Top 10 Incredible TV Performances by First Time Actors
VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: Cameron Johnson
These TV performances were so incredible, we never would've guessed they came from first-time actors! For this list, we'll be looking at actors who kickstarted their careers through outstanding small screen performances with little-to-no acting experience. Our countdown includes Maisie Williams on “Game of Thrones” (2011-19), Steven Van Zandt on “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), Mutsuko Erskine on “PEN15” (2019-21), Callum Scott Howells on “It's a Sin” (2021), and more!
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 incredible TV performances by first-time actors. For this list, we’ll be looking at actors who kickstarted their careers through outstanding small screen performances with little-to-no acting experience. Are there any first-time performances that stood out on the small screen for you? Share your favorites in the comments.
#10: Alaqua Cox
By 2020, Alaqua Cox had dropped out of college, and had held multiple jobs. By the end of that same year, she wound up with the ultimate dream job acting for the first time for Marvel Studios. Debuting on the Disney+ miniseries "Hawkeye", Maya Lopez, or Echo, is a ruthless criminal whose deafness supports her impeccable combat reflexes. On top of nailing of the physicality in the action-packed role, Cox's natural charisma and range made the unpredictable character a series highlight. This high-profile acting break certainly made Cox a superhero for the Native American, deaf and amputee communities. Audiences are expecting more marvelous things from her in “Echo”'s spin-off series.
#9: Mutsuko Erskine
Maya Erskine blurred the lines between autobiography and fiction even in casting for the Hulu series "PEN15". Who better to play her on-screen mom than her off-screen one? Mutsuko Erskine probably didn't need to do much acting as Yuki Ishii-Peters. But her expert comedic timing and subtler moments of heart made Yuki an invaluable figure in her daughter's coming-of-age comedy. As Erskine's acting chops grew, so too did Yuki's role as a voice of reason and a more layered individual by Season 2. Erskine's acting career doesn’t seem to have gone further than "PEN15", but she’s certainly left an impression for moms in need of some appreciation.
#8: Hannah Einbinder
After appearing at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival in 2019, Hannah Einbinder quickly rose through the standup circuit. But she truly stepped up to the world stage after starring on HBO Max's "Hacks". The role of Ava Daniels is a candid up-and-coming standup who receives the dubious honor of writing for diva comedy legend Deborah Vance. Playing off of real-life legend Jean Smart, Einbinder measures up to the snappy banter and turbulent growth of a comedic talent facing the farce of the entertainment industry. Ava may still be struggling to stand up on her own two feet, but with a hit show and major award nominations for her television debut, Hannah Einbinder has found her big break.
#7: Callum Scott Howells
“It’s a Sin” (2021)
Callum Scott Howells was known as an outgoing singing sensation before playing in a different key on Britain’s Channel 4's "It's a Sin". Colin Morris-Jones is a shy Welsh tailor's apprentice who gets taken in by the Pink Palace Gang of London. He finally comes out of his shell as a proud member of the gay community in the 1980s, until he falls victim to the AIDS Crisis. It's a challenging range of emotion for any veteran actor. But Howells hits all the right notes in one of the most acclaimed performances of the sensational drama. With a BAFTA nomination for his first role, Howells is expected to continue captivating audiences on both stage and screen.
#6: Felicia Pearson
“The Wire” (2002-08)
Although HBO's "The Wire" was praised for its authentic portrayal of Baltimore street life, truly authentic casting came with Felicia "Snoop" Pearson in Season 3. The former drug dealer grew up in foster care and did time in prison before meeting Michael K. Williams at a club. Pearson's story and auditions led to her being cast as a character of the same name, a high-ranking member in a drug syndicate. Snoop's snappy monologues and casual kills made for one the most memorable characters in the ensemble. It helped that Pearson brought a natural intensity that likely came from personal experience. "The Wire" gave Pearson her big break in the entertainment industry, but she earned it with one of the standout performances of the classic series.
#5: Steven Van Zandt
“The Sopranos” (1999-2007)
As a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Steven Van Zandt was New Jersey royalty before becoming a more menacing boss's sidekick on "The Sopranos". Showrunner David Chase created the role of Silvio Dante specifically for Van Zandt's acting debut. The strip club owner stood out from his fellow mobsters for his refined style and business skills. This only made it more hilarious or terrifying when he lost his cool. Silvio quickly became one of the most popular characters on HBO's landmark crime drama for Van Zandt's natural presence and humor. The rock star has since chosen to make peace with a limited acting career. But with "The Sopranos", his screen stardom will never disappear.
#4: Frank Silva
“Twin Peaks” (1990-91; 2017)
Frank Silva was a set dresser on "Twin Peaks" when mere furniture and camera misplacements gave David Lynch the idea of a menacing figure trapped in a room. He thus gave Silva the role of Killer Bob, an interdimensional spirit who possesses the residents of Twin Peaks to do his evil bidding. It sounds far-fetched, but Silva sold the otherworldly horror with his wild intensity. Bob became the center of "Twin Peaks'''s biggest plot twists and fans' worst nightmares. Sadly, it was both the beginning and the end of a promising acting career for Silva, who died of AIDS in 1995. But he leaves behind a legacy as one of the most memorable villains and acting debuts in TV history.
#3: Maisie Williams
“Game of Thrones” (2010-19)
Maisie Williams was a 12-year-old aspiring dancer when she auditioned for the dense cast of HBO's "Game of Thrones". She wound up standing out from the ensemble as Arya Stark, the combative noble's daughter who vows revenge after her loved ones are betrayed. She was initially just the scrappy contrast from her ladylike sister Sansa, played by fellow newcomer Sophie Turner. But Arya’s growth into a fierce assassin is considered by fans to be one of the richest character arcs on the epic show. With this unique showcase of range, Williams soon landed several leading roles before she turned 20. Of course, it all started with the surprise break of an iconic action heroine, and of Maisie Williams' equally iconic career.
#2: Hunter Schafer
Between school and modeling, Hunter Schafer first captivated the public as a vocal activist for trans rights. Her speaking to the unique challenges facing young people today made her an ideal fit for HBO's scandalous teen drama "Euphoria". High school outcast and love interest Jules Vaughn is a role of out-loud energy and heavy emotion. And acting freshman Schafer holds her own against a more experienced cast of talent. She earned particular praise for a special therapy episode which she herself co-wrote. Jules is now considered a seminal figure in the representation of trans youth, with Schafer being hailed as a major acting discovery.
#1: HoYeon Jung
“Squid Game” (2021-)
The Netflix sensation "Squid Game" stars some of the most popular actors in South Korea. But one of the juiciest roles went to veteran supermodel HoYeon Jung. Her Kang Sae-byeok is a pickpocket and North Korean defector who participates in the dangerous Squid Game for a chance to give her family a better life. It's an initially quiet role, which gradually becomes one of the most sympathetic and morally unpredictable. HoYeon's carrying of those layers with gravitas was singled out by critics and fans as a heartbreaking highlight of the series. Lavished with awards at home and abroad, HoYeon Jung is poised to go from "Korea's Next Top Model" to Korea's next top screen star.