Like any career, a Hollywood acting career generally takes time to mature. People start out in small, almost unnoticeable roles and then eventually move on to bigger and better things if they have the talent. However, this isn’t a pathway set in stone. Some actors and actresses are talented (and lucky) enough to hit it big with their very first feature film role. Not only that, but many of them have never gone on to top their debut role. With that in mind, this article will take a closer look at 15 stars whose debut films were the biggest of their career, at least so far.
15. Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Hailee Steinfeld is one of the brightest stars in the entertainment industry. Despite still being in her early 20s, she has already been nominated for some of the biggest acting awards out there. She is also an incredible singer who has charted on Billboard. She has a very bright future ahead of her, but it will be hard to top her debut movie performance.
Steinfeld got her full-length feature film debut in True Grit, a 2010 remake of the 1969 classic Western that starred John Wayne. She played a bad-ass character named Mattie Ross, seeking revenge for the murder of her father. Despite being only 13-years-old at the time, many thought it was one of the best acting roles of the year. It got her nominated for an Academy Award and put her on the map as a star to watch going forward.
14. Emma Watson – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Emma Watson is one of the most well-rounded and impressive stars in Hollywood. Watson has not only graduated from the prestigious Brown University, but has also put a ton of her time and money into various different charities and worthy causes. Of course, she is also an incredible actress.
She got her start as Hermione Granger in the epic eight-part Harry Potter series of films, which turned her into a huge star and made her millions of dollars. It is crazy to think about that as her very first role, not even finished school at the time. She’s starred in multiple other films since the end of the Potter franchise, but none of them have done as well critically or financially as her initial role. It could be argued that her Potter co-stars Daniel Radcliffe and Rubert Grint also belong on this list.
13. Abraham Attah – Beasts of No Nation
Still just a teenager, Abraham Attah has decades left in Hollywood, if he chooses to remain acting. But it may be hard to top his debut performance in any future role. Attah was born in Ghana and moved to the U.S. for his schooling and for his budding Hollywood career. Attah got his film debut back in 2015 with the role of Agu in the Netflix drama Beasts of No Nation, in which he played a child soldier. It was a brilliant performance and critics and award shows enjoyed it, as he was given the Best Young Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival and won many other awards, including many in his native Ghana.
12. Alan Rickman – Die Hard
The late, great Alan Rickman sadly passed away in 2016, but we can all look fondly back to his outstanding talent as an actor. He got his start on TV and after about a decade of that he secured his first role in a feature film. And it was a great one. Rickman starred opposite Bruce Willis in Die Hard as menacing villain Hans Gruber.
Gruber is a one of the most memorable bad guys in movie history and it was shocking how good Rickman did in his first film role. While most younger people might remember him best as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, it is hard to top his role as one of the best villains of all-time. He would go on to star in scores of other major productions, but there’s just something about watching Gruber fall to his death from the top of the Nakatomi Tower that completes every Christmas season.
11. Edward Norton – Primal Fear
If you look at a list of some of the most underrated actors in history, you would likely see Edward Norton’s name there. He has played some very important roles and always puts his heart and soul into his characters. He has starred in dozens of great roles and has been nominated for many awards, including three Academy Awards so far.
However, many would argue that his best role ever was actually his first. He made his debut in Primal Fear as Aaron/Roy, a mentally unstable altar boy accused of murdering a local Archbishop. He beat out 2000 other actors for this role and was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his great acting work. Some may argue that he topped this performance in American History X or even Fight Club, but for us Primal Fear is still Norton’s best work.
10. Paul Hogan – Crocodile Dundee
You might not know the name Paul Hogan, but you are definitely aware of the face and who he has portrayed. Hogan made a thrilling and unexpected film debut as he starred as Crocodile Dundee in the hit film that came out in 1986. Before that, he was pretty well known as a television personality in his native Australia but was relatively unknown worldwide.
However, he shot into stardom with Crocodile Dundee, which did incredibly well in North America and even earned Hogan a Golden Globe win for the performance. The success of the film led to a few sequels, but Hogan was never really able to turn the success from his film debut into much of a career in Hollywood.
9. Tatum O’Neal – Paper Moon
While we have to travel quite a bit back in time for this one, Tatum O’Neal is definitely deserving of a spot on this list. She made her film debut starring in Paper Moon along with her father (who was a famous actor at the time). The 1973 film had her and her father star as partners in crime. Despite it being her first ever film, she was a natural and would deliver an amazing performance as a 10-year-old. Her performance was so good that she actually ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the youngest winner in history. She would go on to star in films for decades, but you can’t top a performance in which you won an Oscar at 10.
8. Cameron Diaz – The Mask
While she isn’t as big a star as she once was, there was a point in which Cameron Diaz was one of the highest paid and most successful actresses in Hollywood. She starred in a variety of different films in the 1990s and 2000s, and was sought after by many studios. Before that though, it was her debut film role that propelled her from a relative unknown into a global superstar. Diaz was a model before beating out several other actresses for the role of Jim Carrey’s love interest in The Mask, a movie that became a pop culture phenomenon in 1994. Her performance as the sultry Tina Carlyle turned into a worldwide sex symbol and one of the more popular actresses out there.
7. Barbara Streisand – Funny Girl
Barbara Streisand has had one of the brightest entertainment careers of anyone in history. Her career has spanned six different decades of Streisand being a successful actress and singer. She began her career as a singer and sold millions and millions of records and won many Grammys throughout the 1960s. In the late 1960s, she decided to take on a film career. Her debut film role was in 1968’s Funny Girl, a role which she also played on Broadway. She did extremely well in adapting the role for the big screen and even won an Academy Award for her debut performance. She has done it all as an entertainer and is truly a legend in the industry.
6. Anna Paquin – The Piano
Anna Paquin has been in Hollywood for nearly her entire life and has had many different roles as both a child, teen, and an adult. However, her strongest and best role to date was her first, and it happened way back when she was only 11. Despite having very little experience as an actress, Paquin was able to beat out 5,000 other hopefuls to get the role of Flora McGrath in 1993’s The Piano.
She did an amazing job and it was so good that she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, which makes her the second youngest person to ever win the award. She has had several other memorable and award-winning roles since, but none have been able to replicate her first. It is still her only Academy Award nomination or win to date.
5. Mark Hamill – Star Wars
During the 1970s, Hamill was a regular on a variety of different television soap operas. He was doing well, but then something would happen that would change his life forever. A friend said he should audition for the role of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, an upcoming sci-fi film. He took his friends advice and auditioned, and ended up getting the role that would turn him into a pop culture icon. It made Hamill and his character a superstar, and he would go on to star in two sequels to complete the original Star Wars trilogy.
Unfortunately, the films were so successful that Hamill was typecast for many years and struggled to find important movie roles after Star Wars. His career found a bit of a second life, though, when Hamill turned himself into one of the premiere voice actors for animated projects. Comic book fans idolize him for his work as The Joker in the DC Animated Universe.
4. Julie Andrews – Mary Poppins
Before her film debut, Julie Andrews was a star on both Broadway and TV. But it was her debut movie role that helped transform her into a true superstar. Andrews made her feature film debut as the title character in Mary Poppins in 1964. The movie was a big success, both critically and financially, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress in her first ever role, which is incredibly difficult to do. Afterwards, she went on to star in hit after hit (including The Sound of Music) and cemented herself as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. She has also dabbled in singing and has won a couple of Grammy Awards in addition to the many acting awards she has accumulated over the years.
3. Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls
Jennifer Hudson burst onto the scene as a finalist on American Idol in 2004. While she would go on to be a successful musical act, release a few albums, and sell a ton of records, it was actually her talents as an actress that turned her into a household name. For her first ever movie role, she beat out thousands of other hopefuls to play the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls back in 2006. She gave an inspiring performance and it earned her a win for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. It looked like she was born to play the role. She has continued to appear in a dozen of other movies over the years, but none of them measure up to her film debut.
2. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Lupita Nyong’o is a Kenyan-Mexican actress who was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. She later came to the United States for college. She found an interest in the entertainment industry and took a role of a production assistant in 2008. She dabbled in show business, appearing in a short film and few television episodes, but didn’t have her debut feature-length role until 2013 in 12 Years a Slave. Her performance as Patsey, a real-life slave from the mid-19th century, earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. People were shocked that it was her first ever movie role. Since then, she has appeared in a few other notable films (The Jungle Book and Black Panther), but hasn’t been able to top her initial role yet. She is still young though, so don’t expect her to slow down any time soon.
1. Orson Welles – Citizen Kane
Without question, Orson Welles had to come in at the number one spot on this list. Before he ever thought about doing movies, Welles was very popular on the radio and as a stage actor. However, once he got involved with film, his career took off to amazing new heights. He is often named among the greatest directors ever.
His debut film (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) is still thought of as arguably one of the best of all time. When Welles was only 24-years-old, he gave the world Citizen Kane, which is a consensus pick for one of the best films ever. To achieve that at any point in his life would have been incredibly impressive, but he did it with his movie debut performance — simply out of this world.