Hollywood is often described as a community of people chasing after the next big thing, one version of which is the star who will eventually command a $20 million paycheck.
But before any young hopefuls can take a place in the top tier alongside heavyweights like Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, they have to pay their dues. Increasingly, doing so means snagging a role in a comic book adaptation, or playing second fiddle opposite a press-hogging superstar.
Take Chris Hemsworth, a 27-year-old with a résumé so slim that his biggest role was as Kirk's father in the recent "Star Trek" reboot. Hemsworth was cast as the main character in Marvel's upcoming "Thor." The studio's logic: It didn't need to spend upward of $10 million on a brand-name actor, because the character, already well-known to its comic book audience, is the star. The role will also make Hemsworth an important part of the upcoming "Avengers" flick, where he'll have to hold his own against "Iron Man's" Robert Downey Jr. But if he performs as Marvel parent Disney anticipates, expect the Australian actor to creep a few decimal points closer to commanding a Downey-sized paycheck.
Sony is arguably taking a bigger chance on little-known talent Rooney Mara. She will star as Lisbeth Salander in the studio's upcoming version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first of a planned trilogy based on Stieg Larsson's bestselling novels. The 25-year-old actress is best known for her small but pivotal role in the studio's "The Social Network" as Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend. More established actresses like Natalie Portman, Ellen Page and Scarlett Johansson were reportedly passed over for the coveted gig in the Larsson adaptation. The casting process was closely watched by industry insiders and outsiders alike; Mara will star opposite the better-known Daniel Craig.
Paramount, too, is going the way of the unknown with its upcoming "Transformers" flick. Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitley has been tapped for the Michael Bay film, despite minimal acting experience. What the model offers Bay and his studio instead: the trifecta of buzz, beauty and a tiny salary. In the franchise's previous iterations, the role went to outspoken — and pricier — Megan Fox, who with costar Shia LaBeouf benefited from the launching pad of "Transformers." (Fox wouldn't acknowledge as much, which says all you need to know about her abrupt departure.)
Though Hollywood agents are loath to admit it, the days of casting two high-budget stars to prop up a film are increasingly rare. Studios can't justify shelling out as much as $35 million to have Depp and Jolie play opposite each other as they did in "The Tourist" — the risk of failure is too expensive. (The Julia Roberts-Tom Hanks pairing in "Larry Crowne" is an exception, because both have taken pay cuts.) More typically a Depp type will be cast opposite an unknown, like his "Alice in Wonderland" costar Mia Wasikowska. Of course her status, too, will change after one or two more successful movies.
And sometimes luring a crossover talent proves a similarly appealing way to land a big name without having to shell out a similarly sized paycheck. Take Justin Timberlake, a star better known for his music (and tabloid appearances), who has refocused his energy on building a film career. Come 2011 he'll have two opportunities — with the comedies "Bad Teacher" and ""Friends with Benefits" — to prove that his critically acclaimed turn as Sean Parker in "The Social Network" wasn't a fluke, and to solidify him as a movie star. Expect the zeros to follow.