Hollywood seems to be jam packed with lunatics. It’s as though the glimmer of tinsel town attracts the craziest folks the arts community can produce. There are auteur directors, like David Fincher, who demand upwards of a hundred takes in a scene to get the shot they want. There are musicians who make outrageous requests about the candy in their green room. There are eccentric and aloof producers who are so disconnected from reality that they think giant robot spiders in a Western flick are a good idea. And then, of course, there are the box office movie stars who go to ludicrous lengths in order to bring their characters to life.
None of this is to say that we would prefer it if Hollywood was a little less crazy. Quite the opposite, in fact. The crazy is what makes good movies! Without Alejandro G. Inarritu demanding to use natural light during the shooting of The Revenant we would not get to experience the dazzling visuals of that winter landscape. Without Heath Ledger locking himself away in a hotel room for a month, we would not have one of the greatest movie villains of all time. (Okay, sometimes the crazy makes for really awful movies, as in the previously referenced Wild Wild West, but let’s not focus on that.) With the film awards season coming up soon, we will surely hear more stories about the extremes our favorite Hollywood elite will go to in order to entertain us. In the meantime, let’s look at some of the most challenging movie role actors have ever taken on.
15. Min-sik Choi – Dae-su Oh (Oldboy)
For the record, when we are talking about the movie Oldboy, we are referring to the original South Korean-made 2003 version. Not the American 2013 abominable remake starring Josh Brolin. The original, starring Min-sik Choi as Dae-su Oh, is a brilliant, brutal thriller with one of the best action sequences ever put on celluloid. In order to get in shape for the lead role, Min-sik Choi trained for six weeks and dropped 20 pounds. He also did the vast majority of his own stunt work, including a single-take hallway fight scene for which the film is best known. Also notable, is the scene which required him to eat a live octopus, which Min-sik Choi really did. While eating live octopus is relatively common in Korea, it is not typically eaten whole, as it was in the film. Even crazier? There were four takes, which meant the leading man had to eat four live octopuses in a single sitting.
14. Anne Hathaway – Fantine (Les Miserables)
Every year at the Oscars there is usually one sure victory in the acting categories. In 2009, everyone knew Heath Ledger would posthumously pick up the Supporting Actor trophy for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight. In 2013, the safe bet was Anne Hathaway walking away with a Supporting Actress victory for her incredible portrayal of Fantine in the dark musical Les Miserables. As with several other actors on this list, Hathaway dropped a ton of weight for the role, shedding over 20 pounds. That might not seem like much, but it’s not like the Devil Wears Prada star had a lot of extra pounds to spare to begin with. On top of that, she also actually had her hair cut extremely short on camera for one of the movie’s most emotional scenes, wherein Fantine is forced to cut and sell her hair for money. Her hairdresser was even put in costume so that she could get her ears lowered in front of the lens.
13. Adrien Brody – Wladyslaw Szpilman (The Pianist)
Adrien Brody‘s deep and moving performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist was received, deservedly, with widespread critical acclaim. Brody became the youngest actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role at age 29, and it wasn’t an easy road delivering such an emotional performance. In order to get into the mindset of a Jewish piano player trying to survive the horrors of the Holocaust, Brody decided he needed to understand the feeling of loss. Therefore, he got rid of his apartment, car, TV, and cell phone, and starved himself down to 130 pounds. For an already lanky actor who stands an inch over six feet, 130 pounds is shockingly, and potentially dangerously, thin. On top of that, Brody, who had no musical background, took extensive piano lessons in order to become proficient at tickling the ivory keys. Of course, none of this is remotely as extreme as what actual victims of the Holocaust went through, and it turned Brody into a legitimate movie star, so that kind of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
12. Michael Fassbender – Bobby Sands (Hunger)
This is yet another example of an actor losing a crap ton of weight for a movie role, but this is one of the few on this list that did not result in an Academy Award win, or even a nomination. Of course, even without knowing what this movie is about, the title should tell you that it would make sense for at least one actor to get downright skinny for it, which is exactly what X-Men star Michael Fassbender did. Hunger is based on the true story of Bobby Sands, a member of the IRA (the Irish Republican Army), who was sent to prison in Northern Ireland in 1977. In 1981 he led other IRA prisoners in a hunger strike. Thus, midway through filming, Fassbender was required to go on a medically monitored crash diet of berries, nuts, and sardines, which saw the already lean thespian lose 33 pounds.
11. Robert De Niro – Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull)
Robert De Niro is clearly one of the greatest living actors, and Raging Bull is arguably one of his best performances, leading to the legend’s second Oscar win. Raging Bull is based on the autobiography of Jake LaMotta, who De Niro portrayed in the film, who was a professional boxer with a tumultuous personal life. Prior to filming the portion of the movie that portrayed the younger version of the boxer, De Niro spent three months training with the real LaMotta until he was deemed capable enough of boxing professionally. He even entered three boxing matches in Brooklyn, winning two of them. LaMotta has stated that he was so impressed with De Niro’s boxing that he thinks the actor could have had a legitimate career in the ring. For the last part of the film, De Niro gained a whopping 60 pounds in order to portray the older, fatter, retired LaMotta. At the time it was a world record weight gain for an actor, which was later broken by Vincent D’Onofrio for Full Metal Jacket.
10. Shelley Duvall – Wendy Torrance (The Shining)
The Shining is widely considered one of the greatest psychological horror films ever created. A classic not only in the genre, but a classic in the whole of filmmaking. While Jack Nicholson, who played the lead role in the film, has claimed that it was one of the hardest movies he has ever made, he has also gone on the record admitting that Shelley Duvall, who played his wife in the film, had it much, much worse. Stanley Kubrick, the director, was reportedly intensely hard on Duvall, forcing her to perform the psychological tortuous climax 127 times. Despite the film’s critical and commercial success, the actress quickly fell out of the spotlight, and it isn’t hard to see a connection between her career’s decline and the emotional toll she paid working on The Shining. She has often claimed she suffered from nervous exhaustion throughout the shooting schedule, often falling ill and even losing clumps of her hair.
9. Mickey Rourke – Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (The Wrestler)
The 2008 film The Wrestler was an enormous comeback vehicle for Mickey Rourke who had faded from the Hollywood glitz and glamour since his heydays in the 1980s, resulting in an Oscar nomination and several high profile film roles, including the villain in Iron Man 2 and a supporting role in the first Expendables movie. The Wrestler details the life of a professional wrestler who is nearing the end of his career and struggling to maintain a good life outside the ring. Training and getting in shape for the role proved to be a tough task for Rourke, who was in his mid-fifties at the time. Although he had boxed at an amateur and professional level, the physicality required for wrestling was entirely different and resulted in numerous injuries during training. Rourke didn’t let that slow him down and was so committed to the role that he actually “bladed” himself during filming: an act done by real professional wrestlers, which involves them using razor blades to cut their skin and draw blood to make the match seem more intense and realistic.
8. John Rhys-Davies – Gimli (The Lord of the Rings)
Principal filming of the epically huge The Lord of the Rings trilogy took place over the course of roughly fourteen months between October of 1999 and December of 2000. It surely was a challenging, exhausting experience for everyone involved, especially for director Peter Jackson, who reportedly only slept four hours a night. And while the cast was plagued by a series of injuries, including broken ribs and dislocated knees, no one suffered as continually as John Rhys-Davies who played the warrior dwarf, Gimli. Rhys-Davies was required to wear extensive prosthetics on his face in order to take on the role, specifically to exaggerate the size of his nose. However, it turned out that he was severely allergic to the material of the prosthetic, resulting in extremely uncomfortable reactions during shooting, sometimes even serious enough for his eyes to swell shut. And remember this went on for over a year. Now that’s dedication.
7. Leonardo DiCaprio – Hugh Glass (The Revenant)
Leo, Leo, Leo. Our favorite environmentalist, playboy, and movie star. DiCaprio has consistently put out incredible performances since he burst onto the screen back in the nineties. So much so that it became a running gag that he hadn’t yet won an Oscar, despite having been nominated several times. All that changed last year when DiCaprio won Best Actor gold for playing Hugh Glass in the survivalist drama The Revenant. The shooting schedule was gruelling, lasting over nine months and primarily taking place outdoors in the freezing Canadian winter. DiCaprio was also required to learn enough of two Native languages, Pawnee and Arikara, to speak several scenes of dialogue in each. He also learned numerous survival skills including shooting a musket and building a fire, not to mention the fact that he ate a raw bison’s liver on camera, despite being a devoted vegetarian. DiCaprio has since stated that it was by far the most challenging role of his career.
6. Rooney Mara – Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)
If you are paying attention, you will notice a trend in this article: there are a lot of actors who are willing to lose a dangerous amount of weight for the sake of their craft. And while Rooney Mara‘s transformation for the role of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did involve her shedding a few pounds, the most noticeable change came from the numerous body piercings she had done, including ear, nose, eyebrow, and nipple piercings. While it would have been possible to have fakes put in for the duration of the shoot, Mara opted for the real thing. After filming, the ear, eyebrow, and nose piercings were taken out, but she kept in the nipple bling, in case the movie’s sequels went forward and she was asked to return. According to Mara, it is not something she was willing to pierce again in the future.
5. Shia LaBeouf – Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Fury)
A few years ago, you would have never thought of the fast talking Transformers star as a deep method actor, but lately Shia LaBeouf has proven that he can immerse himself in a role with great success. LaBeouf has become one of the newest poster boys for highbrow artistry, taking on a variety of projects, ranging from fully nude music videos, to performance art installations, to graphically sexual independent films, such as the two-part Nymphomaniac movie. But few roles saw the former Disney child star go as deep as his supporting performance in the World War II tank movie, Fury. The film focused on a crew of a single tank on the European war front, a situation which LaBeouf took to heart, refusing to shower for several months during production. Apparently his tank-mates didn’t appreciate the smell. Going even deeper, LaBeouf also reportedly pulled his own tooth and cut his own face with a knife instead of having it done with makeup. To add a few more layers on top of that, the actor, who plays a devout Christian in the film, reportedly converted to Christianity while filming. Now that is taking your performance to heart.
4. Halle Berry – Leticia Musgrove (Monster’s Ball)
Monster’s Ball is a rough, emotionally draining film about a racist prison guard working in death row, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who falls in love with an African American woman, played by Halle Berry, who just so happens to be the widow of one of the prisoners he executed. Plenty of room there for intense drama, eh? Along the way there are racist rants, some scenes of domestic abuse, a suicide, and a number of other tragedies. Like we said, it is a rough and emotionally draining film. Oh… and it also has an extraordinarily graphic sex scene between the film’s two leads, including full frontal nudity for Berry. It is so graphic, in fact, that several actresses refused to take on the role because of the nudity and unflinching sexual content. But not Halle Berry, who was rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar for her engaging performance.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis – Christy Brown (My Left Foot)
Daniel Day-Lewis is well known for his immersive movie performances, which have won him three Oscars to date, which is more than any other actor. Despite being a prominent fixture in Hollywood’s elite since the 1980s, Day-Lewis’ resume is rather sparse, largely due to the fact that he is extremely picky about the projects he is willing to work on. One of his earliest successes came in 1989 with the biographical film My Left Foot, in which he played the lead role of Christy Brown, a man born with cerebral palsy who only has one controllable limb— the titular left foot. In true method actor fashion, Day-Lewis remained in character for the duration of shooting, refusing to leave his wheelchair, and forcing other people to help him eat food on set. The British actor has employed this technique in several other projects, including Lincoln, during which he demanded to be addressed as “Mr. President” even while the camera was not rolling.
2. Natalie Portman – Nina Sayers (Black Swan)
Natalie Portman is not a particularly large woman, standing at a diminutive five foot three inches and weighing in at a roughly 110 pounds. However, in order to look more like a professional ballerina for her performance in the sincerely messed up psychological thriller, Black Swan, Portman lost twenty pounds and trained as a dancer like a crazy person for a year leading up to production, paying for her lessons out of pocket because the film had yet to receive financing. On top of all that, Portman was also injured several times during filming, including dislocating a rib during a lift in a dance scene and hitting her head so hard that she sustained a concussion and was forced to get an MRI. Additionally, she worked with a vocal coach in order to lower her natural high-pitched and childlike voice. Portman was rewarded for all her hard work with several awards, including the coveted Oscar.
1. Christian Bale – Trevor Reznik (The Machinist)
Christian Bale is probably the king of extreme body transformations in the name of art. He has regularly shown off his ability to get into phenomenal shape for movies such as American Psycho and Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy. For American Hustle, Bale gained over 40 pounds and took on a slouchy posture, which cost him two herniated disks during filming, but also garnered him an Academy Award nomination.
Bale has also notably lost huge amounts of weight for movie roles, including The Fighter and Rescue Dawn, but nothing so extreme has when he lost a reported 63 pounds for his lead role in the thriller film The Machinist. Watching Bale as the gaunt, emaciated insomniac is very disturbing, which is probably the point. Even more impressive is the fact that Bale then gained nearly 100 pounds back in order to play Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins.
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