Even the biggest stars have to start somewhere and most don’t launch their careers with their most profitable or acclaimed works. In fact, many make their feature film debuts in projects they would rather forget. Long before winning an Oscar or an Emmy, Reese Witherspoon began acting as a teenager, making her first big screen appearance in 1991’s “The Man in the Moon.” She responded to an open casting call for a bit part, but her audition won her the lead role of Dani Trant, a 14-year-old country girl who falls in love for the first time with her 17-year-old neighbor. “I learned everything I needed to know about being a film actor, how to hit marks, how to perform for a camera, how to get emotional,” she wrote on Instagram about making the film, which helped her snag an agent and start building a filmography chock-full of hits. To celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary on Oct. 4, 2021, Wonderwall.com is taking a look at the feature film debuts of more A-list stars…
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Julia Roberts dropped out of Georgia State University to move to New York City and pursue an acting career. She took classes and signed with a modeling agency before making her first big screen appearance in the 1988 film “Satisfaction” alongside Liam Neeson and Justine Bateman as a band member looking for a summer gig. The part helped set the stage for Julia’s breakout moment later that year in “Mystic Pizza.” She enrolled in a crash course on the drums to get the part after her manager lied to the casting director about her being a musician. “Basically, I’ve learned on the job,” Julia told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 about the start of her career. “It’s an instinctive thing with me. I don’t quite know what I’ll be doing until it’s done.”
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Johnny Depp is one of many household names who scored their first feature role in a horror film. In the early ’80s, he was introduced to Nicolas Cage by his then-wife, makeup artist Lori Anne Allison, who advised him to pursue an acting career. While accompanying a friend to an audition for 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Johnny ended up scoring a big part himself: He played the boyfriend of the main character and one of Freddy Krueger’s victims. Johnny has said the role was originally written as a big, blonde, jock-type — far from his own appearance — but director Wes Craven explained in an interview with Vulture that his daughters picked Johnny’s headshot from a set he showed them. “I always think of [them] for putting me in this mess, and certainly Wes Craven for being very brave to give me this gig,” Johnny said during a Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015.
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A year before receiving her first high-profile gig in the 2001 hit “Save the Last Dance,” Kerry Washington made her debut in the indie drama “Our Song.” She had previously received her Screen Actors Guild card as a requirement for a commercial that she’d starred in, but it took a few more years before she landed in theaters. Kerry plays one of three high school girls who are best friends despite having different family situations, different romantic interests, different moral codes and their own unique dreams. The movie follows them over one summer in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. While the character was 15, the actress was already out of college and in her early 20s when she got the job. “I was doing what I loved to do, I was doing it for the first time, and with a real actor’s director… a phenomenal collaborator,” she told Variety in 2014 of the experience. “This was a low-budget, independent film, so our transportation budget was 30 Metrocards. So [my mom] would drive from the Bronx down to Brooklyn and take all three of us girls [who were starring in the movie] home. Which was so huge.”
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Long before becoming the Oscar-nominated actress we all know and love, Amy Adams was working at a dinner theater in the small town of Chanhassen, Minnesota. She’d been there for a few years when she scored an audition for her first film role in the 1999 beauty pageant satire “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” Amy plays a ditzy, promiscuous cheerleader opposite already established names like Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy and Kirstie Alley. The production was filmed locally, which enabled her to shoot her scenes while still balancing her dinner theater job at night. Co-star Kirstie inspired her to move to Los Angeles and actively pursue a film career. “Everything about that movie was just so surreal to me,” Amy told CinemaBlend in 2013. “That was the first time I realized like, ‘I think I could go to Hollywood and at least get some commercials or something.'” In 2020, she also told E! that the beloved project “was before its time, but I love it and I’m so proud that was my first film.”
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The first film to feature Tom Hanks was the low-budget 1980 slasher pic “He Knows You’re Alone.” He landed the part shortly after moving to New York City to pursue acting. Prior to that, he’d dropped out of college to work at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, for three years. The horror flick, which depicts a soon-to-be bride who’s stalked by a killer the weekend before her wedding, is one of the first films inspired by the success of “Halloween.” Tom plays a relatively small part that was originally written to be killed off, but because the filmmakers liked him so much, they omitted filming his death scene. While the movie was a forgettable flop, Tom was lucky enough to immediately follow it with a lead part on the hit TV sitcom “Bosom Buddies.” He later told BAFTA that comedy was where he first felt at home on screen, saying, “I mostly made comedies, because I was in my 20s and they were asking me to and that’s where I had the chops.”
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While studying at Fordham University, Denzel Washington participated in a ton of local theater productions. Upon graduation, he made his screen acting debut in the 1977 made-for-television film “Wilma,” followed by his first big screen appearance in the 1981 comedy “Carbon Copy.” He stars opposite the late George Segal as a young and naïve Black man who happens to be the long-lost son of a shocked businessman living in an exclusive, predominantly white community. The movie came one year before his breakthrough part on the hit NBC hospital drama “St. Elsewhere,” and he explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2010 that he didn’t think he’d get it. “My teeth were chipped and broken when I did ‘Wilma.’ I was afraid I wasn’t going to get the part in ‘Carbon Copy’ because of my teeth,” he recalled. “I couldn’t afford to get them fixed. But they said, ‘We’re going to help you get them fixed.’ I was very proud of my [new] teeth.”
Emma Stone made her television debut on the 2004 VH1 talent competition reality show “In Search of the New Partridge Family” — and won the part of Laurie Partridge in a never-aired “Partridge Family” reboot. Her first big screen appearance didn’t come until three years later in the hit teen comedy “Superbad” as the romantic interest of a young Jonah Hill’s character.The natural blonde had to die her hair red for the film, which then became her signature look. Emma described the production to “Access Hollywood” in 2008 as “an amazing experience. And being that it was my first movie, I really had nothing to compare it to. It was definitely very different than other experiences I’ve had since then. It was a really cool thing to be a part of.”
Shortly after booking her first gig as an understudy for an off-Broadway play, Natalie Portman made her first big screen stop in the 1994 thriller “Léon: The Professional” at 13. She plays Mathilda, an orphan child who befriends a middle-aged hitman. Natalie’s parents were reluctant to let her take the part due to the sexual and violent content in the script but agreed after the director took out some of the concerning scenes. “I was so excited at 13 when the film was released and my work and my art would have a human response,” Natalie said during a speech at the Women’s March 2018, explaining that she struggled with the inappropriate response she received after the film hit theaters. “At 13 years old, the message from our culture was clear to me, I felt the need to cover my body and to inhibit my expression and my work in order to send my own message to the world: That I’m someone worthy of safety and respect. The response to my expression from small comments about my body to more threatening deliberate statements served to control my behavior through an environment of sexual terrorism.”
Brad Pitt had a series of uncredited film cameos to his name before he finally scored his first real role in the Yugoslavian-U.S. co-production “The Dark Side of the Sun” in 1988 in which he plays a young American taken by his family to the Adriatic to find a remedy for a rare and deadly skin condition. Brad was selected out of 400 candidates for the main role and was only paid $1,523 for seven weeks of filming. The movie went unnoticed and came only a few years before the star’s breakthrough turn in “Thelma & Louise.” “It was my second time on a plane. It was my first time out of the country. I had to get a passport. It was a great, great time for me,” Brad told Entertainment Weekly in 2011 of the production, which remained shelved until long after he became a global celebrity. “I think it was shelved because it was lacking in entertainment value.”
After working a series of odd jobs in New York City, Edward Norton began starring in a series of theater productions before he was spotted by a casting agent in the mid-’90s. Then a young actress who would also become a major star told him about a potential part in the 1996 noir drama “Primal Fear.” “I heard about it from Connie Britton,” he told Yahoo! in 2019. “She was auditioning for the part that Maura Tierney played in ‘Primal Fear.’ She went to a pay phone and called me and said, ‘They’re seeing people for this role and I have the spookiest feeling it’s made for you.'” He was selected over 2,000 other prospects for the role of Aaron Stampler, an altar boy charged with the murder of a Roman Catholic archbishop. Edward’s work was applauded by critics and he went on to nab a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for his film debut.
Not long after Will Smith found major success as the lead on the hit sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the star decided to prove his acting versatility in the 1992 crime drama “Where the Day Takes You.” He appears as a disabled homeless man who’s friends with a large group of teenage runaways trying to survive on the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a small role in which the future movie star was surrounded by a crop of famous young names from the time including Dermot Mulroney, Sean Astin, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ricki Lake, David Arquette and Christian Slater. The indie film received a muted response, with Entertainment Weekly writing, “Smith is fine in his very brief screen time as a crippled homeless teen, but if it wasn’t him in the role, you wouldn’t look or think twice about the character.” Luckily, his breakthrough film — “Six Degrees of Separation” came the following year.
Geena Davis was working as a model when famed director Sydney Pollack cast her in the big screen comedy “Tootsie” opposite Dustin Hoffman in 1982. She plays a soap opera actress whom she’s described as someone who’s going to be in their underwear a lot of the time. It was a rousing start for the star as the acclaimed picture became the second most profitable movie of the year and received 10 Academy Awards nominations. “The first day of shooting, Sydney Pollack said: ‘Why are you not nervous? It’s your first day on a movie set, you’re in your underwear and there’s Dustin Hoffman. I would have expected you to be nervous,'” she told The Irish Times in 2020 of her first experience working on a film. “But I think I thought, ‘This is how it’s supposed to happen. My whole life I wanted to be an actress and now I’m in a movie. So it all makes sense.'”
Kevin Bacon left his hometown of Philadelphia at 17 to pursue an acting career in New York City and dabbled in theater as he looked for work. “I wanted life, man, the real thing,” he recalled to Cosmopolitan in 1991. “The message I got was, ‘The arts are it. Business is the devil’s work. Art and creative expression are next to godliness.’ Combine that with an immense ego and you wind up with an actor.” He booked his first on-screen role in the 1978 fraternity comedy “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Kevin initially thought he was set for life, telling CNBC in 2019, “I thought that I was 100% done. The movie paid… more money than I had ever imagined. It was something like 700 bucks a week. And I was out there for five weeks.” Sadly for the actor, the job didn’t quite catapult his career into the big leagues and he was forced to return to his day job. “I went through the money like that. I just went right through it, had to get my job back as a waiter,” he added. “Honestly, it was a great lesson.”
Following a successful run competing in beauty pageants, Halle Berry moved to New York City and struggled to get her acting career off the ground — she even briefly lived in a homeless shelter. She starred on a short-lived sitcom before nabbing her first film role in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” in 1991. Halle plays drug addict Vivian in the picture and had to inform the famous director that she wanted the less-glamorous part. “Spike Lee wanted me to read for the part of his wife and I read that part fine enough, but then I said to Spike, ‘You know, I really am eyeing this crack h* role, can you please let me audition for that?'” she told W Magazine in 2016 of how excited she was to prove she was more than a pretty face. “It was an amazing way to start my career, playing a crack h* [and being] directed by Spike Lee. It was major for me… I took on roles early on that really didn’t rely on my physical self at all and that was a good way to sort of get some credibility within my industry.”
Years before pursuing acting full-time, Angelina Jolie became interested in performing as she watched countless films with her mother. Luckily, she had a famous father with a very successful acting career of his own: Jon Voight. He helped her nab her first part when she was 7 in the 1982 comedy “Lookin’ To Get Out.” The brief appearance featured Angelina as Jon’s character’s daughter at the end of the movie. Despite the credit, Angelina returned to a life of relative normalcy after completing her first acting gig. She did not make another film until after she graduated from high school a decade later.
Jennifer Aniston attended a performing arts school as a child and regularly starred in school stage productions before nabbing a few off-Broadway and television gigs after graduation. Her first film role came in the 1993 horror film “Leprechaun” in which she played a spoiled daughter followed by the vengeful title character. The film was a hit and spawned a series of sequels, but Jen ended her run after the first movie. Thankfully, her breakout part on “Friends” came just a year later. “I really thought I arrived when I did ‘Leprechaun’,” she told radio host Howard Stern in 2019. “It was a big deal! I really did think it was an amazing thing that I was in a movie.” She spoke of her shame upon seeing the film on TV with then-love Justin Theroux. “He was flipping through the channels and he stumbled upon that. And that was our next two hours much to my embarrassment,” she said during an appearance on “The Graham Norton Show” in 2014.
Channing Tatum got his start as a dancer and model who appeared in numerous campaigns, commercials and music videos before he scored his first speaking part in the 2005 basketball drama “Coach Carter” opposite Samuel L. Jackson. He plays one of the high school basketball team’s players who’s dealing with a new coach determined to whip the guys into shape both on and off the court. “‘Coach Carter’ was such a f****** godsend,” Channing told Wild About Movies at the time of the film’s release. “I loved making my first movie.” The film was a success and quickly led to Channing’s breakout pair of hits the following year: “Step Up” and “She’s The Man.”
Mark Wahlberg made a splash in the early ’90s as a member of the music group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. But he eventually decided to move into acting, landing a spot in a TV movie and officially dropping the “Marky Mark” name. He then scored a part in the 1994 comedy “Renaissance Man” opposite Danny DeVito as a soldier in an Army training camp. Mark never intended to pursue acting full time, but he later told Boston.com that making this movie changed everything for him. “I always loved movies, I just didn’t love the idea of acting,” he said in 2018. “I still had this chip on my shoulder that I was the toughest guy from Boston. Once I auditioned for that movie, I really couldn’t see me doing anything else.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger was making ends meet in Los Angeles in the late ’60s by running a bricklaying business while weight training and participating in bodybuilding competitions. He’d expressed interest in acting and a fellow bodybuilder recommended he audition for the title role in the 1970 comedy “Hercules in New York.” Arnold has said that when he went in to audition for the part, his agent lied and said he had years of “stage” experience even though he’d only appeared on bodybuilding stages. Because of his complicated last name, he was credited in the film as “Arnold Strong.” And while it was a great visual start for him, audiences didn’t get to actually hear the actor because all of his lines were dubbed by an uncredited voice actor due to his thick Austrian accent.
Long before she became the glamorous movie star we all know and love, Nicole Kidman was ridingdirt bike in the Australian action-comedy “BMX Bandits” in 1983. The frizzy-haired redhead was only 16 when she took on her first lead role in which she popped wheelies while getting chased by a bunch of bank robbers. What fans might not know is that they’re not actually seeing the A-list star doing the incredible tricks in the film because Nicole sprained her ankle during shooting. When the producers couldn’t find a female stunt double that looked like her, they decided on an 18-year-old man in a wig to perform the bike stunts instead.
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