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    44 Movies That Gambled On Casting Nonactors And Had It Pay Off Beautifully

    Random people, plucked from obscurity, who delivered.

    We've done a couple posts (found here and here) where members of the BuzzFeed Community shared performances by nonactors that absolutely blew them away. Here are the best entries from those posts along with some A+ new ones:

    1. Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader in Captain Phillips

    Abdi glaring at Tom Hanks in the film
    Sony

    "Barkhad Abdi ad-libbed the most famous line from that movie: 'Look at me. I am the captain now.' He was meant to be in Hollywood, lmao."

    layue

    Barkhad Abdi was a Minneapolis-based chauffeur when he was cast opposite Tom Hanks. There is a sizable Somali community in Minneapolis, so the filmmakers — in looking for actors to portray the Somali pirates — did a casting call there. Barkhad attended after seeing a commercial for the casting call and went on to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.

    2. Darlene Cates as Bonnie, the mother in What's Eating Gilbert Grape

    Cates reclines on her couch with her son played by leonardo dicaprio leaning against her
    Paramount

    "She got the part after the film's screenwriter saw her on an episode of The Sally Jessy Raphael Show called 'Too Heavy to Leave Their House.' She only acted in a few other things after that — episodes of Touched by an Angel and Picket Fences, and a TV movie — and died in 2017 at the age of 69."

    rnvary

    3. Sasha Lane as Star in American Honey

    Lane raises a hand triumphantly in the film
    Holly Homer/© A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection

    Lane was spring breaking on the beach in Florida with her friends — and a little intoxicated — when filmmaker Andrea Arnold, her assistant, and a casting associate approached her about possibly being in their film. Despite one of Lane's friends worrying the trio were looking to cast porn, Lane decided to learn more about the film.

    Lane soon won the lead role, and her performance as a troubled teen who runs away from home to travel the country selling magazine subscriptions earned her Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards.

    Since then, Lane has continued to act in high-profile projects like Hellboy and Disney+'s Loki.

      

    4. Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fogell aka "McLovin" in Superbad

    Mintz-Plasse forces a smile as his fake ID is reviewed by a clerk
    Sony

    "He had no film experience at all, so he had to use an iPhone pic as his headshot for the audition."

    djtierney

    5. Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

    Horn with Tom hanks in the film
    Francois Duhamel/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

    The then-12-year-old Horn had never given acting a thought in his life when the film's producers approached him after he won over $30,000 on Jeopardy! Kids Week. After meeting Horn, director Stephen Daldry was impressed enough to cast him. Daldry was pleased with the result, telling NPR Horn "gives probably one of the greatest screen performances by a young actor ever."

    6. Hunter Schafer as Jules in Euphoria

    Schafer backlit while wearing a dress and fluffy backpack
    HBO

    "She'd never seriously acted before. It’s completely shocking because she was outstanding in the role!"

    ljm110804gmailcom

    Schafer was a model with plans to study fashion design when her modeling agency told her she'd been asked to audition for the role. She told the New York Times, “I gave it a shot just because I had been mildly interested in acting, but it wasn’t something that I thought I would be pursuing seriously in any way, shape, or form.”

    7. Gabourey Sidibe as Precious in Precious

    Sidibe walking down the street in a leather jacket as men look on
    Lionsgate

    "Gabourey was a psychology student when she decided to skip class one day to go to a casting call for a Lee Daniels movie. She ended up winning the lead role and was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards."

    mgusedom

    8. Catherine Scorsese as Tommy's mother in Goodfellas

    Joe Pesci kissing Catherine in a scene from Goodfellas
    Warner Bros.

    Martin Scorsese cast his mother, Catherine — a nonactor who'd worked in the garment industry — in a good-sized role as Joe Pesci's mother. As it turns out, her casting may have saved the film. An initial screening was a disaster because people found the film too violent. They liked the heart of the relationship between Pesci and his mother, though, so Scorsese re-edited the film, toning down the violence and playing up the mother/son relationship, and the rest is history!

    9. Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Roma

    Miramax, Jean-baptiste Lacroix / Getty Images

    "She was a preschool teacher turned actor who got an Oscar nomination for her very first acting role in Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón."

    janinha

    10. Harold Russell as serviceman turned civilian Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives

    Harold Russell tries to put something away with hooks for hands as a girl looks on sadly
    RKO

    "Harold lost both his hands in World War II and afterward used hooks for hands. He was put in a war training film in 1944 and was so natural on camera that Hollywood noticed. They cast him in this film and the rest is history."

    torim4234bf102

    "Harold had a role written for him in the film, and he was real, compelling, and a natural. He is only one of two nonactors to win an Oscar."

    colleend9

    11. LeBron James as himself in Trainwreck

    James and Bill Hader laugh together over coffee in the film
    Universal

    "He was so funny, and the cafe scene still cracks me up every time I watch it."

    abigailh45f5949f6

    12. Rosario Dawson as Ruby in Kids

    Chloe Sevigny and Rosario DawsonCarr
    Shining Excalibur Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

    "Rosario Dawson was literally discovered hanging on the stoop outside her home with her friends."

    nakias4bd0b33f0

    Chloë Sevigny (who played Jennie, on the phone above) was also a nonactor who made her debut in the movie after meeting screenwriter Harmony Korine in Washington Square Park.

    13. Charmian Carr as Liesl von Trapp in The Sound of Music

    Carr smiles in the film
    20th Century Fox

    "Charmian was a philosophy major when she decided to audition for the role and ended up getting the part! She never acted again, but the role is iconic."

    books_baking_broadway

    14. Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields

    Warner Bros., Rob Boren / Getty Images

    "My absolute favorite nonactor performance. Not only was Mr. Ngor a refugee from Cambodia, but also he himself survived the very 'killing fields' depicted in the movie. He had been a doctor before the Khmer Rouge took over and killed all intellectuals. His wife died in the camps because she was pregnant and they had to keep it secret. He watched in horror as she died from something that he could have helped her with (a C-section), but doing so would have exposed both the pregnancy and the fact that he was a doctor/intellectual. It's powerful. He wrote a book about his life called Survival in the Killing Fields. Sadly. he was killed by some gang members who thought he had gold."

    becky07990

    "He gave such a skilled and heartbreaking performance that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor."

    randomxxramblings

    15. Jameela Jamil as Tahani in The Good Place

    Jamil in the show
    NBC

    "She was a model before but she had never seriously acted, and she was amazing."

    emmabenca21

    Jameela moved to Los Angeles with plans of being a screenwriter but went to The Good Place audition, essentially, as a favor to her agent.

    16. Vinnie Jones as Big Chris in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

    A leather jacket clad Jones leers down at a frightened man in the film
    Gramercy/Columbia/Tri-star

    Jones was a famous English professional soccer player who says his second career as an actor was a "complete random accident."

    The "accident" was instigated by director Guy Ritchie, who asked the soccer star to film a cameo in his film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Jones agreed but didn't anticipate being any good. Ritchie, however, liked Jones' performance so much that he expanded his role into a much bigger one.

    Jones has acted steadily ever since, appearing in over 50 motion pictures.

     

    17. Avu and Swati Chokalingam as Kelly's parents on The Office

    The two, in traditional Indian clothes, look disapproving
    NBC

    "They were played by Mindy Kaling's real parents, who had no acting experience, and were amazing!"

    hollywilmes04

    In real life, Avu is an architect and Swati (who died in 2012) was an obstetrician/gynecologist.

    The Office actually used a fair amount of nonactors or inexperienced actors. Phyllis Smith (who played Phyllis) was a casting assistant on the production who was given a role after the producers heard her funny readings with the auditioning actors, and Paul Lieberstein (who played Toby) was a writer on the show who was unexpectedly asked to appear on screen.

    18. R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket

    Ermey, in a marine uniforn angrily points at the camera
    Warner Bros.

    R. Lee was a career Marine and drill instructor who became a technical adviser on military films like Apocalypse Now (which he briefly appeared in). He was working as technical adviser on Full Metal Jacket when he impressed director Stanley Kubrick so much that he was cast as a drill instructor who unleashes many memorable tirades. His performance earned him a nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture at the Golden Globes.

    19. Kathy C. An as Bokhee on Grey's Anatomy

    Bokhee in scrubs during surgery on the show
    ABC

    "She's a scrub nurse in real life and is an icon!"

    erinr4ba9e9d6b

    20. Harry Styles as Alex in Dunkirk

    Stiles in a World War 1 soldier uniform
    Warner Bros.

    "Although not a nobody picked off the streets, he is a nonactor. His performance was mind-blowing, especially considering he was in a boy band and starred in an epic war thriller."

    user5609

    "It was such a big, unexpected turn in his career but damn did he deliver!"

    penajala

    21. Felicia Pearson as Felicia "Snoop" Pearson on The Wire

    Pearson wearing a sideways baseball cap
    HBO

    "She had no acting experience prior to meeting The Wire cast member Michael K. Williams in a Baltimore club, who invited her onset. There she met the writers and producers who cast her. She is perfectly chilling in that role."

    elizabethg20

    Felicia had a difficult upbringing in Baltimore that informed her performance.

    22. N!xau as Xi in The Gods Must Be Crazy

    A shirtless N!xau in Africa holding the coke bottle that fell from the sky
    20th Century Fox

    c45684e978

    N!xau was a Namibian bush farmer who had A) only seen three white people in his entire life, and B) never seen a settlement larger than the village huts of his people when he was discovered by South African director Jamie Uys. His lively performance helped the movie become an absolutely massive worldwide success. He went on to star in the 1989 sequel as well.

    23. David Berman as David Phillips on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

    Berman in a scene with the CSI cast
    CBS

    "David was the show's head researcher who stood in for a bit part as an assistant coroner. He was such a good fit with the rest of the cast that he became a reoccurring character, then a series lead by the 10th season."

    irishcowgirl

    24. Jaye Davidson as Dil in The Crying Game

    Davidson as Dil looking pretty with makeup, permed hair, and a jean jacket
    Miramax

    "He has a mesmerizing screen presence that makes it hard to take your eyes off of him. Some people who aren’t seasoned actors come off as stiff, but Jaye manages to be both understated and convincing. He didn’t like the spotlight and retired after only three films."

    barbaricyawp

    Jaye — then a fashion assistant — was drunk at a wrap party when he was asked if he was an actor by director Derek Jarman. Despite saying no, he was asked to audition for The Crying Game. He went on to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.

    25. Björk as Selma in Dancer in the Dark

    A woman cradles a smiling Bjork's face
    Fine Line

    "She was absolutely incredible in that film and won a ton of awards (including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival), but never acted again. The film's director, Lars Von Trier, said that because she didn't know how to act, she lived every scene herself and that's why it's so raw and real. Only film to ever make me cry, I wept through the credits."

    clintg49b45f4fb

    Björk is an Icelandic musician who has been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards. A song she co-wrote and performed for Dancer in the Dark, "I've Seen It All," was nominated for Best Song at the 2000 Academy Awards.

    26. Kevin Garnett as himself in Uncut Gems

    Garnett glares at a Adam Sandler in the film
    A24

    "Could’ve easily been some goofy garbage but he was incredible."

    trent1479p

    27. Henry Golding as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians

    Golding smiling at a media event
    Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images

    "He'd never acted before that role and just hosted a travel show!"

    timuva5454

    An accountant working in the Malaysian film office of Crazy Rich Asians suggested Golding to director Jon M. Chu, who checked out videos of Golding hosting on YouTube and thought there might be something there.

    28. Zain Al Rafeea as Zain El Hajj in Capernaum

    Mooz Films, Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

    "He was a 12-year-old illiterate refugee living in the slums of Beirut whose own experiences shaped the film. He won many awards and the film was Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Since filming, he's been given refugee status in Norway, and had his first day in school and his first bed ever!"

    catrionad2

    "The way he was able to portray such a complex character at such a young age with no acting skills is truly amazing. His performance made me ugly cry through the whole movie."

    its_ghadeert

    29. Max Pomeranc as Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer

    Pomeranc sits in front of a chessboard in the film
    Paramount

    "He was 8 years old and one of the country's top 100 chess players in his age group when he was cast as a chess prodigy. He had no acting experience, but was amazing!"

    lauraa43c70ff4f

    30. Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea Apirana in Whale Rider

    Castle-Hughes wearing traditional makeup in the film
    Newmarket Films

    "Keisha won the role after the film's casting director visited her school looking for a Maori girl who could play the main character. She ended up — at the age of 13 — becoming the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy Awards history (until that point). Also, all of the extras in that film were local people who actually lived in the town where they were filming."

    creativegoose31

    Keisha is still an actor today, and notably potrayed Obara Sand on Game of Thrones.

    31. Wolfgang Bodison as Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, USMC in A Few Good Men

    Bodison salutes in a military uniform
    Columbia Pictures

    "He was working as an assistant to Rob Reiner, who asked him to read for the part although Bodison had never acted in his life."

    rachnmal

    Wolfgang went on to act in a dozen more feature films.

    32. Jeanne Calment as herself in Vincent and Me

    Le Parc Distribution

    "Jeanne was the last surviving person to have known Van Gogh in real life, and acted in this movie (about Vincent Van Gogh) at the age of 114, becoming the oldest person ever to appear in a motion picture. She’s also in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest confirmed human life span in history, dying in 1997 at the age of 122 years, 164 days."

    angels4d4906ef4

    33. Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly in Heaven and Earth

    Le smiles in a large hat
    Warner Bros.

    "She was a college student who went to an open casting call for the film, just for fun, and ended up being cast by director Oliver Stone in the lead role opposite Tommy Lee Jones. She was absolutely astounding in it and I never understood why she never got more attention for it."

    vcoxford

    Hiep Thi Le — who was 9 when she fled Vietnam with her mother — appeared in a number of other films, like Cruel Intentions. She died of stomach cancer in 2017 at the age of 46.

    34. Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince as mother and daughter in The Florida Project

    Vinaitte leans against a wall with her character's daughter hugging her leg
    A24

    "The director found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. And Brooklynn Prince hadn’t acted before either. Both amazing performances. To this day, the only movie to make me ugly-cry in public."

    acschnoor

    Director Sean Baker discovered another child actor in the film, Valeria Cotto, when she was shopping at Target with her mother.

    35. Shoukath and Fatima Ansari as Dev's parents on Master of None

    Ansari and his parents at a media event
    Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images

    "They're Aziz Ansari's parents in real life. They — especially his dad who is a medical doctor IRL — stole the show!"

    l4021899c0

    36. Eric Cantona as Paul de Foix in Elizabeth

    Cantona playing soccer and in Elizabeth
    Patrick Hertzog / Getty Images / Gramercy

    "The fiery football (soccer) legend of France and Manchester United played the French Ambassador in the film. Critics were genuinely surprised that he turned in a pretty decent performance."

    clothildedauphin

    37. Abraham Attah as Agu in Beasts of No Nation

    Netflix, Ian Gavan / Getty Images

    "He was skipping class and playing soccer with friends when the casting director approached him. Abraham actually needed to be pushed by his soccer friends to do the audition, but the casting director fell in love with him."

    yukioaqualinekirko

    38. Miyavi as Sgt. Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe in Unbroken

    Miyavi, in a military uniform, glares at someone
    Universal

    "He’s a Japanese rock star who was handpicked by Angelina Jolie to play the sadistic prison guard and main villain."

    elizabetha49fdaa484

    39. Stu Rutherford as Stu in What We Do in the Shadows

    Rutherford inspects a computer in the show
    Paramount

    "He's an IT guy who thought he was going to work on computers and be in the background of the movie. Turned into the cutest character."

    xenawarriorgay

    40. Rob Brown as the young prodigy in Finding Forrester

    Brown in school clothes with Sean Connery
    Sony

    "He had never acted before and had no aspirations of becoming an actor."

    andrewb117

    The then-16-year-old only attended the casting call because he owed his mother $300 for cellphone bills and hoped he might get a role as an extra that would help him pay her back.

    41. Frank Silva as Killer BOB in Twin Peaks

    Silva grimaces as BOB
    ABC

    "Frank Silva was a set dresser for the show and accidentally ended up in a shot. Instead of reshooting, David Lynch decided to keep him, leading to one of the most iconic TV villains of all time!"

    auroraborealis13

    "Silva did an outstanding job at being unbelievably creepy without any kind of makeup or special effects whatsoever."

    christianlcompton

    42. Gary Stevens as jockey George Woolf in Seabiscuit

    Stevens atop a horse as a jockey in the film
    Universal

    "They hired an acting coach for him, and the guy said he was a natural. Gary went on to be in the short-lived HBO series Luck, but today he works as a TV analyst."

    kellie3315

    Gary — a legendary jockey who won the Kentucky Derby three times — was recruited by director Gary Ross after Ross saw him race in the Santa Anita Derby.

    43. Gilbert R. Hill as Inspector Douglas Todd in Beverly Hills Cop

    A suit-clad Hill glares at Eddie Murphy
    Paramount

    "He was not an actor at all, but instead was the inspector in charge of the homicide division in Detroit in the early 1980s. He was discovered when they were looking for film locations in Detroit. He was fantastic!"

    write1

    Hill was helping Martin Brest — the director of Beverly Hills Cop — scout locations when Brest asked the career cop to read a few lines. Hill appeared in all three Beverly Hills Cop films but never acted in anything else.

    44. Arielle Holmes as Harley in Heaven Knows What

    Holmes in the film
    Iconoclast/Elara

    "The Safdie brothers (who directed the movie) scouted her off the street, and the movie is based largely on a memoir written by her, which makes her performance feel really raw and real."

    itsezra

    Is there an amazing performance by a nonactor we missed? Let us know in the comments!

    Some submissions have been edited for length and/or clarity.

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