When it comes to acting, sometimes “getting into character,” involves a lot more than a change in perspective. At its very core, acting involves taking on the life and mind of another person, real or fictional. To do this, actors can read (and reread) scripts, relevant literature, and visit the character’s place of origin. Then, the actor can incorporate accents, mannerisms, and expressions commonly used or attributed to a specific character. This truly is how movies are made and how acting awards are won.
Depending on the character, sometimes, actors don’t have to change much at all. Will Ferrell and his character in Step Brothers comes to mind. Other times, actors have to transform into someone completely different. Many actors attribute success in challenging or controversial roles to “method acting” which involves abandoning one’s own personality to take on the persona of someone else. What if one has to do this physically, as well?
With advances in technology, film editing, and makeup, actors’ on-screen transformations are getting increasingly dramatic. Some actors are virtually unrecognizable in some of their most famous (and often awarded) movie roles. Here, we remember some of the most transformative acting gigs in Hollywood.
15. Heath Ledger as The Joker – The Dark Knight
In the Batman film The Dark Knight in 2008, Heath Ledger played the Joker. An iconic character from the comic books and movies alike, there was a lot of controversy following the announcement that Heath would take on the role. Heath who had made a career as a well-established actor, but one with stunningly gorgeous looks and a contagious smile, seemed an odd pick for the devilish Joker. To say Heath proved critics wrong is an understatement. In his physical transformation, Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is considered one of the most legendary performances in modern film. On the first anniversary of his untimely death, Heath won the Academy Award for his amazing transformation. To his former critics, we must now say, “Why so serious?”
14. John Travolta as Edna Turnblad – Hairspray
John Travolta took on a character all his own for the 2007 musical, “Hairspray.” While it’s not unusual for this movie star to dance, sing, and act all in one movie, it is unusual for him to do it as a woman. Cast in the role of the main character’s mom, Travolta had to embody a voluptuous, bubbly, anxious Baltimore mom in the sixties. Donning a wig, breasts, and a fat suit, John Travolta brought his signature charm and hip-shaking to make the role one of his most memorable ever. The scene in the pink sequin dress was perhaps most memorable.
13. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe – Looper
Joseph Gordon-Levitt transformed into a younger version of Bruce Willis for the 2012 time-travel flick, “Looper.” With his steely blue eyes, it was difficult for the viewer to remember it was, in fact, JGL. The colored contacts, along with hours of makeup and prosthetics, got JGL on the right track, but the transformation was truly all-encompassing. To perform as the young Willis, Bruce began studying him in recent movies and only spoke as Willis for the duration of filming. Instead of focusing on younger Willis movies, like “Die Hard,” JGL memorized the modern version on the action hero to make the character more believable on-screen. It worked!
12. Emma Thompson as Nanny McPhee – Nanny McPhee
From Batman villains to children’s heroes, acting transformations know no bounds. As a nanny with a penchant for warming hearts and turning stomachs, Nanny McPhee was brilliantly portrayed by Emma Thompson in the series of films. As a nanny who can finally (Spoiler alert!) tame the seven unwieldy children of Colin Firth’s character, Nanny McPhee has to be likeable and hard as nails. Using her mystical powers, the children love their new nanny and the rest is history. It’s not hard to imagine the lovely Emma Thompson as a smart, magical, nurturing nanny, but have you seen Nanny McPhee? In an effort to support her supernatural ways, the character is styled as a kind of a witch complete with moles, a swollen nose, unibrow, and one very assertive tooth. Only Emma Thompson could make that look likeable.
11. Tom Cruise as Les Grossman – Tropic Thunder
In the satirical 2008 film, “Tropic Thunder,” almost none of the actors look like themselves. Directed by Ben Stiller, the film was about actors playing roles in a Vietnam War film. While Robert Downey Jr’s character reportedly took two hours of makeup application, it was Tom Cruise’s cameo that really stole the show. As Les Grossman, Tom Cruise played a fat, old, bald man with humongous (prosthetic) hands and a whole lot of body hair. Tom Cruise, typically cast for his famous good looks and charismatic charm, was playing an undesirable man with a horrible personality. This transformation was so effective many people had no idea Les Grossman was Tom Cruise at all.
10. Vanessa Hudgens as Apple – Gimme Shelter
In the 2014 film, “Gimme Shelter,” Vanessa Hudgens stars as a homeless, pregnant teen in search of a better life. A victim of abuse and hardened from past experience, the character is a dark presence on-screen. Hudgens, best known as the bubbly star of “High School Musical,” and then for her off-screen romance with hottie Zac Efron, was hard to imagine in such a difficult role. To transform into Apple, Hudgens gained fifteen pounds on her petite frame and changed her lifestyle to emulate the troubled life of someone much younger than herself. On-screen, the character had many challenging scenes and Hudgens stayed true to the transformative nature of the role. During filming, she burst a blood vessel while acting out childbirth and really did eat out of a trashcan. Overall, the role became so encompassing, many people saw the film and never even realized it was HSM star, Vanessa Hudgens.
9. Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger – Black Mass
This 2015 crime film stared Johnny Depp as notorious Irish Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. Much like Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder,” Johnny Depp had to be bald, overweight, and with horrible teeth for the role. In dad jeans and a bomber jacket, Johnny Depp is unrecognizable in movie posters and promo shots. In the film itself, Johnny Depp is masked by not only his body, but in his swaggy walk, and thick Boston accent. Johnny Depp has always taken on unusual and diverse roles, but it’s hard to believe that Edward Scissorhands, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Whitey Bulger are all cut from the same cloth. Only the devilishly handsome Johnny Depp could pull that off.
8. Gary Oldman as Mason Verger – Hannibal
Want to lose your appetite? Look up photos of Gary Oldman in this film. Yes, Gary Oldman truly deserves (at least) three spots on the list of best movie transformations. In the 2001 sequel to the jaw-dropping “Silence of the Lambs,” Oldman is a supporting actor alongside leads Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore. The film about Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic serial killer, features Oldman as one of the villain’s victims. Oldman’s character is no angel, though, and is a wheelchair-bound, disfigured child abuser. With no eyelids, lips, or cheeks, Gary Oldman’s disgusting Mason Verger made him unrecognizable even to himself. Oldman said he wanted to fly under the radar and go unbilled for the film- it’s safe to say he succeeded.
7. Jim Carrey as The Grinch – How the Grinch Stole Christmas
In 2000, a much-anticipated live-action version of the Dr. Seuss holiday classic film was released to outstanding box office numbers. Because the world of Dr. Seuss and all of Whoville is so fantastical and warped, it was difficult to predict how real actors could take on the roles of such famous cartoon characters. Jim Carrey took on the role of the Grinch himself and was completely transformed into a creature all his own. From the green hair to face covered in the Grinch’s famous smirk-induced wrinkles, Carrey seems like the only actor who could direct that kind of costume without the costume directing him. It’s always a risk remaking the classics, but Carrey was up to the challenge and succeeded.
6. John Leguizamo as Clown – Spawn
In the 1997 Todd MacFarlane horror film, “Spawn,” John Leguizamo had to transform from his likeable self into a villain. The film, based on the comic book character, didn’t do well with critics, but its costumes and makeups were most memorable. Known for his versatility and universal appeal, Leguizamo left that behind to become an over-sized evil clown. The big, waddling clown costume could’ve been outlandish enough for Leguizamo to hide behind, but he didn’t. Leguizamo played the crazy-eyed clown with the same tenacity and acting skill he puts forward in every role. With finesse often unseen in horror films, Leguizamo’s version of the clown was funny, terrifying, and mesmerizing all rolled into one.
5. Nick Stahl as Yellow Bastard – Sin City
The 2005 Frank Miller thriller, “Sin City” explored the dark world of corruption in a fictionalized city. With an ensemble cast of about twenty notable actors, it would be difficult to stand out in this violent noir film. As Yellow Bastard, Nick Stahl came in as one of the more fictionalized and memorable villains. Stahl, no stranger to playing tortured character, transformed into this particular villain thanks to hours of makeup, prosthetics, and editing. At the time of filming, Stahl was in his mid-twenties, but had no problem embodying the wrinkled, bald creature. The costume featured a bulging belly (surely not Nick’s own), protruding ears, and an entirely hairless, yellow body. Between the costume, makeup, and Nick’s body language and acting skills, Yellow Bastard continues to haunt our dreams.
4. Gary Oldman as Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Bram Stoker’s 1992 version of “Dracula” was transformative for lead Gary Oldman in more ways than one. As the blood-thirsty version of the vampire, Oldman is completely unrecognizable. With ghostly pale skin, generous amounts of wrinkles, and a hairstyle only comparable to Bette Midler’s in “Hocus Pocus,” the then in his early thirties, was convincing as an elderly man with a very creepy accent. In the other version of his character, the younger version, Oldman appears to be the old-fashioned version of Tom Petty in coke bottle glasses, shaggy hair, and a top hat. Young or old, wrinkled or chic, these would make some epic Halloween costumes.
3. Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort – Harry Potter Franchise
Ralph Fiennes has had an outstanding career in film. From satirical comedies to war dramas to superhero films, Fiennes has shown his talent knows no bounds. However, prior to the Harry Potter franchise, Fiennes wasn’t exactly in with the younger crowd. As Lord Voldemort in the iconic film series, Fiennes played a villain that the entire world loves to hate. As a man with seemingly translucent skin and no nose, it’s difficult to look at Fiennes’ character and not feel suffocated. If you think you could recognize one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces without a nose, think again. With a bald head and smile that does not even seem to belong to the actor, Lord Voldemort stands alone as one of the most enigmatic villains in film history.
2. Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook – Hook
This film just screams nostalgia. Realizing the pain that can come from watching Robin Williams play such an optimistic character as Peter Pan in present-day could be enough to make us never watch this movie again. Alas, we just can’t quit it (despite Julia Roberts’ uber-annoying version of Tinkerbell). As the movie’s one-handed villain, Dustin Hoffman stars as the title character. It’s no secret that since this film, it’s become increasingly popular to turn Disney’s classic children’s cartoon films into live-action dramas. This film was before its time and Dustin Hoffman truly transformed into the cartoon version of the luscious-locked pirate, without making it way too corny. With a thick accent and eyebrows bigger than his mouth, Hoffman soon replaced Blackbeard as everyone’s favorite pirate.
1. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos – Monster
This transformation is perhaps the most famous within the hot topic of “actors making themselves ugly to win awards.” Charlize Theron, undoubtedly known for her timeless, classic good looks, transformed into lesbian serial killer, Ailen Wuornos in the 2003 film. For the role, Theron gained thirty pounds on her usual athletic frame. In addition to the substantial weight gain, Theron wore prosthetic teeth, a fake receding hairline, and mysteriously missing eyebrows. Prior to this film, people probably would’ve bet money that even thirty pounds and really terrible hair couldn’t have made Theron undesirable, but she really did prove them wrong. After portraying the ugliest version of herself, Theron took home the Oscar for fooling us all.
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