There are certain roles that make you rethink an actor, whether it’s because they turned out a performance you had no idea they were capable of or because they played against type, turning their accepted image on its head. Certain actors have made careers out of doing this nearly every time they make a movie, whereas others rest on their laurels or get typecast. Stepping out of their comfort zones – whether physically, stylistically, or deciding to try a new genre – can be one of the best things an actor does. However, not everyone finds victory in the process.
Not every actor is successful in their attempts to break out of the box; some people are better left playing to their strengths as opposed to trying to find new ones. But others are able to reach new heights, adding variety to their careers and delighting audiences with their unexpected abilities.
Here are 12 Times Actors Stepped Out of Their Comfort Zones!
12. Keanu Reeves – Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
The early ’90s found Keanu Reeves trying to escape his Bill and Ted (1989 and 1991 respectively) success with more artistic and often more serious films, to mixed results (remember Little Buddha?). One standout failure was Much Ado About Nothing, which involved Reeves trying his hand at Shakespearean comedy alongside such veterans of the genre as Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (who also directed).
Reeves actually had a little bit of faux-Shakespearean success in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho, which was inspired by a few Shakespeare plays, but it was a medley of genres and the part relied on Reeves’ particular brand of dull-eyed handsomeness. Much Ado About Nothing was another story entirely. In addition to the difficulties of the script, it was also a period piece, and Reeves was cast as the villain, his petulant Don John the evil brother of Denzel Washington’s good-natured prince. It’s a funny film, but Reeves’ couldn’t accomplish villainous menace or actual humor.
It managed to be a good movie despite his performance, and garnered good reviews for every aspect except Reeves. He was even nominated for a Golden Raspberry for his work in the film, that highest of bad acting honors. Keanu Reeves absolutely has his own kind of appeal, but he should definitely stick to what he knows: less talk, more action.
11. Cate Blanchett – I’m Not There (2007)
It’s no secret that Cate Blanchett is an actress who transforms herself for roles, though prior to 2007’s I’m Not There, all of her parts had been distinctly glamorous: the Queen of England, a Russian dancer, an American heiress, a mystical Elf. “Glamour” isn’t necessarily the word one would use to describe her turn as Jude Quinn, though it’s not a character without style.
I’m Not There is the work of visionary director Todd Haynes (who worked with Blanchett again in recent critical hit Carol); it’s a strange, nonlinear, and occasionally metaphorical film that focuses on several fractured aspects of musical icon Bob Dylan, all portrayed by different actors. Blanchett takes on Dylan at his most iconic: the scruffy-haired, skinny, sunglass-wearing Dylan of the mid-60s who was at the height of his fame, famously captured in the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. It’s a film of fine performances, but Blanchett puts them all to shame. It isn’t just that she’s playing a man, or that the part was the opposite of what she had been doing so far: she was able to capture Dylan pitch-perfectly while at the same time not turning her interpretation into a flat out impression.
It was the role that truly proved Blanchett to be a chameleon capable of nearly anything. Who knew all it would take was trading in a glittering gown for a pair of skinny black pants and dark glasses?
10. Emma Watson – The Bling Ring (2013)
Most famous for playing fan favorite Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, Emma Watson could not have gone further in the opposite direction than in her role as Nicki Moore in The Bling Ring. Based on a real crime spree – a bunch of teenagers blithely stealing from celebrity homes without detection for months – and set in vapid, sunshine-y Los Angeles, it was a film nothing like the British boarding school magic Watson was known for.
Her character was also based on a real person: Alexis Neiers, star of reality television and one-time cellmate of the real Bling Ring victim Lindsay Lohan. With so much footage available of Watson’s real life counterpart, it would be all too easy to directly compare the actress to the girl she was playing. She didn’t seem an obvious choice for the part either, considering she wasn’t American and her image as a sweet, smart schoolgirl was more than ingrained in audience’s minds.
However, Watson proved able to pull it off. Good acting wasn’t exactly a necessity for the satire of the film to work, but she still acquitted herself well, totally scrubbing Hermione from the minds of anyone watching. Certain scenes in the film are almost directly lifted from Neier’s reality TV show Pretty Wild and the impression is uncanny, down to the valley girl accent. Hermione who?
9. Meg Ryan – In the Cut (2003)
Meg Ryan’s performance in Jane Campion’s In the Cut is an example of risk-taking not quite working out for the actor in question. Ryan made a career out of being America’s Sweetheart, lighting up every rom-com she stepped foot in with her innocent charm and flippy blonde hairdos. Her role in this film was essentially the polar opposite of every precious leading lady part she’d ever played.
Ryan plays Frannie Avery, a teacher who gets caught up in an affair with a detective (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating a series of murders that seem to be happening suspiciously close to Frannie. The affair is by turns dangerous and uncertain, with Frannie suspecting her detective is the killer but unable to resist him anyway.
All mousey brown hair and dreamy moodiness, Ryan is certainly different in the movie, though whether that was a good thing is up for debate. It was a strange, sexually explicit thriller that never really delivered on the thrills, so the entire weight of its underperformance can’t be placed on Ryan’s shoulders. Ultimately, the film became better known for the novelty of seeing Meg Ryan acting out of character as opposed to the quality of the film or performance.
8. Charlize Theron – Monster (2003)
Though she has since become known for stellar performances and daring roles, Monster was the first role to really showcase the breadth of Charlize Theron’s talent. In the film, she plays real life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a complicated woman plagued by numerous demons who was totally at odds with Theron’s pretty girl image up until that point.
Theron was physically transformed by makeup and prosthetics to look like Wuornos, but the transformation was not just superficial. Wuornos was a woman who had suffered a great deal of abuse in her life and struggled with mental illness, a fact exacerbated by the dangerous life she led as a prostitute – which she needed to do to survive, despite the fact that it only heaped more suffering on the pile. Theron was able to capture that inner conflict and Wuornos’ hunger for survival at all costs, even managing to make the woman sympathetic despite the horrible acts she committed. It was a career-making performance for Theron, even winning her an Academy Award, and could be credited with changing the course of her entire career.
7. Marlon Brando – The Men (1950)
The Men was Marlon Brando’s first on-screen role, but his reputation was cemented long before he ever stepped foot in front of a camera. He was known on stage at the time for his explosive turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (a role he would ultimately duplicate on film) and for distracting theatergoers so much in Truckline Café that audiences thought he was suffering actual on-stage seizures. He would go on to play similarly vibrant, scene-stealing characters throughout his career, but his performance in The Men stands out for a different reason.
The film itself is mediocre and didactic. It concerns the rehabilitation of WWII soldiers in an army hospital, with the majority of the cast being made up by actual paraplegic soldiers. Brando plays one such soldier who resists physical therapy and spends a great deal of the movie miserable until he is finally convinced to take action. It’s a vastly different role from anything Brando had done before and most of the work he did since, very self-contained as opposed to his usual highly charged passion. Brando draws the eye as much as he ever did with a performance magnetic in its stillness and silence.
It was also a very physical performance, which became Brando’s trademark, though his physicality is again explored in a different way. There’s none of the violence, the prowling, the taking over the space; instead Brando exhibits complete control over his body by limiting himself. Restraint is what makes this film a singular experience in the Brando oeuvre.
6. Michael Keaton – Clean and Sober (1988)
Before Clean and Sober, Michael Keaton was strictly a comedic actor – his popular turn in Beetlejuice even came out the same year. Night Shift and Mr. Mom had been big hits for Keaton, career-making movies that cemented him as a talented comedic actor. Beetlejuice would end up bringing it to another level. But in the midst of that success, Keaton took another path, choosing to play the part of an addict struggling to sobriety.
Keaton’s character is a cocaine-addicted real estate salesman whose issues spiral out of control in staggering ways. He embezzles thousands of dollars, and one morning he wakes to find a woman has overdosed next to him overnight. He finally decides to seek treatment and it’s in the rehabilitation center that he is finally able to start rebuilding his life from the chaos.
It’s an undoubtedly dark movie about a difficult subject, and it showcased an entirely new side of Keaton. Just watching his final speech in the movie – a three minute shot where the camera never leaves his face once – one can see his character’s entire journey in his expression. It was a great performance that signaled great things to come.
5. Frank Sinatra – The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
The Man with the Golden Arm is also the story of an addict, and one of the first major Hollywood productions to tell such a dark story in an honest way; it was no Reefer Madness (1936). Sinatra, already a famous crooner and actor in musicals, had been on a career downswing until the previous year’s From Here to Eternity, which netted him a Supporting Actor Oscar, but The Man with the Golden Arm would be the movie to prove the real depth of his acting talent.
Though it was a serious film wherein his character faced serious consequences, Sinatra’s character in From Here to Eternity still leaned on his screen image as a good Italian boy quick with the quips. He was also third lead, so the film didn’t rest entirely on him. The Man with the Golden Arm was a different story and its ability to succeed or fail was totally dependent upon Sinatra being able to capture the depth and darkness of heroin addiction.
The film certainly shows Sinatra as he had never been seen before. Guys and Dolls was released the same year, and the contrast between the two is startling: one a full scale, full color musical in which Sinatra is doing his best as charming, non-threatening street tough, and the other a serious black and white film featuring Sinatra as a messy and desperate. Anyone who doubted his acting talent need look no further.
4. Daniel Day-Lewis – Nine (2009)
In a career marked by long absences between incredible performances, Daniel Day-Lewis had a return to form with 2007’s intense There Will Be Blood and even won an Oscar for his role. Why he chose to follow up that performance with a Rob Marshall musical is really anyone’s guess.
A musical certainly seemed an odd choice for such a serious actor, especially considering he had never done anything particularly musical before, not even dabbling in bands as actors often do. Perhaps it was the subject matter that drew Day-Lewis to the part: Nine is a musical adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8½, and focuses on an Italian director interacting with all the many women in his life.
The film ended up being a box office bomb. Day-Lewis isn’t exactly bad in it (it’s probably impossible for him to be truly bad in a film), but it’s obviously not the right part for him. The movie itself isn’t much better, coming off both disjointed and rather empty. It would probably be best to forget this entry on his filmography; most people have.
3. George Clooney – From Dusk till Dawn (1996)
Most of George Clooney’s early success was on television and he had succeeded for playing a very specific type of casually handsome, charmingly charismatic men. It would be an archetype he would return to time and time again throughout his career (probably best defined by Ocean’s Eleven‘s Danny Ocean) but for his first starring film role he did something totally different.
A modest success and cult classic that has since spawned several sequels and a television series, From Dusk till Dawn stars Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as brothers Seth and Richie Gecko. The two are on a crime spree that eventually lands them in a vampire’s lair with all the subsequent action and violence one can expect from a Robert Rodriguez movie.
Clooney, as Seth Gecko, is unlike most of the characters he’d played before or since. “Threatening” isn’t really a word commonly associated with Clooney, but he pulls off antihero bad boy surprisingly well, bringing his customary cool to the role but twisting it into something darker.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger – Twins (1988)
Prior to 1988’s Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger had cultivated an action movie career that played on his impressive build and played to his strengths (or, rather, weaknesses) as an actor. All that changed with Twins, however.
The film set Schwarzenegger opposite Danny DeVito as (you guessed it) fraternal twins separated at birth who find one another again later in life. They then go on a search for their birth mother. DeVito’s brother is a small time crook while Schwarzenegger’s is highly intelligent, though also very naïve.
The film received mostly negative reviews, with many criticizing Schwarzenegger’s lack of range. But it cannot be denied that the film opened up doors for Schwarzenegger going forward, and he went on to do fairly well in comedy throughout the late ’80s and ’90s with hits like Kindergarten Cop and Junior.
1. Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Jim Carrey is renowned primarily for his comedic performances, but he’s made more than a fair few turns in drama that prove he’s got a wide range of talent. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wasn’t Carrey’s first serious role, but it stands out as a role that doesn’t rely at all on his usual tics.
In the film, Carrey plays Joel Barish, a quiet and shy man who feels lost day to day until he discovers that, though he has no recollection of it, both he and his former girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) have had each other erased from their memories. The film alternates between the unknowing Joel and Clementine finding each other again and the memories being erased from Joel’s mind as he tries desperately to stop the procedure, but can’t.
It’s a performance without flourishes. Carrey’s customary showiness (even in more dramatic roles) is absent; Joel is such a soft-spoken, insular man that one can only imagine just how much restraint went into the character. Without falling back on any of his typical tricks, Carrey is able to create something totally new and very honest.
Did we miss any surprising performances? Let us know in the comments!