A year ago, nobody expected that Marvel Studios would cast lovable Parks and Rec goof Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, in Guardians of the Galaxy; at the time, Pratt wasn’t a total stranger to the world of action – courtesy of a supporting role in Zero Dark Thirty – but he’d never attempted anything on the scale of Marvel’s grand space opera, either.
Guardians opens today, and Pratt nails the physicality of the role, which spells good news for his future action endeavors (not only a Guardians sequel, but Jurassic World as well). Whether he’s outwitting foes with guile, blasting down bad guys, or swinging prosthetic legs like baseball bats, Pratt is the real deal in every set piece, both big and small.
He isn’t, however, the first actor to transition from a comedic (or dramatic) background to the muscular antics of action. Not to take anything away from Pratt – he’s great! – but there’s a laundry list of thespians who have unexpectedly decided to take up arms on the big screen. To prove as much, we’ve put together a list of our 10 favorite unlikely action Stars (in no particular order) for your perusal.
The Fresh Prince got his start rockin’ the house in one corner of his homebase back in the late 1980s before getting his own TV show (styled, of course, after his stage name); he also showed up on the ABC Afterschool Special and – believe it or not – hosted a 1990 documentary about Alvin and the Chipmunks.
So Will Smith isn’t the type of guy you expect to go two-fisted, with guns blazing against a backdrop of explosions and mayhem. But then 1995 rolled around and he linked up with Michael Bay for the first time with Bad Boys – and in every subsequent year up to 1999, Smith used his considerable star power and charm to nail down leading parts in everything from Independence Day to Wild, Wild West.
He’s kept up his action chops to this very day. Maybe he still shows up in a Winter’s Tale or a The Pursuit of Happyness every once in a while – and no matter what, he’ll always be Uncle Phil’s troublemaker nephew. But to this day, Smith insists on padding his filmography with the likes of Men in Black 3 and I Am Legend. Bad boy for life.
After making her bones in the early 1990s by taking parts in ITV shows, Hallmark films, and various shorts, Kate Beckinsale landed the part of Hero in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s quite the leap to go from obscurity to attending a premiere at Cannes, but Beckinsale managed to leverage her exposure into roles in films like Cold Comfort Farm, The Last Days of Disco, and 2001’s Pearl Harbor.
But then an odd thing happened in 2003: Beckinsale, seemingly out of nowhere, did away with her cultivated celebrity persona to star as a gun-wielding vampire in Underworld, a slick Gothic actioner that ballooned into a four-film franchise. In between Underworld pictures, she took the opportunity to appear in Van Helsing alongside Hugh Jackman and a host of CGI monsters.
Beckinsale hasn’t made a habit of showing up in action movies, so much; she’s in the Total Recall remake, which came out around the same time as Underworld: Awakening, but she mostly relegates herself to dramas and occasional psychological thrillers (like the upcoming Stonehearst Asylum). But her flirtations with action always come as a jolt.
Whoa! Starring in Speed, The Matrix and its subsequent follow ups made Keanu a fixture in action iconography forevermore; try thinking of him as anyone other than Neo, and you might be surprised at how hard it is to break away from that image, even years after those films had their heydays.
Before all that, though, we knew Reeves for his laid back surfer dude persona, and his early history with teen films, dark comedies (like Lawrence Kasdan’s I Love You to Death) – and perhaps most famous of all, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This was not a guy who looked, acted, or sounded like an action hero – and yet after Speed in 1993, he wound up assuming that mantle anyways, expectations be damned.
To this day, Reeves continues taking on decidedly non-action oriented projects – from rom coms like The Lake House, to the documentary Side by Side, to A Scanner Darkly – but he has remained thoroughly invested in the genre. (See last year’s Man of Tai Chi, which he made with his good buddy, mentor, and former Matrix choreographer/stuntman, Tiger Chen.)
Damon blew up 1997 with Good Will Hunting, a movie that immediately crystallized him as awards-level talent and made him into a big star overnight. That Oscar win overshadowed his roles in Chasing Amy (arguably Kevin Smith’s most accomplished film), and The Rainmaker (arguably Francis Ford Coppola’s last great film), in the same year.
So 1997 treated Damon well, and he parlayed his success into roles in high-profile movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But then a funny thing happened: 2002 rolled around, and Damon decided to try something outside his comfort zone. Thus did Jason Bourne arrive at the multiplex, kicking butt with gusto.
Seeing Damon play the amnesiac super-spy worked; his newness to action complimented the film’s basic conceit nicely. Today, Damon A-lists with the best of them, but when he’s not starring in pictures like True Grit, Behind the Candelabra, and Invictus, he’s more than happy to sling guns in films like Green Zone or Elysium.
Funny enough, the once and future Black Widow first drew wide notice for her talents in another comic book movie: the low-scale indie film Ghost World. Years later, after being menaced by giant arachnids in Eight Legged Freaks, she earned even more praise for her performances in Lost in Translation as well as The Girl with the Pearl Earring.
Somehow, her visibility only got her so far as a couple of Woody Allen movies midway through the aughts; after 2003, Johansson popped up in more support-focused roles, and in films that (with exceptions) never quite drew the same love for her that she became so accustomed to so quickly. She all but stole The Other Boleyn Girl, and she did well in Nolan’s The Prestige, but something was missing. Maybe all she needed was a reinvention?
Johansson had dabble with action in Michael Bay’s 2005 film The Island, but in 2010, she became part of the Marvel family with Iron Man 2, going from middling projects to blockbusting notoriety. Now, she’s making a name for herself as a legit action heroine – not just thanks to The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but side efforts like Luc Besson’s Lucy.