“I can’t believe this is happening to me. This is the American dream.”
Comeback stories aren’t just for the movies.
In fact, many celebrities have experienced their very own personal comebacks, reviving their careers after a significant time out of the spotlight. A single role can completely change their lives and take them from off the radar to an Oscar nominee.
The 2022-2023 awards season saw plenty of victories for the underdog, with actors who previously absent from Hollywood making a major career resurgence. And with their newfound fame, it’s just the beginning of a second chance for these stars.
Find out how these stars made their big comeback…
Ke Huy Quan began his career as a child actor, landing parts in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” as well as “The Goonies.” But for years after, he struggled to find roles for Asian American actors and eventually decided to go to film school. He worked behind the camera for decades but in his late 40s, he decided to give acting another try. He was cast in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — and the film ended up becoming a massive success, earning him the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
“My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” he said during his acceptance speech. “They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I can’t believe this is happening to me. This is the American dream.”
Brendan Fraser rose to fame in the ’90s, finding massive success in films like “Encino Man,” “The Mummy” and “George of the Jungle.” But sometime in the early 2000s, Brendan took a step back from the spotlight and was notably absent from major Hollywood movies. He later revealed that he went through a decade of turmoil, suffering from stunt-related injuries, surgeries, divorce and other personal struggles. He also questioned whether his lack of work in Hollywood was related to his decision to accuse Philip Berk, a former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, of sexual assault.
But when he was cast in 2022’s “The Whale,” his career took a major turn. The film earned him a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and eventually numerous award nominations. He ultimately took home Best Actor at the 2023 Oscars.
Winona Ryder received her first Oscar nomination for her role in “The Age of Innocence” when she was just 23-years-old. By then, she’d already appeared in films like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Heathers” — and would go on to appear in “Reality Bites” and “Girl, Interrupted.” Unfortunately, she went through a difficult time in the early 2000s and was arrested on charges of shoplifting and being in possession of illegal prescription drugs. She ultimately took a step back from the spotlight.
“I took some years off, and I didn’t realize that was very dangerous in terms of my career,” she told Time. “I was constantly being told, ‘You have to keep working so you stay relevant.’ When I was ready to come back, I was like, ‘Oh, where did everyone go?’ A lot of actors have ups and downs. I think mine were — people might see them as awful — but I learned, and I appreciated the time away.”
When she returned to the spotlight, she had a hard time finding work, admitting that her “thirties were a little bit tough.” It was her role in “Black Swan” that helped change things for Winona. By 2017, she had been cast in “Stranger Things,” which became a major hit and transformed her career. That year she was even nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
Jennifer Coolidge has always been a beloved fixture in Hollywood in films like “American Pie” and “Legally Blonde.” But over the course of the past decade, Jennifer admits she found herself going through a “dead zone” of her career. She says things all changed after Ariana Grande impersonated the actress on “The Tonight Show.”
“You should know that it was sort of the beginning of a lot of cool things that happened for me,” Jennifer explained. “I was going through a dead zone. Not much was going on. And then Ariana did this imitation on [the] show and you encouraged her and then this ball got rolling.”
Ariana recruited Jennifer to appear in her “Thank U, Next” music video and from there, she found herself at the center of pop culture again. In 2021, she was cast in “The White Lotus,” a role that has now earned her numerous award nominations, including an Emmy win.
Robert Downey Jr. began his career in the ’70s but it was his role in 1992’s “Chaplin” that shot him to stardom, with numerous award nominations. He went on to have several other successful roles but 1996 marked the beginning of a bump in the road for Robert. After being arrested on charges of driving under the influence and for having drugs in his car, he spent time in jail and rehab and was written out of his role on “Ally McBeal.” When he later violated his parole and then missed a court-ordered drug test, he wound up in jail for an entire year.
By 2003, he was sober and looking to get a fresh start in Hollywood. Although some studios were hesitant to work with him, he began to land roles and by 2008 he had joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in “Iron Man.” The film and its sequels skyrocketed him to fame — and he’s been a highly sought after actor ever since.
Matthew McConaughey made a name for himself starring in rom-coms in the early 2000s but he eventually decided that it wasn’t the direction he wanted to take his career. He made a conscious decision to turn down any rom-coms that came his way — and even notably turned down a $14.5 million payday. Once studios realized he was serious about taking different kinds of roles, the offers dried up.
“No offers came in for almost a year and a half. I was now shaking hands with the fact that I may never work in Hollywood again. It pinched me a little, but I was OK with it. It was time for a new chapter in my life,” Matthew told AARP.
Thankfully, studios finally began to accept that Matthew was on a new path and he went on to land major roles in dramas like “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Lincoln Lawyer.” His Hollywood resurgence was even dubbed the “McConaissance.”
Dave Chappelle was a well-known comic with a hugely successful show on Comedy Central when he decided to walk away from it all in 2005. At the peak of his career, Dave turned down the $50 million he was being offered for a third season of “Chappelle’s Show.” Instead, he moved to South Africa and remained out of the spotlight for almost a decade.
“I was talkin’ to a guy…he basically said to me that comedy is a reconciliation of paradox,” Dave said on “CBS This Morning.” “And I think that that was an irreconcilable moment for me. That I was in this very successful place, but the emotional content of it didn’t feel anything like what I imagined success should feel like. It just didn’t feel right.”
When Dave decided to return to Hollywood in 2015, it marked a major comeback and a new phase of his career. He released a movie and in 2017, he released four comedy specials. He released two more in 2019 and 2022 — the final becoming one of his most successful to date.
In the late ’90s, Mandy Moore was a teen pop star with a blossoming acting career. But after landing parts in films like “The Princess Diaries” and “A Walk to Remember,” her career seemed to stall. While Mandy did continue to work in Hollywood, things were slow with just a few guest-starring roles, some failed pilots and smaller films. It wasn’t until 2016 when she was cast in “This Is Us” that her career took a total 180. By the end of the show’s first season, she had earned her first Golden Globe nomination — and has since won many others.
“Our lives and careers have an ebb and flow and I’ve definitely had my dips,” she shared. “But now, coming out of a slower point in my life and career…I have to say there has been an odd sense of contentment. Being 33 and being at the point in my life that I am and seeing how lucky I have been in the last year with work and my career…I am trying to be present and appreciate the moment. This is so once-in-a-lifetime, this crazy experience that all of us on the show are experiencing right now.”
Ellen DeGeneres had a successful career as the star of her own self-titled sitcom but when she came out as gay, everything changed. Ratings dipped on her show and she suddenly had a difficult time finding work. When she premiered another sitcom, “The Ellen Show,” it ended up being canceled before the season even finished airing.
“When I came out, people warned me that it was going to ruin my career, and they were right for a while,” Ellen later shared. “Actually, for exactly three years, I lost my career.”
But in 2003, Ellen launched her own talk show — and it ended up becoming a massive hit. It was nominated for 11 Daytime Emmy Awards in its first season alone and racked up over 25 wins over the course of its time on the air. Ellen has even gone on to host the Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, and the Primetime Emmys.
Rob Lowe rose to fame in the ’80s as a teen heartthrob, starring in films like “The Outsiders” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.” But in 1988, a sex tape featuring the actor and two young women surfaced. He says he eventually hit rock bottom and checked into rehab. He went several years without a major career breakthrough but he continued to push onwards.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always, always, always worked. Even after the sex tape was made public, it was like: You’re still a professional baseball player, but you’re playing for Double or Triple A. I lost the role in ‘Titanic’ that Billy Zane got. But I was never banned from the game,” Rob told GQ.
In 1999, Rob finally made his comeback when he was cast in “The West Wing,” which he starred on until 2006. Rob has since appeared in numerous hit series like “Brothers & Sisters” and “Parks and Recreation.”
Ben Affleck made a name for himself in the ’90s and early 2000s, starring in movies like “Good Will Hunting” and “Pearl Harbor.” But when tabloids began to take a vested interest in his personal life and some of his films like “Gigli” and “Jersey Girl” flopped, his career started to flounder. After all the negative reviews, Ben decided to take a step back from the spotlight and pursue things behind the scenes.
“If the reaction to Gigli hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have ultimately decided, ‘I don’t really have any other avenue but to direct movies,’ which has turned out to be the real love of my professional life,” he told EW.
Ben went on to direct and star in films like “Gone Baby Gone” and “Argo,” paving the way for a new era of his career. In 2013, he even took home Best Picture at the Oscars for “Argo,” proving that he had moved past his flop films.