ford Coppola even hired Harrison to expand his office after The Godfather success. However, in 1973, Harrison’s luck started to change when he met George Lucas and secured a role in his film American Graffiti.

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George Lucas took a liking to the actor and then hired him to read lines for actors auditioning for parts in the then-coming Star Wars. Soon after, the actor convinced the director of his acting skills and won the role of Han Solo. That role turned Harrison into one of the most renowned actors ever.

Can you guess who is the next star?

#9. Christoph Waltz

Austrian actor and director Christoph Waltz comes from a family where everyone was one way or another involved in acting. Thus, it is not a surprise that Christoph studied acting in Vienna and then in New York. Before impersonating SS officer Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph supported his family doing behind-the-scenes work and playing small roles in TV shows.

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Quentin Tarantino opened the doors for Christoph when the director was looking for the “perfect Landa.” Landa’s portrayal was perfect and resulted in the actor winning international fame.

Unless I found the perfect Landa, I was going to pull the movie. I gave myself one more week and then I was going to pull the plug. Then Christoph Waltz came in and it was obvious that he was the guy; he could do everything. He was amazing, he gave us our movie back,” Tarantino confessed.

#8. Alden Ehrenreich

For this young actor, it certainly paid off having connections with director Steven Spielberg–Alden’s father was the director’s accountant–. The young star, born in 1989, recently played Han Solo’s part in the Star Wars spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story. Spielberg found this rare jewel when he saw a comedy video Alden had made with the director’s daughter at a friend’s Bat Mitzvah. As a result, Alden was called by Dreamworks where he met its casting director.

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[Ehrenreich] was in a bat mitzvah video that my daughter acted with him in for their best friend. They showed me the video and I loved it and I got him an agent. That’s sort of how it all began,” director Steven Spielberg commented. “(…) I thought, ‘I have found the next really funny comedian.’ But most of his choices have been in drama and people don’t know how really funny he is,” the Jurassic Park director added.

#7. Chris Pratt

Unlike many of the actors on this list, he wasn’t discovered on the street by a talent or model agency. As he wasn’t born in New York or Los Angeles, he wasn’t recruited there. The Guardians of the Galaxy star had moved to Hawaii and was pretty much homeless at the time: he would sleep on a van or a tent on the beach. He was waiting tables at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in Maui when he was discovered.

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Whoever started the trend of waiting tables to meet directors and producers was indeed right! When he was working at the restaurant, 19-year-old Star-Lord met director Rae Dawn Chong, who cast the young actor for her horror film Cursed Part 3. Chris moved to LA and, since then, his acting career took a turn for the better. He became widely known, however, for his role as Andy Dwyer on the comedy show Parks and Recreation.

#6. Evangeline Lilly

Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly was first discovered on the street by a Ford modeling agent who offered to represent her. As Evangeline wasn’t interested in modeling, she turned down the offer. Soon after, she changed her mind. The young actress wanted to go to college and major in International Relations at the University of British Columbia. To achieve this goal, she needed money to pay for college.

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Evangeline signed with the agency and, shortly after, she appeared in commercials and received offers to play small parts in TV shows such as Smallville and Kingdom Hospital. In 2004, the actress made her break when she got the part of Kate Austen in the TV show Lost.

The first year I just kept thinking, ‘Well, there has to be a point, a reason I’m here. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened the way it happened: in such a magical and spontaneous way’” the actress recalled.

We’ve reached the top 5!

#5. Kristen Wiig

This university graduate didn’t have any plans of becoming an actress. While in college, she decided to take an acting class to fulfill a course requirement. It seems that her teacher saw her raw talent as he encouraged Kristen to keep on acting. The young graduate took her advice to heart and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Although she soon realized that improvisation was a better fit for her.

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Young Kristen became a member of an improvisation group called The Groundlings. She did a series of odd jobs trying to support herself while looking for an opportunity to act. Thanks to her manager’s suggestion, she sent an audition tape to Saturday Night Live. In 2005, she made her debut on SNL and she became a full member the year after. During her time on the show, the actress earned four Emmy nominations in the Supporting Actress category.

#4. Sharlto Copley

Sharlto Copley is a South African actor who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the science fiction movie District 9. This Academy Award nominee loved to act since he was a small kid. He performed in school plays and he would star in his own commercials.

When I was 12, I would take my parents’ camera and star in commercials or cooking shows with my friends,” Sharlto confessed.

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Ever since then, the South African star started working behind the scenes, producing and directing commercials, music videos and short films. At least until he agreed to help director Neill Blomkamp. Of course, Sharlto didn’t think that the director of District 9 would repay him with the leading role in the film.

Neill thought it was going to be a real fight to get me the part but [producer and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson]said yes,” Sharlto declared.

#3. Sylvester Stallone

Action star Sylvester Stallone struggled for years before earning a name for himself in Hollywood. In the 1970s, the actor and screenwriter could barely make ends meet, and Sylvester was at the end of his rope when he found himself scavenging for places to sleep at because he didn’t have enough money for rent.

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The Italian Stallion had to wait until 1975 to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Inspired by the Muhammad Ali–Chuck Wepner fight, he wrote the hit Rocky in just three days. The actor wanted to play the leading role and had to wait until a studio accepted his demand before selling the script. It was thanks to Rocky that Sly achieved worldwide fame and recognition for his hard work.

#2. Samuel L. Jackson

This box office star started to shine in the early ‘90s thanks to a minor role he landed in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. Later, he received a small part in Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance, where the director saw the actor’s potential. After this collaboration, Tarantino asked the actor to play the role of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. Since then, the actor and the director have worked together in several movies.

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Shocked to learn that Tarantino wrote the role of Jules specifically for him, Samuel commented: “To know that somebody had written something like Jules for me. I was overwhelmed, thankful, arrogant—this whole combination of things that you could be, knowing that somebody’s going to give you an opportunity like that.”

Thank you, Quentin Tarantino, for noticing Samuel’s true potential!

#1. Morgan Freeman

Before becoming an actor, film director, film narrator, and philanthropist Morgan Freeman was a kid who raked up every penny he could find to go to the movies. In fact, the Academy Award winner was very passionate about acting and movies from an early age. However, when he was a teenager, he rejected a partial scholarship from Jackson State University in order to pursue a career in the U.S. Air Force where he served for four years.

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When he realized that he wanted to become an actor, Morgan moved to the west where he took acting and dancing lessons. However, he had to wait until the ‘70s to start receiving recognition for his performances. Morgan’s first big role was on the soap opera Another World, followed by his appearances on the children’s show The Electric Company. Still, he earned international fame thanks to his performance in Driving Miss Daisy, when he was 52 years old! Thanks to his hard work, the actor received the recognition he deserved.

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