Actors in their rawest forms. Young, naive, innocent, and starving for success. Often times with audition tapes, we are watching the person get their first big break.
And every time, we are watching the origin of the actor becoming a character, a character we have grown to love and appreciate.
Taking a retrospective look at an actor auditioning for a role is a nostalgic and eye-opening experience. They look younger, less polished, more hungry, and in most cases, there is a touch of nerves there.
To go back and look at some of our favorite actors, who have played some of our favorite characters in a vulnerable state… Well it is a visceral joy that almost feels too beautiful for this cold, dark world.
Here are some of our favorite audition tapes:
There was no place we could start other than the sitcom that has enveloped, and in some senses, embodied a generation. The Steve Carrell-led show made us laugh a decade and a half ago, and it still makes us laugh today.
The show has so many lovable characters that it’s hard to imagine every single actor wasn’t already a shoo-in for the gig. But as we see here, if decisions went other ways, a lot could be different right now.
What would The Office look like with Seth Rogen as Dwight instead of Rainn Wilson? With Bob Odenkirk as Michael instead of Steve Carrell? With Adam Scott as Jim instead of John Krasinski?
Hindsight is 20/20. Except in this case, it really feels like the showrunners made every single right decision with casting, a task seems especially difficult because the actors chosen were not all superstars.
They were actors looking for their next role, and I can’t imagine any of them believed The Office would turn into what it did. Bravo, people.
Matthew McConaughey – Dazed and Confused
In one of the most iconic roles of our lifetimes, McConaughey is perhaps the most memorable aspect of a movie that he was only a side character in.
“Alright alright alright.”
“It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”
The man absolutely bodied his role as David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, and his suave line deliveries skyrocketed him to fame. Now the face of Lincoln, an Oscar winner for Dallas Buyer’s Club and star of blockbuster films like Interstellar, McConaughey’s journey is commendable. And it all started with an ensemble role in the early-90s.
Hold up y’all, I have to go watch Dazed and Confused again. That movie is phenomenal.
Tyrese and Taraji P. Henson – Baby Boy
A film dripping with realism and honesty, John Singleton’s Baby Boy is a cultural classic. It also served as both Tyrese and Taraji’s big break. Specifically in this clip, Taraji’s words and acting brims with venom and gravity.
As emotional a tale as they come, Baby Boy needed actors that were willing and able to let loose and reach inside of themselves to find their own pain. The ability to be vulnerable and scared one second, forceful and indignant the next.
This coming-of-age story would not be the iconic classic it is without the work these two actors put in, most notably Henson’s. She has gone on to be one of the most successful black women in film, and women in film in general.
She is a boss, and it is beautiful to see where she started.
Al Pacino – The Godfather
One of the most famous actors ever auditioning for the biggest role in what is widely considered the best movie of all time. This is the good stuff. I mean, really, can we picture anyone else as Michael Corleone other than Al Pacino? Coppola certainly couldn’t.
To hear that the executives did not want Pacino OR Marlon Brando in The Godfather sounds like absolute blasphemy. This video is exceptional because we get to see young Pacino and Coppola, as well as hear them years later talk about the casting process.
There really are so many hoops that have to be jumped through for directors when making a movie. So many times even a well-respected director has to push to cast who they want. Imagine what the films would look like with Tom Cruise as Henry Hill? Or Robert Redford as Michael Corleone?
Thank you Francis Ford Coppola and every other director who fights for the actor they know was born to play the part. Pacino, a superstar and my personal favorite actor ever, is Michael Corleone, through and through.
Rachel McAdams – The Notebook
The premiere part of the most famous romantic drama of all time? The acting McAdams displays in this clip is absolutely incredible. I can imagine being the director or casting director and watching the entire film unfold before my very eyes.
McAdams made her Hollywood film debut with 2002’s The Hot Chick. Then she starred in 2004’s Mean Girls. But her first serious blockbuster role came with The Notebook, a film that is still referenced and adored by people today. Seriously, you’d think the film came out last year with how fresh it always is on everyone’s minds.
McAdams was shot to superstardom with this role, and it’s not hard to see why. A performance of a lifetime.
Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad
We look at Aaron Paul auditioning for Jesse Pinkman.
Paul’s journey is fascinating, largely because the character of Jesse Pinkman was not necessarily going to be a hallmark of the entire show. He has been forthright in the past in his thanks to show creator Vince Gilligan for not killing Jesse off, which Gilligan initially intended after just a couple seasons.
Paul played the role so well that Gilligan had to ax the idea. And thank the skies he did, for Jesse Pinkman is a character that has inspired millions, and was the only bright light in a show so microscopically focused on evil.
Robert De Niro – The Godfather
Once again back to the creme de la creme, the film widely referred to as the best ever. Robert De Niro auditioned for the role of Sonny, as seen in the clip, but after having won it, eventually asked to be let out of his contract to pursue another role.
The role went to James Caan, who was absolutely perfect for it. De Niro, one of the greatest and most iconic actors of all time, could virtually play anything, but it feels weird to imagine him as Sonny. To imagine anyone as Sonny other than Caan, the confidence, exuberance, and hot-headedness in his portrayal performed so masterfully.
With De Niro’s absence in the first film, he was able to return to The Godfather 2, as young Vito Corleone. That role is one of his most famous and prolific, and so it seems everything worked out.
But watching De Niro as Sonny talking to Michael in that clip will always be fascinating to see.
Mike Epps – Next Friday
Mike Epps, a stand-up comic legend. Epps had a difficult job in replacing Chris Tucker from the original Friday, and that is no small task. But his comedic delivery was already known to many, as a late-90s legend of stand-up comedy. And his acting chops proved to be pretty damn strong too.
You can hear the people behind the camera, and Ice Cube for that matter, erupt in laughter at Epps’ lines. The man is just straight-up hilarious, a born-to-be performer. It feels extremely lucky to be able to see his work behind the scenes.
Man, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard so many people laugh as hard as the people in Epps’ original audition tape.
Seth Rogen – Freaks and Greeks
A cult TV classic like not many others, Freaks and Geeks is famous for its brief run with only one season, and its plethora of young talented actors who went on to be superstars. One of those actors is none other than Seth Rogen, the happy-go-lucky stoner whose laugh and persona is famous around the world.
Rogen is a lot less jovial in this audition clip and in the show than he has gone on to be. But his blunt and monotone delivery in Freaks and Geeks is still a joy to see; the show and its ensemble cast are truly what makes this show illustrious.
Ah, what could’ve been.
Don Cheadle – Devil in a Blue Dress
Finally to round out our list, is Don Cheadle putting his diverse and immaculate acting prowess on display. We had to reach deep in the bag for this one. Cheadle’s role as Mouse Alexander in Devil in a Blue Dress is where he first gained widespread popularity. And he never looked back.
Two years after the 1940s Los Angeles drama, Cheadle played a role in Boogie Nights. A 90s titan, and now an even bigger star having played large roles in Hotel Rwanda, Crash, and the MCU, Cheadle is a superstar. To see this lowkey footage of him just getting started is a fascinating thing.
Rewatching audition tapes is like watching old footage of when you were a kid. It’s exciting, thrilling even. It feels like you peeled back the curtain and are seeing something you weren’t supposed to see.
And unlike old footage of yourself, it’s not cringe-inducing. You’re watching someone else go hard for something, and you know they eventually get it. And then make magic from it. Audition tapes are a beautiful escapade and return to seeing actors when they were less pronounced, less famous, less put together. It is truly a marvelous thing to watch.