In this year’s Oscar season, the big Cinderella story was Beasts of the Southern Wild. Written by Lucy Alibar (who adapted the screenplay from her play) and co-written/directed by Benh Zeitlin in his feature film debut, the highly unorthodox film struck a major chord with critics and audiences alike. With its breathtaking cinematography, a soaring score and unique setting, Beasts was a true American original.
Moreover, for anyone exiting the movie, the talk quickly goes to lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis. Only five years old at the time of her casting, Wallis delivers a performance filled with equal parts vulnerability and spunk. What’s more impressive—she’d never acted before.
Of course, casting non-professional actors and actresses is nothing new. While filmmakers typically want the most experienced and trained thespians to deliver their dialogue, certain directors occasionally want to break the mold and cast someone who brings more gravitas and realness to the role. This can be because they’ve lived a life close to their character’s or the director just has a gut instinct about them.
For today’s List of the Day, we take a look at some notable performances given by actors and actresses who had no experience with acting prior to their casting.
Note: Because Wallis inspired the list, she has been taken out of the running.
Role: Big Chris
As Gary Oldman so elegantly put it once, athletes are no actors. That is, unless you’re talking about Vinnie Jones. Before lending his frightening, tough guy visage to such mainstream films as Gone in 60 Seconds or X Men: The Last Stand, Jones gained notoriety for his aggressive temper on the field (and off the field) as a footballer for such teams as Wimbledon, Sheffield United and Chelsea. Parlaying his tough guy image for film, Jones’ breakthrough role came in Guy Ritchie’s debut feature. As hooligan Big Chris, Jones is as brilliant as you’d hope he’d be—loud, foul and looking as though he’d be just as likely to bash your head in as say hello. Yet, in a demonstration of Jones’ range, he is also able to play up the character’s warmth in the scenes with his young son.
Role: Kyle Timmons
Some directors have a natural gift when it comes to coaxing great perfroamnces from their actors. An actor himself, filmmaker Thomas McCarthy displays this affinity in spades, whether it’s introducing the world to the awesomeness of Peter Dinklage with 2003’s The Station Agent or shining a light on longtime character actors like Richard Jenkins in 2007’s The Visitor. McCarthy proved himself once again by casting Shaffer as the central role in his Paul Giamatti-starring wrestling drama Win Win. Whereas Giamatti can be counted on to deliver the goods in any role, McCarthy took a real chance with Shaffer, who actually served on his high-school wrestling team and only auditioned for the movie after an injury prevented him from wrestling that year. And the risk paid off. Shaffer is fantastic as the troubled high school student that Giamatti takes under his wing.
Role: Homer Parish
As a member of the U.S. 13th Airborne Division, Canada-born soldier Harold Russell lost both his hands in a freak accident. After completing his recovery, Russell took part in an Army film Diary of a Sergeant, which focused on the lives of rehabilitating veterans. The film was seen by director William Wyler who decided to cast Russell in a pivotal role for his latest feature. Acting alongside acting greats such as Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright, Russell plays Homer Parish, a sailor who loses both of his hands in battle and struggles to re-adjust to civilian life. Looking at the film now, it’s a bit more clear that Russell had little experience with acting. However, that doesn’t make his performance any less powerful. At that year’s Oscar ceremony, Russell was presented with an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans” and, in a surprise twist, also walked away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Thus, Russell became the first (and only) actor in Oscar history to win two awards for the same performance.
Role: James Miller
Some may construe this as a cheat considering that Shimell has an extensive career in the performing arts; specifically, his successful career as a premiere opera singer was his claim to fame. Yet, prior to being cast in Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 film Certified Copy, Shimell had no real experience as an actor. Considering that the film almost exclusively focuses on two characters and one of those said characters is played by Juliet Binoche, Shimell was really wandering outside of his comfort zone. But, as evidenced, he truly stepped up to the task. In an interview with the AV Club, Kiarostami mentioned that he’d cast Shimell because he’d wanted to challenge Binoche by pitting her up against a non-professional, only to revise everything after it turned out Shimell was far more natural an actor than he’d anticipated.
Ballast is not a film for everyone. With its deliberate pacing and intensely quiet moments, finding a barrier of entry into the story can be hard. One such emotional connection, however, lies in the performance of Michael J. Smith Jr. As a man trapped in an emotional tailspin following the suicide of his twin brother, Smith’s subtle, yet intense performance both anchors the film and haunts the viewer long after the final credits have rolled.
Based on director Shane Meadows own real-life experiences as a member of the English skinhead movement, This Is England illustrates how a rebellious subculture is gradually taken over and corrupted by white supremacists. In casting his youth surrogate, Meadows stumbled upon Turgoose, a street kid who had recently been barred from appearing in his school play due to bad behavior. Alternating between a rebellious swagger and intense vulnerability, Turgoose’s performance brings to mind the great Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance in The 400 Blows. Certainly, the movie references that classic with its final shoot.
Role: François Marin
To put it lightly, Bégaudeau has had quite the varied career. From punk rocker to educator to writer, he is a man for whom “settling down” does not seem to apply. His life experience as an inner-city teacher served him well as the star (and screenwriter) of director Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning drama The Class. Though the film is filled with fantastic and believable performances from many non-professional actors—including a heartbreaking turn from Franck Keita as Marin’s troubled pupil Souleymane— Bégaudeau provides the movie with its heart and soul. We may not agree with all the decisions he makes in the film, but we understand them all too well.
Beast of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis may have walked away with the Oscar nomination, but equally deserving of praise was Dwight Henry as Wallis’ no-nonsense father, Wink. Before being cast, Henry ran a successful bakery in New Orleans. Despite his complete lack of experience, the filmmakers cast him in a major role. And, it’s safe to say, Beasts would not be nearly as powerful without Henry giving it his all in his scenes with Wallis. Still, although the film has been a massive success and Henry has garnered an upcoming role in the Steve McQueen film 12 Years a Slave), he insists that he still considers baking to be his primary career.
Role: Bruno Ricci
The film that brought the Italian neorealism movment to prominence in America, Bicycle Thieves was typical of many neorealism films in that it shot on real locations with a cast consisting exclusively of non-professional actors. Director Vittorio De Sica cast Enzo Staiola as the lead character’s son after he saw the eight year-old boy watching the film production while selling flowers on the street. And while Lamberto Maggiorani’s lead performance is powerful as well, it is Staiola’s reaction to his father’s growing despair and desperate actions that gives the plot its emotional heft. In the entire history of Italian neorealism, there is perhaps no more heartbreaking image than Staiola’s expression in the film’s final five minutes.
Role: Umberto Ferrari
While Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City stand as the go-to examples of the postwar Italian neorealism movement, Umberto D. remains perhaps the most emotionally gut-wrenching of the batch. The key to the film’s success lies in the casting of Battisti as the title character, a retired government worker evicted from his apartment after he is unable to afford rent. A published linguist who had taught at various universities, Battisti’s world weary eyes and slow shuffle betray the demeanor of a man beaten down by life. The film’s final sequence, in which his character contemplates ending it all (and nearly does) is guaranteed to bring tears to even the most jaded of movie viewers.
Role: Dith Pran
It’s not at all uncommon in filmmaking for a director to cast a role based less on an actor’s on-screen experience than on his or her life experience. Perhaps never before, however, has one carried such a significant role in such a large-scale film. Set during Cambodia during the final years of The Vietnam War, the film centers on the relationship between New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his interpreter/Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Covering a civil war between the Cambodian national army and the communist Khmer Rouge, the two develop a close working relationship.
Then, in a major shake-up midway through the film, Pran is taken captive by the Khmer Rouge while Schanberg is sent back to the U.S. We then follow Pran as he navigates life under a new totalitarian regime, where he is forced into hard labour and, in an attempt to escape, falls into a cesspool filled with corpses. In what amounts to an almost silent performances, Haing S. Ngor brilliant conveys the sense of shock and horror. And no wonder — he lived through this instance in history. Prior to being cast in the film, Ngor was a gynecologist in Cambodia who had survived experiences not dissimilar from that of his character’s. Ngor walked away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year. Unfortunately, in a cruel and tragic twist of fate, Ngor was later murdered outside his downtown L.A. home in 1996 by several gang members in an alleged robbery.
A good portion of the entries on this list are child actors and for obvious reasons. When it comes to casting those with little experience, it’s more likely that children will naturally have had less. Yet, even with experience, child actors can be a tricky bunch. For any film director, finding a truly convincing child actor who is able to understand and communicate what’s in the script is a rare thing. Moreover, when that child serves as the central character of the film, that prospect becomes especially daunting. But that’s exactly what French director Jacques Doillon found when he cast four year-old Victoire Thivisol as the title character in his 1996 drama Ponette. Portraying a young girl struggling to understand her mother’s death, Thivisol captures the naive innocence inherent in one her age as well as the sadness as things come to light. Whether this incredible performance was the result of Doillon’s expert direction and coaching or simply a display of Thivisol’s natural raw talent, it remains one of the greatest, if not the greatest, child performances ever put to film.