There’s something that's always vaguely annoying about seeing a celebrity you like hawking a product on TV. Commercials with famous people are rarely funny or amusing; it often feels as if simply seeing a face we recognize is supposed to make us excited, regardless of what that face is saying or doing. No matter how cool Samuel L. Jackson may be, watching him peddle a credit card — and reflecting upon how much money he was paid to do so — is not a cool, or fun, experience by any stretch of the imagination.
But there’s an exception to this general rule, and that’s when the commercial in question was filmed long before the celebrity starring in it was famous. It’s a standard career track for aspiring actors: Start off in commercials, get some work as an extra, and slowly make your way into starring roles. Of course, most actors who do this don’t become famous — but some do. And once they do, they offer a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of what an actor was like before they had fame, fortune or a publicist. Let’s take a look at what some of Hollywood’s biggest stars did when they were struggling and really needed the money. (Or just needed to be on camera.)
In these promo spots for My Super Sweet Sixteen, J-Law gives an excellent performance as the sort of spoiled teenager you’d love to see get splattered with frosting when a disco ball inadvertently falls on her birthday cake. In retrospect, it’s amusing to see Lawrence play a bratty, self-important character, since we now know that she's probably one of the least pretentious people in Hollywood. The second spot features her suddenly falling to the floor when her man-slaves drop the bed upon which she's being hoisted, which is presumably supposed to be funny but comes off as awkward.
With a wardrobe and haircut that look more like a caricature of '90s attire than actual '90s attire, a nearly unrecognizable Tina Fey starred in a commercial for Mutual Savings Bank all the way back in 1995. She was in the Second City improv troupe at the time, and clearly tried to squeeze as much comedy as possible out of a rather unfunny commercial.
Comparing Malcolm in the Middle-era Bryan Cranston to Breaking Bad- era Bryan Cranston is already a favorite pastime, but if you want to take that game to its logical conclusion, check Cranston’s appearance in this soap commercial circa-1987. If you’ve ever wondered what Walter White would look like in a giant skunk costume, this is probably your only chance to find out.
Just for good measure, this 1999 Corn Pops commercial features a young(er) Aaron Paul dealing with lame-o parents who want to deprive him of his favorite breakfast cereal. But Paul has “gotta have [his] Pops,” and eventually convinces his parents to hand ‘em over. If you want to make this commercial even more entertaining, you can pretend this is the younger version of Jesse from Breaking Bad (which would actually make sense, given the trajectories of Jesse’s hair and living situation throughout the series).
This ad features a young, tomboy-ish Kristin Stewart craftily arranging to miss the school bus in order to score a ride in her dad’s Porsche instead. It’s all more or less standard fare — except for around :23 seconds in, when Stewart ominously raises her eyebrows and stalks off-camera in a manner more fitting for, say, Damien from The Omen than the protagonist of a folksy Porsche ad.
On the complete other end of the spectrum is this 1996 Lisa Frank commercial, in which it’s impossible to mistake 13-year-old Mila Kunis for anybody other than Mila Kunis. Apparently, most of what makes Kunis so identifiable and unique — her smile, her vocal intonation, her general energy and enthusiasm — hasn’t really changed one iota in the last 20 years.
Shortly before making his film debut in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Paul Rudd played a gamer in an ad for the Super Nintendo. It’s a far cry from the “laid-back sarcastic dude” image Rudd has cultivated in his years as a film star; here, he’s very un-ironically engaged in what appears to be a Super Nintendo system hooked up to a drive-in movie theater. He also has a haircut that almost makes him look older than he does now.
As evidenced by Arrested Development and Veep, Tony Hale is a gifted actor with excellent comedic timing. You wouldn’t know it from this 1990s-era Herbal Essences commercial, though, in which Hale plays a cartoonishly insecure man who feels emasculated by, yes, his partner’s shampoo. It’s an interesting pitch for a product: “Buy our shampoo, and your partner will feel humiliated and worthless!”