The 20 Greatest Movie Performances by a First-Time Actor

Primal Fear (1996)

There are some exceptional cases when a good actor/actress was born that way. Some of them were on the most wanted list in their first try in movie industry. Some of these natural born talents are still remembered; some are almost or totally forgotten. But a goal on the first shot is always something cool to be mentioned.


20. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

halloween laurie

Jamie Lee Curtis’ debut was John Carpenter’s classy independent horror masterwork, a film notable mostly for its music and cinematography. The intro tells us that at one night of 1963, Michael Myers, a six-year-old boy, stabbed his 15 year-old sister to death. Fifteen years later, Mike escapes from the mental institution where he was once convicted to terrorize the town of Haddonfield.

Nobody suspects him when he walks with a white mask on Halloween night. He shows a special interest in stalking Laurie Strode.

Laurie Strode is Jamie Lee Curtis’ debut role. Her reputation of being a scream queen is more than deserved. Halloween was her first acting contract, but definitely not the last with the horror genre. On the other hand Jamie has proved her competence to play different characters, from cult to auteur cinema. She’s also a writer of children books.


19. Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins (1964)

One simply can not experience a proper childhood without the Marry Poppins figure, the lovely Miss “Practically perfect in every way”.

In this magical Walt Disney production, Mary Poppins is a nanny who is hired by an Edwardian English banker to look after his kids. This spoiled and sombre family look as grey as an autumn London sky, until the super nanny starts to teach them how to live every day like a joyful holiday.

The film combines musical, live action and animation. Julie Andrews won an Oscar as the Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1965. Her acting was not just a breakthrough in her movie career, but also a window presenting a new imaginary world for every kid that has ever seen Mary Poppins.


18. Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Frank Ross, a farmer, is murdered by hired hand Tom Chaney. Frank’s 14-year-old daughter Mattie Ross sets out to capture the killer. She hires a man with true grit, Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, the toughest US marshal she can find to aid her to capture Tom.

Cogburn seems to be a drunken angry old man. Against his wishes, she joins Cogburn to track Tom. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf wants Tom Chaney dead for his own reasons. So they make a cute unlikely trio haunting the same guy and the “full of surprises” journey begins.

Hailee Steinfeld was cast for the role of Mattie Ross after competing against 15,000 other applicants. She made a high-toned debut in a Coen Brothers western next to Jeff Bridges. It couldn’t have been better even in her wildest dreams.


17. Alan Rickman in Die Hard

Alan Rickman in Die Hard

This classic action movie presented Alan Rickman to the world for the first time.

New York cop John McClane has just arrived in LA to spend Christmas with his wife, Holly. After he arrives at Nakatomi Plaza, he meets Holly and they have an argument in a private bathroom.

When Holly leaves to give a speech, thirteen armed terrorists led by Hans Gruber seize control of the building and take the occupants of the 30th floor, who are the only ones left in the building. Now it’s up to McCLane to face the terrorists and save his wife and the other hostages.

After several appearances on British television films, Hans Gruber is Rickman’s first role in a motion picture. Alan Rickman’s villains are the most memorable of all his roles. Once a villain, always a villain.


16. Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused


Richard Linklater knows for sure how to make a coming of age film. It is a story of high school kids in a small town in Texas during their last day of school. The cool title came from Led Zeppelin’s song with the same name.

It’s May of 1976. The seniors are excited to chase the newbies. The sportsmen have signed a pledge not to get drunk, stoned, or laid, but none can resist the temptation of the youth calling. There are many memorable characters in the film that may remind you of yourself, or someone you used to know in high school.

But to be first mentioned are Mitch Kramer, who becomes the new target of the seniors to get hazed, the typical cute weirdo with a beautiful mom, and a pretty sister (in this case) and Randall “Pink” Floyd, the school’s star football player who moves easily through different groups, from nerds to stoners.

It’s Matthew McConaughey’s breakthrough in big screen. There’s an unforgettable audition tape somewhere on the web for Dazed and Confused. Matthew McConaughey plays the role of an older buddy, David Wooderson, a friend of Randall “Pink” Floyd, who’s still hanging around with younger high school fellas.


15. Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore


Max Fischer is an eccentric 15-year-old boy at Rushmore private school. There he fails exams but keeps organizing clubs and plays.

Max is very mature for his age. He falls in love with Miss Cross, a widowed elementary school teacher in Rushmore. Max befriends with Herman Blume (Bill Murray), an unhappy local industrialist, who also falls for Rosemary Cross. This odd love triangle soon makes their personal and professional lives spin out of control.

Rushmore is the subsequent film of Bottle Rocket. It’s another Wes Anderson independent masterpiece, as visually stunning as all Anderson’s movies. This film is Murray’s big turn into independent cinema and Jason Schwartzman’s debut.

Schwartzman was 17 when Anderson met him at a party via Sofia Coppola. Since no one else could replace Schwartzman in the Max Fischer role, sometimes nepotism is bliss.


14. Anna Karina in Le Petit Soldat


The Little Soldier was the first collaboration between Jean Luc Godard and Anna Karina. It was made in 1960, but not released until 1963.

During the Algerian war for independence from France, a young Frenchman, Bruno Forestier who lives in Geneva, is working for French Intelligence. He has to kill Palivoda, who is a defender of National Liberation Front of Algeria, in order to prove he’s not a double agent. While hesitating for his duty, he meets Veronica Dreyer (the surname is not a coincidence), who helped the FLN. Things become more complicated after this meeting.

Anna’s first appearance on the big screen was also her first complicity with the director who became her husband later. They became the iconic couple of French New Wave.


13. Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

In Iverstown 1928, Martha Smith Ivers fails again to run away from her rich aunt with her poor friend Sam Masterson. The young girl and Sam discuss to try again. But when the domineering aunt attacks Martha’s cat with a cane, Martha attacks the woman back with the same cane and accidentally murders her.

Mr. O’Neil suspects Martha’s story but he convinces the police with the same story. Old O’Neil moves to Martha’s house with his son.

Eighteen years later Martha Ivers is married to young O’Neil. She now owns a business empire, while O’Neil is an attorney. Sam is back in town. His new friend Antonia “Toni” Marachek suddenly goes to jail, so Sam comes to Martha’s house to get juridical help from her husband.

Walter O’Neil believes he comes to blackmail the couple, so he tries his best to put the drifter out of town again. Many secrets are then revealed. Martha is finally convinced that she has lost any chance to be happy with her life. Her husband once again proves his infinite unconditional love to her. And Sam, the drifter, remains a drifter.

The film is definitely a must-see, since Hollywood doesn’t produce this kind of masterpieces anymore.


12. Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon

Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon

Peter Bogdanovich made this comedy-drama in 1973. It tells the story of Moses Pray and Addie Loggins. During the Great Depression, Moses meets 9-year-old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) at Addie’s mother’s graveside service.

Since he has had an affair with Addie’s mother and people are talking that they look a lot alike, Moses begins to suspect, but he is persuaded to deliver the little girl to her aunt’s home in St. Joseph, Missouri.

On the way Moses is spreading “The Truth” through bible from town to town. Addie, who’s a very smart girl for her age, soon realizes that he’s nothing more than a fraud, so they start to collaborate to make some easy money. The duo is looking for their ultimate score. Many strange and hilarious characters are seen during this journey.

Tatum O’Neal is not just marvelous in her first role, she’s the axe of the film. With a heavy weight on her tiny shoulders, the little girl stays solid in a very high-toned way.


11. Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips


The film is based upon the true story of MV Maersk Alabama, the first American ship to be hijacked by pirates in 200 years. The film focuses on the relationship between the two commanders, Captain Phillips and Abduwali Muse, the Somali pirate captain.

Barkhad Abdi was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards in 2014. It was his first major role and his first contact with the motion picture industry. Before acting he has practiced many different jobs including limousine driver. He has also directed a film called Ciyaalka Xaafada and several music videos.