Actors Who Turned A Small Supporting Role Into A Huge Movie Star Breakout

List Rules
Vote up the most deserving star-making supporting performances.

The famous acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski coined a famous expression: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” What he meant was that any part can make an impact, provided it's executed by an actor with creativity, skill, passion, or bravery. If a part doesn't register, it's simply because the actor wasn't trying hard enough or didn't fully commit.

That's an important thing for actors to understand, because even a small supporting role has the ability to launch someone's career. The following stars all had that happen. They're some of the biggest names around, and in every case, they parlayed a minor or secondary part into a one-way ticket to the A-list. Some of them matched - or, in a couple cases, even upstaged - more established stars. Even though they weren't the headliner, these performers gave 100% to their characters, delivering performances that made audiences sit up, take notice, and say, “Who is that?”


  • The main characters in Thelma & Louise are intent on freeing themselves of the chains placed upon them by society and, more specifically, the men in their lives. As such, they're on the lam from the police after killing a man who attempted to assault one of them. During their trek, Thelma (Geena Davis) has a brief fling with a handsome young drifter named J.D., played by a newcomer named Brad Pitt. J.D. helps Thelma feel sensual in a way she hasn't for a very long time, if ever. Then he steals the women's money and disappears.

    Despite only being on screen for a few minutes, Pitt made a huge impression. He brings so much easygoing charm to J.D. that it's completely understandable how Thelma falls under his spell. The chemistry he works up with Davis is hot, too. At the time, Pitt was dubbed “the next James Dean” for his charismatic presence. One of his biggest admirers was co-star Susan Sarandon, who said she was impressed by “his sense of humor, because he really fleshed that part out in a way that wasn't necessarily in the script.”

    Once Thelma & Louise hit theaters, Pitt instantly became an in-demand actor, with Cool World, Kalifornia, and A River Runs Through It all coming out in short succession. With that, his stardom officially took off.

    227 votes
  • Winona Ryder found a great project for herself with Girl, Interrupted, the screen adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's memoir about her time in a mental institution. Although she did well in the lead role, co-star Angelina Jolie stole the show and took home an Academy Award in the process. Jolie was primarily known for being the daughter of actor Jon Voight when the film came out, Afterward, everyone ignored her lineage and focused on her extraordinary skill.

    She plays Lisa, a young woman diagnosed as a sociopath. She can be charming one minute, manipulative the next, and downright violent the one after that. Jolie portrays sociopathy with psychological accuracy - a difficult feat for even the most seasoned performer. This happened without ever losing sight of the fact that Lisa is a troubled soul whose behaviors are, to an extent, beyond her control. Ryder may have been the nominal star of Girl, Interrupted, but it was Jolie who earned the lion's share of praise. Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle wrote, “Jolie's explosive performance surpasses all expectations and renders the film a veritable must-see.”

    The actress has enjoyed a thriving career ever since.

    189 votes
  • Leonardo DiCaprio was best known, to the extent that he was known at all, for playing Luke Brower on one season of the TV sitcom Growing Pains when director Lasse Halstrom picked him to co-star alongside Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. There were no more sitcoms after that. He plays Arnie, the intellectually disabled, perpetually in-trouble brother to Depp's lead character. What's astonishing about the performance is that DiCaprio doesn't condescend or fall into stereotype when playing a young man with special needs. Many viewers who were unfamiliar with him thought the role was being played by an actual special needs person. That was an indicator of the deep performances to come. 

    Critics sat up and took notice. David Ansen of Newsweek was among DiCaprio's biggest fans, writing, “A lot of actors have taken flashy stabs at playing [handicapped] characters and no one, old or young, has ever done it better. He's exasperatingly, heartbreakingly real.” Academy voters were equally impressed, nominating DiCaprio for the first of many Oscar nominations. With his preternatural talent now firmly established, he immediately made the leap into leading roles, first with The Basketball Diaries and The Quick and the Dead, and later with such films as Titanic, Inception, and The Departed.

    262 votes
  • Imagine being 10 years old and working on a major motion picture alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. That's exactly what happened to Kirsten Dunst when she played Claudia in 1994's Interview with the Vampire. Not only did she demonstrate an ability to stand toe-to-toe with her heavyweight costars, but she also proved to have a depth of talent few child actors possess. It's hard enough getting a kid to give a natural performance as a regular kid. Getting a kid to give a natural performance playing a child vampire is difficult on a whole other level. Dunst infuses the movie with real soul.

    To say everyone took notice would be an understatement. Dunst earned a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress. Cruise and Pitt, meanwhile, got nothing. Roger Ebert went right to the heart of what was so special about the young actress's work, saying Dunst “is somehow able to convey the notion of great age inside apparent youth.” Solid roles in Little Women and Jumanji followed. Then Dunst did something really incredible - she avoided all the pitfalls of child stardom and went on to become a successful movie star, with both commercial and critical hits under her belt.

    164 votes
  • The 1985 Western Silverado follows the exploits of a team of misfit cowboys, led by Emmett (Scott Glenn), who arrive in the town that gives the movie its title. When they discover it's being ruled by sinister rancher Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker) and corrupt Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), the guys decide to do something about it. Although the film had some big names that also included Kevin Kline, Rosanna Arquette, and Danny Glover, a relative newcomer named Kevin Costner stole the show as Jake, a comically goofy cowboy with boundless energy. The actor is a true loose cannon in the film, waltzing away with scenes via the off-kilter energy he brings. He'd been cut out of director Lawrence Kasdan's previous movie, The Big Chill, and it was almost like he intended to make sure that didn't happen again.

    Paul Attanasio of The Washington Post was among those impressed. He said, “Costner has a childlike charm - the brows-knitted intensity of a kid getting the pegs in the right holes fragments in a mad laugh and a CinemaScope grin. With his perpetual look of surprise and gawky grace, he reminds you a little of Ray Bolger.” The actor's obvious talent led to Brian De Palma giving him the lead role in 1987's The Untouchables. That cemented his status as one of the most exciting new actors on the scene. No Way Out, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, JFK, and Dances with Wolves all followed within the span of a few years.

    127 votes
  • Margot Robbie was a famous television actress in her native Australia before she got the dream gig - a plum role in a Martin Scorsese movie. The legendary director chose her to play Naomi Lapaglia, the mistress and, later, wife of crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street. Naomi is a shrewd woman who knows she's essentially Jordan's trophy wife - and uses that to her advantage. 

    A lot of movies would have treated this woman as a joke, but Robbie brought unexpected depth to her. David Thomson of The New Republic said the actress “makes a great deal of the trophy wife who turns into a bleak observer of truth.” It was that quality, combined with Naomi's stinging sarcasm and almost impossible sexiness, that Robbie made leap off the screen. Every time she's on screen, you look at her, not DiCaprio. What more needs to be said? Hollywood took notice of the fact that she's skilled at infusing characters with nuance, and more big offers rolled in, Focus, Suicide Squad, and I, Tonya among them.

    154 votes