Some people might hate when they see their favourite comedic actors star in serious movies. It can be hard to suspend disbelief while we watch the people who usually make us laugh end up making us cry, or even feel genuine empathy for a character.
It can be even harder to admit that they excel in their unusual roles as eccentric millionaires or abusive mothers in often sad movies that bring us through the emotional ringer. Fortunately, most of these actors are unwilling to give up the types of roles that brought them into the limelight in the first place, and continue to keep smiles on our faces and distinctive catchphrases alive in popular culture.
Nonetheless, it can be a wonderful experience to see stand-up comedians and sketch-comedy veterans take the big screen and show us everything they got. More often than not, their performances transform movies for the better and open new doors for actors with a range of surprising talents.
15. Will Smith – Seven Pounds
Everyone first got to know Will Smith as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in the highly popular ‘90s sitcom that exploded into the homes of millions. After starring in movies like Independence Day and Bad Boys – semi-comedic, if not outrightly slapstick roles – Smith eventually broke out into more serious roles. His parts in I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness really put Smith on the radar as a potential dramatic force to be reckoned with, but it was his starring role in the drama Seven Pounds that best displayed what the former comic actor was capable of.
Smith played Ben Thomas, a man with a fatal disease who chooses to donate his organs to the most deserving people he can find. Smith dominates the movie with his range of emotions and, although the pathos-laden plot may not have fared too well with critics, he nailed this challenging role.
14. Steve Martin – Shopgirl
Steve Martin has been making people laugh since the ‘70s with movies like The Jerk and the Father of the Bride series. He’s considered one of the greatest comics of his time, and has influenced hundreds of actors to follow in his footsteps. But after so many years of being the funny man, Martin eventually stepped out and seriously diversified his resume.
He released albums as a banjo player, and wrote several novels. One of Martin’s novellas, Shopgirl, was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Martin and Claire Danes. Martin’s character falls in love with Danes’, an unassuming young woman. For once, Martin takes a step back from being the center of attention and delivers a subtle yet tender performance as an older man genuinely in love.
13. Will Ferrell – Everything Must Go
We can’t help but be a little skeptical when actors like Will Ferrell take a stab at a serious role. He impressed us with his famous bits on Saturday Night Live and became a modern comic legend with movies like Anchorman. However, as an actor through-and-through, Ferrell has brought his talents to dramatic, funny-at-times movies like Everything Must Go, based on the short story by Raymond Carver.
In this 2011 role, Ferrell plays an alcoholic left without a job or wife. He inexplicably decides to sell everything he owns in a garage sale. Although there are darkly funny elements to this particular character, Ferrell ultimately plays a man who is despondent and hopeless, emotions that are a stretch for many comedic actors. But he pulls it off and shows a more sensitive side; one critic noted that Ferrell’s performance is ‘quietly powerful’, in contrast to the rowdy comic roles he’s known for.
12. Kristen Wiig – Hateship Loveship
Kristen Wiig is somewhat of a veteran of Saturday Night Live, playing a slew of characters in hilarious skits. Since 2006, her roles in well-received comedies like Knocked Up and Bridesmaids have solidified Wiig’s position as one of Hollywood’s best and brightest comic actresses.
However, she has recently tried her hand at a more darkly dramatic role as Johanna Perry in 2014’s Hateship Loveship, an adaptation of Alice Munro’s famous short story. Johanna is a nurse and nanny who lands a job with a family whose accidentally kills the mother when drunk at the wheel. Johanna, an innocent and hardly romantic kind of woman, falls in love with Ken.
The movie itself was met with mixed reactions from critics who felt the plot was tedious, but Wiig passionately imbues this introverted and sparse character, enriching the audience’s experience of a woman whose pent up emotions finally come out. One critic noted that this role was a “tantalizing sampling of the depth of Kristen Wiig’s talent”.
11. Ben Stiller – Permanent Midnight
Ben Stiller is one of this generation’s most iconic comedians, who has starred in, written, and directed dozens of skits and movies. He’s one of the funniest and most well-known actors in Hollywood and continues to punch out comedies like Tropic Thunder and Zoolander. But in the same year that he would rise to fame as the hapless romantic in There’s Something About Mary, he also starred in Permanent Midnight: A rather tragic story about a Hollywood screenwriter who battles with a wretched drug addiction.
Based on a true story, Stiller excelled in a role that left little room for comedy. But it was a breakout performance that showed an intriguing side to Stiller who, from time to time, still shows off his acting chops in more serious roles like 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
10. Jamie Foxx – Ray
Jamie Foxx is a man of many talents: stand-up comedian, actor, and Grammy-award winning musician. Stand-up comedy is where he got his start, after his girlfriend dared him to join an open mic and tell a few jokes. After doing stand-up, he landed his first role in the movie Toys and never turned back.
Foxx’s comedy roots didn’t stop him from earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Collateral with Tom Cruise, and an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the biopic film Ray. He occasionally pops up in comedies like Horrible Bosses, but now ultimately focuses on challenging roles with a dramatic tone.
9. Albert Brooks – Taxi Driver/Drive
Albert Brooks is one of the kings of modern comedy, producing award-winning albums, short films, and feature-length movies since the ’70’s. He has also acted in many comedic films and live shows, but did turn his hand to a few dramatic roles in films like Taxi Driver and Drive with Ryan Gosling.
In Drive, Brooks plays a ruthless gangster who doesn’t bat an eyelid when slicing a man’s throat with a straight-blade razor. Brooks added a substantially creepy element to the character who was cold, calculating, and very dangerous to his enemies.
8. Adam Sandler – Punch-Drunk Love
After Adam Sandler became a star with his work on Saturday Night Live, he began to star in top-grossing comedies such as Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, where he capitalised on his increasingly stale comic talents. He’s been making funny movies ever since, and his production company, Happy Madison, have secured some serious dollars thanks to Sandler’s star quality
However, movie lovers saw a tantalising glimpse of a different Sandler when dramatic director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson sought him out for a role in his romantic movie, Punch-Drunk Love. There are laugh-out-loud moments in the movie, but the majority of the plot and characters are rooted in dark drama. Sandler himself plays an emotionally-disturbed business owner with a big heart who, between random outbursts of anger, protects the woman of his dreams.
Viewers had high hopes that Sandler would go on to show some more acting clout, but he has since stuck to largely slapstick, comic roles.
7. Mo’Nique – Precious
Mo’nique is a stand-up comedian and actress who stunned audiences and critics in the extreme drama, Precious. She played the villainous mother of Precious, a young obese girl plagued by familial abuse.
Mary, the mother, ignores the abuse and treats Precious as a personal servant to her every whim. Her performance in the film was so outstanding that she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, along with massive critical praise. She was also nominated for dozens of other awards, including the Independent Spirit Award and National Society of Film Critics Award.
6. Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Canadian comic Jim Carrey starred in many of the most definitive comedies of the nineties. He played the buffoon Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber and the animal lover Ace Ventura in Ace Ventura Pet Detective. Almost every film with Carrey has been comedic in some way, with the exceptions of The Number 23 – a horror movie about a crazed writer – and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a surreal story about a man who erases his memory to forget a botched love affair.
The first movie didn’t do so well with critics or fans of Carrey, who were skeptical about his move away from comedy. But Eternal Sunshine was praised for its innovative script and directing, and a heart-felt performance by Carrey who, almost completely out of his element, embodied a sweet and romantic but undeniable sad character.
5. Bill Murray – Lost in Translation
Another SNL alumnus, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, and Scrooged helped make Bill Murray a comic star in Hollywood. He has absolutely no trouble using his unique brand of wit to make audiences and critics laugh to the point of tears.
But Murray has been making audiences cry with darker emotion in the last ten years, most notably in the film Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola. He plays alongside Scarlett Johansson as a famous actor visiting Japan to star in a whiskey commercial, while his marriage back in America is on the brink of ending. Murray may be tragically comic in this role, but the hallmark of his character is loneliness, tenderness and genuine care for his new companion played by Johansson.
4. Robin Williams – Good Will Hunting
The late and great Robin Williams is arguably one of the greatest comedic actors of all time, starring in movies like Patch Adams and Aladdin. Audiences loved Williams for his tenacity on stage and screen, but he really impressed fans with his role as a therapist who takes on a troubled but genius patient in Good Will Hunting. Williams’ earlier role in The Dead Poets Society hinted at serious depth and emotion in a more dramatic capacity, but Good Will Hunting moved audiences to new levels.
There are many memorable moments of his performance, but the moment most people remember and quote is his monologue, spoken to Matt Damon‘s character Will as he breaks down: Williams repeats, with untold emotion and clarity: “It’s not your fault.”
Williams will be remembered for years as one of the greatest actors of several generations.
3. Steve Coogan – Philomena
Steve Coogan is well known in the UK for his hilarious performances as Alan Partridge, a semi-successful but ridiculously vain radio DJ. His fame has extended State-side with supporting roles in Tropic Thunder and a starring role in Hamlet 2. But Coogan is more than a funny face. He is also a dedicated actor with an incredible range.
Movie goers saw him excel in his role as Martin Sixsmith, a writer who investigates the story of a woman (played by Judi Dench) who gave up her child years earlier. There are lightly comic parts to the story, but Philomena is largely a hard-hitting story with melancholic subject matter and powerful character interaction.
2. Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Jonah Hill is best known as one of Judd Apatow’s “Rat Pack” of actors including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, and more. His breakthrough comedic role was in Superbad alongside Michael Cera, when the two friends try desperately to make it to the cool kids’ party before graduating high school.
He has secured his name as a great comic actor in other comedies like This Is The End and Get Him to The Greek.
But everything changed for Hill when he starred with Brad Pitt in Moneyball, a true story about a major league baseball GM who tries to use math and statistics to win games. Hill was so successful in his role that he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, an honour for any dramatic actor.
1. Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
It seems Bennett Miller, director of Moneyball, sees something in comedic actors that other people don’t. His new film, Foxcatcher, tells the true story of an eccentric millionaire who coaches two Olympic-winning wrestlers and inexplicably murders one of them.
Steve Carell stars as John duPont, the millionaire who eventually suffers a breakdown that leads to the tragic murder.
It’s not only the appearance-altering makeup that makes Carell so convincing as du Pont. Carell also uses a bag of dramatic tricks never seen before by audiences of The Office U.S., Anchorman or Evan Almighty. Mark Schultz, one of the wrestlers who worked with duPont, said himself that Carell’s performance was “spot on”. This is one of his first serious roles and there is no telling how he will flex his dramatic muscles again.