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15 Of The Most Impressive Actor Transformations

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist October 29, 2013 at 5:19PM

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.
Tom Cruise, “Tropic Thunder”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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.

This article is related to: The Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jean-Marc Vallée, Features, Feature