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Saluting the Lesser-Known Roles of This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Actors

Lucas Hedges was the motorcycle kid in Moonrise Kingdom? Photo: Getty Images, Scott Rudin Productions

Whether they took the gigs for money, professional exposure, or just work for work’s sake, the filmographies of every A-lister are full of early projects that stand little chance of showing up in their lifetime-achievement reels. As we celebrate the outstanding achievements of this year’s 20 Oscar acting nominees, we can also take a moment to look back at where they’ve come from. Whether it’s Emma Stone’s attempted foray into pop stardom, Ryan Gosling’s freakish kiddie-horror torment, or a surprising cameo in Groundhog Day, these clips range from the surreal to the amusing.

Casey Affleck — Race the Sun, 1996

At the ripe age of 21, a mop-headed Casey Affleck jetted to Hawaii for a supporting role in this family-friendly comedy about a solar-powered racing team. Under the keen tutelage of coaches Halle Berry and Jim Belushi, Affleck’s surfer character Daniel leads his team to victory in the World Solar Challenge. In the clip above, he bickers with his stepsister Eliza Dushku while farting chocolate syrup onto a banana — a rebellious little James Dean in a flower-print button-down.

Andrew Garfield — Sugar Rush, 2005–06

Like so many A-listers, Andrew Garfield got his start doing bit parts on TV. For two glorious seasons, this Britcom followed teenage lesbian Kim as she lusted after her best friend Sugar, accompanied by a Lizzie McGuire–style internal monologue (if Lizzie had been far more sexually frank). Garfield made the occasional appearance as Kim’s neighbor Tom, an oddball smitten with the entirely uninterested young woman. If this is the U.K.’s Sister Sister, and it’s definitely not, then Tom is the Roger, doomed to an eternity of rejection.

Ryan Gosling — Are You Afraid of the Dark?, 1995

Gosling’s tour of duty with the Mickey Mouse Club has been well-documented, but his boyhood years were rich with other signs of future stardom. He made a memorable cameo on one episode of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark? playing a rascal who accidentally sends his brother to Hell via a Satanic radio station DJ’d by Gilbert Gottfried (who is a demon, of course).

Viggo Mortensen — ABC Afterschool Special, 1985

Mortensen did his part to keep the kids of America off drugs by appearing in this delectably dated after-school special titled “High School Narc.” This negaverse-version 21 Jump Street focuses on a young adult cop posing as a teen to ferret out local dealers moving product between classes, and Mortensen’s burnout Tim is a prime suspect. As with all the after-school specials of the era, Tim eventually gets his comeuppance and the kids at home learning a valuable lesson about obeying the law, taking their vitamins, respecting their parents, etc.

Denzel Washington — Carbon Copy, 1981

In this odd-couple comedy, an executive hits the skids and loses everything, only to gain a wayward black son he never knew he had. A young Washington plays the fast-talking Roger, a street-smart kid eager to integrate himself into his new dad’s ethnically homogeneous community. The film delivers the expected moral lessons about overcoming racial differences and dissolves into melodrama in its final minutes, but Washington’s effortless charisma is apparent in this, his first big-screen role.

Isabelle Huppert — The Bar at the Crossing, 1972

Isabelle Huppert in The Bar at the Crossing. Photo: Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Huppert is a living legend in Europe, but in America, much of her work is unknown outside the art-house crowd. One of her earliest appearances comes in Alain Levent’s adventure through post-WWI Europe, which sees Huppert play a temptress who assembles a love triangle between herself, another suitor, and our dogged hero Vincent (Jacques Brel). She only shows up in passing, but by drawing Vincent into a duel, she’s instrumental to the film’s plot.

Ruth Negga — Breakfast on Pluto, 2005

Cillian Murphy plays the lead role of this coming-of-age drama, playing a transgender runaway named Kitten who roves around London in search of a purpose and a hot meal. A young Negga co-stars as Kitten’s childhood bestie Charlie, who grows up and deals with considerable drama — pregnancy, self-doubt, a boyfriend joining the IRA — all her own. Though the show certainly belongs to Murphy, Negga’s unmistakably expressive eyes set her apart from the pack.

Natalie Portman — Mars Attacks!, 1996

Portman was a star from a young age, breaking out as an assassin’s young ward in Léon: The Professional, then, five years later, landing her first blockbuster role with The Phantom Menace. Between points A and B, however, she took a moment to appear in Tim Burton’s sprawling love letter to ’50s B-movies, portraying the President’s daughter Taffy. She’s not given a whole lot to do, but serves an essential purpose at the film’s conclusion when she becomes the only surviving member of the U.S. government.

Emma Stone — In Search of the Partridge Family, 2004

Stone has been training for La La Land all her life. As a teen, she popped up on a VH1 reality series attempting to cast the next generation of The Partridge Family through a televised singing competition, belting out a rendition of Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch.” The good news: She landed the role of young Laurie Partridge. The bad news: The show didn’t survive past the pilot. Still, this is the best abandoned teen-singing career this side of Brie Larson.

Meryl Streep — Julia, 1977

You’ve got to go to the very beginning of Meryl Streep’s career to find a screen appearance in which she didn’t headline the movie or otherwise command the frame. Before the one-two punch of The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer, Streep was mostly sidelined in this drama about the friendship between two women (Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave) in the years before WWII. But even in her capacity as a tertiary character, she still got some valuable face time with Fonda that prepared her for a life in the spotlight.

Mahershala Ali — Threat Matrix, 2003–04

His turn as a tenderhearted dealer in Moonlight has made him the year’s breakout star, but Mahershala Ali has been quietly turning in stellar character work for over a decade. One of the many early gigs unbefitting his talent was this hour-long drama about the goings-on at Homeland Security’s anti-terrorism unit, one of many such projects to hit the airwaves after 9/11. Ali plays Jelani Harper, a specialist who pops in on the occasional episode to show off his unique expertise and easy charm. The show died a quick and unceremonious death, leaving Ali waiting for his time to come.

Jeff Bridges — Fat City, 1972

Jeff Bridges got out from under Beau and Lloyd’s shadow in 1971 with The Last Picture Show, and while that elegiac drama remains widely beloved among cinephiles today, his art-house follow-up doesn’t get nearly as much recognition. Even as John Huston neared the end of his filmmaking career, he could still generate a standing ovation at Cannes, and this boxing drama, which stars Bridges as a young fighter on the come-up, and Stacey Keach as a veteran nearing retirement, proved he hadn’t lost his touch. Forty years on, it’s a treat watching Daniels as a scrappy kid, all sinew and charisma.

Lucas Hedges — Moonrise Kingdom, 2012

If you tried to tell audiences walking out of Wes Anderson’s paean to young love that in four years, the ruthless little kid on the motorbike would be up for an Oscar, they’d have probably scoffed. But there’s something a little steely in Hedges’s Redford, the colorfully named Khaki Scout who spearheads the troupe’s efforts to retrieve their deserter cohort. The faint suggestion of his future intensity in Manchester by the Sea is present even in this brief performance.

Dev Patel — The Last Airbender, 2010

The funny thing about Dev Patel is that he was never really not famous. He landed a lead role on the teensploitation series Skins with no acting experience whatsoever, and then parlayed that directly into his breakout role as the luckiest Who Wants to Be a Millionaire contestant of all time in Slumdog Millionaire. So let’s look back on a role we’d rather not remember, his turn as the scar-faced villain of M. Night Shyamalan’s misbegotten adaptation of the Avatar cartoon. As he dully broods over his lost honor and plots the destruction of the all-powerful Avatar, you can practically see Patel dreaming of the moment he gets to go back to his trailer and fire his agent.

Michael Shannon — Groundhog Day, 1993

Everybody knows and loves the immortal Bill Murray comedy, but only the sharpest-eyed viewers notice a young Michael Shannon making a cameo appearance as a groom that Murray’s character helps along on his wedding day. As a gesture of his newfound goodwill, Murray gives the young man Wrestlemania tickets as well, pretty much making his entire life. The years to come would reveal this performance to be markedly against type for Shannon, as he appears to be playing a normal human being.

Viola Davis — Out of Sight, 1998

In the earlier years of her career, Viola Davis found an impresario in Steven Soderbergh, who cast her in his Solaris remake as well as his drug epic Traffic. But first, he tapped a fiery Davis to portray the girlfriend of Don Cheadle’s crook in this steamy Elmore Leonard adaptation. Davis was unfazed by the talent around her, holding her own against Cheadle and locking horns with Jennifer Lopez’s Karen Sisco. Jenny From the Block delivers a strong showing, but Viola has even more star power.

Naomie Harris — The Tomorrow People, 1992–95

Just because The Tomorrow People sounds like a low-rent X-Men knockoff — it’s about the supposed next phase of human evolution, wherein teens manifest superpowers as part of a leaden social metaphor — that doesn’t stop Naomie Harris from making the most of her role. Harris plays Ami, whose powers create a rift between her and her mother, but still joins the team to combat the forces of evil, regardless of how much her mom may complain. In one highlight episode, she and the gang are contacted by a teen pharaoh, and travel to Egypt to explore the origin of life itself.

Nicole Kidman — BMX Bandits, 1983

The world had to catch up with Nicole Kidman. In the ’90s, her slight frame and classical features made her a global sex symbol, but during the ’80s, she was just another Australian actress trying to work the big hair and get noticed. Kidman took the lead in this low-rent crime drama about a gang of BMX bikers who commit burglaries (think Point Break, but worse), playing a fellow extreme-sports enthusiast who attempts to foil the bikers’ evil plot. The heinous era-specific fashions alone make this one worth viewing just for the curiosity factor alone.

Octavia Spencer — Bad Santa, 2003

The early years of Octavia Spencer’s resume are full of roles like “Nurse 2” and “Check-in Girl,” and while she only gets a few scant lines as a helpful hooker in Terry Zwigoff’s holiday black comedy, at least she gets a name. Opal is an old pal of Willie, the amoral mall Santa played by Billy Bob Thornton, and while she tries not to take him on as a “client” anymore, she’s still happy to provide him with information. Despite how briefly she appears, Spencer’s trademark take-no-shit attitude is present.

Michelle Williams — Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, 1998

Every installment of the Halloween franchise needs to stock up on teen-slasher fodder, but luckily for Michelle Williams, she wasn’t one of them. In this unnecessary sequel, Williams pops up as the girlfriend of Josh Hartnett, the son of Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode. As you can see, she’s not given much to do but act terrified and hang all over Hartnett, but one could argue that watching her friends die prepared Williams for much more nuanced portrayals of grief down the line.

The Lesser-Known Roles of This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Actors