How Lizzo, Kevin Garnett and More Acting Newcomers Landed Their Film Debuts

10:00 AM 11/28/2019

by Tara Bitran

The NBA star, a professional ballerina and several music breakouts are among those who delivered memorable performances in awards contenders this year.

Courtesy of Films

  • 'Cats'

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    The role of Victoria in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical requires extensive ballet training. So for Universal's adaptation of Cats, director Tom Hooper called upon 27-year-old Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer in London's Royal Ballet. The Kenya-born ballerina also sings "Beautiful Ghosts" in the film, a new song Lloyd Webber penned with Taylor Swift, who stars as Bombalurina. After the film wrapped in April 2019, Hayward returned to The Royal Ballet to dance the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in May 2019. Her repertoire also includes The NutcrackerThe Winter's TaleThe Sleeping Beauty and Giselle.

  • 'The Farewell'

    Courtesy of A24

    The depiction of familial bonds in writer-director Lulu Wang's The Farewell are autobiographical and nuanced, with the filmmaker's great-aunt Hong Lu playing opposite Awkwafina's Billi and Zhao Shuzhen's Nai Nai in her first onscreen role as none other than herself. But Lu, who plays the younger sister of Billi's grandmother, wasn't the only actor who mined her own life for her performance: Lu's dog Ellen has a memorable singing cameo.

  • 'Hustlers'

    Courtesy of STX Entertainment

    Lorene Scafaria snagged some of the hottest music artists around for her cast of straight-up Hustlers. Aside from Jennifer Lopez's star turn as Ramona and Usher's surprise cameo, two of the big-name performers are ubiquitous on the airwaves (not to mention the Billboard Hot 100) and new to the screen: Lizzo and Cardi B. Lizzo, who is making the rounds on her Cuz I Love You Too tour, even played her signature flute in the ensemble film, while Lopez personally called Cardi B, a former stripper, to convince her to sign on to the project. Usher, Lizzo and Cardi B all shot scenes on the same day of production.

  • 'Jojo Rabbit'

    Kimberley French

    For his anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit, writer-director Taika Waititi tapped newbie Roman Griffin Davis to star as the titular Jojo Beltzer, a 10-year-old indoctrinated Hitler Youth who learns to value friendship over prejudice against the advice of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). The adorable Yorki, Jojo's fellow soldier, also is played by a fresh face from the U.K.: Archie Yates, who originally read for the lead before landing a scene-stealing role in the black comedy as Jojo's best friend.

  • 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

    Courtesy of A24

    If The Last Black Man in San Francisco seems like it was based on a true story, that's because Jimmie Fails (who stars as a fictionalized version of himself with the same name) took inspiration from his own family history for the drama. Fails makes his acting debut in director Joe Talbot's first feature (which nabbed him a Sundance directing prize as well as a special jury prize for creative collaboration), based on the best friends' semi-autobiographical screenplay, which coalesces around Fails' quest to reclaim the Victorian home his grandfather built in the Fillmore District of San Francisco.

  • 'Rocketman'

    David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

    As the end credits roll in Rocketman, a series of stills from Elton John's life jets across the screen, including images of the musician as a child wearing large glasses. The similarities between the appearance of the glam rocker and the actor who portrays him as a child in the musical fantasy film are uncanny. In his first featured role onscreen, 10-year-old British actor Matthew Illesley plays a young Reginald Dwight (before he takes the name of Elton John) at the start of the film and recurs throughout, singing a number of hits including "The Bitch Is Back" and "Rocket Man." Kit Connor plays the adolescent soon-to-be star, who transitions into the adult artist as played by Taron Egerton via a music sequence set to "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting."

  • 'Uncut Gems'

    Courtesy of A24

    Playing a version of himself in the Safdie brothers' latest feature, former Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett seeks out jeweler Howard Ratner's (Adam Sandler) Ethiopian opal as his good luck charm. "I didn't think it was too difficult to play myself," Garnett says of his first and only film role. "They made it very relaxing." His directors insisted that Garnett's acting career would not end with Uncut Gems, to which he jokes: "A villain next time, you know what I'm saying?" Also making his first film appearance in the black comedy is The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye), playing a pseudo-version of himself and performing a concert in the film.

  • 'Us'

    The story of Us features three young first-timers. Never appearing onscreen before Jordan Peele's second outing as a feature director, Madison Curry plays the young incarnations of Lupita Nyong'o's dual roles of Adelaide Wilson and Red. Evan Alex, who had roles on the series Kidding and Mani, makes his entree into features as Jason Wilson, the son of the core family (played by Nyong'o, Winston Duke and Shahadi Wright Joseph), as well as his doppelganger, Pluto. In addition to her parts as daughter Zora Wilson and alter ego Umbrae, Wright Joseph was previously seen on NBC's Hairspray Live! as Little Inez. But she announced her arrival into the film world in a major way in 2019, voicing Young Nala in Jon Favreau's remake of The Lion King for Disney.

  • 'Yesterday'

    Jonathan Prime/Universal Studios

    Himesh Patel is well known to British audiences for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood on BBC's long-running soap EastEnders. But the English actor broke into the international box office this year with Danny Boyle's rom-com Yesterday, starring opposite Lily James and Ed Sheeran. Patel plays Jack Malik, a musician who wakes up after an accident to discover that he's the only person who remembers The Beatles, leading him to fame and stardom when he takes credit for their songs. For his audition, Patel sang the title track and "Back in the U.S.S.R." After his film debut, Patel's slate includes The Aeronauts with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and in 2020 he'll appear in Christopher Nolan's action thriller Tenet.

    This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.