32 greatest movies with famous people (before they were famous) (2024)

32 greatest movies with famous people (before they were famous) (1)

Every Hollywood superstar has to start somewhere. While some actors are lucky enough to knock it out of the park on their first or second try, most languish in obscurity before finally making their big break. But which movies actually star famous people before they were famous?

Whether it's a small part in a big movie or an obscure cult classic, some movies happen to have ultra-famous faces long before they were actually a household name. Due to the notoriously grueling audition process that almost all movies find their actors, even the most famous actors and prestigious awards winners have to get their start somewhere.

Below are 32 great movies that will most certainly make you say, "They were in that?"

32. A Nightmare on Elm Street (with Johnny Depp)

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In Wes Craven's era-defining horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, none other than Johnny Depp gets sucked into a deadly bed of death that spews out geysers of his blood. (In his own movie debut, no less!) Depp's role of Glen, fated boyfriend to lead heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) was originally written as a "big, blond, beach-jock," or so Depp described it in a 2015 interview with Variety. In his audition, Depp read lines with Craven's daughter, who insisted afterward that Depp was the right person for the role.

31. Enter the Dragon (with Jackie Chan)

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Before Jackie Chan became a martial arts icon, he was just one of many faceless henchmen thrown at the legendary Bruce Lee. In Lee's one and only Hollywood movie, Enter the Dragon released in 1973, Lee plays a Shaolin master and secret agent tasked with infiltrating a crime lord's island fortress. Standing in his way are hordes of kung fu killers who try (and fail) to stop Bruce Lee. In retrospective interviews, Chan hilariously recalls when Lee accidentally injured him on set. Enjoying the attention from an apologetic Lee, Chan milked his pain just so they could hug for a bit longer.

30. Barry (with Anya Taylor-Joy)

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Anya Taylor-Joy's first movie role in the 2014 comedy Vampire Academy was left on the cutting room floor, making her lead role in Robert Eggers' acclaimed horror movie The Witch her official film debut. But in between The Witch and her much bigger hit Split in 2017, Taylor-Joy starred in the biographical drama Barry which released on Netflix in 2016. The movie tells of President Barack Obama's life while attending Columbia University circa 1981; Taylor-Joy plays Charlotte Baughman, a composite figure based on several women Obama dated while in college.

29. Stardust (with Charlie Cox and Henry Cavill)

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Before he was Marvel's Daredevil, Charlie Cox was just a young man in love. In Matthew Vaughn's effervescent romantic fantasy Stardust (based on the Neil Gaiman novel), Cox plays a young man named Tristan who tries to woo his crush Victoria (Sienna Miller) by retrieving a fallen star, unaware the star is also a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes). Early in the movie, Tristan gets embarrassed by Victoria's boyfriend, played by Henry Cavill in a bit part. Honestly, it should surprise nobody that Superman would outshine Daredevil.

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28. Star Trek (with Chris Hemsworth)

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Did you know that, at least once, two of Hollywood's "Chrises" played father and son? In J.J. Abrarms' blockbuster reboot of Star Trek, released in May 2009, Chris Pine plays the lead role of a young James T. Kirk as he matures from hillbilly nobody to sitting captain of the USS Enterprise. But in the movie's emotionally charged prologue, his own father George Kirk commands the Enterprise for less than 15 minutes before its destruction. George happens to be played by Chris Hemsworth, who was just two years shy of his own star-making role of Thor in the 2011 Marvel movie.

27. Beyond the Mat (with Dwayne Johnson)

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Well before he was one of Hollywood's biggest stars - and we mean that literally - Dwayne Johnson wrestled in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) as "The Rock." In the 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, Johnson appears as himself as the cameras go deep behind Gorilla position to reveal what the modern wrestling industry really looks like. While the documentary's narrative primarily focuses on the wrestler Mankind, real name Mick Foley, Foley's on screen rival at the time was The Rock. One of the movie's sweetest moments: Foley introducing Dwayne Johnson to his kids, so they aren't awfully traumatized when he beats up their daddy with a steel chair later that night.

26. Drunken Tai Chi (with Donnie Yen)

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With the 1984 martial arts comedy Drunken Tai Chi (directed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping), Donnie Yen first transitioned from stuntman to actor; he has since become one of the biggest onscreen action heroes in Asia, plus major Hollywood movie credits like Rogue One and John Wick: Chapter 4. In Drunken Tai Chi, Yen stars as a young man on the run from a killer. He takes up refuge with an eccentric husband and wife, both of them masters of Tai Chi which they teach to Yen to defeat his enemies. Drunken Tai Chi is a rollicking good time that gives audiences a glimpse at a future superstar.

25. The Midnight Meat Train (with Bradley Cooper)

Bradley Cooper was no stranger to the silver screen in 2008. He made his movie debut in the 2001 cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, and played the memorably smug boyfriend of Rachel McAdams in the smash hit Wedding Crashers. But right before Cooper's star went nuclear in The Hangover, he starred in director Ryuhei Kitamura's The Midnight Meat Train, an adaptation of a Clive Barker story. Cooper leads the film as a photographer whose camera lenses capture an enigmatic figure who draws Cooper deep into a dark underworld conspiracy.

24. The Dark Knight Rises (with Glen Powell)

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After his breakout roles in Top Gun: Maverick and the rom-com Anyone But You, Glen Powell seemed like an overnight Hollywood sensation. But the truth is that Powell, like other actors, have grinded away at his craft for years. At a young age he had a small role in the 2003 family movie Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and in 2005, he was in Richard Linklater's crowded ensemble Fast Food Nation. A GQ profile in 2024 reminded many people that Powell went face-to-face with Tom Hardy's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, playing a stuffy suit at the stock exchange. He had the memorable line, "There's no money you can steal," to which Bane replied, "Really? Then why are you people here?"

23. Tadpole (with Kate Mara)

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After her lead role in the first season of House of Cards, audiences remembered Kate Mara for having a small part in the 2010 Marvel blockbuster Iron Man 2. But a microbudget rom-com from 2002 can lay claim to getting Mara beforehand. Directed by Gary Winick, Tadpole follows Oscar (Aaron Stanford), modern day teenaged Renaissance Man who falls in love with his father's new wife, played by Sigourney Weaver. To illustrate Oscar's taste in older women, Kate Mara plays a more age-appropriate classmate whose advances are rebuffed by Oscar.

22. The Faculty (with Elijah Wood and Jordana Brewster)

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After the success of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that a very young Elijah Wood had a bit part in Back to the Future Part II. (He's the kid who scoffs at Marty McFly's favorite arcade game.) But in 1998, Elijah Wood had an even meatier role in the cult sci-fi horror movie The Faculty. Set at a suburban high school where the school's adult staff are secretly predatory aliens, a group of misfit teens unite to stop a sudden alien invasion. Wood plays bullied student Casey, the photographer for the school paper who is pushed around by the school's head cheerleader Delilah. Jordana Brewster plays Delilah, herself on the cusp of stardom before starring in The Fast and the Furious just a few years later.

21. A Kid in King Arthur's Court (with Daniel Craig and Kate Winslet)

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In Michael Gottlieb's playful reimagining of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a '90s Los Angeles teenager (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is magically flung back in time to medieval England, where he stands in the presence of none other than King Arthur. In supporting roles are pre-fame stars Kate Winslet (years before she boarded the fateful Titanic) and Daniel Craig (a full 11 years before playing James Bond). Winslet and Craig's characters enjoy a star-crossed romance subplot, one that comes together through the whimsy of a teenager rollerblading through Camelot.

20. A River Runs Through It (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

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In 1992, Hollywood icon Robert Redford sat behind the camera for A River Runs Through It, a decades-spanning period drama based on Norman Maclean's semi-autobiographical novel. While the movie is usually remembered for starring Brad Pitt at the start of his initial breakthrough, the movie also features a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a child-age version of Norman Maclean. Two years later, Gordon-Levitt starred in Angels in the Outfield, and a few years after that, earned his stardom in the 1999 teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You.

19. Interview with the Vampire (with Kirsten Dunst)

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It takes a lot for any actor to hold their own against Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Which is why it's all the more impressive that a ten-year-old Kirsten Dunst did just that for Neil Jordan's movie adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. Dunst plays Claudia, a child who is turned into a vampire by the main leads and physically stays a child despite living for many years. In an L.A. Times interview from 1994, producer Stephen Woolley commented: "We needed a child with a mind capable of grasping the fine points of the difficult monologues Claudia has, and Kirsten was the first actress we saw. She gave a wonderful reading but we thought it was too good to be true, so we saw thousands of other girls. In the end we came back to Kirsten--she's quite extraordinary in the part."

18. Coming to America (with Samuel L. Jackson)

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Before Samuel L. Jackson was the baddest man in Pulp Fiction, he was just another working actor hustling in many small roles while also dealing with personal problems of his own. In 1988, for the blockbuster Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America, Jackson played the minor, but no less memorable role of a robber who violently threatens the employees at McDowell's (not McDonald's). Endless reruns of Coming to America on television have made Jackson's part quite legendary, even though he's onscreen for barely two minutes. Jackson was meant to cameo in the same role for the 2020 sequel Coming 2 America, but was unable to do so due to scheduling conflicts.

17. Empire Records (with Liv Tyler)

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In 1993, Liv Tyler appeared alongside another yet-to-be discovered actress Alicia Silverstone in the Aerosmith music video "Crazy." (Tyler is the daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler.) After her film debut in the 1994 movie Silent Fall, she took center stage in the cult 1995 comedy-drama Empire Records. A coming-of-age tale, the movie follows a group of record store employees whose lives change over the course of one strange day: "Rex Manning Day." While the movie was a box office bomb, it enjoys cult status and is recognized for launching the careers of many of its stars, most especially Tyler.

16. Ghost World (with Scarlett Johansson)

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Even before she was a Marvel superheroine and Esquire's "Sexiest Woman Alive," Scarlett Johansson had a high profile in Hollywood thanks to movies like Lost in Translation and The Prestige. But her big breakthrough came in the 2001 black comedy Ghost World, based on Daniel Clownes' comic book series. Johansson co-stars with Thora Birch playing teenaged outsiders whose friendship is tested when one of them takes an interest in an older man (Steve Buschemi). Johansson had early awards recognition for her performance; she won Best Supporting Actress from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

15. Cutting Class (with Brad Pitt)

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Thelma & Louise is often considered the movie that introduced Brad Pitt to the mainstream. But before he wooed Geena Davis as a hunky hitchhiker, he had various roles here and there; he even played a nameless partygoer in Less Than Zero, starring Robert Downey Jr. In 1989, Pitt had his second leading role as a cool, charismatic high school student in the '80s slasher Cutting Class, about a suburban high school that suffers a rash of murders after a disturbed student returns to its hallways. If you've ever wanted to see the guy from Fight Club partake in a quintessential 1980s horror movie, Cutting Class begs your attendance.

14. Short Term 12 (with too many people to name)

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The acclaimed 2013 drama Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is heavily based on Cretton's experiences working as a supervisor of at-risk teenagers. Incidentally, the movie happens to have a ton of recognizable faces including future Oscar-winner and Marvel star Brie Larson. Surrounding her are John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, LaKeith Stanfield, and Stephanie Beatriz, almost all of them appearing in this one movie before their own career breakthroughs just a short time afterward.

13. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (with Tobey Maguire)

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The cult film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's seminal novel, directed by Terry Gilliam, stars Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro as a journalist and attorney on a hallucinogenic journey to Las Vegas, an abstract search for the American Dream following the collapse of the 1960s counterculture movement. For a brief moment in the movie, the two men pick up a twink hitchhiker in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, played by none other than future Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire. The men's altered state scare off Maguire, who leaves the backseat of their convertible just a few minutes after riding with them.

12. Out of Sight (with Viola Davis)

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In this star-studded crime comedy from Steven Soderbergh, itself based on Elmore Leonard's 1996 novel, a handsome bank robber (George Clooney) falls in love with smart, sexy Federal Marshal (Jennifer Lopez). While actors like Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks appear, not to mention Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton in uncredited cameo capacities, a pre-fame Viola Davis briefly shows up playing the wife of Don Cheadle's character. Davis continued playing small roles in Soderbergh's other movies, like Traffic and Ocean's Eleven, before breaking through as an Oscar-winning movie star in her own right.

11. The Commuter (with Florence Pugh)

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In 2019, Florence Pugh became the face of young Hollywood with her roles in the biographical drama Fighting With My Family and the acclaimed horror hit Midsommar. Marvel stardom followed not long afterward. But just before her career breakthrough, Pugh played a pink-haired goth in the Liam Neeson thriller The Commuter from 2018. Another earlier movie, Lady Macbeth from 2016, also starred a pre-fame Pugh in the lead role as a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage.

10. Drive (with Brittany Murphy)

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In this woefully overlooked '90s action gem from director Steve Wang, Iron Chef's Mark Dacascos and Kadeem Hardison play two men on a high-octane road trip to deliver a bleeding edge device to Los Angeles while evading Chinese forces. Along the way the two men meet a young woman named Deliverance who runs a dingy motel. Deliverance is played by the late Brittany Murphy, who found stardom just two years earlier with the hit film Clueless. Murphy's Hollywood fame had its highs and lows, until it came to an unfortunate halt following her death in 2009.

9. Donnie Darko (with Seth Rogen)

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The beloved cult TV show Freaks and Geeks is credited for launching the careers of virtually everyone involved with it, including stars John Francis Daley, James Franco, Martin Starr, Busy Phillips, Samm Levine, and of course, Seth Rogen. But after Freaks and Geeks and before his bigger fame through movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Rogen had the minor role of a high school bully in Richard Kelly's cerebral teen thriller Donnie Darko. In addition to starring Jake Gyllenhaal (who himself enjoyed a career breakthrough with October Sky a few years earlier), Donnie Darko also had Jena Malone as the leading love interest.

8. Empire of the Sun (with Christian Bale)

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At the tender age of 13, Christian Bale held down the lead role of Steven Spielberg's period epic Empire of the Sun, about a young British boy in a World War II Japanese internment camp. The part earned Bale instant acclaim and recognition, setting him down the path of a Hollywood superstar. He was still considered "unknown" by the producers of the 2000 thriller American Psycho, and was given a meager salary of $50,000 to play a wealthy Wall Street yuppie. The movie catapulted Bale to stardom, with him eventually landing the coveted role of Batman for Christopher Nolan's blockbuster trilogy.

7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (with Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellwigger)

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Though this fourth installment of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series did poorly in theaters, it has earned retrospective praise for the ways it lampoons its own series and meditates on the declining slasher genre. It also demands attention based on the fact it boasts two future Hollywood A-listers: Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger. Zellwegger stars as one of several Texas teenagers whose prom night takes a turn for the worse after they encounter the terror of Leatherface and his family, headed by Vilmer Slaughter (McConaughey).

6. Once Bitten (with Jim Carrey)

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Well before he was a regular cast member on In Living Color and far before his career breakthrough with Ace Ventura, Jim Carrey was just another struggling actor. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles from Toronto, Carrey was cast in the lead role of the teen horror comedy Once Bitten, playing a high school student who is seduced by a vampire at a Hollywood nightclub. Carrey followed it up with a supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married. But it wasn't until In Loving Color that Carrey's name started to mean something to everyone else.

5. Leprechaun (with Jennifer Aniston)

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First conceived as a straightforward horror movie before getting retooled into an absurd comedy hybrid, Leprechaun stars Warwick Davis as a vengeful Irish leprechaun who believes a family has stolen his pot of gold. The movie also stars future sitcom star Jennifer Aniston, playing the teenage daughter of the family. Released a full year before the premiere of Friends on NBC, Aniston appears in Leprechaun already sporting her infamous "Rachel" haircut. In a 2019 interview with Howard Stern, Aniston recalled watching the movie for the first time in years and feeling desperate to change the channel.

4. The Man in the Moon (with Reese Witherspoon)

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When a young Reese Witherspoon attended an open casting call for the 1991 drama The Man in the Moon, she went in trying out for a bit part. She wound up cast in the lead role, a 14-year-old country girl who experiences her first taste of love with a 17-year-old neighbor. Her performance drew acclaim from prolific critics like Roger Ebert, who commented: "Her first kiss is one of the most perfect little scenes I've ever seen in a movie." The budding star followed up The Man in the Moon with a string of buzzy indies and a few obscure gems, including the direct-to-video comedy Overnight Delivery co-starring Paul Rudd. After Cruel Intentions and Election, both in 1999, Witherspoon became a giant. She cemented her Hollywood fame with the 2001 mega-hit Legally Blonde - a full 10 years after her first onscreen role.

3. Police Story 3: Supercop (with Michelle Yeoh)

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Prior to starring in Police Story 3: Supercop, future Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh was already a famous butt-kicker in Hong Kong with movies like Yes, Madam (released in 1985) and Magnificent Warriors (released in 1987). A marriage compelled her to retire from her acting career. When it ended in divorce, she returned to the screen and experienced a serious career resurgence starting with the 1992 sequel to the Police Story movies. The movie was not only a hit in Asia but also in the U.S., being one of the first real exposures of Yeoh to global audiences. Yeoh soon moved to Hollywood and continued nabbing roles in high-profile movies like the James Bond sequel Tomorrow Never Dies and the Oscar-nominated wuxia hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In 2023, she won her first Oscar for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

2. Spider-Man (with Octavia Spencer)

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Octavia Spencer is a celebrated actress whose work in movies like Fruitvale Station, The Help, Hidden Figures, and The Shape of Water have earned her prestigious recognition; for The Help, she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. But like many in Hollywood, Spencer spent years cutting her teeth in only bit parts, oftentimes as nurses (in movies like The Sky Is Falling, Everything Put Together, and What Planet Are You From?). Her first "big" movie was in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, where Spencer has the unforgettable small part of a cynical "Check-In Girl" at the wrestling event where Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) tests his superpowers. Even as a nameless character, Spencer shines with her iconic delivery of byzantine legalese before saying, "Down the hall to the ramp. May God be with you."

1. Taps (with Tom Cruise)

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Anyone who sat through middle school English might remember that Tom Cruise had a supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola's film adaptation of S.E. Hinton's YA novel The Outsiders. But before that, Cruise played a crucial role in the dramatic thriller Taps, set at a military academy. So the story goes, Cruise impressed director Harold Becker on set that his role as background actor was expanded into that of a disturbed academy student who commits a heinous act of violence. Taps is quite the exhibition of Tom Cruise demonstrating his future stardom.

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Eric Francisco


Eric Francisco is a freelance entertainment journalist and graduate of Rutgers University. If a movie or TV show has superheroes, spaceships, kung fu, or John Cena, he's your guy to make sense of it. A former senior writer at Inverse, his byline has also appeared at Vulture, The Daily Beast, Observer, and The Mary Sue. You can find him screaming at Devils hockey games or dodging enemy fire in Call of Duty: Warzone.

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