Yalitza Aparicio Is About To Join A Long Line Of First-Time Actors Who Went Straight To The Oscars

Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images.
A couple of years ago, Roma actress Yalitza Aparicio was studying to be a preschool teacher in her small town in Oaxaca. She had no thoughts of being an actress, let alone stepping into the Dolby Theatre this Sunday night as a potential 2019 Best Actress Oscar winner.
Sure, many are rooting for that award to go to Glenn Close, who's been acting for 45 years and received six previous Academy Award nominations but has yet to take home that gleaming statuette. But one of the many joys of the awards ceremony is seeing first-time actors take the stage, or at least shine from the audience in such lauded company. Whether they're bright-eyed kids like Quvenzhane Wallis or adults who took an unexpected career pivot, these newbies are such fun to watch all through awards season. For one thing, those of us at home can picture ourselves in their shoes, thrust unexpectedly into all that glamour. For another, their performances often lend something fresh and exciting to movies that we couldn't have seen from more polished vets. Plus, given the underrepresentation of indigenous people on the screen, Aparicio's nomination also represents the promise of a future in which talent like hers won't go unnoticed.
The list we've gathered here of first-time actors who earned Oscar nominations doesn't include those who got to dip their toes into the field on stage or television before making their movie debuts (sorry, Lady Gaga). It's amazing to see how many of these nominees were complete rookies to the craft, before hitting a homerun on their first try.
Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives: Winner, Best Supporting Actor, 1947
Technically speaking, Russell was in one film before he played Homer Parrish in the movie about men returning home from World War II. The real-life vet who lost both hands in the war appeared in a military educational film first, catching the attention of director William Wyler. Hmmm, why haven't more filmmakers after him cast disabled actors instead of relying on special effects?
Mary Badham in To Kill A Mockingbird: Nominee, Best Supporting Actress, 1963
Badham was 10 years old when her mother brought her to a cattle call for would-be Scout Finches. She had so much fun on the set, she said they had to put onion dust in her eyes to make her cry for a scene.
Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon: Winner, Best Supporting Actress, 1974
Though her dad, Ryan O'Neal, was a pretty famous actor at the time, Tatum hadn't ever acted before Peter Bogdanovich cast her at age 8 to play the daughter of a Depression-era con man. She still holds the record as the youngest Best Supporting Actress winner.
Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer: Nominee, Best Supporting Actor, 1980
First-timer Henry got his big break playing the subject of a custody battle between Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep at age 7, thanks to having a casting director neighbor.
Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage.
Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields: Winner, Best Supporting Actor, 1985
Ngor was an ob-gyn who was imprisoned in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and later fled the country. He came to the U.S. in 1980, but in 1984, he chose to relive the torture he endured in his home country by playing a journalist during the peak of the Cambodian crisis.
Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple: Nominee, Best Supporting Actress, 1986
Winfrey was a local TV talk show host when she auditioned to play Sofia Johnson in the movie adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. She was so inexperienced at acting, director Steven Spielberg had to teach her not to look directly at the camera when she spoke her lines.
Anna Paquin in The Piano: Winner, Best Supporting Actress, 1994
The 9-year-old New Zealander said she only auditioned for the role of Holly Hunter's daughter because her sister was doing it. With zero experience acting, she beat out 5,000 girls for the part.
Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider: Nominee, Best Actress, 2003
Like fellow Kiwi Paquin, Castle-Hughes hadn't acted before she landed the life-changing role of young Paikea, a Maori girl who wanted to lead her tribe. Sadly, she doesn't have fond memories of being an awkward 13-year-old at the Oscars.
Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild: Nominee, Best Actress, 2013
Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage.
At 5, Wallis was technically too young to audition for the role of Hushpuppy (a girl who was certainly too young to be on her own as she was in a flooded Louisiana bathtub community), but no one really cared about that once she started working her magic. At 9, she was the youngest Best Actress nominee ever, with the adorable puppy-dog purses to show for it.
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips: Nominee, Best Supporting Actor, 2014
Abdi was driving a limo in Minneapolis when he responded to a casting call looking for Somali men to play the film's pirates opposite Tom Hanks. His inexperience meant he was only paid $65,000 for the role, and he had to take a job selling cell phones with his brother while working the awards show circuit.
Yalitza Aparicio in Roma: Nominee, Best Actress, 2019
The preschool teacher-turned-awards-show darling is the first indigenous woman to be nominated for Best Actress. That's both a testament to her natural skills in front of the camera and a sad statement on the regressive nature of movie casting. Let's hope other directors take a tip from Alfonso Cuarón and seek out young gems like her.

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