In the golden age of Hollywood the way to get discovered was to saddle up to the soda fountain at Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard. Sadly, Schwab’s closed in 1983, so the modern-day equivalent might just be having the right kind of casual encounter with Steven Spielberg.
Alden Ehrenreich, the actor who was just cast as the young Han Solo for the untitled Star Wars spinoff, was discovered by Spielberg at the bat mitzvah of a friend of his daughter Sasha. Spielberg attended with Sasha and was impressed by Ehrenreich’s “performance” in a homemade video played at the event.
Ehrenreich, who grew up in Pacific Palisades where Spielberg lives, laughed about it in an interview with Rolling Stone. “It’s a piece of shit,” he recounted. “It’s a video that this girl asked us to do. I mean, there wasn’t a script: We would go and just film whatever made us laugh. I’m this 14-year-old, skinny little kid with long hair. I break into her house, try on her clothes and make up a song. All of this is just us literally taking a camera and going like, ‘Okay, ha ha, do this.’ We showed it to our parents — ‘We’re gonna play this at her bat mitzvah!’ — and they were like, ‘You look like an idiot in this. I don’t think you should really do that.’ We didn’t care.”
Despite the parental advice, Spielberg was impressed enough to invite Ehrenreich to meet with him at his Amblin offices and then introduce him to Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in his first major role, 2009’s Tetro. And boom, a career was born.
Ehrenreich is far from the first person to be discovered by Spielberg or get a big career bump from an encounter with the famed director. Here are six others whose random meeting or friendship with Spielberg helped get their career launched.
The Lucasfilm president got her big break because Spielberg thought she was really organized, but then again Kennedy was only in Hollywood because she loved Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Kennedy was a camera operator for a San Diego TV station who was so blown away by the 1977 Spielberg hit that she moved to Hollywood, determined to make it in the film business. She got a job as a secretary for Apocalypse Now writer John Milius (one of her jobs was organizing his large gun collection). Spielberg came to Milius‘ office one day. “I noticed that John had a very organized office. I was watching how Kathy handled all of his incoming requests,” Spielberg recalled to Fortune, so he hired her away to be his secretary.
J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves
Kennedy actually helped Spielberg discover the two directors when they were in their teens. In the early 1980s (probably ’81 or ’82), Kennedy got a call from a guy who was living in Spielberg’s childhood home on Lookout Mountain outside Phoenix and had discovered the 8mm films Spielberg had made as a child. Kennedy had just read a story in the LA Times about how two teens (Abrams and Reeves) had won a young filmmaker award. “I said to Steven,” Kennedy recalled to Vanity Fair. “You know what would be really great? Why don’t you hire these two kids who just won this film award, who would probably give anything to meet you, and they could clean up your movies and transfer them to tape so that we never run the risk of these movies disappearing again?” Spielberg was impressed by the work the pair did and has been a friend and mentor ever since.
The daughter of Spielberg pals Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner got her Spielberg break while riding home from a screening of Silence of the Lambs. The then-18-year-old had just seen the movie with her dad, Spielberg and his wife Kate Capshaw and was quizzing Spielberg (who is also her godfather) about it as they drove home. “I was looking in the rearview mirror and she was talking about the film and she had this really frightened look on her face,” Spielberg recalled. “And it suddenly clicked, and I said, ‘Hey, you could be the young Wendy! You could be the young Maggie Smith.” So he cast her as young Wendy in his Peter Pan adaptation Hook — it was only Paltrow’s second role and her first big break.
Before appearing in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale was an unknown child actor with just a few credits — but one was very important. After being inspired by his sister (a dancer/actress herself), Bale decided at the age of 10 he wanted to become an actor and he won a small role in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. Spielberg’s then-wife Amy Irving, who also starred in the series, personally recommended Bale for the director’s new film. That recommendation helped Bale beat out 4,000 other kids for the lead roll in Empire. A 13-year-old Bale recalled meeting Spielberg for the first time in a 1987 interview with Gene Shalit. “He’s got this massive games room in his office, so I was just sitting there playing all the games when he walked in. … He just chatted to me on what the film’s about, he took me around his offices, let me touch E.T.’s head.”
At the age of 7, Drew Barrymore had her breakout role in Spielberg’s iconic film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Barrymore also just happens to be his goddaughter through his friendship with her parents, John and Jade Barrymore. In a 1983 interview with the Today show, Spielberg discussed how she was originally sought for a role in Poltergeist. Producer Kennedy, however, felt she was better suited for the role of Gertie in E.T.
Spielberg tried to watch out for Barrymore, giving her advice then not to take endorsements. “I remember him saying to me, ‘Please don’t do that.’ My mom and I were from a [single-parent] home. We weren’t doing very well economically. It was extremely tantalizing to take these opportunities. He said, ‘in the broad vision of life, it will water you down. And if you choose your battles carefully, it will be a lot more meaningful,'” she recalled. Later he advised her not to do other nude shoots after she posed for Playboy by sending a quilt for her 20th birthday with the note: “Cover yourself up.”