15 actors who were extras before they were famous

Published 9:30 pm Friday, May 27, 2022

Amy Sussman // Getty Images

15 actors who were extras before they were famous

Before he was a leading man in Hollywood, Harrison Ford spent nearly 20 years as a struggling film and TV extra acquiring a slew of credited and uncredited roles. The self-ascribed “late bloomer” finally got his big break when he scored an audition with George Lucas for a part in 1973’s “American Graffiti.” A few years later he was reintroduced to the world as Han Solo—and several years after that, as Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr.

Like Ford, most famous actors have to work their way to the top with a lot of auditions, countless rejections, and many very small, barely noticeable roles. To showcase where some of the biggest names in Hollywood got their start, Giggster compiled a list of 15 actors who cut their teeth in the industry as extras in film, TV, or both before landing leading roles.

Keep reading to see which of your favorite actors took on bit parts—and what movies and television series included those stars in background roles.

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Javier Bardem attends an event

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Javier Bardem

Best known for notable performances like his Oscar-winning turn as the villainous serial killer in “No Country for Old Men,” Javier Bardem began his career doing extra work in his native Spain as a child.

His first role was in a 1974 episode of the TV series “El pícaro.” A string of bit parts followed, including in 1981’s “El poderoso influjo de la luna,” eventually leading to a role in the 1990 film “The Ages of Lulu” that set him on a path to stardom.

Viola Davis onstage at event

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Viola Davis

After graduating from the Juilliard School in 1993, actress Viola Davis went on to perform on and off-Broadway in small and large roles. Her on-screen career began with small parts on television shows like “NYPD Blue” and “New York Undercover.” After winning her first Tony Award for her featured performance in August Wilson’s “King Hedley III,” her film and television roles grew and she landed roles in notable films like Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” and George Clooney’s “Syriana.”

Since her career took off, Davis has become the first Black performer to achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting” having won an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony.

Leonardo DiCaprio attends premiere

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Leonardo DiCaprio

Now one of the most famous and celebrated actors in the world, actor Leonardo DiCaprio had a humble beginning. Born in Los Angeles in 1974, DiCaprio got his start as a child performing in a number of television commercials. He graduated to doing bit roles in TV shows like “Santa Barbara,” “The New Lassie,” and “Roseanne.”

DiCaprio’s breakout came with his recurring role on the show “Growing Pains” in 1991 and 1992, for which he received a nomination for the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor Co-Starring in a Television Series. In 1993, 19-year-old DiCaprio earned his first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his supporting performance in the film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”

Robert Downey Jr. attends premiere

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Robert Downey Jr.

As a child, the eventual Iron Man appeared in a small role in his father’s 1970 film “Pound” and in an uncredited role in a 1972 film called “Greaser’s Palace.” His career picked up the pace a bit when he landed small roles in a few 1980s Brat Pack films, finally scoring a lead role opposite Molly Ringwald in the 1987 film “The Pickup Artist.”

Downey Jr. had his status-defining breakthrough role when he played Charlie Chaplin in the 1992 biopic “Chaplin,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Cuba Gooding Jr. attends event

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Cuba Gooding Jr.

Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career began as a breakdancer when, as a teenager, he performed in 1984 as a breakdancer for Lionel Richie’s Olympics show. He also got a part in a high school play, where he was discovered and began landing gigs in TV commercials.

Commercials led to small roles in shows like “Hill Street Blues” (1987) and “MacGyver” (1988). Gooding Jr.’s breakthrough performance didn’t come until he landed the role of Tre in the critically acclaimed 1991 film, “Boyz n the Hood.” Just five years later, he earned an Academy Award for his supporting role in “Jerry Maguire.”

Taraji P. Henson attends BET Awards

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Taraji P. Henson

After receiving a BFA in drama from Howard University, actor Taraji P. Henson earned her Screen Actors Guild union card for doing three uncredited background roles. Henson can be spotted in small roles in shows like “Smart Guy,” “Sister, Sister,” and “House.”

Her breakthrough performance, however, came when she landed a featured role in John Singleton’s 2001 film, “Baby Boy.” Since breaking out onto the scene, Henson has landed Academy Award, SAG Award, and Critics Choice Award nominations and made headlines for her role as Cookie Lyon in the television series “Empire.”

Samuel L. Jackson accepts award onstage

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Samuel L. Jackson

Among his many notable roles, Samuel L. Jackson is famous for his foulmouthed performance as Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film “Pulp Fiction,” for which he received acting nominations for the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and won the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Role.

At the beginning of his career however, Jackson was just another background player. He got his start in uncredited roles in films like “Ragtime” (1981) and “The Exterminator” (1980), graduating to small roles in the Spike Lee films “School Daze” (1988) and “Do the Right Thing” (1989). Jackson finally got proper recognition for his talents with his performance as Gator in Spike Lee’s 1991 film “Jungle Fever.”

Lucy Liu attends event

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Lucy Liu

Before she dominated screens as Alex in the Charlie’s Angels franchise, Lucy Liu took on more humble roles. She began her acting career in background and small roles on TV shows like “Beverly Hills 90210” in 1992 and “Home Improvement” in 1995.

Liu’s first featured role on the big screen was playing an ex-girlfriend in the 1996 film “Jerry Maguire,” but her breakthrough performance came when she landed the role of Ling Woo in the show “Ally McBeal.” Her performance as Woo landed Liu a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series and a SAG Award nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series.

Eva Longoria attends event

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Eva Longoria

Like Lucy Liu, actress Eva Longoria can be seen in a small role in a 2000 episode of “Beverly Hills 90210.” The following year, she landed the role of Isabella Braña on the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” in 2001. After her successful run on the series, Longoria continued with small television roles until becoming a household name with her starring role as Gabrielle Solis in the hit show “Desperate Housewives” in 2004.

Eva Mendes attends event

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Eva Mendes

Raised in Los Angeles, actress Eva Mendes dropped out of college to pursue her acting career. As she struggled to land a breakout role, Mendes began her career with performances in uncredited roles in music videos for the likes of Will Smith (1997’s “Miami”) and Aerosmith (1997’s “Hole in My Soul”). She can also be seen in the background of a 1998 episode of “ER.”

Mendes’ performance as the mistress of a corrupt cop in the 2001 film “Training Day” finally put her talents to good use. Since then, Mendes has starred in huge blockbusters, like “2 Fast, 2 Furious,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” and “Hitch.”

Marilyn Monroe smiling

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Marilyn Monroe

Now one of the most iconic actresses of all time, Marilyn Monroe spent her early life in a string of foster homes and orphanages. She made a name for herself doing pinup modeling until she began to land uncredited roles in films like “Green Grass of Wyoming” and “You Were Meant for Me” in 1948.

In 1950, Monroe had two breakthrough performances with small but notable roles in the films “All About Eve” and “The Asphalt Jungle.” In the following years, Monroe became a tabloid sensation. Monroe solidified her icon status by the middle of the decade with her most memorable roles in films such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), and “Some Like it Hot” (1959).

Brad Pitt arrives at Academy Awards ceremony.

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Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt has been nominated for four Academy Awards for acting and starred in both some of the biggest blockbusters and the most critically acclaimed films of the last 30 years.

But when he first began acting, Pitt performed uncredited background roles in films like “Hunk,” “No Way Out,” “No Man’s Land,” and “Less than Zero” (all from 1987). Pitt finally had a breakout role in 1991 with his performance as a hunky hitchhiker in the classic film “Thelma and Louise.”

Kristen Stewart attends premiere

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Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart, who nabbed her first Academy Award nomination for her performance as Princess Diana in “Spencer,” started out as a struggling child actor. When she was still just a kid, Stewart appeared in uncredited roles in the films “The Thirteenth Year” (1999) and “The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas” (2000).

Stewart had her breakthrough when she gave a performance beyond her years in the 2004 film “Speak.” Soon after she earned the role of Bella Swan in the cultural behemoth that is the “Twilight” series.

Benicio del Toro attends screening at Cannes.

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Benicio del Toro

Benicio del Toro can be seen at the beginning of his career in the background of the music video for Madonna’s 1987 hit “La Isla Bonita.” He went on to play small parts in TV shows like “Miami Vice,” “Ohara,” and “Private Eye.”

Del Toro finally made waves with his breakthrough performance as crook Fred Fenster in “The Usual Suspects,” a performance that won him an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male. In 2001, del Toro won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his acting in Steven Soderbergh’s film “Traffic.”

Renée Zellweger attends event

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Renée Zellweger

Known by many as the quirky, relatable Bridget Jones from the popular film series, it took many small roles and many years for actress Renée Zellweger to get to that level of stardom.

Zellweger can be seen in uncredited roles in 1993 for Richard Linklater’s film “Dazed and Confused” and in the miniseries “Murder in the Heartland.” She finally captured the hearts of critics and audiences for her starring role as Dorothy Boyle in “Jerry Maguire,” cementing the line “You complete me” into the lexicon of great movie quotes. Since then, Zellweger has won a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award.

This story originally appeared on Giggster
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