15 Of The Most Impressive Actor Transformations

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.

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.

Sean Penn, “Carlito’s Way” (1993)
While we’re kind of used to Sean Penn the Serious Thespian by now, at the time of Brian De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way,” he was barely out of his leading man/heartthrob phase, which made his appearance here all the more surprising. That’s if you recognized him at all. Coaxed out of an alleged early retirement to play the role, Penn went all-in, shaving back his hairline and perming the remainder which, in combination with the character’s glasses and ’70s wardrobe, made the lawyer Kleinfeld look and feel completely different from anything he’d played before. But not different enough from everybody—lawyer Alan Dershowitz threatened a lawsuit at one point as he claimed the portrayal was defamation.

Russell Crowe, “The Insider” (1999)
Russell Crowe had been on the scene for quite a while before 1997’s “LA Confidential” gave him his breakout and also defined his hard-edged, physically strong, masculine persona. And so to see him, just two years later, play much older, fatter and more downtrodden than we’d imagined possible, was a real surprise. But for his turn in Michael Mann’s excellent based-in-truth story of a tobacco lobby whistleblower, Crowe not only gained 35 pounds, he shaved back his hairline, repeatedly bleached his hair, and had liverspots and wrinkles applied daily to age him by 20 years. He got an Oscar nod for his pains, and bounced back to full health and then some the following year for “Gladiator.” Crowe schlubbed up again, gaining 63 pounds for his role in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” in 2008, but to lesser effect in what turned out to be a rather lackluster film.

Tom Hanks, “Philadelphia” (1993)
So we’re going with Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning turn as a crusading gay AIDS patient in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” just because again, like Sean Penn, this was really one of the first times we’d seen Hanks deviate from his cute, boyish romantic lead roles (“Sleepless in Seattle” released the same year). And after he’d lost 35 pounds and shaved his head, to say nothing of the make-up and physical frailty he worked into his performance, his appearance was a revelation. Of course, he arguably went even further for 2000’s “Cast Away” for which he gained 50 pounds to play the newly-stranded FedEx employee, only to have to work to lose all of that and more (as well as growing a wild beard and long hair) during a filming hiatus, so that he could accurately portray the same man after years of isolation and privation.

Matt Damon, “Courage Under Fire” (1996)
The year before Matt Damon’s annus mirabilis of 1997, when “Good Will Hunting,” “Chasing Amy” and “The Rainmaker” were all released, he appeared in a small role in Ed Zwick’s Denzel Washington/Meg Ryan-starrer, “Courage Under Fire.” For only two days of filming as an opiate-addicted soldier, Damon lost 40 pounds in 100 days, apparently afterwards having to take a long course of medication to combat issues this had created with his adrenal gland. In 2009 however, he got to do the reverse, and packed 30 pounds onto his ‘Bourne’-lean body for Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!

Mariah Carey, “Precious” (2009)
Well, it’s perhaps more a mark of how we expect Mariah Carey to look in real life (though how much music videos, red carpet appearances and judging “American Idol” can be considered real life is debatable), that the dowdy bangs and under-made-up face she sports in Lee Daniels’ “Precious” were such an eye-opener. But in her role as a tough-talking social worker (allegedly originally to be played by Helen Mirren which, well, how often do we get to link those two names?), Carey is not only impressively unglamorous in appearance, but she also, in marked contrast to the breathy girlishness we might associate with the gazillionairess, sounds like she’s been gargling nails for a week. And to think this is the cover art for her next single…

A few others that just missed the cut: Renee Zellweger‘s yoyoing weight for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and its sequel has been much remarked upon, however we’d argue that she hardly looks unlike herself even with the extra pounds so, transformation maybe not so much. Nicole Kidman did the dowdying down thing for “The Hours” that yielded her an Oscar, but aside from the slightly unconvincing nose we didn’t find it totally transformative. Matthew Fox threw his all into of all things, “Alex Cross,” emerging impressively ripped as the villain in that film, but it was kind of an arc from buff to buff-er so we excluded it. Also excluded were heavy prosthetic jobs like Eric Stoltz in “Mask” and John Hurt in “The Elephant Man.”

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis both underwent rigorous training and experienced significant weight loss for their roles in “Black Swan,” but neither were exactly obese to begin with, so the sculpting hardly rendered them unrecognizable. Sylvester Stallone schlubbed down for the underrated “Cop Land” to good effect, as did George Clooney for “Syriana” and Joaquin Phoenix for extended prank “I’m Still Here,” but again, not quite to the point of double-taking their identities.

Anne Hathaway lost a lot of weight and chopped off her locks to play Fantine in “Les Miserables“and got a Supporting Actress Oscar for it, but that somehow made her look more like herself than ever. And to close on a beefcakey note, Jonah Hill and Chris Pratt both shed pounds recently for “21 Jump Street” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” respectively and looked good. Pratt, in fact has gone even further for the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy” so no doubt his abs will be providing us with one (or six) more reasons to check that out. Also upcoming is David O. Russell‘s “American Hustle,” which features more crazy wigs and odd facial hair than we can shake a stick at. Tell us your favorites below.

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