All famous actors had to start somewhere. And usually, they got their big break from an audition that turned out to be in their favour. Of course, auditions are stressful and awkward at the outset. You have strangers in the room watching your every move, facial expression, and gesture, and listening intently for volume, inflection, accent – not the greatest feeling in the world.
However, for the brave actor, passing an audition can be the career-changing break they need, allowing them to put together showreel examples once they become established. To enjoy in retrospect, below is a list of examples that brought virtually unknown actors out into the spotlight:
1. Daisy Ridley – Rey, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Among the new generation of actors, Daisy Ridley’s audition for the role of Rey was nothing short of intense. The casting directors were having a hard time looking for the right Rey as they wanted an unknown actor who could channel both vulnerability and strength at the same time.
What impressed the movie director J.J. Abrams while watching Ridley’s audition clip was the accuracy and intensity of the emotions Daisy projected onscreen when called for. The scene asked for her character, Rey, to strongly resist Kylo Ren’s attempt to control her mind using the Force. What was even more impressive was that after getting some notes from the director, Daisy could do it all over again, with as much intensity and passion as before.
2. Chris Hemsworth – Thor, “Thor”
Although Chris Hemsworth had already acted in a couple of movies prior to “Thor” (2011), he’s arguably most recognised for it. However, he didn’t get the role of the God of Thunder on a silver platter. In fact, he didn’t even make it during the first round of auditions. Lucky for him, though, none of the final four actors (which included his little brother Liam) were able to nail the part.
According to Chris, he was particularly keen on the character and a bit disappointed that his younger brother made more headway than him. So, while in Vancouver, Canada shooting “Cabin in the Woods,” Hemsworth decided to have another go at the role. He recorded an audition tape with his mum in a hotel room. She read Sir Anthony Hopkins’ lines as Chris played Thor, and this earned him another shot at the role, which he ultimately got.
In this case, Chris’s commitment to the role is surely one of the best showreel tips aspiring actors can learn from. Landing the role of Thor led to Chris getting years of lucrative projects with Marvel Studios and building a prestigious showreel from there.
3. Miley Cyrus – Hannah, “Hannah Montana”
Although Miley Cyrus has focussed more on her music, her audition as an innocent 12 year old for the role of Hannah Montana was considered impressive. Aside from being able to do a nice duet with her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley was everything Hannah was supposed to be. She was candid, friendly, sassy, funny, and always smiling. She could also talk super fast and had great timing.
What’s really surprising about Miley is that she originally auditioned for the role of Zoey, Hannah’s best friend. However, Disney, after seeing her audition tape, asked her to audition for the lead instead. Miley ended up playing Hannah Montana from 2006 to 2010.
4. Rachel McAdams – Allison “Allie” Hamilton, “The Notebook”
After playing the bad girl in “Mean Girls,” Rachel McAdams was poised to make love story history in her 2004 audition for the role of Allie Hamilton in “The Notebook.” In the audition clip, you can clearly hear the voice of her soon-to-be co-star Ryan Gosling. Rachel’s inflection, timing, and facial expressions helped her to ultimately deliver a strong, memorable audition which got her the role. If the clip seems familiar, the scene chosen for her audition is actually one of the more emotionally charged scenes in the movie itself.
5. Mel Gibson – Max Rockatansky, “Mad Max”
Australian permanent resident Mel Gibson is one of Hollywood heavyweights, who will always be known as the original Mad Max Rockatansky. Mel didn’t even have a showreel prepared for the part. In fact, he didn’t even come to audition for the film. Mel was there to support a friend who was auditioning for Mad Max. However, the casting agency noticed his beat-up look (he had gotten into a brawl the weekend prior) and was told that they needed freaks in the film. So Mel was told to come back after he recovered. Two weeks later, he returned, was given the script, and ad-libbed his way to movie history.
We all know how Mel Gibson’s charisma, brooding, intense acting, and wry humour have made him one of the most in-demand, award-winning actors of the 1980s to the early 2000s. And perhaps Mad Max director George Miller saw something special about the then-unknown young actor, so he gave Mel the lead role.
6. Kit Harington – Jon Snow, “Game of Thrones”
Much like Mel Gibson, Kit Harington turned up on audition day with a black eye. He was auditioning for the role of Jon Snow for the “Game of Thrones” series. Turning up looking less than perfect would normally work against an aspiring actor.
Apparently, Kit got beat up by a huge guy at a McDonald’s after trying to defend his date’s honour. This ultimately made Harington seem perfect for the role, and the rest is history. If you’re familiar with the character of Jon Snow, you’d know that Jon is known for being an earnest, self-appointed defender of the poor, meek, and helpless. So, it comes as no surprise that Harington got the part and did justice to it.
7. Hugh Jackman – Wolverine, “X-Men”
The role of Wolverine was originally intended for Dougray Scott, who was injured shooting “MI2.” So, it fell on the next choice, Hugh Jackman, to fill the void. In Hugh’s audition, it’s apparent that his accent needed some work; however, he brought a certain kind of mercurial coolness to a character who was originally envisioned to be nastier and edgier.
Hugh was unimpressed with his own audition and never thought he’d get the role. But when Scott couldn’t play the character, both the director (Bryan Singer) and scriptwriter (David Hayter) agreed that Hugh softened and humanised Wolverine, ultimately making the character more likeable and sympathetic.
8. Aaron Paul – Jesse Pinkman, “Breaking Bad”
Just like the breakout series and surprise hit “Breaking Bad” where Aaron Paul played the role of Jesse Pinkman for five whole seasons, Aaron’s audition for the role, in retrospect, was pretty impressive. Aaron literally nailed the role from the beginning. And although watching the clip reveals Aaron making a few slips and fumbles here and there, there’s no doubting his suitability for the role of Jesse. What’s even more surprising, of course, is knowing he had no prior formal acting training at all.
After snagging what was planned to be a one-season character, Aaron’s chemistry with the lead, Bryan Cranston, was so apparent and impressive that Jesse was promoted into a main character, eventually outliving Cranston’s character, Walter White, in the series.
9. Jason Momoa – Khal Drogo, “Game of Thrones”
According to GOT casting director Amy Jo Berman, Khal Drogo’s character was among the hardest to cast. They needed someone distinctive in looks and impressive in stature, who looked like someone who could lead a fierce army of Dothraki warriors. He also needed to have a tender side for his future khaleesi.
Enter Jason Momoa.
What Jason did was perform a Maori haka or ceremonial war dance which showed his fearsome yet emotional character. Jason’s rationale was that there was almost nothing to say in the script, so he had to be creative, and he got the part.
10. Jennifer Garner – Sydney Bristow, “Alias”
Jennifer Garner auditioned for the role of Sydney Bristow five times, although series creator J.J. Abrams said he wrote the character with Jennifer in mind. A copy of Jennifer’s approximately 38-minute audition tape for “Alias” showcases her versatility as an actor exhibiting a range of emotions.
Of course, the character Sydney is a spy so the actor to ultimately play her had to be a chameleon of sorts, and Jennifer was all these. J.J. Abrams found Jennifer to be funny, sexy, smart, and mischievous – something he said he wanted to show in the character of Sydney. It also helped that Jennifer was physically fit, which made her ideal for the role.
Audition Tapes & Showreel Tips
Are you thinking, “How can I create my showreel to impress casting directors and gain access to auditions too?” Here are some showreel tips that draw on the auditions you just read about:
- Stand out to directors and casting directors by creating a showreel that’s shot and edited by professionals.
- Study acting formally, so you can show the range of emotions exhibited by people like Daisy Ridley and Jennifer Garner.
- If you stumble during an audition, keep going, like Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad.”
- Think outside the audition box, when appropriate, like Jason Momoa.
- Become a “triple threat:” learn how to sing and dance, as well as act, so you can compete with talent like Miley Cyrus.
- Be persistent, even when it looks like you might not get the part. Don’t give up on your dreams!