We’ve all quit something and wondered afterward, what if? Most of the time, the answer is probably nothing. But we’ll never know. Well, in the wonderful world of Hollywood, these questions of what if are everywhere. Acting is an incredibly difficult profession to make it in. Even the most talented actors in the world struggle at various points in their careers. And you might as well just forget about making it long-term. Only the lucky and the elite ever sustain a high level of fame and success over a long period of time. Transitioning from a child actor to an adult or from an adult into a senior? Don’t even think about it. Obviously, it can and does happen, but those are the exceptions not the rules.
But actors do “make it.” They land a role in a film that leads to them becoming A-listers. The stars aligning for them might not even come down to their performance. It could be any number of factors that does it. When it happens, it happens very quickly. But not all of these overnight successes had it easy. Many of them struggled mightily before making it. Some, like the actors on this list, were very serious about leaving the career behind. Lucky for them, they held out just long enough. Now, they’re so rich they couldn’t spend all their money even if they wanted to. And success breeds success, at least for a little while, so there’s a good chance that they get even richer and more successful. Well, we thought we would look at some of the superstars who were at their wit’s end right before they landed the role that changed their lives forever. Here are 15 Stars Who Almost QUIT Before Their Big Break (And Why).
15. Gal Gadot
Gal Gadot wasn’t a total unknown when she landed the role of Diana Prince in Wonder Woman, but she was feeling a bit defeated. She got her first big film role in 2009 with Fast & Furious playing Gisele. She would go on to do several more of the Fast and Furious franchise films. But between those films and after them, Gadot lamented the fact that “there’s so much no” in the industry. She said that she thought to herself, “Maybe it’s not for me. Maybe I should go back to law school instead of dragging my family with me.” But then she got the Wonder Woman call. “Honestly, the thing is, everything that’s happening right now is so overwhelming,” she said. “I mean, all the way from Russia and Israel to here, red carpets, talking to you, wearing [great gowns]. It’s been such an amazing, crazy ride that I think I’m gonna get what’s happening only in two years from now or something.”
14. Jon Hamm
For Jon Hamm, it was his turn as Don Draper in Mad Men that made him a household name, but before that, it was a role in the Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers that kept him going in the industry when he was getting close to quitting. “I had given myself five years to be self-sufficient as an actor,” he said. “I was already self-sufficient as a waiter. But I knew a lot of 40-year-old waiters and I didn’t want to be one of those. I had taught [at] school and I knew that I could always go back to teaching.” He then gave acting a time limit. “I gave myself to my 30th birthday,” he said. “And my 30th birthday actually happened on the set of We Were Soldiers, which was my first big Hollywood movie.” That film role led to a main part on The Division and a number of spots on massive TV shows, all paving the way for Mad Men.
13. Viola Davis
Viola Davis has been around for a while, but she was usually in the background in film and television or playing small parts. It really wasn’t until 2011 with The Help that Davis broke out and became a star in the industry. Before that, her lows were really low. She explained to Ellen DeGeneres that some of her theater experiences were so embarrassing that she almost gave it all up. “I played an opera singer in a one-woman show and I couldn’t carry a tune, and I sang 14 songs,” she said. “One of the places I performed was in the middle of a basketball court and they did not stop playing basketball and they brought their dogs with them and one dog…jumped on me and attacked me in the middle of my aria and I thought to myself, ‘You know what, I think maybe I should choose another career path!’” She spoke of another play in which she played a prostitute. “I exposed my ta-tas,” she said. “And I was about 30 pounds heavier than I am now, but I thought I was hot stuff… And a man in the front row… (said), ‘Oh my God…’ and it wasn’t an ‘Oh my God… they were the most beautiful breasts I’ve ever seen,’ but, ‘Oh my God, this is so offensive.’”
12. Mark Ruffalo
Mark Ruffalo admits that his story has been exaggerated quite a bit, but it’s still filled with disappointment. Pointing out Ruffalo’s exact “big break” is tough because he gained the attention of the industry with his performance in You Can Count on Me, but then he needed surgery on a brain tumor. It wouldn’t be for another few years, until he got the part in 13 Going On 30, that he would breakthrough once again. Prior to that, Ruffalo was almost sick of it all. Apparently, it was his mother who kept him going. He said, “If I tried to quit, she wouldn’t speak to me again.” But can you blame him? On his slow rise to fame, Ruffalo heard the word “no” a lot. “It’s been mythologized now but it started with about 600 auditions without success,” he said. “Most smart people would have quit when it takes that long.”
11. Bradley Cooper
With Bradley Cooper, despite the fact that he was in Alias and Wedding Crashers and a few other decent roles, it really wasn’t until The Hangover that he broke out. But before that, Cooper’s moment of truth came with a theater performance of “Three Days of Rain.” The play was starring Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd, and Cooper says that if it failed, he would have left acting behind. “I remember thinking, ‘if this doesn’t work, maybe I’m not right for this business,’” Cooper said. A little more than a year after that, he was cast in The Hangover, and now he’s a superstar.
10. Claire Danes
Claire Danes has really had two breakthroughs in the industry. She first broke through with Romeo + Juliet in the late ’90s. Then, her career sort of stalled. Sure, she was getting work, but she wasn’t the massive star she was projected to be. She had a few parts in which she was excellent, such as in Stardust, but they didn’t amount to much. Then, around 2008, everything stopped for Danes. She stopped getting work altogether. Of her failures during that time, Danes said, “It was grim. I was very hurt. Two years of not working was brutal. And a point came where I thought, ‘I really like interior design.’ Someone suggested, ‘Maybe your real success is in your personal life.’” But it wasn’t. Her real success was Homeland, which she landed in 2010. “You just hold out for those rare moments when you feel a real fusion with this imagined person,” she said. “It’s really like surfing. You get that wave and think, ‘All right, I can be in freezing-cold water at 5am in the hopes that I will get one.’ And maybe you get three of those a year.”
9. Millie Bobby Brown
Millie Bobby Brown might seem too young to have really struggled or to have reconsidered her career choice, but things were tough for the young actor and her family in the early going. She was getting small parts and was earning little money, but it wasn’t all she had hoped for. “I felt at one point I couldn’t do it [acting] anymore,” she said. “But then I got this and everything changed.” Of course, the “this” was Stranger Things and the role of Eleven. Now, Brown is one of the industry’s most talented young stars and looks to have a very bright future ahead of her.
8. Daisy Ridley
It was a whole lot of bit parts and small films and TV shows for Daisy Ridley before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For a film and a franchise that large, Ridley became a star the instant her casting information was released. According to the film’s director, J.J. Abrams, Ridley was close to quitting before nabbing the part. “At the beginning, she was claiming she was almost done with acting—she’d been working at a pub,” he said. Rian Johnson, the director of The Last Jedi, said of Ridley, “Like Rey, she has this extraordinary talent, that has seemingly come out of nowhere, and I think Daisy’s just starting to scratch the surface of her skills.”
7. Uzo Aduba
Before getting the part of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in Orange is the New Black, it was an uphill climb for Uzo Aduba. She tells of a very rough patch in which she almost quit. In fact, she says she basically did quit. “I definitely was in a place of despair,” she explains. “I was crying on the subway all the way home, and not like, loud, audible crying, but the tears, the ones where you just can’t stop them from coming down your face. I just couldn’t stop it. I was sitting on the train, and I said to myself, ‘this is it, I’m done.’ I had never in my life before quit. Then, 45 minutes later, I got home and I got a phone call. I’ll never forget it for my entire life. I could be 98, and my grandkids can be like, ‘Grandma, when did you get Orange is the New Black?’ and I’ll say, ‘5.43 pm. September 14.’”
6. Zoe Saldana
Back in 2003, when Zoe Saldana was playing a role in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, she said that she felt like the industry wasn’t for, and it was all because of the politics behind the camera. “Those weren’t the right people for me,” she said. “I’m not talking about the cast. The cast was great. I’m talking about the political stuff that went on behind closed doors. It was a lot of above-the-line versus below-the-line, extras versus actors, producers versus PAs…It was very elitist,” she continued. “I almost quit the business. I was 23 years old, and I was like, ‘I am never putting myself in this situation again. People disrespecting me because they look at my number on a call sheet and they think I’m not important. F*** you.’” But she stuck with it. Though she had some great roles in-between, it wouldn’t be until 2009 with Star Trek and Avatar that she really hit the bigtime.
5. Brie Larson
For Brie Larson, quitting wasn’t a one-time thing. It was a process. “I threw in the towel a lot. A lot! I couldn’t take the no’s over and over,” she said. “I was acting since I was seven years old and a reoccurring problem I used to have was never fitting the mold of what they were after. I was never fully right, I was never that desired package, I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t plain enough, and I found myself so many times, getting so close and hitting that wall,” she recalls. “At one point, I did three independent films, had the most amazing experiences, and didn’t get paid a cent,” Larson said. “I didn’t have anything to my name. And that happened a few times where I would find myself down to the last dollar, backed up against a wall, ready to quit, and the next day, something would come up and I would be saved. This wasn’t even that long ago.” Despite putting up some excellent performances, it wasn’t until she was recognized by the Academy for her role in Room that she finally became that household name.
4. David Harbour
When David Harbour’s big role on State of Affairs came to an end, he figured it was over for him. While it didn’t take long for things to change, Harbour was close to quitting when he got the news that his show was cancelled. “I got the ‘Stranger Things’ script like a week before NBC canceled ‘State of Affairs.’ I really had this moment where I’m like, ‘I’m done.’ My neurosis is very sophisticated: I was like, ‘I am done. Hollywood is done with David Harbour. They are finished.’ And then these two young dudes, these North Carolina Duffer brother dudes, sent me the script and they were really interested in me.” Even though the interest was there, Harbour felt defeated. “I was like, ‘This is a lead in Netflix, there’s no way I’m going to get it. This is amazing. There’s no way.’ And the script was so beautiful, well-written, sweet, fun, and exciting. It was an indie movie and then you throw in like Jaws, a shark or something. I went in, read one scene and signed on very early.”
3. Elizabeth Olsen
Elizabeth Olsen almost quit the industry before she ever really got into it. Sure, she did a movie when she was a kid, a tiny bit part, but she didn’t act for real until 2011. Still, she knew the industry and she saw what it could do to a person. “That was when the media was what I found to be abusive to my sisters, and I thought I really didn’t want to be in the industry,” she said, looking back on how people and the industry treated her sisters, the Olsen twins, back in 2004. “They turned 18 and what was going on in her life—I’m talking about Mary-Kate—was all over the news. They would follow us shopping and [Mary-Kate and Ashley] would almost get into car accidents because of the paparazzi, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. I just thought, ‘This is such bullsh*t.’” Now, Olsen just finished with The Avengers playing Scarlet Witch and Wind River in a starring role next to Jeremy Renner.
2. Melissa McCarthy
It may have been Bridesmaids that introduced Melissa McCarthy to most of the people in the world, but Gilmore Girls fans knew her well since back in 2000. Before landing that part in the show, however, McCarthy has nearly given up on acting. “Acting wasn’t working out. I was getting rejection after rejection. I wasn’t even getting auditions. I couldn’t get a job to save my life,” she said. “I always said if I don’t get anything substantial by the time I’m 30, I’m done. And a week before I turned 30, I got Gilmore Girls.” Though her lows weren’t awful, McCarthy wasn’t really loving where she was, saying, “Things weren’t ‘bad’ but I had been working two jobs and I got to a point where I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I beating myself up?’ Acting never would have left my life, I would’ve acted in some way, but I’m so fortunate that this is now my occupation.”
1. Henry Cavill
For Henry Cavill, it seems like it was his part on the show The Tudors or his starring role in the film Immortals that paved the way to his superstardom today, but he insists it was earlier than that, and it came right when he was at his breaking point. “There were plenty of times I thought it wouldn’t happen,” he said. “At one stage I was like, ‘If this next movie doesn’t do well then I’m out, I’m going to join the Armed Forces.’” What it took for Cavill was getting close to nabbing the massive role of James Bond in Casino Royale. “I got the screen test for Bond and thought, my name is out there now,” he said. “Maybe I should stick around. And I did.”