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15 Of The Most Impressive Actor Transformations

by Jessica Kiang
October 29, 2013 5:19 PM
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Tom Cruise, “Tropic Thunder” (2008)
So we’re slightly breaking our own rule about excluding all-over prosthetics like fat suits here, but for sheer surprise, and for how different an actor can look (and is willing to make himself look), Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman deserves a shout out. Cruise is never one to be accused of having a great sense of humor about himself or his image, but here he gleefully sends it up making Grossman without a doubt the most physically revolting creation in his filmography—from the tips of his pudgy, hairy fingers to his receding hairline, via a brilliantly crude potty mouth. And while this is also a film that features Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, we’re still gonna say Cruise’s role edges it for us in terms of unexpectedness, which is high praise indeed. However, refreshing as it is to see Cruise send himself up a little, we can’t help but hope that the mooted Grossman movie never happens: in this small dose it’s very enjoyable, but we can have too much of a grotesque thing.

50 Cent, “All Things Fall Apart” (2011)
You gotta piddy poor fiddy. He went through what sounds pretty close to this writer’s idea of hell (a liquid diet and 3 hours a day on a treadmill) to achieve the remarkable 54-pound weight loss for his role as a cancer-stricken football player, but then the movie turns out to be ass. Not only that, but he’s stuck in an appalling rasta-style wig in the beginning, and even after the widespread critical scorn that greeted its release, his worries weren’t over (Mario Van Peebles may have directed, but Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson produced and the whole endeavor reeks of vanity project)—the title had to undergo the awkward change to “All Things Fall Apart” when the author of the most widely read book in African literature, “Things Fall Apart,” complained, and subsequently refused the offer of $1 million for the name as an insult. Proof positive that not all films are worthy of the dramatic transformations actors are willing to undergo for them.

Cameron Diaz, “Being John Malkovich” (1999)
While Charlize Theron takes the ribbon for uglying up, Cameron Diaz, the bombshell blonde of “The Mask,” “There’s Something About Mary” and a fair percentage of 30-something male fantasies, wins our award for dowdy-ing down. Her Lotte in Spike Jonze’s deliriously brilliant “Being John Malkovich” isn’t grotesque by any means, she’s just plain, which is probably about the farthest adjective from one’s reach when ordinarily talking about Diaz. In fact, the make-up artist Gucci Westman called it “a challenge,” but with little physical description in the script, Diaz had no idea she was going to be rendered so unrecognizable. Still, she was game, and so she gets to be the frizzy haired pet-obsessed homely girlfriend, while indie darling Catherine Keener gets to vamp it up as a lust object instead.

Vincent D’Onofrio, “Full Metal Jacket” (1987)
Whether because he’s now better known as a TV actor of heftier build (after nearly a decade on “Law & Order: The Other One That’s Not About Sex Crimes”) or because when he was cast in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” he was hardly a household name, face or waistline, D’Onofrio’s record-breaking transformation for that role does not seem to register quite as strongly as some others. But in fact to play Private “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, despite the fact he’d originally been written as a skinny redneck, D’Onofrio gained 70 pounds to meet Kubrick’s new definition of the character as big and clumsy—reportedly the most weight ever gained for a role. He also hurt his knee during filming, partially due to the excess weight, but a mere nine months later filmed a scene for “Adventures in Babysitting” which showed off his muscular physique (indeed, he’s mistaken for Thor by one character).

Eddie Murphy, “Coming to America” (1988)
Well, yes, Eddie Murphy hardly went into rigorous training for this role, but his transformation—with the help of Rick Baker’s awesome, Oscar-nominated make-up—into Saul, the white Jewish guy who hangs out with other characters (played by Murphy too) at the barbershop, is just too much of a treat to ignore. The success of this film meant that Murphy would go on to play multiple characters in several of his other films, and while he hasn’t been above resorting to fat suits and CG in more recent years, we’d still put Saul up there with the most impressive of his transformations, right down to the voice and accent.

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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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