Special Report

Movie Roles That Launched Hollywood's Biggest Stars

The movie industry is populated by movie stars whose images are so ubiquitous in our culture that it can at times be hard to imagine a world without them. But even the biggest celebrities started small, waiting for that one role that would eventually take them to the next level of success.

For many actors, these breakout roles are among their most defining. Despite his many dramatic roles, Jim Carrey is still remembered by many for his performance as Ace Ventura, pet detective. Others, like “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot — who early in her career appeared in “Fast & Furious” (2009) — find their most iconic role many years later.

24/7 Tempo has identified the movie roles that launched Hollywood’s biggest stars of today. Each of the actors included has starred in one of the top 10 grossing films of the past five years — according to data from Box Office Mojo — yet first discovered fame years prior.

Of course, the careers of many successful actors include as many misses as they do hits. These actors who turned down blockbuster roles and walked away from parts that could have been career defining.

Click here to see the movie roles that launched Hollywood’s biggest stars

Source: Courtesy of Cinedigm Entertainment Group

1. Brie Larson
> Breakout film: Short Term 12 (2013)
> Role: Grace
> Recent blockbuster: Captain Marvel (2019)

Though Brie Larson made appearances on television and movies in the late 1990s, it was not until 2013 that she appeared in her breakout role as counselor Grace in the drama “Short Term 12,” about a woman working with at-risk teenagers at a foster-care facility. Three years later she won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in “Room.” “Captain Marvel” — in which Larson stars in the title role — was the fifth highest grossing film at the domestic box office in 2019. A sequel has already been announced.

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Source: Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

2. Bryce Dallas Howard
> Breakout film: The Village (2004)
> Role: Ivy Walker
> Recent blockbuster: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

The daughter of filmmaker Ron Howard, Bryce Dallas Howard made uncredited appearances as a child in her father’s movies, including “Parenthood” and “Apollo 13.” She would later star in M. Night Shyamalan’s Oscar-nominated film about an isolated town in “The Village.” The actor has since landed major roles in box office-dominating franchises, including Spider-Man, Terminator, and the Jurassic World trilogy.

Source: Courtesy of Gramercy Pictures

3. Cate Blanchett
> Breakout film: Elizabeth (1998)
> Role: Queen Elizabeth
> Recent blockbuster: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Cate Blanchett, one of Australia’s most prominent actors, has a storied film career. She won her first Academy Award in 2005 for Best Supporting Actress in “The Aviator,” and nine years later she took home the statuette for Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine.” Before she picked up those two Oscars, Blanchett turned filmgoers’ heads for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in the biopic “Elizabeth,” the first of her seven Oscar nominations. Critic Emanuel Levy said Blanchett gave a “bravura performance” in the film.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

4. Chris Hemsworth
> Breakout film: Star Trek (2009)
> Role: George Kirk
> Recent blockbuster: Avengers: Endgame (2019)

The Australian actor, best known for his role as Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has put his stamp on other action movies as well, including “Men in Black: International.” His breakout role was as George Kirk, the father of legendary Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in the Oscar-winning film “Star Trek,” the highest rated of the Star Trek movies on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

5. Chris Pratt
> Breakout film: Moneyball (2011)
> Role: Scott Hatteberg
> Recent blockbuster: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Chris Pratt would make a name for himself in action films like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and “Avengers: Endgame” and sci-fi movies like “Jurassic World.” But his breakout role occurred in 2011, in a more subdued drama titled “Moneyball” as Oakland A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

6. Dwayne Johnson
> Breakout film: The Mummy Returns (2001)
> Role: The Scorpion King
> Recent blockbuster: Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

Dwayne Johnson first found widespread fame wrestling as The Rock in the WWE. In 2001, he began what would become a hugely successful film career by appearing in “The Mummy Returns” as the menacing Scorpion King. Among his most famous roles since have been Hobbs in the Fast & Furious series, Maui in the animated “Moana,” and Dr. Smolder Bravestone in the recent Jumanji films. He also starred in the HBO series “Ballers” for five seasons.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

7. Emma Watson
> Breakout film: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
> Role: Hermione Granger
> Recent blockbuster: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Emma Watson skyrocketed to superstardom in her film debut, playing precocious witching student Hermione Granger in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Watson would play the role in all eight Harry Potter movies. More recently, she’s starred as Belle in Disney’s live action “Beauty and the Beast” — the second highest grossing film of 2017 — and as Meg March in last year’s remake of “Little Women.”

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

8. Gal Gadot
> Breakout film: Fast & Furious (2009)
> Role: Gisele
> Recent blockbuster: Wonder Woman (2017)

Israeli model and actor Gal Gadot made her feature film debut as Gisele in “Fast & Furious” (2009), the fourth film in the Fast & Furious franchise. She’d return to the role in both “Fast Five” (2011) and “Fast & Furious 6” (2013). Gadot’s fame increased dramatically with her performance in “Wonder Woman,” which was the third biggest film at the domestic box office in 2017. A sequel — “Wonder Woman 1984” — is scheduled to be released in October 2020.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

9. Jake Gyllenhaal
> Breakout film: October Sky (1999)
> Role: Homer Hickam
> Recent blockbuster: Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

Jake Gyllenhaal is known for his star turns in “Brokeback Mountain” (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination) and “Donnie Darko,” but the role that brought him into the spotlight was for the 1999 film “October Sky.” The movie tells the story of a young West Virginia man who rejects the prospect of a life as a coal miner and, inspired by the success of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, pursues his dream of launching a rocket. The New York Times said Gyllenhaal’s role was “played with beguiling eagerness.” Gyllenhaal recently appeared in the critically acclaimed blockbuster “Spider-Man: Far from Home.”

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

10. Jim Carrey
> Breakout film: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
> Role: Ace Ventura
> Recent blockbuster: Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Jim Carrey’s earliest feature film credit is for the little-seen comedy “All in Good Taste” from 1983. He would gain numerous fans for his work on the sketch comedy series “In Living Color” beginning in 1990. However, his breakout film role was in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” which was quickly followed by leading roles in cult classics “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Mask.” All three were released in 1994. Carrey has starred in numerous popular films since, covering various genres aside from just comedy. Recently, he portrayed the villainous Dr. Robotnik in “Sonic the Hedgehog,” currently the third most financially successful film of 2020.

Source: Courtesy of DreamWorks Distribution

11. Joaquin Phoenix
> Breakout film: Gladiator (2000)
> Role: Commodus
> Recent blockbuster: Joker (2019)

Joaquin Phoenix, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Batman’s unhinged nemesis Joker in 2019 in the movie of the same name, made his mark in the sprawling period piece “Gladiator” in 2000 as the vindictive and narcissistic Roman Emperor Commodus. Phoenix received the first of his four Oscar nominations for that role. His other Oscar nominations were for Best Actor for “Walk the Line” and “The Master.”

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

12. Josh Brolin
> Breakout film: The Goonies (1985)
> Role: Brand
> Recent blockbuster: Deadpool 2 (2018)

Born to actor James Brolin, Josh Brolin has Hollywood in his blood. His feature film debut — as older brother Brand in audience favorite “The Goonies” — was a hit, paving the way for a rich film career that included roles in Oscar-winning fares such as “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and “Milk” (2008). Brolin has recently become a common sight in superhero movies, playing the role of Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) and Cable in “Deadpool 2” (2018).

Source: Courtesy of Miramax

13. Kevin Hart
> Breakout film: Scary Movie 3 (2003)
> Role: CJ
> Recent blockbuster: Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

Since 2001, comedian Kevin Hart has logged 89 acting credits. His breakthrough role in 2003 was in the horror movie parody “Scary Movie 3.” The telegenic Hart has also appeared in the runaway hit “Jumanji: The Next Level,” which has grossed almost $317 million. He’s also been busy on the small screen as a producer of shows such as “Dave” and the Netflix special “Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History.”

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

14. Kristen Bell
> Breakout film: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
> Role: Sarah Marshall
> Recent blockbuster: Frozen II (2019)

Today a motion pictures and television star, Kristen Bell began by appearing in an uncredited role in the “Polish Wedding” in 1998. She reached stardom 10 years later as the title character in the rom-com “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” after finding fame as the titular role in the long-running “Veronica Mars” TV series. Bell more recently voiced the character Anna in Disney’s massively popular Frozen franchise.

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

15. Lupita Nyong’o
> Breakout film: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
> Role: Patsey
> Recent blockbuster: Black Panther (2018)

Lupita Nyong’o’s meteoric rise to stardom began with her film debut as the abused slave Patsey in Steve McQueen’s searing look at slavery in the American South, “12 Years a Slave” in 2013. The Kenyan born Nyong’o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar the following year for that role. Her performance led to a starring role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster “Black Panther.”

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

16. Margot Robbie
> Breakout film: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
> Role: Naomi Lapaglia
> Recent blockbuster: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

Margot Robbie has become one of the most bankable stars in movies, with Oscar-nominated credits such as “I, Tonya” and “Bombshell.” Her breakout role was as Naomi Lapaglia, the wife of a high-powered Wall Street stockbroker played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Martin Scorsese-directed hit “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

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Source: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

17. Michael B. Jordan
> Breakout film: Fruitvale Station (2013)
> Role: Oscar Grant
> Recent blockbuster: Black Panther (2018)

Michael B. Jordan built a strong television acting résumé with shows such as “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Parenthood.” Jordan then turned to the big screen to play the doomed Oscar Grant, who was killed by transit police at Fruitvale Station in San Francisco. Charlotte O’Sullivan of the London Evening Standard said, “Jordan doesn’t beg for our sympathy and is all the more magnetic as a result.” Jordan has gone on to appear in two sequels of the Rocky boxing series, “Creed” and “Creed II,” and was one of the stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster “Black Panther.”

Source: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

18. Michelle Rodriguez
> Breakout film: Girlfight (2000)
> Role: Diana Guzman
> Recent blockbuster: The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Texas native Michelle Rodriguez first turned heads playing a boxer in the indie hit “Girlfight” (2000), a role for which she beat out 350 other actors. She then took on the role of Letty Ortiz in 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious.” She’s remained loyal to the franchise, appearing in five of its films to date, including “The Fate of the Furious,” which grossed $226 million at the domestic box office, the 10th highest grossing film of 2017. Rodriguez will return to the role of Letty in the upcoming “F9.” Rodriguez has also starred in movies ranging from James Cameron-directed blockbuster “Avatar” (2009) to genre flick “Machete Kills” (2013).

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

19. Robert De Niro
> Breakout film: Mean Streets (1973)
> Role: Johnny Boy
> Recent blockbuster: Joker (2019)

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have collaborated on 10 films, some of which have dealt with the chaos and violence in America’s streets. The first of their pairings that addressed this theme was “Mean Streets,” in which De Niro plays an off-kilter small-time hoodlum. De Niro would go on to win two Best Actor Oscars (“The Godfather: Part II,” “Raging Bull”). He’s received eight Academy Award nominations in total.

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

20. Robert Downey Jr.
> Breakout film: Less Than Zero (1987)
> Role: Julian
> Recent blockbuster: Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Despite an entertainment career plagued by drug problems, Robert Downey Jr. has managed to garner two Oscar nominations for his performances in “Chaplin” and “Tropic Thunder.” Critics took notice of his performance as an LA rich kid with drug issues in the film “Less Than Zero” in 1987. Downey Jr. has carved a niche in action films as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. His most recent appearance in a blockbuster was “Avengers: Endgame.”

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

21. Samuel L. Jackson
> Breakout film: Do the Right Thing (1989)
> Role: Mister Señor Love Daddy
> Recent blockbuster: Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

Samuel L. Jackson has been performing in movies and on television since the early 1970s. His breakout role, however, would come in 1989, in the role of Mister Señor Love Daddy in the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing.” Jackson would go on to appear in films such as “Jackie Brown,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” and “Pulp Fiction.” His performance in the latter film earned him his lone Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

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Source: Courtesy of United Artists

22. Scarlett Johansson
> Breakout film: Ghost World (2001)
> Role: Rebecca
> Recent blockbuster: Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Sometimes called by the truncated name Scar Jo, Scarlett Johansson was nominated for two Oscars (Best Supporting Actress for “Jojo Rabbit” and Best Actress for “Marriage Story”) in 2020, the 12th time an actor was nominated for two roles in the same year. The 2001 film “Ghost World” about teenage angst got critics’ attention. David Denby of the New Yorker recommended the film for “Johansson’s devastating monotone.” Johansson, known today for her role as Black Widow in Marvel films, also voiced characters in movies like “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

23. Tom Cruise
> Breakout film: Risky Business (1983)
> Role: Joel
> Recent blockbuster: Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Tom Cruise’s climb to fame can be traced to a famous scene from “Risky Business” in which he lip-syncs the Bob Seger song “Old Time Rock & Roll” in just his underwear. A string of blockbusters, such as “Top Gun,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Jerry Maguire,” has catapulted Cruise to superstardom. The three-time Oscar nominee has also starred in the action movie franchises Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible.

Source: Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

24. Tom Hanks
> Breakout film: Splash (1984)
> Role: Allen Bauer
> Recent blockbuster: Toy Story 4 (2019)

Before the two-time Best Actor Oscar winner (“Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump”) became America’s Everyman, Tom Hanks cut his acting teeth on television in series such as “Bosom Buddies” and “Family Ties.” Cinematic stardom began with Hanks’ role as Allen Bauer, a man who falls in love with a mermaid in the enchanting film “Splash.”

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Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

25. Will Smith
> Breakout film: Bad Boys (1995)
> Role: Mike Lowrey
> Recent blockbuster: Bad Boys for Life (2020)

Will Smith rose to prominence as an actor starring in the TV series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which ran for six seasons beginning in 1990. But it was his starring role alongside Martin Lawrence in Michael Bay’s 1995 cop film “Bad Boys” that proved to audiences he was ready to be a movie star. Smith quickly followed up the film with leading roles in “Independence Day” in 1996 and “Men in Black” in 1997. The Oscar-nominated actor recently returned to the part of Detective Mike Lowrey in “Bad Boys for Life,” which is currently the top grossing film of 2020.

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