15 X-Men Actors Before They Were Famous

X-Men Days of Future Past cast

It may seem hard to believe now, but when Bryan Singer’s X-Men first appeared in cinemas back in 2000, the prospect of superhero films was still a risky bet. Sure, some made money and they’d been around here and there for decades, but there were very few that met with acclaim from both critics, general audiences, and diehard fans. The first two X-Men and Spider-Man films helped to change that, paving the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Since the first film, the franchise has featured 8 sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, with a handful of others on the way. Logan, for example, will mark Hugh Jackman’s 8th turn as Wolverine, making it equally hard to remember the actor was a virtual unknown when he first popped his claws in 2000. In the nearly two decades since then, the cast of the series has grown exponentially, comprising a number of actors boasting long careers. In anticipation of Logan’s upcoming adventure, we decided to take at look at where the various X-Men performers started off in the industry. Here’s What 15 X-Men Actors Looked Like Before They Were Famous.  

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Sir Ian McKellan as a Young David Copperfield and Magneto in X-Men
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15 Ian McKellan

Sir Ian McKellan as a Young David Copperfield and Magneto in X-Men

Beginning his acting career in 1964 at the age of 25, the future Sir Ian McKellen spent his first few years acting in various television series and movies, including a turn as David Copperfield in an eponymous series in 1966. From there, he continued on TV and began working in movies, playing historic characters like King Edward, Hamlet, and Richard II, one after the other. He even portrayed Hitler in the 1989 TV movie Countdown to War, and Death itself in the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger flop Last Action Hero. He rounded out his years of work by playing a fascist Richard III, a Hitler analogue, in Apt Pupil, and had a supporting role in a new version of David Copperfield (with Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, in the title role).

The dawn of the new millennium saw the 60 year old actor finally hit the big time, however, thanks to his roles as Magneto and Gandalf in the X-Men and Lord of the Rings franchises, respectively. He’d spend the next 6 years reprising both roles across various films and video games before slowing things down a bit. He’d continue to act in small roles, mostly on TV, but popped up in a few other fantasy adaptations like The Golden Compass and Stardust. 2013 saw him return as Gandalf in the Hobbit trilogy, and the next year he once again donned Magneto’s cape for Days of Future Past. While he won’t be appearing in Logan, here’s hoping McKellan isn’t done playing the Master of Magnetism.

14 Anna Paquin

Anna Paquin as a Kid in The Piano and Rogue in X-Men

Being virtually removed from Days of Future Past has oddly coincided with Anna Paquin scaling her acting back considerably. Though she’s popped up in a few TV shows since the film released, she hasn’t been around much. Hopefully, Fox will correct their mistake and feature her in an upcoming film, but it’s a shame she won’t have a role in Logan, considering Rogue’s relationship with Wolverine is what helped kick off the whole franchise.

Paquin landed her first role as a voice actress in the English adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky in 1986, when she was only 4 years old. It’d be another 7 years before she finally appeared onscreen, playing the precocious Flora in 1993's The Piano. She’d spend the rest of the decade gathering acclaim and notoriety with parts in Fly Away Home, She’s All That, and Amistad. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that she got her two biggest roles to date in Almost Famous and as Rogue in X-Men. Her chemistry and scenes with Jackman proved to be the heart of the film, and helped ground the fantastical proceedings.

From there, she’d continue work in the X-Men universe while balancing it out with appearances in a number of indie films. 2008 saw her next big role as the lead in HBO’s True Blood, which would run on the network for 6 years. With the show’s end, she’s now wide open to return as Rogue, so it’s your move, Fox.

13 Famke Janssen

Famke Jannsen Before She Was Famous in Star Trek and as Jean Grey in X-Men

Famke Janssen actually found success fairly early on in her acting career. After a few small roles, including as the empath Kamala in a 1992 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (where she acted opposite future Professor X Patrick Stewart), Janssen nabbed the role of Xenia Onatopp in 1996’s GoldenEye. Playing a villainous femme fatale she’d later channel as Dark Phoenix, Janssen proved to be one of the many standout performers in Pierce Brosnan’s first (and arguably best) turn as James Bond.

The 1998 cult horror film The Faculty saw her play a similarly sexed-up villain, before Bryan Singer finally gave her a chance to really use her chops when she was cast as Jean Grey in X-Men. She reprised the role in the next two films, and even popped up for cameos in The Wolverine and Days of Future Past. Since then, she’s continued acting in a few movies and TV shows a year, with her roles in the Taken franchise, the Blacklist, and How to Get Away with Murder being her biggest. Sadly, her starring role in Hemlock Grove proved to be Netflix’s one true disappointment, but we’d still love to see her return as Jean Grey and maybe even share the screen with her younger counterpoint, Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner. She's apparently open to the idea, anyway.

12 Brian Cox

Brian Cox as a Young Actor and as William Stryker in X-2 X-Men United

Scottish actor Brian Cox has been acting for 5 decades now, with over 200 performances under his belt. Starting in 1965, he began working on a number of British TV series and plays of the week. Steadily making a name (or at least a face) for himself by grabbing whatever size role he could, it would be 30 years before he really broke out. 1995 saw him cast as William Wallace’s uncle in Braveheart, and his star took off from there.

With big roles in films like Rushmore, Super Troopers, and The Ring, Cox would sometimes act in 7–8 projects in a single year. 2002 saw him land the role of William Stryker in X-2: X-Men United as the nefarious Colonel behind Wolverine’s painful past. Unfortunately, it marked his single appearance in the franchise, but he’s proven to be a similar thorn in Jason Bourne’s side throughout that series. His work ethic hasn’t quit either, as 2013 saw him hold down 10 gigs in total. For such a prolific performer, let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of the elder Stryker.

11 Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender then and now in Band of Brothers and X-Men Days of Future Past

For an actor best known for dramatic performances, Michael Fassbender has spent his 15 year career in a number of lighter roles. His first was in the UK dramedy Hearts & Bones in 2001. The next year saw him go a bit grimmer alongside James McAvoy in the Band of Brothers miniseries. After a few smaller parts, he co-starred in the supernatural comedy Hex for one season before his role as Stelios in 2006’s 300 really brought the actor to everyone’s attention.

He’d gain even more exposure in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger, which earned Fassbender heaps of praise for his brutal performance. He spent the next couple of years with roles in Inglourious Basterds and Jonah Hex before finally being cast as a young Erik Lensherr (and by contrast, a young Ian McKellen) in the 2011 reboot of the X-Men universe, First Class. He’s been one of the standout parts of the trilogy, with both he and James McAvoy doing an incredible job of making the prequel roles their own. Outside of the franchise, things have been hit or miss for the actor, with turns as Steve Jobs and a role in Prometheus dividing critics. Hopefully, Alien: Covenant will win over audiences, as Assassin’s Creed’s failure may be the universe's way of telling Fassbender to stick with one genre role at a time.

10 Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming as a Young Actor and as Nightcrawler in X-2 X-Men United

Though Alan Cumming has spent his life working steadily in TV since 1980, like Famke Janssen, it was his role in GoldenEye that truly helped ignite his acting career. Like many young actors in the UK, he spent years performing in TV plays and series before transitioning to small roles in films. His portrayal as Boris Grishenko in GoldenEye really showed his strengths, however, allowing him to mix in his unique style of comedy.

He then spent a few years engraining himself in the minds of ‘90s kids with roles in Spice World, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, and Spy Kids, before his scene-stealing turn as Nightcrawler in X-2. Though he oddly didn’t return to the third film in the franchise -- considering his career has seen him join a number of dodgy projects and a few franchises -- his work in voice, TV, and film remained steady for the rest of the decade. His biggest role since has been on the hit series The Good Wife, where he’s played Eli Gold for 121 episodes since the show began in 2010.

Like many of the other actors from the first two films, we’d love to see him suit back up for another X-Men film, especially as Kodi Smit-McPhee’s younger version of the teleporter in Apocalypse was a bit underwhelming.

9 Peter Dinklage

Peter Dinklage as a Young Actor in Living in Oblivion and as Bolivar Trask in X-Men Days of Future Past

Since 1991, Peter Dinklage has slowly worked from a character actor and face you recognize without a name you can place, to one of TV’s biggest stars. His early career saw him appearing in a number of minor roles, including his work alongside Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener in Living in Oblivion, and an odd number of uncredited performances. It was his two roles in the 2003 films Elf and The Station Agent that really made him a known quantity, however. He’d continue in films like Death at a Funeral and shows like Nip/Tuck for the rest of the aughts before landing his most massive role to date: Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones.

Already a favorite of fans (and George R.R. Martin) thanks to the books, Tyrion and his portrayal by Dinklage made the two pop culture icons. He was so beloved by nerds, in fact, that his casting as Bolivar Trask in Days of Future Past marked one of the rare examples of fans not generating backlash due to a character’s physical traits being altered. Like with Tyrion, he balanced both humanity and a sinister genius in the role of the man who creates the mutant-killing Sentinels. Though Fox’s notorious timeline tomfoolery makes things unclear, we certainly hope we haven’t seen the last of Dinklage as Trask, if nothing else so he can act opposite GoT co-star Sophie Turner once again. 

8 Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrenece Before She Was Famous in The Poker House and as Mystique in X-Men First Class

It’s no real secret that Jennifer Lawrence’s rise to stardom has been meteoric. At just 26, she’s one of the biggest and most loved stars on the planet, thanks to a number of dramatic and blockbuster roles and her famous off-camera candor. At 16, she landed her first role with a small part in an episode of Monk, followed by a few film and TV appearances. 2009 then gave her a starring role in The Bill Engvall Show as the blue collar comedian’s rebellious daughter.  The next year sealed her fate, as her role opposite John Hawkes in the bleak indie drama Winter’s Bone made her a star.

At 20, she became the second youngest person to be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars, and her acclaim has only risen since then. She took over for Rebecca Romijn as a young Raven Darkholme, aka Mystique, in First Class the following year and became Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise the right after that. In between both series, she clinched the Best Actress award for her work on Silver Linings Playbook and left fans desperately wondering whether she’ll continue on as Mystique in whatever the future holds for the X-Men.

7 Halle Berry

Halle Berry as a Young Actor in Boomerang and as Storm in X-Men

Halle Berry was actually lucky (or talented) enough to find work right out of the gate. At just 23, she landed a starring role in 1989’s short-lived Who’s the Boss? spinoff, Living Dolls. Following the one season run of the show, she picked up a number of small parts in 1991 before landing a role in Spike Lee’s film Jungle Fever that same year. The rest of the decade saw her in The Last Boy Scout, B.A.P.S., The Flintstones (though she didn’t return for the sequel to work with her X-2 co-star Alan Cumming), and Bulworth before her role as Storm in X-Men cemented her place as a leading actor.

Sadly, her role as Ororo Munroe in the original trilogy was a weak point of the franchise for many fans. There’s never been a consensus whether it was her acting, the writing, or a combination thereof, but all can agree that none of the movies did the comic powerhouse justice. Despite winning a Best Actress Oscar for 2001’s Monster’s Ball, her career has ebbed and flowed since then, with her starring role in Catwoman actually making her Storm look amazing by comparison.

While Alexandra Shipp didn’t get much to do as a young Storm in Apocalypse, fans aren’t clamoring for the older Ororo to return anytime soon if Berry’s playing the role. Perhaps her performance in Kingsman: The Golden Circle will prove the third time’s the charm when it comes to comic book roles.

6 Nicholas Hoult

Young Nicholas Hoult and Beast from X-Men Days of Future Past

Though he’s young, Nicholas Hoult has already had a pretty lengthy career. Part of that is due to the fact that he began acting at age 7, in 1996’s Intimate Relations. He continued with a role a year until 2001 saw him in 5 different projects, though his part in 2002’s About A Boy was what truly kicked off his career. After a bit more aging and acting, he joined the controversial UK series Skins for 19 episodes before getting mixed acclaim for parts in A Serious Man and Clash of the Titans, respectively. The next year, he followed up Kelsey Grammer's portrayal of Beast, playing a young Hank McCoy in First Class.

He’s continued vacillating between indie flicks like Warm Bodies and blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road since then, while continuing to play Beast. Though his future with the franchise is unknown, like many of the other First Class trilogy actors, he’s certainly got a promising future in X-Men films if he so desires. All that hair and makeup has to be annoying, but surely playing such a fan-favorite character makes it all worth it.

5 James Marsden

James Marsden as a Young Actor and as Cyclops in X-Men

Like Halle Berry, James Marsden didn’t win over a lot of fans with his performance as Cyclops in X-Men. The main issue was certainly the writing, making Scott Summers seem less of a leader struggling under the burden of his responsibility and extraordinary power, and more of a, well, douche. He was almost designed to make us hate him and root for Logan. It’s a role he was essentially forced to relive in Superman Returns, where he played a forgettable character intended to make Clark/Superman look even more awesome by comparison. Luckily, he’s had a number of other great roles since then, from Enchanted to Westworld.

As with Famke Janssen, he started his career in 1993. Seemingly making it his mission to appear on as many ‘90s sitcoms and dramas as possible, he popped up on Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Blossom, Party of Five, The Nanny, and Touched by an Angel. After X-Men, he played in The Notebook, Death at a Funeral (with Peter Dinklage), and had a recurring role on 30 Rock, proving his comedy chops were still intact. He joined most of the original trilogy cast in the end-of-the-film cameo scene in Days of Future Past, but that’s likely the last time we’ll see him in an X-Men film.

4 James McAvoy

Though he only appeared in one episode of Band of Brothers, James McAvoy’s career kicked off a bit before Michael Fassbender’s. Starting out in 1995 with some small roles in film and TV, McAvoy began landing bigger and bigger parts. There were recurring roles in Children of Dune, State of Play, and Shameless (the basis for the Showtime series of the same name). 2005 saw him play the satyr Mr. Tumnus in Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, while his starring role in Atonement two years later garnered him attention and industry acclaim.

2011 weirdly saw him star in Gnomeo & Juliet (as the voice of the lead gnome) and as young Charles Xavier in First Class. His work in the latter role broke the furthest from his original trilogy counterpart, with McAvoy playing a considerably smarmier and more tortured version of the venerable mutant leader. His character has had quite the progression over the years, rivaling that of Mystique for most growth, so we sure hope he’s not done with the franchise.

3 Kevin Bacon

Young Kevin Bacon Before He Was Famous in Animal House and as Sebastian Shaw in X-Men First Class

With Hugh Jackman mostly out of the new series of X-Men films, Fassbender’s Magneto became one of the trilogy’s chief tormented souls. Just as Logan had Cox’s Stryker lurking in his past, Erik was shaped by Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw. Though the role altered things quite a bit from the comics, it still made for a fascinating way to explore Magneto’s origin in lieu of his solo film long stuck in development hell. Bacon didn’t survive First Class, but it was a great performance by one of Hollywood’s hardest working actors nonetheless. 

There’s almost too many great Bacon roles to try and list them all, with Apollo 13, Footloose, Tremors, and Frost/Nixon all high on the list. Even before 1984’s Footloose, he’d begun making a name for himself in Animal House and Friday the 13th. His career has held pretty steady since then, with a few duds but plenty of outstanding roles in between. Though it’s hard to imagine him coming back in some form to the X-Men universe, comic book properties have a funny way of making sure no good character stays dead for very long.

2 Hugh Jackman

Young Hugh Jackman then and now as Wolverine in X-Men

Only one person has appeared in every single X-Men movie (not counting Deadpool), and he almost didn't even land the role to begin with. It’s fairly well-known that Dougray Scott was originally up for the part, but due to Mission: Impossible II going over-schedule, he was replaced by relative unknown Hugh Jackman. Sadly, Scott wasn’t able to continue on in that franchise, and though he’s had a steady career since, Jackman’s performance as Wolverine launched one of Hollywood’s biggest names into the stratosphere.

Before he was a global megastar, he was an Australian TV and musical actor mostly working in theater and TV. From 1994–98, he worked on a number of small shows, before starting to pick up a couple of roles in movies. X-Men was far and away his biggest part when he landed it in 2000, launching his career like so many of the other cast members his age. Since then, he’s starred or had a cameo in 8 X-Men and Wolverine films, with his ninth, Logan, dropping in just a few months. He’s also landed acclaim for his performances in The Prestige and Les Miserables, among a few bombs here and there. Still, his star shows no signs of fading, and though he continually says each X-Men film will be his last, fans (and Ryan Reynolds) can’t seem to take ‘no’ for an answer.

1 Patrick Stewart

Young Patrick Stewart and the Actor as Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men Films

Like McKellan, Sir Patrick Stewart has had a long and illustrious career. He was a good bit into it before he found fame, however. Beginning work in 1964, the same year McKellen kicked off his career, Stewart worked on a number of BBC Theater productions. It would be another decade until Stewart starred as Vladimir Lenin in the 1974 miniseries Fall of Eagles. From there, he popped up in a few movies, but almost exclusively worked in television until 1981’s Excalibur. Playing King Leondegrance, the film saw him star alongside a young Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson. While he continued steadily working, it’d be another 6 years before his true breakout role.

In 1987, almost two years after the original series had aired, CBS and Gene Roddenberry introduced the world to the new crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It proved an even bigger hit than its predecessor, running for 7 seasons and feeding directly into its follow-up, Voyager. Stewart appeared as Captain Picard on both series, plus a number of movies, but it was his 2000 role as Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men that made him such a household name. Since then, he’s appeared in every X-film except First Class (plus a surprising amount of the video games), putting him right behind Hugh Jackman for most appearances in the franchise. In just a few months, he’ll co-star with Jackman in Logan, which will likely prove to be his last time playing Xavier. 


What are your favorite early roles by actors in the X-Men franchise? Which transformation shocked you the most? Let us know in the comments.

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