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Ten Actors Who Performed in Spielberg Films Just Before They Hit Big

Getting old isn’t all that much fun, for the most part. Nothing works like it did or is supposed to. We yearn for the days of our youth while cursing the sudden and stubborn limitations of age, even if, during one of those days of youth, we fancied ourselves as old.

However, with age comes an ever-expanding memory and well of experience. The filing cabinets of our minds are continuously getting filled with new people, events and things we bear witness to. 

One part of aging I have come to embrace is watching public figures - in this case, actors - move from relative obscurity to front-of-line in the public consciousness. We see these actors go from “how do you pronounce that Matthew guy’s last name again?” to seeing them win Academy Awards for their work. 

In the case of director Steven Spielberg, his films have had a knack for casting actors at the early stages of their careers, just before major breakthroughs. In each of these roles, you can see the talent, charisma and craft that would propel each of these performers to the top of their profession, complete with awards, Walk of Fame stars and impactful careers and lives that are inherently familiar to us.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these aren’t names that appeared above the title when any of us saw them in theaters while enjoying another Steven Spielberg classic.

Amy Adams - Catch Me If You Can (2002) Adams played the part of nurse Brenda Strong, who falls in love with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale later in the film. This romance appears to carry further than most other dalliances Abagnale has.

Adams was 27 when she was cast in this part, but played a much younger character in the film. She has gone on to become a leading actress in Hollywood with credits like Man of Steel, Talladega Nights, Charlie Wilson’s War and Arrival to her name.

Whoopi Goldberg - The Color Purple (1985)

Sitting front and center every day on The View, Goldberg has stayed relevant in American culture for nearly four decades, but one of her first performances was in the powerful period drama The Color Purple, which represented a huge departure in the types of films Spielberg was making in its time.

Five years after that film, Goldberg would win an Academy Award for her supporting performance in Ghost. She would go on to brighten her own star in the Sister Act films. For a time, she was married to Ted Danson, who played a small but memorable part in Saving Private Ryan

Vince Vaughn - The Lost World (1997)

One of the top comedic actors of the 2000s, Vaughn’s talents were evident when at age 26, he filmed the part of Nick Van Owen in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. His abilities in comedy were not evident in the Jurassic Park sequel, but he was quick on his feet and was a natural actor.

He’d go on to be a staple of comedy films in the decade of the 2000s like Zoolander, Old School, Anchorman, The Wedding Crashers and Couples Retreat

Christian Bale - Empire of the Sun (1987)

Before donning the cape and cowl, Bale was a precocious young teenager when filming the role of Jim Graham in Empire of the Sun. Even at that young age, he garnered critical praise for his part of playing a boy imprisoned in China.

Bale has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most versatile and substantive actors, not only playing Batman/Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight Trilogy, but leading films like American Psycho, The Prestige, The Big Short, and Vice.  

Oprah Winfrey - The Color Purple (1985)

Like co-star Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey was on the verge of a national breakthrough when she made her film debut in The Color Purple. In that film, she portrayed Sofia, a role for which she was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe award. She would later produce a Broadway play version of that film.

Winfrey would go on to become one of the most recognizable women in the world, thanks to her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show which debuted on September 8, 1986. Her sit-down interview with Michael Jackson in 1993 netted more than 36 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched television shows of all-time.

Elizabeth Banks - Catch Me if you Can (2002)

Another stand-out performer in the 2002 holiday-season film Catch Me If You Can, Banks played Lucy Forrest, a bank teller who appear early in the film as Abagnale is perfecting his forged check scheme.

Banks would become a reliable and entertaining performer in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy, the Pitch Perfect films and as Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games franchise.

Drew Barrymore - E.T. (1982)

This is one case where the actor’s performance in a Spielberg film also acted as her break-out role.

Barrymore, like Carrie Fisher, was born into the Hollywood world and like Winfrey before her, now has her own successful talk show.

Drew Barrymore’s Gertie was the youngest of the three kids in E.T., along with Henry Thomas and Robert MacNaughton, who formed the heart of a film that was all heart. 

C. Thomas Howell - E.T. (1982)

While the three kids - Michael, Gertie and Elliott - were the heart of E.T., Michael’s friends played strong supporting roles throughout that film. Few were as prominent as C. Thomas Howell.

Howell, who played Tyler, one of those friends, who is prominent in the bike chase at the film’s climax. Howell has enjoyed a 40-plus year career as an actor in roles such as The Reaper in Criminal Minds, Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders and Robert in 1984’s Red Dawn

Matthew McConaughy - Amistad (1997)

My personal favorite actor on this list, McConaughy was right on the edge of stardom when he played the part of lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin in the Civil War-era film Amistad

The year before, a different portrayal of a lawyer, Jake Brigance, earned McConaughy acclaim in A Time to Kill. Add in a co-starring role with Jodie Foster in Contact, and 1997 would prove to be a breakthrough year for the 28-year-old Texan.

After starring in a series of romantic comedies, McConaughy would win the Academy Award for Best Actor in Dallas Buyers’ Club in 2013, and would star in one of my favorite non-Spielberg/Lucas/Williams movies of all-time, Interstellar in 2014.

Ke Huy Quan - Temple of Doom (1984)

Last, but in no way least, is our favorite sidekick of all-time, Ke Huy Quan, who as we all know, was introduced to the world as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The Vietnamese-born actor, Quan made his debut in the second Indiana Jones film, and the following year, would play a fun part in Goonies, directed by Richard Donner. 

His career reached a high point in 2022 when he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Everything Everywhere All At Once. His joyful celebration with Harrison Ford, Spielberg, Kate Capshaw and others remains an image you can’t help but smile about.

Brad Monastiere
Follow me on Threads @bradmonastiere
The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.


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