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The 20 Best Screen Acting Debuts of the Last 20 Years

Our list of first film performances spans the globe, with indelible turns from future stars and international favorites.

To paraphrase “Ratatouille,” not everyone can act, but a great actor can come from anywhere. The beautiful thing about the movies is that they so often do.

Screen debuts can have such an impact precisely because audiences don’t know these people. We haven’t read about them in the tabloids or seen them in other roles. The best inaugural performances bristle with the rush of witnessing raw potential, of being introduced to something incredible before the world has decided what it is yet. A great debut can make you feel like you’re witness to a happening, or getting in on the ground floor of an investment — watching John Boyega defy an alien invasion in “Attack the Block,” it was immediately clear that learning his name was going to pay off.

Sometimes, as with Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave,” that excitement instantly translates into a sensation. Other times, as with Anna Kendrick in “Camp,” it takes a few years for an actor’s unfettered charisma to catch on with the moviegoing masses. But it ultimately doesn’t matter how fast these people shoot into the stratosphere, or how high they fly once they do. The important thing is that we’ll never forget what it was like to meet them. Here are Indiewire’s picks for the best debut performances of the last 20 years.

Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer in “Rushmore”

Getting Max Fischer right might have been the most important hurdle Wes Anderson cleared early in his career. It was the first time his friends and collaborators Luke and Owen Wilson were too old to embody the sincere enthusiasm, driven by sadness, that would come to define Anderson’s protagonists. Not surprisingly, casting directors had to conduct a global search for the right teenager to play Fischer. Surprisingly, on the last day of auditions, the answer to Anderson’s problem was Francis Ford Coppola’s 17-year-old nephew, who loved music and had no acting experience. Schwartzman embodied Anderson’s unique spin on the high school rebel in a performance that would define both of their careers. — Chris O’Falt

Ziyi Zhang as Zhao Di in “The Road Home”

To tell a timeless love story, you need a performance to match. Just a few short years before the world would come to know her in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Zhang starred as Di, a young Chinese woman who falls instantly for her town’s new schoolteacher. Told in flashback, color literally returns to the screen when she arrives, shifting from the black-and-white tones of the story’s present. Every time something threatens her young chance at love, Di shoulders the weight of decades of a future history that hangs in the balance. And each time her eyes meet her eventual husband’s, you can see a lifetime of adoration in Zhang’s glances. There’s hardly a shot of Di that doesn’t use Zhang’s face to fill up the screen or set her against the vast, rural Chinese landscape. It’s a story defined by Di’s inquisitive, childlike enthusiasm, which Zhang balances with the assuredness that comes from the conviction of fate. That takes the confidence of a future star. — Steve Greene

Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman in “Girlfight”

Director Karyn Kusama needed a lead actress for her first feature who could look directly into the camera and make you believe that she could rip you apart. And she found that in unknown Michelle Rodriguez, who brought natural verve and incredible intensity to the role of Diana, a young woman who demands to be taken seriously as a boxer despite a family that doesn’t believe in her and a love interest who doesn’t want to fight her. Diana’s triumph leads to a reverse “Rocky” on so many levels, and is easily as inspiring as Sylvester Stallone’s big cinematic moment. Rodriguez has yet to break out as a movie star beyond the “Fast and Furious” franchise, but her talent deserve a chance. — Liz Shannon Miller

Gael García Bernal as Octavio in “Amores Perros”

The anchor of the defining third of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut film, Gael García Bernal was tasked with a signature twist on a familiar trope. Pining after his brother’s wife, Octavio could have easily been a standard-issue lovesick figure. But Bernal shows the young man’s creeping sinister side, letting that obsession fester incrementally until Octavio becomes a changed man. As Octavio slowly succumbs to the effects of his increased involvement in an illegal dogfighting ring, Bernal reflects that trepidation and regret with the smallest of looks. When the consequences of his pursuit become unavoidable, his reactions to the destruction happening around him are some of a tragic film’s most hopeless moments. If the mark of a great performer is the feeling that something’s missing when they’re no longer on screen, then “Amores Perros” was an indicative first entry for Bernal’s accomplished filmography. — SG

Derek Luke as Antwone Fisher in “Antwone Fisher”

There’s something doubly intimidating about making a feature debut as a title character. Tackling the challenge of being center stage in the biopic of the celebrated poet required a distinct blend of trauma and resilience, one that Luke embodies amidst a stellar supporting cast. During the therapy sessions that help frame the film, Luke’s version of Fisher travels through a personal history of simmering rage, tragic manipulation, and the growing threat of apathy. It’s a performance that shows the dramatic depth of a character actor and the simple charms of a leading man. The actor’s rapport with his director and co-star Denzel Washington showed that he could hold his own with a legend, but the small touches are what really make this debut stand out. When Fisher walks home after a successful first date, there’s a playfulness that Luke lets shine through without betraying the character’s troubled past. It’s the kind of complexity that continues to make Luke a valuable addition to casts across television and film. — SG

Up next: Five young women with signature ambitions

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