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The 20 Greatest Movie Performances By A Non-Traditional Actor

10 February 2014 | Features, People Lists | by Dan Torkel

non-traditional actors

I had trouble defining the term “non-traditional” actor. Finally I settled on the idea that a “non-traditional” actor was someone who didn’t start off on the acting track and yet somehow, through fame in another area (sports) or by accident or necessity ended up playing great characters. I am disqualifying singer/actors like Elvis, Sinatra, Cher and Madonna. Sometimes I intentionally break my own rules. Without further ado, the twenty best performances by a non-traditional actor.


20. Jared Leto – Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013)


The role – Rayon is a cross dresser with AIDS who meets Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) in the Oscar nominated film. Despite originally disgusted by her, Ron and Rayon begin an odd-ball friendship and eventual partnership in the titular organization.

In one of the best scenes, Ron lovingly introduces Rayon to a former straight laced buddy in a grocery store and defends her honor. Rayon’s drug addiction coupled with the disease lead to her death but the character nearly steals the movie.

Why “non-traditional” – We know Jared Leto has been an established actor for a long time, but that seemed over and done with. So whether he’s “non-traditional” you can judge for yourself. Despite roles in previously acclaimed films like Requiem for a Dream and blockbusters like Fight Club, his true passion for music took over.

His band 30 Seconds to Mars is incredibly successful selling over 10 million albums worldwide. He hadn’t made a movie since 2009 and seemed all but retired from acting. Then out of nowhere he not only makes a movie, but delivers an Oscar winning performance. 



19. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips (2013)


The role – As Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates who take over the cargo ship in Captain Phillips, Abdi matches wits and punches with Tom Hanks.

Why “non-traditional”– Abdi was working as a limo driver when he was cast. His life story is what they make movies out of. An immigrant from Somalia to Minnesota, Abdi had no Hollywood dreams before getting an Oscar nomination.

Barkhad Abdi


18. Tom Savini – From Dusk Till Dawn (1995)

Tom Savini From Dusk Till Dawn

The Role – In Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s crime thriller-vampire horror comedy, Savini plays Sex Machine… yeah that’s his name. He plays a Titty Twister patron who is able to fight off the vampires thanks to his pop-up crotch gun…yeah that’s his weapon. He also uses a whip and pool cues to make his mark in the cult classic film.

Why “non-traditional” – Savini was a special effects master and make-up artist since 1972 not making a meaningful acting appearance till playing a biker in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. He has directed 5 movies including a pretty decent remake of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead and continues to work as an actor, and effects man.



17. Andrew Dice Clay – Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine Andrew Dice Clay

The Role – In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchet stars as Jasmine, a former Park Avenue millionaire’s wife, who has lost everything and is forced to move in with her plain-Jane sister. Clay plays Augie, Jasmine’s former brother in law whose one shot at success was destroyed in a Madoff-style scam perpetrated by Jasmine’s husband. Augie never forgives Jasmine and blames her for the end of his marriage, and future. He poignantly points out that time doesn’t necessarily heel all wounds.

Why “non-traditional” – Clay was the raunchiest comedian of the late 80s whose career seem dead in the water for over 15 years before getting this emotionally charged role and delivering one of the most surprisingly great performances of the year.



16. Vinnie Jones – Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Vinnie Sum

The Role – Big Chris is an intimidating mob enforcer in Guy Ritchie’s violent crime comedy debut. For reasons unknown the massive Chris is forced to bring his son “Little” Chris with him on jobs. While brutal, he often drops hilarious one-liners that helped turn Lock Stock, and its director into international hits.

Jones was so great in this minor role that he spawned an incredible successful film career, appearing in several Hollywood Blockbusters including X-Men: Last Stand, and Gone in 60 Seconds.

Why “non-traditional” – Jones was 33 when he made his film debut in Lock Stock. Before then he was a pretty notorious player in the English football leagues. While amassing 33 career goals his “discovery” came after a picture was taken of his “marking” an opposing player (grabbing their balls). Jones is an example of art imitating life. He was a bruising violent player on the field, and he’s become type cast in violent characters throughout his career.

Vinnie Jones


15. Tupac Shakur – Juice (1992)

Tupac Shakur Juice

The Role – Playing Bishop, one of four inner city men drawn into the underbelly of violence and crime, Tupac’s performance was unreal, considering it was his first role. The early 90s was a hotbed of urban street thrillers, starting with John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood in 1991, also including Menace 2 Society (93), and Fresh (94). Juice was right in the middle and Shakur’s Bishop was the tragic hero, a character who gets in way too far in his pursuit of power in the hood. “He got the juice now.”

Why “non-traditional” – Tupac was a one of the rappers who transitioned hip-hop from the fun loving 80s, to the darker themes of the 90s including violence, anger towards police, and the sexualizing of women.

He started to become a huge star in the west coast rap scene with Digital Underground and released his first solo album “2Pacalypse Now” in 1991. He accompanied a friend to the script read for Juice and ended up reading and securing one of the main roles. Shakur had the talent for a budding film career before his life was cut short at 25 due to a gang shooting in another art imitates life scene.

Tupac Shakur



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  • Theresa

    Classic case of “right place at the right time.” He was merely a consultant on the set, and ended up in a prominent role in the film. Had anyone else been selected for the role, it would be a different movie entirely! Personally, I believe he’s perfect for the part and I can’t picture anyone else in my head.

  • Terry Shannon

    Nice list. Another that might fit is David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

    • Terry Shannon

      Also, Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

      • Terry Shannon

        And Jim Brown in The Dirty Dozen.

  • That’s awesome, especially the ballet dancer from Die Hard. As for R. Lee Ermey, this makes perfect sense. Few actors could’ve been that convincing in a role like this.

    • Iam_Spartacus

      Kubrick originally wanted an actor to play Sgt Hartman, he hired Ermey as an advisor to coach dialog. Ermey played him a tape of profanities to use and Kubrick thought he was so convincing he hired him for the role. And very un-Kubrick-like, he just let Ermey improvise almost all his lines.

  • Brendan Allen

    I would have liked to see Eminem in 8 Mile.

  • Brian Reyes

    Way to go Gunny….OORAHH!!!

  • Chris Card

    Seems appropriate that R. Lee. Ermey would be #1!

  • Jim Beaver

    It’s a great list of non-traditional actors, but only a very few of them come anywhere near being actual great performances.

  • Iván Solorio (SanS)

    Ryuichi Sakamoto for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence…? I think he deserved a spot in this list too.

  • Susan F

    Stupid List. Ever hear of Cinema History? Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and Esther Williams. Swimmers. Erich Von Stroheim (Greed, The Wedding March) and John Huston. Film Directors. Sam Sheppard. Playwrite. Robert Benchley. Critic. Oscar Levant. Pianist. Lee Strasberg (Drama Teacher) and John Houseman (Director/Producer). The owner or Rao’s Restaurant. Rock legend Steven Van Zandt. The Sopranos.

  • Bjork in Dancer in the Dark.

  • Mark Smith

    What about all the non-professionals Robert Bresson cast?

  • Mark Smith

    I like Terry’s comments, too.

  • Ted Wolf

    could I add anybody in The Bicycle Thieves? Plus for acting prowess, Godunov in Witness would be my go-to

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