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DVD Watch: First Roles of Now Famous Stars

Photo of Aljean Harmetz By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood July 25, 2012 at 3:24PM

Psst! If you want to peek into the past, Acorn Media is making it easy. Want to watch Keira Knightley at age 9? Try Acorn’s DVD of “A Village Affair,” a TV movie whose lesbian love story takes place in a small English village. How about Orlando Bloom at 13 in “Midsomer Murders"?
Colin Firth young

Psst! If you want to peek into the past, Acorn Media is making it easy.  Want to watch Keira Knightley at age 9?  Try Acorn’s DVD of “A Village Affair,” a TV movie whose lesbian love story takes place in a small English village.  How about Orlando Bloom at 23 in “Midsomer Murders,” a British series in which village sex is secondary to a rich crop of murders?

Keira Knightley, far right, in "A Village Affair"
Keira Knightley, far right, in "A Village Affair"
In one case, the youthful actor was also the star.  After Colin Firth won an Academy Award as best actor for his performance as King George VI in “The King’s Speech” (2010), Acorn bought “Lost Empires,” a 1986 mini-series about British music halls in which Firth had top billing as a young boy who joins his uncle’s magic act.  “We picked up ‘Lost Empires’ in 2011 because of Colin Firth,” says Acorn publicity director Chad Campbell. "He was “the deciding factor.”

“Acorn doesn’t actively look for early roles of talent,” says Campbell.  “But guest stars are definitely an added perk that we consider when deciding whether to pick up a series.  We have released early series/roles for lots of actors that have hit it big.”

They include Jeremy Irons in his first role, as “Nephew George”  in “The Case of the Mirror of Portugal,” Season 1, Episode 6 of “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” a series based on short stories by authors who wrote mysteries at the same time as Arthur Conan Doyle.

Daniel Craig young 2
Ralph Fiennes young Prime Suspect
Damian Lewis Poirot

And Damian Lewis.  The newly minted Emmy nominee for best actor in a drama series--as a U.S. Marine sergeant in “Homeland” who is either a war hero or a mole for the terrorists who took him prisoner -- can be seen as a student in a hostel where theft turns to murder in “Hickory Dickory Dock,” Season 6, Episode 2 of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot.”

Then there is Dominic Monaghan.  Who would have thought that this wet-behind-the-ears 20-year-old as a wanna-be private detective in “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates” would sacrifice himself for his fellow castaways as one of the main characters in seasons 1, 2, and 3 of “Lost”?

Ralph Fiennes had 48th billing in the original “Prime Suspect” in 1991, two years before his performance as a sadistic Nazi officer in “Schindler’s List” brought him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor and made him a star.  Although ”Michael” in “Prime Suspect” was his first movie or television role, Fiennes was already a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  And Jeremy Irons had spent several years with the Bristol Old Vic before he moved to London and got his first television job.

Neither 24-year-old Daniel Craig nor 17-year-old Kate Winslet had such buffed resumes when they were cast in a television mini-series of Angus Wilson’s satirical novel, “Anglo Saxon Attitudes,” although Craig had toured with Britain’s National Youth Theatre.  Kate Winslet’s cameo in the third episode was her first role.  Craig’s more substantial part was his second.

More often, the young actor was someone who was barely noticed by the television or movie audience.  For 23–year-old James McAvoy, a small part in one episode of “Foyle’s War” in 2002 was just another small part.  For superhero buffs, it might be worthwhile to take a look at the young man who turned into Professor Charles Xavier of “X-Men First Class,” a paraplegic who used his mutant power of telepathy to control people’s minds.

This article is related to: Acorn Media, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Damian Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Craig

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.