Sometimes, actors dedicate themselves to a role so wholly that it very nearly becomes their demise. Acting may seem like a breezy career filled with fame and fortune, but it has its risks like anything else. There have been certain unfortunate instances where a role nearly destroyed the actor that played it, affecting their sanity, physical body, or career.
Those devoted to method acting in particular often become their characters so completely that they find it hard to snap out of it and return to their own reality. Others have taken on intensely demanding physical roles, testing their body’s limitations. They may choose to perform their own stunts, leading to accidents and on-set injuries that almost jeopardized their careers. Still others choose to star in films destined for failure, becoming shunned by association, even if the film’s faults weren’t their own. Regardless of the cause, these actors were lucky they didn’t bite the dust in one way or another, unlike some of their less fortunate counterparts.
Here are 15 Roles That Nearly Destroyed The Actors That Played Them.
15. George Clooney as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman & Robin
In 1997, George Clooney was still just a rising star with a famous last name, nephew to actress Rosemary Clooney. His popular turn as Doug Ross on ER had been his big break, but he was looking to transition from TV star to movie star. Batman & Robin was supposed to be his way in, a summer blockbuster of epic proportions. But upon taking up the cowl from Val Kilmer, his portrayal of The Caped Crusader became known as the worst to date. The film barely made back its budget and was universally panned by critics.
While certainly the studio and director Joel Schumacher were largely to blame, Hollywood immediately wondered whether Clooney just didn’t have the star power to carry that large of a film (at least at that point in his career). To make matters worse, his other film that year, The Peacemaker, didn’t fare well either. Fortunately, he had signed on for two other films at the time that both went on to get Oscar nominations, and a few years later, he took everyone by surprise in the Cohen Brothers, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Nevertheless, Clooney actually apologized on multiple occasions for destroying Batman (and the existence of those ridiculous Batsuit nipples).
14. Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series
Despite having a role that any Harry Potter fan would have died for, Emma Watson nearly threw in the towel after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The grueling schedules and lack of freedom or independence had taken its toll on her. She called the experience “horrible” and “agonizing” in an interview with The Daily Mail after production for the last film was over. Not exactly what you’d expect from an experience that everyone else in the world would have probably found magical and totally worth the struggle.
If Emma had quit, she’d likely have faded into obscurity as many of the other young actors did, sacrificing fame for freedom. Instead, she stuck it out despite suffering through constant cold and wet conditions during filming for both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Even though Hermione nearly destroyed her independence, she certainly has plenty of freedom to do what she wants now. As you’re probably all aware, she starred as Belle in Beauty and the Beast this year and became a UN Goodwill Ambassador in 2014, neither of which would have been possible had she given up on Hermione.
13. Jason Statham as Lee Christmas in The Expendables 3
With a film franchise chock full of action heroes (and villains), there are always bound to be some stunts performed by the actors themselves. The Expendables are a team of mercenary badasses, so naturally, violence and risk come with the territory. However, Jason Statham, who plays Lee Christmas in the films (and second in command to Sylvester Stallone’s character), almost bit off more than he could chew during The Expendables 3.
Jason’s career—and life—were nearly snuffed out when the breaks went out on a truck he was test-driving for a stunt. Instead of stopping at the end of a dock, the truck plunged straight into the Black Sea with Statham behind the wheel, getting stuck about sixty feet down. Luckily, the doors were already taken off for the stunt, but even more lucky was the fact that Jason Statham is a professionally trained, Olympic level diver. As Sylvester Stallone told The Mirror at the film’s premiere, “If anyone else had been in that truck, we would have been dead because we were all wearing heavy boots and gun belts.” Talk about a close call.
12. Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans
At this point, what role hasn’t nearly destroyed Daniel Day Lewis? His obsessive method acting has been taken to the extreme many times. It’s no wonder he’s retiring now after only appearing in twenty-nine projects (but winning three Oscars). His wife had to have put her foot down more than once, especially after what happened to him when he took on the role of Nathaniel Poe, aka Hawkeye, in The Last of the Mohicans.
Known for not breaking character during the course of filming, even off camera, Daniel brought his gun with him wherever he went, including Christmas dinner. “I’ve no idea how not to be Hawkeye,” he told director Michael Mann. Apparently, his brain agreed with him, and soon after filming, he began experiencing hallucinations and claustrophobia as he tried to readjust to civilized life. Daniel had spent months in the woods training with wilderness experts and completely immersing himself in the world of the character. He had effectively become Hawkeye, which in combination with harsh outdoor conditions and a lack of proper sleep and nutrition, likely caused a kind of disassociation or delirium to set in. At least it was an acute episode, and he didn’t seem to suffer any permanent damage to his mind (that we know of).
11. Vivian Leigh as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire
Wife to famed stage and screen genius Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh was a star in her own right, winning a pair of Oscars for her starring roles in Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire. However, she might have taken her role in the latter film as mentally unstable Blanche Dubois a bit too seriously. According to friends of Leigh and Olivier, the actress was prone to reckless behavior much like her character. Leigh allegedly had dozens of affairs along with a drinking problem. “Blanche was so very like her in a way,” explained actor/director John Gielgud in a 1989 biography of Olivier. “It must have been a most dreadful strain to do it night after night. She would be shaking and white and quite distraught at the end of it.”
Apparently, the strain of taking on a role so closely mirroring her own life caused a psychotic break. Leigh didn’t do another film for nearly three years, but couldn’t even get through the one she ended up signing on for. During the production of Elephant Walk, Leigh had a mental breakdown and suffered such confusion that she thought she was back on the set of A Streetcar Named Desire. While she recovered from her episode and eventually did a couple more films, unfortunately, her mental illness continued to progress until her death in 1967.
10. David Schwimmer as Ross Geller in Friends
One of the most popular TV shows of all time, Friends ran for ten years and skyrocketed its stars to fame. One of those actors didn’t cope so well with the constant attention, however. After his stint as Robert Kardashian in American Crime Story last year, David Schwimmer confessed to The Hollywood Reporter that his time as Ross Geller nearly ruined his life. Not quite prepared for just how much his life would change, Friends affected his relationships and even his career. Part of being an actor is the art of observation, but who wants to observe when paparazzi are flashing cameras in your face wherever you go?
“I realized after a while I was no longer watching people; I was trying to hide,” he admitted. Although his role in Friends nearly destroyed him, at least he didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol like so many of his Hollywood colleagues. He’s managed to make his former fame work for him by moving out of the spotlight, while still maintaining a career in film. A combination of bit roles in films and TV shows, voiceover for cartoon franchises like Madagascar, and directing jobs continue to keep him busy.
9. Buster Keaton as The Projectionist/Detective in Sherlock Jr.
In the early years of cinema, actors often didn’t have stunt doubles due to low budgets and the availability of free labor. Vaudevillian comedian, Buster Keaton, did practically everything in his films, often leading to on set injuries. One film in particular nearly did him in when things didn’t go exactly as planned. In one instance, he skidded off a motorcycle and was thrown onto the hood of a car. Miraculously escaping with minor injuries, his other major accident was quite a bit more extreme.
During the filming of Sherlock Jr., he suffered a nasty fall that could have easily ended his career if it hadn’t been for sheer dumb luck. While walking on top of a moving train (as you do), Keaton grabbed a waterspout that gushed water on him so hard and fast that it knocked him clean off the train, causing him to hit his head on the ground. An injury like should have kept him on his back or in the hospital. Despite blacking out and suffering from awful headaches, however, he went on with filming shortly after. It wasn’t for another nine years that he discovered the fall actually broke his neck. How he managed to not exacerbate the injury is pretty mind-blowing.
8. Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in The Birds
Before starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Tippi Hedren had only appeared in a diet drink commercial. The Master of Suspense made her an overnight sensation, but with a high price to pay. In both a book by biographer Donald Spoto and Hedren’s own memoir, she revealed that Hitchcock harassed and abused her during The Birds. “He made it very clear what was expected of me, but I was equally clear that I wasn’t interested,” she said of his sexual advances. Apparently, Tippi’s rejection didn’t sit well with Hitchcock, and he concocted vengeful schemes to get back at her.
For example, the scene where birds are attacking and pecking at her head? Those were real birds that Hitchcock and crewmen threw at her instead of using fake ones. She nearly had a nervous breakdown as a result, and who could blame her? But Hitchcock didn’t stop there. He also tried to destroy her career, since she was locked in a contract with him, turning down roles on her behalf. Thankfully, she eventually managed to get things back on track, and she continues to work today (although probably on a much smaller scale than if Hitchcock hadn’t tried to sabotage her).
7. Steve McQueen as Michael Delaney in Le Mans
Taking over where James Dean left off after his untimely death in 1955, Steve McQueen became the King of Cool and a huge box office draw as a result. Known for his obsessive racing hobby, McQueen once remarked, “Racing is life. Anything else before or after is just waiting.” The culmination of his preoccupation with the sport came in the form of Le Mans, a passion project about the French car race that McQueen intended to participate in. Unfortunately for him, the film’s insurance company vetoed his decision to drive in the race on camera, instantly crushing his lifelong dream and the whole reason he wanted to do the film in the first place.
As a result, McQueen suffered a crippling downward spiral of self-destruction. The disappointment triggered a mid-life crisis in him fueled by sex and drugs. Unwilling to cooperate with the studio at that point, the film almost didn’t get made until they brought in a new director, as McQueen had been directing the picture as well. That could have been the end of his career, but McQueen managed to pull it together for another seven films before sadly succumbing to a rare form of lung cancer in 1980.
6. Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance in The Shining
A lot of people don’t care for Shelley Duvall’s performance in The Shining. Her constant crying and on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown expressions have been known to even get on the nerves of author Stephen King (who penned the novel the film was based on). But what Duvall suffered through during the production of The Shining makes her character a lot more sympathetic.
Stanley Kubrick was known for his perfectionist techniques, doing take after take no matter how long it took to get a performance exactly the way he envisioned it. One scene in particular, when Wendy’s defending herself with a baseball bat, took a record breaking 127 takes before Kubrick yelled ‘cut.’ “Going through day after day of excruciating work was almost unbearable,” she informed Roger Ebert in an interview at the time. In fact, Duvall became so stressed by the repeated trauma that her hair started falling out, according to Jack Nicholson’s account in a documentary on Kubrick.
Duvall worked for a long time after The Shining, but it’s possible those experiences had some residual effects that lingered as she grew older. She appeared in a sad state last year on Dr. Phil, clearly mentally ill and in need of assistance. Getting chased by an axe murderer for months on end will probably do that to you.
5. Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger
Johnny Depp grew up around horses and even adopted the one he rode during Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, yet even with tons of experience riding, things sometimes go haywire when dealing with live animals. While filming a scene with Armie Hammer for The Lone Ranger, Depp’s horse made some unexpected movements that caused him to lose his bearings and fall off. With nothing to hold onto, Johnny was forced to grip the horse’s mane for dear life, as he wasn’t riding with an actual saddle. (A faux one was used to give the illusion his character, Tonto, was riding the horse bareback.)
Video footage shows Depp dangling off the side of the horse before dropping onto the ground below. “One word popped into my head: “hooves,” he told David Letterman later. Lucky for him, the horse instinctively jumped over him, but it could have easily been a disaster for the star—mangling his face, breaking multiple bones, or giving him a nasty brain or spinal injury. Yikes.
4. Natalie Portman as Padmé/Queen Amidala in Star Wars I-III
Since they were first released, the Star Wars prequels have been hotly debated by fans and critics alike. Plagued by bad writing and shoddy character development, the trilogy didn’t exactly do the actors any favors—especially Natalie Portman. “Everyone thought I was a horrible actress,” she told New York Magazine in 2014. “I was in the biggest grossing movie of the decade and nobody wanted to work with me.”
Can we really blame them, though? Portman’s acting was flat and bland, and her chemistry with co-star Hayden Christensen was practically non-existent. But time reveals all, and years alter, it’s safe to chock it all up to George Lucas’ questionable directing style and not the actual capabilities of the actors he casts. Nevertheless, Portman’s time as Padmé nearly destroyed her career to the point where she actually needed a letter of recommendation to get cast. Director Mike Nichols sang her praises to Anthony Minghella for a role in Cold Mountain, which ended up with seven Academy Award nominations. Nowadays, Portman’s an Oscar winner herself, but she came awfully close to having a mediocre career at best.
3. Jaimie Alexander as Sif in Thor: The Dark World
Even though she plays an Asgardian warrior in the Thor films, actress Jaimie Alexander hasn’t quite absorbed her character’s superhuman abilities. While she was kicking ass and taking names as Sif in Thor: The Dark World, Jaimie took quite the spill, putting her in the hospital for over a week. “I herniated a disk in my thoracic spine, dislocated my left shoulder, tore my right rhomboid, and chipped eleven vertebra,” she recalled to MTV. Not exactly the mark of a Norse god, is it?
Needless to say, it was quite a nasty fall. The right side of her body was even temporarily paralyzed due to swelling in her back. That one moment could have ruined her budding career in an instant. It just goes to show you that even a simple thing like slipping and falling can take down the strongest among us – even Asgardians.
2. Charlize Theron as Aeon Flux in Aeon Flux
Fresh off the heels of her Oscar win as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Charlize Theron wanted to take on a role that was physically demanding rather than physically transformative. So she decided to try her hand as an action hero, starring in the live-action adaptation of the animated Æon Flux series. Calling for an impressive display of gymnastics and acrobatic feats normally reserved for stunt doubles, Charlize decided to tackle them herself.
While she had taken ballet growing up, Charlize trained in capoeira and gymnastics to match the agility and flexibility of the animated assassin. However, within the first two weeks of filming, she screwed up a back handspring and landed on her head. As you might imagine, the injury was pretty serious. “I had some nerve damage. It was numb on the right side of my body,” she told ThoughtCo. Not exactly the best start to the film that was supposed to show her versatility as a blockbuster star. At the very least, she could have taken heart that she won an Oscar before sustaining a potentially career-ending injury. Thankfully, Charlize recovered, and Æon Flux didn’t destroy her livelihood (although it did flop pretty hard at the box office).
1. Joaquin Phoenix as Himself in I’m Still Here
Joaquin Phoenix had the entire world fooled into thinking that he was spiraling out of control and abandoning his life as an actor for a rap career. He pulled stunts like seemingly punching a guy out in the middle of a Miami nightclub performance and making David Letterman feel super awkward on his own show. Things got even stranger when fellow actor Casey Affleck revealed he was doing a documentary on Joaquin’s career change. Time and time again, both Phoenix and Affleck insisted that it was all for real, despite skepticism from the media and public. Nevertheless, they kept the charade going for two years until the film’s release in 2010.
The result was a lot of uproar about Joaquin’s performance art and how he sacrificed his celebrity for a fabricated public image. Many people still didn’t “get it”, and the film made a measly $408,000 at the box office domestically. Pulling a stunt on that large of a scale (and not letting anyone in on it) could have destroyed him in more ways than one. He could have gone “real” crazy, getting lost in this dysfunctional version of himself, or it could have turned people off from ever working with him for fear he’d pull a similar stunt. Amazingly, when it was finally revealed as a hoax, the whole experience actually seemed to help his career, as his next major work was starring opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in P. T. Anderson’s renowned drama, The Master.
What other movie/TV roles nearly destroyed the actors who played them? Let us know in the comments.
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