Even the biggest stars have to start somewhere. But while the early resumes of most actors tend to feature embarrassing ads, low-budget schlock and forgettable flops, some stars are lucky enough to have had an iconic film under their belt before hitting it big. Here are 20 Hollywood A-listers who held blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roles in major movies before anyone even knew who they were.
20. Richard Dreyfuss – The Graduate (1967)
Richard Dreyfuss starred in some of the best-loved films of the ’70s – American Graffiti, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind among them. But did you know that he also appeared in a ’60s cult film, too? Yep, the Oscar winner delivers just one line as the scruffy boarder in classic comedy drama The Graduate.
19. Jack Black – Waterworld (1995)
Five years before his star-making turn in High Fidelity, Jack Black made significantly less of an impression in the notoriously troubled post-apocalyptic epic Waterworld. The Tenacious D frontman played the goggled seaplane pilot who attacked Kevin Costner, while simultaneously puffing on a cigarette.
18. Mischa Barton – Notting Hill (1999)
In the same year she made a brief appearance in The Sixth Sense, Mischa Barton also enjoyed a bit of screen time in rom-com Notting Hill. It’s fair to say the role wasn’t exactly a stretch though, with the child actress playing the, erm, child actress that Hugh Grant interviews for Horse and Hound.
17. Aaron Paul – Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Strangely loveable meth-dealing screw-up Jesse Pinkman got caught up in numerous mission impossibles in the binge-watching favorite Breaking Bad. But the actor who played him, Aaron Paul, had already appeared in an actual Mission Impossible. Paul played Tom Cruise’s brother-in-law Rick Meade in Mission: Impossible III.
16. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Scent of a Woman (1992)
Al Pacino won his first and only Oscar for Scent of a Woman. But, believe it not, the 1992 drama actually features another award winner among its cast: namely, Philip Seymour Hoffman. A full 13 years before his Oscar-worthy portrayal of Truman Capote, Hoffman played Chris O’Donnell’s privileged friend George Willis, Jr.
15. Jonathan Banks – Airplane! (1980)
Jonathan Banks was in his 60s when he landed his high-profile roles in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but his resume is littered with small roles in big movies. Before he ever broke bad, then, Banks showcased his lighter side as Gunderson in Airplane!, as well as by playing Algren in 48 Hrs. and Deputy Brent in Gremlins.
14. Giancarlo Esposito – Trading Places (1983)
Banks’ Breaking Bad co-star Giancarlo Esposito oozes menace as the calm and collected drug kingpin Gus Fring. But back in 1983 the Danish-born actor appeared in festive comedy Trading Places and, dressed like a kid from Fame, he looked more likely to burst into song than to strongarm cartel members.
13. Jake Gyllenhaal – City Slickers (1991)
If you thought that Jake Gyllenhaal’s first brush with the Western genre was in Brokeback Mountain, then think again. Back in 1991, the heartthrob played the son of wannabe cowboy Billy Crystal in comedy adventure City Slickers. Gyllenhaal’s character was so embarrassed by his dad’s salesman job that he told his classmates that he was a submarine commander instead.
12. Seth Rogen – Donnie Darko (2001)
Of course, Jake Gyllenhaal’s real breakthrough came in the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko, and the supernatural mind-bender also gave a certain future comedy king his first film credit. Seth Rogen played high school bully Ricky Danforth, a part that regrettably didn’t give him much opportunity to showcase his funny bones.
11. Alexander Skarsgård – Zoolander (2001)
Alexander Skarsgård is best known for playing Eric in True Blood, but the actor was one of numerous people to cameo in the Zoolander franchise. After starring as Derek’s roomie Meekus in the first Zoolander movie in 2001, the Swedish hunk reappeared in its follow-up in 2016 – despite the fact that his character had been killed off in a freak gasoline accident in the original.
10. Cuba Gooding Jr. – Coming to America (1988)
Cuba Gooding Jr. is responsible for uttering one of the most quoted movie lines of the ’90s, but the actor didn’t have anything to say at all in his film debut. In the 1988 rom-com Coming to America, the recent O.J. Simpson impersonator simply had to sit in a barber’s chair while getting a trim by one of Eddie Murphy’s many disguises.
9. Nathan Fillion – Saving Private Ryan (1998)
He made it to the rank of captain in the much-missed Firefly, but several years previous Nathan Fillion was just a private in Steven Spielberg’s war epic Saving Private Ryan. In fact, Fillion played the Ryan that Tom Hanks mistakes for the one he was sent to find – so you could argue that he actually had the title role.
8. Elijah Wood – Back to the Future II (1989)
The famously baby-faced Elijah Wood lived every young boy’s fantasy when he appeared alongside Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future II. The Lord of the Rings star was only eight years old when he played a young video gamer unimpressed by Marty McFly’s shoot-em-up skills, and he hasn’t aged much since.
7. Gerard Butler – Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Action star Gerard Butler is often touted as a possible future 007, but the Scottish hunk has actually already featured in a Bond movie. Yes, in 1997 Butler played HMS Devonshire Seaman in Pierce Brosnan’s second outing Tomorrow Never Dies – who knew?
6. Jane Lynch – The Fugitive (1993)
Long before she was ever Glee villain Sue Sylvester, Jane Lynch played Dr. Kathy Wahlund in the 1993 thriller The Fugitive. And while Lynch’s screen time might have been brief, she did, however, learn a valuable lesson from Harrison Ford. As the actress revealed on Conan in 2015, “He said, ‘I don’t care how smart you are, any time your mouth is open like that, you look stupid.’”
5. Joe Manganiello – Spider-Man (2002)
Without his trademark beard and washboard abs, you might not recognize Joe Manganiello in the first Spider-Man film to grace the big screen in 2002. However, as school bully Flash Thompson, Magic Mike star Manganiello still got plenty of opportunity to throw his weight around.
4. Michael Shannon – Groundhog Day (1993)
Michael Shannon has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most brooding and intense actors thanks to performances in The Iceman, Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter. But the star began his big-screen career as an uncharacteristically excitable bridegroom in the classic 1993 comedy Groundhog Day.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis – Gandhi (1982)
In 1982, a full 11 years since he made his film debut in Sunday Bloody Sunday, Daniel Day-Lewis finally reappeared on the big screen – in a minor role as a street thug who torments the titular peacemaker in Gandhi. Day-Lewis has since made up for lost time, though, by becoming the first ever actor to win three Oscars in the Leading category.
2. Chris Rock – Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
Eddie Murphy wasn’t the only wisecracking African-American stand-up to grace the 1987 comedy sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. The former Saturday Night Live star also bagged an up-and-coming Chris Rock a part as the exasperated valet forced to deal with parking a cement mixer.
1. Tom Hardy – Black Hawk Down (2002)
It’s hard to believe that the actor who played goofy Twombly in 2001’s Black Hawk Down would later portray the notoriously dangerous prisoner Charles Bronson. But Ridley Scott’s war epic was to be just the first of many occasions that Tom Hardy found himself completely immersed in a role.