Top 20 Greatest Acting Debuts in Movies

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Top 20 Greatest Acting Debuts in Movies

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
These actors turned in career-defining performances on their first try! For this list, we'll be looking at the best debut performances in movie history. Our countdown includes Alan Rickman, Orson Welles, Natalie Portman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Oprah Winfrey, and more!
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Top 20 Acting Debuts in Movies


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Acting Debuts in Movies.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the best debut performances in movie history. This must be the actor’s first appearance in a film, even if they had previously acted on stage or television.

What do you think is the best debut performance of all time? Let us know in the comments below!

#20: Alan Rickman

“Die Hard” (1988)

Hans Gruber is one of the greatest antagonists in movie history, and he was played by first-time film presence Alan Rickman. Rickman was an accomplished stage actor at the time, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, having trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In 1985, Rickman starred in productions of “As You Like It” and “Troilus and Cressida,” and he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” one year prior to “Die Hard.” But it was Hans Gruber that made Rickman a star, his suave performance impressing critics and general moviegoers alike. Gruber was different from many ‘80s action villains - stylish, calm, and wickedly intelligent. And Rickman played it all perfectly.

#19: Jason Schwartzman

“Rushmore” (1998)

Directed by Wes Anderson and co-written with Owen Wilson, “Rushmore” concerns a love triangle between an elementary school teacher, a rich businessman, and a 15-year-old private school student. The latter is portrayed by Jason Schwartzman, a member of the iconic Coppola family. The 17-year-old Schwartzman met the movie’s casting director at a party, and he earned the role of Max Fischer over 1,800 other teenagers. The collaboration between Schwartzman and director Wes Anderson proved an enormous success, and Schwartzman received critical acclaim for his debut performance. He has since become a frequent collaborator of Anderson’s, both starring in his movies and co-writing the likes of “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Isle of Dogs.”

#18: Kate Winslet

“Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

Kate Winslet is one of the most acclaimed actresses of our time, the recipient of seven Academy Award nominations. And she began her film career playing a murderer. Winslet debuted in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” which dramatizes the Parker-Hulme murder case of 1954. One of the criminals was Juliet Hulme, a teenage girl who conspired with her best friend Pauline Parker to murder Parker’s mother. Hulme served five years for the murder, and forty years later, she was played by future Hollywood legend Kate Winslet. Winslet was widely acclaimed for her disturbing performance and walked away with various accolades, including an Empire Award and a London Film Critics' Circle Award.

#17: Barbra Streisand

“Funny Girl” (1968)

Serving as one of the most popular and acclaimed musicals of all time, “Funny Girl” tells the semi-autobiographical story of Broadway star Fanny Brice and her relationship with con artist Nicky Arnstein. Debuting on Broadway in 1964, “Funny Girl” was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Performance by a Leading Actress for Barbra Streisand. The performance proved so instantly iconic that Streisand reprised the role of Fanny Brice for the 1968 film adaptation, making her film debut in the process. And what a debut it was. Streisand put in just as much effort in front of the camera as she did on stage, and she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in the process.

#16: Hailee Steinfeld

“True Grit” (2010)

Hailee Steinfeld was introduced to acting through her Emmy-award-winning cousin True O’Brien, who has garnered fame playing Paige Larson on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” When Steinfeld was 13 years old, she landed the lead role of Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of “True Grit.” It’s an incredibly difficult role, with Steinfeld needing to deliver complex, outdated dialogue, and starring opposite the legendary Jeff Bridges. It would be a challenge for experienced actors, let alone a 13-year-old girl. But Steinfeld was up for the challenge, and she was consistently praised by critics for her debut performance. For her efforts, Steinfeld received her first and so far only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

#15: Anya Taylor-Joy

“The Witch” (2015)

When she was just 14 years old, Anya Taylor-Joy dropped out of school to pursue acting. She found modeling work instead, having been discovered outside London’s Harrods department store. She subsequently found acting work through her modeling and made her film debut in Robert Eggers’ period horror movie “The Witch.” She plays Thomasin, a banished Puritan who is accused of witchcraft by her family. Taylor-Joy is excellent in the role, balancing passivity with outrage, fear, and eventual confidence. “The Witch” proved one of the most acclaimed horror films of 2015, with the screenplay, direction, atmosphere, and performances earning particular attention. It made Taylor-Joy a star, and she subsequently became one of the most popular actresses of the latter 2010s.

#14: Sidney Poitier

“No Way Out” (1950)

One of the greatest, most influential, and most groundbreaking actors in movie history, Sidney Poitier was the star of many iconic films dealing with race relations in mid-century America. In 2002, Poitier earned an Honorary Academy Award for his historic accomplishments in film. Poitier made his debut in the controversial 1950 movie “No Way Out” playing Dr. Luther Brooks, an African American doctor confronted with racism in a hospital prison ward. The film proved Poitier’s talents as an actor and signaled his prolific career in films dealing with racial tensions. Almost thirteen years after the release of “No Way Out”, Poitier became the first Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar, which he received for “Lilies of the Field.”

#13: Quvenzhané Wallis

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)

Wallis auditioned for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” when she was just five years old, having lied about her age to break the minimum age requirement of six. The director, Benh Zeitlin, was reportedly impressed by her ability to burp on command, winning her the part of Hushpuppy. The movie sees Hushpuppy and her temperamental father Wink living in a secluded Louisiana bayou. Wallis gave an impassioned, complex, and mature performance of someone far beyond her years and won a slew of accolades throughout the 2013 awards season. She also became the youngest actress ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating “Whale Rider’s” Keisha Castle-Hughes by four years.

#12: Robert Duvall

“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

Prior to his role in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Robert Duvall was an accomplished stage actor working in New York. In 1957, he starred in a play called “The Midnight Caller,” which was written by Horton Foote. Duvall’s performance impressed Foote, and when he adapted Harper Lee’s iconic novel for the screen, he recommended Duvall to the movie’s producers. Duvall was cast as the famous recluse Boo Radley, and the rest is movie history. Like the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a resounding success, earning eight nominations at the 35th Academy Awards. Unfortunately, Duvall was not one of them. No matter. He would later earn seven, the first of which came one decade later with “The Godfather.”

#11: Oprah Winfrey

“The Color Purple” (1985)

This period drama proved an enormous departure for director Steven Spielberg, who prior to this had been known for his summer blockbusters. “The Color Purple,” on the other hand, is a dramatic and introspective look into the African-American experience of the early 20th century. It’s based on a Pulitzer-winning novel and stars Whoopi Goldberg as a rural Georgian named Celie. Oprah Winfrey stars opposite Goldberg as Sofia, a strong-willed woman who refuses to be oppressed. At the time, Winfrey was working as a morning talk show host in Chicago. With “The Color Purple,” she proved her incredible capabilities as an actress and earned both a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination.

#10: Edward Norton

“Primal Fear” (1996)

For his film debut, Edward Norton was forced to play two people. Kind of. He plays a sociopathic murderer named Roy who pretends to suffer from dissociative identity disorder in order to get out of a murder charge. The other “personality” is the innocent, passive, and stuttering altar boy, Aaron Stampler. At the time, Norton was a struggling New York actor working in theater. He was then discovered by a casting director named Shirley Rich, who introduced Norton to the executive producers of “Primal Fear.” He obviously got the job and was often singled out in reviews as the best aspect of the movie. Norton earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor - the movie’s only Oscar nomination and Norton’s first of three.

#9: Gabourey Sidibe

“Precious” (2009)

A Harlem native, Gabourey Sidibe was working as a receptionist when she decided to audition in a nationwide casting call for “Precious.” The movie is based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire and concerns the illiterate and pregnant Claireece Jones living in poverty in 1980s Harlem. Jones lives in Section 8 housing with her unemployed and mean-spirited mother, Mary. Sidibe proved an exceptional and natural actress, thrilling critics with her tender debut performance. She was also one of the leading names of the 2010 awards season, receiving Best Actress nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Academy Awards. Sidibe rode this success to a prominent career in television, starring in Fox’s “Empire” and numerous seasons of “American Horror Story.”

#8: Jennifer Hudson

“Dreamgirls” (2006)

Like “Funny Girl,” “Dreamgirls” is often hailed as one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. Debuting in 1981, “Dreamgirls” won six Tony Awards during its initial Broadway run, including Best Performance by a Leading Actress for Jennifer Holliday, playing Effie White. Twenty-five years later, “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson took the reins, proving herself both a commendable actress and a tantalizing performer in the process. The movie was praised for its musical numbers and performances, particularly those of Hudson and Eddie Murphy. Both received Academy Award nominations, with Hudson winning for Best Supporting Actress. Effie White is one of the all-time great Broadway characters, and Hudson beautifully inhabited the role in a thrilling movie debut.

#7: Eddie Murphy

“48 Hrs.” (1982)

And speaking of Eddie Murphy, he enjoyed a commendable movie debut himself in the buddy cop comedy “48 Hrs.” Murphy plays an imprisoned criminal named Reggie Hammond who reluctantly teams up with a cop to help catch his criminal boss. Murphy had made a name for himself on “Saturday Night Live,” serving as both a cast member and writer. “48 Hrs.” proved his acting capabilities, and the movie received praise for the chemistry and comedic interplay between Murphy and co-star Nick Nolte. Murphy received a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year, and it would prove his first of six.

#6: Jamie Lee Curtis

“Halloween” (1978)

By October of 1978, Jamie Lee Curtis - the daughter of Hollywood legends Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh - was a little-known television actress, having starred in an episode of “Columbo” and the first season of an ABC sitcom called “Operation Petticoat.” She was subsequently cast as Laurie Strode in “Halloween,’ with producer and co-writer Debra Hill admitting that Curtis was mainly cast for the publicity, her mother being such a prominent horror actress. Luckily, Curtis proved an excellent actress in her own right and helped popularize the morally pure Final Girl trope through her performance. She exuded intelligence and proved a great screamer, becoming the seminal example of the Scream Queen. She carried this reputation into numerous future slashers, including “Prom Night” and “Terror Train.”

#5: Julie Andrews

“Mary Poppins” (1964)

An AFI Life Achievement Award recipient, Julie Andrews is one of the all-time greatest performers with a career spanning nine decades. Andrews was a prominent stage actress throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, starring in Broadway productions of “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot.” She earned a Tony Award nomination for both. After being passed over by producer Jack L. Warner for his “My Fair Lady” movie adaptation, Disney approached Andrews about starring in their upcoming movie “Mary Poppins.” She agreed to star as the title character, and it launched one of the greatest careers in movie history. Andrews won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Mary Poppins herself quickly became a cinematic icon.

#4: Natalie Portman

“Léon: The Professional” (1994)

Natalie Portman got off to quite a weird and disturbing start. In 1992, she became an understudy in the off-Broadway play “Ruthless!,” which is about an ambitious young actress who commits multiple murders - including matricide. She then made her film debut in Luc Besson’s “Léon: The Professional,” which is about a hitman training a 12-year-old girl to commit murder so she can avenge her dead brother. The young Portman was continuously praised for her mature performance, with many finding her a great companion to seasoned French actor Jean Reno. It was a movie and a performance beyond Portman’s years, and the breakout role helped ensure Portman’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest child actors.

#3: Anna Paquin

“The Piano” (1993)

This period drama concerns Ada and Flora McGrath, a mother-daughter duo who travel to New Zealand after Ada is sold into marriage by her father. To cast Flora, the producers hosted an open casting call that resulted in over 5,000 auditions. The role went to a young New Zealand-Canadian girl named Anna Paquin. Both Paquin and lead actress Holly Hunter were unanimously praised by movie critics, and they both won Academy Awards for their performances - Hunter for Actress, Paquin for Supporting Actress. Paquin was just 11 years old when she won the coveted Oscar, which makes her the second-youngest performer to win a competitive Academy Award. The first being...

#2: Tatum O’Neal

“Paper Moon” (1973)

Young Tatum O’Neal was born to actors Joanna Moore and the Oscar-nominated Ryan O’Neal. In 1973, Tatum and Ryan starred together in the road comedy “Paper Moon,” which sees a con artist taking a young girl under his wing during the Great Depression. The movie received strong reviews, with most of the praise going to first-time actor Tatum O’Neal. O’Neal won the Most Promising Newcomer award at that year’s Golden Globes, and just a few months later, she took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Being just ten years old, O’Neal became - and remains - the youngest performer to win a competitive Academy Award. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for a once-in-a-lifetime child performance.


Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Owen & Luke Wilson, “Bottle Rocket” (1996)
The Wilson Brothers Make Extraordinary Debuts in This Wes Anderson Crime Comedy

Sharlto Copley, “District 9” (2009)
The South African Actor Makes His Movie Debut as a Bureaucrat in This Sci-Fi Classic

Cameron Diaz, “The Mask” (1994)
This Comedy Launched the Career of Diaz, A Model with No Prior Acting Experience

Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi” (2012)
Sharma Beat Out 3,000 People, Including His Own Brother, for the Role of Pi Patel

Amanda Seyfried, “Mean Girls” (2004)
Seyfried, A Model & Soap Actress, Made Us All Laugh as the Idiotic Karen Smith

#1: Orson Welles

“Citizen Kane” (1941)

Orson Welles was just five days shy of his 26th birthday when “Citizen Kane” premiered at New York’s Palace Theatre. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, considering the young Welles wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the now-iconic film. Welles was prominent in radio at the time, and in 1939 he signed a controversial contract with RKO Radio Pictures to create two films. The first was “Citizen Kane,” which is now regarded as the most influential movie ever made. Welles stars as the titular Charles Foster Kane, proving himself just as capable in front of a camera as he was behind a microphone. The movie was well-received and earned nine nominations at the 14th Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Actor for Welles.
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