How good were you at your first job? Mine was picking corn at Rosedale Farm in Connecticut at 6 a.m. I was late on my second day and I missed the truck that would take us out to the field. My boss, Marshall, came back, pulled up to where I sat on a hay bale in shame and said, “Being ‘on time’ means being 10 minutes early.” I hopped in the bed of the truck and he took me back into the field.

Today at 3, I have to meet with my unbelievably great literary agent to discuss my next book. You’re goddam right I’ll be in her office with my coat off at 2:50. Thanks, Marshall.

No matter what it is, you learn a lot from your first job. Here are some quick work tips we picked up from years’ Best Actor Oscar contenders, based on some of their earliest gigs.

Steve Carrell is mute in Curly Sue. The great improviser has no lines. Even his legendary facial expressions have no lines. He’s 29, his forehead doesn’t even have lines. But he’s on camera and from then on he can look for jobs by saying, “I was in top-grossing comedy Curly Sue.”
Insight: 80 percent of succeeding at your first job is just showing up.

Think about this: One day broke Bradley Cooper had to scrounge the cash for headshots. He wanted a job. Any job. So he took one as a British TV presenter. Which required him to skinny dip on a mostly male nude beach in Croatia. You can tell this fit-but-not-ripped Bradley Cooper—he of the future Hangover franchise/money-printing-injet—is a little nervous. But he goes for it anyway.
Insight: Just say “yes.”

The song “Amazing Grace” was written by a slavetrader who then tried to outlaw slavery. It became a British costume drama that has maybe one black person in it. Luckily, one white person comes through. It’s pretty much the inverse of 12 Years a Slave. Benedict Cumberbatch shines in his silly outfit to become the English-est among Englishman, even though he only has a supporting role.
Insight: Dress for the job you want.

Dear God, English people. You make some of the finest modern clothes in the world and yet all your films are these silly costume dramas. Do we need to jack up the TV-license fees to get you guys to stop raiding her ladyship’s wardrobe chest from Upstairs Downstairs? Even though Eddie Redmayne was mostly cut out of the Helen Mirren TV miniseries Elizabeth I, it became a big part of his reel and now he’s up for an Oscar. The experience gave him a firm footing for better roles.
Insight: Luck = Opportunity + Preparation.

mister-rogers-michael-douglasMichael Keaton’s first job in show biz was inside the Pittsburgh public television studio where they filmed Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Then he went by his real name, Michael Douglas. He appeared on-air in the same way that sometimes Letterman calls over a stagehand. But he worked graciously for $2.25/hour and of all the people who came through that studio, Rogers himself had vivid memories of him decades later.
Insight: Always leave a good impression. But more importantly, do not hope for tasks equal to your powers, ask for abilities equal to your tasks.