You won’t believe these 33 stars’ crazy backstories. It’s fascinating to find out how the rich and famous got their start. Some stars took a roundabout road to success; others never intended to go into showbiz at all but happened to land their first gigs by chance. A few examples of some of the stranger celebrity backstories they’ve attempted to bury might surprise you. For instance, Tom Cruise attended seminary school as a boy and Christian Bale grew up in the circus where his mother was a performer. Did you know that Christopher Walken tamed circus lions, or that Liam Neeson was a teacher-in-training… until he punched a student in the face? Here we’ve rounded up 33 of the craziest celebrity backstories you’ve probably never heard before. Read on to see what happened to these famous folks before they were stars. You really can’t make this stuff up!
Charlize Theron was “discovered” fighting with a bank teller.
After a shouting match over cashing a check, a talent agent in line gave her his card.
Cameron Diaz’s first screen work was a softcore short film.
She’s No Angel was Diaz’s first movie, made when she was 20 in 1992. In it, she wears — ahem — very little.
Liam Neeson was a teacher in training until he punched a kid.
The 15-year-old had pulled a knife. Neeson has called acting much easier than teaching kids.
Bono’s career was born out of tragedy.
Bono, aka Paul Hewson, watched his mother suddenly collapse and die at his grandfather’s funeral when he was 14. He was so traumatized he turned into a teenage delinquent…and then a rock star.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a millionaire by age 22.
Arnold started a bricklaying business and a bodybuilding mail-order company. He parlayed the profits into real estate and became a millionaire before he’d made one movie.
Christopher Walken tamed lions in the circus.
He dressed up as if he was the circus ringmaster’s son in a touring circus. The lion he worked with was named Sheba.
Idris Elba was an illicit substance dealer.
Trying to make a go of it in New York, Elba pushed weed and DJed at clubs. He lived out of a van in New Jersey.
Joaquin Phoenix was born into a weird Christian cult.
Joaquin’s parents were involved in the infamous Children of God cult, known for its love of Jesus and certain carnal proclivities. When it started advocating free love with children, the family was outta there.
Liev Schreiber was abducted by each parent by the age of three.
His wealthy father tried to have his hippie mother committed. When that didn’t work, they split up. His mother nabbed him first, then his father, then mom got custody after bankrupting the family. They lived on welfare for years.
Norman Reedus landed his first gig after getting blitzed at a party with famous people.
While overindulging, Reedus put on a pair of broken girls’ glasses and started screaming at the wealthy and famous L.A. partygoers. Afterward, they all went for pizza and someone convinced him to star in their play.
Rosario Dawson was discovered as a teenage squatter.
The Defenders star was a straight-A student living in an abandoned NYC apartment with her mother when director Harmony Korine noticed her and asked to star in his outré movie Kids.
Winona Ryder was bullied for being a “boy.”
The new kid in junior high, she was mistaken for being an effeminate boy and beat up by her classmates. She was kicked out of school.
Patrick Dempsey started out as an expert juggler.
He started his entertainment career as a juggler and unicyclist and finished second in an International Jugglers Association competition.
Brad Pitt escorted female strippers.
“I’d pick them up, and at the gig, I’d collect the money, play the bad Prince tapes, and catch the girls’ clothes,” he has said. It helped his career, though, as one girl introduced him to his future acting coach.
Gene Simmons once taught sixth grade.
He taught for a while at a public school in Harlem. He has said he was let go because he swapped Spider-man comics for Shakespeare. Mm-hmm.
Evangeline Lilly’s career started out X-rated.
After doing missionary work in the Philippines, Lilly worked on oil rigs and became a flight attendant. She also took a job answering phones for an X-rated service.
Mark Wahlberg was a teenage hellion who blinded a man.
Marky Mark grew up the youngest of nine kids in a tiny Massachusetts apartment. At 14, he dropped out of school, was doing tons of blow, and at 16 hit a guy so hard he went blind. He served 45 days.
Matt Dillon was a rich kid acting out at high school when he was discovered.
Talent scouts found him cutting class and using cigs in the bathroom. They liked his tough attitude and chipped tooth. When they asked about his parents, he answered, “my father is a f***ing stockbroker and my mom, she don’t do s***.” And thus he landed his first movie about out of control kids, Over the Edge.
James Lipton was a pimp.
The esteemed Inside the Actors Studio host planned to become a lawyer pre-WWII. After the war, he befriended a hooker in Paris and ended up running a bordello. He did great business.
Toni Collette faked appendicitis at 11 so she could have surgery.
Showing her acting chops at an early age, the United States of Tara star fooled doctors so well, they actually removed her appendix.
Tom Green was a successful rapper in Canada.
He was part of a famous group called Organized Rhyme and even released a few solo albums before trying that whole comedy thing.
Javier Bardem stripped in front of his mom.
The actor worked as a male stripper for exactly one day. His mother and sister were in the audience cheering him on as he grooved to “Leave Your Hat On.”
Audrey Hepburn was a WWII Dutch Resistance agent.
As a ballerina in the Netherlands, Hepburn would smuggle notes and money in her ballet slippers. At one point she and some other women were rounded up by German soldiers, but she escaped.
Marilyn Monroe was an orphan who married at 16.
Norma Jeane Dougherty worked as a parachute inspector at a munitions factory in Van Nuys while her husband was deployed. A photographer discovered her in 1944 while taking “Rosie the Riveter”-type shots for his magazine.
Chevy Chase was almost a member of Steely Dan.
Chevy Chase avoided the draft in the ’60s by falsely claiming he was gay. Then the actor (who has perfect pitch) played in a band with two college buddies. Chase left, calling it a “bad jazz band.” The two buddies went on to form Steely Dan.
Christopher Lee was the equivalent of a CIA operative for Britain.
As a member of the WWII Special Operations Executive organization formed by Churchill in the ’40s, Lee’s assignments involved sabotage and secret missions that are classified to this day. (This doesn’t even come close, though, to the badass-ness of the heavy metal album he recorded at 87.)
Roger Ebert and sexploitation director Russ Meyer made movies together.
When Ebert was just starting his career as a film critic, he also wrote the script for Meyer’s X-rated Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film was a surprise hit and they teamed up on more movies in the ’70s.
James Stewart was a highly decorated military hero for three decades.
Stewart was the first major American actor to join WWII. As a bomber pilot, he flew 20 missions over Germany. He retired in 1968 as a brigadier (one star) general.
Samuel L. Jackson held people hostage in college.
At Morehouse College in 1969, Jackson and his activist cronies held the Board of Trustees hostage to demand changes in the school. He was expelled, but the college did institute some of their demands.
Tom Cruise almost became a Catholic priest.
As a teen in Ohio growing up with a single mom, Cruise (then Tom Mapother) attended seminary school. Legend has it he was kicked out for stealing adult libations from the priests.
Demi Moore had a nightmarish childhood.
She was born to a bipolar teen boozer who was often hit by Demi’s stepfather. They moved 15 times before he took his own life in 1980. She dropped out of school, hit Hollywood and posed unclothed for Oui magazine.
Chris Pratt worked as a stripper.
He was living out of a van in Hawaii at the time. Stripping was one of his odd jobs, but he has said he wasn’t good enough at it to land a real job at a club.
Sylvester Stallone’s first movie was X-rated.
It was an S&M flick called Italian Stallion released in 1970.
Christian Bale grew up in the circus.
His mother was a clown and a dancer.
Jason Lee was a pro skateboarder.
He even had a shoe named after him in the 1980s. In 1992 he started a successful skateboard company.
Dylan McDermott’s early years were full of tragedy.
Dylan was five when his mother’s boyfriend took her life. He later worked for his dad in a New York City bar before getting into acting thanks to his stepmom, playwright Eve Ensler.
Leighton Meester was born behind bars.
The Gossip Girl star’s parents were incarcerated for smuggling weed to Florida from Jamaica when she was born.
Natalie Portman has been published in scientific journals — twice.
The Oscar winner and Harvard grad coauthored two research papers, one on infant neuropsychology, the other on enzymatic production that she wrote IN HIGH SCHOOL. Oh yeah, and she speaks six languages.
Woody Harrelson’s dad was a hit man.
His dad, who left the family when Woody was young, was hired to take people’s lives. He served some time before Woody spent millions trying to get him retried. Go figure.
Michael Clarke Duncan was a stripper.
The late actor also worked as a bodyguard for Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Biggie Smalls. He might have saved Smalls’ life if he hadn’t traded assignments earlier the night of the rapper’s death.
Mel Gibson’s career happened accidentally.
He planned to be a chef or journalist in Australia. His sister submitted an application for him to the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. He was accepted with no acting experience.
Nicole Richie was adopted.
She was born Nicole Escovedo to one of Lionel Richie’s bandmates. She went to live with Lionel and his wife at age three and they adopted her when she was six.
Terry Crews was an NFL linebacker.
He played for the L.A. Rams (1991) and Philadelphia Eagles (1996).
Steve Buscemi was a 9/11 hero.
A former firefighter, he volunteered for his firehouse in NYC and helped pull survivors out of the rubble.
Hilary Swank was homeless.