Skip To Content
  • Viral badge

11 Regular People Who Were Plucked From Obscurity And Turned Into Movie Stars

For these people, becoming famous was way too easy.

1. Danny Trejo was a drug counselor who went to help a recovering drug addict...and put himself on a wildly unlikely path to movie stardom.

20thcentfox / ©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

To say Danny Trejo never expected to become a movie star is an understatement. Growing up in Echo Park, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Los Angeles, Trejo didn’t see a lot of movies. “I started to get in trouble at a really young age," Trejo told the Guardian. "My uncle Gilbert was my mentor and he was a drug addict and an armed robber.”

Trejo was soon in and out of jail before serving a long stretch for what Trejo called “gas chamber offenses.” While in jail, Trejo became a prison boxing champion and, most importantly, a member of a 12-step program that helped him put drugs behind him. When he was released in 1972 on a technicality, he began a career as a youth drug counselor.

Cut to 12 years later, when he got a call from a young man he was counseling, who told him there was a lot of cocaine at his job and he was tempted. Trejo said he'd come down to his workplace so they could talk it out.

“I went down thinking he worked in a warehouse, that we'd sit out in his car at break, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, and afterwards he would go back inside. I walked on to this movie set.“

The movie Runaway Train starred Jon Voight and Eric Roberts (Julia’s brother and Emma’s dad), and — in one of the greatest “what are the odds of that?!” twists — featured a scene where Roberts’ character fought a boxing match while in jail. An ex-con on set recognized Trejo from his prison boxing champ days, and Trejo was soon not only offered the part of the guy Roberts fights in the scene, but the opportunity to train Roberts on how to look like a legit prison boxer. (You can see Trejo’s brief appearance in the film here). This led to other movie roles, and in time, stardom in the Machete franchise!

2. Jennifer Lawrence was discovered as a 14-year-old while vacationing in New York City with her family.

Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Jennifer Lawrence grew up a long way from Hollywood in Indian Hills, Kentucky. She had a happy family (although her two older brothers were a bit rough with her), loved horseback riding and sports, and dreamed of becoming a doctor. All in all, she was having a pretty normal life…that is until, at 14, she and her family took a summer trip to New York City.

She told Vanity Fair, “I was in New York, just watching street dancing, and this model scout asked if he could take a picture. I had no idea that was creepy. So I was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and I gave him my mom’s phone number. And then he called and said all these agents wanted to meet, and we were like, ‘Might as well.’”

Lawrence was more than a little shocked by this, saying that back home, her brothers were star athletes and she felt like she “sucked at everything.” Despite this, she decided she wanted to be an actor and not a model, and stipulated that she would only sign with a modeling agency that let her audition for acting roles too.

She soon signed with an agency and went on her first audition. "I probably sucked, but I had decided 100 percent that this is what I wanted to do.” Lawrence and her mother stayed in New York the rest of the summer to see how things played out, and by the end of the summer, she was cast in a TV pilot...and on her way to stardom.

So, if not for the Lawrence family being super touristy and stopping to watch some street performers, Katniss would’ve been played by someone else, and there might now be a very glamorous Dr. Lawrence somewhere in Kentucky.

3. Chris Pratt was discovered while waiting tables at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company chain restaurant.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Chris Pratt's path to fame and fortune was almost as unlikely as Forrest Gump's. After graduating from high school in Minnesota, Pratt took some acting classes at the local junior college, but dropped out before even completing one semester. He then floated from job to job — cleaning cars, babysitting, working at a burger joint...and stripping. "I was always a very much naked person. I loved to always get naked. I was very free, so I thought, I may as well get paid," he told BuzzFeed. His career as a stripper didn't go far: he bombed at a strip club tryout thanks to his poor dance moves, and later — yikes — was hired to strip at what turned out to be the birthday party of one of his friends' grandmothers.

Like Forrest, Pratt didn't stay in one place long, and soon traveled to Hawaii, where he says he was basically homeless, smoking a lot of pot on the beach and working part-time jobs to earn just enough money to get by. One of those jobs was waiting tables at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company...where his life would change forever.

One day, actor/director Rae Dawn Chong (star of The Color Purple and the daughter of Cheech & Chong star Tommy Chong) was seated at one of Pratt's tables, and the gregarious 19-year-old waiter made quite an impression.

Pratt told Entertainment Weekly, "I was like, ‘You’re in the movies, right? I always wanted to be in the movies.' She said, ‘You’re cute. Do you act?’ I was like, fuck it, ‘Goddamn right I act! Put me in a movie!'" And would you believe...she did?

The film Chong cast Pratt in was no success — in fact, it was never even released — but it brought him out to Los Angeles, where he pursued acting in earnest and eventually became one of the biggest stars in the world.

4. Rosario Dawson only had to step a few feet out of her home to be discovered by Hollywood.

Shining Excalibur Films / courtesy Everett Collection / NBC

When Rosario Dawson was a teen, she had no thoughts of becoming a movie star. After being born to a 16-year-old single mother and spending some of her childhood squatting in an abandoned, fire-damaged building with no electricity or running water, she had more practical plans. "I was going to finish high school," she told the New York Times when asked about her pre-fame plans. "I wanted to study engineering or marine biology. That was my plan."

So, for her to end up a movie star, something extraordinary needed to happen, like Hollywood literally knocking on her front door and asking her to be in a movie. Amazingly, that is almost exactly what happened!

The then-16-year-old Dawson was chatting with friends on the stoop outside her apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when film director Larry Clark, who was scouting locations for his new film Kids, spotted her. Since Kids was intended to be documentary-like, Clark wanted to cast non-actor New York teens as his main characters. So, he strolled over to Dawson and introduced himself...literally right in front of her home. She soon was given the role of Ruby.

Kids was very controversial — it received an NC-17 from the MPAA, but was released unrated — and created quite a stir upon its release into art houses in 1995. Dawson soon was cast in Spike Lee's He Got Game with Denzel Washington, and was officially on her way to movie stardom.

5. Norman Reedus only got discovered because he was having a really, REALLY bad day.

Eli Ade / AMC

The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus grew up in Florida, attended college in Kansas, and then came out to Los Angeles to be with a woman he was dating. The relationship didn't work out, though, and Reedus soon found himself working at a motorcycle shop...which leads us to his very bad (but, in the end, incredible) day.

Reedus's day started as most of his days did — at the motorcycle shop — but took a bad turn when he got into a fight with his boss and was unceremoniously fired. That night, a friend took him to a party in the Hollywood Hills to cheer him up, but it didn't work and things only got worse.

Reedus told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, "I drank way too much and started yelling at a bunch of people." Now, at this point, you'd expect Reedus's friend would have dragged him home and told him to sleep it off, but that's not what happened. Instead, someone at the party who had been watching Reedus make a scene approached him and asked him to be in a play. While sobering up over a late-night slice of pizza, Reedus agreed to be in the play because he was only being offered the understudy role and thought he'd never have to go on.

As fate would have it, the first night Reedus was part of the cast, he had to go onstage because the guy he was understudying didn't show up. He told Fallon, "I was terrified! I didn't know what I was doing." Evidently he did something right, because an agent in the audience that night liked what she saw enough to start sending him out on auditions.

And that is how Reedus went from the guy at the motorcycle shop to the guy fighting zombies on your TV screen.

6. Edward Furlong became one of the biggest teen actors of the '90s simply because he went to hang with his buddies at The Boys' Club.

Cbs Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images

Furlong grew up in the greater Los Angeles area, but it might as well have been a million miles from Hollywood. He was a regular working-class kid (living with his mom and, later, his aunt — his father wasn’t in the picture) who hung out with his friends at The Boys’ Club and collected CDs (Janet Jackson was a fave). So, when he walked into The Boys’ Club one day in the early ‘90s, he had no reason to think anything out of the ordinary was about to happen — but it definitely was.

Mali Finn, the casting director for Terminator 2: Judgement Day, had grown tired of all the professional actor kids who’d auditioned for the role of young John Connor, and decided to go look for a more natural kid out in the world. One of her stops? The Boys’ Club, where she spotted Furlong playing with his friends.

Furlong — who'd never acted a day in his life — was very suspicious when this random woman approached him and asked if she could talk to him. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “I didn’t know who she was. She came over to me and said, ‘Can I talk with you?’ So I said, ‘What did I do wrong?’”

After three intense interviews and some acting lessons, Furlong found himself on set acting opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. He finished the ‘90s as one of the decade's most popular teen stars, with additional roles in films like American History X, Pecker, and Detroit Rock City. All thanks to The Boys’ Club!

7. Lana Turner became a Hollywood star overnight because she hated one of her classes in high school.

Courtesy Everett Collection

Turner’s is probably the most famous story of someone unexpected being discovered and thrust into stardom, and after the difficult life she’d led up until that point, she certainly deserved a little good luck.

Born into a working poor family in Idaho, she soon moved with her parents to San Francisco, where they hoped to find better financial prospects. Tragically, her father, after winning some money in a card game and then heading home with the dough stuffed into his sock, was found dead on the street. He’d been beaten to death and was missing his shoe and sock. From that day forth, Turner and her mother were even poorer and lived with many different people, including one family that beat Turner and treated her like a servant. Her mother, despite working 80 hours a week, sometimes only had enough money to feed her daughter crackers and milk.

Eventually, a 15-year-old Turner and her mother made their way down to Los Angeles, where she enrolled in Hollywood High School. A year or so later, Turner decided to skip her least-favorite class (typing) and sneak across the street to get a Coke at a malt shop. While enjoying her drink, she was approached by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, who asked her if she wanted to be in the movies.

Now, if you’re thinking a grown man approaching a 16-year-old girl sitting by herself and offering to put her in the movies sounds creepy, you’re right! But in this case, he was legit. After telling him “I’ll have to ask my mother,” Turner got permission and was referred to Zeppo Marx (of The Marx Brothers fame), who got her signed to Warner Bros.

Turner, of course, went on to become a legendary Hollywood actor famous for films like Peyton Place and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and she owes it all to really, really hating typing class.

8. Alden Ehrenreich is now a movie star because he did a solid for a friend back in his junior high school days.

Jonathan Olley / ©Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

Solo star Ehrenreich wanted to be an actor from a young age, but started to have second thoughts about the practicality of this career choice as a teenager. As he told Vanity Fair, “I remember when I was 13 and telling people I wanted to be an actor, and being met with ‘Have fun waiting tables,’ so I figured maybe that’s not such a great idea after all.” Luckily for Ehrenreich, he became a famous actor without having to wait tables — or experience much hardship at all — thanks to an incredibly lucky, “only in Hollywood” twist of fate.

One day, a friend of Ehrenreich’s asked him if he would act in a funny video she wanted to make to show at her bat mitzvah. Ehrenreich — who enjoyed making videos with his friends — agreed to be in her video, and the filming was quickly over and forgotten.

Now, in a normal world, the video would've played at the bat mitzvah and gone largely unnoticed by the guests who were busy wolfing down appetizers and socializing, but at this bat mitzvah, one guest paid close attention to the little video and was very impressed with Ehrenreich.

Now, again, in a normal world, that impressed guest would have been, like, the girl's cousin, a dentist from Des Moines. But at this bat mitzvah, that friend was no dentist.

It was…Steven Spielberg.

That’s right, the most famous director in the world saw the video and was impressed enough to help the youngster land his first professional acting roles.

Ehrenreich, when reflecting on the fateful video and Spielberg, told Vanity Fair, “If I had any idea that anyone would see that, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s really funny that he could glean anything from that.”

9. Charlie Hunnam got discovered because he we went drunk Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.

Axelle / FilmMagic / Via Getty Images

Pleasantly tipsy after a few drinks, a 17-year-old Hunnam ventured out to the shops in his hometown of Newcastle, England to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. While in a shoe store, he noticed an older woman repeatedly glancing at him. His response? To do something he probably wouldn’t have done without the liquid courage flowing through his veins.

As Hunnam told The Kelly and Ryan Show, “I was obviously in high spirits — it was Christmas Eve and I was a little drunk — so I just blew her a kiss. She was older than me but she just sort of smiled a little, and then she came up to me and asked if I’d ever considered acting.”

The woman turned out to be the production manager for the only TV show that shot in the north of England, the teen drama Byker Grove. Hunnam — who was in film school at the time and had a lifelong ambition to get into the film business — told her he was definitely interested, and shortly thereafter he was playing Jason on the show. Within a year, he won his breakout role on Queer as Folk.

So, while I wouldn’t recommend aspiring actors get drunk and start blowing kisses at random women at the mall, it sure worked out for Hunnam!

10. Charlize Theron was set on the path to movie stardom because she tried to cash an out-of-state check.

Christopher Polk / FilmMagic / Via Getty Images

A 19-year-old Theron was attending the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City with hopes of becoming a ballerina when her knees gave out. Depressed that her dancing career was over, Theron called her mother, who suggested she return to their native South Africa. After mulling it over, Theron settled on another plan: she was going to move to Hollywood and try to become an actor. So, thanks to a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and meager allowance from her mom, she headed west.

It didn't take long for Theron to discover that making it in Hollywood wasn’t so easy. She couldn't get an agent, she was living from paycheck to paycheck, and she even had to resort to stealing bread from a restaurant just to have something to eat.

Her frustration boiled over one day while trying to cash a check her mother had sent so she could pay her rent. Because the check was from out of state and Theron wasn’t an American citizen, the bank teller refused to cash it. Theron went off, arguing with the teller and begging for a break, but they were unmoved. The guy in line behind Theron had a different reaction, though, so he cashed the check for her and gave her his business card, telling her to call him. The job description on his card? "Talent manager."

As Theron told IndieLondon, "A clerk refused — and I just went nuts. After the shouting was over, a man handed me his business card and told me to get in touch. I thought he was just another guy with bullshit, but he turned out to be a genuine talent manager called John Crosby."

Theron gave Crosby a call, and he hooked her up with her first agent. It wasn't long before she landed her first movie role as Helga the hit woman in 2 Days in the Valley, and her bread stealing days were officially a thing of the past.

11. And finally, Ke Huy Quan only became Indiana Jones' sidekick because he tagged along with his brother to an audition at their elementary school.

Bryn Colton / Getty Images

Short Round — Indiana Jones’ fast-talking 11-year-old Chinese sidekick — was an incredible character on the pages of the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but finding a kid talented enough to do the part justice was not easy. The production held casting calls all over the globe (including Toronto), but did not find their man, er, kid.

With production scheduled to start in a little over three weeks, the increasingly desperate producers put on a massive open casting call at an elementary school in Los Angeles and asked the teachers at the school to encourage any kids who might be right to audition. One teacher was convinced a student of hers was perfect. The boy — who was born in South Vietnam to parents of Chinese descent — agreed to stay after school and audition. There was only one problem: the boy normally walked his younger brother home after school, so his little brother would have to tag along to the audition too. The boy probably hoped his younger brother would sit and wait quietly, but that's not what happened.

The boy's younger brother, Ke Huy Quan, said at the Niagara Falls Comic Con, “So as he (Quan's brother) was auditioning for the casting director, I was off to the side, giving him notes, giving him directions like a director, actually. And the casting director saw me and asked me, this precocious kid, if I wanted to give it a try.”

Quan — who had never seen a Steven Spielberg film — wasn't intimidated one bit and quickly said yes. His audition must have gone well, because the next day Spielberg sent a driver to pick up Quan.

Quan said, "At that time, my mom didn’t know what this was all about, she thought it was some important meeting, so she put me in this three-piece suit with a little gold chain and a vest and everything.”

Upon arriving at Spielberg’s office, Spielberg told him to come back the next day in jeans and a T-shirt. Quan did as told, and when he returned, he met Spielberg (the director), George Lucas (the producer), and Harrison Ford (Indy, of course). “We spent an afternoon together, and three weeks later I was on a plane to Sri Lanka, and it was one of the greatest adventures of my life."

What did Quan’s brother think of all this? It turns out he was happy for his brother because he never wanted to be an actor anyway, and he was excited to play with the U-Haul’s worth of Star Wars toys Lucas sent over for the Quan boys to enjoy.

TV and Movies

Get all the best moments in pop culture & entertainment delivered to your inbox.

Newsletter signup form