Every year or so, an actor or a director who has been incredibly busy suggests that they’re taking a break from Hollywood, and, almost every single time, that actor or director will do no such thing. They leave for a few days, get an offer they can’t refuse and they’re back filming. The pull of millions and millions of dollars is just too strong to resist. It’s a world that the actors just can’t ever leave. It’s exactly like that famous Godfather III quote: “When I’m dead, I’m gonna be really smart.” Or is there another one better suited?
Yet, every once in awhile, someone does take a break. Sometimes, like Rick Moranis or the late Gene Wilder, it’s permanent. Actors leave the game and never come back. Other times, an actor leaves at the height of their fame and comes back to a less-than-glorious return. But there are rare occasions, and it only really happens for the greats in the industry, that an actor takes a break from acting and, when they do return, they come back in an enormous way. It seems unlikely. Acting, like any profession, needs work and practice to get better. It’s counterintuitive to think an actor can leave the field completely and actually return as good (or sometimes even better), yet it does happen every once in a blue moon. The people on this list are those rarities. The ones who left and came back to the sound of trumpets. Here are 15 stars who returned with a bang after a break.
15. Julia Roberts
In 1991, Julia Roberts was easily the biggest name in Hollywood. She was the highest paid actress in the world, she was the darling of every magazine and her movies were enormous. Then the crazy happened. Set to marry Kiefer Sutherland, Roberts ran away from the engagement three days before the wedding. Yeah, exactly like in Runaway Bride except Roberts didn’t leave alone; she left with Sutherland’s best friend, Jason Patric. Apparently Patric still held a grudge from when Sutherland tried to kill him in The Lost Boys (that’s just a rumor I’ve been working on for the past 25 years). During this time of insanity, Roberts decided not only to leave Sutherland but leave acting as well, for about two years. Her next film, Pelican Brief, even though it was met with mixed reviews, did very well at the box office and Roberts was able to hit the ground running, winning an Academy Award a few years later with Erin Brockovich.
14. Joaquin Phoenix
Call it a publicity stunt, call it all part of a role, call it whatever you will, but when Joaquin Phoenix mentioned that he would be taking a break from acting to work on his music among other things, people were shocked. Yeah, it was all part of the mockumentary film, I’m Still Here (2010), but there was some truth to it. Phoenix really did walk away from acting for some time, about four years. His last serious role was Two Lovers in 2008 and he would not do anything serious again until 2012. When he did come back in 2012, he came back the right way, with a magnificent performance in The Master. It’s not crazy to suggest that if Phoenix was in different/normal circumstances, he would have taken away Best Actor at the Academy Awards that year. But there were three major problems. One, he openly spoke out against award shows, not exactly the best spokesperson for the biggest awards ceremony in film. Two, his recent antics made him seem unpredictable at best. And three, he happened to be up against another great in Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln), who practically wins an award for every performance he does.
13. Natasha Lyonne
Up until 2005, Natasha Lyonne had a pretty decent career going. She was probably best known for her role in the American Pie franchise, but there were other films scattered in there as well. She went a tad cray cray in about 2004/05. She was arrested a few times and got involved with drugs and alcohol for a while. Though she did one or two very small things on screen, Lyonne stepped away from acting for about three years, and movie fans pretty much forgot who she was. She came back and did a few lesser roles before doing American Reunion in 2012. It was about that time that she hit it big with Orange is the New Black, even winning an Emmy for her performance.
12. Jackie Earle Haley
Jackie Earle Haley started off acting with a bang. At the age of 15, Haley played Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears and found success in other roles as well. Then, after doing some smaller roles in the early 90s, Haley left acting to focus on other things. He took a 13-year break from acting and didn’t return to the industry again until 2006, when friend, Sean Penn, asked him to take a role in All the King’s Men. Later that year, Haley would play Ronald James McGorvey in Little Children, a role for which he would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Since then, Haley has earned some critical acclaim in many of his roles and has once again placed himself in great company.
11. Mel Gibson
Sure, Mel Gibson has had his fair share of controversies and he may not be that wonderful of a person, but his art is quite good, and it always has been. In about 2003, Gibson announced that he would be taking a break from acting to work on his directing, no, not a true hiatus, but he did step back from the spotlight. Over the next six to seven years, Gibson, amidst all the scandals and arrests, would direct two very good films. It’s too bad that, because of his real-life drama, people have been unable to separate the man from his work. Yeah, Passion of the Christ had its problems, but Apocalypto is a powerful film and really strong return to an industry that Gibson once dominated.
10. Neil Patrick Harris
There was a time when it seemed that Neil Patrick Harris would only ever be Doogie Howser from Doogie Howser, M.D. Up until 2002, while he did show up in some other things, that’s really all he was. That was also about the time that he took a break from film and TV (though he did do some voice work). After he had refreshed himself and came back, it was a different Harris who returned. He landed the small part in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and he blew up. The next year he got the role of Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother and became a sensation. The Internet loved him, TV fans loved him and movie fans loved him. He became a popular spokesperson and model for the LGBT community and pretty much everyone bought what he was selling. Looking back and comparing what he used to be to what he’s become today is truly remarkable.
9. David Lean
These days, David Lean might not be the most recognizable name in Hollywood, but there was a time when he was considered one of the very best directors out there. After directing The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Lean put his name in the running for greatest director of all time. But after his 1970 film, Ryan’s Daughter, Lean took a long break from directing. He would go down a long and tumultuous road to adapt the book, Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, for the big screen, but that was not to be. Then, in 1984, Lean returned to Hollywood with The Passage to India, a film that Lean had long pursued. The return was glorious. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning two. The long hiatus proved time well spent. Though The Passage to India would end up being Lean’s final movie, it was and still is considered to be one of this great’s greatest.
8. Freddie Highmore
After his performance in Finding Neverland, it was obvious that Freddie Highmore was going to be fantastic, it was only a question of for how long. From that point in 2004 until 2011, Highmore showcased his talents in several quality roles, but as he got older, the roles got a bit worse. It seemed he was struggling with the difficult transition between child actor and young adult actor. After 2001, he stopped working for about two years. In that lull, Highmore refocused and retooled. When he came back in 2013 as Norman Bates in Bates Motel, it was as a reinvigorated actor. He quickly gained critical acclaim and, with the help of Vera Farmiga, brought positive attention to the Psycho story when everyone expected the worst. Now going into its fifth season, Highmore looks more poised than ever to keep moving forward with his career.
7. Robert Downey Jr
There are two different Robert Downey Jrs: stoned and criminal Robert Downey Jr and sober Robert Downey Jr. Even though RDJ didn’t take a traditional hiatus, his stints in and out of jail, rehab and recovery between 1999 and 2003, served as a break from acting nonetheless. Yeah, he was in the odd thing, but he was fired and ridiculed at every turn. Then, in 2003, Mel Gibson cast RDJ in The Singing Detective, which started him on the road back into Hollywood’s good books. Later that year, he got the role in Gothika and not long after that he was shooting Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Today RDJ has come all the way back and is one of Hollywood’s highest paid and most respected actors.
7. Stanley Kubrick
Even though Stanley Kubrick was known for taking a long time off in between films, or a long time developing his films, depending on how you view the process, there were really two extended breaks in his outstanding career. The first came after The Shining in 1980, and ended with his triumphant return in 1987 with Full Metal Jacket. Despite the mixed reviews at the time of its release, largely due to the unnecessary comparisons to Oliver Stone’s Platoon released the year before, FMJ is a true work of art and often thought of as one of the most unique war films ever made. After FMJ, Kubrick took 12 years to release another film, Eyes Wide Shut. Again, like most of Kubrick’s work, this film faced mixed reviews. However, when people look back at it today, it is a controversial and thought-provoking film that proved to be well worth the wait.
5. Marlon Brando
It’s no secret that Marlon Brando is one of the greatest actors of all time. In fact, most would probably rank him number one on their list. So when he announced his retirement from acting in 1980, you could see and feel the giant hole he left behind in Hollywood. His retirement wouldn’t last forever though, as he returned to the big screen in 1989 with A Dry White Season. Though he publicly criticized the film and the director (Brando was known for some controversy, so this was normal), he received great recognition for his role, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. His next role, a parody of Vito Corleone in The Freshman, was again hailed as amazing. As Brando continued on, the quality of his roles did diminish slightly, but that doesn’t tell the whole truth. In reality, a half-baked Brando is still a far better performer than 95% of working actors, so the world was not being robbed of anything.
4. Terrence Malick
In the early days of Terrence Malick‘s career, he was seen as a director on the verge of true greatness. He was very deliberate in his releases, never one to rush a film. His first two directorial efforts (Badlands and Days of Heaven) were met with enormous praise and accolades, so the world was anticipating what he would do next. But they would need to wait a long time. Malick left the spotlight and secluded himself, choosing to write and prepare for his next films. It would be 20 years of waiting. When Malick did return in 1998, he released Thin Red Line and proved that he hadn’t missed a beat. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and generally seen as a true work of art. His next film, The New World, was a little bit of a mixed bag next to Thin Red Line, so it wasn’t as much loved. Then, in 2011, came Tree of Life, a beautiful and philosophically challenging film that had been a work of love for Malick for about 30 years. Tree of Life would cement him as one of the best directors in the world and confirmed that his time off was productive.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis
Daniel Day-Lewis is a wonder. He chooses his projects very carefully and he invests everything he has into his roles. After his 1997 role in The Boxer, Day-Lewis announced that he would be taking some time off to do him. It would be five years that he was gone, but when he returned, the former Academy Award winner returned with a splash. First taking on Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis was a breath of fresh air. Alongside other greats, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Day-Lewis rose above everyone and stole the screen every second he was on it. Two roles later, he played Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood and won his second Best Actor award, confirming what we all already knew, that he was one of the greatest of all time. Then, two roles later, Day-Lewis won another Best Actor award at the Academy Awards for his performance as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, a performance that Day-Lewis suggested was his absolute peak. Now on another hiatus, we fully expect this list to need updating when he returns because everything this man does is near perfection.
2. Quentin Tarantino
There would be six long years between the films Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) for director Quentin Tarantino. During this time, Tarantino wrote and planned a few movies, but his return in 2003 was met with great response. Kill Bill: Volume 1 was instantly considered to be on par with Tarantino’s best films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and continued to show the style and flavor of filmmaking that Tarantino had become known for. Part of the hiatus was due to the fact that Kill Bill was meant to be one film, but, even with the six-year break, getting two Tarantino films in back-to-back years was something not many film fans were complaining about.
1. Jared Leto
From about 2008 to 2013, Jared Leto worked on his music with 30 Seconds to Mars, some documentary filmmaking and a short film here or there. While he was busy during his five-year hiatus from acting, Leto was not very visible in Hollywood. His latest role at this point, Mr. Nobody, released in 2009, got him some attention, but it never amounted to much. After Leto’s performance in Requiem for a Dream, many knew that he had the ability to be great, but no one was sure if he would ever reach that. Then, upon his return in 2013, Leto showed movie fans all he had to offer in Dallas Buyer’s Club. His performance, which won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, was as close to sheer brilliance as you can get. Even though Suicide Squad isn’t getting the reviews they were hoping for, many film fans and comic book fans alike have praised Leto’s performance as the Joker, proving that he can fill shoes that many thought would be impossible to fill, such as those of Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill and Jack Nicholson.