10 Most Memorable Movie Acting Debuts

There is no easy shortcut to Hollywood stardom, but for some, whether they came from the stage or TV or had no acting experience at all, there comes that one life-changing role. Finding the right part isn’t the only hurdle a new actor has to bound over, but sometimes a bit of good luck means that the part finds them. Here are 10 of the most memorable acting debuts of all time.

Most Unforgettable Film Acting Debuts of All Time

Cameron Diaz as Tina Carlyle in The Mask (1994)

Cameron Diaz

Cameron Diaz was a model for Elite Model Management before trying out twelve times for the role of Tina, a sexy lounge singer who became Stanley Ipkiss’s (Jim Carrey) love interest. She was able to beat other bombshells like Anna Nicole Smith, Vanessa L. Williams, and Kristy Swanson for the role. Diaz became a star overnight and, in just three years, a sex symbol known all over the world.

Natalie Portman as Mathilda in Leon: The Professional (1994)

Natalie Portman

One of the most legendary acting debuts is Natalie Portman’s in the ultra-violent, cult action movie Léon: The Professional. Her performance in the 1994 film showed that a bountiful career was in her future. She played Mathilda, a 12-year-old who made her entrance smoking a cigarette and sporting a black eye, later becoming an apprentice for an assassin. Portman made such an impression in the movie that everyone couldn’t wait for her to grow up.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (1977)

Mark Hamill

Hamill was doing fine with his recurring roles in TV soaps when his close friend Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), whose couch he was sleeping in, urged him to audition as Luke Skywalker for George Lucas’s upcoming movie that unexpectedly turned out to be a blockbuster phenomenon. The successful sci-fi hit etched him and his character into a million fans’ vocabulary, and the rest is history.

Jessica Lange as Dwan in King Kong (1976)

Jessica Lange

Dino DeLaurentiis discovered Jessica Lange while she was modeling. He cast her in the female lead instead of Meryl Streep in his King Kong remake. The movie was a huge success, and Lange won a Golden Globe acting award. However, it would be three more years before she made another film. She then won two Oscars for Tootsie (1982) and Blue Sky (1994) out of a total of six nominations.

Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw in Apocalypto (2006)

Rudy Youngblood

Going to a general casting call, Youngblood was selected by the director Mel Gibson to play the leading role of Jaguar Paw in the epic film Apocalypto (2006), in which he also performed his own stunts. He learned the Yucatec Maya language in order to appear as a tribesman in the film, in which all dialogue was in Maya. For his acting debut, he won the Best Actor award at the 15th annual First Americans in the Arts awards.

Johnny Depp as Glen Lantz in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Johnny Depp

The role that often comes to mind when you talk about movie acting debuts is Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Depp’s acting debut and first-ever role saw him mutilated by Freddy Krueger in his bed while he was wearing a belly shirt. After Nightmare, Depp turned to TV and became popular in the series 21 Jump Street, which made him ripe to take the lead in Edward Scissorhands (1990) six years later. More movie roles soon followed right after.

Edward Norton as Aaron Stampler in Primal Fear (1996)

Edward Norton

Edward Norton started his film career with a bang, playing Aaron Stampler, a stuttering altar boy with split personality disorder accused of murdering a beloved archbishop. It was Norton’s acting debut, but he clearly stole the film from Richard Gere and Laura Linney. Norton even earned an Oscar nomination, and he hasn’t stopped giving incredibly intense performances since.

Björk as Selma Ježková in Dancer in the Dark (2000)


You only have to watch a few films to realize that pop stars do not always make good actors. However, Björk has never been categorized as a typical pop star. Her inherent eccentricities made her a perfect choice to play the lead in Dancer in the Dark. She plays an impoverished immigrant in 1960s America who discovers she’s losing her sight and resorts to desperate measures to raise the money for an operation for her son to spare him from the same fate. The role immediately won her awards and nominations for her acting debut and for the original songs she composed for the film.

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins (1964)

Julie Andrews

The role of the delightful, singing, dancing, magic-wielding English nanny landed on Andrews after she was denied the role of Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of My Fair Lady. Andrews initially declined the title role because of pregnancy, returning to London to give birth, but Disney firmly insisted, saying, “We’ll wait for you.” Since then, Andrews became synonymous with Mary Poppins, for which she won the Best Actress award at the Oscars.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles

It’s one thing to win an Academy Award for acting debuts, but it’s something else entirely to write, direct, produce, and star in yours, then for the film to go down in history as one of the greatest movies ever made. Only 24 at the time, Orson Welles’s jump to the big screen is unparalleled. Due to controversy surrounding the story, Citizen Kane was only given a limited release and didn’t get the recognition it clearly deserved. However, the film received overwhelming critical praise and continues to do so. Citizen Kane is now hailed by critics and filmmakers as one of the greatest films ever made.


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