Emma Watson’s startling transformation from comely British schoolgirl to status obsessed SoCal party princess in Sophia Coppola’s gorgeous new cautionary tale, The Bling Ring isn’t the first time that an actor has thrown themself out of their comfort zone. In fact, since the dawn of Hollywood, performers have struggled to challenge the image that this industry, their fans, and the rest of America seem intent on fashioning them with.
Of course, when all goes right, careers can be made or solidified, and the true range of a particular actor is stunningly revealed. Here’s five recent examples of just that:
1. Charlize Theron in Monster
There probably is no greater transformation in recent memory than the statue-esq South African stunner’s complete disappearance into the mind and body of Florida high way prostitute and convicted serial killer, Eileen Wournos, in Monster. Yet all the make-up and weight gain in the world couldn’t fake the fathomless rage and pain that the supposed mere eye candy was able to imbue her complex character with. Naturally, after this triumph, Charlize would never be seen by poised to pigeonhole Hollywood as just a pretty face again.
Oscar Win – You better believe it!
2. Sean Penn in Milk
Sean Penn is many things, distinguished and talented actor, controversial humanitarian, crazy-genius. However, amiable, unguarded, and smiley are not descriptions that instantly come to mind when his name is mentioned. That’s why despite years of turning in blistering performances as gut-wrenchingly wounded warriors, seeing the tightly wound, “serious” actor play the affable and at times, silly gay rights icon, Harvey Milk was such an unexpected treat. Sure he shares Milk’s famous passion and focus, but who knew that he’d bring such warmth and friendly grace to his portrayal of the slain political groundbreaker. Not that there was any doubt already, but this performance proved that there really is no one whom this man can’t play.
Oscar Win – hell yeah!
3. Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
Ever since he first stole our hearts on Alias as Jennifer Garner’s best friend, wishing for benefits, then subsequently stomped on ’em with the douchey fratboy who he portrayed in Wedding Crashers, Cooper seems to have cornered the market playing either sweet or serpentine with rarely any grey area in between. That was until he delivered a go-for-broke, scenery-chewing performance as a mentally troubled mensch in David O’Russell’s deliciously demented rom-com. Self-conscious yet equally manic, this hot mess with a heart of gold proved that there really is no limit to the level of complexity and depth that Cooper, much more than just the frat boy next door, can bring to a role.
Oscar Win – No, unfortunately, he was nominated the same year as Daniel Day Lewis.
4. Sandra Bullock in Crash
Everybody loves Sandy B. Especially as a loveable every girl struggling to stay true to herself as she hunts for her Prince amidst a sea of frogs. From While You Were Sleeping, to The Proposal she’s proven time and time again that nobody falls in love, or makes us laugh with her sweetly self-deprecating humor quite like Miss. Bullock. Yet more so than The Blind Side, or any of her less successful forays into drama (28 Days, Murder By Numbers) Crash found our girl really showing just how unafraid she is to mess with her image and surprise even her most diehard fans. Whether berating her husband, mistreating her staff, or spewing some of the most hateful racially charged rhetoric on celluloid, this role proved for the first time, that Sandy could be lot more than simply Miss Congeniality.
Oscar Win – No, and not even nominated, but Crash did upset Brokeback Mountain to win Best Picture, and Sandra would get hers in 2010 for The Blind Side.
5. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Perhaps the saddest of all of the dramatic transformations on this list is that of Aussie heart-throb Ledger, who went from sweet and shy young man to deranged, sociopathic cold-blooded killer, The Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight. No it wasn’t the first time that the actor, unfairly dismissed for too long as nothing more than a matinée idol, would show his detractors just how gritty and talented he was… 2005’s Brokeback Mountain shut all of those haters up. But to see every ounce of mirth and joy within him replaced by malice, rage, and hate onscreen, was equally awe-inspiring and terrifying. If only the preparation for this role hadn’t consumed the actor like it did, this would have been just one of many brilliantly diverse parts in his lengthy resume.
Oscar Win – A posthumous Best Supporting Actor Win.