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9 Actors Who Succeeded at Making Leap From Indies to Blockbusters and 3 Who Failed

9 Actors Who Succeeded at Making Leap From Indies to Blockbusters and 3 Who Failed

Yesterday, after months of rumors, it was finally revealed that Lupita Nyong’o will indeed be joining the “Star Wars” cast for J.J. Abrams’ upcoming entry in the space saga. For the actress it marks an anticipated follow-up to her Oscar-winning supporting performance in “12 Years a Slave” (she barely registered in this spring’s “Non-Stop,” so let’s just pretend it never happened), a film made for just around $20 million that went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars and emerge as one of the most acclaimed films of 2013. Add another 0 to that number, and you probably have the budget for the new “Star Wars” film. It’s a huge leap for the actress who was a complete unknown this time last year. Given her proven talent and the project’s pedigree, we’re certain she’ll transition beautifully. In honor of her casting, we’ve highlighted nine other actors who fared well at leaping from indies to blockbusters, and three who didn’t follow in their steps. [The list is in no particular order.]

The Nine Who Succeeded:

Scarlett Johansson

Having gotten started in independent films, Esquire’s 2006 Sexiest Woman Alive has emerged as an A-list blockbuster star. She catapulted to stardom opposite Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning indie “Lost in Translation,” which let her capture key roles in smaller studio fare like Chistopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” and Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia.” Her blockbuster breakout came as the Black Widow in “Iron Man 2,” a character she got to embody again in “The Avengers” and the latest “Captain America” film. While Johansson has remained loyal to her indie roots starring in recent indies like “Under the Skin,” “Don Jon” and “Her,” Black Widow is the type of role that will keep her steadily on the big screen for years to come.

Christian Bale

Today, given his Oscar and comic book fanbase, it can be easy to forget about Christian Bale’s hugely celebrated indie roots. His biggest roles before Christopher Nolan and Bruce Wayne came knocking were as a deranged serial killer/music aficionado/ businessman Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” and as Trevor Reznik in “The Machinist,” a role for which he maintained a weight of 120 pounds. Of course, he gained all of that weight back and more to fit as the muscular vigilante known as Batman for “Batman Begins” in 2005. That film launched Bale’s superstardom and one of the most celebrated movie franchises ever.

Jennifer Lawrence

When Jennifer Lawrence first appeared in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” everyone wondered where this young star came from. Now, it’s hard to imagine Lawrence anywhere else but in the spotlight. She’s been nominated for three Oscars (winning one), has a long list of films coming out and perhaps most impressively stars in two highly successful blockbuster series. When considering actors who have transitioned from indie to mainstream, Lawrence epitomizes a success story, snagging leading roles in both the “Hunger Games” films and the “X-Men” reboot. 

Michael Fassbender

Fassbender burst on to the world stage with Steve McQueen’s historical drama “Hunger” back in 2008. The term “transition,” however, may not be the most accurate way to describe the trajectory of his career. Even as he works on the “X-Men” franchise, Fassbender has continued to work on independent projects helmed by auteurs like Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “12 Years a Slave”), David Cronenberg (“A Dangerous Method”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Haywire”). Although Fassbender takes on a different character each time — a sex addict in “Shame,” a slave owner in “12 Years a Slave,” a psychoanalyst in “A Dangerous Method,” and an assassin in “Haywire,” — they share in their fundamentally distorted point-of-view about the world; a characteristic that has probably helped Fassbender not only secure the role of Magneto, but also execute it with great finesse, as it drew significantly from the onscreen persona he cultivated up to that point.

Kirsten Dunst

Most of us have been watching Kirsten Dunst’s career unfold ever since she first wowed in “Interview with the Vampire.” But it was her role in Sofia Coppola’s 1999 drama “The Virgin Suicides,” based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, that really launched her indie career. Dunst, however, didn’t stop there. Three years after “Virgin Suicides,” she snagged a role in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy. The film series was not only commercially successful, but Dunst also achieved some of the same raves she had won in her earlier roles. Her transition from indies to blockbusters goes to show that quality and quantity can sometimes go hand in hand. 

James McAvoy

Similar to Fassbender, McAvoy strikes a balance between indie and blockbuster projects — case and point being the simultaneous release of “Filth” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” The world first took notice of McAvoy back in 2006 when he co-starred with Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland.” A year later, McAvoy was again lauded by critics for his performance in Joe Wright’s cinematic adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement.” By casting McAvoy as Professor X in the “X-Men” re-boot, Marvel was able to capitalize on the actor’s onscreen reputation as a righteous, yet oft-wronged person.

Mark Ruffalo

Before he was the Hulk in “The Avengers,” Mark Ruffalo had a pretty long career as an indie actor. He broke out in a big way with his acclaimed performance in 2000’s “You Can Count On Me,” and continued endearing himself to critics with strong turns in Jane Campion’s “In the Cut” (in which he bared all), and in Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are Alright,” which earned him his first Oscar nomination. What’s most impressive is that even as an actor older than many on this list, he proves that it’s never too late to star in a blockbuster.

Kristen Stewart

Regardless of what you think of Kristen Stewart’s performance as Bella Swan in the hit “Twilight” film series, there’s no denying that the actress is now in-demand more than ever. Prior to becoming tabloid fodder for twihards worldwide, Stewart cut her teeth in indies, appearing memorably in “Into the Wild,” “In the Land of Women” and “The Yellow Handkerchief.” In between making the five “Twilight” entries, Stewart remained active on the indie front, turning in strong performances in a number of films including “Adventureland,” “Welcome to the Rileys,” “On the Road” and “The Runaways.” Now with “Twilight” over, she’s basking in the best reviews of her career for her performance opposite Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which just recently world premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Laura Dern

Prior to screaming her way to icon status for Steven Spielberg in the first (and best) “Jurassic Park” movie, Laura Dern was known as the oddball actress (and daughter to future Oscar-nominee Bruce Dern) beloved by David Lynch who had worked with her in “Wild at Heart” and “Blue Velvet.” She proved herself to be one of the most versatile actors of her generation in those two films, so it didn’t come as a huge surprise that she seemed totally at home in Spielberg’s mammoth blockbuster. That she managed to even register amid all the dinosaurs is quite the accomplishment.

The Three Who Failed:

Hayden Christensen

Crawling his way from the bottom to the top only to fall back down again, Hayden Christensen has had a topsy-turvy career. Finding his feet on Canadian television at the age of 13, he properly came into the public eye in Irvin Winker’s 2001 indie drama “Life as a House,” portraying Sam, the son of terminally ill man anxious to reconnect his family. He then, with bravado, breached the boundaries of stardom, being cast as Anakin Skywalker (AKA Darth Vader) in “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” and “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” His performance though failed to inspire and collected two Golden Raspberry Awards on its way to being quickly forced out of memory. Things then continued from bad to worse for Christensen, his figure fading out of the limelight at an alarmingly quick rate. A cacophony of bad choices and bad films, including the obscure “Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey”, the widely panned “Taker” and the straight-to-DVD stunner “Virgin Territory,” revoked his A-list status and has left him largely unemployed. It’s not all bad though. You have to remember, he’s been in a total of four films with Samuel Jackson. That’s got to mean something, right?

Emile Hirsch

Emile Hirsh had all the potential, charisma and smiles to make it happen. A prodigy of sorts, he burst onto the cinematic scene at an early age with stars in his eyes, gaining multiple plaudits for work in the independent coming-of-age comedy-drama “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.” Everything was going smoothly. He was going to conquer the world, surely. He snagged the perfect transition role, leading the Sean Penn-directed “Into the Wild” with swagger as fun-loving Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. 2008 then rolled around and things got a bit complicated. Tripling his usual workload (from one film a year to three), Hirsch was finally getting the attention he deserved. The work though was a definite mixed bag. He had supporting roles in “Milk” (great film) and “The Air I Breathe” (not so great). The biggest step forward for Hirsh, however, was in leading the newly developed “Speed Racer” franchise, which flopped hard. As Hirsh explained himself in our interview, “‘Speed Racer’ was a huge financial disaster to a certain degree, so after that movie I wasn’t going to be offered leads in huge movie star parts for a little bit after that.” Recently he starred in David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” alongside Paul Rudd, and A&E’s “Bonnie & Clyde” mini-series.

Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal comes from a show biz family. His father is a director. His mother is a screenwriter. His sister, Maggie, also acts. In any sense, he’s always seemed destined for great things. He confirmed his status as a leading man early in his career, fronting such films as “October Sky” and “Bubble Boy.” In 2001, Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko” was released and the buzz began to build. Gyllenhall’s portrayal of the twisted eponymous protagonist really shook audiences. Following this, he proceeded to display his diversity, delving into various character-strong performances in the likes of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Zodiac” and “Jarhead” to great success. Sadly, things then peaked when he was cast in the ill-fated “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” The film, his final supposed steps towards the tippy-top, was a disappointment. Leonard Martin described it as “a juvenile action-adventure” that “presents us with heroes and villains that are ‘types’ rather than genuine, fleshed-out characters one can care about.” Gyllenhaal recovered, netting some of the best reviews of his career with his powerful performances in last year’s “Prisoners,” and this spring’s thriller, “Enemy.”

[Eric Eidelstein, Shipra Gupta, Brandom Latham, Oliver MacMahon and Nigel M. Smith contributed to this article.]

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