Looking the Part: Top 10 Biopic Transformations

Published 2 years ago by This is a list post.

Best Biopic Movie TransformationsIt'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.

Ashton Kutcher, Jobs (2013)

Ashton Kutcher as Steve JobsAlthough 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.

Will Smith, Ali (2001)

Will Smith as Muhammad AliFew 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.

Christian Bale, The Fighter (2010)

Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund The FighterIf 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.

Val Kilmer, The Doors (1991)

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison The DoorsIt 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."

Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron in MonsterThe 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.

Geoffrey Rush, Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

Geoffrey Rush as Peter SellersPeter 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.

Robert De Niro, Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta Raging BullIt'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.

Tom Hardy, Bronson (2008)

Tom Hardy in BronsonFew 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.

Sir Ben Kingsley, Gandhi (1982)

Ben Kingsley as GandhiIt'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.

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (2011)

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher Iron LadyIt'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.


Best Biopic Movie TransformationsThose 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.
TAGS: jobs, the fighter


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  1. Denzel Washington, Malcolm X?

    • Transformation? The guy just put on some glasses…

      • Have you watched it? Physically it was no big deal. But listen to a speech by both. Watch interviews and compare mannerisms. Denzel Washington was robbed of a Best Actor Award that year.

  2. Michael Fassbender, Bobby Sands?

  3. Christian Bale won Best Supporting Actor, not Best Actor.

  4. Robert Downey, Jr. in Chaplin?

  5. What about Daniel-Day Lewis as Honest Abe? Or for that matter, any one of his Oscar-winning roles?

  6. I meant Daniel Day-Lewis. Sorry!!

  7. Ugh….a little movie named Ray with Jamie Foxx, who also won an Oscar for his performance.

    • true !

  8. Al Pacino in TV Movie You Don’t Know Jack

  9. Transformation of Ashton:beard and glasses.

    wow …. very difficult.

    • So Difficult. lmfao wtfff. This list is somewhat of a joke adding him into the mix.

      You forgot to add Downey as Chaplin, Foxx as Ray, ect.

      • Important to remember: it’s not just physical transformation here, guys. ;)

        • RD and Foxx were also engulfed in the roles, I know it’s not only about Transformation.

  10. Jamies Foxx as Ray Charles

  11. Those lists are lame and very personal. Just stop, it’s annoying and everbody complain.

  12. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is the greatest biopic performance I have ever seen!!

    • Too bad it’s mostly fiction.

    • Sorry, but who alive can actually confirm that was an accurate portrayal of Lincoln? He could’ve gotten it all wrong! Probably didn’t though as Daniel Day-Lewis is awesome. The article is more about the actor not just transforming their appearance, but also their mannerisms, voice, quirks etc. that we have seen in the real subject they’re playing. In the special feature of the dvd of The Fighter, Dicky’s own family say how they mistook Bale for their own brother on set.

      • Bale was phenomenal in The Fighter. Too bad he didn’t bring that heart into his Batman portrayal…

        • After reading this article, I watched The Fighter again just to watch Bale’s performance. Really one of the best I’ve seen. He completely deserved that Oscar.

  13. - Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates (Pirates of Silicon Valley)
    - Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (Spartacus)
    - George Hamilton as Evel Knievel (Evel Knievel)
    - Gary Busey as Buddy Holly (The Buddy holly Story)
    - Petar Božović as Nikola Tesla (The Secret of Nikola Tesla)
    - Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest)
    - Eric Stoltz as Rocky Dennis (Mask)
    - Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy)
    - Johnny Depp as Ed Wood (Ed Wood)
    - Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane (Auto Focus)
    - Sam Rockwell sa Chuck Barris (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind)

    • All of these, especially Oldman as Sid Vicious.

    • I don’t know about Faye in Mommie Dearest, most people look at that performance as way over-the-top and a complete joke. It more or less destroyed her career. “NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER!”

    • I’m sorry, but I REALLY have to disagree with Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos. Not that she didn’t do a good job as an actress, but the way she portrayed her was all wrong. Between the director, writer, and Theron, they tried to make the audience sympathize with a freakin’ serial killer… Aileen Wuornos was a cold-blooded killer. If you watch some videos of her, you’ll see she has no remorse, and any show of it was just an act. You can tell what was real and what wasn’t… I’m sick of Hollywood siding with the criminals…

    • Oops, didn’t mean to respond to this comment with that. Meant that as a new comment to this article… Your list is pretty comprehensive…

  14. Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald? Or how about Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln? Johnny Depp as Ed Wood? Or Jamie Foxx as Ray? Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin? Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford? Eric Stoltz as Rocky Dennis? I’m sorry, but a lot on this list are just meh. Meryl Streep, Tom Hardy, Ben Kingsley, Charlize Theron, and Val Kilmer are the only ones who look nearly identical. Sure, Christian Bale, Geoffrey Rush, Will Smith, Robert DeNiro, and are great actors and all, but they didn’t look the part.

  15. How about joaquin phoenix as Johnny Cash? He had to go to a vocal coach and everything, he even looked like the Man in Black although he has a hairlip.

  16. George C. Scott as Patton.

  17. Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood
    Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon
    Martin Sheen and Bruce Greenwood as John F Kennedy in the miniseries Kennedy and Thirteen Days
    Bill Murray and Johnny Depp as Hunter S Thompson in Where The Buffalo Roam and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
    Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in Lenny
    Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert E Howard in The Whole Wide World, and Orson Welles in Five Minutes, Mr Welles
    Sam Waterston as Robert Oppenheimer in the miniseries Oppenheimer
    Michael Sheen as Brian Clough in The Damned United, and David Frost in Frost/Nixon
    Pretty much everyone in Twenty Four Hour Party People, including Steve Coogan as Factory label boss Tony Wilson, Andy Serkis as producer Martin Hannett, and Paddy Considine hilariously volatile as Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton

  18. Are you f’ing kidding me, Screenrant?!? I really hope you got a lot of money for that advertisement for “Jobs.” Kutcher looks terrible and NO ONE has said anything nice about the performance in the clips that have surfaced. It better have been A LOT OF MONEY cuz I can no longer read your page. Pretty sure I’m not the only one whom you lost cred with today. Respect…GONE. That was blatant and disgusting. Your sales team just screwed you big time.

    • Review…TWO STARS. Your argument…GONE.

      • If they gave it two stars, why write things like this:

        “the actor’s efforts to get into the mind of the Apple-founder went deeper than appearance.”

        It’s an ad and it’s weak. You know it too.

      • Oh, not to mention it is on a list called:

        “Looking the Part: Top 10 Biopic Transformations”

        TOP 10! You’re argument…justification…lame…no foundation…weak as water…I could go on forever.
        Keep trying to make it sound right, I’ll keep quoting the ad.

        • My God, you’re right. I know it. I DO know it. Perhaps I’ve known it all along and just couldn’t admit the truth to myself.

          I love you, and I wish to subscribe to your monthly newsletter.

  19. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/wardrobe-room-dressing-steve-jobs-604390
    Ashton Kutcher goes through a lot more of just growing his hair out and putting on glasses for his part.

  20. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in MILK.

    Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in BOYS DON’T CRY.

  21. Jack Nicholson in ‘Hoffa’

    • Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell in ‘Apollo 13′ and his costars in their respective roles.

  22. val kilmer as doc holiday in tombstone. gary oldman as beethoven in immortal beloved.

    • The Doc Holiday from ‘Tombstone’ wasn’t a very accurate representation of the real man. Dennis Quaid’s portrayal in ‘Wyatt Earp’ was much better.

  23. Even though some have already been mentioned in this thread but,
    Gary Oldman as Sid Vicicous
    Gary Oldman as Beethoven
    Al Pacino as Dr Jack Kevorkian
    Johnny Depp as Ed Wood
    Martin Landau as Bela Legosi
    Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco
    Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic

  24. So where is Eric Bana for Chopper?! Cant believe that’s not on the list!

    • Agreed.

    • What a gem! The list should be updated with that inclusion post haste.

  25. Michael Sheen as Kenneth Williams.
    Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock
    Just my tuppence worth.

  26. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line.

  27. Daniel Day-Lewis not on here for Lincoln is pretty insane…also Jamie for Ray should be on here.

    • But how would we know that was an accurate portrayal? Maybe he sounded different, walked different or something. The subject matter is all from written historical record and an idea of him. You’re right about Jamie Foxx as Ray as we can compare Ray Charles to how Jamie imitates all of his characteristics on film to be him.

  28. Haven’t seen the movie, but Kutcher seems like he is doing his best Ashton impersonating Jobs impression.

    Jamie Fox as Ray Charles…how is that not mentioned. The guy wore prosthetics over his eyes and learned to play piano blind. That alone makes his dedication to portraying someone with a handicap worth mentioning.

  29. I can’t take this list all too seriously without Downey as Chaplin and Phoenix as Johnny Cash. Two of the most amazing biopic transformations I have ever seen.