The only thing better than when celebs are “just like us” is that period in their careers before they were stars. I flip out any time I see a famous actor or singer in an ancient commercial or talent competition on YouTube, or when I notice that a star I know and love today was always right there, in the background of a movie or show I adored as a kid. I don’t know why, but I tend to forget that these people didn’t just emerge famous, from the womb.

The vast majority of performers aren’t offered the most glamorous gigs right out of the gate. Junk food, video game, and tampon commercials can be a young actor’s bread and butter (just ask Brad Pitt, Paul Rudd, or Naomi Watts), as well can be an excellent source of hilarity and/or adorableness years later.

How I Met You Mother’s Alyson Hannigan has a career in television and film that has spanned decades. But prior to bringing Lily Aldrin, Michelle Flaherty, or Willow Danielle Rosenberg to life, she starred in an ad for the over-the-counter antacid Mylanta. To her credit, she is totally believable as a girl who is very concerned with her father’s gastrointestinal issues:

Even better than seeing future stars in commercials is when they pop up in a bit part on a sitcom or movie. When I spotted Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role on Boy Meets World, I was overcome by a combination of giddiness and befuddlement. There I was thinking that I understood everything that BMW was, is, and ever would be, and then, one lazy afternoon, while watching a long block of reruns on MTV2, a whole new and magnificent layer to this show was revealed to me—the Adam Scott of it all!

Then there are those budding actors who OWN their tiny roles for the two or three minutes they’re onscreen, which is exactly what Melissa McCarthy does in the 1999 movie Go (and in everything she’s done since). In her feature film debut, the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated owner of the finest dimples in all the land plays a somewhat ditzy minor character. During her big scene, she expertly shifts among three or four different emotions in a matter of seconds, and every one is magical:

I’m no expert on the subject of stardom, but from what I’ve been able to glean from Tootsie, practically everyone trying to break into show business is an underdog. Being talented or gorgeous or both is no guarantee of success. There are so many factors beyond one’s control (cosmic timing, the public’s shifting tastes and values, that subtle twinkle in your eye, etc.) that could, depending on the day, work to your benefit or detriment.

The fact that any of our favorite celebrities of today are able to make a living acting, singing, writing, directing, or whatever is a remarkable feat in and of itself. And that’s why I love seeing the powerhouse actor/dreamboat Idris Elba playing an interstellar pizza delivery man on a weird-ass ’90s show called Space Precinct, international treasure Cate Blanchett chilling with a genie in a Tim Tam commercial, and the Oscar-nominated actor Bradley Cooper as himself, an aspiring actor in the audience of episode after episode of Inside the Actors Studio:

Seeing how far people like Cooper or Tina Fey or Beyoncé have come has even made me reflect on some of the unexpected and radical changes that have occured in my own life. Six years ago, I never would have thought that anyone (aside from maybe my mom) would read anything I’d written. I’m not Beyoncé, but seeing her and all these other famous folk before they made it to the big time reminds me that no matter who you are, the future holds a lot of spectacular possibilities. ♦