Every decade of cinema has produced its share of great performances. We have also been blessed with dozens upon dozens of great movie stars whose work has left an indelible impression. Nonetheless, the craft of acting is still somewhat mysterious to most viewers. We watch in amazement as actors call up various emotions or disappear into character, never quite sure exactly how they work the magic that allows us to view them not as themselves, but as someone else altogether.
Once in a while, an actor clicks with a role in a manner that creates something even deeper. On these occasions, the line between fiction and reality is completely erased, with the performer achieving something so authentic that it virtually gives the audience goosebumps. These are the times when we lean in, paying even more rapt attention to the film than we would otherwise, because what we’re seeing is hypnotic.
Here are 13 Actors Whose Performances Were So Real It Was Scary.
13. Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote
When Philip Seymour Hoffman took his eventual Oscar-winning role in Capote, he was already a well-known and much-respected actor. And Truman Capote was not only an acclaimed author but also an instantly recognizable media personality. Capote represented a challenging role for any actor, given that he had such distinct, quirky mannerisms, in addition to a somewhat detached demeanor. Going too far into impersonation would have been distracting at best, laughable at worst. That’s what makes Hoffman’s performance so mesmerizing. He doesn’t just imitate Truman Capote, he utterly morphs into the man.
In the film, which details the writing of In Cold Blood as well as Capote’s alleged attraction to accused murderer Perry Smith, Hoffman nails the physical characteristics of the author, perfectly capturing his unique essence. The voice, the physical stance, and the sly, biting wit are all accounted for. He also goes a level deeper, suggesting how these things are, in some ways, Capote creating his own persona. Hoffman gives each little quirk meaning, showing how they add up to a man who is as probing about others as he is guarded about himself. Watching Capote, you forget that you’re looking at a beloved actor and simply see this enigmatic, manipulative writer springing back to life before your eyes.
12. Diane Keaton in Annie Hall
Quick, name a great female lead in a romantic comedy. Who came to mind? Odds are, Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall was one of them. Present day rom-coms have starred the likes of Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston, and Katherine Heigl, but there’s a very good reason why none of them have ever turned in a performance that could rightly be considered classic: they all seemed to know they were in romantic-comedies. Keaton, on the other hand, never played anything about Annie on a surface or cutesy level. She went for total realism.
Armed with a peppy outlook on life, a kooky-yet-cool fashion style, and a refusal to be any man’s accessory, Annie is a confident modern woman. Keaton understands that, injecting the character with the parts of herself that are similar. Watching Annie Hall, you can tell that the actress knows the person she’s playing inside and out. For that reason, Annie feels not like the fantasy creation of an overly witty screenwriter (although Allen is, of course, a very witty screenwriter), but an actual flesh-and-blood woman like you might actually meet in real life. Allen’s Alvie Singer fell madly in love with her. Thanks to Keaton’s multi-dimensional work, generations of moviegoers have done the same.
11. Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino has an eye for actors. More importantly, he has an eye for how to get unexpected results out of them. At first glance, Christoph Waltz may not seem intimidating. He’s not especially tall. He’s not muscular. He doesn’t have that immediate intensity that, say, Al Pacino had in his ’70s heyday. Nonetheless, Tarantino knew he’d found the perfect actor to portray Nazi officer Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.
Waltz’s particular skill in this role is his laser focus. In his hands, Landa is a man who has incorporated his worst prejudices into a political philosophy. He’s evil, but he believes that he’s absolutely right. Few things are scarier than someone who self-justifies their own sense of malice. In the movie’s opening scene, Landa spends nearly fifteen minutes interrogating a Frenchman he suspects of hiding Jews in his home. Waltz shows how this is, in many respects, a game to the Nazi. He takes delight in pummeling his opponent with new approaches, constantly looking for ways to make the guy crack. The pleasure he finds in this psychological cruelty is palpable. From that point on, we fear Landa throughout the rest of the movie. It’s no wonder Waltz won an Oscar for the role.
10. Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat
British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made a name for himself with a type of guerrilla comedy in which he assumed a fictional persona, then went out and interacted with real people who weren’t in on the joke. His HBO series Da Ali G Show first put him on the map. One of his characters on that show, a reporter from Kazakhstan named Borat, was prone to sexually inappropriate behavior, bigotry, and chronic misunderstanding of the American lifestyle. He became the basis for a feature-length, largely improvised movie.
While it may look like little more than a comic stunt at first glance, the genius of Borat is that Sacha Baron Cohen never once breaks character. Even when in absurd or occasionally dangerous situations (such as intentionally mangling the National Anthem in front of an angry rodeo crowd), he never lets on that he is anyone other than this clueless foreigner. In fact, Cohen’s fearless commitment to the ruse is so unwavering that the humor becomes breathtakingly hilarious.
9. Naomi Watts in 21 Grams
Before winning Academy Awards for Birdman and The Revenant, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu made 21 Grams, a film about sorrow, regret, and redemption. Benicio del Toro plays a rehabilitated ex-con who plows his car into a man and his two young daughters. Naomi Watts portrays the woman whose family is abruptly wiped out by this unfortunate act. Her character turns to booze and drugs to drown out her pain. It’s not an easy or pleasant film to watch.
Watts’ performance is filled with sadness, but there’s a moment where it reaches a level few actors would have the courage to approach. Her character, Cristina, suffers a complete breakdown over her tragic situation. In this sequence, the actress doesn’t just play Cristina’s sorrow, she completely unravels for real on camera. She cries, she wails, she falls to pieces. Only Watts could say what she dredged up to accomplish this. Whatever it was, she clearly drew on a well of pain to make the moment work. Rarely has a screen breakdown been so thoroughly devastating.
8. Joe Pesci in Goodfellas
Sometimes an actor inhabits a role so convincingly that they are forever associated with it. Despite a long and illustrious career, it’s impossible not to immediately think of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas when you hear the name Joe Pesci. He plays mobster Tommy DeVito, whose occasional joviality just barely masks a hair-trigger temper. This quality eventually causes him to meet a brutal demise in one of the most famous death sequences in modern film.
The movie’s signature scene is one in which up-and-coming gangster Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) tells Tommy that he’s funny. Tommy turns on a dime, the anger coming out as he demands to know, “I’m funny how? Funny like I’m a clown?” It’s eventually revealed that he’s just messing with Henry, but then their conversation is interrupted by another man and he becomes angry for real, beating the guy over the head with a bottle. Pesci so effectively conveys Tommy’s rapidly shifting moods that you gasp over how his violent temper can be flipped on like a light switch. His edgy, unpredictable performance gives Goodfellas a vital air of danger.
7. Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream
Ellen Burstyn has an incredible filmography, having starred in such important films as The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, among many others. In 2000, Darren Aronofsky gave her yet another landmark role in Requiem for a Dream, his adaptation of the Hubert Selby, Jr. novel. She plays Sara Goldfarb, a television-obsessed woman forced to sit by helplessly as her son Harry (Jared Leto) slowly succumbs to heroin addiction. Sara has her own addiction issues, as she becomes hooked on amphetamine pills prescribed for weight loss.
It’s a pretty well-known fact that addicts sometimes try to save themselves by saving other addicts. That’s the quality Burstyn captures here. She projects a genuine sense of anguish and desperation as the often delusional Sara laments her son’s drug issue while simultaneously getting pulled down by her own. Aronofsky’s conceptualized style helps to sell the idea, but at the end of the day, it is a fully deglamorized Burstyn who gives the film its pathos. She’s shattering.
6. Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
Most actors want to play psychopaths with a larger-than-life quality. Anthony Hopkins apparently understood that the truly insane people are the ones who most retreat into themselves. The first time we see Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs, he’s standing stone still in the middle of a jail cell, a half-smirk on his face. He somehow knows that Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is coming, and he’s waiting for her. If you don’t have a chill run up your spine in this moment, there’s something wrong with you.
From there, Hopkins manages to do the nearly impossible by making a deranged, violent psychopath weirdly likable. He’s a killer, but he has fierce intelligence and a certain ethical code, no matter how twisted it may be. The effect is so convincing that Lecter has been terrifying viewers for twenty-five years now. Hopkins creates a villain for the ages, all because he knows the importance of sometimes not moving a muscle.
5. Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull
In one of the all-time career-defining performances, Robert DeNiro plays boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 classic Raging Bull. DeNiro was already known by this time for intense, powerful performances. What makes the role truly special is that he also physically transformed himself for the part. For the boxing scenes, he was fit and muscular. For later scenes, he gained weight to show how this once great pugilist let himself go.
Lots of actors gain or lose weight for roles, but DeNiro uses his transformation not as a stunt, but to dig deeper into the character’s psyche. We understand as much about Jake LaMotta based on the way he looks as we do for how he behaves. Through this approach, DeNiro completely disappears, giving viewers a portrait of a man going through multiple ups and downs in life and being impacted by all of them. This is one of the most complex, layered performances in the history of cinema.
4. Klaus Kinski in Crawlspace
By every account, Klaus Kinski was a difficult man to work with. His relationship with frequent collaborator Werner Herzog, for instance, was so contentious that the director made a documentary about Kinski titled My Best Fiend. Herzog also once threatened to shoot the actor if he followed through on a threat to leave the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Although undeniably talented, Kinski was known for being aggressive, egomaniacal, and hot-tempered.
That made him a perfect choice to play a creepy landlord in the 1986 horror film Crawlspace. His character likes to watch female tenants through the walls, and his house is jerry-rigged with various forms of torture. He even keeps a woman bound in the attic, her tongue removed. Kinski apparently lived out the role off-screen, terrorizing the cast and crew. Director David Schmoeller has long claimed that multiple crew members, including a producer, actively campaigned to have Kinski murdered. In a Blu-ray bonus feature, the movie’s makeup artist calls the actor “certifiably insane.” He may have been a nightmare to work with, but the fact that Klaus Kinski was apparently pretty unhinged in real life makes his work in this otherwise dreadful movie undeniably compelling.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot
Daniel Day-Lewis is yet another performer known for completely disappearing into whatever character he plays. Because he’s fairly guarded about his personal life and disinclined to play the role of “movie star,” his work is frequently both mysterious and captivating. He’s one of the most fully immersive actors around, as his work in everything from Lincoln to There Will Be Blood attests.
In Jim Sheridan’s 1989 biography My Left Foot, Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown, an Irish artist born with cerebral palsy who learns how to paint masterfully with the only body part he can control, his left foot. The challenges here are multiple. Day-Lewis replicates Brown’s speech impediment and realistically mimics the devastating effects of cerebral palsy. Those are technical qualities that would more than consume the focus of most actors, rendering them unable to do much else. Day-Lewis goes a step further, adding a rich psychology to Christy Brown that drives home just how inspiring the subject’s accomplishments were. The level of concentration needed to keep all these plates spinning is staggering, but he somehow does it.
2. Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas
Addiction takes a toll on its victims, mentally, physically, and, especially, emotionally. There’s a downward spiral, where addicts make worse and worse decisions, facing increasingly dire repercussions until they hit whatever their rock bottom is. It’s a tragic thing to watch. Many films have dealt with the subject matter. Leaving Las Vegas excels because its lead, Nicolas Cage, appears to have a stronger than average grasp on it.
A noted Method actor, Cage doesn’t back away from showing the self-destruction that accompanies addiction. His character is a suicidal alcoholic who goes to Vegas with the intention of drinking himself to death. Cage has no fear of looking despondent onscreen, nor does he have any hesitation about appearing unsympathetic. In fact, he seems to acknowledge the helplessness of addiction, the way that the substance gains total control over the person until they become a shell of their former selves. His performance is one of the most incisive ever on the subject of alcoholism. If you’ve ever known an alcoholic, you know how spot-on it is.
1. Charlize Theron in Monster
The irony of this movie’s title is that it attempts to find the humanity in a woman most people would call a monster. Serial killer Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who killed six men and was later executed for her crimes. Writer/director Patty Jenkins attempts to get at the kind of personal pain that puts someone on such a sordid path.
Playing Wuornos, star Charlize Theron proves that she can be made to look unattractive (no easy feat). More crucially, she suggests that Wuornos was a damaged, sensitive person who suffered the effects of abuse, which played a part in her turning violent. She may have done monstrous things, but there was still a human being in there somewhere. Making audiences care about a noted real-life killer is virtually impossible. Theron, whose mother shot and killed her physically abusive father in self-defense, clearly has a perspective on the connection between abuse and violence that few others do. That comes across in every frame of the film. Vanishing under layers of makeup, a wig, and false teeth, she gives a performance that is full of pain and rage. Through her efforts, you walk away with some understanding of how people can turn bad.
Do you have any favorite performances that were so good they were scary? Let us know what they are in the comments section.