It’s always nice to see an established actress take some type of a risk. There’s a place for the safe blockbuster or paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, sure; but what’s really impressive is the performance in a role that demands a complete physical transformation or a mental trip into the darker reaches of a character. Here is our list of ten actresses who dared to take on those risky roles – and who were rewarded for their efforts.
Charlize Theron in Monster
Theron did the physically impossible for her role in Monster – turning herself from one of the most beautiful women in the world into the terrifyingly deranged Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer who stalked Florida’s roadways during the 1990s. Beyond the physical transformation, though, was the out-of-her-lane jump from Theron’s typical glamor-girl roles to portray one of the most unique characters out there – a female serial killer. Her powerhouse talent shone through (just look at this astonishing notice from Roger Ebert) and Theron won herself an Academy Award for the performance.
Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher cast Mara in a small part in The Social Network, playing the girlfriend that dumped Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg; he spotted something special in her, enough to bring her the showiest part in his The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake. Playing a role that was already portrayed indelibly by Noomi Rapace (in the excellent Swedish movies) could have easily turned into a disaster; instead, Mara went all-out, making the damaged but brilliant Lisbeth Salander, clad in punky hair and outfit, all her own. It got her an Oscar nomination and put her straight on the A-list.
Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct
Stone was on the fringes of stardom when she took the role of seductive author Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller. It could have been another Showgirls (Elizabeth Berkley will NOT show up on this list), but Stone’s supremely sexy performance stole the show in the better-than-expected result, giving her career a stratospheric boost. Questions about “That Scene”, though, have dogged the picture ever since.
Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream
The talented Connelly had long been wasted on failures like Career Opportunities and The Rocketeer or underseen gems like Dark City before she took the role of addict Marion Silver in the unforgettably bleak and explicit Requiem for a Dream. It was a breakthrough, showing another side of Connelly’s untapped talent; a few years later, she’d win an Oscar for her role in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind.
Ellen Page in Hard Candy
The subject matter in the underrated Hard Candy is as provocative as it gets – Page’s young girl captures and torments a man (Patrick Wilson) she suspects of being a child murderer. It’s never an easy watch, but Page’s ferocious performance is an instant star-making turn; it wouldn’t be that long before Juno earned her an Oscar nomination and brought her to the A-list.
Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There
An Australian woman playing Bob Dylan? Yes, this could have gone very, very wrong. Luckily, Blanchett’s unforgettable take on Dylan’s persona was wonderfully written and constructed by the I’m Not There penners, Todd Haynes and Owen Moverman, and remains the highlight of the film. She earned an Oscar nomination for it.
Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Hamilton went hardcore on the training for the Terminator sequel, hiring an Israeli commando to teach her “judo and heavy duty military training.” She effectively turned herself from the naïve waitress of the first film into a bad-ass cyborg-destroyer. It looked like she could go hand-to-hand with the T-1000 itself, giving the movie its human heart in the midst of all the technology.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Another case of a risky performance bolstered by intense training paying off. Portman trained in ballet for six months before starting the movie and committed fully to the dark, explicit, and psychologically tormented role at its core – tiptoeing on the fine line of madness in the performance. The result? An Academy Award for Best Actress.
Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wedding
Collette gained 40 lbs. and affixed her face into an almost-permanent frown for her role in this entertaining, ABBA-loving comedy drama, which became a cult hit in America after its 1994 release. Her remarkable physical changeover sparked Collette’s Golden Globe-nominated performance, bringing her to American attention. A few years later, she’d earn an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense.
Mariah Carey in Precious
The glamorous diva of a million 90s pop ballads went practically dowdy for the bleak and affecting Lee Daniels drama – even giving herself a hint of a mustache. In a movie that’s full of spellbinding performances, Carey’s down-to-earth transformation is an out-of-the-norm standout.
Which of these roles do you admire most? Weigh in with your comments below.