nless you're Quvenzhané Wallis — the charming 9-year-old who became the youngest Best Actress nominee in Oscar history for her stunning turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild — winning the attention of the Academy usually only comes after you spend years toiling in small, miles-from-glamorous roles. In that spirit, here's a look at the very humble beginnings of 13 actors destined for greatness.
1. Anne Hathaway
Long before a shaved and slender Anne Hathaway weepingly dreamed a dream in Les Miserables, she was convincing Ohioans to switch to the Cincinnati Bell Telephone company. In this '90s-era commercial, teenage Anne frets over her rookie move of ending her date with a handshake — only to find that while she's busy gabbing to friends on the phone, the boy called and left a message asking her out again. It's the happy ending Fantine could have only hoped for.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis
The three-time Oscar winner has reportedly gone to extreme lengths to "become" the characters he plays. For the 1989 film My Left Foot, for which Day-Lewis won his first Oscar playing the Irish artist Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy, the actor reportedly spent almost the entire shoot in a wheelchair. To play Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis half convinced himself he was the 16th president, signing his text messages "A" for Abraham. So, one can only image what the then-14-year-old went through to prepare for the lowly, uncredited role of a moody vandal in the 1971 drama Sunday Bloody Sunday. (See the young Day-Lewis appear briefly in the clip at 0:19.)
3. Jennifer Lawrence
At just 22 years old, Jennifer Lawrence is already piling up the accolades — a multibillion dollar Hunger Games franchise, two Oscar nominations, one Best Actress win, and a constant stream of positive press. And to think it all started with a 2005 commercial in which she played a spoiled little rich girl for an MTV My Super Sweet 16 promo.
4. Jeff Bridges
Bridges grew up in a showbiz family, so his acting work started early — at 4 months, to be exact, when he appeared in The Company She Keeps. But Bridges' first speaking part came about eight years later, when he regularly acted in his dad Lloyd Bridges' TV show Sea Hunt. In the 1960 episode "Pirate Gold," an 11-year-old Bridges plays Kelly Bailey, a sun-kissed kid whose buddy goes missing during their illicit "skin diving" adventure. While the young actor's desperate need for chapstick is a distraction from his character's desperate-yet-guilt-ridden search for his friend, Bridges' dedication to his craft is evident. (Bridges comes in at 0:18.)
5. Natalie Portman
While other teenagers were doodling their crushes' names on school notebooks, 13-year-old Natalie Portman was securing her first major role in a Hollywood film, a thriller called The Professional. (Watch her audition tape below.) Portman played Mathilda — a young orphan who is taken in by a hit man after her family is murdered — with a chilling and mature steeliness that would later manifest itself in her Oscar-winning turn as a relentless and tortured ballerina in Black Swan.
6. Denzel Washington
It wasn't until college that the two-time Oscar winner realized he wanted to act. Denzel scored some early lead roles in his undergrad and graduate school play productions, and filmed a series of commercials for Fruit of the Loom. (He was reportedly the grapes). But then in 1981, Washington got his big Hollywood break in the horribly offensive comedy Carbon Copy, about a down-and-out business man who finds out the last straw to break his personal and professional back is an illegitimate black son, played by Washington.
7. Reese Witherspoon
As a young teen, Witherspoon attended an open casting call for the movie The Man in the Moon, intending to try out for some bit part. But producers were so impressed with the 14-year-old that she got the lead role of Dani Trant, a southern teen who falls in love for the first time with her 17-year-old neighbor (see Witherspoon, starting at 2:36, in the clip below). Tapping into those southern roots apparently works well for Witherspoon, who earned her Best Supporting Actress Oscar 15 years later playing country singer June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.
8. Russell Crowe
Long before the rough-edged Australian won an Oscar for playing a rough-edged Roman in Gladiator, Crowe played a rough-edge hooligan in an Australian soap called Neighbours.
9. Jennifer Connelly
While most of us may be familiar with Jennifer Connelly's early work as the ethereal Sarah in Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth, the New Yorker began her career even earlier than that. After a few modeling gigs, the 14-year-old Connelly earned her first acting role — a supporting part as aspiring actress and dancer Deborah Gelly in the 1984 gangster drama Once Upon a Time in America. It wasn't necessarily her acting that impressed producers, but her impromptu ballet performance (she didn't have any classical training) as well as the natural shape of her nose, which resembled Elizabeth McGovern, who would play the adult version of Connelly's character. Over the years, Connelly honed those skills, going on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar along side Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.
10. Christian Bale
He's known for playing Batman, an American psycho, and Dicky Eklund in The Fighter. But long before those memorable roles and even before his big break in Steven Spielberg's 1987 Empire of the Sun, Bale starred in the made-for-TV film Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. Bale plays the youngest of a family of Russians with inexplicable posh British accents.
11. Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie's role as Lisa Rowe, a sociopath oozing seductive charm, in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But the actress' career started much earlier, which may come as no surprise considering her parents, Jon Voight and Marcheline Betrand, were both in the biz. In fact, Jolie was just 7 years old when she scored a small part in the 1982 gambling drama Lookin' to Get Out. Her father starred as the film's lead, and Jolie convincingly played his character's daughter for a moment at the end.
12. George Clooney
Hollywood's Golden Boy doesn't have too many embarrassing skeletons in his acting closet. From the mid-80s on, the Kentucky native jumped from TV series to sitcoms and dramas until landing the role of Dr. Doug Ross on NBC's long-running show ER. But did you ever wonder what might have helped him prepare for that lengthy stint in the fictionalized medical field? Why, his work on the short-lived 1984 sitcom E/R, of course. In it, Clooney plays a fun-loving, leather-clad emergency medical technician who goes by the name of "Ace." He's kind of like this hospital's version of The Fonz. It's a shock it didn't last.
13. Marisa Tomei
Marisa Tomei was the dark horse in the 1993 running for Best Supporting Actress. But she pulled off the win for her portrayal of Mona Lisa Vito, My Cousin Vinny's supportive if frustrated girlfriend with a fantastic New York accent whose biological clock was infamously — ticking — like — this. Naturally, a decade earlier, when she was acting on the soap opera As the World Turns, Tomei's high-school-aged character was more focused on boys than biology.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why is American internet so slow?
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Colorado’s new ‘drive high, get a DUI’ commercials are actually pretty clever
- 7 ways to be the most interesting person in any room
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- 22 TV shows to watch in 2014
- SNL tackles Vladimir Putin's Ukraine invasion, politically and personally
- Ukraine's fraught relationship with Russia: A brief history
- 10 classic Sesame Street moments we wouldn't show today's kids
- Who are the real gay marriage bigots?
Subscribe to the Week