Actors From The '90s Who Were Supposed To Be The Next Big Thing, But Never Quite Made It

Over 4.4K Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of Actors From The '90s Who Were Supposed To Be The Next Big Thing, But Never Quite Made It
Voting Rules
Vote up the actors you still love even though they aren't superstars today.

Not all stars shine forever. These actors who were supposed to be the next big thing were seemingly everywhere in the 1990s. Yet, just before stepping onto the stratosphere of major stardom, for whatever reason, they never quite made that final giant leap to Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts territory. 

Some of these forgotten '90s stars chose to retire entirely from the limelight. Bridget Fonda was one of the hardest-working actresses of the grunge decade and then abruptly stepped away from Tinseltown for good in 2002. A few of these other '90s movie stars had a run of critical and/or box office flops that put the brakes on achieving mega-stardom. However, they are still around, working in independent cinema or on the small screen. 

Vote up your favorite actors from the 1990s that you still love - even if they never quite became the next big thing in Hollywood. 

Photo: Joan of Arc / CBS

  • 1
    3,539 VOTES
    Christina Ricci
    Photo: Addams Family Value / Paramount Pictures

    Christina Ricci made her big-screen debut at just 9 years old in the 1990 movie Mermaids. Ricci continued her run of early success as Wednesday in The Addams Family and also showed off her dramatic chops in the 1997 drama The Ice Storm. By the end of the decade, the child actress had appeared in everything from family films to weepies. In fact, she never seemed to stop working. But would she be able to make the leap to adult roles?

    Thankfully, Ricci was able to avoid the traditional pitfalls that can wreck not only a child actor's career but also their whole life. Ricci continued to be a big-screen presence, carving out a niche in independent cinema. She found critical success in 2003's Monster and scored further indie cred with films like Prozac Nation and The Opposite of Sex

    The actress also worked steadily on the small screen. She had a recurring role during the final season of Ally McBeal and scored an Emmy nomination for her guest spot on Grey's Anatomy in 2006. She starred as the title character in The Lizzie Borden Chronicles and Z: The Beginning of Everything. She also served as a producer on both of those series. 

    Despite her impressive filmography, Ricci never quite made it into superstar status. The actress thinks that her short stature may have held her back. She said in 2007, "I don’t think that’s ever going to happen for me. I’m five-one first thing in the morning, and I tend to look really small on camera. I can probably go as far as Holly Hunter went, then I think that’s going to be it. I have a feeling I am way too small."

    Superstar status or not, Ricci remains a constant presence as a Hollywood actor and producer. She's had an impressive career and now takes on projects that she truly feels passionate about. She said during an interview in 2019

    Just recently have I actually started thinking, "What do I really want to contribute? Who am I? What means something to me?" I deserve to do work that I feel good about. I want to contribute to the world, I don’t want to just take from it. I want to do things that I’m proud of instead of being exploited, as I feel I was when I was a child. I am now more in charge of myself and doing things because I understand more fully what life is supposed to be about.

    3,539 votes
  • 2
    2,726 VOTES
    Alicia Silverstone
    Photo: Clueless / Paramount Pictures

    Alicia Silverstone made her film debut in a Lolita-like role for 1993's The Crush, which gained her major street cred. She was then catapulted into the spotlight as a sexy siren in three hit Aerosmith videos. In 1995, Silverstone starred as Cher in Clueless, the Amy Heckerling-directed film that is now considered one of the most successful teen comedies in cinema history. Silverstone, with her long blonde locks, good looks, and talent, seemed like a shoo-in to become the next big Hollywood sensation. 

    But for all the success that Silverstone had with Clueless, 1997's Batman & Robin seemed to take it all away. Silverstone's Batgirl joined George Clooney's Batman and Chris O'Donnell's Robin for Warner's fourth outing with the Caped Crusader, but the movie was a monumental train wreck. It earned Silverstone the dreaded Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress. 

    In fact, all of Silverstone's movies that finished out the '90s - The Babysitter, True Crime, Excess Baggage, and Blast from the Past (which earned her another Razzie "win" for Worst Actress) - were major disappointments. That negative trend continued into the 21st century. 

    Silverstone's lack of continuing success took its toll. "I stopped loving acting for a very long time," she revealed during an interview in 2020. Silverstone also said that she didn't have many friends in the industry and felt isolated. She added, "I was so overwhelmed by being famous because I was such a young girl and it was never really my intention."

    Recently, her passion for acting has reignited, and Silverstone appeared in a play by David Mamet, as well as Yorgos Lanthimos's 2017 horror thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer. She enjoyed the experience of working with the Greek auteur and said that she would "just die to work with him again." Silverstone is also a mother, an animal rights activist, and a published vegan cookbook author. 

    2,726 votes
  • 3
    2,391 VOTES
    Josh Hartnett
    Photo: Pearl Harbor / Buena Vista Pictures

    Josh Hartnett made his cinematic debut in 1998's Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. He rounded out the decade by making a strong name for himself in The Faculty and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. Then, his career took off.

    In the early 2000s, the Minnesota-born thespian appeared in Michael Bay's big-budget summer blockbuster Pearl Harbor. He fought another theatrical war the same year, this time in Ridley Scott's Academy Award-winning Black Hawk Down. Hartnett did a good job of mixing up his movie roles with star-making turns in romantic comedies like 40 Days and 40 Nights and gritty crime thrillers like Frank Miller's Sin City

    At the time, Hartnett was not just a good actor, but also a matinee idol with a boy-next-door quality and sexy star appeal. In 2002, Teen People called Hartnett “the hottest new movie star on earth." Yet, just a few years into the 2000s, Hartnett's career cooled off. It turns out that the Midwestern boy was not all that interested in becoming the next Brad Pitt. He even battled over whether or not to take the role in Pearl Harbor in the first place. Hartnett worried about what the trajectory of his career would become if he appeared in a blockbuster of that magnitude. 

    Hartnett reportedly turned down other big movie roles that would have padded his bank account and further added to his star power. Hartnett could have been the next Superman or Spider-Man, or even Batman. Instead of bathing in the spotlight, the actor took a break from show business and returned to Minnesota. 

    “I think it can be an unhealthy environment,” Hartnett said of Hollywood. "To get so consumed with chasing a goal that doesn’t necessarily have to define you is a fool’s errand and I wanted to have a healthy perspective on it. Not only a healthy perspective on the fame itself, but the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of surface values.”

    When Hartnett did work in the mid-2000s, he took on roles in lower-budget and independent films. In 2014, the world got another chance to see Hartnett in a big-scale production when he appeared on Showtime's critically acclaimed series Penny Dreadful.

    Penny Dreadful wrapped after three seasons, and Hartnett now concentrates on working in several different facets of filmmaking. "I’m doing a lot more writing and a lot more short-film and music-video directing that at some point will turn into directing a feature, if I’m lucky," he says. "I still love the industry and I’m sort of active in it, but also keep it at arm’s length at times too because it can be overwhelming.”

    2,391 votes
  • 4
    2,035 VOTES
    Freddie Prinze Jr.
    Photo: I Know What You Did Last Summer / Columbia Pictures

    In the late 1990s, Freddie Prinze Jr. appeared in prime position to transition from a teen heartthrob to debonair Hollywood leading man. Prinze scored with a string of late '90s hits like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the romantic comedy She's All That

    However, Prinze entered the 21st century with a few major box office duds. Down to You, Boys and Girls, Head Over Heels, and Summer Catch all failed to live up to box office expectations. He scored a hit with the live-action Scooby-Doo film, but failed with his 2005 TV series Freddie

    The actor's professional career may have hit a bumpy patch in the early 2000s, but his personal life was a dream. In 2002, Prinze married Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the couple has remained together for decades. They went on to have two children together. Instead of sweating out the Hollywood grind, Prinze opted to devote his time to his family. He said, "I love being a full-time father. To remove myself from that equation would not be a good thing. I'm basically retired."

    Prinze appears to work when he wants to, not because he feels like he has to. The actor has had recurring roles on the television shows Boston Legal and 24. He also does extensive voice-over work, most notably on the animated TV shows Star Wars Rebels and Robot Chicken

    2,035 votes
  • 5
    1,930 VOTES
    Heather Graham
    Photo: Boogie Nights / New Line Cinema

    Heather Graham's career started picking up steam in the late 1980s when she was just a teenager in the comedy License to Drive. She showed off her dramatic chops in Gus Van Sant's 1989 crime drama Drugstore Cowboy. Graham worked steadily in the early 1990s with supporting roles in Shout, Swingers, and the TV series Twin Peaks. However, she didn't truly pop into the mainstream until she stole the show as Rollergirl in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights

    The actress enjoyed breakout success and went back to her comedic roots in the 1999 hit comedy Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Graham proceeded to appear in both television and film, including recurring small-screen roles in Sex and the City, Scrubs, and Californication

    In the mid-2000s, Graham definitely made a switch to more independent-minded films. The actress took on roles in heavy dramas like Killing Me Softly, Adrift in Manhattan, and Broken. None of those films received good reviews or were even distributed on a wide national level. She did have a supporting role in two Hangover movies. 

    However, Graham continues to build upon an impressive filmography to this day. In 2018, she also wrote and directed her first movie, the romantic comedy Half Magic. The actress has talked about how grateful she feels to have been involved with so many different types of projects:

    Yeah. I’ll work in comedy or drama. I’m just grateful that I get to work. I think there’s a lot of exciting Heather Graham things going on in TV too. Movies have always been my first love, but I feel like TV is getting so exciting and it’s really fun to work in TV. 

    1,930 votes
  • 6
    1,750 VOTES
    Minnie Driver
    Photo: Good Will Hunting / Miramax

    In 1997, Minnie Driver played the love interest of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in the drama Good Will Hunting. The fresh-faced starlet earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and seemed on her way to breakout Hollywood success. She followed up the Academy Award-winning Good Will Hunting with movies that were fairly well-received critically but failed to make an impact at the box office. How many people actually saw The Governess, An Ideal Husband, or Return to Me?

    Then in 2002, Driver publicly criticized the appearance of one of Great Britain's national treasures, Dame Judi Dench. Driver may not have intended the slight, but it followed a general disparagement of English actresses' physical beauty. During an interview, Driver commented, "In England, with all due respect, we have some of the plainest actresses in the entire world as our greatest." She then said of Dench specifically, "Maybe it is because theatre is the great love of England, but you can have Judi Dench, a very small, round, middle-aged, lovely, mothering type, playing Cleopatra."

    That comment got the actress in so much hot water that the British press called Driver "the pushiest woman in Hollywood" and "venomous." Driver avoided the British press for the next two years. In 2002, while out promoting her new solo album Everything I've Got in My Pocket, the actress talked about just how much her seemingly innocuous-at-the-time comment completely affected every aspect of her personal life. Driver said:

    I've taken a pounding, a pounding, and so has my family, my mum and dad, my sister. You have no idea what it's like. It's brutal. But it's like terrorism - you can't not do stuff because of dissent. It's when people make it personal, which I can't stop them from doing, but I'm also not going to let them stop me doing what I want. That's their mean, vindictive viciousness. But let me tell you, it never gets any easier. I hope to get to the point where if the donkey kicks you, you let it go, as opposed to carrying it around feeling awful for days and letting it affect the choices you make in your life.

    Despite the bad press across the pond, Driver never disappeared from the Hollywood silver screen. She just kept appearing in mediocre films like The Phantom of the Opera, Ripple Effect, and Hunky Dory

    Driver did find some success on the small screen and certainly showed off her sitcom comedic chops on two seasons of NBC's About a Boy. She also had a recurring role as Stanley Walker's new wife and Karen's ultimate nemesis on Will & Grace. Driver additionally starred as no-nonsense matriarch Maya DiMeo for four solid seasons of ABC's Speechless. So while Driver never became the ultimate movie star, she did go on to have a steady career as a working actress. 

    1,750 votes