10 Underrated Early-Career Performances From Great Actors

5. Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation


In a performance that is almost never mentioned when discussing his career, (even by himself), Will Smith summoned up the most complete character he has ever played.

In Fred Schepisi’s mannered 1993 comedy, Smith plays an exceedingly charming con man, (based on the real life David Hampton), who muscles his way into High Manhattan Society by duping a group of privledged sophisticates into believing he is the cultured, classically-trained chef son of Sidney Poitier.

At the height of his popular sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, this was a role in a movie that almost no viewer of his TV show would ever show interest in.

Smith’s portrayal is unlike anything else he has done, and it is perhaps because he is so unrecognizable in the movie that most viewers haven’t seen or even heard of it. And while almost never being noted as a shining part of his long career, it remains his most studied and cultivated performance to date.


4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin

Like Will Smith, Joseph Gordon-Levitt became known to audiences playing a wisecracking teenage kid in an NBC sitcom. Unlike Smith, Gordon-Levitt parlayed the success of a mature early-career performance in a little-known independent drama into further serious work later on.

In Gregg Araki’s somber 2004 drama about two boys who experience sexual abuse and its after-effects in completely different ways, Gordon-Leavitt portrays a young man who is tough and unrepentantly gay in a town where this would never be tolerated.

Eventually becoming a street hustler in the city, Gordon-Levitt eventually catches up with the other boy who suffered the earlier abuse, and the now grown men work through their problems together in a torrent of emotion that the streetwise Gordon-Levitt eventually brings himself to deal with in a real way.

Re-watching the movie 12 years later, it shows an actor at once self-consciously trying hard to distance himself from his earlier work, while also maturely realizing how rewarding doing thoughtful, artistic work can be.


3. Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat


One of the finest stage, film, and television actors working today, Jeffrey Wright is the kind of artist that people who care about the craft want to see. And while his movie resume is filled with excellent performances in every genre, his early role in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic is one that truly stands out.

Playing the brilliant and troubled New York graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who would eventually die young of a drug overdose, Wright embodies the great man both in physical appearance and artistic technique.

An interesting part of the film is that there are several scenes depicting Basquiat’s creative process, showing Wright only painting. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would get old quickly. However, because Wright is such a magnetic presence, the viewer will gladly watch him painstakingly dumping cans of paint onto a floor-length canvas in scene after scene because in the physical labor, he is able to convey the heart that goes into creating something special.

For a then relatively unknown film actor playing against some of the most famous people in movies, (Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper), Wright owns his scenes and allows a person who wasn’t living in New York in the 1980s a glimpse into another world.


2. Ryan Gosling in The Believer

The Believer (2001)

Today, Ryan Gosling is known to audiences as an exceptional actor who always chooses challenging projects. In his first starring role, Gosling ignored convention, taking on a complex part in a very challenging film that 15 years later has not aged a day, and is one of the most accomplished performances of his career.

In Henry Bean’s bold 2001 drama about the roots of hate, Gosling plays Daniel Balint, a young Jewish man who had an insulated orthodox upbringing in New York, surrounded only by others like him.

Throughout his studies as a child, Daniel becomes acutely aware of a poisonous, self-hating Anti-Semitism that eventually consumes him completely. Seeing the adult Daniel confidently strut about with a shaved head and swastika on his chest, it is almost impossible to believe that this combative skinhead, ready for anything, is the same person who knows the Torah almost by heart.

Daniel spends every second of his free time working to hone his hate, and Jewishness dominates his thoughts. It courses through all of his reading, all of his workouts, all of his visits to fringe right-wing social clubs. Daniel meets and takes part in a growing cult of prospective national socialists, looking to push their malignant ideas mainstream.

Throughout all of this, the viewer is forced to confront their own prejudices, and begin to observe that the collision inside Daniel makes abstract sense. And in the movie’s most audacious hypothesis, it asks the viewer to understand that the unimaginable marriage of Jewish pride and Jewish hate inside of Daniel could actually sustain itself. For such a thing to actually come off, it takes an actor who at a young age could actually understand such material, and Gosling makes it happen.


1. Gary Oldman in Prick Up Your Ears

PRICK UP YOUR EARS, Gary Oldman, 1987. ©Samuel Goldwyn Films

No serious film fan needs to be told that Gary Oldman is a prodigous talent. However, one of the most inconceivably least-remembered films of his career showcases some of the greatest Oldman moments, as he rakish English playwright Joe Orton. Orton’s plays are still controversial today, mainly because of their uncomfortable humor and sexual content.

In Stephen Frears sophisticated and eminently quotable 1987 film, Frears trains his camera on a guy who would be both the most fun friend anyone ever had, and someone impossible to love. The always phenomenal Oldman is exceptionally good in this movie, captivating the viewer and making the character totally impossible to resist, even when following him on adventures would get a person arrested or stomped.

Both impish and dashing in every scene of the film, Oldman has fun in the role, and then shows flashes of the kind of deadly serious acting for which movie fans would later know him best. This film belongs to no genre, because it contains elements of literally all of them. The fact that it remains unseen by so many is a sad reality.

Author Bio: David Lynn Miller works as an Internal Auditor and podcaster. While he lives mainly for movies, he also enjoys literature, sports, NES, and good food. Check out his podcast at http://www.dudesonmovies.com/, or look for it on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.