In the film industry, we have a pretty good idea of the sort of actors who like to play it safe and stick to what they know. For the most part, we know what roles they’re going to be in and how they’re going to play them. We know that Tom Cruise will probably jump out of a car at ridiculous speeds or that Michael Cera will forever be an awkward teenaged high school student. However, there are instances where actors go the extra mile for their role, making them unrecognizable at times. And while some actors go to major extremes (like Christian Bale in The Machinist), some simply go into deep research and slowly become their character through those means. And, thanks in no small part to a helping hand from the makeup department, they can become spitting images of their characters.
While Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto definitely get honorable mentions for their tremendous efforts in film, these 12 actors have also gone to great lengths to disappear into themselves and become their character. Here are Screen Rant’s 12 Most Transformative Movie Performances.
12. Felicity Huffman in Transamerica
With stars like Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne making headlines with their controversial transgender roles, people seem to forget about Felicity Huffman’s remarkable performance in 2005’s Transamerica. Her portrayal of Bree Osbourne, a conservative transgender woman, had a lot of viewers convinced that she was actually transgender, but in reality, she’d simply done an immense amount of research on the community. She had read multiple autobiographies, attended conventions, and had interviewed as many people as she could about their experiences.
Physically, Huffman changed her voice for the film, and maintained the altered voice until production was wrapped. She also wore a prosthetic penis which she rarely took off (rumor has it that she even urinated with it on). The now 53 year old actress takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster as she attempts to connect with a boy who is supposedly her long lost son. As Osbourne, Huffman manages to channel both feminine and masculine energies, making this a highly complex character and a very intriguing watch on the big screen.
11. Ralph Fiennes in Harry Potter
Whether he’s playing a wounded soldier in the Sahara desert or a Nazi officer, Ralph Fiennes always seems to pull off his roles with such grace. He wasn’t afforded the opportunity to become slimy and despicable until the Harry Potter series came around. He quickly went from a British gentleman to “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
With a touch of CGI and whole lot of makeup, Fiennes traded in his English charm for a noseless rat face, quickly becoming the subject of our nightmares, as well as Harry Potter’s number one adversary. To get into character, Fiennes would stare at himself in the mirror while the artists put on his makeup. In those two and a half hours, he would look within and remind himself of the kind of person the Dark Lord is. He took some of his famous charisma and gave it a hypnotic and seductive tone, making Voldemort an intoxicating villain that will live on in the cinematic history books for decades to come.
10. John Travolta in Hairspray
In Hairspray, it’s always been a tradition that the Edna Turnblad character be played by a man — whether it was on Broadway or the big screen. The well-known drag queen Divine made the role famous in John Waters’ original 1988 film, and it was John Travolta who was tapped to keep it alive in the 2007 remake.
With his experience in Grease, we already knew he could sing and dance, but seeing him do all of that as a heavyset woman made for a rousingly good time. After spending four hours getting into a fat suit and face prosthetics, the now-62 year old transformed into an entirely different person. It didn’t feel like we were watching an actor in a fat suit, but rather an introverted woman letting herself free. It’s been a while since Travolta truly lost himself in a part the way he did in Hairspray, but his ongoing role in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson is certainly a step in the right direction.
9. Nicole Kidman in The Hours
Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of The Hours goes to prove just how far a prosthetic nose can take you come awards season. Kidman traded her Australian accent and peppy attitude for Virginia Woolf’s solemn personality in this 2002 drama, and she dove headfirst into the character of Virginia from the very first day of shooting.
She learned her mannerisms and quirks, even going as far as learning to write with her right hand (Kidman is left handed in real life). On screen, her prosthetic nose made her virtually unrecognizable, which only helped the actress disappear into the role. The depressing, yet heartfelt performance led her to a Best Actress Oscar, making Kidman the first woman to win while wearing a fake nose—as far as we know, anyway.
8. Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder
When talking about risky roles, Tropic Thunder is often amongst the most recent topics of conversation. Robert Downey Jr. stirred up a ton of controversy when, in the midst of a career revival of epic proportions (thanks to his starring role in Iron Man), he took on a head-scratcher of a part in Ben Stiller’s 2008 comedy. In it, he plays Kirk Lazarus, a method actor who elects to go the extra mile for a role by putting on blackface, a 20th-century practice in which white actors put on dark makeup to (sometimes mockingly) portray African-Americans.
Apparently, behind the scenes, Downey Jr. made an active effort to stay in character. He kept the voice and persona going on, even in the DVD commentary. This was probably one of the riskiest moves in cinema history, and even Downey Jr. was hesitant to take it on at first. But his hilarious send-up of racism in Hollywood was (mostly) well-received, and his efforts were later rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor — a rare feat for a comedic performance.
7. Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose
It was no easy task for Director Olivier Dahan to find an actress to play the famous French singer, Edith Piaf. The studios wanted Audrey Tautou to play the role, but Dahan had someone else in mind. When writing the screenplay for La Vie En Rose, Dahan was thinking of Marion Cotillard for the lead role before having even met her.
To prepare for the role, Cotillard read autobiographies and watched tapes to practice how she walked and talked. She even listened to her music for certain scenes, in order to reach the singer’s most emotional and vulnerable states. She shaved her eyebrows, receded her hairline and even disguised her height by altering her posture with a noticeable slouch. That dedication helped make her a spitting image of the tragic French singer. Even though she didn’t do all of the singing, Cotillard’s perfect embodiment of Piaf earned her an Academy Award (the first ever win for a role in a French-language film) and served as her official introduction to the international movie scene.
6. Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry
After being fired from 90210, Hilary Swank was afforded an opportunity to show what she was truly capable of with this 1999 drama. In Boys Don’t Cry, the then-25 year old played Brandon Teena, a transgender teen who’s brutally murdered when his true identity is revealed.
Prior to filming, Swank lived as a man for a month in order to prepare for the role. She wrapped her chest in tension bandages and put socks down her pants, similar to what Teena did in real life. She made her voice deeper and put on a very convincing accent as well. People were starting to become convinced that the young man coming out of Swank’s real-life home was her brother. Aside from the physical alterations, Swank’s performance definitely struck a chord for many on an emotional level. The underlying themes of transformation and self-determination inspired viewers to show the world how they wanted to be seen, no matter what anyone else thinks about it. Her tragic portrayal earned her countless awards (including a Best Actress Oscar) and brought about increased awareness of discrimination in the transgender community.
5. Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There
Cross-gendered roles have become more and more common as of late. Rarely is there a role where a woman is playing a 100% biological man, or vice versa. Todd Haynes decided to experiment with that in his 2007 biographical film, I’m Not There.
I’m Not There is a film about different stages in Bob Dylan’s life. It’s filmed in different segments, all of which employ different actors to help bring the famous folk singer to life. Stars like Christian Bale and Heath Ledger did their part, but Cate Blanchett certainly made the most dramatic transition. She was a true wonder on the screen, sporting the classic Dylan hair, jacket, and dark sunglasses, casually smoking a cigarette while being bombarded with trivial questions at a press interview. She throws back witty and snarky comments—not once giving away the fact that she’s a blonde, British woman behind the sunglasses. She was nominated for an Oscar, but sadly lost out to Tilda Swinton.
4. Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara was hardly a household name. Most moviegoers knew her only for playing Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend for eight minutes in The Social Network. When she heard about Lisbeth Salander and director David Fincher’s upcoming adaptation, she contacted the Gone Girl helmer to inquire about the part. After overcoming his initial reluctance to cast her, Mara managed to convince him, and then went all out for the role. She shaved half of her head, shaved her eyebrows, got nipple piercings, and visited a rape crisis center to get into the proper mindset. She even starved herself to better fit the character’s body type, but the persistence was worth it.
Her character was standoffish yet vulnerable; not just a cold-hearted computer hacker. She displayed a surprising range of emotions, especially concerning the controversial rape depictions and her character’s feelings toward Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). To see Mara in the real world after witnessing her portrayal of Salander is a true shock.
3. Charlize Theron in Monster
While weight gain or loss is usually a huge factor in transformative roles, makeup can also play a huge part. Charlize Theron is a shining example of this. While she did gain some weight to portray the murderous Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Theron went above and beyond to bare the marks of an extremely rough life. Makeup artist Toni G spent hours hand painting and airbrushing capillaries, freckles, and sun damage to achieve the most accurate look possible. She made her skin complexion blotchy through airbrushed layers of translucent washes of tattoo ink and green marble sealant. After putting in dentures to replicate Wuornos’ rotting and crooked teeth, Theron even went as far as going through a day of hair fraying and thinning to achieve the proper look. Even with her off-putting appearance still fresh in readers’ minds, Theron still managed to be voted AskMen’s “Most Desirable Actress” the year after.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Every few years, Daniel Day-Lewis pops onto the acting scene and blows film audiences away. At first, Day-Lewis declined the opportunity to bring the 16th POTUS to life, calling it preposterous, but eventually agreed to take it on… six years after he and Spielberg first discussed the part. A method actor in every sense of the word, he adopted some pretty extreme methods to get into Abraham Lincoln’s head. Before shooting even started, Day-Lewis took a year to study everything he could about the former president. He studied photographs, books, diaries — anything to gain a better understanding of what Lincoln was like. When shooting started, he had everyone address him as “Mr. President” on set, and he never broke character, even when shooting was technically over. He forbid anyone on the crew with a British accent from speaking to him out of fear that it would throw his own accent off. That intense dedication earned him his third Best Actor Oscar, making him the first male performer in history to accomplish that feat.
1. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
When the announcement was made that Heath Ledger was going to play the Joker in The Dark Knight, fans erupted in anger. Ledger had only been known for romantic comedies and melodramas at the time. How on earth could he possibly pull off Batman’s greatest villain? When summer 2008 rolled around, the joke was on everyone else. Ledger was unrecognizable underneath all of that clown makeup and green hair. His voice and persona are completely different, making his version of the Joker one of the best of all time.
Ledger dedicated a large part of his mental health for his role. He locked himself away for days at a time and experimented with voices inside his head. He kept a diary filled with pictures of clowns, Batman comics and even Alex Delarge from A Clockwork Orange. That extreme dedication got him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, though he sadly passed away before he could accept it. It isn’t clear whether his experimentation was the cause of his death, but either way, he died having left us with one of the most memorable villains ever, and our favorite transformative performance in cinematic history.
There’s certainly no shortage of dramatic transformations in cinematic history. Did your favorite transformation make the cut? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.
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