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15 Times Movie Stars Took Surprise Supporting Roles And Stole The Show

Updated December 14, 2020 6.7k votes 1.3k voters 172.6k views15 items

List RulesVote up the surprise appearances that improved the whole movie.

If you see movies on a regular basis, you've undoubtedly had the experience of seeing a star in a supporting role that came as a complete surprise. We're not talking about quickie cameos designed to earn a cheap laugh, but scenes in which a respected performer shows up to play an important character. That can be fun, as it offers something unexpected. At the same time, when the casting is shrewd, the abrupt arrival of a major star usually signifies something important is happening. These surprise appearances often give the actor the chance to steal the show.

In some of these cases, the star's participation was noted in the advertising yet downplayed, or the exact nature of their role was hidden. In others, the stars opted to go uncredited to ensure their scene(s) packed the requisite punch. The practice has become increasingly popular in recent years, given that A-list actors can often earn a hefty paycheck for a job that's quick and fun. There's also a cool quotient that goes along with waltzing onto the screen and walking off with the entire movie.

These memorable surprise appearances caught viewers off-guard but, more importantly, added something crucial to the films in which they appeared.

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  • Ben Stiller had famously done a Tom Cruise imitation on his early-'90s Fox sketch comedy show. Apparently, Cruise didn't take it too personally, since he joined the cast of the Stiller-directed Tropic Thunder, playing Les Grossman, a vulgar, balding movie studio chief with an unexpected penchant for hip-hop dancing.

    Quite frankly, the actor was in need of a public image makeover at the time. He'd received tons of negative press for infamously jumping on Oprah Winfrey's couch, making controversial Scientology claims (including one that criticized Brooke Shields for taking psychiatric medication to treat postpartum depression), and getting dropped by Paramount, the studio where he had a production deal. Trumpeting his appearance in the film might have turned some audiences off, so his comeback role was left as a surprise.

    As it was, recognizing him under the makeup and padded suit proved difficult, so many ticket buyers didn't realize it was him until his name popped up in the end credits. Regardless, Cruise-as-Grossman stole every scene he was in.

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  • Audiences were stunned when Matt Damon turned up in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. He plays Dr. Mann, a marooned astronaut so desperate to save himself that he's willing to sabotage the mission of the film's hero, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). A star of Damon's magnitude would usually be a focal point, but he was uncredited, not featured in trailers, and absent from the publicity tour

    As for why this occurred, the intent was to mislead audiences. Damon had firmly established a reputation for heroic or good guy roles. In Interstellar, his character is not necessarily malevolent, but he's panicked enough to do self-serving and even homicidal things. Nolan knew viewers wouldn't expect that, so Mann's actions would register with an extra dose of drama. The director said, "I really love the idea for an audience to go when they see him, 'Oh, it's Matt Damon. It's going to be okay.'"

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  • David Fincher's Seven follows two detectives - Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) - as they pursue a serial killer who models his elaborate acts after the Seven Deadly Sins. It's a shock for both of them and the audience when a bloodied Kevin Spacey walks into a police station and announces himself as the culprit, "John Doe." 

    Unlike many movies dealing with psychopaths, Seven doesn't introduce us to the villain in advance. As with Somerset and Mills, we have no clue who, exactly, they're looking for. Having Spacey's participation revealed in any of the marketing materials or the film's opening credits would have tipped off audiences, who would be waiting and expecting him to show up. Keeping him out of all that allowed viewers to experience the detectives' surprise vicariously. 

    Spacey himself put it best, telling Total Film, "I'd just done Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Outbreak, a big Warner Bros movie. I knew that if any of those movies did well, my profile would be... different. How would that affect my billing in Seven? If I'm the third-billed actor in a movie where the top two billings are trying to find somebody and they don't find that somebody until the last reel, then it's obvious who that somebody is."

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    There are many gruesome elements in Hannibal, but one of the biggest is the face of the villain. Or, should we say, the lack of a face. Mason Verger is the only surviving target of the notorious psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Although Verger survived, the encounter left his face horribly disfigured, as well as paralyzed. As a result, he's out for revenge.

    When we finally get a look at Verger, it's difficult to tell who's playing him. Buried under that makeup is none other than Gary Oldman. While he may not be entirely recognizable, the actor's trademark intensity - not to mention his penchant for playing distinctly unusual characters - is right there. In his hands, this bitter man is absolutely chilling.

    When asked by IGN why he chose to go uncredited, Oldman explained, "We thought that as I'm unofficially the man of many faces - you know, of Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, and Sid Vicious, and Beethoven - we thought that I would be... I'm playing the man with no face. So we just had a bit of fun with it. We thought it would be great. The man with no face and no name, and sort of do it anonymously."

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