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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - From Debut to Dominance: Movies that Catapulted Hollywood Icons

Special Reports

From Debut to Dominance: Movies that Catapulted Hollywood Icons

The film industry boasts a roster of movie stars whose images have become so ingrained in our culture that envisioning a world without them can be a challenge.

Yet, even the most prominent celebrities embarked on their journeys from humble beginnings, awaiting that one breakthrough role destined to propel them to the pinnacle of success. These pivotal roles often define an actor’s career.

Despite his numerous dramatic performances, Jim Carrey is indelibly associated with his portrayal of Ace Ventura, the pet detective. Similarly, Gal Gadot, known for her role as “Wonder Woman,” initially gained attention in “Fast & Furious” (2009) before achieving iconic status.

Here are the movie roles that served as the launchpad for today’s Hollywood superstars. Each featured actor has headlined one of the top 10 grossing films in the past five years, according to Box Office Mojo, yet first gained recognition years earlier.

Certainly, the trajectories of successful actors are marked by both hits and misses. This compilation explores those actors who declined blockbuster roles, opting to walk away from parts that could have defined their careers.

  1. Brie Larson
    Breakout film: “Short Term 12” (2013) Role: Grace Brie Larson, with early appearances in television and movies during the late 1990s, catapulted to prominence in 2013 with her breakthrough role as counselor Grace in the drama “Short Term 12.” The film explores the experiences of a woman working with at-risk teenagers in a foster-care facility. Three years later, Larson clinched the Best Actress Oscar for her role in “Room.” Notably, she headlined “Captain Marvel,” the fifth highest-grossing film in the domestic box office for 2019, with a sequel already in the works.
  2. Bryce Dallas Howard
    Breakout film: “The Village” (2004) Role: Ivy Walker Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of filmmaker Ron Howard, marked her breakthrough in 2004 with the role of Ivy Walker in M. Night Shyamalan’s Oscar-nominated film, “The Village.” Since then, Howard has secured major roles in blockbuster franchises like Spider-Man, Terminator, and the Jurassic World trilogy.
  3. Cate Blanchett
    Breakout film: “Elizabeth” (1998) Role: Queen Elizabeth Cate Blanchett, an illustrious Australian actor, earned her first Academy Award in 2005 for Best Supporting Actress in “The Aviator.” Nine years later, she claimed the Best Actress Oscar for “Blue Jasmine.” Prior to these accolades, Blanchett garnered attention for her compelling portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in the biopic “Elizabeth,” marking the beginning of her seven Oscar nominations.
  4. Chris Hemsworth
    Breakout film: “Star Trek” (2009) Role: George Kirk Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, renowned for portraying Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made his mark with the breakout role of George Kirk, father of legendary Enterprise captain James T. Kirk, in the Oscar-winning film “Star Trek.”
  5. Chris Pratt
    Breakout film: “Moneyball” (2011) Role: Scott Hatteberg Chris Pratt, recognized for his roles in action and sci-fi blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Jurassic World,” achieved his breakout in 2011 with the subdued drama “Moneyball,” portraying Oakland A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg.
  6. Dwayne Johnson
    Breakout film: “The Mummy Returns” (2001) Role: The Scorpion King Dwayne Johnson, initially famous as The Rock in WWE, embarked on a highly successful film career in 2001 with his menacing portrayal of The Scorpion King in “The Mummy Returns.” Since then, he has taken on iconic roles in the Fast & Furious series, the animated film “Moana,” and the Jumanji films, along with starring in the HBO series “Ballers.”
  7. Emma Watson
    Breakout film: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001) Role: Hermione Granger Emma Watson soared to superstardom with her film debut as the precocious witching student Hermione Granger in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Watson continued to embody the role throughout all eight Harry Potter movies and has since starred in major productions such as Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and the remake of “Little Women.”
  8. Gal Gadot
    Breakout film: “Fast & Furious” (2009) Role: Gisele Israeli model and actor Gal Gadot made her feature film debut as Gisele in “Fast & Furious” (2009). The role marked her entry into the Fast & Furious franchise, and her fame skyrocketed with her performance in “Wonder Woman,” the third-highest-grossing film at the domestic box office in 2017.
  9. Jake Gyllenhaal
    Breakout film: “October Sky” (1999) Role: Homer Hickam Jake Gyllenhaal, known for acclaimed performances in “Brokeback Mountain” and “Donnie Darko,” rose to prominence with his role in the 1999 film “October Sky.” The movie portrays a young man in West Virginia pursuing his dream of launching a rocket, and Gyllenhaal’s performance was praised for its beguiling eagerness.
  10. Jim Carrey
    Breakout film: “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” (1994) Role: Ace Ventura Jim Carrey, with his earliest feature film credit in 1983, gained widespread recognition with the 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” This breakout role was swiftly followed by leading roles in cult classics like “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Mask.” Carrey has since starred in numerous popular films across various genres.
  11. Joaquin Phoenix
    Breakout film: “Gladiator” (2000) Role: Commodus Joaquin Phoenix, who earned the Best Actor Oscar for his intense portrayal of the Joker in 2019, rose to prominence in the sprawling period piece “Gladiator” in 2000. His compelling performance as the vindictive and narcissistic Roman Emperor Commodus garnered Phoenix the first of his four Oscar nominations. Subsequently, he received acclaim for Best Actor nominations in “Walk the Line” and “The Master.”
  12. Josh Brolin
    Breakout film: “The Goonies” (1985) Role: Brand Josh Brolin, born into Hollywood as the son of actor James Brolin, marked his feature film debut as the older brother Brand in the beloved classic “The Goonies” (1985). The film’s success paved the way for Brolin’s illustrious career, including roles in Oscar-winning films such as “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and “Milk” (2008). More recently, he became a familiar face in superhero movies, portraying Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), along with Cable in “Deadpool 2” (2018).
  13. Kevin Hart
    Breakout film: “Scary Movie 3” (2003) Role: CJ Comedian Kevin Hart, with a prolific career boasting 89 acting credits since 2001, achieved his breakthrough in the horror movie parody “Scary Movie 3” (2003). Hart’s telegenic presence has extended to box office hits like “Jumanji: The Next Level” and his role as a producer in shows such as “Dave” and the Netflix special “Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History.”
  14. Kristen Bell
    Breakout film: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008) Role: Sarah Marshall Kristen Bell, now a star in both motion pictures and television, initially appeared in an uncredited role in “Polish Wedding” (1998). Her ascent to stardom came a decade later with the rom-com “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” following her fame as the titular character in the long-running TV series “Veronica Mars.” Bell has further solidified her career by voicing Anna in Disney’s immensely popular Frozen franchise.
  15. Lupita Nyong’o
    Breakout film: “12 Years a Slave” (2013) Role: Patsey Lupita Nyong’o’s rapid ascent to stardom commenced with her film debut as the abused slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” (2013). This searing portrayal earned Nyong’o the Best Supporting Actress Oscar the following year, leading to a prominent role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster “Black Panther.”
  16. Margot Robbie
    Breakout film: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) Role: Naomi Lapaglia Margot Robbie, now one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood with Oscar-nominated credits like “I, Tonya” and “Bombshell,” achieved her breakout as Naomi Lapaglia in Martin Scorsese’s hit “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). Her diverse and acclaimed performances have solidified her status as a leading actress.
  17. Michael B. Jordan
    Breakout film: “Fruitvale Station” (2013) Role: Oscar Grant Michael B. Jordan, known for his strong television acting background, transitioned to the big screen with his breakout role as the doomed Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station” (2013). Jordan’s magnetic portrayal earned acclaim, leading to appearances in sequels of the Rocky boxing series and a starring role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster “Black Panther.”
  18. Michelle Rodriguez
    Breakout film: “Girlfight” (2000) Role: Letty Michelle Rodriguez turned heads with her portrayal of a boxer in the indie hit “Girlfight” (2000), beating out 350 other actors for the role. She continued to make an impact as Letty Ortiz in “The Fast and the Furious” (2001) and has remained loyal to the franchise, featuring in five films to date, including “The Fate of the Furious,” the 10th highest-grossing film of 2017.
  19. Robert De Niro
    Breakout film: “Mean Streets” (1973) Role: Johnny Boy Robert De Niro’s collaboration with Martin Scorsese began with “Mean Streets” (1973), addressing chaos and violence in America’s streets. This marked the start of their partnership, with De Niro eventually winning two Best Actor Oscars (“The Godfather: Part II,” “Raging Bull”) and receiving eight Academy Award nominations in total.
  20. Robert Downey Jr.
    Breakout film: “Less Than Zero” (1987) Role: Julian Despite a career plagued by drug problems, Robert Downey Jr. garnered critical attention for his performance as an LA rich kid with drug issues in “Less Than Zero” (1987). Downey Jr. later carved a niche in action films as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating in his appearance in the blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame.”
  21. Samuel L. Jackson
    Breakout film: “Do the Right Thing” (1989) Role: Mister Senor Love Daddy Samuel L. Jackson, with a career spanning movies and television since the early 1970s, found his breakout role in 1989 as Mister Senor Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing.” Jackson continued to leave an indelible mark in films like “Jackie Brown,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” and “Pulp Fiction,” earning his lone Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the latter.
  22. Scarlett Johansson
    Breakout film: “Ghost World” (2001) Role: Rebecca Referred to colloquially as Scar Jo, Scarlett Johansson, a double Oscar nominee in 2020 for “Jojo Rabbit” and “Marriage Story,” gained critical attention in the 2001 film “Ghost World,” exploring teenage angst. David Denby of the New Yorker lauded Johansson’s performance, citing her “devastating monotone.” Known today as Black Widow in Marvel films, she has also lent her voice to characters in movies like “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”
  23. Tom Cruise
    Breakout film: “Risky Business” (1983) Role: Joel Tom Cruise’s journey to fame features a memorable scene in “Risky Business” (1983), where he lip-syncs to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” in his underwear. A string of blockbusters, including “Top Gun,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Jerry Maguire,” propelled Cruise to superstardom. The three-time Oscar nominee has further headlined action movie franchises like Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible.
  24. Tom Hanks
    Breakout film: “Splash” (1984) Role: Allen Bauer Before becoming a two-time Best Actor Oscar winner (“Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump”), Tom Hanks honed his craft on television in series like “Bosom Buddies” and “Family Ties.” Cinematic stardom commenced with Hanks’s portrayal of Allen Bauer, a man enamored with a mermaid, in the enchanting film “Splash.”
  25. Will Smith
    Breakout film: “Bad Boys” (1995) Role: Mike Lowrey Will Smith’s rise to prominence began with the TV series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” running for six seasons from 1990. However, it was his starring role alongside Martin Lawrence in Michael Bay’s 1995 cop film “Bad Boys” that signaled to audiences that he was ready to be a movie star. Smith continued to solidify his status with leading roles in “Independence Day” (1996) and “Men in Black” (1997). The Oscar-nominated actor recently reprised his role as Detective Mike Lowrey in “Bad Boys for Life,” the top-grossing film of 2020.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - From Debut to Dominance: Movies that Catapulted Hollywood Icons
Deepankar Shyam
Global Breaking News Editor at the CEOWORLD magazine, helping lead the direction of the bureau. I'm a veteran digital storyteller with a record of creating best-in-class content and commerce experiences. I work with our reporters and columnists to develop story ideas, edit their work and coordinate with various other bureaus on coverage. I also have broad industry experience managing and leading change while consistently exceeding readership goals and company expectations.