Looking Back At 3 Underrated Breakthrough Roles In Film

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Looking Back at 3 Underrated Breakthrough Roles in Film

No matter when they get their start, all actors are waiting for their big break. Unfortunately, Hollywood tends to be a make-or-break industry, which means it can take years (or possibly decades) before an artist breaks through with a major role. But then it’s often just the start of a fruitful career.

Even after an actor manages to get their name in the spotlight, it can be hard to stay there. However, those who become a household name with a few memorable roles won’t be forgotten anytime soon. In fact, they might become such a global superstar that the masses forget they ever even had a breakthrough role.

Let’s jump in the time machine and explore some of the most interesting breakthrough roles by some of the world’s most recognized (and beloved) Hollywood stars.

Clive Owen, Croupier (1998)

In the early 2000s, British actor Clive Owen became an international star for his role in action and drama tiles. From Sin City (2005) to Children of Men (2006), Owen became his generation’s leading man, known for his brooding and gritty characterizations. However, his original breakthrough came as a roulette dealer in the film Croupier

Today, most roulette fans play the title on virtual casinos. Online platforms make it easier to study the roulette board layout and the rules, learn which strategies work for them, and how to manage their funds. But back in the late 90s, players stuck to brick-and-mortar casinos where real-life croupiers, like Owen’s character, interact with players.

Blending elements of noir drama and detective stories, Owen takes viewers straight into the internal musings of a croupier who plans on becoming a writer. His musings provide endless intrigue as a handful of memorable characters filter in for a game of roulette, each of which seems to be more dramatic than the last.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko (2001)

Like Owen, Jake Gyllenhaal became a household name in the early 2000s for his roles in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Source Code (2011). However, his original breakthrough may last the test of time better than his later hits thanks to its status as a cult classic. 

Donnie Darko is a psychological film that focuses on the story of one young man named Donnie, played by Gyllenhaal. The film combines elements of a classic coming-of-age story, then subverts them with a dark and vague plot that centers around an impending disaster—one which Donnie might be able to stop with the help of a man in a full-sized bunny costume. 

Sound a little ambiguous? It seems this is part of the film’s appeal, as it defies narrative and genre standards, delving deep into a unique and rarely-seen take on coming-of-age plots. Since its release, the film has gained a cult following and has been listed as one of the top projects from indie filmmakers, claiming the No. 2 spot on Empire’s ’50 Greatest Independent Films of All Time’ list.

Samuel L. Jackson, Goodfellas (1990)

Back when Martin Scorsese released Goodfellas, the film included a blockbuster list of actors, from Joe Pesci to Robert De Niro to Ray Liotta. But few fans realize that the film includes a performance from an actor who would later go on to replace names like Pesci, De Niro, and Liotta in terms of action and drama roles. This actor is a young Samuel L. Jackson who plays a minor role as Stacks.

Even fans of Jackson’s later work might not notice his place on the reel, as Stacks has an unfortunate fate in the film thanks to his role in disposing of a vehicle. However, it’s a fitting role for Jackson, who would go on to star in Pulp Fiction only four years later in 1990. Compared to roles the actor would take on later in his career, Goodfellas is a breakthrough role that seems to have helped steer Jackson’s interest in Hollywood.

In fact, many consider Jackson to be one of the greatest and most iconic actors of all time—a list he now occupies along with names like Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.


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