R-rated films don’t seem to be as racy as they used to be—at least, people seem to be way more chill about R-rated movies than they used to be. Most successful actors have done an R-rated movie at some point in their career. It’s considered something of a right of passage.
Some actors start out in R-rated films. In doing so, they project an image of maturity, but also of boldness. Other actors start out in G or PG rated films and eventually transition into R-rated films. That first R-rated film often marks the moment that they become serious actors. It can also mark the moment that they choose crude humor over family dramas. Every journey is different.
Natalie Portman Léon: The Professional (1994)
Natalie Portman started off her career with a bang— literally. Her first on-screen role was in Léon: The Professional, a 1994 film about an orphaned child who forms an unlikely friendship with a French, middle-aged hitman. Natalie was just 11 years old at the time.
Her character, Mathilda, finds out that her family has been murdered and she decides that she wants revenge. Natalie’s acting talents were evident from the very beginning. We all knew that she was going to be a huge star.
Meryl Streep The Deer Hunter (1978)
Meryl Streep is considered the greatest actress of all time by movie buffs and casual movie watchers alike. She has an impressive amount of Oscar awards to her name, and while some people think she’s overrated, there’s no denying her natural talent.
The first time she was in an R-rated film was in 1978. Streep played Linda in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, which ended up winning an Oscar for Best Picture. Streep was just 28 years old at the time.
Jodie Foster Taxi Driver (1976)
Jodie Foster jumped into the acting business in a very mature way. She was just 12 years old when she starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Not only is Taxi Driver an R-rated film, but Jodie played a prostitute in the movie. That’s heavy stuff for any 12-year-old.
Some scenes in the film required Jodie’s character to be in some pretty precarious positions. Jodie’s sister Connie, who was 19 at the time, stepped in to play Jodie’s body double for those scenes.
Leonardo DiCaprio This Boy’s Life (1993)
Leonardo DiCaprio is another actor who’s been on the scene since he was quite young. You probably remember seeing a little Leo in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. DiCaprio first appeared in an R-rated film was in 1993. He played writer Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life.
Actually, DiCaprio was in one R-rated movie before this one. It was a little film called Poison Ivy, but Leo was only in it for a second, so we’re not counting that one. In This Boy’s Life, DiCaprio acts opposite Robert DeNiro who plays his abusive father.
Julia Roberts Mystic Pizza (1988)
Julia Roberts has been in some of the best movies of the past few decades. Whether she’s playing a prostitute or a lawyer on a mission, this megastar always delivers. Julia Roberts made her R-rated movie debut with Mystic Pizza in 1988.
When the film came out, critic Roger Ebert said, “may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars.” Keep reading to find out who else Ebert could have been talking about.
Matt Damon Mystic Pizza (1988)
It looks like Roger Ebert was right about all of those Mystic Pizza actors becoming stars. Matt Damon actually made his big screen debut in Mystic Pizza alongside Julia Roberts. He played Roberts’ boyfriend’s little brother when he was just 17 years old.
Damon would later go on to write and star in Good Will Hunting. After that film, he went on to have a successful and illustrious movie career.
Halle Berry Jungle Fever (1991)
Halle Berry has been in way too many good movies. She’s won awards, made acceptance speeches, and advocated for the less fortunate with more class than just about anybody else in this industry. Even though she’s a classy lady, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like to get down and dirty with an R-rated movie every now and again.
The first time she acted in an R-rated film was in 1991 in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. She and Samuel L. Jackson play a couple of crackheads who seem more charming than they are dangerous.
Reese Witherspoon S.F.W. (1994)
Reese started her acting career when she was pretty young, but she didn’t star in her first R-rated movie until 1994. That year, she played Stephen Dorff’s love interest in S.F.W. In the movie, Reese and Stephen’s characters fall in love while they’re being held hostage.
Reese would later go on to act in other R-rated movies, most notably, American Psycho starring Christian Bale. Recently, Reese produced and acted in the HBO series Big Little Lies.
Jennifer Lawrence The Poker House (2008)
Jennifer Lawrence has been in a ton of R-rated movies since her acting debut. You might think that Winter’s Bone, the movie that earned young J-Law and Oscar nomination, was her first R-rated film, but in reality, she had already been in an R-rated movie called The Poker House in 2008. In that film, she plays a young girl growing up in Iowa.
Jennifer Lawrence would later go on to win an Oscar for her work in Silver Linings Playbook.
Anne Hathaway Havoc (2005)
Anne Hathway began her career starring in kid-friendly movies like The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. When she was ready to shed her PG image, she appeared in the 2005 film Havoc, which wasn’t very well received by the critics. In the film, her character has several nude scenes in the movie.
Anne Hathaway would go on to star in some better received R-rated films like Love and Other Drugs alongside Jake Gyllenhall.
Angelina Jolie Love Is All There Is (1996)
Angelina Jolie was just 20 years old when she acted in a little movie called Love Is All There Is. The film is a romantic comedy based on Romeo and Juliet set in the Bronx. The movie came out in 1996.
If you’ve ever seen this movie, it was probably in a high school classroom right after you finished reading Romeo and Juliet. The movie isn’t that great, but Angelina was pretty good in it.
Winona Ryder 1969 (1988)
After starring in the PG-rated Beetlejuice, Winona Ryder decided to expand her horizons and star in an R-rated movie. She acted opposite Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Downey Jr. in 1969, a film about a couple of draft dodger buddies.
1969 wasn’t very well received, but a year later, Winona would go on to make Heathers, which is still very well loved by audiences everywhere. You can now watch Winona Ryder in every season of Stranger Things.
Scarlett Johansson Just Cause (1995)
Scarlett Johansson started her career in PG movies, but it wasn’t long before she made her first foray into R-rated features. In 1995, Scarlett played Kate Capshaw as Sean Connery’s daughter in Just Cause.
The movie is about a lawyer (Connery’s character) who opposes the death penalty. He travels to Florida to investigate the truth behind a man’s murder trial. Scarlett was just eleven years old at the time.
Johnny Depp A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Johnny Depp has an acting career that spans decades, but the first time he starred in an R-rated movie was in 1984 when he appeared in A Nightmare on Elm Street. A Nightmare on Elm Street was also Johnny Depp’s first ever movie.
His friend, Nicolas Cage, recommended him to the director of the film, Wes Craven. Later, Depp would go on to star in hits like Edward Scissorhands and just about every Tim Burton movie ever.
Edward Norton Primal Fear (1996)
Ed Norton burst onto the movie scene with more gusto than just about anyone else. From the very beginning, we knew this was an actor to watch. Ed Norton’s first movie (and first R-rated movie) was Primal Fear in 1997.
Orton’s performance in this film earned him an Oscar nomination. Norton would later go on to star in several hit movies including Fight Club alongside Brad Pitt.
Emily Blunt My Summer of Love (2004)
Emily Blunt also started her movie career with an R-rated film. In 2004, she starred in My Summer of Love, a film about two girls falling in love over the course of one summer. Blunt was just 20 years old when filming started. The film wasn’t very widely seen, but people who did see the movie appreciated Emily’s honest performance.
Blunt would later go on to act in other movies, both R-rated and PG. Recently, she starred opposite her husband, John Krasinski, in The Quiet Place.
Kevin Bacon Animal House (1978)
Kevin Bacon didn’t even give PG movies a chance before he starred in his first R-rated movie, which was also his first ever movie.
In 1978, the year it came out, Animal House, starring the late great John Belushi, was considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. I’m not sure it’s politically correct enough to ever be made today, even for a raunchy comedy, but at the time, people absolutely loved it.
Daniel Day-Lewis My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Name the greatest actor of all time. Go ahead, I dare you. If you didn’t say Daniel Day-Lewis, you probably didn’t see this photo of Daniel Day-Lewis. Daniel Day-Lewis is a lot of things, but overrated is not one of them. This man is very appropriately rated.
Daniel Day-Lewis started his acting career with PG films like Gandhi and The Bounty. His first R-Rated movie was also his first independent film. My Beautiful Laundrette became a cult classic.
Sean Penn Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Sean Penn is now a huge and immediately recognizable star. That wasn’t always the case, though. He had to start somewhere, just like everyone else in Hollywood. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is an ’80s classic. In this R-rated film, Penn plays Jeff Spicoli, a surfer type character with big dreams and few prospects.
Penn would go on to win an Oscar (not for this film, though). He wasn’t the only star to get his big breakthrough in this movie though…
Nicolas Cage Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Nicolas Cage has become something more than an actor. He’s an icon, he’s a meme, he’s a role model, and we simply can’t get enough of him, Cage has never been one to shy away from an R-rated movie.
He doesn’t have a huge role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but he still manages to bring some of his essential Nic Cage-ness to the film. Cage somehow manages to stand out in this teen classic.
Eric Stoltz Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
We aren’t done with Fast Times at Ridgemont High just yet. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, let me just remind you that the one and only Eric Stoltz plays a shirtless surfer dude (and friend of Jeff Spicoli) in the film. Stoltz wasn’t in the film for very long, but he was able to use this opportunity to launch his own successful acting career.
Well, somewhat successful. Stoltz was chosen to play Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Then he got fired and Michael J. Fox took over.
Michelle Pfeiffer The Hollywood Knights (1980)
Michelle Pfeiffer was just 21 years old when she appeared in the 1980 comedy The Hollywood Knights. 21 might seem pretty young to be featured in an R-rated movie, but Pfieffer actually played a high school student in the film.
The Hollywood Knight was Pfieffer’s first feature film and her character in the movie, Suzie Q, was Tony Danza’s character’s girlfriend. She would go on to star in bigger films such as Grease 2 and Batman Returns.
Ryan Gosling The Believer (2001)
Ryan Gosling has been in this industry for quite some time. If you search YouTube hard enough, you can find videos of a very young Ryan Gosling strutting his stuff onstage and appearing in The Mickey Mouse Club alongside a very young Justin Timberlake.
He starred in his first R-rated film in 2001. He played a morally conflicted Jewish Nazi in The Believer. The movie was extremely violent and Gosling’s character had to endure several beatings.
Jeff Goldblum Death Wish (1974)
Jeff Goldblum was made for R-rated movies. Yes, he can do more family-friendly films quite well, and he was iconic in Jurassic Park, but come on, The Fly is one of the best horror movies of all time.
Before The Fly, Jeff Goldblum played a thug in Death Wish, a 1974 film by Charles Bronson. The movie went on to receive great commercial and critical success. Jeff Goldblum went on to become Jeff Goldblum.
Kristen Stewart The Safety of Objects (2001)
Kristen Stewart was a child actress, but she didn’t waste any time getting into hardcore R-rated productions. Yeah, she appeared in The Twilight Saga, but before that, she was in a bunch of R-rated films like Panic Room, Cold Creek Manor, and Undertow.
Her first credited movie role was in 2001. She smoked a fake cigarette when she was just 11 years old in the movie The Safety of Objects.
Kirsten Dunst The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Kirsten Dunst also began her acting career quite young. You probably remember a young Kirsten Dunst acting opposite Robin Williams in the original Jumanji movie. Dunst has grown up a lot since then, and she’s acted in many R-rated movies.
The first time she acted in an R-rated film, however, was in 1990 when she played Tom Hanks’ daughter in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The movie was based on Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name.
Zac Efron The Paperboy (2012)
It’s no secret that Zac Efron started his career on the Disney Channel. We first encountered him when he played Troy Bolton in High School Musical. We had no idea back then that this guy was going to become a serious actor.
In 2012, he appeared in The Paperboy, an R-rated movie about a paperboy (obviously) who falls in love with an older woman (played by Nicole Kidman). Since then, Efron has played Ted Bundy, so it’s safe to say that he’s transitioned into R-rated territory.
Ellen Page Hard Candy (2005)
If you haven’t gotten a chance to watch Hard Candy yet, do yourself a favor and go see that movie. It’s young Ellen Page’s acting abilities on full display. Ellen was just 18 when she filmed this movie. She stars opposite Patrick Wilson as a vigilante who decides to torture and punish a sexual predator.
This movie is all tension and no relief, and Ellen Page really shines in it.
Evan Rachel Wood Thirteen (2003)
Evan Rachel Wood grew up in the entertainment industry. Both of her parents were actors who ran a theatre company, so Evan has basically been acting since she learned how to talk.
At first, Evan was apprehensive about appearing in Thirteen, a movie with R-rated scenes and themes. Woods said that the script hit really close to home for her, and she admired the film’s honesty. She got to play an active role in the creation of the movie, which made the whole thing all the more authentic.
Frances McDormand Blood Simple (1984)
What did we do to deserve Frances McDormand? Seriously, we are not worthy. One of McDormand’s first movies was Blood Simple, and R-rated film directed by McDormand’s now-husband, Joel Coen of The Coen Brothers.
I think Frances McDormand is one of the major reasons why The Coen Brothers were and are so successful. McDormand would go on to star in Fargo, one of the greatest movies ever made, and to win several acting awards.