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15 Of The Most Impressive Actor Transformations

by Jessica Kiang
October 29, 2013 5:19 PM
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As we move deeper into the awards campaign season, a glut of films with showy central performances are hitting our screens, “For Your Consideration” for Academy voters. Over the years it’s been the subject of many a comedy sketch that there are a few markers of an Academy-friendly role, and this week’s “Dallas Buyers Club” (you can read our review here) is pretty much lousy with with them: it’s based on a true story, deals with AIDS and features not one but two instances of actors undergoing rapid and dramatic physical transformation to play their parts.

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both lost an extreme amount of weight to play Ron Woodruff and the transgender Rayon, respectively, both of whom have been diagnosed with HIV. Leto reportedly dropped 30 pounds, while McConaughey, shrank by a reported 40. McConaughey had apparently planned to stop the weight loss, which he achieved simply by not eating (no gruelling exercise regimen, because after all he wanted to look sick) at 145 pounds, but kept going until, at 135, people stopped asking if he was all right and started suggesting he seek help. “And I thought,” he told Vanity Fair, “‘There we go. That's the perfect spot.’” In fact he had consulted Tom Hanks (see below) for advice on how to achieve the weight loss—Hanks, as you’ll remember, won an Oscar for “Philadelphia” for which he lost 25 pounds to play an AIDs sufferer.

But whether or not Leto or McConaughey find their efforts rewarded with a shot at Oscar, they certainly join the pantheon of actors who have undergone dramatic physical transformations for a role. Sometimes it involves vast, shocking and potentially health-damaging weight loss, other times vast, shocking and potentially health-damaging weight gain, and still other times it’s largely down to make up or prosthetics or a combination of the above. But a great number of well-known actors have shown up (some more than once) in a film and been almost unrecognizable from the people who wave at us from red carpets. After much inter-Playlist wrangling, here are 15 actors whose transformations, however physically grueling or not they may have been for the actor, have yielded among the most dramatic results we’ve seen.

Christian Bale, “The Machinist” (2004)
Without a doubt Christian Bale is deserving of his spot here, if not for this film, then for bulking back up after it to play Batman (gaining 100 pounds in six months—mostly muscle mass—is crazy, and in fact he apparently overdid it and had to then drop 40 for Christopher Nolan’s film), prior to losing a great deal of that bulk again for Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn.” However it was Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” which yielded the most shocking results (indeed Bale is on record about how irritated he is that his skeletal frame dominated the discourse around the movie to the point of obliteration), with Bale losing 55-60 pounds by subsisting largely on “coffee and apples.”

Charlize Theron, “Monster” (2003)
Weight gain was only a fraction of the total make-under that the gorgeous erstwhile model Charlize Theron had to undergo to portray serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ unremittingly grim “Monster.” Additionally, she had her skin layered with washed off tattoo ink to give it a weathered, chapped look; her eyebrows were partially shaven and bleached out; she wore dentures; and had her hair repeatedly thinned and fried. The comprehensive, jaw-dropping uglying up paid off though—Theron picked up stellar notices and an Academy Award, and even rotting dentures couldn’t stop her from being voted World’s Most Desirable Woman in 2003 by AskMen.

Robert De Niro, “Raging Bull” (1980)
Probably the patron saint of any list like this, Robert De Niro’s weight gain for the role of latter-day Jake La Motta is legendary by this stage, largely due to the absolutely classic piece of American filmmaking of which it was in service. Packing on 60 pounds to accurately convey the girth of the once-great boxer gone to seed, De Niro’s method was also among the most pleasurable we’ve heard of: during a 4-month hiatus from filming designed for just this purpose, he basically ate his way around Italy and France before returning to film the movie’s later scenes. Cheese and pasta, people, cheese and pasta.

Rooney Mara, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (2011)
David Fincher’s adaptation of the Stieg Larsson international bestseller is undoubtedly her most high-profile role, so it’s a little hard to remember that Rooney Mara was once the sweet-faced ingenue of “Tanner Hall” and the pointless “A Nightmare On Elm Street” remake. But after playing another fresh-faced, if slightly more acerbic character in Fincher’s “The Social Network” and being Final Girl in a grueling casting circus that went on for months, Mara had her hair dyed and cut, her eyebrows bleached, had four piercings put in either ear as well as having her brow and nipple pierced (the other body modifications were faked) and emerged as Lisbeth Salander. The result is undoubtedly iconic, and it garnered her an Oscar nomination too.

Jared Leto, “Chapter 27” (2007)
So, "Dallas Buyers Club” was hardly the first time that 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto underwent a dramatic weight change for a role, but back in 2007 it was in the entirely opposite direction. In order to play John Lennon’s assassin, the schlubby Mark Chapman, in the days leading up to the killing, Leto gained 67 pounds, but apparently found this much harder to do than the drastic weight loss he had endured once before for Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” In fact, while he has obviously gone back to the weight-loss well again, he’s sworn off gaining weight as fast and as recklessly as he did for “Chapter 27”—his body went into a kind of shock at the sudden excess weight, forcing Leto temporarily into a wheelchair and giving him gout. And while Leto himself was singled out for praise, the film was largely negatively received. Still, transformation fans might also like to check it out for a pre-descent Lindsay Lohan.

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  • Lee | March 15, 2014 1:37 AMReply

    Mac became Fat Mac only for one season in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

  • Me34 | November 11, 2013 8:53 AMReply

    In most of these, the make-up team should take the credits.

  • Susan | November 1, 2013 4:57 AMReply

    Gary Oldman in Sid and Nancy.
    He even ended up in hospital because of the weight loss.

  • Logan | October 30, 2013 8:22 AMReply

    Noomi Rapace in the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo deserved Rooney Mara's place in this.

  • cineman | November 1, 2013 1:00 PM

    Totally agree - there is a hell of a lot of doubt as to Mara's "iconic" status. IMHO the Oscar nod was PR rather than talent driven. Rapace wipes the floor with one-note Rooney.

  • droop | October 30, 2013 8:54 AM

    nah brah, rapace basically just looks like herself only punked up, mara is almost unrecognizable. plus the movie is way better.

  • Ade | October 30, 2013 8:17 AMReply

    Michael Parks in Kill Bill Vol. 2

  • Daniel Delago | October 30, 2013 4:10 AMReply

    Tom Hanks blames his rapid weight gain for acting roles as one of the reasons why he has type 2 diabetes now.

  • oogle monster | October 29, 2013 8:21 PMReply

    Charlize's transformation is spectacular. Her performance even more so- probably the best female performance through and through in the last few decades. Yep, I said it.

  • Marbles | October 29, 2013 7:07 PMReply

    Fassbender in Hunger.

  • James | October 30, 2013 4:44 PM

    Yes!! How in the world could Fassbender be left off this list??

  • Marciello | October 29, 2013 6:53 PMReply

    Tom Hardy, guy, Tom Hardy....
    come on, be serious for once.

  • Meredith | October 30, 2013 8:59 PM

    Tom Hardy for sure: Bronson and Bane.

  • cirkusfolk | October 29, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    And Dennis Quaid for Wyatt Earp!

  • cirkusfolk | October 29, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    And if u include Tom Cruise in this, u gotta include Colin Farrell for Horrible Bosses for basically playing the same character.

  • cirkusfolk | October 29, 2013 6:45 PMReply

    With so much emphasis on weight loss or weight gain via fat, you've missed a bunch where actors gained muscle for roles. The most obvious of these would be Edward Norton getting ripped for American History X. The actor, who has a small frame to begin with, has never returned to a body nearly like that since.

  • Lezcar | October 29, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    Benicio del Toro-Sin City and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

  • newyorker | October 29, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    my 10 favorite movies with actor transformations are
    1-Monster(Charlize Theron)
    2-The Dark Knight(Heath Ledger)
    3-Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland(Helena Bonham Carter & Johnny Depp)
    4-Chapter 27(another jared leto film)
    5-The Hunger Games(Elizabeth Banks)
    6-Little Nicky(Adam Sandler)
    7-Charlie & The Chocolate Factory(Johnny Depp)
    8-Hairspray(John Travolta)
    9-The Rocky Horror Picture Show(Tim Curry)
    10-Looney Tunes Back In Action(Steve Martin's villian role)

  • Braz | October 29, 2013 5:34 PMReply

    Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There?

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