Pop culture sometimes has a short memory. It can feel like the movie stars we’ve seen in legendary roles for years have always been famous actors. However, even the most iconic Hollywood royalty had to start somewhere. Whether they’re starting out in commercials, small guest roles, or long-forgotten independent films, there’s a familiar path to paying dues that most actors face first. Many actors languish in this purgatory and advance no further. However, for an elite and a lucky few, a crucial role can be the stepping stone they need to gain initial recognition and respect in the industry.
To be fair, the roles that “make” an actor famous might not always be the movies they’re ultimately best known for. In some cases, these opportunities present themselves further after additional years of work. However, there are must-see movies that can show hints of an actor’s greatness, sometimes even before the rest of the world notices. This list will attempt to unearth some of those memorable moments and remind audiences why they fell in love with these awesome actors in the first place. While some of these movies became huge, lucrative blockbusters, most didn’t start out with those high expectations placed on them at first. Here are the breakthrough movie roles that turned actors into Hollywood stars.
Leonardo DiCaprio – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Leonardo DiCaprio regularly makes must-see films and has been doing so for almost 30 years now. While some of DiCaprio’s work in the 90s may be overshadowed by his greatest films, such as Titanic, Romeo + Juliet, The Basketball Diaries, and The Man in the Iron Maskit is this role of escape in What eats Gilbert Raisin who first showed what an incredible actor he is. DiCaprio played Johnny Depp’s mentally challenged younger brother and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1994 Oscars. Since then, he has played iconic characters in dozens of other films, such as The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, Catch Me If You Can, Inception, The Great Gatsby, Don’t Look Up, Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, and his Oscar-winning role as Hugh Glass in The ghostan award that had eluded him for many years despite its popularity and rave reviews.
Salma Hayek – Desperado
The action thriller Desperado brought Salma Hayek into the Hollywood spotlight for the first time outside of her native Mexico and established her as one of the most talented and beautiful actresses in the world. Coincidentally, a similar star-studded performance also took place alongside actor Antonio Banderas for Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Mask of Zorro several years later. Hayek has proven herself again and again as an amazing and hardworking actress in many films over the years, such as Frida, Traffic, From dusk till dawn, Fools rush in, Dogma, Adultsand just last year in Eternals, House of Gucci, Bliss and The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.
Christian Bale – American Psycho
Christian Bale is a shape-shifting actor, ready to completely change his look for any role he chooses to take on. However, in his first big chance to shine as a narcissistic banking executive named Patrick Bateman in American psycho, Bale is intense, funny and scary at the same time. It’s a testament to his acting range and passionate delivery of his characters. Christian went on to take on even bigger roles as Bruce Wayne and Batman in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, for which a recent poll named him the best Batman of all time. However, don’t sleep on his many other memorable performances in Vice, The Big Short, American Hustle, The Machinist, Ford v Ferrari, Public Enemies, The Fighter, among others.
As many people remember, Drew Barrymore got his big break in Steven Spielberg HEY when she was still just a little girl. Her transition to bankable Hollywood lead actress as an adult is inspiring, especially given the stories of so many other childhood actors at the time who weren’t able to do the same. Barrymore became the lovable, but still tough when needed, actress we know today. She recently transitioned into a successful daytime TV talk show host. She played unforgettable roles in Scream, Charlie’s Angels, Never Been Kissed, The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, Ever After, Fever Pitch and Donnie Darko to name a few. Now you can catch Barrymore playing the main in the latest Scream movie.
Denzel Washington – Malcolm X
After first playing Malcolm X in a popular play, it was a meeting with director Spike Lee that helped Denzel Washington land the big movie role of the legendary 1960s civil rights leader. Malcolm Xwe may never have seen Washington in other great movies like Philadelphia, Training Day, Crimson Tide, Remember the Titans, Fences, The Pelican Brief, Man on Fire, John Q, and Flight.
Sandra Bullock – Speed
Although you may have seen Sandra Bullock in movies Speed such as the wrecker and Love Potion #9, it wasn’t until this performance alongside Keanu Reeves that Bullock became a household name. Since then, Bullock has racked up blockbuster movies like The Blind Side, Bird Box, Crash, Miss Congeniality, The Proposal, A Time to Kill, The Net, and Oceans Eight to his long curriculum vitae.
Jared Leto – Requiem for a Dream
You might know Jared Leto best for his work as the Joker in recent DC Comics movies like suicide squad Where Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Others will remember her Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club or know him as the frontman of rock band 30 Seconds To Mars. Gen-Xers will likely be connected with him as a 90s MTV show idol My so called life. However, Leto has played many other interesting and challenging roles that you should definitely familiarize yourself with. Requiem for a dream talks about the tragic world of extreme drug addiction. If you’ve seen this movie before, you probably haven’t forgotten about it. Leto’s slightly under-the-radar roles in blockbuster movies like Fight Club, Girl Interrupted, American Psycho, Panic Room and Chapter 27 are all binge-worthy as well.
Angelina Jolie – Hackers
Angelina Jolie has been a top actress for over two decades now. However, her early fans will fondly remember her role as Kate in the late 90s on computer, The Pirates. Jolie’s career only skyrocketed from then on – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Gone in 60 Seconds, Salt, The Bone Collector, Girl Interrupted, Maleficent, Changeling, and Wanted to all came in the following years.
Jeremy Renner – The Wounded Locker
These days, it’s hard to see Jeremy Renner and not see him as Clint Barton’s character, better known as Marvel Comics superhero Hawkeye. It’s for good reason, because he played the part in Thor, Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Endgame, by Disney What if…?and his own Disney+ show, Hawk Eye. However, Renner is not limited to Hawkeye. Renner was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, where he played a Sargent in the Iraq War. Besides his work on the Avengers, The Hurt Locker led to big roles in The Town, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle, and Wind River.
Emma Stone – Super Bad
Why not love Emma Stone? She is capable of playing literally any role that is asked of her. Whether she’s in a comedy extravaganza, biography of a respected sports star, singing and dancing in a Hollywood musical, being part of Sony’s Spider-Verse, taking on an iconic Disney character, acting in historical dramas, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, futuristic sci-fi experiments, or a romantic romance, she’s pretty much done it all in the past 15 years alone. In super bad, Stone was still a mostly unknown actress, but was able to get by with her male counterparts’ raunchy dialogue with far less screen time to do so. After that, her career really took off with roles in La La Land, The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2, Cruella, The Help, Crazy Stupid Love, Zombieland, Easy-A, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Favorite, and Battle of the sexes. She even found time to appear in a Paul McCartney music video, complete memorable voice-over work, and star in the Netflix series, Maniacal. With Cruel 2 currently in pre-production, the blockbuster roles seem to show no signs of slowing down for her.
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