11 Unknown Actors Who Landed Major Roles Source:

Often, the first thing that someone will ask about a film is “who is in it?” This may be the deciding factor as to whether they watch the film or not, and this goes to show the power that stars have. Even stars need a big break to make a name for themselves, and sometimes a relatively unknown actor will be given a huge role in a major film. This has been the case with many of today’s most recognizable stars, but before these roles many people would not have been able to pick them out of a line-up.

11. Brandon Routh (Superman Returns)

There are certain roles which anyone would love to play, including James Bond, Batman and Superman. With 2006’s Superman Returns, an unknown actor was given the cape and spandex, and this was Brandon Routh. Prior to this, Routh had appeared in the music video for Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants” and made a few minor TV appearances, but this was all he had on his resume. Although Warner Bros were considering established names such as Nicolas Cage, Brendan Fraser and Josh Hartnett, director Bryan Singer insisted that an unknown actor be cast as it had worked so well for the franchise before (more on this to come). It turned out to be a great move both for the franchise and for Routh. He proved himself to be a great Superman and the role helped to launch his career, with appearances in a number of other projects. Source:

10. Natalie Portman (Leon: The Professional)

Casting a child actor is always a gamble, especially if they have little to no previous experience in acting. Prior to being cast in the stunning thriller Leon: The Professional, Natalie Portman’s only experience was performing in theater camps (much, much different to acting in front of a camera). She is now, of course, one of the most respected actors of her generation, and this all began with a phenomenal performance as an orphan girl that Leon (Jean Reno), an assassin, takes under his wing. This is no ordinary role for a child as the two form an unusual relationship as she becomes his protégée, and the complexity of their relationship took great talent to portray. Their chemistry makes for an uncomfortable watch at times, and this is crucial to the film’s popularity. Following this standout performance, Portman has worked steadily and is now an Academy Award winner. Source:

9. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire)

Our UK readers are likely to have first seen Dev Patel in Skins, where he did a fantastic job of portraying the hilarious Anwar Kharral. This was a supporting role, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when he landed the lead role in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Allegedly, the daughter of the highly regarded director was the one to point out Patel for his role in Skins, and this was enough to convince Boyle that he could star as the lead role. The film, which tells the story of a boy who wins the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, was universally praised and won a whopping eight Academy Awards. Patel was suddenly a star, and has gone on to appear in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, as well as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the 2012 HBO series The Newsroom. Source:

8. Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)

Seven years ago, only those addicted to German television would know who Christoph Waltz is. Fast forward to 2015, and he is a much-loved actor who has appeared in some of the biggest films in recent times and is a two-time Academy Award winner. He won his first award for his debut English language film, which was in the unforgettable Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino, where he played SS Colonel Hans Landa a.k.a. “The Jew Hunter.” Although a supporting role, Waltz steals the show from the first scene with an incredible monologue where he interrogates a French farmer who he believes is hiding Jews. This incredibly tense scene is often regarded as one of Tarantino’s finest, and he clearly had great faith in Waltz’s talent, which we now all know about. After picking up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Waltz picked up another in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Source:

7. John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

With the film yet to hit theaters, John Boyega has gone from an unknown actor from London, UK,  to one of the biggest names in the galaxy. Boyega has a handful of minor films to his name, with 2011’s Attack the Block being the most notable. But he will now play the lead role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a redeemed First Order stormtrooper named Finn. Being such a highly anticipated and major film, Boyega knows that his life will never be the same and it will be fascinating to see what happens next. Due to there being so much media attention in today’s day and age, Boyega is already a household name despite not even appearing on the big screen yet. Source:

6. Edward Norton (Primal Fear)

You will struggle to find a working actor that is more respected and admired than Edward Norton. He has put in some stunning performances in many of the best films of the last 20 years, and this certainly includes his debut role as Aaron Stampler/Roy in the excellent 1996 crime-thriller Primal Fear. The film stars Richard Gere, but it is Norton who steals the show with his chilling portrayal of Aaron, a stuttering young alter boy who is accused of brutally murdering the Archbishop. Under stress, Aaron transforms into a violent psychopath who calls himself “Roy,” and Norton handles this transformation delicately and makes it believable. This, and the shocking conclusion, ensures it is a classic and it would earn Norton an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Prior to this, Norton had only appeared in off-Broadway theater, but is now a household name and hugely respected performer. Source:

5. Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

An actor whose poster now adorns the walls of millions of girls around the world, Orlando Bloom was a complete nobody prior to landing the huge role of Legolas in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film series. He had minor roles in classic English TV shows Casualty and Midsomer Murders before landing a gig in 1997’s Wilde. It was a huge gamble for Jackson to take, particularly because legions of LOTR fans will have had such a clear idea of the character already in their head. He excelled in the role, so much so that he was written into The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Bloom proved that he had the skills (and the looks) to be a star, and went on to land huge roles in major films including the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven. Source:

4. Hugh Jackman (X-Men)

Today, Hugh Jackman is one of the most recognizable actors on the planet. But his career had humble beginnings, as he did some TV and stage work before making minor appearances in a few films. Then, in 1999, he landed a huge role that would forever change his life. He was chosen to play Wolverine from X-Men, by far the most popular character from the comic books and the focus of the first film. His co-stars included Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and Jackman proved to be the perfect man for the job, and it is a character he is now synonymous with (and reprised multiple times). In this film he proved that he could be tough but also display emotion, and this saw him go on to land roles in a range of genres. A few notable examples include Van Helsing, The Prestige, Australia, Les Miserables and Prisoners. Source:

3. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson & Rupert Grint (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

Although it is more common to cast unknown child actors, it was still an enormous risk to cast three unknown and largely inexperienced children in the lead roles in a franchise as enormous as Harry Potter. The books, particularly the first one, were much-loved around the world and this meant that the film was facing a tremendous amount of pressure. Although firmly established actors such as Richard Harris, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith were attached, the lead roles of Harry, Ron and Hermione had open casting calls and insisted on using British kids. Thousands of young British children attended the auditions, but in the end it was whittled down to Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Radcliffe was the only one with any prior experience, but all three proved to be excellent choices and have embarked on successful careers in the industry (particularly Emma Watson). Source:

2. Mark Hamill (Star Wars: A New Hope)

John Boyega is not the first time that the Star Wars franchise has opted to cast a relatively unknown actor in a major role. For the very first film in the franchise, a young and unknown Mark Hamill was cast as Luke Skywalker. Prior to this, Hamill had only made appearances in a handful of TV shows which include General Hospital, The Texas Wheeler and The Bill Cosby Show. Hamill proved to be an excellent choice as Luke Skywalker, as the film was an enormous success and remains one of the most popular franchises of all-time, with Hamill appearing in the first three films and set to reprise his role in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When he hasn’t been in a galaxy far, far away, Hamill has appeared in Corvette Summer, Kingsman: The Secret Service and he has done extensive voice work. Source:

1. Christopher Reeve (Superman)

Whilst Brandon Routh was an unknown actor that was given the opportunity to sport the famous spandex and cape, he was not the first unknown actor to be given the privilege. With just a minor film appearance and a handful of stage productions under his belt, Reeve was told that he had been asked to audition as Clark Kent/Superman after the casting director had repeatedly put his resume on top of the pile for the producers. He got the part and had the looks and height for the role, but Reeve had to undertake a strict workout regime to bulk up for the role. He received glowing reviews and continued to impress in the sequels, and many now see Reeve as the best Superman there has ever been. This also opened up many other roles for him, including appearances in acclaimed films such as Street Smart and The Remains of Day. Source:
Jonny Hughes

Jonny Hughes

Jonny Hughes has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2015.