There are some big names associated with the movie 12 Years a Slave, which comes out this weekend. Brad Pitt. Michael Fassbender. Chiwetel Ejiofor. Benedict Cumberbatch. Quvenzhané Wallis. Paul Giamatti. Paul Dano.
And then there’s a name you’ve probably never heard before: Lupita Nyong’o. The actress is making her feature film debut in the prestige picture — and winning raves for her moving performance as the enslaved woman Patsey. The Telegraph has already predicted her to win the best supporting actress Oscar. Variety names her one of 10 actors to watch, on the strength of her “stunning debut.” Fox News says that her “breakout performance is one of the film’s highlights” and calls her “stunning.”
But Nyong’o isn’t the first to go big with a first-ever film appearance (nor is she the only one this season). While it’s more common for an actor take small parts and work their way up to stardom, others jump right in — as is the case with these six others in their feature debuts. (This list excludes child actors, like Quvenzhané Wallis, Anna Paquin and Tatum O’Neal, who deserve their own list.)
Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Matlin, who lost her hearing as a child, won a best actress Oscar for her acting debut. She played an alum of a school for the deaf who gets involved with a new teacher there.
Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins (1964)
Andrews had a singing career, some big stage roles, and a few TV appearances under her belt but had no live movie experience when she starred as Mary Poppins. She scored the best actress Oscar and a place in countless hearts.
Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields (1984)
Cambodian actor Ngor had been a surgeon before coming to the U.S. He had no prior acting experience when he was cast in 1984’s The Killing Fields—but that didn’t stop him from winning a best supporting actor Oscar.
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious (2009)
A more recent entrant in the first-timers club is Sidibe, who was nominated for the best actress Oscar for her part in 2009’s Precious, her first acting credit. (She lost out to Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side.)
Owen and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket (1996)
Though it didn’t earn either of them Academy recognition, this two-for-one is noteworthy for launching the acting careers of the two brothers, who had previously only appeared in a short version of Bottle Rocket, co-written by Owen and Wes Anderson. It also launched a history of a fruitful Wilson-Anderson collaboration that continues to this day. (And it earned both brothers “debut of the year” acting awards at the Lone Star Film & Television Awards.)
Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985)
Though she had already started her TV career when she made her Hollywood debut, Purple marked Winfrey’s first time on the big screen. Winfrey, who stands a chance for another Oscar nomination this year for her work in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, scored a supporting actress nomination.