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9 Actors Who Broke Into Hollywood in the Most Unconventional of Ways


If you’re an aspiring actor reading this right now, this much you know: You can always win your first role by submitting self-tapes and auditions through traditional casting sites.

But this is Hollywood, and it would be a lie to say that’s the only way to get hired these days.

There are more pathways to securing roles in TV, streaming or film than ever before. In the age of YouTube, social media and unscripted reality shows, new avenues to stardom are popping up all the time. Refining your craft is always a good idea, but how you get “noticed” has changed dramatically in the past two decades. You may subscribe to the saying “cream rises to the top” – and yes, it’s a nice thought that belongs etched on a pillow somewhere – but employing this as strategy isn’t foolproof. So, for your inspiration, let’s quickly review how these nine actors got where they are today by taking unconventional routes on the way to their Hollywood success.

 

The Rock

Has there ever been a more famous crossover from sports to film? I can’t think of one. Ex-NFL’ers such as Jim Brown tried it, as did OJ, and of course Carl Weathers, who knocked out his incredible run as Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies. But none had the on-screen presence and success of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who’s cooked up quite the career since his days in the WWE. Sure, there’s also Arnold Schwarzenegger, who deserves an honorable mention here given his bodybuilder start, but no one smelled The Rock coming or his $5B global box office.

 

Lady Gaga

Long before she was caught in the shallows with Bradley Cooper and performing sweet (yet awkward) Oscar moments with Liza Minnelli, Lady Gaga had her poker face on – as the NYU Tisch School dropout took her music act to hipster clubs across the NYC scene in the late aughts. Twelve straight No. 1 singles, 23 million albums sold and one billion YouTube views later, the pop star, who was already big on theatrics, turned her eye to acting as her new performance art form. It’s gone fairly well as Lady Gaga landed an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in her first starring role in A Star is Born (2018) and killed it more recently in House of Gucci (2021).

 

Addison Rae

When you’re one of the most followed celebrities on TikTok and one of their highest earners, it’s safe to say that other opportunities will present themselves. To that end, Addison Rae landing the female lead role in the gender-swapped remake of He’s All That (2021) is worth noting. Jake Paul aside, it’s one of the more impressive leaps an influencer has made into another mainstream art form.

 

Bo Burnham

When it comes to the trajectory of Bo Burnham’s remarkable Emmy-and-now-Grammy-winning career, it’s easy to forget that he got started by simply posting videos to YouTube from his bedroom. His first “My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay” (2006) caught attention and Burnham continued to use the platform to build his following and showcase his musical comedy until Judd Apatow and eventually, Netflix took notice. He’s since written/directed the film Eighth Grade (2018), did a star turn in Promising Young Woman (2020) and produced three Netflix specials including Inside (2021), which was my favorite piece of art created during the global pandemic.

 

Danny Trejo

Sometimes success is orchestrated through a predictable route – other times, it goes off the rails. That’s the story for Danny Trejo, who fell into his role in Runaway Train (1985) after serving time in prison, where incidentally, he became a boxing champion. Then, one day when he was out, Trejo shows up on set to support an actor friend in Cocaine Anonymous as the story goes. There, he bumps into a screenwriter friend who he did time with at California’s Folsom State Prison. He recognizes Trejo as a “bad-ass boxer” and helps hire Trejo as Eric Roberts’ boxing trainer – before Trejo ultimately gets cast as a boxer in the film opposite Roberts. The 77-year-old actor has since gone on to have a long, successful career – and even founded a taco empire.

 

Jennifer Lopez

Most people know Jennifer Lopez as a global superstar and “triple-threat” talent who has succeeded in many areas of the entertainment biz. But her original act was as a “Fly Girl” on the ’90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color. The Bronx-born actress of Puerto Rican descent started taking singing and dance lessons at age 5, but like most, she struggled and even worked at a law firm when she was 18. Eventually, J.Lo landed In Living Color based on her audition and worked on the show for two years before becoming a backup dancer for Janet Jackson – and landing starring roles in the films U-Turn and Selena in 1997, which propelled her to fame.

 

Ken Jeong

As the star of Community, The Hangover movies and the sitcom, Dr. Ken, Ken Jeong used to say: “I’m not only a doctor, but I play one on TV.” In probably the most shocking jump from big-boy job to actor, Jeong made the impressive leap from scrubs to screen back in 2007 when Judd Apatow cast the real-life medical doctor to play Dr. Kuni in Knocked Up. Until then, Jeong would moonlight doing stand-up comedy sets in between shifts at the hospital, which he likened to being his golf. Seems to have worked out pretty well as Dr. Ken hasn’t stopped working since.

 

Pamela Anderson

Considering all the life-guarding on Baywatch and her ensuing sex-tape frenzy, which was covered rather well in the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, some may forget how Pamela Anderson initially got noticed: by simply wearing a Labatt’s t-shirt on the Jumbotron at a B.C. Lions game in Vancouver, Canada. After making a stir at that game, Labatt hired her as a spokesmodel – before Anderson eventually caught the attention of Hugh Hefner and Hollywood soon after that.

 

Gabourey Sidibe

Although it wouldn’t technically qualify as the reason for her big break, before getting cast in Precious back in 2008, Sidibe was a phone-sex operator for three years in a stint that she’s discussed openly with several late-night talk hosts. Whereas she wasn’t discovered on the phone per se, she does credit playing many different characters during it as a reason for becoming a better performer. Other than the off-putting elements, Sidibe says, “I felt like I could be really, really powerful, as long as you could not see me. Which is a really interesting thing to come from when you become an actress.”

 
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Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.