In anticipation of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 24, Backstage is taking a look at how this year’s acting nominees first came to prominence. A few of these stars have been lucky, getting their big breaks on high-profile TV shows or movies. For others, it took a gradual succession of tiny roles to become known. And for one, this first Oscar nomination also marks a first role. In what is now an annual tradition, Backstage is rounding up the first credited roles of this year’s 20 Oscar-nominated actors. Read on to find out how they all got started!
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Christian Bale, “Vice”
Bale’s full-bodied turn as infamous veep Dick Cheney is the latest in a series of wonderful film performances. The 1986 TV movie “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna” marks the Oscar winner’s first credited work on-camera, and after a co-star recommended him to Steven Spielberg, he was cast at age 12 as the lead in “Empire of the Sun.” But we all know it was “Newsies” that solidified his acting bona fides.
Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”
Not everyone gets to go around town saying their first onscreen role was on “Sex and the City”; Cooper is one of the lucky few. The writer-director-actor of “A Star Is Born” had a one-episode role on Season 2 of the iconic HBO comedy opposite Sarah Jessica Parker.
Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
Way before he broke everyone’s heart as Vincent van Gogh, Dafoe had as good of a career jump-start as anyone could ask for. He was the lead in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1981 biker outlaw drama “The Loveless.” Fun fact: He also was an uncredited extra in the 1980 Western “Heaven’s Gate.”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
While many performers have obscure beginnings, Malek’s first acting opportunity was on a pretty huge show. The star, nominated for playing Freddie Mercury, had a brief appearance on “Gilmore Girls” Season 4, in which he played a student at the religious college that Rory’s friend Lane briefly attended. Unconventionally, he wasn’t in the union at the time, but still managed to talk his way into an audition by posing as his own imaginary agent.
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”
Although his first official onscreen credit was the 1985 feature film “Witness,” this Danish-American three-time Oscar nominee technically first appeared in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo”—a movie from which he was subsequently cut. Hey, it happens!
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Few performers are lucky enough to have their debut onscreen role be the one that garners them attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Aparicio had no former training before being chosen from thousands of actors for the lead role in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” Before becoming the first-ever indigenous Mexican best actress Oscar nominee, Aparicio worked in preschool education.
Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Close had a minor role in a 1975 filmed production of “The Rules of the Game,” a film included in Season 3 of “Great Performances,” the long-running PBS anthology series. She didn’t appear onscreen again until 1979, when she starred in the TV movie “Too Far to Go” with Michael Moriarty and Blythe Danner.
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Colman, a Golden Globe winner for “The Favourite,” got her start on 2000’s “Bruiser,” a comedy sketch series on which she was one of the star players alongside English mainstays David Mitchell and Martin Freeman.
Lady Gaga, “A Star is Born”
Gaga has frequently stated that acting was one of her first passions, so it makes sense that her first time onscreen was on one of the buzziest TV dramas of all time. Before she led Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story: Hotel,” a teenage Gaga had a tiny role on “The Sopranos.” It’s nothing showy, but you can spot her sitting on poolside bleachers in Season 3’s “The Telltale Moozadell.”
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
McCarthy is one of the most successful leading actors of our time, winning over audiences with her comedic chops and critics with her subtler dramatic performances. She entered the industry with a part on “The Jenny McCarthy Show,” a variety and sketch series that ran on MTV for one season in 1997.
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
Before his breakthrough Oscar-winning “Moonlight” performance put Ali on the map, the actor paid his dues in plenty of TV shows, films, and plays. He got his onscreen start on the hit series “Crossing Jordan.” He appeared as Dr. Trey Sanders in 19 episodes from 2001 to 2002—including the pilot—credited under his full first name, Mahershalalhashbaz.
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
While he’s successfully transitioned to an acclaimed film actor, Driver owes a lot to TV. Not only did it give him his breakthrough role on HBO’s “Girls,” but back in 2009, he appeared in his first onscreen role on ABC’s “The Unusuals,” a comedy-drama starring Amber Tamblyn and Jeremy Renner.
Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born”
If you’re not including an uncredited role as a townsperson in “The Way West,” a 1967 Western starring Kirk Douglas, Elliott’s first role was on “Judd for the Defense,” a legal drama from the late ’60s. At long last, he has his first Oscar nod.
Richard E. Grant “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Although 2019 marks Grant’s first Oscar nomination, the actor has been working steadily since the ’80s. In 1983 he appeared on an episode of “Sweet Sixteen,” a BBC sitcom about the head of a building firm who falls in love with a man 16 years her junior.
Sam Rockwell, “Vice”
Last year’s Oscar winner didn’t really kick off his impressive career until the late ’80s, but almost a decade earlier, he had a role on the miniseries “Joan Crawford’s Children.” He appeared on the show in summer 1979 at age 10.
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Amy Adams, “Vice”
If you’ve been following Adams’ career—and who hasn’t, really?—you probably know that her first role was a memorable one as pageant contestant Leslie Miller in the 1999 cult classic “Drop Dead Gorgeous.”
Marina de Tavira, “Roma”
While Aparicio was an unexpected find for “Roma,” de Tavira, who plays the matriarch of the family based on Cuarón’s own life, has been a working actor in Mexico for some time. She got her start on “Tentaciones,” a telenovela that ran for one season in 1998.
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Before years of terrific onscreen work, King got her start as a series regular on “227,” a sitcom on NBC that followed the lives of several black women who lived in the same apartment building in Washington, D.C. The first-time Oscar nominee played the daughter of Marla Gibbs, who led the show.
Emma Stone, “The Favourite”
Although “Superbad” marked her breakthrough on the big screen, this Oscar-winning star’s on-camera debut was in the 2005 pilot of “The New Partridge Family,” where she played Laurie Partridge under her given name, Emily Stone.
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”
In 1992, Weisz had a recurring role on “The Advocates,” a Scottish legal drama that followed two lawyers investigating different crimes. Over the next two years, the two-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner worked on four other television projects before appearing in “Death Machine,” her first feature film, in 1994.
Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!