Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and Benicio Del Toro—they're all household names now, but even they had to start somewhere. Here are the breakout roles of 15 famous Latino stars!
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Javier Bardem, 42
In the last seven years, the Spanish actor has played a quadriplegic fighting for the right to end his life (2004's The Sea Inside), a vicious killer with a pageboy haircut (2007's No Country for Old Men), and a single father dealing with terminal cancer (2010's Biutiful). But the role that convinced Hollywood that Javier Bardem had a knack for playing sickly characters was the actor's heartbreaking performance as the AIDS-stricken gay Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's 2000 biopic, Before Night Falls.
Jamie-Lynn Sigler, 30
The half-Cuban actress may have parted ways with "waste management consultant" Tony Soprano in 2007, but Sigler—who went on to star on hit shows like HBO's Entourage (2008) and ABC's Ugly Betty (2009)—will always be known as Tony's tough and smart firstborn, Meadow Soprano.
Jimmy Smits, 56
The half-Puerto Rican actor has had memorable roles on award-winning shows like Dexter, The West Wing and NYPD Blue, but it was his Emmy-winning turn as Victor Sifuentes—the firm’s pro-bono lawyer in the drama, L.A. Law (1986-1992)—that first caught the attention of Hollywood casting execs. And they weren't the only ones who were impressed by Smits' skills. From 1986-1991, the Academy of Arts & Sciences honored the talented thesp with five consecutive Emmy nominations for his outstanding work on L.A. Law, and in 1990, Smits won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. To date, he has been nominated for an Emmy 12 times—more than any other Latino star!
Cameron Diaz, 38
Cameron Diaz is one of the highest paid movie stars in Hollywood, and she's had so many amazing roles in movies that it's difficult to call any of them her 'breakout role.' The Cuban actress was hilarious as a sweet and bubbly bride-to-be in the rom-com, My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), she was every man's dream girl in the irreverent comedy, There's Something About Mary (1998), and she was somehow believable as a frumpy loner in the indie hit, Being John Malkovich (1999). But it was Diaz's very first movie role as the seductive singer Tina Carlyle in the Jim Carrey comedy, The Mask (1994) that made an immediate impression on audiences. It's hard to believe that Diaz, who was just 21 at the time, had no previous acting experience when she auditioned for the role.
Benicio Del Toro, 44
He gave a riveting performance as the revolutionary Che Guevara in the Steven Soderbergh biopic, Che (2008)—but everyone knows that it was a different Soderbergh feature that made Benicio Del Toro a household name in Hollywood. In 2000, the Puerto Rican actor won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his breakout role as Mexican border cop Javier Rodriguez in Soderbergh's Traffic, a critically acclaimed film about the North American drug wars.
Zoe Saldana, 33
Her role as Neytiri in James Cameron's Oscar-nominated film, Avatar (2009), blew us away and drove us to tears. But half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican actress, Zoe Saldana was on our radar years before that for her hilarious, scene stealing performance as the bitchy and egotistical gum-chewing ballerina Eva in the dance movie, Center Stage (2000).
Hector Elizondo, 74
As Barney Thompson, the uptight hotel manager with a surprising soft spot in the classic rom-com Pretty Woman, Puerto Rican actor, Hector Elizondo tutored Julia Roberts’s character, Vivian, on how to go from a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold to a lady (he also got those snobs on Rodeo Drive to drop the fashion embargo and allow her to shop!). Elizondo’s screen time in the movie totaled only 10 minutes, yet it earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and the loyalty of director Garry Marshall, who went on to cast the Puerto Rican actor in eight more movies. Talk about a role launching a career!
Edgar Ramirez, 34
He's only 34 and already Venezuelan actor, Edgar Ramirez has given what could very well be the performance of his lifetime. We're of course talking about the actor's brilliant work in the five and a half hour-long movie, Carlos, the story of Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (AKA Carlos the Jackal), who founded a worldwide terrorist organization and raided the 1975 OPEC meeting. It's not too early to say that Ramirez's performance in Carlos—which has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy!—will effectively launch his career. After all, the talented actor has already begun to receive great offers, including the chance to star in a sequel to the box office hit Clash of the Titans!
Catalina Sandino Moreno, 30
Catalina Sandino Moreno's nuanced performance in the indie hit, Maria Full of Grace (2004), not only made the Colombian actress an overnight star, but it also made her the second South American (and only the third Hispanic actress) to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. And even though Moreno lost the Oscar to Hilary Swank (a winner for Clint Eastwood's, Million Dollar Baby), the actress, who was just 24 years old at the time, earned terrific reviews for her raw and honest performance in the film.
Penelope Cruz, 37
She was a riot as an eccentric artist in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)—a role that earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress—and in Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, she was charming as a woman who detected her mother's ghost in her home by the smell of her farts. Cruz's breakout role was not in either of these films, but rather in the Almodóvar picture, All About My Mother (1999), in which the Spanish actress played a young nun with HIV who works in a shelter for battered prostitutes.
Salma Hayek, 44
Her tour-de-force performance in the biopic, Frida didn't make Salma Hayek a star—it made her a bigger star! Because by the time Salma donned a unibrow for the role in 2002, the Mexican actress had already been introduced to American audiences as Carolina, Antonio Banderas' sexy love interest in Robert Rodriguez's 1995 thriller, Desperado.
Jessica Alba, 30
She wasn't even 18 when Titanic director, James Cameron cast the Mexican American beauty in the breakout role of her career—Max Guevara, a genetically enhanced super-soldier in the popular sci-fi series, Dark Angel (2000-2002). While the show only lasted two seasons, Hollywood took notice of Alba's girl-next-door charm and her ability to kick butt on screen. A year later, she had her first starring role in a movie (2003's Honey), and two years after that, Alba was cast as Sue Storm ("The Invisible Woman") in the superhero movie, Fantastic Four.
Jennifer Lopez, 41
Before she accepted a job as Matthew McConaughey's wedding planner in 2001 (heck, even before she worked as a maid in Manhattan in 2002), Jennifer Lopez wowed critics and audiences alike with a dynamic portrayal of Selena Quintanilla-Perez in the 1997 biopic, Selena. Lopez received a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination for her work in the film and critic Roger Ebert called the role a "star-making" performance for the Puerto Rican actress.
Alexis Bledel, 29
Half-Mexican actress Alexis Bledel has had starring roles in movies like Tuck Everlasting (2002), Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), and Post Grad (2009). But it was her role as the brainy bookworm Rory Gilmore in the WB dramedy, Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), that made the Texas native one of Hollywood's most sought after young stars. Seriously, who doesn't love Rory?
America Ferrera, 27
It's true that America Ferrera is best known for her Emmy-winning role on Ugly Betty, but Betty wasn't the Honduran actress's breakout role. Ferrera first caught Hollywood's attention as Ana Garcia, a bright and feisty Mexican-American teenager, whose ambition and dreams of leaving her East Los Angeles barrio lead to conflict between her and her very traditional mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) in the indie hit, Real Women Have Curves.