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Top 10 Acting Debuts in Movies

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Niki Neptune. They roamed the earth as unknowns, before their big breaks. Join as we count down our picks for the top 10 acting debuts in movies. In this video we're looking at movie debuts of actors who had no feature film experience prior to their breakout performances in full-length movie hits. From mind-blowing child actors to seasoned stage actors who made the leap to the silver screen, many of these debut performances earned the actors Oscar recognition. Special thanks to our users Domenic R. Sengstacke, MikeyP, rph, christophfilms, Chivs96 and Mattyhull1 for submitting the idea on our Suggestions Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Script written by Niki Neptune.

Top 10 Acting Debuts in Movies

They roamed the earth as unknowns, before their big breaks. Welcome to and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 acting debuts in film.

For this list, we’re taking a look at movie debuts of actors who had no feature film experience prior to their breakout performances in full-length movie hits.

#10: Suraj Sharma
“Life of Pi” (2012)

Sharma was just a regular teenager who accompanied his little brother to an audition when he stumbled into the lead role in a blockbuster film. With no prior acting experience, or even swimming ability, Sharma landed the role over 3,000 hopefuls. The new actor underwent extensive training, including swimming lessons, to eventually deliver an honest and nuanced performance as “Pi” in the Oscar-nominated film.

#9: Christian Bale
“Empire of the Sun” (1987)

Although he’d already appeared in a number of made-for-TV movies and a short mini-series, Christian Bale’s big break didn’t come until he landed the starring role in 1987’s “Empire of the Sun.” Thanks to a recommendation from Amy Irving, his former co-star and Steven Spielberg’s wife at the time, Bale nabbed the role of Jim, a British ex-pat stuck in a Japanese internment camp – and he excelled in the part.

#8: Jason Schwartzman
“Rushmore” (1998)

Schwartzman snagged the role of “Max” in this quirky and off-beat Wes Anderson comedy after meeting the director at a party. With no previous acting experience, the 17-year old Schwartzman impressed the director by showing up to his audition in a homemade prep school outfit. Being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola probably didn’t hurt, either – but even so, Schwartzman was praised for embodying his character so perfectly.

#7: Jamie Lee Curtis
“Halloween” (1978)

Curtis wasn’t director John Carpenter’s first choice when it came to casting a lead for his low-budget slasher flick. Although she’d been appearing on television in minor roles for a number of years, being the daughter of Tony Curtis and “Psycho” actress Janet Leigh is what ultimately gave her the edge to land the lead in the classic horror movie, and helped cement her status as a “scream queen.”

#6: Edward Norton
“Primal Fear” (1996)

Norton was working as a struggling waiter-slash-actor and starring in Off-Broadway stage productions before he was hired for his first feature film role opposite Richard Gere. Playing an altar boy accused of murder, Norton’s intense audition blew away casting directors and his two-faced performance in the film landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

#5: Hailee Steinfeld
“True Grit” (2010)

This unknown beat out 15,000 other teenage girls to play the role of “Mattie Ross” in the Coen brothers’ remake of this classic western. Steinfeld had previously found work in commercials and short films before reportedly auditioning eight times for the role of a young girl looking to avenge her father’s death. Her standout performance garnered critical acclaim as well as an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress.

#4: Natalie Portman
“Léon: The Professional” (1994)

A child star in the making, Portman had no prior acting experience when she was cast in this ‘90s classic. She had turned down offers for child modeling in pursuit of an acting career, and she sat as an understudy alongside Britney Spears for an off-Broadway stage play before landing her first movie role. And her performance as a tween assassin-in-training is legendary.

#3: Anna Paquin
“The Piano” (1993)

In her first acting role, Paquin plays a precocious kid who acts as the voice of her mute mother. However, she had never acted before, and after tagging along with her sister and her friend to an open casting call for “The Piano,” nine-year-old Paquin charmed the director and got the spot. Her first feature film appearance actually won her an Academy Award at the age of 11.

#2: Tatum O’Neal
“Paper Moon” (1973)

Director Peter Bogdanovich met 8-year old Tatum O’Neal while working with her father, Ryan, on another movie – the rest, as they say, is history. Tatum was cast alongside her father as a Depression-era con-artist duo, and her performance in the film was so iconic she walked away with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the age of 10, making her the youngest ever to win an Academy Award.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Julie Andrews: “Mary Poppins”
- Alan Rickman: “Die Hard”
- Sidney Poitier: “No Way Out”
- Gabourey Sidibe: “Precious”
- Oprah Winfrey: “The Color Purple”
- Richard E. Grant: “Withnail and I”
- Marlee Matlin: “Children of a Lesser God” Owen and Luke Wilson: “Bottle Rocket”
- James Dean: “East of Eden”

#1: Orson Welles
“Citizen Kane” (1941)

Welles spent time refining his acting talent by appearing in Off-Broadway productions. But after his success with “The War of the Worlds” radio performance, he was given carte-blanche creative control for a feature film. That ultimately became “Citizen Kane,” which was also co-writer-slash-director-slash-producer Welles’ first time acting in a movie. His breakout performance went down in cinematic history in a film renowned as the greatest movie ever made.

Do you agree with our list? What are your favorite actor film debuts? For more entertaining Top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to

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