Actors going against their usual role type can garner some serious outrage from certain types of fans (see Heath Ledger and Jared Leto as the Joker, Ben Affleck as Batman, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm), but I’m a huge supporter of this.
When actors are really allowed to be actors and show their range instead of playing the same thing they’ve played over and over again, it can be a revelation. It shows a boldness from the studio powers-that-be as well as the actors themselves. It’s a risk to push the limits of what people expect from certain performers, but the results can be wonderful. Read on to see when it worked out amazingly.
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Admittedly, McConaughey’s move towards more dramatic roles began before his Oscar-winning role came around as Rod Woodruff, with leading roles in movies like Mud (2012) and the Lincoln Lawyer (2011), but this role cemented him as a more serious actor and no longer only as deep as his chiseled characters from…let’s just say “simpler” movies (Fool’s Gold always comes to mind). Not to mention this role won him a Best Actor award, meaning we he gets a free pass on any slip-ups before then.
Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon (1999)
Carrey fought hard for this role as Andy Kaufman in the first of several more dramatic turns he made after taking a break from straight-up comedies like Liar Liar (1997), the Cable Guy (1996), and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995). As part of his campaign to get it, he submitted this unprompted audition video, and channeled his method-acting side during production when he refused to answer to anyone that did not call him Andy.
Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003)
One of my favorite performances from Bill Murray along with his Steve Zissou in Life Aquatic (2004), this dramatic turn from Murray was surprisingly compelling. He impressed many with his melancholic lead role after coming from the Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and Osmosis Jones (2001), neither of which brought out as much depression as Bob Harris from Lost in Translation.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
A casting decision that left many in the comic book community outraged and then entranced by the late actor’s performance, shifting Ledger from roles like Brokeback Mountain, Lords of Dogtown (2005), and A Knight’s Tale (2001) into the most infamous comic villain of all time was a bold play and paid off. Ledger received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role post-humously and will go down as one of the most unique portrayals of the Joker.
Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder (2008)
An outrageous yet hilarious stereotype of the evil, Jewish studio executive, the role of Les Grossman could not have been done better by an actor other than Tom Cruise. A brilliantly timed move, he acknowledged that most of Hollywood thought he was a strange guy, so what better way to turn opinion back in his favor by putting on a fat suit, loads of fake body hair, and dancing to Ludacris. The risk paid off with a show-stealing character and a new side of Cruise movie audiences loved.
Michael Keaton in Birdman (2014)
Without a noteworthy role between Batman Returns (1992) and Alejandro Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning film, Keaton had a breakthrough performance as Riggan, the beloved global star of the comic book movie franchise Birdman. You got the sense this role, which got him nominated for Best Actor, was very personal and autobiographical for Keaton given his career trajectory: the last lead roles I could find since last year are for White Noise (2005) and Jack Frost (1998) (he played Jack Frost, an animated snowman…).
Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins (2014)
One of my favorite recent Saturday Night Live alumni, Hader honed his comedic skills with Kristen Wiig, who costars with him in the Skeleton Twins, and you can feel the history of their relationship come through their interactions on screen. He digs into serious topics as Wiig’s character’s gay brother, such as dealing with a repressed relationship with a teacher as a minor, coming out as a gay man, and suicidal levels of depression. Coming from voicing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013) the year before, it was nice to see Hader flex his dramatic muscles.
Jack Black in Bernie (2011)
It’s hard for Jack Black not to be Jack Black. His facial expressions, voices, and wildly energetic persona go with him through every role, but he had to force some of that below the surface for Bernie. Although it was more of a bizarro-comedy than a straight drama, the concept of interviewing real people mixed with the fictional retelling was brilliantly executed, and Black showed a more nuanced side of his talent than what audiences had seen before (earlier in the year, he had done Kung-Fu Panda 2 and Gulliver’s Travels the year earlier).
Paul Rudd in Ant-Man (2015)
The comedic everyman, Rudd had firmly established himself as a funny leading man, but never had he been handed the keys to a franchise like he was with Marvel’s Ant-Man. He rose to the challenge and beyond, bringing in a more-than-reasonable box office take, plus helping earn the movie a 79% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s hoping Marvel will continue to take more risks like this; the early trailer for Deadpool indicates we won’t be disappointed.
Jonah Hill in Moneyball (2011)
Making a name for himself as the tubby fool in movies like Superbad (2007), Hill broke the norm with his Academy Award-nominated role as the number crunching Peter Brand. Although he had taken a dramatic role previously as Cyrus (2010), this role opposite Brad Pitt further solidified his credibility and range as an actor not only suited for comedy.
I’ll be doing actresses next, but are there any actors you think should’ve made the list? Comment below and make yourself heard!