It sometimes feels like celebrities, especially those nominated for Academy Awards, have always been beautiful, talented, and beloved. However, before getting their big breaks, they were just normal people, who had to study, work hard, and start from the bottom of their industry. Everyone’s had a first job, and in the case of famous actors and actresses, many menial jobs until they’ve reached success and critical acclaim. Even the so-called “best actors of our generation” began nowhere, taking years to gain traction in the competitive entertainment industry. So, where did some of this year’s Oscar favorites get their starts? While some knew they wanted to be actors from childhood, others did not decide on their career path until young adulthood; and, while some found jobs relatively quickly, others had to work odd-jobs and unknown roles until finally making their big break. What did your favorite actor do before becoming famous? This is Where 2017’s Oscar Nominees Got Their Starts.
15. Meryl Streep
While Meryl Streep may now be called one of the best actresses in our generation, her career didn’t necessarily start out that way. Unlike many famous actors and actresses, Streep did not take acting seriously as a child or in high school: even though she performed in a few plays, she saw it more as a hobby. It wasn’t until her performance in Miss Julie at Vassar College, which she earned campus-wide attention for, that Streep decided to make acting her full-time career. She earned her MFA at Yale School of Drama, waitressing and typing to get by in addition to her performances; she worked so much that she considered switching to law to be less stressed. Nevertheless, she knew acting was the field for her, and after being inspired by Robert De Niro’s role in Taxi Driver she set her sights on film. Things didn’t come easy to her, however; at one of her first auditions, for King Kong, she was told she was too ugly to be in front of the camera. While this would have discouraged many from ever auditioning again, Streep retained her confidence and continued to perform on stage. It was in her stage performance of The Cherry Orchard that De Niro noticed her and cast her as his girlfriend in The Deer Hunter, for which she was nominated her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This year she’s up for her role in Florence Foster Jenkins.
14. Dev Patel
Patel landed his first professional role as Anwar on the E4 series Skins after his mom saw an advertisement in a newspaper and took him to an audition. The role was written specifically for him after he got the role, and partially based on his personality. According to Patel, on his first day of filming, he had literally no idea what to do; it was his first time ever really being in front of the camera. Patel seems to have a knack for picking winners right off the bat: he made his second professional appearance in the film Slumdog Millionaire to widespread critical acclaim. Director Danny Boyle felt that all the Bollywood actors who auditioned for the role were too buff and heroic looking, but Patel’s relatively average build made him the perfect candidate for the role. He was extremely dedicated to the movie, going to the Dharavi slums, working in a call center, washing dishes in a hotel, and constantly practicing his Indian accent to prepare for the role. This year, he’s nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the film Lion.
13. Ryan Gosling
One might say Ryan Gosling was made to be an actor: as a kid, Gosling sang in his uncle’s Elvis Presley tribute act, performed with his sister at weddings, and was involved with a local Canadian ballet company. Around this time, he even developed an accent based on Marlon Brando, because he felt that having a Canadian accent wasn’t “tough”. Believe it or not, young Gosling had a difficult time in school both academically and socially, and performing was his only escape, as it was the only thing he was praised for. When he was 12, he got his first role as a Mouseketeer on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. Despite getting minimal screen-time, as other children were viewed as more talented, this experience solidified Gosling’s dreams of becoming an actor. He continued acting in children’s programs until his late teens, when he moved to independent film. He’s come a long way since then: this year, he’s nominated for Lead Actor in La La Land.
12. Viggo Mortensen
Before becoming an actor, Viggo Mortensen certainly had a fascinating life. Born in New York City, his family moved to Venezuela, Denmark, and eventually settled Argentina during his primary years. At the age of 11, his parents divorced, and Mortensen moved back to New York. These early abroad experiences had a huge impact on Mortensen’s later life: he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish Studies and Politics. Fun fact: even after becoming an actor, Mortensen has co-authored several ethnographies about native South Americans. After college, he lived abroad in Spain, England, and Denmark, taking odd jobs such as truck driving and flower selling to get by. He only returned to the United States to pursue an acting career. He won critical acclaim for his performance in Bent, a play about homosexuals in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Ironically, the play was brought to prominence by his eventual Lord of the Rings co-star Ian McKellen. This year, he’s up for Lead Actor for the film Captain Fantastic.
11. Natalie Portman
Like many Oscar nominees, Natalie Portman knew what she wanted to do with her life from a very young age: even when she was asked to be a child model by a Revlon agent, she refused in order to focus on acting. A few years later, she earned first major film role in Léon: the Professional at the age of 13, and played Padme Amidala in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace while she was still a student at Syosset High School. However, Portman didn’t set her sights completely on pursuing a career in acting: Portman is extremely dedicated to her studies. In fact, She even skipped the Star Wars premiere to study for her high school finals! Even after high school, Portman remained serious about her education: while she studied psychology at the prestigious Harvard University from 1993-2004, she refused to act in any film roles in order to focus on her studies. However, soon after graduating, Portman went back to acting right away, taking roles in films such as Garden State and Cold Mountain. This year, she is up for Lead Actress for the film Jackie.
10. Emma Stone
Emma Stone, whose real name is actually Emily, knew she wanted to be an actress from the age of four. As a child, Stone frequently appeared in youth theatre and was homeschooled for 2 years, allowing her to take her acting more seriously. When she was 16, she convinced her parents to let her move to Los Angeles by making a PowerPoint presentation set to Madonna’s 2003 song, “Hollywood”. Despite auditioning for the role of the daughter on every single Disney Channel sitcom she could find, she got none of the roles. In between auditions, Stone enrolled in online high school classes, and worked part-time at a dog treat bakery. Over the next several years, Stone continued to audition for roles on shows like Heroes, getting small roles here and there. Stone finally made it big in 2007, when she played Jules in the comedy Superbad. This year, she is a shoe-in for Lead Actress for the film La La Land.
9. Casey Affleck
If you somehow didn’t already know who Casey Affleck is, his last name surely must have rung a bell: the Manchester By The Sea star is the younger brother of fellow actor Ben Affleck. Despite being in different grades, the brothers grew up extremely close: they had all the same friends, and spent practically all of their time outside of school together. Due to their mother’s involvement in the arts, the boys were encouraged to attend the theatre, make home movies, and were occasionally cast in local commercials through their mother’s connections. When he was 18, Casey Affleck decided he wanted to be an actor, and moved to Los Angeles to live with his brother and their good friend Matt Damon. He spent the majority of the year working as a busboy for a restaurant in Pasadena, and eventually moved to Washington D.C. to attend George Washington University. He soon transferred to Columbia University, but never graduated because he could not turn out the film opportunities he began to receive. After an incredible performance in Good Will Hunting, his career reached a dark point wherein the majority of his films were commercial and critical failures. Fortunately, Affleck had a breakthrough in 2007 for his roles in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Gone, Baby, Gone. Now, he is a favorite to win Best Actor for his role in Manchester By The Sea.
8. Ruth Negga
Ruth Negga stuns casting directors practically every time she goes into an audition: born in Ethiopia, raised in Ireland, and living in London as an adult, nobody really knows what to think about what nationality she is or where exactly her accent is from. However, all that matters is that her acting skills are incredible. Negga scored her first role in the Irish film Capital Letters in 2004: impressed by her skills, director Neil Jordan wrote her a role in Breakfast on Pluto, which was her first big movie. She continued to perform in relatively small films, and in 2013 got the role of runaway slave Celeste in the award-wining film 12 Years a Slave. Unfortunately, after days of filming an escape through a crocodile-infested swamp, her scene was cut from the final version of the film. Luckily, Negga was soon chosen for roles on the popular television shows Preacher and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and will likely continue to perform in amazing roles, as her career is only just beginning. She’s been nominated this year for her lead role in Loving.
7. Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams became interested in acting at a young age after seeing a local production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the early 1990s, Williams appeared in guest roles on several television shows, and debuted as the love interest of the lead in the children’s film Lassie. At the age of 15, she emancipated from her parents in order to act with less interference from child labor laws, and soon moved to Los Angeles to more seriously pursue her career. She quickly secured a role as troubled teen Jen Lindley in the teen drama Dawson’s Creek: while she did not feel particularly inspired by her work, she feels that it has enabled her to choose her projects. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Williams started taking more serious roles, eventually gaining public and critical recognition in the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. However, had she not wanted to pursue acting, Williams would have had an excellent career in commodity training: in 1997, she won the Robbins World Cup Championship of Futures Trading, making a 900% return rate on a $10,000 investment. To this day, she is the 3rd highest winner of the competition since its inception. This year, she is nominated for her role in Manchester By The Sea.
6. Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali, born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, had not always set out to be an actor. He graduated from St. Mary’s College in California with a degree in mass communication, entering the university with a basketball scholarship. He became disenchanted with the idea of being an athlete as a result of the poor way he felt the athletes were treated, and became interested in acting after being a part of a staging for the play Spunk, which earned him an apprenticeship at the California Shakespeare Theater. He earned a Master’s Degree in acting at New York University in 2000, and made his debut in the 2003 comedy film Making Revolution. Several years later, he got his breakthrough role in the science-fiction series The 4400 before being cast in his first major film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in 2008. Since then, Ali has been in several films and television shows every single year, including Luke Cage and two of this year’s Best Picture Nominees, Hidden Figures and Moonlight.
5. Viola Davis
After graduating from the prestigious Juilliard School, Davis got her start on Broadway, earning an Obie award in 1999 for her performance in Everybody’s Ruby. Over the next several years, Davis secured roles in film, television, and theatre, and her supporting role in the film Doubt proved to be her breakthrough, earning her nominations for the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and Academy Awards. However, she is probably best known for her supporting role as the maid Aibeleen Clark in the popular 2011 comedy-drama The Help. Despite her switch to the screen, Davis’ heart never left the stage: in 2010, she performed as Rose in the Broadway revival of Fences. It makes sense, then, why she was such an obvious choice for the film adaption. Davis’ Best Supporting Actress nomination for Fences officially made her the first African-American woman to be nominated for three Academy Awards. At the rate Davis’ success is going, she’ll probably be the first to be nominated for four, five, and six, too.
4. Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington attended Fordham University, where he played guard on the basketball team. Midway through his college career, Washington took a semester off to rethink his major and career path; that summer, he worked as a creative arts director at a YMCA overnight camp. After performing skits and poems in a staff talent show, a fellow staff member approached him and suggested he become an actor. Despite a previously bad experience reading Hamlet in a public speaking class, Washington became attracted to the idea. That fall, he switched campuses to one with a better drama department, and started acting in plays. Washington performed in a few television movies and stage productions before making his big break in the hospital drama St. Elsewhere, where he was one of the only African-American characters to appear on the show during its six-year run from 1982 to 1988. During and immediately after this time, he started gaining traction in film, most notably Glory in 1989, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This year, he is nominated for his lead role in Fences, a film which he also directed.
3. Naomie Harris
Naomie Harris was likely exposed to the world of television at a young age through her mother, who was a television writer on EastEnders. Appearing on television since before she was ten years old, Harris acted in various family television shows such as Simon and the Witch, Runaway Bay, and had the lead role in the 90s remake of The Tomorrow People. She decided to take a break from acting to pursue a degree in Social and Political Sciences from the Pembroke College at Cambridge University, but hated her experience there due to feelings of isolation. However, she regained her confidence after enrolling in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and began acting again. She began taking small roles in film and television, but quickly found her way to success. In November 2002, she made her big break starring in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a critically-acclaimed film about a zombie apocalypse. This year, she is nominated for her supporting role in Moonlight.
2. Isabelle Huppert
As a result from extensive encouragement from her mother to join the entertainment business, Isabelle Huppert became a teenage star in Paris. She eventually attended Versailles Conservatoire, where she won a prize for her acting. Huppert made her television debut in Le Prussian, a 1971 television film, and her film debut the next year in Faustine et le Bel Été. Huppert came to public attention for her role in Les Valseuses, which is considered one of the most controversial films in French cinema history due to its graphic sexual content. Since the film’s premiere in 1974, Huppert has performed in at least one film every single year except in 1993, and often performs in more than one film per year. She also frequently performs in stage roles, acting in one every two or three years. While she sometimes works in international films and television shows, Huppert generally only acts in French media, like this year’s Elle.
1. Andrew Garfield
Though he wanted to be a businessman while growing up, Andrew Garfield eventually changed his sights to acting in his late teens. He graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London in 2004, mostly performing on stage upon leaving. Over the next three years, Garfield started to get small roles on television, like in the E4 series Sugar Rush. 2007 was a big year for Garfield: in addition to appearing in a Doctor Who 2-episode story arc: “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks”, he was named one of Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch”, and performed in Boy A, which he won a Best Actor BAFTA. He says that Boy A was a hugely transformative experience in his life, giving him a set of goals for all of his future works. Garfield came to widespread international attention in 2010 for his roles in acclaimed films The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, a science-fiction film based off the incredible book by Kazuo Ishiguro, and cemented his superstar status with a turn as Spider-Man. This year, he’s nominated for his role in Hacksaw Ridge.
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