Actors Who Didn't Get Famous Until They Were Older

It might seem a little cut-throat, but the reality is that if an actor hasn't had their breakthrough role by their mid-thirties, chances are it's never going to happen. Hollywood's problem with ageism has been a hot topic in recent years (Oscar-winner Dame Helen Mirren described the treatment of older actresses in Tinsel Town as "f**king outrageous" while talking to The Wrap), but there's actually a handful of stars who have managed to defy the odds and find fame later in life. The following celebs are proof that sometimes good things come to those who wait.

Jeremy Renner

He's part of the furniture in Hollywood, having portrayed Avengers archer Hawkeye since 2011, but Jeremy Renner was already 41 when he made his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a cameo appearance in Thor (2011). The actor's first taste of real fame came when he starred in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008), an Iraq war drama that won best picture at the 2010 Academy Awards and earned Renner a best actor nomination. The film was a far cry from Renner's 1995 debut as floppy-haired, fresh-faced senior named Dags in National Lampoon's Senior Trip (1995).

Renner started to gain some recognition in indie circles after portraying serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in a 2002 biopic (LA Weekly called him "extraordinary" in the role) but still had to pick up a second job to make ends meet. "[I was] a make-up artist," he told Access Hollywood. "I could do makeup because I did theater. I could paint and I could draw, so I'm like, 'OK, I'll do makeup on girls all day'. It bought me a lot of free time to go audition when I needed to because I only had to work a few hours a week. I didn't have to wait tables, so it was actually a great gig."

Chris Pratt

Chris Pratt certainly took the road less traveled to Hollywood. When he was in his twenties, the actor was living out of a van on the beach in Hawaii. It was a carefree time in his life that he remembers fondly. "We told friends we had a beach house," he told Complex. "In a way we were homeless, but at the same time we were able to transcend the difficulty of home ownership. There was no liability, no overhead. We were truly free. Getting three Mickey's Ice 40s for $6 was a positive too."

To make money for those Mickey's Ice 40s, Pratt got a part time gig waiting table at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. It was there that he had a chance encounter with Commando actress Rae Dawn Chong, who loved Pratt's enthusiasm and decided to cast him in her comedy horror short Cursed Part 3 (2000). He later called both the movie and his acting in it "terrible" but it was still a foot in the door. 

Pratt spent the next decade and a half playing chubby sidekicks, until Marvel decided that (so long as he got jacked for the part) it wanted him as Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). He was 35 when the film debuted.

Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson is one of those actors that seems to have been around forever, but can you remember ever seeing him in anything as a young man? He popped up in numerous well-known films in the early '90s, including Patriot Games (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and True Romance (1993), but it wasn't until the midpoint of the decade that he became a household name, thanks to one Quentin Tarantino.

Jackson auditioned for Tarantino's maiden feature Reservoir Dogs (1992), but he failed to win a part. It wasn't until he bumped into the director after the movie's screening at the Sundance Film Festival that he realized just how big an impression he'd made on Tarantino. 

"I walked up to him and said 'Man, awesome movie,'" Jackson told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. "He said 'How'd you like the guy who got your part?' And I was like, 'Well it would have been much better with me in it.'" Tarantino told him that he was currently writing something with him in mind. A copy of the Pulp Fiction (1994) script arrived in Jackson's mailbox a few weeks later. He was 46 when he took on the part of the Bible-quoting hitman Jules.

Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm's career changed overnight when Mad Men premiered in 2007, finally bringing the struggling mid-thirties actor to the attention of mainstream audiences. It's hard to believe Hamm went unnoticed for so many years when you see him portraying charismatic protagonist Don Draper in AMC's award-winning show, but the truth, he worked some truly terrible jobs just to keep his head above water in Los Angeles. He even worked as a set decorator on soft porn movies, an experience he described as "gross and sad" in an interview with the Daily Mail.

He also told the British tabloid that not getting his breakthrough role until later in life turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "I'd have probably handled it with way less grace," he said. "Most of us are different in our twenties than we are in our thirties. I may have gone off the rails, who knows? You're less comfortable with who you are. I'm thrilled that it happened later for me." 

Hamm now hams it up all over Hollywood, recently bringing his particular brand of cool to Edgar Wright's critically acclaimed thrill ride Baby Driver (2017).

Jessica Chastain

The stars didn't align for Jessica Chastain until her mid thirties, but align they did in 2011 when she starred or co-starred in six—yes, six—films, including Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help. Chastain followed her big year with another Oscar nod for 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, the film that put her on the map as a female lead.

She is thought to have been 35 at the time, though Chastain is notoriously secretive about how old she really is. "I will never say my age because I'm an actress, and I want to play different ages," Chastain told The Independent. She said finding fame later in life has been a daunting experience in many ways, recounting the time some members of the public followed her home after the Zero Dark Thirty premiere.

"They had followed me to my house," she said. "That's when I'm like, 'What's happening?' I mean, they were very nice, but they were strangers and they had followed me for half an hour, tailing my car because they wanted a photograph with me."

Christoph Waltz

Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz is another diamond plucked from the rough and polished to perfection by Quentin Tarantino. Waltz was 51-years-old when he landed the part of SS Colonel Hans Landa in 2009's Inglourious Basterds. He was making a living doing TV movies and dramas in Europe when Tarantino cast him as a notorious Nazi nicknamed "The Jew Hunter," a role that allowed him to show off his considerable talents in multiple languages. He won the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance and bagged the same award again under Tarantino's direction in 2012's Django Unchained.

"I don't owe Tarantino my craft, but I do owe him my place," Waltz told The Guardian while discussing his late-blooming career. "I've done so many jobs because I've had to, not because I've wanted to. And it's honourable to do a job because you need to feed your children, and maybe there is also something in it for your development as an actor. But only up to a point. Frustration can get the better of anyone. And I dread to imagine what would have happened to me had it not been for Quentin."

James Gandolfini

The late James Gandolfini plied his trade as a character actor before David Chase cast him in the career-defining role of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, a role he was offered after casting directors saw him playing a bit-part gangster named Virgil in 1993's True Romance. While Chase considered him perfect for the part, Gandolfini (38 years of age at the time) wasn't sure he was the right fit. He later revealed that he had expected the part to go to a better looking, younger actor.

"I thought, 'I can do this,'" Gandolfini said (via The Telegraph). "But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, some good-looking guy, not George Clooney, but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that." 

When The Sopranos (1999-2007) came to an end, Gandolfini had plenty of new opportunities. While his record with the critics was a bit of a mixed bag in the years that followed, he was going through a real purple patch in his career when he suffered a heart attack and died of cardiac arrest while visiting Italy in 2013.

Alan Rickman

The film industry suffered a blow in 2016 when Alan Rickman unexpectedly passed away. The actor was reportedly unaware of the severity of his cancer until just a few weeks before he died, according to The Telegraph. Tragically, mainstream audiences didn't get to fully appreciate Rickman's acting until he was 41.

The former Royal Shakespeare Company member spent years perfecting his craft on the stage before deciding to turn his talents to the movies. "The good thing about starting late in this career is you go, 'Well, what's the worst that could happen?'" he said in a 2015 interview with The Guardian. "I didn't know anything about LA. I didn't know anything about the film business. I'd never made a film before, but I was extremely cheap."

He landed the part of Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) and gave an iconic villainous performance as a terrorist ringleader, setting the wheels of his career in motion. Gruber is certainly among his most memorable characters, but Rickman will no doubt be best remembered as Death Eater-turned-hero Severus Snape from the record-breaking Harry Potter film franchise.

Bryan Cranston

In the early 2000s Bryan Cranston became a household name in the States playing hapless dad Hal in Fox's hit sitcom Malcolm in the Middle (2000-06), but that notoriety didn't immediately segway into mainstream success. Luckily for Cranston, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan happened to see a commercial for Malcolm in the Middle and remembered working with him in the 1990s.

Gilligan was still a relatively unknown writer back then, but he'd managed to land a gig writing an episode of The X-Files that Cranston guest-starring in. "I had this part written where Agent Mulder had to be stuck in this car with this crazy guy who's threatening to kill him," Gilligan told Marc Maron's WTF podcast (via Business Insider). "I never forgot him. He was wonderful in this role. And I said even as the shoot was progressing for that episode... 'I wanna work with this guy again in the future.'"

Cranston was already in his fiftes when Gilligan approached him about the iconic role of Walter White in the highly acclaimed Breaking Bad (2008-13). The actor isn't bitter about not being taken more seriously earlier in his career. "I'm grateful it happened later, because I was able to develop a sound foundation of my life without any level of fame given to a boy," he told The Guardian.

Melissa McCarthy

Despite being active in the industry since the late 1990s, Melissa McCarthy seemed to fly under the radar for many years. She started out on the stand-up comedy circuit and later graduated to television, becoming a fixture on comedy-drama Gilmore Girls between 2000 and 2007. However, things didn't start to really fall into place for her until 2011, when she auditioned for a Paul Feig movie called Bridesmaids.

According to The Guardian, Feig likened McCarthy's audition to "a religious moment" that left him speechless. "It actually took me 30 seconds to realise it was even funny. She made the decision to play the character kind of guy-ish, like, 'We're gonna go out and make a man sandwich.'" She won the part and became the driving force behind the comedy's success. While some of her subsequent efforts haven't been met with quite the same level of critical acclaim, she was still the second highest paid actress in Hollywood in 2016, and she made huge headlines in 2017 for her spot-on impersonation of former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman had a few minor movie appearances in the late 1960s, but his first major gig came in 1971, when he joined the cast of the PBS kids show The Electric Company. Freeman appeared in an astonishing 780 episodes over the next seven years, portraying a variety of characters, including Easy Reader, DJ Mel Mounds, and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire. Despite it being a huge part of his early career, Freeman rarely discusses the show.

"[Freeman] hates having done The Electric Company, he never mentions it," producer Joan Ganz Cooney revealed. "It was a very unhappy period in his life and he doesn't want to be associated with a children's show." When you ask Freeman what his real breakthrough role was, he'll tell you it was the Armani-wearing pimp Fast Black in Street Smart in 1987.

"It took a while" to get his career going, he said during an interview for the American Film Institute. "It didn't start 'til '86. I was 49 when I did the movie Street Smart. It didn't have to happen at all—I'm very lucky and very grateful that I had a career. I walk the streets of Los Angeles, and I see people walking the streets now and I think, 'Been there done that.' And you know, just keep tap dancing, 'cause something good will happen."

Billy Bob Thornton

Musician and actor Billy Bob Thornton decided to pursue a career in the movies later than most, inspired by a mixture of Elvis Presley flicks and classic westerns. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Thornton called Fred Zinnemann's High Noon "the perfect movie" and also discussed his breakthrough role and unlikely rise to stardom. The Arkansas-native reportedly got his first taste of filmmaking in 1992, when he co-wrote and starred in cult favorite One False Move, but it was his directorial debut, Sling Blade (1996), that put him on the map as a 41-year-old.

Sling Blade became a sleeper hit for Thornton, bagging Oscars for best writing and best adapted screenplay (he had originally written it as a stage play), as well as a best actor nomination for his work as developmentally disabled killer Karl Childers

Thornton told CNN he's glad it took him some time to find fame and fortune. "I'm real glad it happened now," he said in 2002. "I wouldn't have been able to handle it. I couldn't handle anything when I was 20."