Everyone has heard “it’s only a movie” at least once in their lives. When watching a scary movie, we remind ourselves that it’s all acting and not at all real. Over the years, filmmakers have worked very hard to bridge the gap between what is real and imaginary and blur the lines as much as possible. Some cinematic masterpieces will stand the test of time because of the boundaries that directors have chosen to push. For the audience, it is pretty easy to move past the few hours of the movie experience. But in some cases, because of the conditions on set and in the preparation for a role, the actors were never the same.
On multiple occasions, actors have developed mental illnesses, had lasting physical damage and even lost their lives as a result of a role. Some roles have extended physical boundaries, while others established the actor’s character as such a horrible person that it scarred their reputation with the public. While these actors and actresses gave everything they had for the role, the impact of the movie for them will have a permanent and lasting impact. For so many of these people, these roles defined them as an actor. While some went on to thrive and be successful afterward, there’s no denying that the danger they experienced could have been life threatening. So here are 15 of the most dangerous movie roles in cinema history.
15. Martin Sheen – Apocalypse Now
The making of Apocalypse Now was incredibly difficult. The movie felt like you were in the middle of the Vietnam War for a reason. Plagued by disease, a very uneasy political climate in the region during filming and a never ending party each night, it was a recipe for disaster for actor Martin Sheen who was already battling with alcohol abuse. There were actual dead bodies on the set that apparently had been supplied by a grave robber, causing the police to seize passports of the production staff! It was all too much for Sheen, who suffered a heart attack during filming. The scene in the movie where he is suffering a nervous breakdown is all too real. He was actually drunk and suffering from an emotional collapse during the filming of the scene. Sheen went on to have an amazingly successful career, but this will forever be one of his darkest moments in filming.
14. Tom Hanks – Cast Away
Cast Away is one of the most demanding roles that Tom Hanks has ever played. It required him to gain and lose a considerable amount of weight in a short period of time. This by itself is bad enough, but in addition to the extreme physical demands he put on himself for the role, he almost died as a result of a staph infection from a wound he received while filming. After two weeks, Hanks saw a doctor because it wasn’t improving and the doctor hospitalized him immediately telling him that this was about to kill him if he wasn’t treated right away. Cast Away was filmed in Fiji and wasn’t exactly the most sterile environment for a film. The demands placed on Hanks were very high, but the role is still seen as one of his best performances and a film that will become a legacy.
13. Shia LaBeouf – Fury
You’ve definitely come a long way since Even Stevens, Shia. Seen as a committed serious actor, LaBeouf took his role in the 2014 film Fury to a whole new level. While preparing for the role, LaBeouf gave everything he had and perhaps a little too much. He joined the National Guard, pulled his own tooth, watched horses die continuously for several days (how he made that happen is beyond me) and even stopped bathing for four months. This type of behavior takes the preparation work to an entirely new level and can become psychologically very dangerous. Anyone that doubted LaBeouf’s commitment to his craft before this role certainly has nothing to say now. Absolutely masterful work, but years of putting yourself through this kind of demand will undoubtedly take a serious toll on your sanity.
12. George Clooney – Syriana
While filming the movie Syriana in 2005, Hollywood royal George Clooney suffered a serious spinal injury while performing a stunt. This injury landed him in the hospital in so much pain, he began to consider ending his own life. He has stated that he thought that he couldn’t live like that and was thinking of different ways to accomplish a quick end. This is a far cry from where he is now and thank goodness he recovered. But one stunt could have signaled the end of this star’s prosperous career. Clooney went on to receive an Oscar for his performance in Syriana and it is revered as one of his finest performances. He reportedly still has headaches as a result of the accident and many memories of this very hard time in his life.
11. Shelly Duvall – The Shining
Shelly Duvall was a huge star in the late 1970s and early 1980s. More recently, Duvall has stated that she is mentally ill and has been living out of the public eye since the early 2000s. From her work in The Shining, she has stated that it was incredibly demanding and very difficult working with director Stanley Kubrick. She was required to do the baseball scene from the movie 127 times and holds a world record for the most takes of a scene. She lost clumps of hair from the stress and had breakdowns on set. Kubrick alienated Duvall from everyone on the set purposely. She cried up to 12 hours a day and even had a hard time staying hydrated. Amazingly, filming took over a year to finish, which was quite torturous for Duvall.
10. Daniel Day-Lewis – Gangs of New York
Daniel Day-Lewis is most definitely a method actor. He will go to great lengths to get into his character and once there, he stays there until the very end. In Gangs of New York, he played Bill the Butcher, who was the leader of one of the many gangs in New York City in the middle part of the nineteenth century. But the preparations that went into this role took their toll psychologically on Day-Lewis. In fact, each roll takes a little bit of a toll. As he discusses the intense time that it took him to prepare for the roll, he reveals that he essentially becomes that character and refuses to break from it on and off the set. He didn’t talk too much between takes about the scenes either. When you’re becoming a psychopathic killer from the nineteenth century, that becomes very dangerous indeed.
9. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker in The Dark Knight is very well known as both masterful and as the role that drove him to death. To prepare, he spent several weeks in isolation where he worked out the laugh and mannerisms he wanted as Joker. He stayed in character at all times even on days when he had no scenes to shoot. His character was so amazing, he even legitimately scared some of his co-stars. Many have speculated that playing this role sent Ledger into a downward spiral of depression leading to an accidental overuse of prescription medications that caused his death. The young actor was far too young to die and loved both on and off screen. The portrayal of such a psychopathic maniac would certainly take its toll on anyone. But when putting a method approach to the preparation for the role, it becomes very dangerous.
8. Donald Sutherland – Kelly’s Heroes
In 1970, famed actor Donald Sutherland came so close to death that he reports seeing the light and was technically dead for a few brief moments! While filming Kelly’s Heroes, Sutherland contracted spinal meningitis which was bacterial and apparently as a result of conditions where he was filming. Sutherland was rushed to a hospital in London where he spent the next six weeks recovering. According to Sutherland, he simply refused to let go and would not die. You can kind of tell that he’s a pretty stubborn guy, but this takes”dedication to your craft” to a whole new level! While he did not die and he ultimately finished making the film and so many more masterpieces after Kelly’s Heroes, it remains the closest brush with death he has experienced.
7. Brandon Lee – The Crow
1994’s fantasy film The Crow demonstrates how things can fatally go wrong on a movie set. With the lengths filmmakers will go to make a movie look as real as possible, accidents are part of the game. Minimizing risk and maintaining a safe environment is always important, but in the case of this film, actor Brandon Lee died. A faulty prop gun that was supposed to fire blanks, actually shot and penetrated the 28 year old Lee in the stomach. After a multiple hour surgery, Lee died on March 31, 1993. While no one was convicted of any crimes and it was indeed a horrible accident, there’s no doubt that accidents can happen on movie sets when explosions, crashes, and weapons are used. Even when those weapons aren’t supposed to fire live rounds.
6. Margaret Hamilton – The Wizard of Oz
The iconic film from 1939, The Wizard of Oz has become iconic for its cinematography, writing, acting, special effects and so much more. But there was a price to accomplish much of the magic that was seen in this film. Actress Margaret Hamilton was put through the ringer as the Wicked Witch of the West, suffering burns to her hands and face when the Munchkinland disappearance scene backfired. She was hospitalized for this before returning to the set. Her green make-up was very painful to remove and left her skin green for weeks. Consider that makeup and costuming wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. Hamilton would never be thought of for any other role except this one as it followed her for the rest of her life. She even went on an episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood in the 1970s to explain that she wasn’t really a witch and actually loved children.
5. Isla Fisher – Now You See Me
Australian beauty Isla Fisher, played one of the Four Horsemen in the hit thriller Now You See Me. In one of the early scenes of the film however, she almost met her maker. The scene had her trying to escape from a water tank, while chained before piranhas were dumped in with her. The scene showed her character beating and screaming as part of the entertainment of the illusion, but in one of the takes, it was all too real. Something went wrong in the tank and Fisher was panicking because she wasn’t able to get out. The crew thought it was just her doing an amazing job! Amazingly, she was able to free herself before drowning, but it remains perhaps the closest call of her life and proof that movie sets can be insanely dangerous.
4. Jake Lloyd – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The opportunity to star in a Star Wars franchise film would be a dream come true for millions of people the world over. To Jake Lloyd though, the experience became a haunting curse. As a young child acting in a leading role for the first prequel, Lloyd suffered bullying from other children who taunted him and even made lightsaber noises every time they would pass him. Lloyd was also forced to do as many as 60 interviews a day while promoting the film. It came to a point where he has developed a phobia of having a camera pointed at him. After the film, Lloyd never acted again and to this day hates Star Wars. Perhaps contributing to his problems, he has had trouble with the law and has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
3. Jared Leto – Suicide Squad
There must be something about playing the Joker character that does something to people. Each person to play the villain has taken it to a slightly darker place. When Jared Leto agreed to play Joker in the hit dark action film Suicide Squad, he began exhibiting some very odd behavior. Leto’s co-star and love interest Margot Robbie, who played Harley Quinn, admitted that she was initially scared of Leto because of his preparation work and mannerisms off the set. Leto went so far as to send a rat to Margot, bullets to Will Smith and even used condoms to everyone. Considering that Joker is a psychotic killer, Leto using method acting to channel the persona of this character is a little more than alarming. Let’s hope he’s snapped out of it by now.
2. Diane Kruger – Inglourious Basterds
Director Quentin Tarantino is known for being eccentric and very outside the box as a filmmaker. When filming the film Inglourious Basterds, a film set during World War II, the script called for Diane Kruger’s character to get choked. Tarantino was so convinced that the actor wouldn’t do it correctly that what is seen in the film is actually Kruger losing consciousness at the hands of Taratino! Kruger apparently agreed to this ahead of time and was even told that it wouldn’t be comfortable. The act of strangling someone to the point of losing consciousness is very dangerous and it seems incomprehensible that anyone would push a scene to that limit. I suppose the stranger part may be that Tarantino considered himself an expert at choking people that he was the only one that could do it correctly.
1. Jason Statham – The Expendables 3
Stunt work in films is always dangerous. Stunt actors are a special breed of people that are incredibly smart and a little bit crazy! Some acts prefer to do some or all of their own stunts. In The Expendables 3, actor Jason Statham came incredibly close to death when brakes in a three ton truck failed and it drove off a cliff! The drop was approximately 60 feet before crashing into the Black Sea. The impact alone could have killed Statham, but fortunately he was able to exit the truck and was a very good swimmer. There’s no question though that this was not only dangerous, for many it would have been fatal. If a number of things had happened just a bit differently, this would have been more than a close call, even for Statham.