Oscar Nominees: What They Did Before They Became Stars

Last Updated Mar 22, 2010 4:40 PM EDT

Creative ways to pay the rent are a Hollywood rite of passage: Before they were stars, Harrison Ford swung a hammer, Sylvester Stallone styled women's hair, and Brad Pitt paraded down Sunset Boulevard dressed like a chicken. This year's Academy Awards candidates flaunt resumes filled with equally colorful jobs — nursing agency owner, truck driver, phone sex line supervisor. But did these early work experiences contribute anything to their screen success? Read on to see.

Sandra Bullock
(Best Actress, The Blind Side)

Jeremy Renner
(Best Actor, The Hurt Locker)
  • Previous job: Make-up artist
  • Payoff: Before taking on roles as a macho bomb-defusing technician in Iraq and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, Renner worked for a time as a make-up artist on production sets. “Instead of waiting tables, I got to put makeup on gals, which was kind of nice,” Renner told a celebrity website. Even today, Renner isn’t relying entirely on movies to pay the mortgage; he’s got a side business of remodeling and flipping houses, and does most of the work himself. So if acting proves to be an unreliable road — according to the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, 85 percent of actors are unemployed at any given time — Renner won’t sweat it. He can always remodel other stars’ houses. Or do their makeup.

George Clooney
(Best Actor, Up in the Air)
  • Previous jobs: Men’s suit salesman, construction worker, theater cleaner
    • Payoff: Of course Clooney sold men’s suits! He’s still a salesman on the screen, only his inventory has changed. Whether he’s pitching a scheme to rip off a casino, a swordfishing trip in bad weather, or a politically risky newscast in Good Night and Good Luck, there’s no doubt the guy could sell ice to Eskimos. In Up in the Air, it’s pretty clear what he’s selling in that bar scene. But what you may not have known is that when he moved in with Aunt Rosemary Clooney in L.A. after dropping out of college, he paid for acting lessons by working construction and cleaning a theater (before that, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds but didn’t make it past the first round). Perseverance pays off: Nowadays, Clooney vacations in a villa in Italy that he reportedly bought for $10 million.

    (Best Supporting Actress, Precious)

    • Previous jobs: Phone sex line supervisor, bank teller, fast food joint worker
      • Payoff: The actress/comedienne/talk show host wins the odd job sweepstakes: Before her rise to the top, Mo’Nique worked on a phone sex line, monitoring the, uh, entertainers, and making sure they were keeping their customers satisfied. In addition to providing fodder for her humor — “I laughed all night,” Mo’Nique told The Insider — and management skills (“I actually had to connect the call and make sure [the operators] were doing the call properly,” she explained to The Advocate), the job helped her gain what Hollywood manager/producer Lou Pitts calls the value of “an experienced life.”

        Karen Danziger, managing partner of executive search firm Howard-Sloan-Koller, says that not only did Mo’Nique learn about “the extremes of human nature,” she received a quick course in customer satisfaction. “Sometimes you have clients you don’t like, but you have to serve them,” Danziger notes. “A lot of work is faking it.”

      James Cameron
      (Best Director, Avatar)
      • Previous jobs: Truck driver
        • Payoff: Before he landed a film job, Cameron was a truck driver writing scripts on the side: “I remember pulling the truck over to the side of the road and hiding behind a billboard to write for 20 minutes, hoping that the other drivers wouldn’t see me,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. But what jump-started Cameron’s career was his frustration when he first saw Star Wars in 1977: Cameron felt that was a movie he should have done, and with friends, he quickly filmed a science fiction short. That led to a job as a miniature model maker for the Roger Corman studios, then a job in special effects.

          “One thing that comes across with all these [nominees] is the tenaciousness of the creative drive,” says career coach Jim Borland. “They never give up.” And, he adds, they don’t take no for an answer, even when the goal seems impossible: “The guy who makes Titanic — what do you do for an encore? Well, he did.”

        Kathryn Bigelow
        (Best Director, The Hurt Locker)
        • Previous jobs: Painter, construction worker
        • Payoff: It sounds like a pitch for an indie film — Bigelow renovated Manhattan lofts in the ’70s with famed minimalist composer Philip Glass. “I would sand the floors and put up these Sheetrock walls, and he would do the plumbing,” Bigelow told Time. Bigelow has graduated from building things to blowing them to smithereens on screen. Like her ex-husband, James Cameron, Bigelow says she doesn’t take ‘no’ well, which is how she got Hollywood behind the idea of a woman making a macho war film like The Hurt Locker.

        Morgan Freeman
        (Best Actor, Invictus)

        • Previous job: Air Force mechanic
        • Payoff: “I knew as a teenager what I wanted to do,” Freeman, who turned down a drama scholarship to Jackson State University to enter the Air Force, told collider.com. “I got sidetracked because I also thought I wanted to be an adventurer.” But during his military stint, Freeman’s dreams of becoming a fighter pilot hit reality: “I was 21 years old when I had the opportunity to sit in a plane and say, this ain’t it. There was only one other choice in my life and that was acting.” Says Danziger: “You have to follow your passion. Spending 30 years in a line of work that you don’t love is the biggest mistake you can make.”

          Nonetheless, Freeman has had ample occasion to draw on his military experience over the course of his illustrious career, having played, among other roles, a black soldier in the Civil War, a brigadier general dealing with the outbreak of a deadly disease, and even the leader of the Free World himself. (Oh, and he played God, but for that role, he didn’t need a plane to get around.)

        Lee Daniels
        (Best Director, Precious)
        • Previous job: Receptionist, nursing agency owner, casting agent, talent manager
        • Payoff: Daniels moved to Hollywood to be a writer, but found he was too easily distracted. To make money, he got a job as a receptionist in a nursing agency, ended up managing it, then opening his own agency. When the father of one of his patients urged him to try producing, Daniels sold his business for $2 million and entered film via the lowest rung: Production Assistant. From there, he opened a casting agency, then tried his hand as a manager. “I took everything I knew about the arts and mixed it with the concept of representing nurses,” he told IFC.com. “I navigated actors’ careers.” Soon enough, he moved into producing and directing. As Hollywood manager/producer Lou Pitt says, this simply proves thatthere are no bad jobs; it’s what you make of them.”

        Quentin Tarantino
        (Best Director, Inglourious Basterds)
        • Previous job: Video store clerk
        • Payoff: In his early 20s, Tarantino famously started working at a video rental store in Manhattan Beach, a job that that allowed him to watch movies all day and talk about them with customers and colleagues, including future fellow writer and director Roger Avary. Nothing like getting paid to do what you would otherwise be doing for free.

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