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From Emma Stone to Rami Malek: Check Out the Early TV Work of This Year’s Oscar Nominees

From obscure British comedies to singing "Bitch" on a reality show, here are the many surprising starts of this year's nominees.

Rachel Weisz Adam Driver Mahershala Ali

Rachel Weisz, Adam Driver, Mahershala Ali

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Every actor gets their start somewhere, and more often than not it’s television. Today’s sitcom guest star can be tomorrow’s award-winning actor, thanks to the blend of fate, luck, and talent that helped them ascend to the highest industry recognition. Here’s a look at early work of all the acting nominees — except for Best Actress candidate Yalitza Aparicio, for whom “Roma” was her first acting job.
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Lead Actor

Christian Bale

Nominated for “Vice”

Ignore the commentary over the clip above to witness Bale in one of his earliest on-screen appearances, screaming in the 1987 BBC miniseries “Heart of the Country.” Later that year, “Empire of the Sun” would make him into a rising child star.

Bradley Cooper

Nominated for “A Star Is Born”

It would be easy to spotlight Cooper’s two seasons as a series regular on J.J. Abrams’ “Alias,” but it’s hard to deny the simple charms of his very first screen role in the “Sex and the City” Season 2 episode “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?”

Rami Malek

Nominated for “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Don’t blame yourself for forgetting that Rami Malek made a brief appearance in the “Gilmore Girls” Season 4 episode “In the Clamor and the Clangor.” While his first official screen credit isn’t that substantial, in the scene above you can see glimpses of the infectious energy he channeled for Freddie Mercury, even while discussing the town’s local pastors.

Willem Dafoe

Nominated for “At Eternity’s Gate”

In 1986, Dafoe was featured in an installment of the HBO anthology series “The Hitchhiker,” playing (as seen above) a writer who fakes his own death in the quest for “immortality.” No matter how many years might pass, that jawline remains very much the same.

Viggo Mortensen

Nominated for “Green Book”

Keep your eyes open around the two-minute mark of this clip from the 1985 ABC After School Special “High School Narc,” and you’ll see a very blonde, very stoned Mortensen hanging out in the classroom. There are probably better clips of Mortensen from this era, but none of them are from a made-for-TV movie called “High School Narc.”

Lead Actress

Glenn Close

Nominated for “The Wife”

Close made the leap from TV to film relatively quickly in the early 1980s (though she would eventually return for series-regular work on “The Shield” and “Damages”). But in 1989, the Oscar nominee hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the first time, and wasn’t afraid to poke fun at one of her then-most iconic roles; “Alex from ‘Fatal Attraction’ goes to a support group” isn’t the most innovative of concepts, but Close really sells it.

Olivia Colman

Nominated for “The Favourite”

Colman’s career began on television, specifically in a number of sketch comedy series (including the forever-classic “Mitchell and Webb” sketch Number Wang). For a quick burst of her deliciously naughty side, the above compilation from her very first credited role, “Bruiser,” is a true treat.

Lady Gaga

Nominated for “A Star Is Born”

Stefani Germanotta hasn’t done a lot of acting work outside of her Lady Gaga persona, but we’ll always have her unguarded charm as Girl at Swimming Pool #2 in this third season episode of “The Sopranos.”

Melissa McCarthy

Nominated for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

McCarthy’s performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” represents a whole new level for the actor, but for many her breakout role as the sweet and ditzy Sookie St. James in the WB dramedy “Gilmore Girls” will be how they think of her first.

Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali

Nominated for “Green Book”

Years before becoming an awards season favorite, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali picked up plenty of supporting TV roles, including a 19-episode run on “Crossing Jordan” and guest spots on “CSI” and “NYPD Blue.” But his most prominent early role was as one of the returned abductees on USA Network’s “The 4400,” an under-appreciated 2000s sci-fi gem. (All four seasons are streaming now on Netflix!)

Richard E. Grant

Nominated for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

No one needs to be told that Richard E. Grant is the master of dry delivery — instead, we should just hunt down as many opportunities as possible to witness it in action. The eight-part BBC short film series “Posh Nosh” is a hilarious parody of snobby food shows, anchored beautifully by Grant’s innate talent for withering disdain.

Sam Elliott

Nominated for “A Star Is Born”

The first-time Oscar nominee has had a long and storied career going back to the 1960s, making plenty of appearances on classic TV series including “Mission: Impossible,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Mod Squad.” Above, he’s paired with an equally young Jessica Walter in a 1974 episode of “Hawaii Five-O” — the two of them are up to no good, but look damn good doing it.

Sam Rockwell

Nominated for “Vice”

Yes, technically “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a film, but it has TV connections. Most of Rockwell’s early TV work isn’t available online or isn’t very interesting, and it’s a classic moment for the actor.

Adam Driver

Nominated for “BlacKkKlansman”

The short-lived ABC cop drama “The Unusuals” is a treasure trove of before-they-were-famous folk, from a then-obscure Jeremy Renner as one of the central detectives to creator Noah Hawley, years before he’d become the Emmy-winning creator of “Fargo.” And that extends to even its guest stars, including Adam Driver’s very first screen credit as a nervous young man brought in for questioning.

Supporting Actress

Regina King

Nominated for “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Marla Gibbs starred in this 1985-1990 NBC sitcom, which also marked the very beginning of Regina King’s acting career: King played Brenda, Mary’s (Gibbs) daughter for all five seasons, and managed to grow up gracefully on screen.

Amy Adams

Nominated for “Vice”

Before her breakout role in the 2005 indie “Junebug,” Amy Adams made a number of TV guest appearances, including shows like “Dr. Vegas” and “The Office.” Above is her featured role in the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Family,” in which she really makes the most out of the line “I hope you’ll all be happy hanging out with a disgusting demon.”

Marina de Tavira

Nominated for “Roma”

A veteran Mexican actress with a great deal of theater experience, the above TV interview (use YouTube’s caption settings to set up English subtitles) offers up a look at her work as a stage actress, as well as providing a deeper look at her outlook on life.

Rachel Weisz

Nominated for “The Favourite”

This isn’t her first screen credit, but this 1993 episode of Canadian TV series “Tropical Heat” (sometimes known as “Sweating Bullets”) is one that features a very young Rachel Weisz doing a non-British accent. It’s also a shining example of low-budget 1990s TV production.

Emma Stone

Nominated for “The Favourite”

Back in 2004, when she went by “Emily Stone,” the “La La Land” winner first broke into the industry thanks to a contest to star in a new version of “The Partridge Family” — above, she performs in the reality show component, belting out Meredith Brooks’ classic ’90s girl rage anthem “Bitch.” Stone would go on to play Laurie Partridge in the subsequent made-for-TV film.

The 91st Annual Academy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, February 24 on ABC.

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