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10 Stars Who've Tried to Move On From Their Blockbuster Breakout Roles

August 11, 2014

The romantic comedy What If started to roll out in theaters this past weekend. The story of Wallace, who tries to maintain a friendship with the coupled-up Chantry despite their mutual attraction, the film’s a well-received romantic comedy co-starring Zoe Kazan, Adam Driverand Rafe Spall, but is probably most notable as the latest of Daniel Radcliffe’s moves to distance himself from the role that made him a household name, Harry Potter

So far, Radcliffe’s been fairly successful in persuading the public to think of him as something other than The Boy Who Lived: he won plaudits on Broadway in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and The Cripple Of Inishman, had a horror hit with The Woman In Black, and appeared in acclaimed indie Kill Your Darlings. His biggest post-Potter role so far comes next year, in Fox’s new take on Frankenstein, so there’s every chance that he could shake free of the glasses and the lightning scar. 

Read More: What If Star Daniel Radcliffe Talks Superfans, Football, Lazy Journalists and Much More

But what of those who came before? The specter of a mega-franchise can be a hard thing to escape from once the series that made your name comes to an end. And so, to mark the release of What If, we’ve looked back at some other actors who came to fame through huge movie franchises, and examined how they fared in the years after. 

Mark Hamill
Blockbuster franchise: Star Wars
Career path: The man who became Luke Skywalker had been plucked from obscurity to lead the original Star Wars trilogy (including 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, above). Hamill took a few gigs between Star Wars pictures (most notably Sam Fuller’s 1980 World War II classic The Big Red One), but after Jedi, he stepped away from the spotlight, focusing on stage work. Aside from a couple of brief appearances in Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hamill didn’t appear on screen again until 1989’s poorly received sci-fi Slipstream, in which he played a villain. Since then, he’s had a small handful of live-action roles, but has carved out a hugely successful second career as a voiceover artist, most memorably embodying the Joker in the Batman animated series of the 1990s. 
What’s next: A comeback is brewing: He has a cameo in Matthew Vaughan’s upcoming actioner Kingsman: The Secret Service, and of course, he’ll be returning to the role that made his name in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII.

Christopher Reeve
Blockbuster franchise: Superman
Career path: The late actor, who died in 2004, was broadening his acting resume before a tragic accident left him a quadriplegic in 1995. Known only for a role on long-running daytime soap Love Of Life and a Broadway appearance opposite Katherine Hepburn, Reeve soared to stardom when he was cast as the title character in Richard Donner’s 1978 film of Superman. Three sequels of increasingly diminishing returns followed over the next decade, and few of Reeve’s other roles in between caught on with audiences. After the box office disappointment of 1987’s Superman IV killed the franchise, Reeve was free of what he’d increasingly seen as an albatross, and diversified, starring in comedies Switching Channels (1988) and Noises Off (1992). His greatest post-Superman success came with a supporting turn in Oscar-nominee The Remains Of The Day in 1993. In May of 1995, Reeve was involved in a terrible riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Refusing to let his physical state slow him down, Reeve became known for his activism on behalf of spinal injuries and stem cell research, and remained involved in show business: he took a few television roles, including a remake of Rear Window (1998) and a couple of appearances on Superman show Smallville, and was nominated for an Emmy for directing HBO movie In The Gloaming (1997). Sadly, Reeve passed away from a heart attack in October 2004, aged 52.

Ralph Macchio
Blockbuster franchise: The Karate Kid
Career path: The boy who became The Karate Kid wasn’t a total unknown when the blockbuster 1980s franchise arrived: Macchio had appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983) alongside several other iconic eighties faces, including Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe. But that was nothing compared to what would come with The Karate Kid the following year: Macchio (actually aged 23 during filming), played the pint-sized high-schooler who learns martial arts from the kindly Mr. Miyagi, and the film was a massive surprise hit. Two sequels followed, in 1986 and 1989, and when he stopped painting fences and catching flies, Macchio’s post-franchise career got off to a strong start: he had a major role in comedy hit My Cousin Vinny (1992) with Joe Pesci and the Oscar-winning Marisa Tomei (above). As the nineties went on, however, the roles soon dried up, and more recently, his appearances have tended to involve him playing himself, as he did on Entourage, while he also placed fourth on Dancing With The Stars back in 2011. But there’s been a brighter light recently: Macchio had his most high-profile role for years as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano in Anthony Hopkins-starring biopic Hitchcock back in 2012. The start of a comeback, perhaps? 
What’s next: Next up is chess coming-of-age tale A Little Game, co-starring F. Murray Abraham and Janeane Garofalo

Macaulay Culkin
Blockbuster franchise: Home Alone
Career path: After appearing as one of the kids in 1989 comedy Uncle Buck, 9-year-old Macaulay Culkin was picked by John Hughes to star in a new family comedy that he was writing and producing. That film was Chris Columbus’ Home Alone, which became a surprise phenomenon over the 1990 holiday season, turning Culkin into the biggest child star since Shirley Temple. Another hit followed with 1991’s My Girl, before Culkin returned for sequel Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992), receiving nearly $5 million for his work. After that, however, Culkin’s stardom burnt out quickly: non-Home Alone pictures like Richie Rich (1995) and the part-animated The Pagemaster (1994) flopped, as did violent thriller The Good Son (1993), an attempt to move into different territory. A Culkin-free Home Alone 3 was released in 2000: after Richie Rich and a bitter custody dispute between his parents, the star had given up acting until, aged 23, he returned to the screen as murderer Michael Alig (above) in Party Monster (2003). 
What’s next: A handful of indies and TV roles followed that, but these days Culkin can mainly be found fronting The Pizza Underground, a band that covers Velvet Underground songs with pizza-themed lyrics. We swear we’re not making that up.

Hayden Christensen
Blockbuster franchise: Star Wars (prequels)
Career path: Canadian actor Christensen was 19 when he landed the most sought-after role in a generation: taking over from young Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones. The boy who would become Darth Vader promised to be a star-making role, and though he picked up decidedly mixed reviews for his first appearance, the A-list seemed to beckon, especially after good notices for the 2003 journalism drama Shattered Glass. One more turn in a galaxy far, far away arrived, in 2005’s Revenge Of The Sith, before Christensen was done with the franchise. Early post-Star Wars movies like Awake and Factory Girl (both 2007) didn’t make much impact, though Christensen was kept afloat by the decent box office of Doug Liman’s sci-fi adventure Jumper (2008), which took over $200 million worldwide. Things have been quieter since: only thriller Takers and supernatural thriller Vanishing On 10th Street (both 2010) received theatrical releases, and he’s been most visible from an ongoing lawsuit that alleges that USA Networks stole the idea for series Royal Pains from Christensen. 
What’s next: Thriller American Heist, which he produced, and co-stars Adrien Brody, Jordana Brewster and, uh, Akon, will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Orlando Bloom
Blockbuster franchise: Lord Of The Rings and Pirates Of The Caribbean
Career path: Two days after he graduated from drama school in London, Orlando Bloom landed the role of Legolas (above) in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Elf archer elf became a fan favorite, and Bloom walked straight into another enormously successful trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean, in which he played the heroic Will Turner, while proving in demand in between, racking up roles in Troy (2004) and Kingdom Of Heaven (2005). But after the last Pirates in 2007, Bloom found himself less in demand. Indies like The Good Doctor  (2011) and the Mark Ruffalo-directed Sympathy For Delicious (2010) barely got releases. And an attempt at a Johnny Depp-style reinvention as a campy, drunken villain in Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers (2011) only fared a little better. Bloom’s been a little more visible of late, having reprised Legolas in The Hobbit movies, and he won good reviews for his Broadway debut in a production of Romeo & Juliet
What’s next: The indie world might provide salvation: he’s just worked with mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg on a new movie, co-starring Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell. And if nothing else, he did just become a folk hero, by allegedly trying to punch Justin Bieber.

Keira Knightley
Blockbuster franchise: Pirates Of The Caribbean
Career path: Having broken out in Bend It Like Beckham (2002), British actress Keira Knightley was, aged only 17, picked out to play Elizabeth Swann in Disney’s blockbuster Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl. Mocked in advance (a movie based on a theme park ride?), the film became a swashbuckling success, turning Knightley into one of the most in-demand actresses around. Not all her subsequent roles worked (2004’s King Arthur, 2005’s Domino), but an Oscar nomination for her turn in Pride & Prejudice (2005) helped cement her stardom, which only continued with the Pirates sequels in 2006 and 2007. The franchise sailed on without Knightley, but she’s always stayed near the limelight, despite avoiding blockbuster fare for the most part (her lone excursion that way, this year’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, was best forgotten by all). Her role as the face of Chanel keeps her visible, but she’s also displayed good taste in indie projects, winning excellent notices for Never Let Me Go (2010), Anna Karenina (2012) and summer sleeper Begin Again (2014). 
What’s next: She’ll team with Benedict Cumberbatch for the Oscar-touted The Imitation Game — one senses that she doesn’t miss the franchise that made her name too much.

Emma Watson
Blockbuster franchise: Harry Potter
Career path: Of the three leads of the Harry Potter movies, Emma Watson seemed like the most obviously talented at first. Her performances were the stand-out in the early films. But for a while, it seemed like she was planning on giving up acting: she had to be talked into signing for the final three films in the franchise, and took time off to study at Brown University. But when the time came and the Potter films ended in 2011, Watson went on to arguably the most successful career of any of the Hogwarts graduates, at least so far. She swiftly followed Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 with a small role in period drama My Week With Marilyn (2011), and the next year, won solid notices for teen flick The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012). She went even further leftfield the next year, as a narcissistic Valley Girl in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and as herself in potty-mouthed comedy hit This Is The End. And another hit arrived earlier this year, with a major role alongside Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical blockbuster Noah
What’s next: Watson’s lined up another fantasy franchise with Harry Potter producer David Heyman, Queen Of The Tearling, so she’s clearly not going away any time soon.

Kristen Stewart
Blockbuster franchise: Twilight
Career path: The path from child star to teen idol is a tricky one, but Kristen Stewart managed the transition into her second act well: after debuting aged twelve in David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) she continued to impress in films like Sean Penn’s Into The Wild (2007). The latter led the way to a much sought-after role: that of the lovelorn Bella Swann in the first movie in the Twilight franchise. Four sequels in as many years followed, all huge box-office hits, and with a tabloid-friendly romance with co-star Robert Pattinson, she became almost inescapable. Stewart also won indie cred with her time off, winning good reviews in films like Adventureland (2009) and On The Road (2012), and even lined up another blockbuster in Snow White And The Huntsman (2012). But the latter caused issues: Stewart was photographed kissing the film’s director, Rupert Sanders, while still in a relationship with Pattinson, and though the couple reunited for a while, Stewart’s image took a knock: unsurprisingly, she won’t be appearing in upcoming sequel The Huntsman. She took time off to regroup, but has come back in 2014 with four indie movies, winning rave reviews at Cannes for The Clouds Of Sils Maria. Could that be the start of her third act? 
What’s next: Her two next projects certainly suggest so: she’s starring with Jesse Eisenberg in action-comedy American Ultra, and Nicholas Hoult in sci-fi romance Equals

Robert Pattinson
Blockbuster franchise: Twilight
Career path: Given the swooning that resulted from his small role as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005), it seemed inevitable that Robert Pattinson was destined for big things, but not many would have predicted the absolute mania that would come with his next major role: that of sparkly immortal Edward Cullen in Twilight, the first movie adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s young-adult vampire phenomenon. Something close to Beatlemania ensued, especially when it emerged that he was in a relationship with Kristen Stewart, with whom he co-starred in four sequels. But the immense Twillight fanbase didn’t really follow him to the projects he did in between, like weepie Remember Me (2010) and period romance Water For Elephants (2011), and since putting his teeth away, Pattinson has focused on working on more auteur-driven projects: two films with David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis (2012) and Maps To The Stars (2014), post-apocalyptic drama The Rover (2014), and Werner Herzog’s upcoming Queen Of The Desert. His reviews have been strong, the box-office, so far, not so much. 
What’s next: More commercial prospects are on the way: adventure film The Lost City Of Z with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Olivier Assayas’ thriller Idol’s Eye, co-starring Robert De Niro.