We imagine that successful actors rise to stardom through having had all the right opportunities combined with being confident before the camera and audiences.
In reality, it’s often the least likely to succeed who seem to be the most likely to succeed as is evidenced by the list below.
This page offers examples of success from actors with links to videos queued up to selected spots in interviews. Entries are in alphabetical order by first name.
Common themes seem to be social awkwardness, trouble in school, and often facing failures and rejection before achieving success.
Google has a short list of celebrities who have rags to riches stories. [View]
Anecdotal stories like these shouldn’t be used to suggest that formal training isn’t a benefit. A common theme among successful actors is the importance of mentors, apprenticeships, and great teachers.
Adam Sandler began with stand-up comedy while in college, earning 10 dollars per night. While living in the college dorm, he had the opportunity to be a guest on the Cosby Show. By age 23 he joined the team at Saturday Night Live working with Chris Rock, David Spade, and Chris Farley. The network decided Sandler was not funny and he was encouraged to resign. Executive Producer Lorne Michaels explains, “It was the rare moment in the history of the show where the network and the critics were on the same side. Everybody agreed that this group of people weren’t funny.” [Video]
Know for his musical talent performing with the Talking Heads, describes himself as awkward and unpleasant to be with at times. [Interview Video] Byrne combined music performance with theatrics, and creatively choreographed theatrical stage performances including “Here Lies Love” the Imelda Marcos dance-pop musical.
By age 9, Drew Barrymore began smoking, drinking and going to night clubs. By age 11 she was smoking marijuana and by age 12 she had tried cocaine. By age 13 she was in rehab. Drew Barrymore describes her family lineage of acting dating back to the 14th century as a “circus of odd interesting people that loved acting.” [Video Interview, starts at 41m 18s]
In 2018, by age 27, Jennifer Lawrence had become one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood which reflects the success of her work. She was best known for her star role in the Hunger Games film series produced almost 3 billion dollars by that time. She struggled through school and used her acting ability as a coping mechanism. In school she intentionally walked with a limp convincingly explaining to peers that she had a wooden leg. At 14, she dropped out of middle school to pursue acting, and doesn’t have a GED or high school diploma. [Video Interview]
The 60 Minutes interview from 1997 with Jerry Seinfeld notes about his stand-up comedy work, “Aside from waiting tables at a Brew Burger in New York and selling cheap jewelry and umbrellas outside Bloomingdales, this is the only job he’s ever had — making observations about life’s little mysteries like seedless watermelons.” Jerry Seinfeld reflects on his initial perspective of his stand-up comedy career, “I’ve been doing comedy 15 years. I wasn’t going anywhere. You know, this is it. I’ve got 45 minutes of observations about planes and cough syrup, and that’s it. I get away with that. I make a living. And I thought, even if I ever did manage to get on TV, I’m not the kind of guy people get excited about.” Initially hired by NBC in 1989, his pilot show was poorly received with the audience test concluding the show was “weak” and “no segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again.” [Video]
John Travolta describes the transfer from private school to public school as an important and positive moment in his life. Yet, he was shy as a young adult. By 11th grade he quit school. When Travolta arrived in Hollywood he felt awkward and didn’t fit in among his contemporaries. He was befriended by older actors including Cary Grant, Jimmy Cagney, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Barbara Stanwyck. In 2003, James Lipton interviewed Travolta for an episode of Inside the Actors Studio. [Available only on YouTube]