Though certain actors like Gary Oldman and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman are known for their versatility, most movie stars have a type: George Clooney is the smooth and witty operator, Matt Damon an earnest, occasionally in-over-his-head player, Brad Pitt a sly and shifty rake with boyish good looks…huh, we’re really just naming Ocean’s Eleven cast members at this point. Regardless, while actors occasionally switch things up, most of the best known ones have one or two character types associated with their names.
But we’re not talking about the usual performances today. Instead, we’re going to look at a few actors who stepped outside their comfort zones, if only for one role, and played characters unlike anything they were used to. All of the following performances are good in and of themselves, as well as with the knowledge that their respective players were taking risks at the time.
6. Tim Robbins in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
The name Tim Robbins brings several deeply serious and moving films to mind: The Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River, Jacob’s Ladder and Dead Man Walking are just a few to come to mind. But the actor has a surprisingly humorous side to him, having played funny and/or absurd bit parts in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny and a yuppie romantic rival to John Cusack in High Fidelity.
But perhaps funniest and weirdest of all is his brief bit as the fictional President of the United States for a single scene in the second Austin Powers movie, The Spy Who Shagged Me. Extorted by the villainous Dr. Evil for a million dollars (then a lot of money), the panicked president considers ordering the military to fire nuclear weapons at the Moon, where the criminal mastermind’s base is located. When a general questions the command to destroy Earth’s only natural satellite, the Head of State quips, “Would you miss it? Would you miss it?!”
5. Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me
Adam Sandler has had a variety of roles in his career—stand-up comedian, sketch artist, parody musician and comic actor—but almost all of them have erred on the side of funny. The nasal-voiced SNL alum has certainly added a touch of drama to several of his comedic roles—in Click and Funny People, notably—but we’re far more likely to associate his name with Billy Madison and “At a Medium Pace” (please don’t search that at work) than the more sensitive stuff he’s done.
One major exception is his starring role in the 2007 comedy-drama (but mostly drama) Reign Over Me, where Sandler plays a former dentist consumed with grief five years after he lost his wife and children in the September 11 attacks. Sporting Bob Dylan-esque hair and a pair of headphones, Sandler was almost unrecognizable, and though the film received mixed reviews there’s no doubt that the part was the darkest and most heartfelt role the comedian has ever tackled.
4. Daniel Radcliffe in Equus
As Mara Wilson has written, being a child star can be hell, and not many get through it with their sanity intact. Being typecast certainly doesn’t help. With this in mind, Harry Potter himself Daniel Radcliffe has striven to diversify his filmography from a young age. Besides playing a comically fictionalized version of himself in the Ricky Gervais–Stephen Merchant comedy series Extras, Radcliffe has starred as a widowed lawyer in period ghost story The Woman in Black, portrayed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings and will even play Igor in the upcoming 2015 Frankenstein reboot Victor Frankenstein.
But the strangest of his non-Potter roles has been neither on the large or small screen but the stage, playing the lead in a production of Equus from 2007 to 2009. For those unfamiliar with the play, Equus, by Peter Shaffer, tells the story of a horse-obsessed young man attempting to come to terms with his unusual fixation through therapy. The role required Radcliffe—then 17 and still filming the Harry Potter movies—to appear fully nude on stage, which gained the actor and the play no shortage of notoriety. While Equus was an unusual move for the former Boy Who Lived, it was not Radcliffe’s only theatrical turn, having since appeared in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Cripple of Inishmaan.
3. Sarah Polley in Dawn of the Dead
A singular figure in Canadian cinema, Sarah Polley got her start at a young age with a starring role in Road to Avonlea, a CBC/Disney Channel period drama set in the maritime province of Prince Edward Island. She went on to have a key role in Atom Egoyan’s small town tragedy The Sweet Hereafter, co-starred in the indie romance Guinevere and has also directed several films. On the side, she has lobbied for homegrown productions, fought a cinematic censorship bill and even protested the first Gulf War at the age of 12!
Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of seminal zombie film Dawn of the Dead seemed an odd vehicle for Polley to star in, but star she did, playing a nurse who loses her husband in an undead attack and later becomes the medic for a small band of survivors. Taking lead billing over Ving Rhames of Pulp Fiction and pre-Modern Family Ty Burrell, Polley butchered more zombies in two hours than most independent film actress-directors do in a decade. The role didn’t make her a big name stateside, but that’s probably not what she wanted in any case. It’s most likely she used her salary from the film to finance her next directorial feature, Away from Her.
2. Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Ever dour, Sean Penn gained a reputation for playing alternately grim, depressing or cynical roles, be it a jaded Army sergeant in The Thin Red Line, a death row inmate in Dead Man Walking, and his Academy Award-winning turn as a grieving father in Mystic River. Combined with his outspoken political views, as well as his turbulent—well, more like abusive—marriage to pop star Madonna, it doesn’t seem like Penn is capable of letting his hair down and having some dumb fun in a movie role.
But Penn really did let his hair down in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High—when his hair was actually long enough to let down. Directed by Amy Heckerling of Clueless fame, Fast Times was a raunchy high school comedy starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates. Penn played the key and completely comedic role of Jeff Spicoli, a perpetually stoned slacker forced to spend one last after hours class with his history teacher nemesis. While the role of Spicoli helped propel Penn to stardom, it remains a rare comedic blip in his filmography to date.
1. Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition
Just a few years after he wowed critics with his Academy Award-winning drama American Beauty, director Sam Mendes brought his graceful visual flair to Road to Perdition, a mob movie set in the Midwest in the thick of the Great Depression. The story follows Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), an enforcer and occasional hitman for the Irish mob whose eldest son learns of his profession and a gangland murder he helped carry out. After his wife and youngest child are murdered by the local mob boss’ reckless son (pre-breakout Daniel Craig) out of fear they might go to the police, Sullivan and his oldest boy set out on the road as fugitives.
Apart from the film’s fantastically shot scenes of violence, some of which have the choreography of a ballet performance, Road to Perdition is carried by Hanks’ work as the solemn, reserved and occasionally frightening Sullivan. Hanks is best known for his work as outgoing, amiable everymen, and as such his work in Road to Perdition stands out even more. Hanks’ runners-up for atypical roles include Cloud Atlas, where he plays a psychopathic conman and a murderous Irish heavy in alternating storylines.
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