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The Best First Movie Roles Of A-List Actors

Actors have to work for years before they get to be considered A-listers — if they get there at all. But every so often, a megawatt star makes their presence known right out of the gate. No forgettable, insignificant parts for these fine folks: Their very first role was a stunner. Even if the character wasn't a lead or the movie wasn't all that good, their inaugural performance announced their entrance into the world of Hollywood in an instantly unforgettable way.

We're here to examine the times this rare phenomenon has happened — but first, let's establish some parameters. We're only talking about actors who made their debut in movies. We all love TV, and theater is its own fascinating medium, but the former is more niche, and the latter is regional by nature. With that in mind, join us as we explore the very best first roles of A-list actors.

Carrie Fisher: Lorna Karpf in Shampoo

Carrie Fisher wasn't even 18 when she appeared in Shampoo, her first movie role — though she had been in show business since childhood. As the child of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, it was certain that she'd never have a "normal" life. Fisher was often involved in her mother's performances, and joined her on Broadway at age 16. Fisher later attended London's Central School of Speech and Drama, then went on to Sarah Lawrence College, though she did not ultimately graduate.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Shampoo takes place on election day, 1968, a hair's breadth away from Nixon's presidency — but it's not about politics. It's about promiscuous hairdresser George (played by Warren Beatty), a man who sleeps with nearly every woman who ends up in his chair. Shampoo is a sharp, funny send-up of late-60s sexual mores, garnering solid reviews and major box office success. Fisher plays Lorna Karpf, the daughter of one of George's girlfriends. In around ten minutes of screen time, Fisher lights up the screen with the wit and warmth that would define her career as an actress — and her work as a script doctor. She is canny, poised, and cleverer than anyone expects her to be. No wonder she made Princess Leia an unforgettable heroine.

Natalie Portman: Mathilda Lando in Leon: The Professional

Natalie Portman's film debut in Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional showed she was capable of genuine gravitas. As Mathilda, an orphan who ends up in the care of the titular Leon, Portman displayed a sadness and sophistication far beyond her years. The role has caused some controversy, especially in the wake of the multiple allegations of sexual assault that have been levied against Luc Besson: Some, including Roger Ebert back in 1994, feel it is inappropriately sexual. Be that as it may, Portman's talent is undeniable.

While the movie was successful at the box office, it wasn't a huge hit and is appreciated more in retrospect than it was at the time of its release. This was an important lesson for Portman: "Movies," she noted years later, "don't have to succeed right away to have a lasting impact ... More people mention [Leon: The Professional] to me than anything else I've done." Notably, she said this in 2007, after she'd already starred in the Star Wars prequels and celebrated indie flicks like Garden State. That's how good she is as Mathilda.

Lupita Nyong'o: Patsey in 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave is full of notable actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Giamatti. Yet no one earned more acclaim than Lupita Nyong'o in her film debut as Patsey, perhaps the most viciously abused character in the whole film. Nyong'o played the role with pain and pathos, emotion rippling across her face at key moments. She racked up many awards, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, as a result. This was one heck of a way to enter Hollywood — and the culmination of a decidedly nontraditional path to cinema.

Nyong'o grew up in Kenya, where her father was a professor at the University of Nairobi. She traveled to America to attend Hampshire College, a unique school where students design their own course of study. For her senior project, Nyong'o directed In My Genes, a documentary exploring the experiences of Kenyans with albinism. After graduating, she returned to Kenya where she worked behind the scenes on documentaries and music videos — including one that won an MTV Africa Music Award.

She later returned to America and enrolled in the Yale School of Drama's master's program. 12 Years A Slave was Nyong'o's first role out of Yale — and all she needed to show Hollywood just how dazzling she is.

Jamie Lee Curtis: Laurie Strode in Halloween

The child of iconic actors Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, a young Jamie Lee Curtis made her film debut in John Carpenter's Halloween as high school student Laurie Strode. Bookish and shy — a personality entirely opposite the average horror protagonist of the time — Curtis' performance remains impressive to this day. It also cemented a unique family legacy: Janet Leigh pioneered the horror movie "scream queen" trope in Psycho, while Curtis brought it into the modern day by facing off against Michael Myers.

Curtis almost didn't get the role, proving that a persistent manager may be more important to have in Hollywood than famous parents. To this day, Curtis calls Laurie the most well-rounded character she's ever gotten to play. She credits John Carpenter and the role of Laurie with making her a true actress, in fact: "[Carpenter] cast me as the intellectual, thinking, quiet girl, at a time when people asked me what size jeans I wore, made me understand that I was an actress and really what it is, is, I became an actress." She's reprised the character several times, gladly jumping at the opportunity all these years later.

Alan Rickman: Hans Gruber in Die Hard

Alan Rickman hit the film debut jackpot with the role of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. One of the most beloved movie villains of all time (and a man whose plummet is synonymous with the start of Christmas), Hans launched Rickman into the stratosphere of stardom.

What's more remarkable than his performance is how he got there: Rickman made Die Hard when he was 41. He studied graphic design in Chelsea College, and started a design company with friends following graduation. But the acting bug had bit him, and after inconsistent business, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1972. After graduation, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and honed his craft there during a "golden period" for the storied organization.

Rickman was offered the role of Hans Gruber mere days after first arriving in Los Angeles. He nearly turned it down, but found the script novel for its era. His experience in theater also taught him to voice his opinion, even in his first movie role: It was Rickman's call that Gruber wear suits instead of terrorist gear, a demand that upset producer Joel Silver at first, before the script was revised. Today, it's difficult to imagine Gruber wearing anything but suits — Rickman's debut performance is just that strong.

Emma Stone: Jules in Superbad

Emma Stone's big screen debut in mega-hit Superbad was a huge boon for her career. The winsome comedy launched her into stardom — as well as Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, and Michael Cera, though the latter three had already been working in Hollywood for some years. Still, for many, Superbad was their first major production, and it shows in the best possible way. As Jules, Stone is representative of the movie's general zest: She is charming, wry, and instantly likable. No wonder her career took off like a rocket.

Taking part in this movie also led to one of Stone's most iconic features: Her red hair. Stone is actually a natural blonde, though she was a brunette during casting for Superbad. Apatow had something else in mind: As Stone tells it, "Judd walked in, said 'Make it red,' and walked out. So he made me this way." This look stuck, to the point that many were surprised when Stone was cast as Gwen Stacy, an iconic comics blonde. Little did fans know, she was embracing her natural hue.

Gal Gadot: Giselle in Fast & Furious

Gal Gadot's feature film debut came in Fast & Furious, in which she played Giselle, an ex-Mossad agent who joins up with Dom Toretto's family. What makes this debut all the more notable is that she got it after missing out on another franchise ... and almost gave up on acting afterward.

Surprising, right? Every fact about Gadot makes her sound like she was designed in a lab to play Wonder Woman. Gadot won the Miss Israel Beauty Pageant at age 18 in 2004, and went on to compete for Miss Universe. Gadot then worked as a combat instructor during her term in the Israeli Defense Forces. After college, she almost got cast as a Bond Girl in Quantum of Solace. Though that didn't work out, the same casting director who turned her down picked her up months later for the role of Giselle. Playing a weapons expert who uses her beauty to her advantage was, as it turns out, the perfect role for Gadot.

Gadot appeared as Giselle in three more movies in  The Fast and the Furious franchise, but had trouble getting other work. She heard "no" often enough that she actually came close to leaving Los Angeles. Luckily for everyone, she stuck it out long enough to catch the DCEU's eye.

Jack Nicholson: Jimmy Wallace in The Cry Baby Killer

Jack Nicholson's first role was a leading one: Jimmy Wallace, a teen worried he's committed manslaughter, who goes on to commit kidnapping in The Cry Baby Killer. It is the literal definition of a B-movie, back when that meant "cheap second film of a double feature" and not "low quality." Yes, it's an over the top and salacious performance. Sure, the movie went out of print for years because it was seen as a curiosity rather than anything worthwhile. But the role is still great — if only because it started Nicholson's partnership with B-movie god, Roger Corman. Many Hollywood careers, ranging from actors like Robert De Niro to directors like Martin Scorsese, started under Corman.

Corman met Nicholson in an acting class and recognized his talent right away. This led to a decade-long partnership between the two. Nicholson appeared in many of Corman's flicks, most famously as the masochistic dental patient in Little Shop Of Horrors. Without Corman, there'd be no ChinatownA Few Good Men, or Five Easy Pieces – and no Jack Nicholson, legendary actor. No wonder Nicholson still cries when talking about Corman.

Robert Downey Jr: A puppy in Pound

Yes, that picture up there is Robert Downey Jr. as a child. Years before Iron ManAlly McBeal, or Chaplin, Downey Jr. made his film debut at age five, in the movie Pound. He played a dog ... in a manner of speaking. Pound is about a bunch of animals waiting around to get euthanized. The animals, however, are played by humans, and their interactions make up the bulk of the film. Sounds weird? That's par for the course for the director, Robert Downey Sr. Yes, RDJ got his first role from his own father, RDS.

Robert Downey Sr. was one of the leading countercultural directors of his day. His films are a strange mix of satire, exploitation, and generally transgressive weirdness. The best example of this is his best-known film, Putney Swope, in which a Black executive is accidentally put in charge of an ad agency and remolds it to his vision. Downey Sr.'s movies are one heck of an environment to make one's debut in, but wee Downey Jr. holds his own in Pound — as much as any kid could, anyway, in a movie about anthropomorphic pets considering their own mortality.

Emma Watson: Hermione Granger in Harry Potter

Emma Watson earned instant acclaim for her portrayal of Hermione Granger, Harry Potter's brilliant best friend. This role, and Harry Potter in general, would define her childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood.

Watson always wanted to be an actress, and was recommended to try out for Hermione by her theater teachers. She went through multuple auditions for the role — an exhausting process for anyone, let alone a nine-year-old. Watson actually felt some degree of guilt over getting the first role she auditioned for, to the point that she's discussed having trouble enjoying her own success. Regardless, fans everywhere are thankful she was cast as the clever, fastidious Hogwarts student.

Post-Potter, Watson has found major mainstream success. Interestingly, her biggest roles remain bookish: Belle in Beauty And The Beast is just as avid a reader as Hermione, while Meg March of Little Women and Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are both beloved literary characters. Playing the most popular "geek girl" characters of the past quarter century has also pushed Watson into advocating for women worldwide. This passion has taken many forms: Watson is a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, has started a legal advice line for those enduring sexual harassment, and has criticized J.K. Rowling's positions on trans issues.

John Boyega: Moses in Attack The Block

Attack The Block is a movie about a South London street gang defending their block from an alien invasion. While it's powered by an ensemble cast largely made up of unknown actors, the closest thing it has to a lead is John Boyega as Moses. Somehow, this fantastic movie bombed at the box office, but the role did launch Boyega into stardom. 

Attack The Block won lots of acclaim, much of it for its charismatic cast. It's since gone on to enjoy a strong cult following, much of it generated by Boyega's later prominence. As Moses, he is immediately winsome — those who like him as Finn in the Star Wars movies discover a whole new side of the actor to enjoy in his first feature film. Boyega has expressed interest in a sequel, so there's still time to get aboard. If you want to watch Boyega kill an alien monster with a samurai sword — an event that should happen in every movie, really — then Attack The Block is for you.

Johnny Depp: Glenn in A Nightmare on Elm Street

Johnny Depp played Glenn, Nancy's boyfriend, in the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie. You know — the one who gets eaten by a bed. What's more remarkable than Freddy's method of execution is how Depp got the role in the first place. Depp initially dropped out of high school to become a rock star. His band opened for some big names, including The Ramones and Iggy Pop, but didn't take off for the towering heights Depp dreamed of. During this time, he became friends with Nicolas Cage, who convinced Depp to get into acting and set him up with an agent. Depp got an audition with Wes Craven and was selected for the part after Craven's teenage daughter picked his headshot. Though Depp did not enjoy instant success following this role, it was the beginning of his long and glittering career. He didn't manage to become a rock star, but hey — movie star isn't such a bad consolation prize.