First impressions certainly count. Whether you’re meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time with your fly undone or fronting up for a job interview – people are watching and taking note.
The same goes for the silver screen. Many a budding acting career has been stalled by cringe-worthy debut performances that some actors can never escape from, no matter how revered they may become.
Think Kevin Costner in Sizzle Beach USA or who could forget Nicole Kidman’s action epic BMX Bandits, both brilliant unintentional comedies.
Then there are the ones who absolutely nailed it on debut and kept on nailing it.
Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween (1978)
Curtis was unknown as an actor but her parents weren’t. Her mother Janet Leigh was in Psycho and Tony Curtis had a great run of hits in the 50’s, such as Some Like It Hot.
Director John Carpenter thought that casting Curtis would be good publicity for the slasher flick, even if it was against type. She identified more with the loud-mouthed, gum-popping high school girls in the film.
Curtis said, “I was very much a smart alec, and was a cheerleader in high school.” Nonetheless, she managed to convey a quiet and sensitive teenager – just the type that crazed psychopaths go for.
Curtis was lauded for her performance as a repressed teen who simply refused to be hacked to pieces by an escaped mental patient. Halloween went down a treat with critics and audiences alike and remains one of the most highly regarded horror films ever made. Curtis went on to star in the sequels and finally got to show off her comic chops in the seriously funny Trading Places as the quintessential hooker with a heart of gold.
At last, getting to play a gum-popping smart alec.
Brad Pitt – Thelma & Louise (1991)
Before Thelma & Louise came along, life wasn’t all bad for Pitt. He was doing odd jobs such as moving fridges, dressing as chickens for restaurants and driving strippers to gigs in limos.
He’d done bit parts in TV and the odd uncredited appearance on film, but Thelma & Louise caught Hollywood’s attention.
He played a charming and conniving hustler who bedded Geena Davis, a scene that was not at all difficult to shoot, according to Davis.
The producers settled on Pitt when Davis started forgetting her lines during his audition – something she didn’t do with the other heartthrobs.
Pitt did all he could with the role, adding touches of humour and smarts to a role that could’ve been done by a hen night stripper.
He hunked his way through the next few films before Kalifornia and Se7en gave audiences a taste of his darker and far more interesting side.
Frances McDormand – Blood Simple (1984)
The Coen Brothers’ first film was a noir-crime thriller that required a female lead with a Southern accent and hint of naivety. The role was originally offered to Holly Hunter, who turned it down in favor of a Broadway play. Oops.
She recommended McDormand to the brothers and they hit it off immediately. Everyone started chain-smoking and McDormand read for the part.
They liked her and asked her to come back later that day. McDormand told them she was busy, so they rescheduled. She maintains it’s the best advice for anyone auditioning – “Don’t go in too needy and have an agenda of your own.”
McDormand was captivating as the seemingly innocent small-town gal who revealed a greater complexity throughout the film. Such as being able to stab a man in the hand as he tried to kill her.
Paul Hogan – Crocodile Dundee (1986)
By the mid 90’s, “Hoges” was a well-known personality in his native Australia, having enjoyed significant success with TV comedies and cigarette ads. His characters were pretty much the same: down-to-earth larrikins with a low tolerance for BS.
He then made his mark in the US with tourism commercials for Australia in which he introduced audiences to foreign expressions such as “G’day” and “barbie”.
The ads went down well in the States, encouraging Hogan to shoot for the stars. He co-wrote and starred in the fish out of water yarn Crocodile Dundee about an outback bushman who ends up chasing lurve in New York. It was a massive hit. Critics and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic were bowled over by the love story plus the unworldly Aussie in the Big Apple gags.
“At last a likeable hero – in an era of ducks, chimps, puppets or aliens” gushed the Financial Review.
Dundee was made for a paltry $7 million and grossed over $320 million worldwide. Oz tourism and Mr Hogan’s bank balance went through the roof.
Sigourney Weaver – Alien (1979)
The role of Ripley was originally intended for a male, which was the norm for action/horror films back in the day. When Weaver auditioned, she left director Ridley Scott in no doubt that she could pull it off.
At 180cm she was already noticeably tall and emphasized it by wearing platform boots to the audition. Capped off with an Afro hairstyle, Scott remembers she towered over him “like she was seven foot six!”.
Weaver’s Ripley was smart, determined and not easily spooked. As her fellow male crew members were being embarrassingly torn to pieces by the alien, Ripley simply assembled the requisite firepower and handed out an arse-kicking of the highest order.
Audiences loved the cerebral grittiness of Ripley and she gave hope to all non-diminutive female actors with half a brain.
Eddie Murphy – 48 Hours (1982)
Richard Pryor’s “I’ll pass” was Eddie Murphy’s “Where do I sign?”. In 1982 Pryor was too busy, too high or both to waste his time so director Walter Hill watched some of Murphy’s SNL highlights. He liked what he saw and it possibly helped that Hill was dating Murphy’s agent.
Murphy’s Reggie Hammond was a quick-witted, foul-mouthed crim which suited Murphy to a tee. With the bear-like Nick Nolte he formed the original polar opposites buddy/cop pairing that became an action movie staple.
We first see Murphy in his prison cell, belting out “Roxanne” in a suitably amusing falsetto. From there he and Nolte get into a no holds barred onslaught of put downs, snappy comebacks and one liners – all of which are Murphy’s bread and butter. His Hammond was smart, funny and most importantly had a believable rapport with Nolte’s grizzled detective.
48 Hours put Murphy on the path to some of his biggest hits such as Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop.
Let’s forget Daddy Day Camp ever happened and focus on one of Hammond’s finer moments. Posing as a cop in a redneck bar, Hammond conducts a search of some suspicious-looking types. Upon discovering a wad of cash on a suspect he enquired as to its origin.
“Tax refund” grunted the redneck.
Hammond: “Bullshit – you’re too f*ing stupid to have a job”.
Great judge of character, was Reggie.
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit (2010)
The Coen Brothers auditioned over 15,000 girls for the part of Mattie Ross. They were looking for someone sharp, confident and “sassy”. This was a major role alongside some big names such as Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.
Enter 13 year old Steinfeld. She didn’t seem at all nervous during the audition and for good reason – she wasn’t. “I was just there to do a job,” she matter-of-factly explained. She certainly was and she did, nailing the part. Steinfeld’s lack of awe let her click with her co-stars and directors and the result was a spectacularly assured screen debut.
Mattie was a worldly, cerebral 14 year who was hell-bent on justice for her father’s killer. The role required Steinfeld to hold her own in scenes with hard-drinking foul mouths and in most cases to verbally outwit them.
She brought the perfect blend of precocious intelligence with the vulnerability of a young girl forced to grow up too quickly.
There was plenty to like in Steinfeld’s debut but Mattie outfoxing a condescending horse trader at the beginning is a joy to watch. She maintains a steadily aggressive barrage of logic and threats that sees the pompous trader go from dismissive to tongue-tied to utterly defeated in a matter of minutes.
He sat up and took notice. As did True Grit viewers, casting agents and any Hollywood bigwig with an eye for talent.
Bill Murray – Meatballs (1979)
Murray had already made a name for himself on Saturday Night Live when he was offered the role of camp counsellor Tripper Harrison in Meatballs. It was directed by the legendary Ivan Reitman who was to form a mighty combination with Murray with the underrated Stripes and the not so underrated Ghostbusters.
For some, their screen debut may be a little awkward. A tad nervy perhaps, still finding their feet in the big time. This didn’t apply to Murray. He didn’t chew the scenery – he chomped it up and spat it out.
We first meet Tripper during the opening credits as he groggily greets the campers over the speakers from his bed, promising to make their summer camp experience “the best available for this price range”. It’s a promising start and he doesn’t relent. He goes on to launch “Sexual Awareness Week”, teaches kids how to belch and typically hounds a girl into falling for him.
Murray’s debut is probably best summed up with his rousing “it just doesn’t matter” pep talk when he puts his campers at ease by ridiculing competitive events that nobody cares about. It’s a typical Murray rant – ridiculous and very funny. The spontaneity is obvious – the guffawing kids are hearing it for the first time.
As for so many roles throughout his career, Murray was clearly told by the director to just go for it. He probably didn’t even get a script.
Few do it better than Murray when it comes to improvising a scene, or entire movie for that matter.
Natalie Portman – The Professional (1994)
Portman was only thirteen when she auditioned for the role of Mathilda in the blackly comic and violent thriller The Professional.
Her parents initially disapproved of the role as it required Portman’s character to deal with drug-related massacres, a sea of F bombs and sexual connotations. Typical over-protective parents.
They weren’t so disapproving to knock back a tidy paycheck though and Portman auditioned. Director Luc Besson had an older actor in mind but was blown away but her portrayal of a cold and vengeful young girl. Not unlike Jodie Foster’s role as a young prostitute in Taxi Driver, although Foster had already appeared in several features by then and this was Portman’s debut.
Portman held her own with heavyweights Gary Oldman and Jean Reno, showing a great dramatic range with comedic touches. Her tough chick coolness prompted young gals everywhere to adopt that sharp bob haircut.
Alan Rickman – Die Hard (1988)
From the moment Rickman’s terrorist Hans Gruber entered building, he had our attention.
Witty, articulate and charmingly psychopathic, Gruber instantly became one of the big screen’s more memorable bad guys.
Rickman didn’t overplay the East German accent and delivered his lines drolly, barely disguising his contempt for whoever he spoke to.
As he held a gun to the head of the CEO hostage, Rickman calmly explained that he would “count to 3. There won’t be a 4”. He did and there wasn’t.
The British Rickman was already an established stage actor but Die Hard catapulted him into the big time. He made a brilliant career as villains or underappreciated types, always with a touch of wit and self-deprecation.
Rickman’s Gruber was the most eloquent of kidnappers when delivering grim news. After executing the CEO he explained it in simple terms to the remaining employees.
“I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way… so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.”
Can’t be fairer than that.