Today, the household-name status of A-listers like Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt is written in stone. But they had to start somewhere. And more often than not, their first acting gigs were laughably cringeworthy.
From Jason Bateman transforming into a wolf (in history’s worst CGI scene) to Tom Hanks bumbling out lines in a 1980 slasher to Emma Stone voicing a bratty dog, these growing pains seem to have afflicted a significant bulk of the red carpet elite. For your entertainment, herein, we’ve compiled them all. And for more on the humble beginnings of your favorite actors, check out these 40 Stars Who Started Out on Soap Operas.
George Clooney; Grizzly II: The Concert
This 1983 thriller about a man-eating grizzly bear attacking a rock concert was filmed in Hungary but never released to theaters. For his very first acting role, George Clooney appeared in a nameless role—one in which he and his girlfriend who were camping out in the woods alone and, shocker, were mauled by the ferocious bear. And for more surprising facts about the stars of cinema, check out these 12 Famous Actors You Forgot Were Once Amazing Athletes.
Leonardo DiCaprio; Critters 3
For Leonardo DiCaprio’s first shot on the big screen, he played the role of Josh on Critters 3, who watches as the “tiny fur ball aliens” kill his stepdad. As a 17-year-old, the 1991 film wasn’t the worst gig that he could’ve snagged, but it’s laughable nonetheless.
Kerry Washington; Our Song
Before Kerry Washington was the infamous Olivia Pope, she played a band geek in Our Song, a film that follows three best friends (Washington as one of them) after their Brooklyn school is closed for asbestos removal. Despite the setbacks, the school marching band must go on! And for more on the roles that changed your favorite actors, check out these 14 Times Forgotten Stars Surprised You with Roles in Major Blockbusters.
Matt Damon; Mystic Pizza
Though he may not look it, Matt Damon was 18 when he made his film debut as Steamer in Mystic Pizza, only appearing in one scene where he calls a refined dish “green stuff.” And with that line, he kicked off an singularly awesome career. And for more career-changing moves of the famous, check out these 50 Iconic Movie Roles That Almost Went to Someone Else.
Tom Hanks; He Knows You’re Alone
As it turns out, even the very best in their field have to start somewhere—and for Tom Hanks, “somewhere” was starring as Elliot the psychology student in the slasher He Knows You’re Alone, an incredibly brief role that didn’t even really contribute much to the overall film. More than anything, we just got to see a few incredibly awkward scenes with a young actor who wasn’t yet sure of himself. And for some actually good slasher flicks, don’t miss the 40 Best Horror Movies for Totally Freaking Yourself Out.
Ryan Gosling; Frankenstein and Me
In this 1997 film, Ryan Gosling plays a supporting character in a group of young boys who are eager to bring Frankenstein to life. As you can probably imagine, the film didn’t do so well, and most of the actors who starred alongside Gosling—like Jamieson Boulanger and Ricky Mabe—didn’t experience the stratospheric success he did.
Benicio del Toro; Big Top Pee-wee
Accomplished actor and Wolfman star Benicio del Toro seems to have an affinity for all things canine, as his first role was Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee, largely considered a flop, and, well, a total embarrassment for all of those involved. Lucky for him, though, he remains mostly unrecognizable in the role, due to the sheer amounts of hair on his face throughout the film.
Cuba Gooding Jr.; Coming to America
As Cuba Gooding Jr. can attest, first acting roles aren’t always glamorous. For his first foray into film, the actor plays “Boy Getting Haircut” in the 1988 comedy Coming to America, and laughs along with the rest of the crew inside the barber shop without ever receiving the trim that he so desired.
Brad Pitt; The Dark Side of the Sun
Prior to becoming a part of Hollywood’s elite, Brad Pitt scored his first credited acting job in the American-Yugoslavian movie The Dark Side of the Sun. He plays the main character, Rick, whose rare skin disorder prevents him from exposing himself to any form of light. The actor was reportedly only paid $1,523 for seven weeks of filming in 1988, despite the movie being shelved and released straight to DVD in 1997. If you feel so inclined, you can view the entire movie online.
Kevin Bacon; Animal House
Kevin Bacon got his start in the film industry by making a brief but memorable appearance as Chip Diller, uttering the now-infamous line, as he’s being spanked as part of Omega’s initiation, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” So that’s where the six degrees thing began…
Tom Cruise; Endless Love
Before Tom Cruise was jumping across buildings and out of airplanes, he was telling his friends how much he adored setting things on fire as Billy in 1981’s Endless Love. Though his pyromaniac character only spoke a few lines, producers took to him and quickly cast him in bigger and better films like Top Gun and Risky Business.
Matthew McConaughey; Unsolved Mysteries
Even from the beginning of his prolific acting career, Matthew McConaughey knew how to turn the charm on—especially in this first acting role in a dramatization featured in the Lifetime series Unsolved Mysteries. In this 1992 role, his character, Larry Dickens, is murdered by a gun-toting sex offender.
Justin Hartley; a Miller Beer commercial
This Is Us star Justin Hartley’s first attempt at mainstream acting success came in the form of a Miller Beer commercial, one in which doesn’t exactly evoke fond memories for the actor. “They cut all of my lines. Well, there were no lines actually. I was just told to improv. We did it about 40 times, every take was different. I was so proud of how funny I was until I saw the commercial and they played music over my mouth moving,” Hartley told Insider.
Milo Ventimiglia; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Hartley’s fellow This Is Us costar Milo Ventimiglia had only accepted unpaid acting gigs until this brief role in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air came along, giving the actor his first few seconds of experience on live television. In it, he plays an unnamed boy at a party coming down the stairs after a rendezvous with another unnamed character.
Morgan Freeman; Another World
As it turns out, Morgan Freeman and his silky smooth voice haven’t always appeared in critically-acclaimed masterpieces. Case in point: Freeman’s first major performance in soap opera Another World, where his character, Dr. Roy Bingham, twisted and turned through every dramatic plot change. To be fair, though, Freeman’s voice is perfectly suited for the dramatically sudsy world of soaps. And for more A-listers who kicked things off on daytime TV, meet the 40 Stars Who Started Out on Soap Operas.
Jim Carrey; Earth Girls Are Easy
Perhaps serving as a foreshadowing to later roles that comedian and actor Jim Carrey would take on, like The Mask and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, he played an incredibly strange but endearing alien who fell to earth (into Geena Davis’ swimming pool, to be more specific) in this 1988 romantic sci-fi film. Along with his fellow costars Jeff Goldblum and Damon Wayans, Carrey shines in his role as an incredibly adorable and dorky alien.
Kevin Spacey; Heartburn
In Kevin Spacey’s first role, he plays an apologetic mugger who follows Meryl Streep’s character into her therapy session, creating quite a stir among the already-tense patients. As Spacey’s character finds out, perhaps he stumbled into the right place to begin to turn his life around. Though his role was minor, it seemingly catapulted his acting career, landing him several supporting roles in films like Working Girl and Glengarry Glen Ross.
Christian Bale: Mio in the Land of Faraway
In this largely overlooked 1987 fantasy film, Christian Bale and Nicholas Packard fight a Black Knight, played by Chistopher Lee, who has been turning to children into birds. Yes, that’s right, before hacking people to death in American Psycho, Bale played Jum-Jum the Swedish Boy, fighting against an evil darkness in the Land of Faraway.
Arnold Schwarzenegger; Hercules in New York
If you’ve never had the pleasure of sitting through Hercules in New York, you’re missing out on quite the experience—that is, if you enjoy reveling in the awkward and the terrible. This 1970 film was the first acting gig that Arnold Schwarzenegger ever landed as a 22-year-old, still without a complete understanding of English, which presented itself over and over again in his barely comprehensible lines.
Anna Kendrick; Camp
Before future Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick was seamlessly melding song and humor in the Pitch Perfect franchise, she was (sort of) doing the same with her role as Fritzi Wagner in the 2003 musical comedy Camp. In the film, Kendrick’s character seems to struggle from some sort of psychotic break, adding a dramatic yet hilarious twist to the lighthearted film about a musical summer camp. Though the film didn’t earn a lot of praise or accolades, it jumpstarted Kendrick’s career in a great way.
Jessica Biel; It’s a Digital World
Before Jessica Biel was stealing hearts on 7th Heaven, she starred as Regretal, an orphan girl, in the 1994 digital short It’s a Digital World. While director Paul Greenberg had hopes of turning the short into a motion picture, the film didn’t charm audiences like he had anticipated it would.
Hugh Jackman; Paperback Hero
The Wolverine actor got his film debut in Paperback Hero, an Australian film about a truck driver whose dramatic love life inspired him to put pen to paper and draft heartfelt romance novels about his various encounters. Don’t worry—this film is just as awkward to sit through as you might imagine.
Nicole Kidman; Skin Deep
Similar to fellow Australian actor Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman had her acting debut down under, starring in a small role as an aspiring model in 1983’s Skin Deep. Though the film is mostly cringe-inducing, Kidman’s grace and acting chops were still evident.
Emilia Clarke; Triassic Attack
Before Emilia Clarke was mother of dragons, queen of the Andals, and a bazillion other formal titles on Game of Thrones, she wielded her power over other reptilian beasts on 2010’s Triassic Attack, a sci-fi movie about a group of old dinosaur fossils terrorizing a town. Oh, does that sound familiar? Yeah, it’s safe to say that Clarke’s first movie wasn’t the most inventive, but it still gave her the experience she needed to land one of the most important roles of her career.
Alison Brie; Hannah Montana
In the first season of Hannah Montana in 2006, actress Alison Brie landed her first role as Nina, the love interest of Hannah’s brother, Jackson. Unlike others on the list, Brie got her start in acting later, appearing on Hannah Montana at the age of 23.
Kristen Stewart; Flinstones: Viva Rock Vegas
Blink and you may miss her, but then-10-year-old Kristen Stewart appeared for a few moments as a ring toss girl in Flinstones: Viva Rock Vegas. As it turns out, Stewart actually had a very active acting career during her preteen and teen years, appearing in several films such as The Messengers and Cold Creek Manor.
Ben Affleck; Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Ben Affleck’s first major (though still very minor) role was as basketball player #10 on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was, admittedly, as anticlimactic a role as one might imagine. With that in mind, it’s quite impressive to witness the actor’s quick ascension to new heights in films just a few years later, starring and directing in movies like Good Will Hunting and Dazed and Confused.
Bryan Cranston; Amazon Women on the Moon
Bryan Cranston had an incredibly small role as a paramedic in 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon, a tepid science fiction spoof that might have produced a few more cringes and shrugs from the audience than the writers and directors had intended. Fortunately for Cranston, he was able to move on to better projects (Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad) that turned him into a household name.
Jennifer Aniston; Leprechaun
It’s safe to say that Jennifer Aniston would rather forget that she ever starred in this twisted horror movie about a murderous leprechaun. In fact, Aniston even recalled a time when her ex-husband, Justin Theroux, discovered the old movie and forced her to watch it with him. “He was flipping through the channels and he stumbled upon that. And that was our next two hours much to my embarrassment,” the actress revealed on the Graham Norton Show.
Jason Bateman; Teen Wolf Too
Challenge: see how long you can to sit through this scene of Emmy-nominated actor Jason Bateman transforming into a wolf during a high school boxing match without laughing. (Hey, we all have to start somewhere, right?)
Allison Janney; Who Shot Patakango?
Allison Janney stars as a well-meaning teacher in this comedy starring Sandra Bullock—a film that didn’t measure up well to audiences and reportedly made Janney so nervous that she threw up on the way to her first day of filming.
Andy Samberg; a Honda commercial
Before appearing on Saturday Night Live in 2005, Andy Samberg was just a struggling comedian looking for inventive ways to pay the bills. This is most likely the reason he accepted his first acting position in a Japanese Honda Civic commercial, a gig in which still haunts him to this day. “It shot in Tokyo, and the whole thing was five Americans of varying races, dancing in a car to the song, ‘Let’s Groove Tonight.’ It was this weird car that had a seat in the middle of the front seat and every time I hear that song now, I get PTSD. I freak out. I can’t handle it,” he told Adweek.
Laura Prepon; Italian Uncle Ben’s Rice commercial
As a child, Orange is the New Black star Laura Prepon pursued an acting career while living abroad in Italy, which in the end allowed her to land her first gig, appearing in an Italian Uncle Ben’s Rice commercial. “The first acting I ever did was an Italian Uncle Ben’s Rice commercial, which was hilarious. I don’t even know how me walking through the Piazza del Duomo sold rice, but it did,” Prepon told Rolling Stone.
Jean-Claude Van Damme; Monaco Forever
Before he became the quintessential ladies man, actor Jean-Claude Van Damme was stepping outside of his comfort zone in his very first role as “Gay Karate Man” in the thriller Monaco Forever. In this scene, Van Damme attempts to flirt with Charles Pitt, who plays the lead, Michael, in the film.
Quentin Tarantino; Golden Girls
Quentin Tarantino, long before making honing his one-of-a-kind directing style, attempted to become an actor. In his first role, Tarantino appeared as an Elvis impersonator on a 1988 episode of Golden Girls (he’s the scowling one sitting on the far right, in the back row). Just a few years later, he struck gold with Reservoir Dogs.
Laurence Fishburne; Pee-Wee’s Playhouse
Just a few years before he receieved an Oscar nomination for his role in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Laurence Fishburne starred as Cowboy Curtis on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse from 1986 to 1987. Though it wasn’t the most glamorous first gig, Fishburne is still appreciative of the invaluable experience that it gave him in the industry. “[Cowboy Curtis has] given me the opportunity to give a lot of people a lot of joy, and make people smile and laugh, which is not something that I often get to do in the work, because I mostly work in the dramatic part,” Fishburne told Entertainment Weekly.
Jennifer Lawrence; Monk
Yep—Jennifer Lawrence got her big break by serving time in a mascot costume in the television show Monk. The stint was short, but it eventually propelled her career and gave her enough experience to land subsequent major roles: in Winter’s Bone, Like Crazy, and, of course, The Hunger Games.
Mark Ruffalo; a Clearasil commercial
As it turns out, even Mark Ruffalo suffered from acne as a young adult—or at least he pretended to suffer from acne in this 1989 Clearasil commercial that witnessed the actor prancing around and applying the topical formula to his face with unrivaled ebullience.
Emma Stone; The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
Emma Stone’s first breakout role wasn’t exactly…human. The La La Land star voiced the most spoiled character on the Disney show The Suite Life of Zack and Cody: London Tipton’s Pomeranian. This 2005 performance was easy to miss, by the way. Stone went by her birth name, Emily, in the credits.
Ryan Reynolds; Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Ryan Reynolds started out by playing Seth, Sabrina’s crush, in the Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV movie. Though the couple didn’t make it in the end, we still like to look back on the pair every now and then to fully revel in the bleach tips and nostalgia of the ’90s. And for more surprising celebrity facts, check out these 30 Celebrities You Forgot Appeared on Friends.
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