The Breakthrough Movies of 10 Great Actors


John Hawkes is an actor you’re more likely to know by face than name (he was the terrifying Teardrop Dolly in Winter’s Bone, and the cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene), but that may well change after Friday, when his starring vehicle The Sessions begins rolling out to theaters. Since its premiere back in January at Sundance, Hawkes’ performance as a paralyzed poet has been generating Oscar murmurs; this may very well be the film that finally makes him the movie star he so richly deserves to be. Not every great character actor gets that one breakthrough role that finally makes them a name above the title, but it does happen occasionally — and after the jump, we’ve assembled ten films that did just that.

William H. Macy EARLY APPEARANCES: House of Games, Benny & Joon, Searching for Bobby Fischer BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: Fargo

Macy came into movies doing small roles (originally as W.H. Macy) for Woody Allen and David Mamet, his longtime stage collaborator. His film roles got bigger, with featured turns in movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus and Murder in the First, before the Coen Brothers cast him in one of the leading roles for their 1996 film Fargo. Macy probably didn’t expect the picture to change his profile much — it was a low-budget effort, and its directors were bouncing back from the box-office failure of The Hudsucker Proxy . But it was a surprise sleeper hit, and critics fell for it hard. So did Oscar voters — Macy nabbed a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, one of seven nominations for the film. Macy has continued to mix leading roles with smaller ones in both studio and indie films, but from Fargo on, he was enough of a name to get above-the-title billing on the likes of… well, Wild Hogs. We’re sure it was a nice check.

Laura Linney EARLY APPEARANCES: Dave, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Congo BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: The Truman Show

Bobby Fischer is a fun movie to go actor-hunting in: Aside from Macy and David Paymer’s appearances as chess parents and Tony Shalhoub’s quickie turn as a chess club member, there’s a terrific scene with a very young Laura Linney playing a well-meaning schoolteacher who says exactly the wrong thing to our protagonist’s father (Joe Mantegna). It was one of Linney’s first roles, but she worked her way up quickly to larger (though forgettable) parts in Congo and Absolute Power. But she made an impression opposite Richard Gere in Primal Fear, and her work opposite Jim Carrey in the 1998 comedy/drama The Truman Show brought her gifts home: a unique skill for playing both powerful and flawed, wounded and strong. That ability would come in very handy two years later, when her brilliant performance in You Can Count on Me netted her an Oscar nomination.

Philip Seymour Hoffman EARLY APPEARANCES: Twister, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: Happiness

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when people started recognizing Linney’s Savages co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman — mostly because he disappeared so completely into his early roles, from the cowardly prep school brat of Scent of a Woman to the rowdy storm-chaser of Twister to the lovelorn crew guy in Boogie Nights to smarmy Brandt (who can watch) in The Big Lebowski. But it seems like his performance as Allen, the loathsome obscene phone caller in Happiness, was the one that really made an indelible impression; it was a role designed to get under your skin, and Hoffman did not back away from it. He shined the next year in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia ensemble, and landed his first big leading role — opposite Robert De Niro, back when that meant something — in that year’s Flawless.

Samuel L. Jackson EARLY APPEARANCES: Coming to America, Do the Right Thing, GoodFellas BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: Jungle Fever

Jackson’s early filmography is mostly comprised of criminals and “black guys” (no, seriously, that’s his credit on Sea of Love); the one filmmaker who was giving him characters with any depth at all was Spike Lee. So it’s appropriate that Lee wrote him the part that made Hollywood sit up and take notice. Gator Purify was a decidedly secondary role in Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever — the film’s lead character (and object of its title romance) was played by rising star Wesley Snipes — but Jackson’s fiery, haunting work as Snipes’ crackhead brother scorched the screen. The performance won Jackson a Best Supporting Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, which is quite the achievement, considering that’s an award that they’d never given before (or since). Leading roles followed in the likes of Amos & Andrew and Loaded Weapon, but his star power was solidified in ’94 with Pulp Fiction.

Amy Adams EARLY APPEARANCES: Cruel Intentions 2, Serving Sara, Catch Me if You Can BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: Junebug

It’s not always easy to spot pure talent in its embryonic form, and it’s probably save to bet that few of those who suffered through the unfortunate cancelled-TV-series-turned-straight-to-video-prequel Cruel Intentions 2 would have imagined that the poor soul unconvincingly vamping her way through the Sarah Michelle Gellar role was a future three-time Oscar nominee. The first of those nominations was for the film that rescued Adams from obscurity: Phil Morrison’s Junebug, which cast Adams in the crucial supporting role of Ashley Johnsten, the very complicated (and very pregnant) sister-in-law of our protagonists. She caught the role just as she was on the verge of cashing in her chips, career-wise: “I thought maybe I should move to New York, maybe I should do something else,” she recalled a few years later. “It wasn’t that I was quitting or making a dramatic statement. It was more like maybe this just wasn’t a good fit.” Luckily, audiences and critics responded to Junebug — and to Adams, who quickly followed it up with featured roles in Talladega Nights and Charlie Wilson’s War, and leads in Enchanted and Sunshine Cleaning.

Viola Davis

EARLY APPEARANCES: Out of Sight, Antwone Fisher, Solaris BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: Doubt

Adams got her second Oscar nomination for the film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt — as did her co-star in that film, Viola Davis. Hers was a classic tale of hard work eventually paying off; by the time Davis landed the short but attention-grabbing supporting role, she had twelve years of bit parts in films and television (lots and lots of television) behind her. As with Doubt, she often did small, even one-scene roles, but always made an impact; with this one, she was simply too powerful to ignore. She’s continued to do mostly supporting work — probably more of a comment on the dearth of leading roles for African-American women than an actual choice — but her starring turn in last year’s The Help was long overdue, and justly praised.

Kevin Spacey EARLY APPEARANCES: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Ref BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: The Usual Suspects

So many terrific character actors were assembled for Bryan Singer’s 1995 heist mystery The Usual Suspects that one of them was bound to break out — but Spacey certainly had the advantage, since “Verbal” Kint is a movie-stealing role if there ever was one. Spacey had earned it, though; he’d been doing fascinating work in film (Glengarry Glen Ross, Working Girl) and television (Wiseguy, The Murder of Mary Phagan), cultivating a knack for both sympathetic and villainous characters. Both skills came into play for Suspects, a film that turned him from “that guy!” to “Kevin Spacey” in the space of a couple of months — in fact, by the time Seven came out later that fall, perceptive viewers recognized the voice of the unbilled Spacey well before his reveal.

Laurence Fishburne EARLY APPEARANCES: Apocalypse Now, School Daze, King of New York BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: Boyz n The Hood

When skinny teenager “Larry” Fishburne landed a role working for Frances Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, he couldn’t have known he was in for one of the most notoriously problem-ridden shoots in modern movie history. He survived, and grew up on screen, turning into a capable and frequently effective utility player (and, y’know, Cowboy Curtis). But he had to wait for the black cinema mini-renaissance of the early ’90s to finally get a shot at leading man status. Fishburne fronted Spike Lee’s School Daze, but the film was weakly distributed, and critics didn’t really know what to make of it. The big break came from a starring role in John Singleton’s acclaimed debut film, Boyz n The Hood, in which a cast of mostly inexperienced young actors were anchored by the considerable gravitas of Mr. Fishburne (playing single father “Furious” Styles). People took notice, both of the film’s glowing reviews and its massive box office, and the next year found Fishburne starring (with Jeff Goldblum) in the cop drama Deep Cover. And the year after that, with his name changed to the slightly fancier “Laurence,” he nailed his first Oscar nomination for What’s Love Got to Do With It.

Paul Giamatti EARLY APPEARANCES: Donnie Brasco, Private Parts, My Best Friend’s Wedding BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: American Splendor

In the late ’90s, Giamatti was one of cinema’s most recognizable and welcome “that guy!” character actors, appearing as a steady stream of losers, worker bees, and radio executives. He’d made a few attempts at more conventional roles — as a sidekick in Big Momma’s House, as a kid’s movie villain in Big Fat Liar — but, strangely enough, he finally found breakout success as a leading man by doing his strangest movie to date. American Splendor found Giamatti playing comic book writer Harvey Pekar in an innovative hybrid of documentary and biopic, and though he was inexplicably ignored come Oscar season, the overwhelming love for his performance helped him land Sideways the following year.

Jeremy Renner EARLY APPEARANCES: National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, Dahmer, S.W.A.T. BREAKTHROUGH ROLE: The Hurt Locker

Movie audiences first got a look at Renner (and his lovely dangly earring) in the lesser—okay, utterly worthless—National Lampoon film Senior Trip. But it took over a decade for Renner to parlay his good looks and no-nonsense acting style into stardom; he did straight-to-video horror, occasional television, and a few supporting roles, but nothing stuck. When he finally did break out, though, he did it big: leading the cast of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker. His quiet intensity and throwaway charisma grabbed him a Best Actor nomination (and a Supporting Actor nom, the following year, for The Town) — and now he’s a player in no less than three blockbuster franchises, going to show that a little patience can pay off handsomely.