“Cinema is a mirror of reality and it is a filter.”
This line is spoken in the film Call Me By Your Name by two passionate Italian cinephiles who are arguing about Luis Buñuel. And they’re right, this statement sums up cinema pretty effectively. Movies are inherently a reflection of our lives, and all films alter that reality to varying degrees. In many cases, this reflection is most prominent and least distorted in movies that feature non-professional, or first-time actors.
More often than not, the thing that draws people to watch a film is an A-list cast. And while established Oscar winners and household names are all well and good, sometimes first-timers are the ones who deliver truly unforgettable performances. Often, the story of how said non-actor ended up in the film is as interesting as the movie itself. And even more frequently, these kinds of performances blur the lines between fiction and reality in new and creative ways.
Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What (2014)
Heaven Knows What was directed by Josh and Benny Safdie and adapted for the screen by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein from an unpublished memoir by Arielle Holmes titled “Mad Love In New York City.” The story of how the film came together is quite something. While researching another project, Josh bumped into Holmes on the subway. He asked her if she’d ever considered acting and then the two made plans to meet and talk more about the prospect. Entranced after hearing about her daily life and the cinematic way in which she described everything, Safdie started paying Holmes to write down her story.
The result was Heaven Knows What, in which Holmes plays Harley, a slightly fictionalized version of herself. The film starts with Harley’s suicide attempt and then brings us along to observe the few days in her life that follow. Heaven Knows What gives viewers a stark portrait of the realities of homelessness and addiction in New York City. Almost all of the other actors in the film are Holmes’ real-life friends, except for her boyfriend, Ilya. The Safdies cast Caleb Landry Jones in the role because the real Ilya was too difficult and volatile to work with.
The film is an incredibly raw and unique work that excels at so many things, but the stand-out has to be Holmes’ performance. She has a magnetic screen presence, especially when the Safdies continuously frame her in close-ups. Simply put, Holmes’ real-life experience is invaluable to the film. While a more seasoned actress surely could’ve taken on the role, I don’t think anyone other than Holmes herself could’ve achieved the resonance she does in this movie. The story is so personal, and Holmes makes it clear that it’s imperative she be the one on-screen telling it. After watching Heaven Knows What you’ll be happy to hear that Holmes has continued to pursue acting. She recently appeared in Andrea Arnold‘s American Honey (2016).
Hossain Sabzian in Close-Up (1990)
Close-Up, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, is a difficult film to describe. Similar to Heaven Knows What, the film tells a true story and uses the actual people the events happened to as actors. Though, Close-Up also has aspects of a documentary. The film tells the story of the Ahankhah family in Iran. One day, Mrs. Ahankhah is riding the bus when she meets Hossain Sabzian, a cinephile, who decides to pretend he is famous Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Once Mrs. Ahnkhah shares that her entire family is huge fans of his, he offers to come over and meet her sons.
Sabzian continues to visit the family and maintain his masquerade as Makhmalbaf. He even tells them he’d like to use their house for his next film and cast some of them as actors. Eventually, the Ahankhahs figure out that Sabzian is an impersonator. They believe he is trying to rob them. They have Sabzian arrested, and the case finally goes to trial. At the end of the trial, the judge asks the Ahankhahs if they’d be willing to pardon him and they reluctantly agree.
The film is made up entirely of first-time actors, who have interestingly agreed to re-create what was, in the Ahankhah’s view, a crime against them, in collaboration with the very criminal who did it. The brilliance of the film is that it’s difficult to tell what is genuine and what is a re-enactment. Sabzian’s performance is so impressive since it impedes us from figuring this out. He also makes for a very sympathetic, and perhaps even manipulative, subject. It’s hard to pin down whether he is being sincere or merely putting on a front.
Sabzian’s consistent defense is that he did all of this because of his all-consuming love of cinema. And honestly, we want to believe him. When Kiarostami visits Sabzian in prison as he’s awaiting trial, they discuss his case briefly, but it’s the end of their interaction that stands out. Again, we can’t tell whether this scene is a re-enactment or not, but the way that Sabzian pleads with Kiarostami to deliver a message to the real Makhmalbaf for him with such urgency has always stayed with me.
Likely, anyone who seeks out this Iranian hybrid documentary will relate to Sabzian and his passion for film. The performance –and movie in general– are a nuanced meditation on whether any line can truly be drawn between cinema and reality. As for Sabzian’s later career, he and Kiarostami planned to collaborate on another feature after Close-Up, but sadly, Sabzian passed away shortly after they began planning for it.
R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket (1987)
R. Lee Ermey’s performance in Stanley Kubrick‘s Vietnam war film is perhaps the most famous example of a performance by a non-professional actor. Technically, Ermey had acted before the film in a few small roles, but I’m still going to count him on this list regardless. The reason is that he wasn’t technically cast in Kubrick’s film but instead hired as a technical advisor. When Kubrick saw him in action, he decided that Ermey would have to play the role himself. Kubrick even let Ermey write a lot of his dialogue. Most notably, the extremely creative and cutting insults his character is constantly spewing. This relinquishing of creative control was quite rare for the meticulous and obsessive director.
Ermey appears as drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the haunting first half of Full Metal Jacket where we get a window into the intense training that U.S marines undergo. The intense authenticity of many of these scenes, which is what makes them so frightening, can largely be attributed to Ermey’s real-life experience as a Drill instructor during Vietnam. Ermey went on to act in many more films.
Steven Prince in Taxi Driver (1976)
Steven Prince plays Easy Andy in Martin Scorsese‘s seminal masterpiece. Prince was not an actor in any sense, and he didn’t go on to become one. He was simply in the film because he was one of Scorsese’s good friends and he was just playing himself. He’s only in the film for four short minutes, but he’s a scene-stealer. He sells guns to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and the entirety of his screen time entails him rapidly rambling on about different weapons while Travis meticulously inspects each one.
Prince turns what would’ve been a pretty forgettable scene into something iconic. The other notable thing about Prince is that other aspects of his own life have found their way into other movies. Most notably, a pivotal scene in Quentin Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction. The short background story is that Scorsese eventually made a documentary about Prince titled American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince in 1978. No one saw the movie until Tarantino somehow got his hands on a copy of the lost film. A story Prince tells in the documentary went on to be the basis of Pulp Fiction‘s over-dose scene. Read the bonkers story of how that came together here.
William Shimell in Certified Copy (2010)
Certified Copy is another Kiarostami film. The film is perhaps more straightforward than Close-Up in the sense that Certified Copy is fiction, but the plot still has many layers that are very much left up to the viewer’s interpretation. After watching the film, I was genuinely shocked to find out this was Shimell’s first acting role.
In the film, Shimell plays James Miller and his co-star is legendary French actress Juliette Binoche. In the movie, the two spend the day together walking around a European city, à la Before Sunset. But something is off. The nature of their relationship remains mysterious as the two slip back and forth between seeming to have just met for the first time and intimately knowing each other. At certain points, we even wonder if perhaps they co-parented the child we saw in the first few scenes of the film. Certified Copy mesmerizes you as you try to glean any information you can about how well these two know each other, and that feeling is in part thanks to the extremely natural performances Shimell and Binoche deliver.
Binoche, as always, is likely the actor you’ll leave the film thinking about, but that’s part of what makes Shimell’s turn as James Miller so impressive. Not only do the two have excellent chemistry, but Shimell does a great job letting Binoche shine. He perfectly compliments whatever she puts out there. He also very talentedly maintains an air of mystery around his character by frequently and fluidly changing his temperament. Shimell has continued to pursue acting since Certified Copy. In 2012, He appeared in Michael Haneke‘s Amour.
Frank Silva in Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Frank Silva played the iconic and terrifying killer BOB in David Lynch‘s Twin Peaks. The way that Silva ended up on the show is honestly phenomenal. He was working on Twin Peaks as a set dresser when Lynch spotted him. The director immediately began considering casting him in something because of his interesting look. Then later, when Silva’s reflection was accidentally caught in a mirror in a shot, Lynch decided it was fate and eventually created a vital role for Silva to play in the series.
Silva has very few lines in Twin Peaks, and most of his scenes simply serve to scare but scare he does. Any Twin Peaks fan will likely testify that the blood-curdling scene where BOB lunges at Maddie Ferguson from across the living room is burned into their brain.
Silva created a haunting character out of BOB, and I think it’s something that a random set dresser who happened to be in the right place at the right time is now immortalized in Twin Peaks mythology. Silva passed away in 1995, shortly after the second season of Twin Peaks wrapped, but he continues to be an important part of pop culture. He graced all of our TV screens once again in 2017 thanks to Twin Peaks: The Return.
Bria Vinaite in The Florida Project (2017)
Director Sean Baker has been known to use first-time actors in his films, notably Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine (2015). In his 2017 film The Florida Project, Baker found another star in Bria Vinaite. Baker discovered Vinaite on Instagram and immediately contacted her for the role.
Vinaite plays Halley in the film, a young mother living in the Magic Castle Motel in Florida, near Disney World, with her daughter, 6-year old Moonee. While a lot of the film focuses on Moonee’s carefree summer days with her friends, the underlying plot entails Halley’s financial struggles as she tries to provide for her daughter.
Vinaite creates a perfect balance between all the different aspects of the young mother’s personality, from her immaturity and irresponsibility to her dedication and deep love for her daughter. Even when Vinaite isn’t on screen, her performance is so dominant that we can’t stop thinking about her. All the happy scenes of Moonee and her friends are underscored by a certain melancholy since we always wonder what Halley must be dealing with at that moment. Vinaite is now pursuing an acting career, and she will appear in Harmony Korine‘s next feature.
Harry Styles in Dunkirk (2017)
People had a LOT of opinions when Christopher Nolan cast ex-boy band member Harry Styles in his war film. Hot takes ranged from those insisting he’d ruin the film to others declaring Nolan had found his next Heath Ledger.
Styles appeared in the film as Alex, a British soldier, in his acting debut, among an all-star cast that included Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy. In short, Styles’ performance in Dunkirk was great. He made us forget that he’s a pop star and he seamlessly blended into the mass of British soldiers desperately trying to get out of France alive. Sometimes, that kind of subtlety is just what you want from such a big name who can risk breaking the spell of a film when they appear on-screen. Styles hasn’t appeared in any other films since Dunkirk, but hopefully, he’ll continue to pursue acting.
Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (2009)
Director Andrea Arnold has a knack for picking out interesting-looking people on the street who’ve never acted before and then giving them the opportunity to give an incredible performance. The previously mentioned American Honey starred Sasha Lane, whom Arnold found on a beach suntanning. As with Lane in American Honey, you’d never guess that Fish Tank was Katie Jarvis’ first film role. Arnold found Jarvis when one of her casting assistants saw her arguing with her boyfriend at a train station and immediately approached her for the film.
In Fish Tank, Jarvis plays 15-year old Mia, a young girl living in East London with her mother and sister. Lonely and isolated, Mia doesn’t get along with anyone in her life, and she secretly aspires to be a hip-hop dancer. Eventually, her mother gets a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), who, at first, seems like a blessing to Mia. But as he becomes more and more predatory, their relationship causes her life to descend even further into its downward spiral.
Jarvis carries the film in some difficult scenes that range from heart-wrenching to squeamish. Many parts of the movie are hard to watch, but Jarvis impressively creates a character whom the audience immediately feels emotionally connected too, no matter how stand-offish she gets. Unfortunately, Jarvis hasn’t done much work since Fish Tank. She recently joined the BBC show East Enders in her second acting role ever.
So next time you’re tired of the superficiality of certain movies or you’re annoyed with what people are trying to pass off as realistic, and you want to see something real or perhaps something gritty, seek out a performance by a non-actor and prepare yourself to enjoy something unflinching and unique. For some next steps, most of the directors mentioned in this list have other films starring first-time actors.