Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Born in Somalia, Abdi (front, with fellow non-pros Barkhad Abdirahman at right and Faysal Ahmed in the back) immigrated to the U.S. when he was 14 and was living in Minneapolis when he was cast as Muse, the desperate modern-day pirate who attempts to hijack a cargo freighter and takes its Captain (Tom Hanks) hostage in Captain Phillips. ”He had a look that could be both menacing and have a humanity, too,” director Paul Greengrass said.
Darlene Cates, What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Grape screenwriter Peter Hedges saw the 500-pound Cates on Sally Jessy Raphael and thought she would be perfect for the role of Johnny Depp’s depressed shut-in mother. The role proved a cathartic experience for Cates, who suffered many of the same indignities as her character, but she also proved that she belonged as an actress with several tender scenes with Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
As fierce and energetic as her character Hushpuppy, Wallis was only 6 years old when she starred in this Sundance indie that made her the youngest Best Actress nominee in history. Henry, who played Hushpuppy’s hard-drinking father in the flooded Bayou, was a professional baker for decades in New Orleans and had braved Hurricane Katrina before being discovered by filmmakers at his bakery.
Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields
Ngor was a doctor in Cambodia before the communist Khmer Rouge regime took over in the 1970s and massacred its political opposition. After four years in slave camps, he eventually escaped to the United States. A casting director noticed him at a wedding and suggested him for a major role in The Killing Fields, the 1985 movie about the Cambodian horrors he had fled. Ngor was rewarded with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Chris Klein, Election
Klein was coming out of the weight room of his Omaha high school when he bumped into Alexander Payne, who was visiting the school to research his upcoming movie, Election. Klein had been in school plays and obviously was an athlete, and Payne eventually cast him as the sweet but thick-headed jock who takes on overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the bitter race for student council president.
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Sidibe was an undergrad in Manhattan with only a few bit roles in college plays to her credit when she skipped class one day to audition for the role of an abused inner-city youth in Lee Daniels’ grim drama. The film was an emotional powerhouse, and Sidibe’s performance, which earned her an Oscar nomination, was its beating heart.
Alex Shaffer, Win Win
Director Tom McCarthy figured it would be easier to cast a high-school wrestler and teach him to act rather than vice versa for his sports drama starring Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. Enter Shaffer, the New Jersey state champion at 119 pounds. The bleached-blonde went to the mat for the role of an emotionally detached teen from a broken home and lent the film an air of authenticity.
Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives
Russell had lost both his hands in an Army training mishap during World War II, and director William Wyler cast him as the wounded vet in his 1947 Best Picture winner after seeing him star in a U.S. Army documentary. Best Years told the story of three soldiers struggling to adjust to civilian life after the war, and Russell became the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same performance: an honorary award and Best Supporting Actor.
Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi
Sharma was a 17-year-old student from India when he beat out more than 3,000 others to star in Ang Lee’s ocean-set epic. ”As soon as I saw him, I began to see the movie,” said Lee. But not only had Sharma never acted — with people, much less imaginary Bengal tigers — he didn’t even know how to swim. It was the ultimate sink-or-swim scenario, one that Sharma ultimately passed?swimmingly.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hercules in New York
True, Schwarzenegger had his eye on Hollywood ever since he began bodybuilding, but no one really knew him when he was cast as Zeus’s prodigal son in this 1970 stinker. He was billed as ”Arnold Strong,” and his Austrian accent was so thick that all his lines had to be redubbed. It would take another decade of sweat before the muscleman would truly break through.
R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket
Ermey was a Marine drill instructor who’d had a few cameos in war movies in which he’d been a military consultant. But when Stanley Kubrick saw his technical advisor in action, berating the Parris Island recruits, he quickly recast the crude drill sergeant with Ermey. The role made Ermey’s career, and he went on to play (or voice) variations of the character in movies like Toy Story.
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
Deaf since she was 18 months old, Matlin had almost given up her acting ambitions and was studying criminal justice when she auditioned for a Chicago production of Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning play. Her stage performance — in a supporting role — won her an audition for the lead role when the play was adapted for the screen in 1986. She won the part, dated her costar William Hurt, and took home the Oscar for Best Actress.
Thomas Horn, Extremely Loud and Incredible Close
Horn was only 12 when he won $31,800 on Kids Jeopardy!, catching the eye of Scott Rudin. The Oscar-winning producer recommended the intelligent boy to director Stephen Daldry for the role of the awkward and obsessed Oskar, who searches for meaning after his dad dies in the World Trade Center attacks. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock were in the wings, but it was Horn who essentially carried the movie on his narrow shoulders.