Before they were deemed top-billing material, even the biggest names in Hollywood had to audition for jobs. Here are 15 early tapes that show why these unknown actors became household names. 

1. Scarlett Johansson

In 1994, an unknown, 11-year-old Scarlett Johansson auditioned for the role of Judy Shepherd in the family film Jumanji. She lost the role to already-established child actor Kirsten Dunst, whose performance in that year's Interview with the Vampire had already earned her a Golden Globe nomination.

2. Matthew McConaughey

In 2013, the Criterion Collection released exclusive audition tapes from Dazed & Confused for the film’s 20th anniversary. Matthew McConaughey had been invited to audition for the role of David Wooderson, the older burnout who hangs out with high school students, after a night of drinking with casting director Don Phillips in a bar in Austin, Texas. Phillips was in town to scout locations and local talent for the movie, and McConaughey caught his eye.

“There was this bartender I knew from film school who worked at the Hyatt and would give us a discount, so we went there,” McConaughey told Texas Monthly magazine in 2003. “And when we walk in, he’s there, and he goes, 'Hey, man, the guy down at the end of the bar is in town producing a film.' So I went down and introduced myself.”

 

3. Brad Pitt

In the early '90s, Brad Pitt auditioned for the role of Chicago firefighter Brian McCaffrey in Backdraft, a part that Robert Downey, Jr. also auditioned for, but which ultimately went to William Baldwin. Interestingly, Baldwin was originally set to play the character of J.D. in Thelma & Louise, but he pulled out at the last minute to star in the bigger-budgeted Backdraft instead. The J.D. role eventually went to Pitt and launched his career. And both Backdraft and Thelma & Louise came out on the same weekend in May 1991.

4. Gwyneth Paltrow

Before Laura Dern landed the role of Dr. Ellie Sattler in the Steven Spielberg-directed Jurassic Park, Gwyneth Paltrow auditioned for the part of the lovely and smart paleobotanist. Paltrow didn’t have much experience on the big screen before her audition for the 1993 blockbuster. However, she appeared briefly as the young Wendy Darling in 1991’s Hook, which Spielberg also directed. She would later gain more recognition in the thriller Se7en, co-starring with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in 1995. 

Helen Hunt also auditioned for Dr. Sattler (and really looked the part in her tied-up button-down and khakis). Hunt had been a working actor for nearly 20 years by that point, but she gained the most stardom a couple of years later with her Emmy-winning role on the hit sitcom Mad About You. Additionally, both Paltrow and Hunt went on to win Academy Awards for best actress in Shakespeare in Love and As Good As It Gets, respectively.

5. Julia Roberts

Three years before her big screen debut in the film Satisfaction, Julia Roberts auditioned for the teen drama Seven Minutes in Heaven, which was released in 1985. She lost the part to Jennifer Connelly, who was more established in Hollywood at the time. Roberts became a breakout star after appearing in Steel Magnolias in 1989 and Pretty Woman in 1990. 

6. Seth Rogen

After winning the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest at age 16, Seth Rogen auditioned for producer Judd Apatow during a local casting call for Freaks and Geeks in early 1999. When he eventually landed the role of Ken Miller, his family relocated from Vancouver to Los Angeles so he could work on the TV show. James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps, and Martin Starr all also auditioned and won co-starring roles on the cult hit.

7. Rachel McAdams

Although she made her on-screen debut in The Hot Chick in 2002, Rachel McAdams didn’t break out in Hollywood until she starred in both Mean Girls and The Notebook in 2004. McAdams intensely researched her character for the wealthy southern belle Allie Hamilton in The Notebook. She lived in Charleston, S.C. before the film started shooting to fine tune her southern accent, and attended extensive ballet and etiquette classes.  

8. Natalie Portman

In 1993, Natalie Portman auditioned for the lead in Léon: The Professional of Mathilda, an 11-year-old girl who witnesses the massacre of her family and befriends a middle-aged hitman to seek revenge. She landed the role and before the movie premiered, she changed her name from Neta-Lee Hershlag for privacy reasons, taking her grandmother's maiden name. She would also go on to star in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and win an Academy Award for her performance in Black Swan in 2010. 

9. Hugh Jackman

In 1999, the Tony-winning stage actor Hugh Jackman auditioned for the character of Wolverine in X-Men. While Jackman didn’t get the role at first, director Bryan Singer went back to audition tapes when Dougray Scott, the actor who was originally cast as Wolverine, got injured and had to leave the production. Singer re-watched Jackman’s audition tape and brought him back for a screen test and Jackman has now played Wolverine in seven X-Men movies (plus the two on their way). 

10. Megan Fox

Megan Fox was an extra on Bad Boys 2 when she caught director Michael Bay’s eye. He was so impressed that he asked her to audition for his next big movie. She won the supporting role of Mikaela Banes and appeared in Transformers and its sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

11. Aaron Paul

While Aaron Paul appeared in small parts on numerous TV commercials, music videos, and movies, he wasn't a household name until he landed the role of Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad in 2007. Paul's chemistry with co-star Bryan Cranston and his ability to pick up on showrunner Vince Gilligan’s dark sense of humor contributed to his eventual three-time Emmy winner status—originally, Pinkman's character was supposed to be killed off at the end of season one, but Gilligan realized that losing Paul would be a huge mistake. 

12. Emma Stone

Emma Stone landed her first leading role in the movie Easy A after director Will Gluck urged her to send in an audition tape of the film’s main character’s webcam confession. But, she didn’t like having so much control over the audition tape because she ended up redoing the scene multiple times until she felt it was perfect. 

“I knew that if I had the control I was going to do it over and over and over and over because you don’t want to send something and be like, 'That is the best I can do,'" Stone has said. “I knew I was never going to feel that way. So, I did that for a couple hours. It’s like a one-minute monologue, and I did it over and over and over.” 

13. Robert De Niro

In 1971, Robert De Niro auditioned for the role of the hot-headed gangster Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. While the role ultimately went to James Caan, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, De Niro landed the role of the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II two years later, and won his first Oscar for the part.

14. Leonardo DiCaprio

When he was 15 years old, Leonardo DiCaprio auditioned for a role on the short-lived TV version of The Outsiders in 1990. He landed a small part in the pilot episode, but Fox canceled the show a few weeks after it premiered. DiCaprio went on to appear as a regular cast member on the TV shows Parenthood and Growing Pains before making the leap to the big screen with This Boy's Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 1993. 

15. Miley Cyrus

At age 11, Miley Cyrus sent the Disney Channel an audition tape for the TV show Hannah Montana. Cyrus originally auditioned for the best friend role, but Disney producers liked her on-screen presence and natural charisma, so they asked her to re-audition for the lead role. Cyrus flew to Hollywood to audition in person and producers offered her the star-making lead.