Actors are often incredibly committed to becoming their characters. This can take many different forms, from extensive make-up work to grueling weight loss or gain. There are so many examples of these types of transformations that we've done similar lists before. This list tries to avoid overlap with those while still exemplifying the lengths many actors will go to inhabit their characters. Oftentimes, the work these actors do helps them to better understand their characters. Many actors use some kind of physical transformation to slip into a different skin. The internal life of a character is sometimes easier to access when the external appearance reflects that.
Examples of strange transformations are more common than you might think. Each one of the performers listed below went to extensive and often painful lengths to become their characters. Oftentimes, these lengths are rewarded by some sort of awards campaign. Other times, though, the transformation goes unrewarded. Most actors do much more than simply show up and read lines. They work to understand their characters, and truly embody them in the process, even when it doesn't end with awards. Here are 15 of the most extreme ways actors worked to look like their characters.
Carey’s work in Precious was about transforming her image more than anything else. She didn’t gain or lose a significant amount of weight for the role. Instead, she simply de-glamourized herself, becoming someone who could conceivably work as a social worker like the one Carey played. Carey has dark circles under her eyes, and wears a dark wig that differs from her signature much lighter hair.
Normally, Mariah Carey is decked out in jewels, make-up, and the most glamorous clothing. Carey didn't have to wear special make-up or commit to odd costuming to transform herself. Instead, she had to dim herself down. She had to wear less make-up, look more world weary, and act completely exhausted. This is a social worker who has to deal with the worst of what the world has to offer. The unrelenting trauma of Precious is channeled through Carey's character, and her commitment to embodying her gives the whole film a deeper level of reality.
Rooney Mara committed fully to her role in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and her appearance alone reveals that commitment. After a lengthy casting call, Mara dyed and cut her hair to match the descriptions of her character, Lisbeth Salander, in the books the film is based on. Mara also had four piercings put in each ear, and got her nipples and brow pierced as well.
Mara’s commitment to the role helped the performance feel lived in, especially when considering how out of place Lisbeth always feels in the world. This transformation differs from most on this list in that it was less about weight or exercise. Instead, it was about committing to the performance she was giving. Mara could have used clip-on rings and a wig. She chose to give a performance that was more lived in than that, and it paid off for both her and the film. She even got an Oscar nomination for her work.
Jared Leto’s Joker is currently at the center of pop culture’s imagination. He went pretty deep, getting into character in ways that have made him seem both dedicated and maybe a little obnoxious. This isn’t the first time Leto has gone deep into character, though. For his work alongside Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, he lost 40 lbs. to play Rayon, a transgender woman who is HIV positive.
Rayon works alongside McConaughey’s Roy to smuggle AIDS drugs that have not yet been approved into the United States. The story is one of the friendship between Roy and Rayon, two incredibly different people who come together because of the burden of the disease that they both have. Leto manages to humanize his character and create someone who feels both genuine and truly hurt by the world she lives in. Like so many performances on this list, Leto’s work was rewarded hardily. Actors love commitment to character, and Leto’s work embodied commitment. He won an Oscar for his trouble.
Anne Hathaway dropped quite a few pounds and shaved her hair for her somewhat brief role in Les Miserables. Still, if people remember anything from that film, it’s the four minutes she spends singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” The moment is shot in intense close-up, which is effective for several reasons. It simultaneously proves that the singing is completely authentic and forces an uncomfortable intimacy onto the viewer. It’s rare that you are forced to stare at someone for four minutes straight, and when you do, it’s awkward and strange. Suddenly, you know them in ways you couldn’t have otherwise.
This moment is the most successful one in a film that is known for being a mixed bag. It was so effective, in fact, that Hathaway went on to win an Oscar for the role. Many grew to dislike her as she campaigned, but for reasons that were never completely clear. She certainly committed to the part and did the work. Can she really be blamed for that?
Zellweger gained some weight for her work on Bridget Jones's Diary, and did it again for the film's sequel. Zellweger's weight gain is perhaps one of the more famous in the history of actor transformations, as she gained 30 lbs. to portray the lovable heroine. Bridge Jones Diary was a hit upon release. It was so successful, in fact, that a sequel was made, with a third entry, Bridget Jones's Baby coming later this year.
Though it may seem like gaining weight for a role is a simple and maybe even enjoyable task, Zellweger was eventually concerned about the effects the weight gain could have on her body in the long run. Still, actors commit to roles in spite of the risks that they pose. Zellweger put on the weight for two separate films, and has reportedly done so again to reprise her character in the latest film. The first time, through, the choice really paid off. Zellweger was nominated for an Oscar for the part, in spite of the film's classification as a romantic comedy.
Another notorious transformer, especially early on in his career, Hanks had to lose an incredible amount of weight to portray an AIDS victim in Philadelphia. This wasn’t Hanks’s last onscreen transformation (his work in Castaway, where he both lost and gained weight, has already been covered by us), but it was this performance that allowed him to take home his first of two consecutive Oscars.
Hanks reportedly dropped 50 lbs. to play Andrew Beckett, a gay man who was fired from his job after his employers discovered he had AIDS, and sues the company for wrongful dismissal. Hanks looked rather haggard by the end of the film, and the weight loss helped him to more accurately convey the awful consequences that come from AIDS. Philadelphia came at a time when stigmas against the gay community were much more ubiquitous than they are today. Hanks’s commitment to the role was a key component to the film’s success, and winning an Oscar for your hard work doesn’t hurt either.
In one of the more absurd transformations imaginable, Joaquin Phoenix disappeared into character as himself. I'm Still Here follows Phoenix as he quits acting in order to focus on his rap career. As surreal as that sounds, it was even odder in practice. Phoenix grew a massive beard for the film, and actually began working on a rap career. Casey Affleck, brother of Ben, followed him and documented the story for over a year.
The genius of I'm Still Here is that it was never really clear whether Phoenix was sincere. It's clear that, whatever he may have said at the time, he wasn't really done with acting. He's starred in quite a few films since this period from 2008-2010. The ambiguity of Phoenix's decision to quit acting, as well as his fascinating Letterman interview, have led many to wonder whether Phoenix was just playing a character. Either way, Phoenix committed. He quit acting for over a year, completely transformed his appearance, and wore sunglasses all the time. It's either the weirdest prank of all time or a bizarre period in the actor's life.
Jake Gyllenhaal is another committed performer, proving himself willing to go to any length to get himself inside the head of his character. Just recently, he’s gained a significant amount of weight and gone through a workout to play a boxer in Southpaw, and lost 30 lbs. to play Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Either transformation could have made the list, but the effect of Gyllenhaal’s weight loss in Nightcrawler feels more powerful.
So much of what’s terrifying about Lou Bloom is conveyed through his gaunt face. As we watch him descend further into immorality, we see the desperation play out in his hollow frame. Of course, Jake Gyllenhaal’s commitment to his roles physically is only part of the work he does to inhabit a character. Gyllenhaal’s smile, usually a warm gesture, becomes something much more sinister with only a few slight adjustments. He always dives in head first, and his portrayal of Bloom proved to be no different.
Christian Bale is among the most notorious chameleons in the movie business. His weight loss for films like The Machinist and The Fighter have already been listed by us, and he had to get incredibly fit to play Batman in three separate films. His work on American Hustle took him the other way. Instead of losing weight to play Irving Rosenfeld, he gained 43 lbs. to take on the role of an American con-man.
Bale also had to wear a wig for the role, as Irving was a balding man with an elaborate comb-over, one we are introduced to in the very first scene of the film. Irving is a con-man, a middle-aged guy who lies to everyone around him, including himself. Irving’s gaudy costumes heighten the sense that he’s putting on a front. Bale herniated a disk in his back as he put on the weight. While he received an Oscar nomination for the part, he ultimately lost to another actor who lost weight for his role. Matthew McConaughey won for Dallas Buyers Club that year.
Another Oscar-winning, weight-dropping performance, Natalie Portman’s work on Black Swan was stunning both in its physicality and in the emotional toll it must have taken. Mila Kunis also lost weight for her role, and the pair play dancers competing to play the white swan in Swan Lake. For Portman's part, she lost 20 lbs. on an already slim frame to portray a ballerina.
Kunis's transformation was similarly impressive, and the pair perfectly portray dancers who are slowly unraveling under the pressures of professional ballet. Black Swan is a sometimes surreal and constantly surprising film, and one of the keys to its success is the believable nature of its central performances. Portman and Kunis both committed to their roles, and it paid off. Black Swan was a smash with critics, and it garnered awards buzz for everyone involved. Portman won an Oscar, and Kunis proved that she could be taken seriouly as a performer.
5. Matthew Fox in Alex Cross
Matthew Fox had to do two things to portray a psychotic villain in Alex Cross. First, he had to lose 40 lbs. After that, he had to build his body into a muscular wall. This transformation is particularly noteworthy because it required a multi-level commitment. Fox had to lose an incredible amount of weight, especially considering that he wasn't exactly a heavyset guy to begin with. While losing that weight, he had to ensure that he still had incredibly high levels of muscle definition.
Unfortunately, Fox's commitment to the role couldn't save the film from being slammed by critics. Fox's intense diet and workout regime certainly made him appear psychotic. The fact that he lost so much weight made his face look much narrower, adding a terrifying anger to every one of his expressions. Even so, the film itself was something of a nightmare. Committed as he was, sometimes Tyler Perry is just too much to topple.
All Things Fall Apart may not have been worthy of 50 Cent’s commitment to the role. He lost 54 lbs. to play a football player who is stricken with cancer. In order to achieve the weight loss, he went on a liquid diet and spent three hours on the treadmill every day. The movie was panned upon its release, and 50 Cent’s commitment to the role did very little to save it from that scorn. The film was originally called Things Fall Apart, but had to be changed after the author of the widely read book of the same name complained. The whole thing was kind of a disaster.
Commitment is impressive, but it doesn’t always pay off. A liquid diet sounds like one of life’s lesser experiences, especially when coupled with spending a quarter of your day on the treadmill. Sometimes, an Oscar or even a nomination can make all the agony you poured into the part feel worth it. Other times, though, things just kind of fall apart. For poor 50Cent, the latter was true.
Even before Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon was already becoming a household name for his work in Courage Under Fire. Damon took a supporting role in the Ed Zwick film, playing a solider who is addicted to opiates. Damon was only scheduled to shoot for two days, but his commitment to the part meant that he was willing to engage in a 100 day diet and workout regime just to play the part.
Usually, a drastic 40 lb. weight loss like this is supervised by a doctor, but Damon decided to undertake the task on his own. It wasn't his best move. Damon was later told that he was lucky his heart hadn't shrunk, and was forced to take medication for over a year to heal damage done to his adrenal gland. Damon likely learned some valuable lessons on Courage Under Fire. He launched into stardom only a year later, and has rarely been so reckless since. His body was altered digitally for The Martian for the portions when he was supposed to look emaciated. I guess he decided it wasn't worth the headache.
Chris Pratt kept himself a little chubby for his role as Andy on Parks and Recreation. When it came time for Pratt to transform himself into the movie star he is now, he burned that fat and turned it into raw muscle. The first time he did that, he did it for Zero Dark Thirty. Pratt played a marine in that film, and it didn’t require him to be as trim as he eventually became for his work in Guardians of the Galaxy.
A picture Pratt posted on his Instagram set the world ablaze, and audiences were eventually treated to a shirtless Pratt in the film. Since that film came out in 2014, Pratt has been launched into stardom, and his transformation has been among the swoon-worthy in recent Hollywood history. Pratt is currently out in front of several of Hollywood's larger franchises, and has made a name for himself as the latest Chris worthy of a little bit of drooling.
Vincent D'Onofrio was largely unknown when he was cast as Pvt. Leonard Lawrence in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. For the part, D'Onofrio gained an incredible 70 lbs., building on his trim 210 lb. frame. When you gain 70 lbs., health problems are almost a given. D'Onofrio was no different, earning a knee injury for his trouble that would eventually require surgery.
D'Onofrio's gain was reportedly the largest any actor has ever undergone for a role. Full Metal Jacket is regarded as one of the many classics in Kubrick's oeuvre, and D'Onofrio's commitment is a big reason why. Kubrick initially wrote the character as a skinny redneck, but D'Onofrio was on-board when he decided to make the character bigger and clumsier. Lawrence is supposed to be on the slower side, and D'Onofrio's commitment to the performance allows us to feel for the character even as he is abused by his drill sergeant. It's a performance worthy of remembering, and D'Onofrio's incredible physical transformation only heightens its power.