The road to success is long, winding, and peppered with roadblocks. Movies taught us that we would be plucked from obscurity to become stars, an oft-repeated chosen one trope that has given many struggling artists hope while working in survival jobs and trying to break into the industry. There's no substitution for hard work and talent, but even today's A-listers needed a little luck to make it. These celebrity big breaks were written in the stars. Maybe you'll be next.
Pete Davidson worked hard to become the youngest Saturday Night Live castmember when he was 20 years old, but he didn't get there without a little help from his friends. Pete started performing standup comedy when he was 16 on Staten Island, which led to a series of small television and film roles, including a part in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer's romantic comedy Trainwreck as one of Bill Hader's patients. Bill talked to Entertainment Weekly ahead of his hosting debut, where he dished about recommending Pete to Lorne Michaels for an SNL audition after being impressed by his work on the film. It's all about who you know.
Bill Hader's recommendation of Pete was paying forward the good fortune that landed him an SNL audition all those years ago. Arguably the most versatile utility-player in SNL history, Bill was only flirting with comedy when he got his big break. Following a big break-up, Bill signed up for Second City improv classes in a characteristic panic and found that he was a natural, forming his own sketch comedy group with some friends from the program. Amongst its members was Matt Offerman, brother of Parks and Recreation standout Nick Offerman. Nick's wife, Will & Grace comedienne Megan Mullally, caught one of her brother-in-law's backyard shows and was immediately taken by Bill's performance. She recommended Bill to Lorne Michaels, and the rest was history.
Chris Pratt told the story of his discovery on Live with Kelly and Ryan in 2018, and it involves Bubba Gump Shrimp, stripping, and Hawaii. After dropping out of community college to become a daytime stripper, Chris found himself homeless in Hawaii working at Bubba Gump and stuffing envelopes with Jews for Jesus. While he was waiting tables, The Color Purple star and director Rae Dawn Chong noticed that he was cute and asked if he wanted to act. Chris carpe'd that diem and flew out to Los Angeles with a role in her horror comedy Cursed Part III.
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Mandy Moore is best known for roles in instant classics like Tangled, A Walk to Remember, and This Is Us, but '90s kids remember that this starlet got her start as a pop singer. Mandy told Into the Gloss that during her teens, she had a weird affinity for singing the National Anthem. She started taking her act to various sporting events in the area, and some dudes asked if she wanted to cut a demo. The summer before high school, Mandy used some money she made doing commercials to book studio time, and a FedEx delivery man heard her singing. As it turns out, that FedEx man was friends of a friend with the head of Urban A&R at Epic Records and passed her unfinished demo off to the studio big wigs.
Donald Glover's first job was on 30 Rock. Let that sink in. My first job was restocking shelves at a library, if that helps put his epicness into perspective. While the artist also known as Childish Gambino was still attending NYU, Tina Fey found some videos Donald had made for a student improv troupe on YouTube and hired him as a staff writer for her hit series when he was only 23. Donald told The New Yorker that a big part of the decision was NBC's Diversity Initiative giving shows a financial incentive to hire people of color, but it's his talent that got his foot in the door.
Never let anyone tell you that you're being overdramatic. If Charlize Theron had kept her cool in 1994, she might not have become one of the world's highest-paid actresses. After a knee injury ended her ballet career, Charlize bought a one-way ticket to Hollywood when she was 18 years old with dreams of making it in the film industry. O Magazine asked Charlize about the moment she met John Crosby, who became her manager, at a bank. The teller wouldn't let her deposit an out-of-state check she needed to make rent, and overwhelmed with panic, Charlize began begging with him to find a loophole in the system. John was in line during Charlize's performance and after she successfully cashed her check, he offered to represent her. Charlize has said she doesn't think she would've become successful if she wasn't in the bank that day.
David Boreanaz isn't a household name, but the actor GQ called the "Most Steadily Employed Man on Television" went from his breakout role as Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his own spin-off Angel to a leading role on Bones, and he can now be seen every Wednesday on SEAL Team. When casting director Marcia Shulman was looking for the most handsome man in the world to play Buffy Summers's vampire lover, a friend saw David walking his dog around her neighborhood and called Marcia to let her know that handsome man was the only man for the job.
Vin Diesel was a nightclub bouncer before his celebrity big break, but he would never have made it in Hollywood if he hadn't stirred up a little trouble in his youth. When Vin, then known as Mark Vincent, was only seven years old, he broke into Manhattan's Theater for the New City to wreak havoc with his friends. Instead of calling the authorities, artistic director Crystal Field leveled with the youths and asked Vin to come train at the theatre. Vin told CNN he began as a stage actor juggling Off-Broadway roles before becoming the action hero we know and love, but he's never forgotten his roots.
Ellen Pompeo is the highest-paid actress on a primetime drama, netting $20 million a season on Grey's Anatomy, but her original dream was to star in feature films. Ellen famously auditioned for Grey's under duress after her movie career had stalled in 2004, but her superstar dreams began when she was discovered by a casting director in New York City. Ellen opened up to ABC News about her celebrity big break, revealing that she was bartending at SoHo Bar & Grill when a casting director came in for a drink and came out with a new star for his L'Oreal commercial.
Rosario Dawson didn't want to be a star. The Rent star told New York Daily News she was surrounded by starving artists in her Lower East Side neighborhood who were working survival jobs because their art couldn't sustain them. She wanted to be the first person in her family to go to college, but when filmmaker Larry Clark found Rosario hanging out on her stoop in 1995, he asked her to star in his upcoming movie Kids. The Harmony Korine flick became a cult classic in the vein of 13 and launched Rosario's career alongside Chloeë Sevigny's, and Rosario fell in love with acting.
Natalie Portman booked her first feature when she was 11 years old, plucked from a group of over 2,000 auditioners, but her celebrity big break came two years earlier when she was discovered in a pizza shop. Vogue tells the story of how a Revlon scout approached her in a pizza parlor while she was on vacation. Natalie had already been bitten by the acting bug, much to the chagrin of her parents, so when the scout asked her if she would be interested in modeling, Natalie responded by asking if she could instead be put in touch with an acting agent. Even in her formative years, Natalie understood the power of asking for what you want.
Harrison Ford's celebrity big break is the stuff of Hollywood legend, but even George Lucas seems to forget the details. During a Star Wars Celebration panel, George and Harrison differed on their accounts of the fateful day the then-carpenter came in to fix one of George's doors. George thought it was a set up to get the former actor in for an audition, but Harrison held steady that it was a coincidence he walked into the Han Solo casting call that afternoon. Mashable went directly to the source, producer Fred Roos who had hired Harrison for the gig. Harrison had it right — it just so happened that he was one of Fred's go-to carpenters, and there was a door that needed fixing. It was serendipity at work.
Lauren Conrad is known for her starring role on The Hills, a reality TV hit before anyone had heard of reality TV hits, her young adult book series, and her various fashion lines, but the artist formerly known as L.C. wouldn't have had her celebrity big break if she went to private school. Lauren got her start on Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, an MTV reality series inspired by primetime teen soap The O.C. Entertainment Weekly reported that producers originally intended to film the show at Laguna Beach High School, where they scouted their stars, but after Janet Jackson's nip-slip at the MTC-produced Super Bowl halftime show that year, the local school board decided MTV wasn't responsible enough to film on campus. To be fair, the school board was probably right. MTV had already found a compelling cast, so they decided to forge ahead anyway by filming only on weekends.
Ashton Kutcher is another actor who was originally scouted for modeling, which might explain why so many actors are ridiculously beautiful. Ashton was riding the struggle bus during his early years at the University of Iowa, where he worked at a General Mills cereal plant and sold plasma to pay his bills. While he was at a bar called The Airliner in Iowa City, Ashton was approached by a model scout to enter the Fresh Faces of Iowa modeling competition. Ashton dropped out of college after winning the competition and relocated to Los Angeles to pursue acting. The Wall Street Journal profiled the married couple who scouted Ashton, Jeff and Mary Clarke, who also discovered Karlie Kloss at a charity fashion show in 2005.
Heather Morris played the funniest character on Glee, Brittany S. Pierce, who happened to be one of the only characters that didn't become insufferable during the series' slow descent into mediocrity. The world would never have learned about Fondue for Two if Heather, already a successful backup dancer, hadn't been brought in to choreograph a "Single Ladies" dance for Chris Colfer's character, Kurt. Heather had just turned down a second Beyoncé tour when she was called in for the gig, she told Dance Spirit Magazine, and once the Glee producers saw Heather at work, they decided to cast her in a reoccurring role.
Panic! At The Disco has changed significantly since their "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" days. For one thing, the "band" is now just Brendon Urie doing his thing, and Brendon has traded in his pop-punk roots for Top 40 hits. Back in the early '00s, Brendon and his bandmates got their celebrity big break in a very 2004 way: by messaging Pete Wentz on LiveJournal. Brendon and Ryan Ross obsessively sent their demo to the Fall Out Boy bassist until he agreed to meet with them, and after hearing two songs during their band practice, he immediately signed them to his new imprint label Decaydance Records.
Even Jennifer Aniston doubted her fate when she was a young and hungry aspiring actress. Jen had been cast on four failed pilots by 1994 and was starting to think she might never find success when she pulled into a Chevron station on Sunset Boulevard. It just so happened that Warren Littlefield, then the president of NBC's entertainment division and a star-maker in his own right, was gassing up his car across from her. Warren told The Huffington Post that Jen came to talk to Warren, asking him, "is it ever going to happen?" With that moment in mind, Warren made a risky decision to cast Jen on Friends despite her contract with a flailing CBS series. The CBS show flopped, and Jen finally made it.
Maggie Rogers turned a viral video moment into one of the most promising folk-pop careers in decades after taking a masterclass with Pharrell Williams. Maggie was studying at NYU when she played "Alaska" for the prolific producer, and the YouTube video of Pharell's visibly stunned reaction (where he compared her to the ingenuity of the Wu-Tang Clan) turned Maggie into an overnight success. Her debut album, Heard It In A Past Life, was largely inspired by the pressure Maggie felt to follow that buzz as she musically re-introduced herself to the public.
Lil Wayne's celebrity big break isn't too different from Brendon Urie's musical success story. Wayne told The New Yorker he was discovered after leaving a chain of raps on Cash Money Records owner Bryan "Birdman" Williams's answering machine. Wayne met the label exec when he was only 11, and by age 14, Wayne had been brought into the Cash Money fold. He quit school to focus on his work, but later returned for his GED. Wayne now considers Birdman a father figure, with Birdman calling Wayne his son, and his Young Money label is a Cash Money imprint.
Taylor Swift is a force of nature. There's no doubt in our minds that the driven pop artist would have made it happen one way or another if she hadn't gotten a record deal in her teens, but Taylor shared her celebrity big break in an oral history of the historic Bluebird Café for Billboard. Taylor played an acoustic show at the Nashville institution where Scott Borchetta, then a Universal Music Group exec, saw her untapped songwriting potential and recruited her to join his non-existent music label. Scott's pitch made such an impression, Taylor called Scott ten days later and told him that she would wait for him.