Roles that catapulted unknown actors to fame

Finding fame as an actor is incredibly tricky. With some movie stars, it might take them a couple of big roles to break into the mainstream spotlight. Take Michael B. Jordan, for example. He grabbed everyone's attention in The Wire, impressed a lot of people with Chronicle, received critical acclaim for Fruitvale Stationbroke through with Creed, and became a household name with Black Panther.

But then, there are some actors who find immediate stardom with a single role. For some, maybe it was their very first feature film. For others, perhaps they'd been toiling for years and years in show business, without any recognition, until the right part finally came along. Whatever their backstory, these talented thespians went from being nobody you've ever heard of to A-list celebrities, all thanks to playing one significant character.

From beloved boxers to sharp-witted superheroes, these roles catapulted unknown actors to incredible fame and fortune.

Sylvester Stallone took his shot with Rocky Balboa

Sylvester Stallone is one of Hollywood's most iconic action stars, but once upon a time, the dude could barely make ends meet. He was so desperate for cash that he was forced to sell his dog to stay afloat. Sure, he was playing bit parts in movies like Klute, and he'd gotten some attention for The Lords of Flatbush, but these little roles weren't paying the bills. Then, everything changed one night when Stallone watched a boxing match between a nobody named Chuck Wepner and the legendary Muhammad Ali. While Wepner took a beating, he made it all the way to the end of the fight, inspiring Stallone to write a script about a boxer who gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Stallone wrote the first draft of Rocky in just three days, but while he got some producers interested in his script, they didn't want him to play the lead. Instead, they wanted somebody like Ryan O'Neil or Burt Reynolds to star as the Italian Stallion. But even though they offered Stallone a hefty paycheck for the screenplay, Stallone stuck to his guns. It meant he had to work with a way smaller budget than Ryan O'Neil would've gotten, but the gamble paid off big time — and looking back, he was the only actor alive who could've given Rocky Balboa such heart, sensitivity, and the guts to take punch after punch and keep on coming. In a way, Balboa's story is a lot like Stallone's, and after playing the lovable southpaw, Stallone went on to dominate for Hollywood for decades.

Christopher Reeve proved he could soar as Superman

As the most famous superhero to ever don a pair of tights, Superman has appeared in countless movies and TV shows, and he's been played a whole host of actors, from George Reeves to Tyler Hoechlin. But for generations of fans, there's only one actor considered the genuine, bona fide Superman: Christopher Reeve.

Before he started leaping tall buildings in a single bound, Reeve was a Juilliard-trained actor getting work in plays and TV shows. He made his big-screen debut in a submarine thriller called Gray Lady Down; just a few months later, Reeve was fighting Lex Luthor in his second cinematic role. The moment he took flight, the man became a movie star. He was bumbling and sweet as the clumsy Clark Kent, and he radiated good guy charisma and old school heroism as the Last Son of Krypton.

But according to Reeve, he almost didn't get the part. As he explained in his autobiography, casting director Lynn Stalmaster advocated tirelessly on his behalf, but director Richard Donner wasn't all that interested. Eventually, Donner agreed to a meeting, but Reeve wasn't really sure if he should go. After all, the odds seem stacked against him. Thankfully for moviegoers and Metropolis, the audition was at a Manhattan hotel, and since Reeve had to meet his dad near there anyway, he decided to drop by. "I truly believe that if the meeting had been in another part of town," the actor wrote, "I wouldn't have gone."

Mark Hamill forced his way to fame as Luke Skywalker

When Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, it changed the pop culture landscape forever, introducing audiences to lightsabers, X-wings, and Jedi knights. It also radically changed Mark Hamill's career, turning the unknown actor into one of the all-time great movie heroes.

Before George Lucas came along with his game-changing space opera, Hamill was doing a lot of TV work, showing up in programs like The Bill Cosby Show, The Partridge Family, and General Hospital. But the Force moves in mysterious ways, and Hamill got the opportunity to audition for Star Wars after his buddy, Robert Englund of A Nightmare on Elm Street, encouraged him to try out for the part of Luke Skywalker.

Actors like Robby Benson and Charles Martin Smith also auditioned for the role of the adventurous farm boy, but Hamill had a certain wanderlust about him, a wide-eyed wonder and earnest determination that was perfect for the part. And the role propelled him to sci-fi stardom, with the actor going on to voice the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series and reprising the role of Luke Skywalker multiple times, adding new layers to the classic character with every appearance.

Dev Patel had the answer for success as Jamal Malik

When Slumdog Millionaire hit theaters in 2008, this sleeper hit grossed $377 million at the box office, earned widespread acclaim, and nabbed the Oscar for Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards. It also introduced the world to Dev Patel, an actor who went from a relative nobody to a worldwide celebrity thanks to his starring role as the titular slumdog, Jamal Malik. 

Before landing the gig of a lifetime, Patel managed to get a bit of attention in a British TV show called Skins, acting alongside Daniel Kaluuya. The series focused on the complicated lives of English teens, and Patel's performance got favorable reviews. In fact, it even got director Danny Boyle's attention, and the filmmaker was so impressed that he gave Patel the lead role in his Indian extravaganza. Since then, Patel has starred in films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Man Who Knew Infinity, and he earned an Oscar nomination for Lion. However, the less said about The Last Airbender, the better.

Ken Jeong bared it all as Leslie Chow

If you'd met Ken Jeong before The Hangover, you probably never would've guessed he'd become a beloved comedian one day. That's because Jeong paid his bills by working as a doctor. Before showing up in Community or Pain and Gain, Jeong was busy earning his M.D. and practicing internal medicine at the Ochsner Residency Medical Center in New Orleans. But like some kind of superhero, Jeong was living a double life. After ending his shift at the hospital, he'd would work on stand-up comedy routines, dreaming of becoming an entertainer. Eventually, Jeong ended up in California, where his funnyman charm and medical experience landed him a part in Knocked Up, helping out a pregnant Katherine Heigl. But Jeong's popularity exploded when he accepted the role of Leslie Chow, the foul-mouthed and occasionally nude gangster who squares off against "The Wolf Pack." Moviegoers fell in love with the over-the-top Chow, who showed up in the subsequent Hangover sequels, turning Jeong into a guy who can kill it with an audience and then resuscitate everyone in the room.

Tom Hiddleston manipulated audiences as Loki

In addition to earning billions of dollars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done a great job of reintroducing fans to long-forgotten superheroes. Sure, everybody knew Spider-Man and the Hulk, but the MCU is largely responsible for making Iron Man, Star-Lord, and Black Panther popular with mainstream consumers. That's especially true for Loki, the god of mischief. Before Tom Hiddleston came along, Loki was best known as some dusty old character from Norse mythology. But the British actor brought the trickster to life with his smooth charm and wicked smile.

Returning the favor, Loki turned Hiddleston into a major star. Before winding up in the MCU, Hiddleston was best known as a theater actor, winning the Laurence Olivier Stage Award for Best Newcomer for his work in Cymbeline. He also played the son of Winston Churchill in HBO's The Gathering Storm, and he appeared in two films nobody has ever heard of: British dramas called Unrelated and Archipelago. But perhaps most importantly, Hiddleston had done some stage and TV work with Kenneth Branagh, the guy who ended up directing the first Thor film. It pays to have friends in high places.

Of course, Hiddleston didn't go in hoping to land the role of Loki. Instead, he originally auditioned for Thor. But Hiddleston didn't look quite right with Mjolnir in his hands, so Marvel wisely decided to give him the horned helmet, and let another unknown actor, Chris Hemsworth, play the god of thunder. We think that worked out pretty well.

Pom Klementieff soothed our minds as Mantis

Before joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pom Klementieff had been incredibly busy in France, starring in multiple movies, short films, and even a TV show. Of course, nobody across the Atlantic had ever heard of her, but Klementieff got her first shot at Hollywood fame with Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy. While the film featured her future Infinity War co-stars Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, the movie tanked both critically and commercially. And while she played a small role in the critically-acclaimed Ingrid Goes West, most of the attention went to lead actors Aubrey Plaza and (once again) Elizabeth Olsen. Klementieff didn't really capture the mainstream spotlight until she teamed up with James Gunn for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, playing Mantis, a psychic alien with a soft heart and cute antennae. Klementieff brought a sympathetic timidity to her part in the Guardians sequel, and then she returned with plenty of plucky courage for the big showdown with Thanos. Even alongside giant stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Pratt, Klementieff was more than able to kick names, take ass, and wow fans.

Daisy Ridley went on the hero's journey as Rey

The Star Wars franchise has a way of turning unknown actors into superstars. Okay, sure, it kind of backfired for Hayden Christensen, but it worked out pretty well for the likes of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. Then nearly 40 years after the original film, Star Wars worked its magic again for Daisy Ridley, an English star who found international acclaim in The Force Awakens.

Before signing up to fight the New Order, Ridley showed up in a supermarket commercial and appeared in British TV programs like Youngers, Casualty, and Silent Witness. After playing in a string of short movies, her feature film debut was a 2015 horror flick called Scrawl, where Ridley played a comic book character who mysteriously comes to life. However, that film was slightly overshadowed by The Force Awakens, the movie that gave Ridley the chance to shine as Rey, a desert dweller who gets sucked into a world of space pirates, missing Jedi, and evil emo knights. Ridley brought toughness and tenderness to the character, making Rey both vulnerable and — no pun intended — a force to be reckoned with.

Daniel Kaluuya got out of playing small roles as Chris Washington

When Jordan Peele was casting his soon-to-be horror classic Get Out, he planned on hiring an American to play his hypnotized hero, Chris Washington. After all, Get Out is a story about the racism faced by African-Americans. But then he watched an episode of Black Mirror titled "Fifteen Million Merits," where a British actor named Daniel Kaluuya played a young man trapped in a dystopian society where worker drones dream of escaping their miserable lives by auditioning for a popular talent show.

Sure, this wasn't Kaluuya's first role. He'd starred alongside Dev Patel in the British teen drama Skins, acted across from David Tennant in an episode of Doctor Who, and played in a BBC TV movie called Shoot the Messenger with David Oyelowo. And after his starring role in Black Mirror, he went on to work in bigger films like Sicario, Kick-Ass 2, and Johnny English Reborn. But when "Fifty Million Merits" wound up on Netflix, that's when Hollywood came knocking, with Peele offering Kaluuya the chance to star in 2017's biggest sleeper hit.

And just like that, Kaluuya became a bona fide star. He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Chris Washington, and at the 90th Academy Awards, he found himself up against legends like Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, and eventual winner Gary Oldman. He would also join the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Black Panther, and it seems like the future is full of possibilities for Kaluuya, thanks to the horror movie that helped him get out of playing smaller roles.

Letitia Wright roars to fame as Shuri

When Black Panther hit theaters in 2018, it set major box office records and took Michael B. Jordan from respected actor to blockbuster king. But Jordan wasn't the only star to come out of this Marvel movie. Letitia Wright also became an overnight sensation thanks to her role as Shuri, the Wakandan princess whose resume includes lofty titles like "tech genius," "action hero," and "hilarious little sister to the stoic Prince T'Challa." Whether she was creating supersuits for Chadwick Boseman or going mano a mano with Killmonger, Wright imbued Shuri with equal amounts of laid-back cool, childlike mischief, and diehard tenacity.

However, it took Wright quite a while before ending up in Wakanda. As a young girl, she was inspired by Keke Palmer's performance in Akeelah and the Bee, and she started handing out selfies to casting directors and emailing show business bigwigs as a teenager. Her persistence eventually paid off, and she appeared in British TV shows like the medical drama Holby City and the crime drama Top Boy. In 2015, she nabbed the leading role in Urban Hymn, a film about a young woman trying to escape her troubled life with the power of song, and she also starred alongside Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga in The Commuter. Impressed by her charisma, director Ryan Coogler and Marvel soon came knocking, and thanks to her fantastic performance as Shuri, Wright was launched into superhero stardom.