Back in Shakespeare’s time, actors playing the opposite gender was simply par for the course – as women weren’t allowed on the stage, younger boys would take on all the female parts in productions. However, as the years went on, women were allowed onto the stage, and actors began to play solely male roles, allowing the new group of actresses to take on female characters. However, though the majority of roles an actor or actress takes align with their gender, more and more actors and actresses are taking on complex characters, often of the opposite gender. Just take a look at rising British star Eddie Redmayne, whose portrayal of Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, in The Danish Girl is highly anticipated.
The reasons that actors and actresses make the decision to portray the opposite gender in a film vary. For some, the purpose is comedy, as actors or actresses play an over the top character of a different gender. For others, it’s an integral part of their character’s story. Either way, whether they’re tickling the audience’s funny bones or stunning them with a nuanced and masterful performance, these 10 actors and actresses aren’t afraid to take on roles of all genders.
10 John Travolta
In the musical hit turned beloved movie Hairspray, the character of Edna Turnblad is traditionally played by a male. While there are often changes made between Broadway plays and feature films, in this case, the casting remained consistent – a male, John Travolta in particular, was cast in Edna’s role. The role that Travolta is perhaps best known for is the ultra-masculine Danny in Grease, so playing Edna definitely showed his range as a performer. Not only did Travolta carefully work on his craft and mannerisms in order to play the character convincingly, he even spent hours and hours in the hair and make-up chair and wardrobe department allowing the team to transform him physically.
9 Tyler Perry
Tyler Perry has been at the helm of several films, but there’s one character in particular that he consistently brings back to audiences – Madea. Perry crafted the tough elderly character with a quick fuse over 15 years ago – she made her first appearance on stage in his play I Can Do Bad All By Myself. Since then, Perry has brought her back to life nearly yearly, either on the stage or the silver screen, in films like Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Madea’s Big Happy Family, A Madea Christmas and more. Perry’s brand of humor and acting certainly isn’t for everyone, as some consider his Madea character a bit over the top, but the fact that he keeps coming out with films and plays starring the old broad proves that his female incarnation definitely has fans out there.
8 Cate Blanchett
I’m Not There, the 2007 film based on legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s life, had several stunning performances, but perhaps none were as remarkable as Cate Blanchett’s transformation. Blanchett is known for playing strong, yet feminine, women, such as Queen Elizabeth and the ethereal Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings film franchise. In the film centered on Dylan, however, she played Jude Quinn, a male personification of Dylan in 1965. While Blanchett has proven her acting skills time and time again, many were still stunned to see what a performance she delivered in I’m Not There. Blanchett’s Quinn was almost universally praised, and she received a Golden Globe Award and a nomination for an Academy Award for her role.
7 Cillian Murphy
Like many actors from the UK, Cillian Murphy got his start on the stage, and was catapulted to worldwide notoriety after playing Dr. Jonathan Crane in Batman Begins. However, one of his most iconic and complex roles is often forgotten. In Breakfast On Pluto, Murphy plays Patrick “Kitten” Braden, a character who the audience sees transition from androgynous teen to glamorous blonde woman. Murphy put in the time to prepare for the role, and delivered a phenomenal performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Even legendary critic Roger Ebert commented that the young Irish actor played Braden with a “bemused and hopeful voice.”
6 John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell’s portrayal of the glamorous blonde East German singer Hedwig in the iconic Hedwig and the Angry Inch is perhaps one of his best known performances, but Mitchell didn’t simply star in the stage and screen version – he was one of the key figures creating the entire production. Many actors are able to do the research and preparation necessary to portray a complex member of the opposite sex, but Mitchell went one step further by crafting the character based on his own experienced before ever embodying him on stage and on the set. Hedwig and the Angry Inch has since become a pop culture phenomenon with fans around the world.
5 Adam Sandler
Sometimes, actors manage to play a complex character of the opposite gender with finesse, grace, and completely wow audiences with their versatility as actors. Sometimes… things get a bit stereotypical. Countless comedians, including Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry, have transformed into women for certain characters, and Adam Sandler joined that group of comedians with his movie Jack and Jill, where he played a set of twins, Jack and Jill Sadelstein. Sandler’s movie was a box office hit, as he’s established enough of a fan base that fans will basically see any movie he makes, but it isn’t exactly the most nuanced portrayal of the opposite sex on screen.
4 Hilary Swank
While actors and actresses have to face many difficult, meaty roles over the course of their careers, it’s perhaps most difficult to portray a real person on screen. After all, the individual you’re trying to embody isn’t simply a fictional creation from some writer’s mind, it’s a real person who lived and breathed. Swank’s portrayal of transgender teenager Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry was absolutely breathtaking, and Swank pulled out all the stops. Not only did she physically transform by cutting her hair and trimming down her body fat to a lower percentage more typical of males, she even lived as a man for a full month to get into character when it came time for the cameras to start rolling. She deservedly won an Academy Award for her performance, and brought attention to an incredibly strong and influential individual.
3 Felicity Huffman
It’s without doubt difficult to masterfully portray a member of the opposite sex, but Felicity Huffman took things to a new level of complexity in the film Transamerica. Huffman, perhaps best known for her years on hit television series Desperate Housewives, played a transsexual woman right on the cusp of receiving a sex change operation. That’s right – she was a female playing a male character who was already almost entirely transitioned into a female. That type of character takes a huge amount of nuance to portray effectively, and Huffman was endlessly praised for her performance.
2 Gwyneth Paltrow
As many know, in Shakespeare’s time, the stage was home solely to men – even the female characters were all played by younger men. So, it only makes sense that a film about the playwright would feature some performers playing members of the opposite gender – however, in this case, it’s an actress playing a male role! Gwyneth Paltrow plays a glamorous merchant’s daughter for the majority of the film, but in order to audition for the role of Romeo in the iconic play, Paltrow’s character Viola disguises herself as a man. While Paltrow’s acting hasn’t received quite as much attention as her personal characteristics and beliefs, her portrayal of Thomas in Shakespeare in Love was praised by many.
1 Glenn Close
Glenn Close is an incredibly diverse actress with extensive experience on both the stage and screen, but her performance in 2011 film Albert Nobbs took her versatility and skill as an actress to a whole new level. In Albert Nobbs, Close plays a woman who disguised herself as a man for an astounding 30 years, all to save up money in order to open up her own shop. While the film’s talented make-up team and wardrobe department helped with Close’s physical transformation, her performance is truly powerful in its nuance and complexity. If anyone ever doubted Close’s ability as an actress, this film should remove any doubt.