For some of Hollywood’s top actors, their very first movie was the one that made their career, whereas others languished in relative obscurity for years — or even decades — before landing that big career-making part. Here’s a look at the films that transformed these actors into Hollywood heavy-hitters.
- Box office hit: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”
- Worldwide gross: $1.3 billion
British actress Daisy Ridley had a few credits on her resume prior to 2015, but they were mostly video shorts and bit parts on TV series. That all changed when she was cast as Rey in the hit “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which was a box office smash — netting $2 billion worldwide.
In 2015, Variety reported that Ridley was paid between $100,000 to $300,000 for the role. That paycheck, however, is sure to multiply many times over when she’s given a piece of the sales from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
- Box office hit: “Die Hard”
- Worldwide gross: $140.77 million
British actor Alan Rickman, who died at age 69 in 2016, earned critical acclaim and commercial success through an impressive resume that included a key role in the blockbuster “Harry Potter” franchise, which is highly lucrative. He owes his career, however, to his role of iconic villain Hans Gruber in 1988’s “Die Hard,” which was produced on a budget of just $28 million.
Arguably the greatest action movie of all time, the original “Die Hard” spawned a five-film, 25-year, $1.44 billion global franchise. Although it’s unclear how much he earned for the role, Rickman said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter the year he died that he came “extremely cheap.”
- Box office hit: “Independence Day”
- Worldwide gross: $817.4 million
Talented, handsome and likable, Will Smith first experienced big success in 1988, when he was a groundbreaking crossover rapper whose single “Parents Just Don’t Understand” became history’s first rap song to win a Grammy. In 1990, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” made him a television star, but Smith wasn’t done yet.
Although he appeared in a few films before 1996, his status was cemented as a Hollywood dynamo when he landed the starring role in the giant summer sci-fi hit “Independence Day.” He was paid $5 million for the role, according to Statistic Brain, and it catapulted his career to a resume that would eventually include the “Bad Boys” franchise, “Ali” and “I Am Legend.”
- Box office hit: “A Nightmare on Elm Street”
- Domestic gross: $25.5 million
In 1984, the slasher genre gained an iconic villain, and Hollywood gained a new movie star. Although “A Nightmare on Elm Street” didn’t exactly slay at the box office, the cult classic introduced to the world what would soon become two of the most recognizable names in Hollywood: Freddy Krueger and Johnny Depp.
The former was the creepy, claw-handed monster who terrorized his way through the nine-installment horror franchise. The latter would go on to become one of the biggest movie stars in history, with worldwide box office sales nearing $10 billion and a net worth of $200 million. According to Statistic Brain, Depp was paid just $25,000 for “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which was his very first role.
- Box office hit: “Dreamgirls”
- Worldwide gross: $154.94 million
Jennifer Hudson not only dominated the soundtrack of “Dreamgirls,” but she also played a starring role in the film. The 2006 musical, which launched Hudson’s acting career, was the talented singer’s first role ever — the first of more than 25 — and it earned her an Oscar.
It was the first time any black actor had won an Academy Award in that category for a debut performance. She recently became a spokesmodel for Weight Watchers, flexes her pipes as a coach on NBC’s “The Voice” and continues to be one of the most successful “American Idol” winners in the show’s history.
- Box office hit: “12 Years a Slave”
- Worldwide gross: $187.73 million
Lupita Nyong’o landed a role in the highly successful “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” as well as roles in the hugely anticipated upcoming franchise films “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which is due for release in 2017, and “Star Wars: Episode IX,” which is slated for release in 2019. All of her success, however, can be traced to her Academy Award-winning performance in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.”
In her Oscar-winning role, she portrayed the real-life character of Patsey, a slave who lived her entire life tortured by the cruelties of both her barbarous master and his jealous wife. The highly acclaimed performance was her first role in a feature film.
- Box office hit: “Superbad”
- Worldwide Gross: $169.87 million
The $26 million Emma Stone earned between June 2016 and June 2017 made her the world’s highest-paid actress, according to Forbes. Her movies have grossed more than $3.7 billion at the worldwide box office, and she won one Academy Award and was nominated for another.
But it wasn’t always that way. Stone was a relatively unknown actress who appeared in a few TV movies and series before 2007. But that year, she starred in her first feature film, “Superbad.” The movie — a stoner flick powered by the talents of comedy heavyweights Seth Rogan, Judd Apatow, Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera — launched her career.
- Box office hit: “Dazed and Confused”
- Domestic gross: $7.99 million
Matthew McConaughey is one of the most lauded stars of the big and small screens. He has more than 60 credits, won an Oscar, accumulated a net worth of $95 million and has starred in films that have grossed nearly $3.66 million at the global box office.
It all started with McConaughey’s first part — his now-classic role of Wooderson in the 1993 coming-of-age flick “Dazed and Confused” — which put McConaughey on the map and introduced the world to the actor’s most famous catchphrase: “Alright, alright, alright.”
- Box office hit: “Good Will Hunting”
- Worldwide gross: $225.93 million
Ben Affleck is a global superstar with two Oscars and two Golden Globes to his name. His movies — which include titles like “Argo,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “The Town” and “Shakespeare in Love” — have earned a total of $4.64 billion at the worldwide box office.
None of it, however, would have been possible without “Good Will Hunting,” the 1997 megahit that he co-wrote and co-starred in with childhood buddy and fellow struggling actor Matt Damon, who had previously been crashing on Affleck’s couch. Affleck already had solid credits, including roles in “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dazed and Confused” and “School Ties,” but “Good Will Hunting” — which remains their masterpiece — launched him from actor to movie star. He reportedly earned half of a $600,000 payday for the movie.
- Box office hit: “Good Will Hunting”
- Worldwide gross: $225.93 million
The other $300,000 of the $600,000 Miramax paid for “Good Will Hunting” went to the guy who had at one point slept on Ben Affleck’s couch in Los Angeles. Like his friend and creative partner Ben Affleck, Matt Damon also had a solid resume — including several of the same movies as Affleck — before his Oscar-nominated portrayal of troubled genius Will Hunting won over film critics, fans and the Hollywood elite.
His career after 1997, however, bears little resemblance to that which came before. His movies — which have gone on to earn nearly $7 billion at the global box office — include the “Jason Bourne” franchise, “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Departed” and “The Martian.”
- Box office hit: “Glory”
- Domestic gross: $26.83 million
Few stars shine brighter than that of Denzel Washington, the leading man whose movies have pulled in more than $3.7 billion at the worldwide box office. His resume includes iconic films such as “American Gangster,” “Philadelphia,” “The Pelican Brief,” “Training Day,” “Man on Fire” and “Malcolm X.”
Although his run on “St. Elsewhere” made him a TV star, his big-screen breakthrough came with what is probably history’s definitive Civil War movie — at least when it comes to the contributions of African-Americans — 1989’s “Glory.”
- Box office hit: “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”
- Worldwide gross: $792.91 million
With a net worth of $125 million, Drew Barrymore is not just one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars — she’s also one of the richest. Her success is built on more than 70 acting credits dating back nearly four decades to 1978 — four years before she charmed the world as Gertie in what stands as one of history’s most celebrated sci-fi flicks, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” Nearly 40 years later, it remains her highest grossing movie worldwide, even without adjusting for inflation.
- Box office hit: “Sixteen Candles”
- Domestic gross: $23.69 million
In the 1980s, John Hughes’ “Brat Pack” movies defined the teen angst genre. Among the most significant and celebrated was 1984’s “16 Candles,” which included a young John Cusack as the geeky Bryce.
His second role ever and his first major movie, the now-classic “Sixteen Candles” was the springboard for Cusack’s career, which now includes more than 80 credits. The part earned him leading roles in a string of iconic ’80s flicks, including “Better Off Dead,” “One Crazy Summer” and “Say Anything.” To date, Cusack’s movies have grossed $2.26 billion worldwide.
- Box office hit: “Risky Business”
- Domestic gross: $63.54 million
His movies have grossed nearly $10 billion worldwide. He commands serious cash — having a net worth of more than half a billion dollars. He regularly scores eight-figure salaries for action movies in his mid-50s. He’s been nominated for three Academy Awards. He’s Tom Cruise, and he might just be the biggest movie star of all time — and it all started when he danced to Bob Seger in his underwear.
Although he’d been in four prior movies, 1983’s “Risky Business” undoubtedly launched Cruise’s career, which includes critical and commercial blockbusters like “Top Gun,” “A Few Good Men,” “Jerry Maguire” and the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Although he now easily commands $20 million per film, and often more than $25 million, he reportedly earned just $70,000 for his role in “Risky Business.”
Cuba Gooding Jr.
- Box office hit: “Boyz n the Hood”
- Domestic gross: $57.5 million
Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. has achieved massive success on both the big and small screens, most recently for his portrayal of O.J. Simpson in the TV series “American Crime Story.” Although he had bit parts in movies and roles in TV series for five years prior, Gooding broke onto the global stage with his unforgettable role of Tre Styles in “Boyz n the Hood,” John Singleton’s 1991 chronicle of inner-city life in Los Angeles. Gooding’s movies have grossed $2.04 billion worldwide.
- Box office hit: “Taxi Driver”
- Domestic gross: $28.26 million
One of the most prolific child actors in history, Jodie Foster had nearly three dozen acting roles before she took on the heavy task of portraying a troubled young prostitute named Iris in Martin Scorsese’s iconic 1976 film “Taxi Driver” when she was just 12 years old. It was that movie, however, that earned Foster her first Academy Award nomination and made her a household name.
She now has nearly 80 credits, including some of history’s most celebrated movies. She won an Oscar for her role in “The Silence of the Lambs” and another for her part in “The Accused.”
- Box office hit: “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”
- Domestic gross: $40.49 million
With a net worth of $360 million, Keanu Reeves is one of Hollywood’s richest actors. His catalog of movies, which have grossed more than $4.21 billion worldwide, includes “The Matrix” franchise, the “Speed” franchise, “Point Break” and one of most beloved comedies in history: “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
Although he had nearly 20 credits before the 1986 tale of two time-traveling slackers, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” — for which the actor was reportedly paid $95,000 — was the start of Reeves’ second act as a major movie star. Among his more than 90 credits are eight movies in various stages of production due out between 2017 and 2019 — including a “Bill and Ted” reboot.
- Box office hit: “Wedding Crashers”
- Worldwide gross: $285.18 million
“Sex and the City” fans know that Bradley Cooper has credits dating back to a 1999 role in the HBO hit series about women looking for love in New York. His life as a true movie star, however, began in 2005 when he landed the part of the diabolical Sack Lodge in “Wedding Crashers.”
The movie’s success elevated Cooper to leading-man status and earned him acclaimed roles in movies like “Silver Linings Playbook,” “A Star Is Born” and “American Sniper.” His movies have grossed more than $11.2 billion worldwide, earned him seven Academy Award nominations and gained him a net worth of $100 million.
- Box office hit: “The Help”
- Worldwide gross: $216.64 million
Octavia Spencer amassed nearly 90 credits over 15 years in show business before she got her big break. In 2011, Spencer landed the role of Minny Jackson in “The Help.” The role earned her an Oscar and a place among Hollywood’s elite.
Since then, she hasn’t slowed down. She has acted in six projects in 2015, six in 2016, four in 2017, three in 2018 and four in 2019.
- Box office hit: “40-Year-Old Virgin”
- Worldwide gross: $177.38 million
Canadian actor and screenwriter Seth Rogen’s show business career started when he began doing stand-up comedy at age 13 with people twice his age. Just a few years later when he was still a teenager, he landed a role in the short-lived cult classic “Freaks and Geeks.”
He is known today for comedy blockbusters like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” but those hits wouldn’t have been possible had he not earned critical acclaim for his supporting role in 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” He now has more than 90 credits including a voice role in the new version of the Lion King — giving him a healthy net worth of $55 million.
- Box office hit: “Thelma and Louise”
- Domestic gross: $45.36 million
Brad Pitt had a smattering of notable credits before 1991, but that year, something happened that would change Hollywood forever — he was cast for a bit part in “Thelma and Louise,” and a star was born. In the ensuing years, Pitt would star in more than two dozen movies that grossed nine-digit figures at the worldwide box office.
He has starred in “Fight Club,” “Seven,” “12 Years a Slave,” “A River Runs Through It” and “Seven Years in Tibet.” He won one Oscar and was nominated for five others. Along the way, he earned a net worth of $300 million — but just $6,000 of that, according to The Guardian, came from “Thelma and Louise,” which the publication called the role that “ended up making his career.”
- Box office hit: “Moonstruck”
- Domestic gross: $80.64 million
It’s no secret that Nicolas Cage is a box office powerhouse — movies that feature him have raked in more than $4.76 billion at the global box office. Some of his films, like “Con-Air” and “Face Off,” are campy and outrageous but undoubtedly fun. Others, like “The Rock” and the “National Treasure” franchise, are action blockbusters. Some Cage films like “City of Angels” and “Leaving Las Vegas” are critically acclaimed dramas. All of them, however, have one thing in common: None would have been possible if not for his role in 1987’s “Moonstruck.”
Although the cult classic “Raising Arizona” came out the same year, it earned more than three times less at the domestic box office than “Moonstruck,” which received four stars from Roger Ebert, won three Oscars and was nominated for three others.
- Box office hit: “Pretty Woman”
- Worldwide gross: $463.41 million
Julia Roberts had several roles before 1991, including the acclaimed “Steel Magnolias” and cult classic “Mystic Pizza.” But it was undoubtedly “Pretty Woman” — a role that reportedly earned her $300,000 — that catapulted the actress to the status of global superstar.
The $178.41 million that “Pretty Woman” hauled in at the domestic box office makes it the fourth-biggest romantic comedy of all time, behind “Hitch,” “What Women Want” and “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding” — all of which came at least a decade later. When you adjust her movie’s box office earnings for inflation, however, that number swells to about $375 million, making it the biggest Julia Roberts film to date at the U.S. box office. That’s saying a lot considering the superstar’s films have earned nearly $6.07 billion worldwide.
- Box office hit: “Lean on Me”
- Domestic gross: $31.91 million
One of Hollywood’s most familiar faces and voices, Morgan Freeman has more than 100 credits dating back to the 1960s. His breakout role, however, was his portrayal of Joe Clark, a controversial and no-nonsense real-life principal of a troubled school, in “Lean on Me.”
The role opened the door for Freeman to landmark parts in iconic movies like “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Glory,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Unforgiven,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Amistad.” In all, his movies have taken in nearly $10 billion worldwide and earned the actor one Academy Award win and four nominations.
- Box office hit: “Alien”
- Worldwide gross: $104.93 million
In 1979, Sigourney Weaver landed what was undoubtedly the biggest role of her then-short career — and what still might be the landmark movie of her entire life: the character of Ripley in the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic “Alien.” The movie would spawn an eight-film, $1.5 billion franchise that spanned nearly 40 years.
Although some of Weaver’s biggest movies — including the “Ghostbusters” and “Avatar” franchises — stayed in the sci-fi genre, she showed her range with dramas like “Gorillas in the Mist” and comedies like “Working Girl” and “Dave.” Her movies have pulled in more than $5.43 billion at the global box office and earned the actress three Oscar nominations.
Box office earnings are listed by worldwide gross. If global box office revenue is not available, or if the movie didn’t show overseas, domestic gross was listed instead.