Before most actors and actresses become stars, they spend years or even decades hustling for gigs, appearing in local commercials, indie movies, soaps or any police procedural that needs a victim, suspect or perp. This series looks back at the jobs some of our biggest celebrities took before they became household names — and how those roles shaped the performers they are now.
It took just a few short years for Margot Robbie to make the jump from scene-stealer to leading lady. After a zesty performance in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 hit The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie quickly landed an eclectic array of parts: from adventurous low-budget genre fare like Z for Zachariah and Terminal, to high-profile projects like The Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad. Fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn as the rough-hewn Olympic ice skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, Robbie will be seen next playing Queen Elizabeth I, opposite Saoirse Ronan, in the prestige drama Mary Queen of Scots, out in select theaters this weekend.
Though she’s only 28 years old — and was just 23 when The Wolf of Wall Street came out — Robbie worked quite a bit in her native Australia before her big breakthrough. She was making low-budget pictures and doing TV guest shots in her late teens, and by her early 20s, before moving to Hollywood, Robbie was a relatively well-known television personality back home.
That is to say, there are quite a few Margot Robbie performances many of her American fans have never seen — from her Australian years, and from the movies and TV she did in the U.S. and U.K. as she was ramping up her career momentum.
Review w/Myles Barlow (2008)
Here’s a little-known fact (at least in the U.S.): Andy Daly’s Comedy Central cult favorite Review was based on an Australian series, which aired 13 episodes between 2008 and 2010. The premise of the two shows is the same: a clueless, arrogant host (“Myles Barlow” in the Aussie version, played by creator Phil Lloyd) critically analyzes various life experiences, which inevitably go horribly awry due to his own personality flaws. Robbie appears in the first episode, playing one of a group of schoolgirls who approaches Barlow and his jerky pal on the street, to ask if they’ll buy the kids some booze.
The segment’s meant to be a review of how it feels to be friends with “a dickhead” — the kind of obnoxious sleazeball who’d supply underage gals with vodka. Robbie only has about 30 seconds of screen time, but she makes an impression. She’s so natural that it’s easy to believe she’s a real person who just wandered into the shot, and not an actress. More importantly, she uses her brief time to establish a persona, playing a shrewd young lady who takes advantage of the guys trying to take advantage of her, by using their horniness to score free drinks.
Robbie’s much better than her material in Vigilante, a dirt-cheap Death Wish knockoff in which her character gets raped and murdered early, giving the hero his motivation to become… well, y’know. The best that can be said about Robbie’s few scenes is that at least she’s feisty, and not some passive victim with no personality.
The Elephant Princess (2008)
Unlike a lot of actresses who got their start in their teens, Robbie was never cast much as a high-schooler — and technically speaking, she doesn’t really play one in her two episodes of this family-friendly fantasy/romance series. Though she’s supposed to be “Juliet,” a teenage temptress who disrupts the budding relationship between the heroine and her magical mentor, her character’s actually a supernatural construct, controlled by the villains working to keep “the elephant princess” from fulfilling her destiny. (Hey, this is a weird show. It was also, a lot of Australian television, ultimately a farm system for American TV and movie talent, with early roles for the likes of Liam Hemsworth, Georgina Haig and Alexandra Park.)
This is a tricky part for Robbie, who spends most of her time playing a blankly idealized adolescent girl — perfect and alluring — and the rest aping the smirking deviousness of an ancient witch. That kind of duality has become more common to Robbie’s characters in recent years, though lately — as in I, Tonya — she tends to carry the good and bad around at the same time, without switching back and forth.
Robbie’s second movie is another grubby low-budget thriller, better than Vigilante but still awfully trashy. She has a much bigger part here, as a nosy teen who discovers suspicious activity in and around her dad’s apartment, and courts danger by investigating alongside her brother and their visiting friend. The pacing’s slow and the plot makes zero sense, but I.C.U. was still valuable as on-the-job training for Robbie, giving her the time and the space to develop a character over the course of an entire story. She’s hardly brilliant, but she’s undeniably charismatic.
Australia’s longest-running daily soap opera — now in its 34th season, with nearly 8,000 episodes in the can — Neighbours has launched several of its cast-members to international stardom, including Kylie Minogue and Guy Pearce. Robbie’s Donna Freedman was a minor figure at the start of her run, positioned as an emotionally needy extrovert who causes problems for the residents of Ramsay Street. But the producers and the audience loved the actress’ take on Donna, which was more lively and sympathetic than grating. During her years on the show, Robbie eventually got to play a variety of dramatic and comedic storylines, and was at the center of some controversy when her character kissed a woman.
Pan Am (2011–12)
Robbie left Neighbours and headed straight to Hollywood, determined to land a regular TV role, as so many other Australian and English actors have been doing in the 2010s. Her luck was good, then bad… and then great. Mere months after her last Neighbours episode aired, Robbie was in costume and on set for Pan Am, a splashy 1960s-set airline dramedy meant to carry some of Mad Men’s retro cachet over to ABC. The show never caught on, but Robbie made an impression as a naive, spoiled young stewardess, earnestly trying to prove to her family that she could get by on her own without any special advantages (aside from her stunning beauty, that is).
The bad news for Robbie was that Pan Am was canceled after one season. The good news? Pan Am was canceled after one season. If she’d still been playing an international jet-setter in the fall of 2012, it’s doubtful she’d have even been in the running for The Wolf of Wall Street.
About Time (2013)
Here’s how much of a time- and career-suck a TV acting job can be: During her stint on Neighbours, Robbie only appeared in one movie, I.C.U. Four years later, after Pan Am crashed, she finally got to do another, but only had a minor role. In writer-director Richard Curtis’s rom-com About Time, her character serves as trial run for Domhnall Gleeson’s time-traveling hero, who uses his powers to learn what women really want from him. Robbie appears early in the film, playing an attractive but fickle young lady who inadvertently shows the limitations of his methods. It’s a nothing part, only requiring the actress to be winsome, but she does a credible English accent, which — coupled with her American accent in Pan Am — gave casting agents a fuller sense of her potential.
Suite Française (2015)
When The Wolf of Wall Street hit big, Robbie — like so many “overnight sensations” before her — faced the daunting prospect of capitalizing on her surging popularity, and not making the kind of choices that would quickly bump her back to the B- or C-list. For the most part, she and her agents have managed her career smartly. Her first two post-Wolf movies put her in a starring role in the smart post-apocalyptic drama Z for Zachariah, and then in a showy supporting turn for the zippy con-artist rom-com Focus, opposite Will Smith. The films she’s made since haven’t all been gems, but at least the parts have been worthy of her talent and reputation.
The major exception is Suite Française, a turgid WWII romance in which Robbie’s role is so negligible that she’s not even cited by name in the trailer. (She does appear in the ad, just long enough for audiences to register her distractingly curly black hair.) Appearing in a modestly budgeted middlebrow drama with Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas would’ve been a plum assignment for the actress prior to 2013. It’s a testament to how fast and how steady her rise has been that by the time the repeatedly delayed Suite Française was dropped from a theatrical release to a Lifetime cable TV premiere in 2017, just about anyone who knew her work would reasonably ask, “Wait, why the hell is Margot Robbie in this?”