Underrated Debut Movies That Launched A-List Stars

Voting Rules
Vote up the movies that gave us a great first glimpse at a future star.

A debut film is a big deal in any actor's career. The chance to be seen onscreen, even if only for a minute or two, can be enough to get career momentum rolling. Many performers struggle for years before getting that kind of break, so they're usually determined to make the most of it once it comes. Famed acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski said, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” He meant that a good actor can do something interesting with a role of any size.

The following A-list stars exemplify that idea with their debut films. Some of them lucked into leading roles, others have significant supporting parts. All of them used the opportunity as a launching pad to something else. Aside from featuring future stars, the movies below are underrated and deserving of bigger audiences. The next time you're looking for an evening of at-home entertainment, give one of these titles a spin. 

Photo: Martha Marcy May Marlene / Fox Searchlight Pictures

  • Tom Holland hit paydirt when he was cast as Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His take on Peter Parker was inspired, leading him to become a fan favorite. He's used the clout the MCU has given him to make some riskier films, like Cherry and The Devil All the Time. But even when he's in mainstream mode, audiences love to see him in or out of his Spidey costume. His adventure movie Uncharted was a smash hit in 2022.

    Anyone who saw the 2012 film The Impossible knew what an extraordinary talent Holland was. Based on a true story, the movie is about a family vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits. Holland is Lucas, the teenage son who gets swept away with his mother Maria (Naomi Watts). He has to first find her, then find his father and sibling. The Impossible is a harrowing movie that conveys the tragedy of the real-life tsunami. At the same time, it has an uplifting inspirational quality, with its message about the powerful devotion that can run in a family. 

    257 votes

    Available On:


  • Jason Statham knows what he does well, and he sticks to it. He's become a top action star, thanks to his fighting abilities and intimidating presence. He's got a sense of humor, too, which often comes out in the form of extremely sarcastic wisecracks made by the characters he plays. Far from being a chameleon, he chooses to largely stick to his well-honed screen persona, modulating it to fit each individual role. In other words, it ain't broke, so he doesn't try to fix it. Hits like Crank and Spy suggest he's made the right choice. 

    Director Guy Ritchie gave Statham his big break in 1998's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It's the story of four friends who get in over their heads after playing a high-stakes poker game with a cheating crime lord. They lose big and consequently have to come up with half a million pounds in just a week. Statham plays Bacon, one of those friends. The movie established Ritchie's knack for mixing hard-boiled violence with a twisted sense of humor - a formula he and his star would return to in several subsequent collaborations. This fast-paced, slickly shot action movie has all the tough-guy mayhem you could possibly want. 

    228 votes
  • Kate Winslet is a seven-time Oscar nominee who won once for The Reader. One only needs to look at her resume to realize how many artistically significant films she's appeared in - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sense & Sensibility, Little Children, Contagion, Avatar: The Way of Water, and, of course, Titanic. That's the picture that made her a full-fledged star. By and large, rather than cashing in on stardom, Winslet has chosen to continue pushing herself with challenging roles in ambitious films, often from top directors.

    It was none other than Peter Jackson who put Winslet on movie screens. Several years before The Lord of the Rings, he made a powerful psychological drama called Heavenly Creatures. Winslet and Melanie Lynskey play teen girls in New Zealand who get lost in the fantasy world they create together, leading them to murder. Both actresses give nuanced performances, and the movie is a compelling, and at times frightening, look at how the girls dissociate themselves from the real world, to tragic effect. Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story, with one of the girls growing up to become famed mystery writer Anne Perry.

    180 votes
  • Cruel Intentions and Election made Reese Witherspoon a star. Legally Blonde made her the Queen of the Rom-Com. Sweet Home Alabama, Just Like Heaven, and Four Christmases followed. She wasn't content to stay in that lane, though. Witherspoon quickly established herself as a top dramatic talent, going on to win the Academy Award as best actress for Walk the Line. She earned a second nomination for Wild. Armed with inherent likeability, she has won over audiences and critics alike with a diverse slate of high-quality projects that always deliver something interesting.

    Witherspoon hit screens for the first time as a teenager. She snagged the lead role in The Man in the Moon, a tender coming-of-age tale in which her 14-year-old character falls in love with the new boy next door, only to have him fall for her sister instead. Directed with great sensitivity by veteran filmmaker Robert Mulligan, the movie is filled with truthful moments that will remind you of your own adolescence. Witherspoon rightly earned rave reviews for her heartbreaking, preternaturally mature work. 

    127 votes

    Available On:

  • Woody Harrelson made one of the most impressive turnarounds in Hollywood history. He gained fame playing Woody Boyd, a not-terribly-bright bartender, on the hit sitcom Cheers. He did it so well that everyone assumed he was more or less playing himself. The actor proved them wrong with a string of dynamic performances in both comedic and dramatic films, among them Natural Born Killers, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Triangle of Sadness. He's a three-time Oscar nominee who goes back and forth between ambitious fare and mainstream blockbusters, such as the Planet of the Apes series and Zombieland. No one thinks he's “just” Woody Boyd anymore.

    Harrelson's first screen appearance was in the 1986 football comedy Wildcats. Goldie Hawn stars as the daughter of a famous football coach who gets a chance to lead a ragtag inner city team. Harrelson plays Krushinski, one of the players who needs to be whipped into shape. Wildcats isn't a great movie, but Hawn is charming as always, there are a few decent laughs scattered throughout, and it's fun to see Harrelson sharing scenes with his future White Men Can't Jump co-star Wesley Snipes. 

    156 votes

    Available On:


  • Val Kilmer was branded a heartthrob early in his career, so he spent the rest of it proving how much more than that he actually was. A shiny supporting role as Iceman in the mega-hit Top Gun turned him into a star. From there, he played figures as diverse as rocker Jim Morrison in The Doors and the Dark Knight himself in Batman Forever. When he wasn't front and center, Kilmer took on scene-stealing supporting roles, playing an ailing Doc Holliday in Tombstone and thief Chris Shiherlis in Heat. In 2022, he reprised the role of Iceman in Top Gun: Maverick, infusing that movie with an emotional core.

    To say that Kilmer's screen debut must have been intimidating for him is an understatement. He plays Nick Rivers in Top Secret!, a wacky spoof movie that was the follow-up effort from the creative team behind Airplane! Nick is an American rock star who goes to East Germany for a music festival, only to get caught up in the Resistance. The movie is jam-packed with the same kind of double- and triple-layered humor that made Airplane! a smash hit. You have to see it at least twice to catch all the jokes. As the lead, Kilmer displays great adeptness at the play-it-totally-straight tone a spoof comedy like Top Secret! requires.

    193 votes

    Available On: