You don’t always need an expensive theater degree or a five-day-a-week personal trainer to be in a Hollywood movie. Sometimes a filmmaker will instantly recognize that someone, despite the fact they've never acted a day in their life, has innate qualities that might make them perfect for a particular role. And these are the times those hunches were exactly right.
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was such a hilariously terrifying and convincing Parris Island drill instructor in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket because that’s exactly what the man playing him was. R. Lee Ermey was a roughneck from Kansas who was once told by a judge he could either go to jail or join the Marine Corps.
After a military career in which he actually tormented raw recruits, he became a technical advisor for the movie industry. It was in this role that Kubrick saw him in a different one - giving Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio, and moviegoers everywhere boot camp nightmares.
- Age: 76
- Birthplace: Emporia, Kansas, United States of America
- Photo: The Cannon Group Inc.
Danny Trejo was an ex-con working as a youth counselor when he arrived on the set of the 1985 action thriller Runaway Train to help out with a young crew member's substance problem. When the director got a look at Trejo's imposing mug, he offered Trejo a chance to be an extra in a prison scene.
The writer of the screenplay then recognized him as a skilled pugilist he knew in prison years earlier, and Trejo’s role expanded to “Boxer.” From then on, he became the go-to guy for decades whenever a script called for a scary-looking guy with tattoos.
- Age: 76
- Birthplace: Echo Park, Los Angeles, California, United States of America
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Finding an actor who could believably emote the horror of witnessing the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide was a daunting task for the casting director of The Killing Fields. But, incredibly, he happened to stumble across such a man at a wedding in Long Beach, CA. Haing Ngor was the perfect choice, though he had never acted a day in his life, because he actually had to traverse minefields and eat rats to escape the ruthless regime.
Ngor was hesitant to play the part of real-life journalist Dith Pran, despite his “innate gift for acting,” due to the nightmares he would have to relive. But thankfully for us all, he took the role and earned the 1984 Academy Award for best supporting actor.
- Age: Died at 56 (1940-1996)
- Birthplace: French Indochina
- Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing
Barkhad Abdi was a former chauffeur who showed up to a casting call for background characters after seeing a commercial on a local Minneapolis TV channel. He had no idea he would instead be given a major part opposite Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.
And the real shock came after he portrayed such a convincing Somali pirate that many believe he ended up snatching the movie from notorious Oscar-hog Hanks. He even ad-libbed, "Look at me. I am the captain now," which became the most famous line from the movie.
- Age: 35
- Birthplace: Mogadishu, Somalia