What 15 Of Our Favorite Celebrities Were Really Like Back In Their 20s

Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.
When you see Meryl Streep cheering on younger actors from the audience at awards shows, it seems as if she's always been there. Sir Ian McKellen, in our minds, has never not been a wise wizard, no matter how goofy he seems off-screen. James Earl Jones' booming Mufasa/Darth Vader voice couldn't have once been squeaky and stuttering, right? It's probably due to a lack of imagination on our part, but there are just certain actors who have built up reputations that erase the evidence of their beautiful, awkward youth.

But yes, even Dame Helen Mirren accidentally got drunk on the job. Young soap star Julianne Moore didn't know how to cry on camera. Fledgling reporter Oprah Winfrey got too personal with her interview subjects. Jane Fonda was lonely, and Jon Hamm felt objectified.

Here, we've gathered great photos of middle-aged actors and beyond, from back when they were in their 20s, and included quotes about their early years in the business. Some were overly cocky and idealistic about their careers — while others doubted themselves, despite their radiant looks and obvious talent. None of them probably thought we'd be looking at them like this decades later.
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Photo: Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images.
This young man wasn't afraid to start from the bottom.
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Photo: Dan Wooller/REX Shutterstock.
James Earl Jones (b. 1931)

Jones had a stutter as a kid, but discovered acting at the University of Michigan in the '50s. After a stint in the army, he moved to New York and worked as a theater janitor at night, so he could audition for parts during the day. "I cleaned a lot of toilets," Jones told NPR. "Some of the most famous off-Broadway theaters you can imagine, I washed the toilets in those places. I polished those toilets shiny."
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Photo: ANL/REX Shutterstock.
You wouldn't know it now, but this girl was once unsure of her own beauty.
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Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
Judi Dench (b. 1934)

Though she was very successful in theater from the start, the actress we now know as Dame Judi allowed one man's opinion to destroy her onscreen ambitions. She told the story to BBC4's Richard Eyre this year: “I didn’t become a film star in the '60s, and that’s because I once went for a film — which I have always kept a secret, and the director a secret too... He said at the end of the interview, ‘Jolly nice meeting you, but I’m sorry, you won’t ever make a film because your face is wrongly arranged.’ ”
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Photo: REX Shutterstock.
This beauty didn't know how much we would love her for her brains, too.
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Photo: Picture Perfect/REX Shutterstock.
Jane Fonda (b. 1937)

Even as the daughter of famed movie star Henry Fonda, Jane wasn't born into a perfect life. Although she kicked ass in Barbarella, she didn't always feel like a warrior. "If people can learn anything from me, it’s that I’ve not always been happy, and I’ve not always been strong," she told the Daily Mail. "When I was 20, I thought I was going to die of loneliness, I was so unhappy. But as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself growing happier, and I wanted to understand why."
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Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images
This guy pictured with Lynn Redgrave may have been a little too proud of his theee-a-ter skills.
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Photo: Guy Bell/REX Shutterstock.
Ian McKellen (b. 1939)

Sir McKellen was another Brit who failed to make his way to the screen for decades, and didn't realize why until years later."Friends tell me,‘You were always going on about, Why am I not in films?’” he told the Telegraph. “Well, looking back, I know why now. It’s because my acting was so inappropriate for films. My professional pride was in being able to deliver a performance that would impact on people sitting in the gods, as much as to people sitting in the front row — which would often alarm the people in the front row, particularly critics, who thought I was overacting. I wasn’t overacting to the people over there. But people would come to see it and think, we don’t want this guy in our movies.”
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Photo: Everett/REX Shutterstock.
So eager for acting gigs in a racist culture, he changed his name.
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Photo: Picture Perfect/REX Shutterstock.
Martin Sheen (b. 1940)

The young Ramón Estevez was fresh from Ohio when someone offered him a job backstage at the experimental Living Theatre. He couldn't believe his luck. "That's where I met Al Pacino," he told Rolling Stone. "We worked together, cleaning toilets, sweeping, painting. We moved props for Allen Ginsberg and John Cage, all those wonderful, crazy people. I met Larry Rivers. The first time I ever got paid for acting was there, in a play called Purgatory, by William Butler Yeats. Five dollars. ... Here I was from Ohio, and meeting all these weird people. I didn't know what a vegetarian was. I didn't know anything. I thought junk was garbage."
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Photo: Daily Mail/REX Shutterstock.
Here's a blonde bombshell who kept drinking the prop wine.
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Photo: Willi Schneider/REX Shutterstock.
Helen Mirren (b. 1945)

Mirren had been doing Shakespeare in the best theaters since she was 20, but she was still pretty naive when it came to movie sets. "Working on those movies I didn't know what the hell I was doing," she told the Daily Mail. "On the first scene with Lindsay [Anderson, the director] on O Lucky Man! I had to open this bottle of champagne, pour out a glass and 'cheers!' and drink it. ... I remember being walked around the gardens on this big house we were in and being plied with coffee, and them saying, 'Are you all right?' and me going [slurs], 'I think so." ... And then I went home in the car sobbing my eyes out, I thought I had completely blown it."
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Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images.
This former One Life to Live star isn't big on discussing his soap roots.
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Photo: Picture Perfect/REX Shutterstock.
Tommy Lee Jones (b. 1946)

Jones balanced his days at Harvard between being a huge football star and a budding theater geek. He just knew he was a shoo-in for the part of Ryan O'Neal's Harvard roommate in Love Story. “When I was lucky enough to get a meeting with the casting director of Love Story, I walked into her office and before I could say a word, she said, ‘You’re not right for this part,’ ” Jones told LA Confidential. “What you do in an instance like that, is you call whomever that person is most afraid of. I called a Harvard guy who knew her boss’s boss’s boss, and next thing I knew, I had the role.”
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Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.
This down-to-earth thespian was just as ambitious as she was modest in her early years.
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Photo: Erik Pendzich/REX Shutterstock.
Meryl Streep (b. 1949)

Fresh from her MFA in drama at Yale, Streep hit all the auditions in New York. Rather than credit her own talent for landing her a breakout role at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1975, she told the Syracuse Herald Journal at the time that it was pure luck. "How arbitrary the fates are," she said. "I still have very talented friends, struggling to get anything to be seen in. A showcase play, anything. It's all, I suppose, a matter of being somewhere at the right time. A year ago, I was looking for any audition I could find. I answered a general audition at the New York Shakespeare Festival and after I did my thing, someone said to me: 'We may have something for you.' I said to myself, 'Sure,' and almost put it out of my mind. Then I was called back to do another audition. And there was Joe Papp, who has helped so many other actors, out there watching me. I got the job."
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Photo: REX Shutterstock.
This is cheating a little bit: It's a pic of this budding TV maven when she was just in high school.
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Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954)

Oprah found her calling early in life, and says the first time she was on TV, "It just felt like breathing. It felt like this is where I'm supposed to be." But she soon learned that hard journalism wasn't exactly her thing. "I wasn't a really good reporter. As a reporter, you're not supposed to empathize with the people that you're reporting on, and it's very difficult to be writing copy when somebody's been in an accident."
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Photo: Marty Reichenthal/AP Photo.
Who wouldn't recognize the smile of this experimental theater performer from a mile away?
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Photo: Gregory Pace/BEImages.
Whoopi Goldberg (b. 1955)

Goldberg got her start in experimental theater, and her breakout gig was a one-woman show she first did in San Diego, before it came a sensation on Broadway in 1984. “I figured they wanted my picture so they could put an arrow on it and say, ‘Don’t see her, she stinks,’ ” she told Vanity Fair that year. Explaining why she chose such an unconventional path, she said, “I read all these biographies about what drove folks nuts. People change toward you. I want to do good work. I don’t think I can compromise that and live. ’Cause if I have to shake my tits or play somebody’s fuckin’ maid for the rest of my life, it isn’t worth it. My stuff, that’s the one thing I know no amount of money can stop me from doin’. ’Cause that’s the reason why I’m here on earth.”
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Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.
That's the smile — and the sweater! — of an Oscar winner right there.
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Photo: REX Shutterstock.
Julianne Moore (b. 1960)

Moore isn't one of those actors who shy away from their soap opera roots, and actually credits her time on As the World Turns with some important acting lessons from older generations. "[W]hen I was on a soap opera years ago, the woman who was playing my mom — you know, I had to throw myself into her arms sobbing, sobbing, I had my face buried in her chest and I’m crying, and on camera she very gently picked up my face and faced it towards the camera, and at the end of the scene, she was like 'the lens can’t see you if you can’t see the lens, darling,'" she told TheMarySue.com. "And it was so generous! It was so incredibly generous that she went out of her way to put my face in the lens, and I’ve never forgotten it."
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Photo: Ron Galella/Getty Images.
This young movie star has no idea we'll one day long to be her daughter.
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Photo: Jim Smeal/BEImages.
Connie Britton (b. 1967)

Before she was the sexiest mom on TV, Britton was a struggling actress who almost missed her breakout role in 1995's The Brothers McMullen because she didn't feel like cutting her weekend short for an audition. "I was out of town visiting my sister that weekend, and really debated (going back in for the audition) because it meant I was going to have to get on an earlier train out of Washington, D.C., to get back," she told Variety. "I showed up in some office building where Eddie Burns was holding auditions. I read two different roles; the one I ended up playing, and the role of the woman who was having the affair with my character’s husband. And then he cast me right then and there. I thought to myself: Boy this really isn’t going to be a good movie, if he’s casting me right then and there! ... I look back on those days so fondly because we really just did it for the fun of it. We were not paid. We were trying to get experience. We wanted to bond as a family. And we really did become one."
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Photo: Ltd/REX Shutterstock.
That's quite a dandy look for a future MI6 agent.
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Daniel Craig (b. 1968)

He didn't get his breakout role in the British miniseries Our Friends in the North, until he was 28, but Craig wants everyone to know he wasn't suffering in his early acting years, thanks to modern banking."I was a jobbing actor, just doing what I could," he told the Independent. "I was out of work for seven or eight months, but I wasn't penniless and starving — I had an overdraft, this is the modern world, I just owed the bank a lot of money."
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Photo: NBC/Getty Images.
How on earth did this guy remain in TV guest-star purgatory (here on Providence) for so long?
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Photo: Rob Latour/REX Shutterstock.
Jon Hamm ( b. 1971)

It's still a mystery how Hamm went so long before becoming a star, but at least we know that casting directors did appreciate his looks. He described to Entertainment Weekly how he got the part of "Gorgeous Guy in a Bar" in an Ally McBeal episode in 1997: “I was literally pulled out with four other guys in a line on the lot. The director walked down and was like, ‘Iiiiiii don’t know… You.’ And I went, ‘Me?’ He says, ‘You stand over there, and they’re going to look at you and they’re going to giggle, and you just smile and look back.’ I was like, ‘Okay, great.’ And I got paid like double the day-rate because the camera landed on me for longer than a second. So that’s nice. I’m on a show — literally something that people can see.”
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Photo: ITV/REX Shutterstock.
Is this sweet-faced kid the same self-assured genius we know today?
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Photo: David Fisher/REX Shutterstock.
Benedict Cumberbatch (b. 1976)

Yes, we know, at 38, Cumberbatch is hardly middle-aged, but he's always playing characters that apparently skipped their youth, and went straight into genius adulthood. The previous photo proves he was once not so put together and proper, though the son of two actors did seem to know himself, and his calling, early on in life. "They said, 'Don't do it because of us'," Cumberbatch said of his parents, who didn't give him any illusions about the actor life. "I was lucky to see the best and worst of the world, how it wasn't a secure profession, how it depended very much on age, sex, and fashion."