The 20 Greatest Movie Performances By A Non-Traditional Actor

14. Danny Trejo – Machete (2010)

Danny Trejo Machete

The Role – Machete, duh! Trejo plays the title role in this Robert Rodriguez spoof action movie that was conceived as a phony-trailer in Quentin Tarantino & Rodriguez’s pet project Grindhouse. The reaction to the fake trailer was so overwhelming that Rodriguez submitted to fan pressure, made the film in 2010. My favorite scene… Trejo using a random goon’s intestines as a rope to swing from one floor to another in an explosive building scene.

Why “non-traditional” – You know Danny Trejo, even if you don’t know Danny Trejo. For years he was “that big Mexican guy with the chest tattoo.” A staple in Rodriguez’s films since Desperado, Trejo has actually amassed a ridiculous 270+ films on his resume. Despite his often intimidating stature in films, he is very short (IMDB claims 5’7, but I met him at a horror convention and he was barely 5’5); and ALMOST 70 YEARS OLD!!!

But how can a man with 270+ film credits be a non-traditional actor? Good question. Trejo spent over a decade in the California prison system on a variety of charges mostly involving drugs. In prison he became a boxing champion, which would become important later on.

After completing a 12-step program and being released he showed up for a former prison inmate on the 1985 film shoot of Runaway Train. He quickly was offered jobs as a “prison extra” and then was paid to train star Eric Roberts for the boxing scenes. Trejo turned the seemingly random opportunity into one of the most active and successful film careers in modern times.

Danny Trejo


13. Ray Allen – He Got Game (1998)

Ray Allen He Got Game

The Role – Ray Allen IS Jesus Shuttlesworth. Jesus is THE next great NBA player, the number one high school prospect. When the Governor allows his estranged father Jake (Denzel Washington) out of prison to convince Jesus to go to the Governor’s college it sets up the main “rivalry” of the film as Jake tries to come back into his son’s life. Jesus has a lot to deal with. His fame and popularity, the “perks” of being the next big thing, his girlfriend, and now dealing with his father’s strong personality make his choices tough. .

If this was a cheesy 80s movie, it would end with Shuttlesworth hitting a jumper over a rival. Here the story in Jesus dealing with pressures no normal teenage kid faces and using basketball the all-encompassing world the characters live in. Spike Lee’s gritty film is less about basketball as a game as it basketball as a way of life for many inner city teens.

Why “non-traditional” – Allen was at the time and still is a highly successful NBA star. This was the rare case where it wasn’t an athlete switching careers or doing a bad cameo. This was a top star at the beginning of his career taking time to make a great film and deliver a huge performance. Allen was on the Milwaukee Bucks averaging over 20 points a game, holding his own against the NBA’s top stars.

Perhaps more impressive is Allen holding his own with veteran director Spike Lee and Oscar winner Denzel. This is NOT Michael Jordan in Space Jam. Despite the great performance, Allen fully committed to basketball and has since won multiple NBA Titles and is the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. Working in a famous “basketball school” that was used in He Got Game, this film holds a special place in my heart.

NBA Finals Game 6:  Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers


12. Andre the Giant – The Princess Bride (1987)

Andre the Giant The Princess Bride

The Role – Fezzik the Giant is unfortunately NOT the monstrous being the scheming Vizzini hoped for. He’s certainly a giant, but a lovable one who even allows his enemies to fight him fair rather than “kill you now”.

He also cracks some classic one-liners and rhymes that make the audience laugh, Vizzini insane, and the kidnapped princess comfortable. He is the epitome of the phrase “gentle giant.” The film and his performance are the things of legends to kids who grew up the mid-80s. Anyone want a peanut!?!?

Why “non-traditional” – Andre was one of the most successful professional wrestlers of all time and was a top featured heel (bad guy) in 1987 when Bride was made. As an actor he only appeared in some TV cameos in the 70s.

William Goldman, the author of The Princess Bride supposedly used Andre as the basis of Fezzik, and was his first choice for the role. Andre suffered from acromegaly a disease better known as gigantism. His body was so deteriorated that he couldn’t even hold Robin Wright during their scenes at the end. Sadly, Andre died in 1993 at the age of 46. But as much as he’s remembered for being Hulk Hogan’s biggest foe, to many, he will always be Fezzik.



11. The Kids in School of Rock – School of Rock (2003)


The Role – Zack, Katie, Lawrence, Freddy, and about 20 other prep school kids are patiently awaiting their substitute teacher when Dewey Finn (Jack Black) shows up. Dewey lies, claiming to be his roommate and ends up converting the classical music playing kids into a rock band destined to play and win “Battle of the Bands.”

Why “non-traditional” – This wasn’t your conventional “kids movies” in terms of the group of young actors. Only one, Miranda Cosgrove (I Carly) would go to have a successful acting career. The others were picked for their musical ability, delivered a tour-de-force performance and then went back to real life.

Joey Gaydos Jr and Rebecca Brown, (Zack and Katie) now play in bands. Robert Tsai, the shy keyboardist, Lawrence never made another film. These kids were the heart and soul of a pretty kick ass comedy and helped feed into Black’s childlike persona. And they did ROCK! The concert they play at Battle of the Bands kicks ass! It’s amazing these kids all basically went right back into obscurity.

The Kids in School of Rock


10. Zoe Bell – Death Proof (2007)

Zoe Bell Death Proof

The Role – Zoe plays Zoe, a stuntwoman who along with a group of acting friends finds a classic 1970 Dodge Challenger to take for a joy ride. Problem is, unbeknownst to them, that they are being stalked by psychopath Stuntman Mike (a gleeful Kurt Russell) who kills people using his “death-proof” stunt car. Zoe steals the movie as she straps herself on to the hood of the car for a stunt-woman’s dream ride gone horribly wrong.

Why “non-traditional” – Zoe Bell is a stunt double, and stunt woman famous for doubling for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films as well as Xena on the 90s TV show. Tarantino surprised her by giving her a lead acting role in the second half of Death Proof.

Her scenes, in which she of course does her own stunts, are the most riveting in the movie as she hangs on the hood of the challenger somehow managing to avoid “death by car crash” thanks to the crazed villain. She brings realness to the dialogue. You totally could see 4 actresses hanging out off set talking the way her and her group do.



9. Alexander Godunov – Die Hard (1988)

Alexander Godunov Die Hard

The Role – Karl is Hans Gruber’s number 1 henchmen in what many (me) consider the greatest action movie ever, Die Hard. When Alan Rickman (Hans) and his fellow German terrorists seize the Nakatomi building in Los Angeles, only renegade NY cop John McClane can stop them.

The first person McClane kills is a tall blonde henchman whose neck breaks during a tumble down a flight of stairs. McClane lets everyone know he’s there by putting the body in the elevator with a cheery message, “Now I have a machine gun, HO, HO, HO.” It happens to be Karl’s brother. This leads to several classic showdowns later in the film with Karl more intent on torturing and maiming John than simply killing him quickly. “SHOOT THE GLASS!”

Why “non-traditional” – Godunov was a world famous…wait for it… ballet dancer! A friend of famed Russian Mikhail Baryshnikov, Godunov defected from the Soviet Union and loads of international intrigue followed him throughout the early 80s. He took a stab at acting and earned good role in 1985’s Witness, before becoming everyone’s favorite hulking terrorist.

Russian dancer Alexander Godunov


8. Roddy Piper – They Live (1988)


The Role – As loner Nada, “Rowdy” Roddy wanders the streets looking for work in a world rife with consumerism and a clear divide between the haves and have-nots. John Carpenter has made some of horrors most iconic films, but They Live has a cult status many of his works don’t, and Piper is one of the main reasons.

He stumbles upon some sunglasses that reveal the truth; the world has been taken over by aliens, disguised in plain sight as humans who are using subliminal messages to control human behavior. Piper is totally believable as the every-man who becomes a player in something he doesn’t quite understand. He also is given some incredible lines of 80s dialogue including the infamous, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubble gum.”

Why “non-traditional” – The second wrestler-turned actor on the list, Carpenter liked Piper because he could easily do the physical parts required of Nada. Piper has the advantage of being a pro-wrestler who isn’t a steroided monster ala 1980’s Hulk Hogan. Piper realistically portrays the everyman character. His dialogue comes off natural which makes sense as Piper was known for being one of the best talkers in the wrestling business.

One of the best parts of this movie was the fight scene between Piper and co-star Keith David which by all accounts was a real fight/wrestling match that they choreographed. Though Piper’s film career didn’t blossom, his iconic performance in They Live remains a cult classic, especially for Carpenter fans and 80s movies fans.