Before we get started, drugs are bad. We get that. We don’t want to be the reason why you get hooked on heroin. Don’t leave this piece thinking that the only thing standing between you and an Academy Award is your sobriety. That’s NOT how it works. Drugs have ruined far more careers and lives than they’ve made. On that same note, drugs and alcohol don’t ruin everything either. Yes, that’s a terrible message to send out there, but it’s true…at least for some people. Whether the addicts on this list were facing down addiction during filming or they used their past knowledge to inform their performances, drugs have helped them in a certain way. There’s just no other way of putting it.
We’ll admit that it’s impossible for us to know if these actors could have performed as well if they had been clean and sober their entire lives. Since we can’t say that for sure, let’s just eliminate that discussion altogether. When an actor plays a character who is an addict, the very best performances are the ones that are most accurate. Some of the best addict characters were played by actors who simply researched the role by speaking and observing addicts, so keeping drugs at an arms length away does work. But, some of the performances on this list are just too difficult to imagine a clean actor nailing as well as the addict or former addict actor had. We’re not only talking about addict characters either. Some of these actors just used drugs frequently and their performances in general seemed to benefit from them. Here are 15 Actors Whose Drug Addictions Actually Helped their Performances.
15. Jsu Garcia/Nick Corri – A Nightmare On Elm Street
The actor who played Rod in A Nightmare on Elm Street had one of the stronger performances in that great horror film. Prior to filming, Garcia was homeless and became a heroin addict to deal with his depression. Still battling the addiction when he got the role, Garcia admitted that he was snorting heroin in between takes while on set. During the incredible scene between him and Heather Langenkamp in his jail cell, for instance, Garcia was insanely high. Langenkamp later said of that scene in particular, “His eyes were watery and they weren’t focused… I thought, Wow, he’s giving the best performance of his life.” Garcia’s a talented guy, but his performance of a paranoid and manic Rod was unbelievable and was totally aided by his heroin use.
14. Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman is a great actor clean or drugged-up. His resume makes this very apparent. But, in the mid-to-late ’70s, Hoffman had a stretch of films that rivaled any of the industry’s giants. During this period, he put out All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer. He was also a drug addict who was partying out of control at the time. There’s the now-apocryphal story of his partying while filming Marathon Man. After being up and out day and night for about 48 hours, Hoffman showed up on set to film scenes in which his character had stayed up a similar length of time. To this, Sir Laurence Olivier said with irony, “Why don’t you try acting?” Later, when discussing his life while filming Kramer vs. Kramer, Hoffman recounted, “I was getting divorced, I’d been partying with drugs and it depleted me in every way.” Even though Hoffman looks back on this period as a dark time in his life, these roles were some of the very best in his career.
13. Dennis Hopper – Easy Rider and Blue Velvet
The late Dennis Hopper gave some incredible performances in his lifetime. We included two roles here to look at the two sides of Hopper—the clean and the unclean. In Easy Rider, Hopper, along with everyone else, was completely destroyed the entire time. Hopper later said that during these years, he would drink a case of beer, a bottle of rum, and about three grams of cocaine to “sober up.” He felt that this was all part of the creative process. When he did Blue Velvet, one of his better roles, Hopper was sober but he used his past experiences to create the character of Frank Booth. The director, David Lynch, originally had the character huffing helium, but Hopper informed him that this has no effect other than changing the voice. He said, “let me think of it as amyl nitrate or nitrous oxide.” When Lynch asked him what those drugs would do, Hopper said, “just trust me.”
12. Jack Nicholson – Easy Rider
For much of Jack Nicholson‘s early career, the actor was high while creating and sometimes while performing. Although he may not be accurately described as an addict, he certainly was a chronic user. LSD, cocaine, and marijuana were his weapons of choice, but these never hindered him. If anything, according to Nicholson and his fans, they helped him. Take his performance in Easy Rider as an example. Whether you believe the rumors that the cast were actually taking drugs while filming or not, Nicholson was experienced with LSD and pot beforehand, so he knew how to act to portray a high person. Later, for his role as the Joker in Batman, Nicholson drew from his past experiences to create a character who seemed as tripped-out as possible. Perhaps we could say his career would have been even better had he stayed sober, but trying to picture that is a fool’s exercise.
11. Johnny Depp – Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
There’s long been a talk that the cast of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were completely wasted while filming. But most of the members that were there say that isn’t true. What is clear, however, is that Johnny Depp‘s experience as a drug user helped inform his role in that film. Playing the very eccentric Hunter S. Thompson, Depp needed to portray a character high on numerous different drugs and one who had lived through a lifetime of varied drug use. Depp, of course, fit this part well. From a very young age, the actor was into heavy bouts of drugs and alcohol. This all came to a head in the early ’90s when he was at his worst. When speaking about it, Depp said, “I’m a dumb a*s, and I poisoned myself for years.” But these experiences also helped his career. Knowing the mannerisms and the personality changes while high is important. It’s easy to see that in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp was standing on familiar ground.
10. Matthew Perry – Friends
Even though some may argue that Matthew Perry (Chandler) was at his weakest on Friends when he was messed up beyond belief, that’s a load of baloney. Though he claimed that he was never drunk or high while filming, Perry’s addiction to alcohol and painkillers changed who he was during the filming of the show. The stretch of time that Perry was high covered four entire seasons of the show. Perry was asked about his least favorite episode of Friends and his response was, “I think the answer is, I don’t remember three years of it, so none of those. I was a little out of it at the time. Somewhere between seasons three and six.” The craziest part of all that is those seasons, three through six, were some of the best in the show’s run. He may not remember doing it, but Perry was awesome.
9. John Belushi And Dan Aykroyd – The Blues Brothers
Despite the stories some have told about Animal House, everyone close to John Belushi claim that he never dabbled with drugs at all on that film. In fact, the studio rented him a home away from the action to keep him away from that life. However, later, on The Blues Brothers, Belushi let loose. The actor, while filming in his hometown of Chicago, was reported to be high the entire time. His co-star, Dan Aykroyd, who said he too was high most of the shoot, even claimed the film had a cocaine allowance built into the budget. When things got really bad, the studio hired a bodyguard to keep cocaine away from the stars, especially Belushi. In the end, the film turned out to be outstanding. It would be hard to imagine this movie with two sober leads.
8. Dennis Quaid – The Big Easy
If you can forget the awkward Cajun accent delivered by Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy, it’s actually a really strong role for the actor. The film itself was excellent and Quaid’s performance gets better with age. To hear him tell it, however, the role was a difficult one for him because of how high he was during the shoot. “By the time I was doing The Big Easy, in the late 1980’s, I was a mess,” Quaid said. “I was getting an hour of sleep a night. I had a reputation for being a ‘bad boy,’ which seemed like a good thing, but basically I just had my head stuck up my a*s. I’d wake up, snort a line, and swear I wasn’t going to do it again that day. But then, 4 o’clock rolled around, and I’d be right back down the same road like a little squirrel on one of those treadmills. The lack of sleep made it so my focus wasn’t really there, which affected my acting.” Though Quaid is critical of his own performance, his off-screen lifestyle leaked onto the screen and it really worked. His real-life character informed the onscreen persona in a way that made it feel all too real.
7. Rodney Dangerfield And Chevy Chase – Caddyshack
Although Rodney Dangerfield was primarily known as a pothead, there are stories that he was hooked on cocaine during the filming of Caddyshack. As he tells it, his memories of doing cocaine over that course of time were “not good,” but the performance he gave was incredible and kind of created improvisational comedy in film. One apocryphal story from the set of Caddyshack was that, in the middle of his audition, Dangerfield pulled out a bag of coke and snorted some just to get ready. Later, when he showed up on set, Dangerfield pulled in with a suitcase filled with drugs. He was then outdone when Chevy Chase pulled in with two suitcases of drugs. The whole set was a giant raucous drug-fueled party. For 11 weeks of filming, the cast and the crew were totally wasted and the film has that feel to it. This is also what makes it such an incredible movie.
6. Robin Williams – Mork & Mindy
For Robin Williams, Mork & Mindy set the stage for his career. While many believe that the role actually hindered certain aspects of his career, Williams has nothing but good things to say about what it did for him. He was also a huge coke head in those early years. People joke that it was the cocaine that made Williams the manic comedian he became known as, but he says it had the opposite impact on his body. “Cocaine for me was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down,” he said. He would say that it was John Belushi’s overdose that scared him off the drug for a time. “The Belushi tragedy was frightening,” Williams said. “His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs. And for me, there was the baby coming. I knew I couldn’t be a father and live that sort of life.”
5. Robert Downey Jr. – Less Than Zero
It’s not his best role and the path it led him down almost ruined his career, but Robert Downey Jr. in Less Than Zero is excellent. It’s one of the most accurate portrayals of a drug user because Downey Jr. was using drugs while filming. In his words, “Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. Maybe I’d turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman. That changed on Less Than Zero. I was playing this junkie f***ot guy and, for me, the role was like the ghost of Christmas future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character. That lasted far longer than it needed to last.”
4. Elizabeth Taylor And Richard Burton – Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf
As we mentioned earlier, we’ve tried staying from alcoholism because of its frequency on film sets, but Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf need to be discussed in a light like this. Both Burton and Taylor were notorious drinkers. They were known to party far too hard at night and struggle to stay sober throughout the day. Burton would allegedly drink an entire bottle of booze on the days he claimed to stay “sober.” Well, this research all paid off on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where Burton and Taylor played drunk husband and wife. The chemistry and the accuracy in their performances is unmatched. Being drunk while playing drunks helped out quite a bit as well.
3. Samuel L. Jackson – Jungle Fever
Samuel L. Jackson has been sober for a long time now. But back in the late ’80s, he was a big-time user. In fact, he was just out of rehab for drugs when he was offered the part of an addict in Jungle Fever. Jackson, knowing the part so well, played it perfectly. Of all the roles he’s done, this may still be his greatest performance of all. This would end up being the role that most point to when they identify what role launched his career.
2. Paul Newman – Slapshot
We’ve avoided tales of heavy drinking in this list for a number of reasons. One, alcohol is not a drug. Two, there are just too many stories to include. That being said, we have included two entries for the drunks because they really did aid the performances as well. Paul Newman was always known as a lover of the drink in his heyday. He especially loved Coors beer. When he moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania to film Slapshot, he had more than 100 cases of Coors delivered to his rented home because the city didn’t sell it. Since his character in Slapshot was a booze hound, Newman would allegedly film scenes nearly fall-down drunk. Newman’s love of drinking and partying bled out through the rest of the cast and the behind-the-scenes stories became legends that seem too crazy to be true. Some say the cast rented cars to have drunken demolition derbies at night. Newman reportedly had a custom sauna built to help him sweat out the booze from the night before. This all helped make the characters more convincing, since they were often meant to be drunk in the film anyways.
1. Marilyn Monroe – The Misfits And Some Like It Hot
Marilyn Monroe was known to be a bit unpredictable. Although she had several great roles early on in her career, some of her very best work came at a time when she was most troubled with drugs. For Monroe, it was barbiturates. In the late ’50s and leading up to her death in ’62, Monroe was regularly messed up after film shoots. Still, during this period, she managed to nail at least two performances—in Some Like It Hot and her last role in The Misfits. You could argue that Monroe had just become a more accomplished actor by this point, but where’s the fun in that?