As with any career-driven path, the road to the pinnacle of Hollywood for an actor is never easy. An actor doesn’t just wake up one day and suddenly becomes a Hollywood superstar, nor is anyone born into the lifestyle and acclaim. Sure, an aspiring actor may wake up one day with the confidence of a bonafide Hollywood star, but it takes years of hard work, dedication, and grinding before they can walk the red carpets like a superstar. The most important factor with becoming a famous actor is not how much talent an actor has or even how attractive they happen to be, it’s all about what kind of acting role they have under their belt. Makes sense, right? Just star in a bunch of box office hits and, voila, a star is born? Easier said than done.
No matter how many connections or privileges an actor may hold when stepping off the plane and onto Hollywood soil, an actor still has to snag some lead roles in order to legitimize their star power. Starring roles don’t just fall out of the sky, especially for unknown actors. Which is why most actors go the route of starting out as extras. Playing an extra in an array of films is an easy to way to boost their acting resume whilst also getting some minor exposure on the big screen. Several actors take this route and wind up becoming hugely famous stars. Here are some examples.
15. Megan Fox
A strong argument can be made for Michael Bay making Megan Fox’s career in more ways than one. Not only because he cast her as the female lead in the action movie franchise Transformers that helped put her on the map, but also because he gave her one of her earliest on-screen appearances. If it was not painfully obvious by now, we are not talking about Transformers. One of Megan Fox’s earliest on-screen appearances was in another Michael Bay film from years earlier called Bad Boys 2. In it, she played a bikini girl dancing under a waterfall. Her appearance in the film was so small that her part did not even make it into the final cut of the movie.
14. Sylvester Stallone
In 1971, Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor. He had just found himself evicted from his apartment and was homeless for a while. He spent about three weeks living and sleeping in a New York City bus terminal. He couldn’t find much work as an actor. The closest he got to “big” gigs was an appearance in a softcore adult film called The Party at Kitty & Stud’s and as an extra in a Woody Allen film called Bananas. Stallone played a mugger on the subway and did not even receive credit for his small appearance. Four years later, Stallone finally found his first big break playing Rocky Balboa. Rocky helped Stallone pull himself out of poverty and he hasn’t looked back since.
13. Channing Tatum
Channing Tatum is a box office superstar in his own right. The man has starred in several box office hits, including the 21 Jump Street films, Step Up, Magic Mike, Dear John, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and is preparing to star in another box office hit in the upcoming Gambit film, currently slated for a 2019 release. However, that was not always the case. Just like any other actor in Hollywood, Tatum found himself in small roles before he was ever even considered for a starring role. His first on-camera appearance was not in a movie, but a music video. In 2000, Tatum took a dancing role as a bartender in the music video for Ricky Martin’s famous single “She Bangs.”
12. Jackie Chan
Two martial artist actors we hold up to the highest esteem are Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Both men were bonafide legends of their craft by the time they reached their prime. Some wonder what a film would look like if these two legends squared off, not realizing that they actually did in a small capacity. Early in Chan’s acting career, he took on a plethora of roles as an extra. Chan played an extra in a couple of Lee’s films. In the film Enter the Dragon, Chan played an unnamed extra who Lee quickly disposed of. In reality, while filming, Lee accidentally hit Chan for real. Lee was incredibly apologetic of the incident, but Chan didn’t mind too much since it allowed him some quality time with his idol.
11. Evangeline Lilly
Evangeline Lilly has been on a steady rise through the ranks of Hollywood ever since she got her big break on Lost. Before she snatched that part, she worked through a string of roles as an uncredited extra. This included work in shows like Smallville (she was an extra in four episodes) and films like The Lizzie McGuire Movie (as a police officer), Freddy vs Jason (as a student next to a locker), and White Chicks (as a party guest). In more recent years, Lilly managed to hit the jackpot by getting the role of the Wasp for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With as many Marvel pictures as she’s slotted to appear in, she basically has a job for life now.
10. Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis had a long, strange, and rather interesting road to the bright lights of Hollywood A-list status. He got his first break with a starring role in the long running ’80s comedy show, Moonlighting. Then, he made the transition to the action world in the early 1990s when he starred in Die Hard, thus becoming a bonafide action movie star in the process. Before any of that came to fruition, Willis made a small appearance in a subgenre we’re still not used to seeing him in: the courtroom drama. It was for a part as a random courtroom observer in the 1982 Paul Newman vehicle, The Verdict. Fun fact: Newman and Willis reunited over a decade later by co-starring in the 1994 film Nobody’s Fool.
9. James Dean
In the wake of his untimely death, James Dean has always been defined by his last three films: Giant, East of Eden, and of course Rebel Without a Cause. People talk about these movies so much that it would be easy to mistake that these were the only movies that James Dean was ever in. On the contrary, Dean had to work his way up the ladder just like any other actor in Hollywood. The five other films that Dean was in were all uncredited parts as an extra. These roles include an unnamed boxing trainer in Sailor Beware, a copyboy in Deadline – U.S.A., and a football spectator in Trouble Along the Way. It’s just as important for us to remember his uncredited appearances as much as his bigger roles.
8. Willem Dafoe
It feels like Willem Dafoe has been in the acting game for ages thanks to his tenured award-winning career. He has been acting for so long, it feels strange to think that he only made his acting debut in 1980. His debut was for the film Heaven’s Gate, and he played an extra in the background. It’s almost a miracle Dafoe was able to ease his way into the final cut of the film, considering that he formed a strained relationship with the director before he finished filming his scenes. During an eight-hour filming session for a tense scene, one of the female extras whispered a joke in Dafoe’s ear. Dafoe laughed, and director Michael Cimino was so frustrated, he kicked Dafoe off the set for good.
7. Jeff Goldblum
For his first couple movies underneath the Hollywood sun roof, Jeff Goldblum was lucky enough to snag some roles in big movies that went on to become classics. Unfortunatel,y for Goldblum at the time, they were all jobs as extras. Such appearances barely gave Goldblum screen time since his roles didn’t even warrant a name. He played Freak #1 in Death Wish, Hood #3 in St. Ives, and Lacey Party Guest in Annie Hall. At least in the Annie Hall role, Goldblum was fortunate enough to be given exactly one line in the movie — “I forgot the mantra.” Neither that line nor the performance itself was enough to turn any heads. He finally got his big break alsmost 10 years later in The Fly.
6. Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood is one of the biggest, most iconic actors to ever hit the big times of Hollywood. Despite what controversies or discrepancies may have surrounded him in recent years, that does not take away from Eastwood’s work behind and in front of the camera, nor the impact that he created through these films. Long before he became a superstar, he worked as an extra just like any other young actor trying to climb up the Hollywood ladder. In between failing through numerous auditions, Eastwood was able get extra work in films like Revenge of the Creature, Francis in the Navy, and Tarantula. He eventually did find his first big break as Rowdy Yates on the show Rawhide.
5. Cuba Gooding Jr.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is globally recognized today as one of the most successful actors to ever get a break in Hollywood. Cuba’s face was not always so recognizable to anyone who has ever owned a television screen. In fact, if we were to wind the clocks back to 1988, no one paid much attention to his face when he had a part as an extra in Coming to America. He had no lines in the film, but got his haircut by Eddie Murphy’s character. Three years later, Cuba caught his first big break thanks to snagging the lead role in Boyz in the Hood. Then, another three years later, he received the Oscar-winning supporting role in Jerry Maguire.
4. Kristen Stewart
While it feels like forever since Kristen Stewart’s name enjoyed box office infamy as a member of the feature length Twilight saga, she is still very much a Hollywood superstar in her own right. She continues to receive critical acclaim for her performances in films like Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. Hard to believe that two decades ago, she was just another face in the crowd. At the age of 9, Stewart’s first on screen appearance came in the 1999 Disney Channel original movie, The Thirteenth Year. She had an uncredited, nonspeaking role as a girl at a drinking water fountain. Clearly, Stewart has come a long way from those humble beginnings.
3. Jean-Claude Van Damme
In many ways, martial arts is a lot like dance. Like dancing, practising martial arts demands a lot of hard work and dedication in order to master it. Not to mention that both physical techniques require an extremely specific brand of form and movement in order to perfect it. All things considered, it makes perfect sense that classic action superstar and karate specialist Jean-Claude Van Damme made one of his earliest film appearances as dancing extra in the breakdancing movie Breakin’. It would not be for another four years until Jean-Claude Van Damme was able to breakout as a lead in Hollywood after starring in Bloodsport as real-life martial artist Frank Dux.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger
By the time the 1970s rolled around, Arnold Schwarzenegger was already a massive star in the bodybuilding world. It was in the year 1970 that Arnie decided to transition his star power into the world of acting. He first dipped his toes in Hollywood with a lead role in Hercules in New York, which may have not been what Arnie expected given that his accent was so thick that it needed to be dubbed in post production. Interestingly enough, he was a complete mute for his next performance as an evil henchman in The Long Goodbye. He was only there to be an imposing figure and didn’t have anything to do except stand intimidatingly in the background. It was basically the role of an extra that could have been filled by any muscled-up goon.
1. Brad Pitt
As evident by the names on this list, one of the easiest ways to break into the Hollywood scene among the top echelon is to first take part as an extra in a movie. That is exactly how Brad Pitt got his start in movies. When Pitt first started acting in 1987, he spent that year taking up small parts as nameless extras in the background for the films No Way Out, Hunk, No Man’s Land, and Less Than Zero. A year later, he was a little more fortunate to finally take up more notable parts, even if they were in films either no one heard of, no one saw, or no one remembers (i.e. Cutting Class). Then, in 1991, he got his first big break with a shocking supporting turn in Thelma & Louise. Before he knew it, Pitt’s career was off to the races from there.