With most famous actors and actresses, it can be hard to imagine them separately from great characters they have played. Often it is the same charisma and on-screen talent that made them famous in the first place. But once we see them in a certain kind of role, it can be hard to shake that image.
And so it can be difficult to imagine a respected dramatic actor starring in a slapstick comedy, or a grizzled action star throwing on a pair of glasses and tweed and jumping into the role of a college professor (unless it’s Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones). We have our archetypes in our minds, but sometimes it’s a good thing when they’re shaken up.
We wanted to investigate the most notable occasions where famous faces showed up in surprising places. And so with that, please sit back, relax, and enjoy Screen Rant’s list of 12 Famous Actors Who Played Against Type and Made it Work.
12. Charlize Theron in Monster
Charlize Theron is regularly considered to be one of the most glamorous people in Hollywood. Her statuesque beauty coupled with her exceptional dramatic and comedic abilities make her a force to be reckoned with. So it came as no small surprise to see her made up for her role in Monster, in which she portrayed real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron went through a total transformation for the part: she gained weight, wore dingy clothes, was given fake teeth and received copious makeup to give her a ruddy look. The result was a person on-screen who looked nothing like the name on the poster.
The movie follows the life and murderous spree of Wuornos, who used her job as a prostitute to get close enough to, kill and rob her victims, and Theron was able to act out the character in a way that was believable and watchable.
11. Tom Cruise in Collateral
Tom Cruise in one of the most famous faces in the world. He has reached A-list status by portraying charismatic hero-types, good guys who are witty, intelligent, and suave. Beneath those more surface attributes, he’s known for playing characters who always err on the side of what’s right. His most notable roles include playing an ace fighter pilot in Top Gun, a brave and idealistic attorney in The Firm, and, in Mission: Impossible, a secret agent who must steal from his government in order to save it.
But one of his best roles is an aberration from the pattern. In Collateral, Cruise stars as Vincent, a mercenary in town for only one night to take care of a few “jobs,” who takes hostage a LA cabbie, Max (Jamie Foxx), commanding he drive him around for the evening. Director Michael Mann brings his typically meticulous style to a movie about a meticulous killer, and Cruise’s intensity brings the immoral character to another level, keeping him utterly watchable.
10. Robin Williams in One Hour Photo
Robin Williams was a natural empath, capable of showing incredible depth and sensitivity, and he was a force of nature, sometimes going off on comedic tangents with frenetic energy. As if that wasn’t enough, he was an incisive standup comic as well.
So when Williams started taking on more dramatic roles later in his career, one would be forgiven for thinking that the actor was only doing it for vanity. But whatever the reason, he showed a range that had stopped many in their tracks. He won an Oscar for his role as a widowed college professor in Good Will Hunting, and received acclaim for his performance in Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller Insomnia, where he held his own on-screen with Al Pacino.
But in his career no character was further from Williams’s comedic buoyancy than that of Sy Parrish, the antisocial photo lab technician in One Hour Photo. Beneath his vague, kind facade, Sy hid disturbing thoughts, which eventually express themselves his horrifying ways. Williams plays the part with a tenseness, a pain, and a lack of conscience that is believable and frightening.
9. Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? That, in a sense, is what the makers of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were trying to discern. As well, they showed beautifully the heartbreak and complications that can come from the loss of a relationship.
Jim Carrey stars as Joel, a guy trying to recover from a terrible breakup, who learns that his ex, Clementine (Kate Winslet), is undergoing experimental therapy in order to wipe him from her mind completely. Frightened by the prospect of being alone entirely in his feelings, Joel undergoes the treatment as well, to unexpected consequences. The film is bittersweet, moving, with an unorthodox script by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and artful direction from Michel Gondry.
Perhaps the only expected player in such a film is Kate Winslet, who is an esteemed dramatic actress, who inhabits her role here with all the substance and warmth we have come to expect from her formidable well of talent. But Carrey on the other hand was not an expected choice. In fact, it would have been easy at first glance to pick a bevy of actors who would have fit the part better. That’s because Jim Carrey had spent the 1990s in comedy films, starring in comedies like Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. But to everyone’s surprise, Carrey stepped up and nailed the role here.
8. Michael Keaton in Batman
Michael Keaton was a bit player on TV series throughout the 1970s, showing up on everything from Working Stiffs to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. From there, he entered the 80s starring in a string of fairly successful comedies. Keaton’s style was usually tinged with a bit of a frenetic, unpredictable energy. 1983’s Mr. Mom launched him to stardom, and 1988’s Beetlejuice, in which he played the eponymous ghoul, secured Keaton’s place in Hollywood history. That film’s director, Tim Burton, took Keaton along with him the following year when he made Batman.
Keaton was the first contemporary actor to play Bruce Wayne, setting a benchmark for the role that would not be matched for decades. Shifting fluidly between drama and action, Keaton showed an incredible range as The Dark Knight. It was the first time the actor showed he could play more than a fast-talking comedic role.
7. Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love
Think whatever you want about Adam Sandler, but give him credit for something: the man has built an institution out of his brand of humor. Since leaving SNL in the 90s, Sandler has starred in a string of successful comedies, like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, Mr. Deeds, Big Daddy, and Anger Management. These movies are built for an adolescent sensibility, stories which center around a sarcastic man-child — always played by Sandler — who is blessed with some incredible talent or burdened by an extreme problem. This simple formula hit its climax with 2011’s Jack and Jill, a movie that was panned by critics and illustrated many of the major flaws in Sandler’s time-worn appeal.
But go back to 2002 when Sandler was in the midst of his formidable run. In the middle of all that he was tapped by director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) to star in his forthcoming drama Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson’s dark, obsessive, whip-smart moviemaking initially seemed antithetical to Sandler’s approach, and yet the pairing worked very well. Sandler plays a shy, emotionally disturbed business owner who experiences outbursts of extreme anger and even violence. It’s a wild turn for the comic actor, but it’s one of his best performances.
6. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation
Bill Murray has long inhabited a very interesting place in American comedy. From his time as a power-player on Saturday Night Live during the 70s, to his inevitable move into Hollywood in the 80s, Murray’s known for playing cynical-yet-goofy characters, people who live on the fringes and shirk authority. Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, and many other films wouldn’t hold their sacred places in Americana if they didn’t have Murray’s involvement in them.
So it was kind of news when the elder statesman of comedy stepped into a quiet, passive role in a quiet, passive indie movie. In 2005’s Lost in Translation, Murray plays Bob, a tired actor living out semi-retirement filming commercials around the globe. During a stop in Tokyo he strikes up a friendship with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), another American staying at the same hotel. The two bond, go to karaoke, and too soon must part ways. Murray plays the part with a perfect balance of aloofness and sensitivity.
5. Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers was a total surprise move from Selena Gomez. The actress had gotten her start as a child actor on Barney & Friends in the 90s, eventually becoming part of the Disney TV roster, and soon starring in major Hollywood films. Along with that career, throughout her teens Gomez was simultaneously pursuing a successful music career. Top it off with UNICEF work and starting her own production company, and you’re looking at a renaissance woman.
As with other notable contemporaries like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Miley Cyrus, Gomez entered her 20s looking to shift her image a bit. She (and her consultants) likely saw it best to start migrating her appeal from family friendly to something a bit more mature and risqué.
And thus entered Spring Breakers, a sexy and dark comedy about a quartet of scantily clad college girls who rob in order to finance their vacation in Florida. They’re eventually arrested, and then bailed out by hustler Alien (James Franco), who introduces the girls to his world of more serious crime.
4. Emma Watson in The Bling Ring
This is the second movie on here from Sofia Coppola, a director who must really enjoy taking actors out of their comfort zones. In The Bling Ring, Coppola brings us the compelling true-crime tale of a clique of 8 teenagers based around Los Angeles, who go on a year-long spree of robbing the homes of celebrities. In all, the crew nabbed about $3 million worth of jewelry and other items before they were caught in 2009. It was a bizarre case where the crimes weren’t committed out of need — these kids were mostly upper middle-class — but rather it seemed they did it because they were bored. At the center of the group is Nicki, who is played by Emma Watson.
Best known for her part as Hermione Granger in the enormously popular Harry Potter films, Watson was seemingly an odd choice for the LA crime flick. The world of Harry Potter is as family friendly as it gets, and the movies are made for virtually everyone, and Granger was one of the wholesome and likable characters at the story’s center. On the other hand, the characters in The Bling Ring come off as entitled narcissists, easy to have a distaste for. Somehow, Watson (and her commendable shot at an American accent) portrays with some depth a character who could so easily have been played simply and shallowly.
3. Paul Walker in Running Scared
When one thinks of Paul Walker, the first thing that comes to mind is the actor’s starring role as Bryan O’Conner in The Fast & The Furious. Walker’s O’Conner in that movie, and its forthcoming sequels, was an undercover cop who joined the ranks of an underground street racing organization in order to make connections and take down serious crime, but who instead comes to respect and join the racers. The series of films was great fun, and Walker brought a compelling and serious presence to scenes filled with hams like Tyrese, Ludacris, and Vin Diesel. Those movies did — and continue to do — incredible business at the box office.
Not as well-known was Walker’s turn in Running Scared, in which he plays a mafia underling hilariously named Joey Gazelle. Here, Walker plays a character who starts as one of the bad guys, and who must struggle to find a moral compass. This aspect makes the part leagues different from that of Bryan O’Conner, who starts as an upstanding citizen and then finds himself running with criminals. But Running Scared is an underrated gem and Walker (and costar Chazz Palminteri) keep it fun.
2. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
In preparation for his role in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger went through one of the most monumental transformations in Hollywood history. The young actor had built a respected career playing quiet, charming leading men, and his good looks and long blond locks won him legions of adoring female fans. He was elevated from teen idol to serious actor (and still teen idol) when he starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in 2006’s Brokeback Mountain.
A scant 2 years later, Ledger would show up again in The Dark Knight, but many didn’t recognize him. The actor had traded in his movie star looks for a crumpled posture and grotesque face paint. Gone too was his quiet confidence and good-ol’-boy likability; in its stead was the megalomaniacal, sociopathic Joker, one of the most unpredictable and skittish characters in the Batman canon. Ledger’s unbridled iteration set the precedent for all comic villains to come.
1. Liam Neeson in Taken
At 6’ 4” with a rugged, stoic style, Irish actor Liam Neeson quietly stands out from the crowd. So it’s only natural that he has been (venerably) typecast as heroes of mythic proportions, from medieval warrior Rob Roy, to Oskar Schindler, the real-life German industrialist who saved the lives of his Jewish workers during WWII. Throughout the 1990s Neeson starred in well-made, serious dramas. All that changed though when he showed up in 2009’s Taken, a surprise hit that starred a then 55-year-old Neeson.
Bryan Mills (Neeson) is working as a bodyguard for VIPs when he finds out his daughter has been kidnapped while on spring break in Paris. Mills reassembles his old team and warns the kidnappers that he’s coming for them. The script is rife with cheesy lines and director Luc Besson feeds the audience many stereotypes and action clichés along the way, but the movie is a lot of fun. The role spawned sequels, breathing new life into Neeson’s career, and practically invented the odd, lucrative sub-genre of guys over 50 playing action heroes.
And so there you have it — 12 actors who played against type and nailed it! Did we miss any?