From Ripley to Wolverine, these unforgettable movie star auditions will make you want to give a standing ovation

(Image credit: Fox)

Few actors get handed a job on a platter. In a breakneck industry that runs on a fight or flight mentality, most of the stars you see in cinema today had to earn their breakout roles. Brilliant auditions are part of the reason why the best thespians in the business are where they are today, and if you watch them for yourself, you can totally understand why they were given the part. 

The following handful of scintillating screen tests, then, represent a slice of movie history in the making.

Emma Stone - Easy A (2010)

Who said it’s easy being Emma Stone? Despite proving herself in Zombieland and Superbad, Stone spent two hours nervously re-recording a one-minute audition tape for virginal outsider Olive Penderghast in director Will Gluck’s high-school comedy. “Let the record show,” she nailed it. 

Between her hyper expressive eyes, quick wit, earnest righteousness and classic-Hollywood voice, Stone projected the natural star quality any director would kill to have in (virtually) every frame of their movie. 

Hugh Jackman - X-Men (2000)

Thank Tom Cruise for this one. Struggling to match Cruise’s pace while making M:I II, Dougray Scott busted his shoulder in a motorbike bump. Shooting overran as a result, costing Scott the Wolverine role. Enter Jackman, fresh from Oklahoma! on stage.

Compared by screenwriter David Hayter to “a young Clint Eastwood”, Jackman projects great charisma through laconic restraint. But he’s also got an easy warmth that magnetises us and the most superheroic hair since Chris Reeve’s kiss-curl, making him the perfect candidate for the soulful hard-nut: though Dafne Keen (Laura/X-23) looked a sight scarier in her electric Logan audition. 

Rachel McAdams - The Notebook (2004)

Fresh from Mean Girls, McAdams played Allie Hamilton in director Nick Cassavetes’ break-out Nicholas Sparks weepie. Going by her audition with co-star Ryan Gosling, she was ready to put herself through the wringer for the job. 

McAdams hits every emo-base on the head arguing with the Gos. Fiery, forthright, indignant, raging and quivering with tremulous hurt, she rollercoasters through the feels with the ease of someone flipping through a notebook 

Matthew McConaughey - Dased and Confused (1993) 

“He came in on an audition and said: ‘Hey, I’m not this guy, but I know this guy,’” explained director Richard Linklater of the McConau-hunk’s bid to play stoner-sage Wooderson. 

That understanding is scrawled all over McConaughey’s dazed grin and drawl in his screen test, where he lectures Wiley Wiggins on being cool, shares deep thoughts on high-school girls, and sparks up his career with the ease of lighting a joint. 

Steve Carell - Anchorman (2004) 

From the cheesy suit down, Carell is man-child Brick Tamland in this delicious screen test. Carell pitches the pan perfectly dead-wards, while the colour of his face when he laughs would shame passing beetroots. 

“Don’t make me laugh”? Try not to. 

Christopher Reeve - Superman (1978) 

Reeve’s ability to fill Kal-El’s pants was initially questioned, but his earnest warmth, wry wit, no-smoking charm and kiss-curl stand hands-on-hips tall in his audition with Holly Palance. You’ll believe a man can fly and never tell a lie. 

Jim Carrey - Man on the Moon (1999)

Carrey has never been Oscar-nominated, but the audition alone for his riff on prankster virtuoso Andy Kaufman almost deserves one. Singing and dancing badly, Carrey truly gets how Kaufman toyed with audiences. And those congas? Kaufman’s own, bought by Carrey at auction. 

Sigourney Weaver - Alien (1979) 

“I was from the theatre,” Weaver recalled of her pre-Alien days. “I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be in a movie!” If anyone else had doubts, her screen test obliterated them. Dressed in army surplus gear, she smokes/ swears like she doesn’t give one, barks orders, and owns the set with natural authority 

Alyson Hannigan - American Pie (1999) 

Buffy’s Willow made audiences choke on their beer as nymphogeek Michelle. With wide-eyed earnestness and a one-track mind, Hannigan nails every note – even the way she stumbles breathlessly over the lines fits. Flutes would never look the same again. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt - Mysterious Skin (2004) 

Gordon-Levitt graduated from 3rd Rock From The Sun with his nuanced turn as a tough/ tender, wired/wounded teen hustler in Gregg Araki’s heart-breaking Scott Heim adaptation. Joe’s astonishing audition is camera-ready: the smirk may be cocksure, but the eyes are haunted. 

Tom Hardy - Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) 

It isn’t just the shiny bonce: the road to Bane is scrawled all over Hardy’s screen test as villainous Picard clone Praetor Shinzon. Hardy claimed to be “terrified” playing opposite Patrick Stewart, but a revolutionary righteousness burns in his vocal inflections 

Tippi Hedren - The Birds (1963) 

Hedren described her experiences working with Hitchcock as “horrific”: he became obsessed with her, then lobbed live birds her way after she rejected him. His fixation seems all too creepily evident in the voyeuristic screen test for his avian Daphne du Maurier adaptation, in which Hedren exudes grace under leering pressure as she’s put through multiple costume changes.

“How do you feel about this whole experience?” co-star Martin Balsam asks. Queasy, perhaps? 

Gabourey Sidibe - Precious (2009) 

Sidibe cried for real auditioning to play deprived, abused Precious Jones in Lee Daniels’ emotion-wringer. A deep empathy pierces her screen test: as she folds into herself, you believe this is a woman crumpled by pain, driven to feel unnoticed. 

Al Pacino - The Godfather (1972) 

Paramount thought Pacino wrong for Michael Corleone, and big Al agreed. But director Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t get Pacino’s face out of his head. The screen tests show why: Pacino’s uncertain wariness is evident, but his eyes burn with star-making intensity. 

James Dean vs Paul Newman - East of Eden (1955) 

Oh, the awkwardness. Dean and Newman screen-tested for one role in the John Steinbeck adaptation, but there’s no competition. Newman’s bow-tie and laugh seem too eager to charm next to Dean’s switchblade-flipping cool.

Natalie Portman - Léon (1994) 

The casting director famously thought the 11-year-old Portman too young for the role of Mathilda in Luc Besson’s traineeassassin flick. Portman’s parents agreed. But when young Nat says: “I’ve seen better days,” in her audition reel, you believe she could project depths beyond her years. 

Unnervingly confident from her line deliveries to her eyebrows, she appears completely in control, even when called on to utter phrases such as: “Hi, piggie.” 

Henry Thomas - E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 

When the original choice to play Elliott proved overly bossy, director Jack Fisk recommended nine-year-old Henry Thomas to Spielberg. Indiana Jones fan Thomas arrived to audition with a mini-bullwhip – and botched the reading. 

But when he improvised a scene with casting director Mike Fenton’s NASA man threatening to take E.T. away, Thomas’ controlled show of swelling emotion (he was remembering his dead dog) devastated Spielberg. No phoning it in. 

Carrie Fisher - Star Wars (1977) 

Fisher beat 24 name actresses to the role of Princess Leia, and her audition leaves no doubt why. Screen-testing alongside Harrison Ford (not yet cast as Solo, just helping George Lucas out), Fisher is all nervy grins and edgy focus between readings. When she delivers, she’s right in the moment. 

Somehow investing lines about the “fourth moon of Yavin” with an intelligent conviction beyond her 19 years, she leans into the role with the insistent passion that propelled her to diss Moff Tarkin’s BO. It’s almost startling when Fisher reverts to herself, shyly declaring her name to camera. Sob. 

Tobey Maguire - Spider-Man (2002) 

Greased-up and brooding, Maguire proposed a moodier version of Spider-Man in his alley-spat audition for the (not-so) friendly neighbourhood superhero. While Sam Raimi’s film eventually played lighter, Maguire’s impressive here, channelling Bruce Lee as he tackles sophisticated fight choreography while, pivotally, looking every bit the hero. 

Daisy Ridley - Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 

To test actors’ abilities, sometimes there’s only one option: torture. Searching for someone “tough, sweet and terrified”, J.J. Abrams subjected Ridley to Kylo Ren brain-scans. Howling with fight and fright, her response blew Abrams away: all the way to Jakku. 

Christian Bale - Batman Begins (2005) 

Screen-testing opposite Amy Adams, Bale unleashed that divisive voice with bonecrushing purpose. Bale used that deep-throat register (“Swear to me!”) to, reckons Christopher Nolan, “Project massive energy through this costume.” Needs must: he was wearing Val Kilmer’s dodgy Bat-cossie, after all. 

This feature originally appeared in our sister publication Total Film magazine, issue 262. Pick up the latest edition now or subscribe so you never miss an issue. 

Freelance writer

Kevin Harley is a freelance journalist with bylines at Total Film, Radio Times, The List, and others, specializing in film and music coverage. He can most commonly be found writing movie reviews and previews at GamesRadar+.