Everybody has a past — and some people's lives are more surprising than others. Dozens of actors have become famous for playing a superhero, but that’s not where their careers started. No, before superheroism came calling, these actors portrayed many roles that couldn’t be more different from their signature comic book creation. In many cases, these earlier roles didn’t hint at the superhero within. But everyone has to start somewhere, and that’s what these actors did. Some of them sang their hearts out, some tried their hand at romantic comedy, some were featured players in independent pictures and some took on roles that seemed like their ticket to fame and fortune, even though it didn’t quite work out that way.
The actors in this list are a testament to persistence and how it can pay off if you just keep going. After all, the best actors should be able to make us believe they are whatever character they portray. In hindsight, some of them may be embarrassed about the roles they’ve taken, but the diversity of roles they’ve depicted simply reflects the breadth and depth of their skills. Their early experiences were all preparation for when they finally donned a superhero suit and introduced themselves to audiences as a character who was there to protect and save the world. They may be known as those characters now, but they weren’t always. Here are some surprising characters stars played before becoming superheroes.
28 MICHAEL KEATON (MR. MOM)
It’s hard to remember a time when Michael Keaton wasn’t Batman, but before he became the Caped Crusader he was mostly known as a comedic actor. His lead role as Jack Butler in Mr. Mom helped put him on the map in the early 1980s.
He played a man who becomes a stay-at-home dad when he gets laid off and his wife goes back to work. The movie played with traditional gender roles in a tentative way that probably wouldn’t quite work today, but at the time it was considered hilarious.
27 FAMKE JANSSEN (GOLDENEYE)
Before she became known for her depiction of Jean Grey in the X-Men films, Famke Janssen broke out in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye.
She played the subtly named Xenia Onatopp, and she wasn’t your average Bond girl.
As the henchman for a criminal organization, her character was known for a pretty special skill: killing men by crushing them between her thighs. She did this because… why not? It’s a Bond movie, and a femme fatale should make an impression, which Janssen’s character certainly did.
26 SCARLETT JOHANSSON (GHOST WORLD)
Scarlett Johansson has been playing the MCU’s Natasha Romanov for almost a decade at this point, with no signs of stopping. Before she was Black Widow, she was in a number of independent movies that earned her serious acting cred.
One of those early roles was as disaffected recent high school graduate Rebecca in the adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s comic book Ghost World. Johansson received good reviews for her supporting role in the film, and while she’s most identified with the MCU nowadays, she still dapples in independent films when she’s not working as an Avenger.
25 JESSICA ALBA (DARK ANGEL)
Jessica Alba played Sue Storm in two middling Fantastic Four movies. However, before that, she proved her action bona fides in Dark Angel playing Max, a military-created super-soldier who had escaped government captivity and was living under the radar in a post-apocalyptic Seattle.
Co-created by James Cameron, Dark Angel was seriously hyped when it was first broadcast.
Ultimately though, it couldn’t sustain the audience it needed to stay on the air and was canceled after its second season. Nonetheless, the role launched Alba’s career, and she received a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts.
BEN AFFLECK (MALLRATS)
Before Ben Affleck tried to become an action star and played Daredevil, reinvented himself as a respected writer/director, and then took the role of Batman in the DCEU (whew!), Affleck was one of Kevin Smith’s go-to actors for his low-budget indie films.
While Affleck received critical acclaim for his lead role in Smith’s Chasing Amy, he played a smaller part in Mallrats, Smith’s critically-reviled second film. In it, Affleck plays Shannon, a manager of a clothing store and an all-around creep who‘s arrested by the movie’s end. It’s a comedy — a very Gen-X comedy.
24 TOBEY MAGUIRE (PLEASANTVILLE)
Tobey Maguire was the first actor in recent memory to play Spider-Man. The trilogy of movies he starred in as the web-slinging superhero were wildly popular, but before that, he starred in a number of less flashy roles.
One of Maguire's most noteworthy early roles was as David in Pleasantville.
In the film, David and his twin sister, played by Reese Witherspoon, are sucked into an old TV show and their presence leads the town’s citizens to throw off the oppression of their black-and-white existence. Maguire’s earnest take on this and other characters likely helped lead him to Spider-Man.
PAUL RUDD (CLUELESS)
Paul Rudd kind of plays the same person regardless of the character he's depicting. But it’s his essential Paul Rudd-iness that we can’t get enough of, whether he’s fighting crime in Ant-Man or playing an overly sincere pre-law student opposite Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.
When Silverstone’s Cher confesses her love for Rudd’s Josh, we totally get where she’s coming from. It’s one of his earliest roles, and yet the essence of what we expect from a Paul Rudd performance are already in place. His amiable presence is always welcome.
23 CAITY LOTZ (MAD MEN)
Caity Lotz gives villains a run for their money every week as White Canary on The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow. Lotz completely embodies Sara Lance, the assassin-turned-captain of the time-traveling ship, Waverider.
Before she became a Legend, though, she first had a recurring role as Stephanie on Mad Men.
In addition to being one of the few women Don Draper doesn’t manage to sleep with. Stephanie can’t beat people up like Sara Lance, but she does resist in her own 1960s way by embracing the counterculture and resisting the roles life has assigned her.
22 JENNIFER GARNER (FELICITY)
Jennifer Garner’s bid at superhero success didn’t quite pan out. While she played Elektra twice — in Daredevil and her own starring vehicle, Elektra — the films ultimately didn’t work and her superhero career was soon over. But audiences already knew Garner was an action hero from her time as Sydney Bristow on Alias.
No one would have predicted she could pull off the C.I.A. operative from her earlier two-episode arc as the girlfriend of the lead character’s crush on Felicity — except apparently for J. J. Abrams, who created both shows. Given what she's capable of, maybe another superhero is in Garner’s future.
21 RYAN REYNOLDS (TWO GUYS, A GIRL, AND A PIZZA PLACE)
Before Ryan Reynolds was Deadpool (in Wolverine or Deadpool) or Green Lantern, he was twenty-something college student Berg in the sitcom Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place. Three guesses what that one was about.
After four seasons, the sitcom was eventually canceled due to low ratings.
Although never had the cultural significance of something like Friends, it helped Reynolds hone his skills as a devil-may-care, irreverent comedian — an ability the Deadpool movies wouldn’t be the same without.
20 SAMUEL L. JACKSON (A TIME TO KILL)
Nowadays one of the things Samuel L. Jackson is known for is playing Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, but he had a lengthy filmography long before joining the MCU. One character that went against his cool, unflappable image was that of Carl Lee Haley in A Time to Kill.
For a time in the 1990s, adaptations of John Grisham novels were all the rage, and this was one of them. Jackson played a father who guns down the men who attacked his daughter, and the movie centers on his trial. It’s another unique role in Jackson’s repertoire.
19 BRADLEY COOPER (ALIAS)
By the time Bradley Cooper decided to provide the voice for a genetically-altered Raccoon named Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy, he was famous enough that audiences could recognize his voice without seeing his face.
Before he was a movie star, he played Will Tippin, a friend of Jennifer Garner’s C.I.A. Agent Sydney in the TV show Alias.
Will, an ambitious young reporter, was written out of the show by its third season, and Cooper went on to bigger things, including our favorite fuzzy Guardian.
18 PAUL BETTANY (WIMBLEDON)
Paul Bettany has had an eclectic career. In the MCU alone he was the voice of Tony Stark’s A.I. system J.A.R.V.I.S. until all of him appeared on-screen as Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In the years leading up to his time in the MCU, Bettany played a variety of roles. He even made a bid for leading man status with Wimbledon, a romantic comedy co-starring Kirsten Dunst, centering on tennis players in love. Vision’s relationship with Scarlet Witch in Infinity War is perhaps the closest he’s come to another romantic character.
17 MARK RUFFALO (13 GOING ON 30)
Despite not appearing in his own stand-alone movie, Mark Ruffalo has been known as the Hulk since the first Avengers movie hit screens.
He’s also had a long career of playing an array of characters, especially in independent and awards-friendly films.
One of the exceptions to that rule was his role as Matt Flamhaff in 13 Going on 30, a gender-flipped riff on Big starring Jennifer Garner. It was one of the few times Ruffalo was a romantic lead in a film and it served as a good warm-up for Bruce Banner’s relationship with Natasha in Age of Ultron.
16 CHRIS EVANS (NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE)
Before Chris Evans became the MCU’s Captain America or even the Human Torch in 2005's Fantastic Four, he starred in the parody, Not Another Teen Movie. He played popular jock Jake, who attempts to woo a not-so-popular girl in order to take her from an "ugly duckling" into a "swan."
The movie spoofed plot points from the many other teen-targeted movies that were popular around the turn of the century. Jake couldn’t be more different from Steve Rogers, but that’s the fun, in hindsight, of seeing the future Captain America appear as an obnoxious high school jock.
15 ELIZABETH OLSON (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE)
Elizabeth Olson became famous when she joined the MCU as Wanda Maximoff, but before that, she was a well-respected actor. She first gained notice for her role as the lead character in indie Martha Marcy May Marlene.
As Martha, Olson depicted the psychological fall-out that comes from her character’s decision to leave a cult.
She won critical acclaim and several awards for the role. She brings the same level of commitment and emotional conviction to Scarlet Witch, making the character’s magic seem real.
14 ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (NATURAL BORN KILLERS)
Robert Downey Jr. has been starring in movies for over half of his life, and many of the roles he’s embodied are completely different from Tony Stark.
Before he became synonymous with Iron Man, Downey was known as a great actor who wasn’t associated with any single role. One of the characters he played was Natural Born Killers's Wayne Gayle, a sniveling tabloid journalist who exploits the story of killers on a murder spree for his own gain. Tony Stark would never do that!
13 SEBASTIAN STAN (ONCE UPON A TIME)
When Sebastian Stan first appeared in the MCU as Bucky Barnes, he appeared to perish during Captain America: The First Avenger. Between that movie and gaining superpowers as the Winter Soldier in the next Captain America film, Stan played the Mad Hatter in the first two seasons of the TV show Once Upon a Time.
Stan’s role as the Hatter volleys between menacing and heart-breaking.
At one point the character even loses his head. It’s an interesting interlude before the transformation of his MCU character into the damaged, brain-washed assassin we know and love.
12 DOMINIC PURCELL (BLADE: TRINITY)
Dominic Purcell has been Heat Wave in the Arrowverse for several years now. Although the character is undeniably deadpan, he also becomes a more and more upstanding guy, especially since becoming a part of the Legends of Tomorrow.
Before Purcell was the tough-but-hilarious Mick Rory, he played a revived Dracula in Blade: Trinity with all the over-dramatic dialogue you might expect. The campy film is hard to take seriously, but there are flashes of the humor and tough guy posturing that have served him so well as a Legend.
11 PATRICK STEWART (LIFEFORCE)
Today, Patrick Stewart is best known for his roles as Professor X in the X-Men movies and as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he has a long and diverse array of credits to his name.
From the snooty host of L’Idiot in L.A. Story to his appearance in Dune, there’s little the man hasn’t done.
That includes his role as Dr. Armstrong in the wacky psychic space vampire film Lifeforce in which he becomes possessed, screams hysterically, kisses a man, slaps a woman and dies bloody. The ‘80s were weird.
10 HALLE BERRY (LIVING DOLLS)
Halle Berry has played multiple superheroes. Some successfully, like Storm in the X-Men movies, and some not so much, like the title character in Catwoman.
However, before she became a household name she starred in the sitcom Living Dolls, a Who’s the Boss spin-off about the young clients of a modeling agency for teenagers. The series was critically lambasted and only lasted 12 episodes before being cancelled. Yet it does have the auspicious designation of marking Berry’s Hollywood acting debut. Despite the failure of the series, Berry’s career took off.
9 NICHOLAS HOULT (ABOUT A BOY)
As an adult, Nicholas Hoult has made a name for himself as Hank McCoy, the man who becomes Beast in the X-Men movies, but he also had a busy acting career as a child.
In fact, the first time he came to widespread public attention was in the 2002 dramedy About a Boy.
He was only 11 years old at the time. He starred opposite Hugh Grant as a cute kid who gets bullied at school. Hoult kept acting and returned to prominence when he took on Beast almost a decade later.
8 KRYSTEN RITTER (VERONICA MARS)
Krysten Ritter is now known for her depiction of the morose, traumatized superhero Jessica Jones in Netflix’s Marvel series. One of her earliest roles was as Gia Goodman, the daughter of Steve Guttenberg’s mayor, Woody Goodman, in the second season of Veronica Mars and in the series’ 2014 fan-funded follow-up movie.
The notice that Ritter earned from her recurring role on the cult classic show helped fuel her to further Hollywood success. As Gia, Ritter is decidedly more upbeat than she is as Jessica Jones, although both characters suffer their own traumas.
7 CHRIS PRATT (EVERWOOD)
Today, Chris Pratt is an action star. He fronts two major franchises — the Jurassic World series and, of course, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies in the MCU, where he stars as Peter Quill. But this Star-Lord wasn’t always the buff hero he’s known as today.
He had a robust television career before becoming a movie star in shows like Parks and Recreation and The O.C.
One of his earliest roles was as the promiscuous Bright Abbott in the earnest teen drama Everwood. Pratt had a supporting role, but the charisma that led to his future success was already on display.
6 MICHELLE PFEIFFER (GREASE 2)
Michelle Pfeiffer joins the MCU as Janet Van Dyne in Ant-Man and the Wasp, but before she became a superhero, and even before she became a supervillain as Catwoman in Batman Returns, she was a Pink Lady.
Pfeiffer starred in the musical Grease 2, the far less known and less beloved sequel to Grease. Pfeiffer has expressed embarrassment about the role. Yet, the movie is fondly remembered for inspiring many little girls in the 1980s to run around singing about how they wanted a “Coo-ooo-ooo-oool Rider” — whether or not they knew what that meant at the time.
5 CHRISTIAN BALE (NEWSIES)
Christian Bale is a well-respected actor with a mix of roles in mainstream and independent films. One of his best-known recent roles was, of course, Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Earlier in his career, Bale went through a musical period, starring in both the movies, Swing Kids and Newsies.
In Newsies he played Jack Kelly, a newsboy who organizes a strike in 1899 New York and longs to move to Santa Fe. The movie was initially a box office bomb but has since amassed a devoted cult following.
4 JENNIFER LAWRENCE (THE BILL ENGVALL SHOW)
Jennifer Lawrence is one of the biggest stars on the planet today, known for her roles as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games films and as Mystique in the X-Men movies.
However, before she became an Oscar-winner who could pick and choose her films, she played Bill Engvall’s character’s daughter, Lauren, on The Bill Engvall Show for three seasons. The sitcom didn’t exactly propel her to fame and fortune, but it was her first major role. Her first Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone and her first appearance as Mystique in X-Men: First Class happened shortly afterwards.
3 CHARLIE COX (STARDUST)
Nowadays, we know Charlie Cox for beating up bad guys as the blind superhero Daredevil in Netflix’s Marvel shows. But more than a decade before he became a costumed vigilante, he was the main character, Tristan, in Stardust, a fairy tale based on Neil Gaiman’s novel.
In it, Tristan kidnaps a star played by Clare Danes, falls in love with her and saves her from a witch played by Michelle Pfeiffer.
The cast is full of famous actors including Robert De Niro and Ricky Gervais, but the experience didn’t vault Cox to the A-list. Instead, he found fame on TV with Daredevil.
2 MICHAEL B. JORDAN (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS)
Michael B. Jordan has really made an impression in movies over the last few years. While his bid for superhero stardom as Johnny Storm in the latest incarnation of Fantastic Four didn’t work out, he had better luck playing the villain, Eric Killmonger, in the MCU blockbuster Black Panther.
Earlier in his career, though, he starred in the TV show, Friday Night Lights. He played high school football star Vince Howard, in the final two seasons of the drama. The role showcased Jordan’s acting talent, and since then, he’s used that talent to become a star.
1 ZOE SALDANA (CROSSROADS)
Today, Zoe Saldana is known for spending a lot of time in space. Not only has she played Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers movies, she’s also depicted Uhura in Star Trek’s big screen reboot and the Navi, Neytiri, in Avatar.
However, one of her early starring roles was much more down to Earth.
As Kit in Crossroads, she goes on a road trip with a childhood friend played by Britney Spears. The movie was meant to launch Spears’ film career. It didn’t quite work out that way — for Spears or Saldana — but Saldana still eventually found her way.