30 A-list actors whose early roles you've completely forgotten about

Emily Garbutt
·16 min read
 Reese Witherspoon in The Man in the Moon, Nicolas Cage in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Scarlett Johansson in North
Reese Witherspoon in The Man in the Moon, Nicolas Cage in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Scarlett Johansson in North

Everyone has to start their career somewhere – even Hollywood stars. After all, Meryl Streep wasn’t born with over 20 Oscar nominations, she had to earn them. With such fame and acclaim, it’s easy to forget how these people came to be household names.

To refresh your memory, we’ve put together a list of some big name actors whose early roles may have slipped your mind entirely. From teen soap operas to Scorsese blockbusters, we’ve been back through the archives to uncover the parts that kickstarted these actors’ careers. From Laura Dern to Letitia Wright, these are the roles mega-stars cut their acting teeth on.

Amy Adams – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Amy Adams in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
(Image credit: IMDb)

Before Arrival and Man of Steel, before she was always the Oscar nominee and never the Oscar winner, Amy Adams graced the small screen in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2000. Adams played Beth Maclay, Tara’s cousin, in the season 5 episode “Family”. Beth comes to visit Tara in Sunnydale, along with Tara’s father and brother – they’ve come to bring her home, as they warn she’ll turn into a demon on her upcoming 20th birthday. But are they telling the truth?

Jennifer Aniston – Leprechaun

Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun
(Image credit: IMDb)

Later known as Friends’ Rachel Green, Jennifer Aniston first starred in the 1993 horror-comedy Leprechaun. Aniston played teenager Tory Redding, who tries to put a stop to the evil leprechaun (played by Warwick Davis) who’s living in the house that her father is renting for the summer. It received a lot of negative reviews and has been called Aniston’s worst film. Somehow, it was still followed by six sequels and a reboot – although Aniston moved onto bigger and better things.

Angelina Jolie – Hackers

Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller in Hackers
(Image credit: IMDb)

Angelina Jolie’s feature film debut was in 1995 when she starred in crime movie Hackers alongside Elementary’s Jonny Lee Miller and Scream’s Matthew Lillard. Jolie plays Kate Libby, AKA Acid Burn, part of a group of teenage hackers involved in a corporate blackmail conspiracy. When the movie was released in the mid-1990s, the internet was still a relatively new concept to the general public. Despite underperforming at the box office, the film has become something of a cult classic.

Nicolas Cage – Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Michael Wyle and Nicolas Cage in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
(Image credit: IMDb)

In 1982, Nicolas Cage played ‘Brad’s Bud’ in Amy Heckerling’s directorial debut Fast Times at Ridgemont High (although he’s credited as Nicolas Coppola – he changed the name he shares with his legendary director uncle soon after to try to avoid accusations of nepotism). The coming of age comedy-drama follows two teens through their sophomore year of high school. Brad (Judge Reinhold) is the older brother of protagonist Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Cage is his nameless ‘bud’. The screenplay was written by Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe.

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Laura Dern – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Laura Dern in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
(Image credit: IMDb)

One of Laura Dern’s first roles was a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1974, which also starred her mother Diane Ladd. The movie follows the titular Alice (played by The Exorcist’s Ellen Burstyn), a newly widowed housewife who travels from New Mexico to her hometown in California with her son in search of a better life. Dern plays a little girl eating ice cream in a diner where Alice ends up working. Dern’s mother Ladd plays a fellow waitress, Florence.

Reese Witherspoon – The Man in the Moon

Jason London and Reese Witherspoon in The Man in the Moon
(Image credit: IMDb)

Reese Witherspoon made her movie debut in 1991 at the age of 15, in the coming of age film The Man in the Moon set in ‘50s Louisiana. She plays Dani Trant, a teenage girl who falls in love with her new neighbour, an older boy called Court (played by Jason London). However, Court thinks Dani is too young for him, and he falls for her older sister, Maureen (Emily Warfield). The movie has a tragic end, which puts the sisters’ bond to the test.

Nicole Kidman – Bush Christmas

Nicole Kidman in Bush Christmas
(Image credit: Umbrella Entertainment)

Sixteen-year-old Nicole Kidman’s first role in a feature film was in 1983, as Helen Thompson in the festive Australian drama Bush Christmas. A remake of the 1947 movie of the same name, the Thompson family is struggling to keep their farm from foreclosure – they’re counting on their prize horse winning a race so they can use the winning money to pay off their debts. When the horse is stolen, it’s up to Helen, her brother, and their cousin to save the day.

Tilda Swinton – Caravaggio

Tilda Swinton in Caravaggio
(Image credit: IMDb)

Before her roles in big budget blockbusters like Doctor Strange and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Tilda Swinton’s acting career started with experimental films directed by Derek Jarman. The first of these was 1986’s Caravaggio, a fictionalised retelling of the life of the 16th-century painter of the same name. Swinton plays Lena, one of Caravaggio’s models and lovers who meets a tragic end. This movie was also Sean Bean’s big screen debut (spoiler: his character dies in this one, too).

Chris Evans – Not Another Teen Movie

Chris Evans in Not Another Teen Movie
(Image credit: IMDb)

One of Chris Evans’ first movie roles was in 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie, a parody of – you guessed it – teen movies. He played Jake Wyler, an archetypal ‘popular jock’, based on Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character in She’s All That and James Van Der Beek’s character in Varsity Blues. After his popular cheerleader girlfriend dumps him, Jake tries to get his own back by making “uniquely rebellious” Janey (Chyler Leigh) into the prom queen. The movie got mostly negative reviews.

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Meryl Streep – Julia

Meryl Streep in Julia
(Image credit: IMDb)

Meryl Streep’s film debut was in 1977 in the period drama, Julia. The movie follows protagonist Lillian (Jane Fonda) and her friendship with the titular Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) from childhood through to adulthood in the 1940s, when Julia becomes an anti-Nazi activist. Streep plays Anne Marie, a gossipy New York socialite who’s too preoccupied with herself and her social life to get involved with the horrors of World War II. She’s a relatively minor character – it’s no Mamma Mia!, that’s for sure.

Julia Roberts – Satisfaction

Justine Bateman, Julia Roberts and Britta Phillips in Satisfaction
(Image credit: IMDb)

Julia Roberts’ first credited big screen role was in 1988, in the comedy-drama Satisfaction. Roberts played Daryle, the teenage bassist in a Baltimore all-girl rock band called The Mystery. After their high school graduation, the band travels to Florida to audition for a gig at a nightclub. Once they’ve arrived in West Palm Beach, however, things (predictably) don’t go to plan. The movie also stars Liam Neeson and Justine Bateman. This was Roberts last role before Mystic Pizza, the movie that kickstarted her rise to fame.

Hugh Grant – Maurice

Hugh Grant in Maurice
(Image credit: IMDb)

Before the Richard Curtis romcoms, Hugh Grant was Clive Durham in romantic-drama Maurice. Based on the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster, the film came out in 1987. Set in Edwardian England, it follows protagonist Maurice Hall through university and a tumultuous relationship. Clive is Maurice’s upper-class friend – the two have feelings for each other at university, but societal pressure means Clive will not act on them. Grant followed up this performance with other period dramas, including Rowing With the Wind and Impromptu.

Sigourney Weaver – Annie Hall

Woody Allen and Sigourney Weaver in Annie Hall
(Image credit: IMDb)

Sigourney Weaver made her movie debut in the 1977 romcom Annie Hall. She appears in the movie’s closing scene, where she plays the date of protagonist Alvy (played by Woody Allen) who he takes to the cinema after breaking up with the titular Annie. While this may have been an extremely minor part, Weaver’s next role firmly established her in the sci-fi hall of fame – in 1979, she played Ellen Ripley, the lead in Ridley Scott’s classic space-horror Alien.

Florence Pugh – The Falling

Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams in The Falling
(Image credit: IMDb)

Florence Pugh’s first role was precocious schoolgirl Abbie Mortimer in 2014’s The Falling. In the film, Abbie and her best friend Lydia, played by Maisie Williams, begin experiencing fainting fits. This soon becomes an epidemic throughout their all-girls’ school. Things go from bad to worse, and the school descends into chaos. The role earned Pugh a nomination for Best British Newcomer at the London Film Festival and she went on to star in Fighting With My Family alongside Dwayne Johnson and Little Women with Meryl Streep and Laura Dern.

Saoirse Ronan – The Clinic

Saoirse Ronan in The Clinic
(Image credit: IMDb)

Saoirse Ronan started her acting journey on Irish medical drama The Clinic, aged 9. She played the character of Rhiannon Geraghty for four episodes between 2003 and 2004. Plenty of other big Irish names cut their acting teeth on the hospital drama, too, including Get Shorty’s Chris O’Dowd and The Hobbit’s Aidan Turner. Around this time, Ronan also auditioned for the role of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies, which she lost out on to Evanna Lynch. However, her breakthrough came in 2007 with her role in period drama Atonement as precocious teenager Briony.

Scarlett Johansson – North

Scarlett Johansson in North
(Image credit: IMDb)

In 1994, nine-year-old Scarlett Johansson made her film debut with a small part in Rob Reiner’s comedy-adventure North. It was a box office bomb and has been called one of the worst movies ever made, despite an all-star cast including Bruce Willis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and a teenaged Elijah Wood. In the movie, child prodigy North (played by Wood) ‘divorces’ his parents and sets out on a mission to find new ones. However, Johansson went onto bigger and better things and she’s been the world’s highest paid female actor since 2018.

Ryan Reynolds – Hillside

Ryan Reynolds in Hillside
(Image credit: IMDb)

Ryan Reynolds’ first role was in the Canadian teen soap opera Hillside. The show follows the students of Hillside School as they deal with the usual range of teen issues. Reynolds played Billy Simpson in 13 episodes between 1991 and 1993, the younger brother of one of the protagonists who idolises the school rebel. Reynolds later admitted to disliking working on the show so much that he briefly considered quitting acting altogether – luckily, he didn’t, and went on to star in movies like Adventureland, Deadpool, and Free Guy.

Dev Patel – Skins

Dev Patel in Skins
(Image credit: IMDb)

Before The Last Airbender and The Personal History of David Copperfield, Dev Patel’s career started out with British teen drama Skins – his first professional acting experience. He played Anwar Kharral in the show’s first two seasons, between 2007 and 2008 – the role was written specifically for Patel after he was cast, with the characterisation being partly based on his own personality. Patel’s breakthrough role came swiftly after in 2008, with his feature film debut in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

Blake Lively – The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants

Blake Lively in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants
(Image credit: IMDb)

When you think of the beginning of Blake Lively’s career, you’d probably think of Gossip Girl. But she actually started in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants with Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera and Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel in 2005. The movie follows four best friends who are spending their first summer apart, visiting family and travelling around the globe. The girls buy a mysterious pair of trousers that fits all of them perfectly, despite their different sizes, which they then proceed to send to each other and share throughout the summer.

Carrie Fisher – Shampoo

Carrie Fisher in Shampoo
(Image credit: IMDb)

Carrie Fisher’s movie debut was in the comedy Shampoo in 1975. Filmed when she was 17 years old, she stars alongside Hollywood royalty including Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Goldie Hawn. The movie follows a successful Beverly Hills hairdresser, George (played by Beatty), who is dissatisfied with his professional life. Meanwhile, Fisher plays Lorna, the precocious and seductive teenage daughter of George’s mistress. Despite the minor role, she soon moved onto bigger things – her next movie was, of course, Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977.

Robert Pattinson – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Robert Pattinson in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
(Image credit: IMDb)

Before Tenet and Twilight, Robert Pattinson played Cedric Diggory in the fourth instalment of the Harry Potter franchise. Released in 2005, The Goblet of Fire follows the events of the Triwizard Tournament, a competition for magical students that brings different schools together. While Harry is, predictably, one of the contestants chosen to represent Hogwarts, Cedric is also picked to take part in the competition. However, things don’t turn out well for him – and to top it all off, Harry fancies his girlfriend, too.

Kristen Stewart – Panic Room

Kristen Stewart in Panic Room
(Image credit: IMDb)

One of Kristen Stewart’s early roles was in the thriller Panic Room, directed by David Fincher. Stewart was 12 when the film was released in 2002 – she plays Sarah, the diabetic daughter of Meg (Jodie Foster). Hayden Panettiere was originally lined up to play the role, but she dropped out. In the movie, mother and daughter are trapped in their panic room after intruders break into their home. But what happens when it turns out the intruders want something inside the room itself?

John Boyega – Attack the Block

John Boyega in Attack the Block
(Image credit: IMDb)

John Boyega’s film debut was in the 2011 sci-fi comedy Attack the Block, which follows a gang of teens who have to defend themselves from an alien invasion on a council estate in south London. Boyega played orphan gang leader Moses. The movie was the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, who went on to write 2015’s Ant-Man starring Paul Rudd. It wouldn’t be long before Boyega was propelled to fame – his next major role was as reformed stormtrooper Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Felicity Jones – Doctor Who

Felicity Jones in Doctor Who
(Image credit: IMDb)

Before her roles in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Felicity Jones played Lady Robina Redwood in the 2008 Doctor Who episode, “The Unicorn and the Wasp”. The episode has a whodunnit plot and features real life murder-mystery author Agatha Christie as a character. Jones’ character is later exposed as a thief, but not the murderer (that culprit turns out to be an alien, obviously). Jones made her international breakthrough a couple of years later in 2011, with roles in romcom Chalet Girl and romantic drama Like Crazy.

Leonardo DiCaprio – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape
(Image credit: IMDb)

One of Leonardo DiCaprio’s early movie roles was as Arnie Grape in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which earned him his first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. He starred alongside Johnny Depp (who plays his older brother, the eponymous Gilbert), Juliette Lewis and John C. Reilly. DiCaprio’s Arnie is mentally ill and his brother is responsible for caring for him in their sleepy Midwestern town. The movie was directed by Lasse Hallström, who’s other offerings include nearly all of ABBA’s music videos.

Sandra Oh – Bean

Rowan Atkinson and Sandra Oh in Bean
(Image credit: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

In 1997, Sandra Oh played art gallery PR manager Bernice opposite Rowan Atkinson in Bean. Based on the British TV show, Mr Bean is a well-meaning but hapless security guard at the National Gallery in London. Despite often falling asleep on the job, the gallery selects him as the representative to transfer a 19th-century painting to a museum in LA. Mishaps ensue, of course. Oh went on to roles in shows like Killing Eve, as well as a nine-year stint as Dr Cristina Yang in hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy.

Letitia Wright – Holby City

Letitia Wright in Top Boy
(Image credit: IMDb)

Before she was Wakandan royalty in Marvel’s Black Panther, one of Letitia Wright’s first roles was in British crime drama Top Boy. She played gang member Chantelle in season 1, which aired in 2011. This recurring role was followed by other supporting TV parts in the UK, including a woman who lives as an android in sci-fi drama Humans and a two-faced alien in Doctor Who. Wright went on to gain international recognition as Shuri in the MCU in 2018.

Daniel Craig – Elizabeth

Daniel Craig in Elizabeth
(Image credit: Gramercy Pictures)

Daniel Craig played traitorous Catholic priest John Ballard in the 1998 biopic Elizabeth, about the 16th-century queen of England, with Cate Blanchett in the title role. The movie follows her early years as monarch, beginning after she inherits the throne from her older sister Mary after her death. Craig’s character, Ballard, was executed eight years into Elizabeth’s reign for being involved in a plot to kill her. Craig went on to bigger roles in movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and, of course, 007.

Emily Blunt – My Summer of Love

Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love
(Image credit: IMDb)

Emily Blunt’s film debut was in Paweł Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love in 2004. She played Tamsin, an upper middle class girl who has an intense affair with a working class girl from a family of criminals after a chance encounter. Her next role was Emily in the 2006 comedy-drama The Devil Wears Prada, alongside Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep – this was her international breakthrough and kickstarted her career. Blunt went on to star in blockbusters like Looper, Into the Woods and A Quiet Place.

Lucy Liu – The X-Files

Lucy Liu in The X-Files
(Image credit: IMDb)

Nearly half a decade before Charlie’s Angels, Lucy Liu appeared in an episode of The X Files, “Hell Money”, in 1996. She played Kim, a woman with leukaemia living in Chinatown in San Francisco, whose father enters a deadly lottery to try to pay for her treatments. After that, she went on to get a recurring role as Ling Woo in the legal comedy-drama Ally McBeal between 1998 and 2002, as well as a lead role as Alex Munday in Charlie’s Angels.