A Brief History of Movies With Actors Who Aren't Actors

From Act of Valor to Full Metal Jacket, drumming up excitement by using amateurs on the big screen has paid off for the films—but often not for the actors themselves.

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Relativity Media / Warner Bros.

Last summer saw the release of a highly publicized study that revealed the number-one thing children want to be when they grow up: famous. The top three careers, all celebrity-oriented—sportsman, pop star, and actor—led to hand-wringing about the rise of celebrity culture and its effect on the children inundated with it. Notably absent on the list, which spanned a total of ten professions, was a career with the armed forces.

The U.S. military has long struggled with the best way to recruit young people to enlist, with attempts ranging from a series of free-to-download video games in the America's Army series to Kid Rock's musical collaboration with the National Guard. But in light of the study's finding, the Navy may have found the savviest method yet—a full-length action movie called Act of Valor, the first wide-release film in history to star real-life, active-duty Navy SEALs.

Though Act of Valor is perhaps the most dramatic example in Hollywood history, marketers have long recognized the value of pitching a movie that stars a person or cast who's been "plucked from obscurity" and brought to big screens across the nation. Even a film as legendary Gone With the Wind got a boost by holding a publicity-generating "casting call" for the part of Scarlett O'Hara, which attracted 1,400 amateur actresses to audition. None of them were ever seriously considered for the role, but by then it didn't matter; the hype had been generated, and Gone with the Wind went on to be the top-grossing film of all time. And casting calls can still generate massive amounts of free press; the search for actors to play Harry Potter and his two best friends in Warner Brothers' film adaptations of the book series was obsessively documented by the British press for months.

It's difficult to pin down exactly what constitutes a "non-actor" who's been cast in a film—after all, even the most seasoned performers were technically "non-actors" before they got their first part. But though their leads have little to no acting experience, "star vehicles"—like Michael Jordan's Space Jam, Britney Spears's Crossroads, or wrestler Kane's See No Evil—are doing the opposite of a film like Act of Valor. The draw here isn't a person you've never seen before; it's a person you've seen doing something else.

Films that star true unknowns are a good deal rarer. Historically, there are generally two ways that non-famous, untrained actors land starring roles. The first, and most common, is an actor who's cast specifically because they lack training. Certain filmmakers, like Werner Herzog, and certain film movements—most notably, Italian neorealism—feature casts of nonprofessional adults in a conscious attempt at naturalism. But most of the major films in the "plucked from obscurity" category—including To Kill a Mockingbird (which deliberately cast untrained children) and this year's Oscar-nominated Extremely Loud and Incredible Close (whose lead was discovered after he won "Kids Week" on Jeopardy!) star children, who haven't yet had the chance to build up a body of work.

But the second category—the one to which Act of Valor belongs—are films whose stars have been cast because of their authenticity or skill at a certain task, which trumps their lack of acting ability. It's a small, eclectic group. Harold Russell, a disabled World War II veteran with no acting credits, played a disabled World War II veteran in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives—and won two Academy Awards for it. In 2010, Secretariat cast actual jockey Otto Thorwarth as the titular horse's jockey. Perhaps most famously, R. Lee Ermey, who played Full Metal Jacket's fearsome drill sergeant, was only intended to work as a technical advisor on the film until director Stanley Kubrick realized that Ermey's lessons—which he based on more than two decades of actual experience—were more authentic and effective than anything he could teach an actor. Act of Valor's Navy SEAL stars have similarly been cast for their credibility: Directors Waugh and McCoy have repeatedly played up the fact that the film's story is based on "real acts of valor," and that its stars are using actual weapons and Navy SEAL techniques.

However well or poorly Act of Valor performs at the box-office (it currently has a dismal 25 percent positive review score on Rotten Tomatoes), there's one other thing that often holds true for unknown actors: Their first film tends to be their last—or, at the very best, their defining role. R. Lee Ermey didn't go on to star in romantic comedies, or to play Hamlet; his IMDB page reveals a laundry list of characters whose names begin with "Sergeant," "Captain," or "General." But even typecast, he was relatively lucky. Despite its Best Picture nomination, the IMDB page of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's Thomas Horn doesn't list a single upcoming film role, and Harold Russell's historic dual Oscar win led to just four more film and television roles before his death in 2002.

Fortunately, Act of Valor's active-duty Navy SEALs—who are credited by their first names only—probably prefer it that way. When McCoy first approached the SEALs to star in the film, he reports, they turned him down: "We're not actors—we're Navy SEALs." That may have been true then. But now, for better or for worse, they're both.