It’s a unique challenge in the realm of filmmaking: telling the real-life story of an actual human being (albeit dramatized), and finding an actor who can manage to slip into another person’s skin for the duration. While that usually means turning to the most gifted and chameleon-like actors and actresses, that in itself poses a problem.
Since audiences would, by default, have a harder time pretending leading men and women aren’t merely playing a part, there’s really only one solution: transform themselves from their normal body and mind into that of the character they’re playing.
The results have ranged from awe-inspiring to off-putting, but with the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, simply titled Jobs, we’re taking a look back on the biopic transformations that stick in our memory like no others.
Although plenty of people raised their eyebrows upon hearing that Ashton Kutcher would be leading Jobs, a Steve Jobs biopic – a casting dreams for any marketing executive – time proved that the filmmakers may have been onto something. The first image of Kutcher as Jobs silenced many, but the actor’s efforts to get into the mind of the Apple-founder went deeper than appearance.
The first full-length trailer showed how Kutcher had captured the voice, mannerisms, and even the loping gait of the tech icon better than any would have thought.
Our interview with Kutcher revealed just how much work it took, as Kutcher dove headfirst into studying Jobs’ own heroes, reading the books that had shaped his vision, and even adopting Jobs’ infamous fruitarian diet before it landed him in the emergency room with – shockingly enough – pancreatic problems.
Few real-life athletes hold the place in American history as that of Muhammad Ali, so to play the heavyweight boxing champ, Will Smith hit the gym – and hit it hard. Besides the seven-hour days of boxing and training that lasted the better part of a year, Smith ultimately packed 35 pounds of muscle onto his previously-slim frame.
Beyond the physical, Smith put as much determination into all aspects of Ali’s life: studying Islam, mastering the champ’s unique dialect, eventually capturing enough of the boxer’s personality to get the stamp of approval from Ali himself.
Smith calls his performance in Ali the proudest of his career (hard to disagree), and his bulked physique permanently changing his on-screen roles for years to come.
If there’s one thing Christian Bale has shown in his career so far, it’s that weight is just a number. The second time Bale dropped from Dark Knight-shape to emaciation came with The Fighter, portraying the older brother of real-life boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). The 30 pounds Bale dropped to convincingly portray Dicky Eklund in the depths of his crack addiction is hard to miss, but his Oscar was due to much more.
The clearest evidence of Bale’s transformation is the fact that he never falters from playing the protective older brother to Wahlberg’s Micky, even when his personal struggles steal the spotlight away from the film’s ‘leading man’ (read our review).
The nuance of Bale’s performance brings so much authenticity, viewers would be shocked to realize that Wahlberg is the one who’s actually from Massachusetts, and is three years Bale’s senior.
It could be said that most performers have some kind of dream of one day being a rock star, while few ever achieve it. So when the opportunity to portray Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, a young Val Kilmer went to extremes to land the part. Before even being cast, Kilmer lost weight, began dressing like Morrison and frequenting the singer’s hangouts. Not to mention rehearsing The Doors’ catalogue of songs for hours each day.
When director Oliver Stone finally cast the actor, he worked with producer Paul Rothchild to mimic Morrison’s vocals to perfection, which were used in parts of the film; the members of the band claiming they could no longer tell which verses were Kilmer’s and which were Morrison’s.
An imitation is one thing, but when Stone took Kilmer to meet Jerry Hopkins, Jim Morrison’s biographer, the first thought that apparently came to the writer was that he’d “forgotten how tall Jim was.”
The term ‘based on a true story’ often means a single fact surrounded by invented drama, but in the case of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, the truth was stranger than fiction. The task of portraying Wuornos on screen in Monster ultimately fell to Charlize Theron, who realized that being considered one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood wasn’t going to help for this particular role.
To more closely resemble Wuornos, Theron gained 30 pounds before false teeth and facial prosthetics helped her look the part, and her performance as a sympathetic killer suffering from personality disorders took care of the rest.
Hailed by some as one of the best performances of the decade, Theron’s complete embodiment of Wuornos won her the Academy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for Best Actress, and cemented Theron as one of the industry’s best and brightest.
Peter Sellers may be somewhat less known among young North American movie fans, but the British comic genius is as iconic as a biopic can get in the UK. It was that reason that Geoffrey Rush first turned down playing the actor in the HBO TV Movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Only after appearing in Pirates of the Caribbean did Rush think he was up to the task (maybe being around Johnny Depp got him hungry for an unbalanced role himself).
Given that the movie covered thirty years of Sellers’ life, it’s not hard to see why Rush was skeptical. The actor didn’t need to just get into the mindset of Sellers, but needed to turn in faithful performances of roles like Inspector Clouseau (The Pink Panther series), and both President Muffley and the titular scientist of Dr. Strangelove, to name just a few.
While the film’s depiction of Seller’s life divided critics, Rush’s performance was acclaimed. At points, Blake Edwards – the real-life director of The Pink Panther – even had to remind himself he was watching Rush, not Sellers.
It’s a no-brainer that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull should appear on this list; as one of the greatest films, biopics, and performances of all time, Robert De Niro’s role as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta is one for the ages. And while De Niro and Scorsese left their mark on cinema history, the film left its mark on the actor’s mind and body as well.
De Niro’s weight gain – 60 pounds in total – to portray LaMotta in his later years was a long-held record, making the actor almost unrecognizable. But before playing an aged LaMotta, De Niro had to play him in his prime. Which meant building the lean actor into a fierce boxer. The results are evident on screen, but it’s not all movie magic.
After completing his training, De Niro entered into three Brooklyn boxing matches, winning two. He had apparently captured the style of LaMotta so clearly, the real-life former champ offered to manage and train De Niro should he want to make a career change.
Few North American movie fans knew who Tom Hardy was before just a few years ago, but it was the British actor’s portrayal of career criminal/convict Charles Bronson that helped begin his worldwide ascent. But to embody Bronson – who has spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement – Hardy had work to do.
The hulking real-life Bronson was less than thrilled when he learned that he’d be played on film not by Jason Statham, but some young, lean, theater star; that changed when he began meeting with Hardy in preparation, and saw the more-than-40 pounds of muscle the actor had packed on.
Aside from the fact that Hardy was virtually unrecognizable in his new body, the film garnered acclaim for its fever-dream execution (with Hardy carrying the bulk of that load) and Hardy’s uncanny ability to capture the charisma and innate star power of a madman. Not to mention, the role paved the way for Hardy’s turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
It’s surprising that despite the numerous accolades and awards bestowed upon the entries on our list for their respective biopic performances, few of them have had their careers defined by said films. But for many movie fans around the world, Sir Ben Kingsley will always have his career summed up in one breath: Gandhi.
The story of one of India’s greatest heroes and leader of one of the largest non-violent political movements ever was a difficult one to get told, but director Richard Attenborough found a way. And in Ben Kingsley – a half-Indian, British stage actor with few starring roles to his name – he found his leading man (talk about pressure).
Yet despite the odds, Kingsley so completely embodied Mohandas Gandhi that not only did Indian locals mistake him for the deceased leader’s ghost, but he earned a Best Actor Oscar, and turned in one of the best performances ever seen.
It’s one of the undisputed rules of cinema: when Meryl Streep is at the top of her game, all competitors should get out of the way. So when Streep set her sights on The Iron Lady – the story of Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first woman and longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century – the results were predictably captivating.
As one of the most divisive figures in British political history, it’s unsurprising that the film itself received mixed reviews. But Streep’s performance as Thatcher was universally-praised as one of her greatest performances to date, earning a third Oscar, and proving her best work may still be ahead of her.
Make-up and wardrobe helped sell Streep as the Iron Lady from a visual standpoint, but for the first time in years, her performance outshone her own celebrity.
Those are the performances and transformations that we felt captured an entire life on screen, but they certainly aren’t the only ones.
Be sure to add your own biopic suggestions in the comments, and which actors most surprised you with their commitment to a role.
Jobs is now in theaters.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.