Every week, the movie box office rakes in tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars from audiences looking to see the latest films. Away from the theatre, millions of people buy DVDs and Blu-ray discs or stream their films over any number of internet providers. It all makes for a multi-billion dollar-per-year industry. What pulls in audiences and makes them spend vast sums of money to watch a couple hours of on-screen entertainment? In some cases it may just be a nagging significant other who won’t stop until you go and see that new rom-com. Perhaps you’ve heard good things about a particular movie while standing around the office water-cooler. Or, maybe there is an actor whose previous work you’ve really enjoyed and you’d like to see their newest film.
Even today, with all of the reliance on special effects and CGI, the ability of an actor can help make or break a film. Sure, as the Star Wars prequels demonstrated, a healthy fan-base and special effects can help carry an otherwise mediocre film with mediocre acting – but in most instances if the acting is bad or not believable, the film will flop. This is why certain actors in Hollywood (and around the world) control high amounts of respect and matching pay rates. Certain men and women have demonstrated their ability to take a role and make us believe they are a particular character. In turn, our belief in their character helps to better immerse us in the film.
This list focuses on the actor, and specifically those actors which go the extra mile to make their character(s) more believable. Most of the 20 actors listed here are familiar names you’ll recognize immediately. To varying degrees they have all pushed themselves and/or their bodies to extreme limits in order to become their on-screen personality. Insane weight loss and gain, lifestyle changes and physical training are just a few of the ways these actors go to extreme lengths in order to get into character.
20 Demi Moore
Perhaps one actor a lot of people overlook when they assess character preparation is Demi Moore. Lately, the 51-year-old hasn’t been in the spotlight as much as she was in the 1990s and early 2000s. Nevertheless, she has shown she can put a lot into preparing for her roles. For the 1996 movie Striptease, Moore became a stripper, complete with all the training and stage moves, and an amazingly in-shape body to match. Then, just one year later, she took on a most un-stripper-like role when cast as Jordan O’Neill in G.I. Jane. Moore shaved her head, got into even more amazing shape and even undertook a variety of intense training which was led by military advisors and SEAL staff.
19 Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman is one of Hollywood’s most respected actors – even after doing Little Fockers. The 77-year-old has enjoyed many big screen successes which include Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Tootsie and Rain Man. For 1988’s Rain Man, Hoffman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of an autistic savant. To play the role accurately, he drew on his experiences during his time working at a psychiatric institute. Leading up to the film, he also spent the better part of two years working and interacting with autistic people. All of this led to one of the most memorable roles in his long acting career.
18 Malcolm McDowell
Stanley Kubrick films always contain more than one strange or controversial character. His 1971 dystopian film A Clockwork Orange follows this trend. The primary character is Alex DeLarge who is played by Malcolm McDowell. DeLarge is a sociopath who gets enjoyment from robbing and raping others. Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes of the film involves DeLarge’s aversion therapy which sees him forced to watch scenes of violence and rape while he is drugged. During the scene, McDowell was hooked up to a device which kept his eyelids open. The prongs on each arm which held the eyes open actually went under the eyelids and this resulted in a scratched cornea and temporary blindness.
17 Vincent D’Onofrio
Let’s stay with Kubrick for a while. If you’ve ever seen Full Metal Jacket then you know it’s really two movies in one. The first is a dark, disturbing and (sometimes) funny look at a marine boot camp during the Vietnam War while the second half of the film looks at the absurdity of war, specifically in Vietnam. While Gunnery Sergeant Hartman steals most of the attention in the first half of the film, it is the progressively disturbing character of Private Pyle, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, which the storyline builds up to. D’Onofrio’s character is supposed to stand out and not fit with the marines around him. He is awkward, goofy, unathletic and slow minded. To help emphasize Pyle’s ‘uniqueness’ D’Onofrio gained 70 lbs for the film over the course of seven months. While it took nine months to get the weight off, D’Onofrio’s overweight character became yet another one of Kubrick’s memorably twisted characters.
16 Tom Cruise
Say what you will about Tom Cruise’s sometimes strange behavior, but the guy makes some pretty good movies. From Top Gun to The Last Samurai to Mission: Impossible, Cruise’s films have always packed theatres and entertained audiences. The A-list celebrity is also willing to put in a good deal of effort to get into the mindset of the character he is portraying. Case in point – for 2004’s Collateral the 52-year-old actor had to portray a contract killer. In order to get into the role of someone who could blend in with a crowd and go unnoticed, Cruise took on the real-life role of a UPS delivery man. He went about a routine of delivering packages to various people and stores with the goal of remaining unnoticed. This he did successfully, operating in crowds and engaging in conversations while maintaining anonymity.
15 Charlize Theron
From Devil’s Advocate to A Million Ways to Die in the West, Charlize Theron is one of the most recognizable actors today. It also doesn’t hurt that she is one of the most beautiful, as well. The South African-born star has played a wide variety of roles but surely one of the most challenging was as convicted serial murderer Aileen Wuornos. To say Theron had to tone down her looks for the role would be a massive understatement. The actor gained over 30 lbs and even shaved her eyebrows all to make herself closer to character.
14 Sylvester Stallone
The Italian Stallion may not be known for his great acting ability, but you can’t say he doesn’t work hard to get the character just right. At nearly 60 years of age, Stallone opted to resurrect the character of Rocky in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. It was 16 years since the actor had last taken on the role and a lot of work was required to get him ready. In addition to all the training and practice you’d expect, Stallone also faced off against real-life boxer Antonio Tarver, who played Balboa’s primary adversary Mason Dixon. Further suffering for his art, Stallone wanted the boxing to look as real as possible and as a result took a number of blows from Tarver during practice and filming.
13 Mickey Rourke
Seriously, look at a picture of Mickey Rourke from the 1980s-90s and look at one from around 2010. That, kids, is why you should be very careful about getting plastic surgery. In all seriousness, Rourke’s facial change was not for any particular movie role but was largely motivated by his desire to ‘reconstruct’ his looks after years of boxing. Facial changes aside, this is one actor who demonstrated he is willing to push that little bit more to get a role just right. This was demonstrated in 2008 when Rourke took on the role of Randy Robinson in the hit The Wrestler. The then 55-year-old had to get into real shape if anyone was going to believe him as a wrestler on screen. Rourke dropped the flab and put on 30lbs of muscle. He also put in considerable hours training and learning to pull off ‘real’ wrestling moves.
12 50 Cent
Definitely not an actor you’d think would be on this list. That said, while 50 Cent is better known for his music career, Curtis Jackson has appeared in around two dozen projects for films, television shows and video games. One role he definitely went to extreme lengths for was for the 2011 film All Things Fall Apart where he portrays Deon, a football player who ends up battling cancer. Jackson is known to be a large and muscular individual. To look the part of someone being ravaged by cancer, the 39-year-old went on a liquid diet and reportedly ran on a treadmill for at least three hours every day. The end result was that Jackson lost 54 lbs. and looked the part of someone battling a terrible disease.
11 The Cast of Saving Private Ryan
When Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan hit theatres in 1998 it represented a massive change in the way war was portrayed on screen. The film took war movies to a new level by showing battle as a massive arena of noise, chaos, gore, fear and confusion. A big part of the film’s success was that the actors ‘acted’ like soldiers instead of stars dressed up as soldiers. This was accomplished by putting the majority of the cast through a boot camp led by Dale Dye, a former Marine Corps officer who had been in combat in Vietnam. For 10 days, actors like Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore lived and trained outdoors in all sorts of weather, eating rations and learning how to operate period-accurate weaponry. Interestingly, Matt Damon was not including in the training so as to help with the on-screen ‘barrier’ between Private Ryan and his rescuers when they meet near the end of the film.
10 Tom Hardy
If you’ve ever watched Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers you’ve probably seen Tom Hardy in his earliest on-screen appearances. He’s the scrawny soldier Janovec who ends up getting killed after the war is over. Hard to believe that same skinny kid became the massive and powerful characters of Charlie Bronson and Bane in around a decade. Now 37 years old, Hardy first pushed his body when he gained 42 lbs to play notorious inmate Charlie Bronson, a prisoner known for his extreme strength and strange behavior – he fought a Rottweiler in a prize fight once. Bronson even shaved off his mustache and sent it to Hardy to wear during the film. In 2012, Hardy bulked up again and put on 30 lbs of muscle to play Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
9 Jared Leto
Musician-turned actor Jared Leto has enjoyed an acting career dating back to the early 1990s. Notable films include The Thin Red Line, Fight Club, American Psycho and Alexander. Recently, he has received attention for his portrayal of a trans-gender woman with HIV and AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. For the role, the 42-year-old dropped his weight to just 114 lbs by not eating. It’s not the first time the actor has had to drastically adjust his weight. In 2007, Leto portrayed Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon. In order to make the character as realistic as possible, Leto gained nearly 70 lbs. by consuming a daily concoction of ice cream, soy sauce and olive oil. Yum.
8 Heath Ledger
When Heath Ledger burst onto the mainstream with A Knight’s Tale and The Patriot in the early 2000s, not many people thought he would develop beyond a pretty-boy heart-throb. Just several years later and the Australian-born actor was starring in such films as Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. Ledger’s acting in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight gained the actor widespread praise. As the Joker, Ledger gave the character a more sinister and psychotic angle than previously portrayed. It was reported that in order to develop the voice and mannerism of Gotham’s homicidal Joker, Ledger had locked himself away in a hotel room for six weeks. Unfortunately, the praise for his performance was posthumous as Ledger died several months before the film was released.
7 Natalie Portman
When we earlier pointed out that Star Wars had some bad acting in it, yes, Natalie Portman was one example. Anyone who has followed her career knows she can be a very good actor, which is why it's so strange that after travelling to a galaxy far, far away, she temporarily displayed the acting ability of a wet piece of cardboard. In any event, Portman is one actor who is definitely willing to go the extra mile for her film roles. In order to play a ballerina in the 2010 film Black Swan, the Israeli-born actor undertook a daily regime which included five hours of ballet, swimming and cross-training. All of this was undertaken while on a daily diet of 1,200 calories.
6 Matthew McConaughey
All right, all right. In addition to appearing on numerous magazine covers and in some interesting cologne and car ads, Matthew McConaughey has appeared in a wide variety of films. It all started with Dazed and Confused in 1993 and although he gave us some forgettable films like U-571 and The Wedding Planner he has had some pretty good roles as well. In 2013, the 45-year-old Texan took on the role of Ron Woodroof, an individual afflicted with AIDS who tries to get around the system to get medication for people facing the disease. McConaughey lost around 47 lbs to play the role and you can still tell he hasn’t fully recovered from it.
5 Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks has enjoyed a long and successful career on the ‘Big’ screen (get it?) and as an executive producer on many projects. He is also no stranger to going that extra bit for the character he is playing. In addition to the boot camp for Saving Private Ryan and weight loss for Philadelphia, Hanks' role in 2000’s Cast Away required special attention. First, the actor was required to gain a little weight and look ‘doughy’ for the first part of the film. After the plane crash on the island, filming was halted for several months while Hanks grew out his beard and hair and lost 55 lbs. As most scenes involved water, the 58-year-old spent a great deal of time wet and even got an infection in his leg at the end of filming.
4 Adrien Brody
Adrien Brody was not a total unknown before he starred in The Pianist in 2002. He had been in such films as The Thin Red Line, Natural Born Killers and Summer of Sam. It was, however, the 2002 hit which put his name in the headlines and led to numerous awards including an Academy Award. In The Pianist, Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish musician who survives in the Warsaw Ghetto during the final days of Nazi occupation during World War 2. For the role, Brody lost around 30 lbs but didn’t stop there. To truly get into the mindset of someone who has nothing, he let go of most comforts and possessions which included his prized Porsche. He reportedly even lost his girlfriend as a result of the purge.
3 Robert De Niro
To say Robert De Niro is a great actor or a film legend would be an understatement - he played Vito Corleone, after all. He’s been in far too many great movies to list here but it’s obvious he prepares well for all of his roles. Perhaps the best example of this was De Niro’s preparation to play Jake LaMotta, an Italian-American boxer. For preparation, De Niro trained to become a boxer with LaMotta inside the ring with him. Needless to say, the actor also had to get in shape and build a physique like a boxer – something he did successfully. He even entered three boxing matches and won two of them, all in the name of getting into character. In addition to getting in shape and becoming a boxer, De Niro also had to gain considerable weight to portray LaMotta in his post-boxing career. This meant packing on 60 lbs., a Hollywood record until Vincent D’Onofrio surpassed it for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
2 Christian Bale
Bale definitely rose to infamy when the tape of his profanity-filled rant on the set of Terminator Salvation was leaked in 2008. Rant aside, Bale is an actor who takes his roles very seriously and often gets deep into character – as the rant demonstrated, perhaps too deep sometimes. Like many actors, the Welsh-born star has no problem gaining and losing weight for a role, albeit to the extreme. For the 2004 film The Machinist, Bale lost 63 lbs on a diet of fruit and coffee in order to play an emaciated insomniac. He quickly had to turn things around in a matter of months when he was cast as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It was not just a matter of putting weight on. Bale was so weak from the previous film that he couldn’t even do a push up to begin bulking up for the role of Bruce Wayne. Training and diet added 100 lbs by the time filming began and we all know how the story turned out from there. He then put on a bunch more weight for his role in American Hustle.
1 Daniel Day-Lewis
In the world of movies, almost everything the newly knighted (Sir) Daniel Day-Lewis touches turns to gold. From The Last of the Mohicans to There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis has continually demonstrated why he wins so many awards for his acting. Away from the screen, he's known for spending a lot of time and effort preparing for each role and getting into character. This is perhaps seen best with My Left Foot, a film in which Day-Lewis plays a character afflicted with cerebral palsy. In order to prepare for and maintain his character, the English actor virtually lived in a wheel chair. He even adopted and maintained such a slouched posture that he broke two of his own ribs.
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