Life for your average movie star is one of primping and preening, being made to look like the millions of dollars they earn per picture. A big part of their currency is looking like a movie star — so much so that few of them are ever willing to be seen any other way. So for an actor to forsake those conventions of beauty, for one to step outside of the box the American public would gladly keep them in, is an act of rebellion. To be an artist when it’d be easier to be a commodity is a renegade mindset.
Here, then, are some actors who’ve take the risk to be more than we think they could be — and have reaped the rewards that can come only when one puts it all on the line.
WESLEY SNIPES/PATRICK SWAYZE — To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)
The Movie: Three drag queens go on a road trip to Hollywood to take part in the “Miss Drag Queen of America” pageant, and in the process, come face-to-face with homophobic America — only to triumph over it, because it’s a movie.
The Risk: Snipes and Swayze play two of the three drag queens, parodying their macho public images in the process. (John Leguizamo, who played the third, unfortunately didn’t get the same kind of plaudits — but he looked the best, so it all evened out.)
MARK WAHLBERG — Boogie Nights (1997)
The Movie: Paul Thomas Anderson directs a love letter of sorts to the nascent L.A. porn industry of the late 1970s and early 1980s, as a high school dropout with an over-developed penis goes from washout to marquee name.
The Risk: Wahlberg might not have been the critics’ focus in the movie — both Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds got Oscar nominations from the movie — but his transformation into “Dirk Diggler” required both more naked talent (or, at least, more nudity) and prosthetic penis than either.
RUSSELL CROWE — The Insider (1999)
The Movie: Based on a true story, the movie centers around a CBS News report about a whistleblower in the tobacco industry, and the impact it has on both the industry and, more importantly, CBS News itself.
The Risk: Crowe literally transformed himself into the role of Jeffrey Wigand, the real-life insider of the title; he gained 35 pounds, bleached (and shaved) his hair and had liver spots applied to his skin before even appearing in front of the camera.
HALLE BERRY — Monster’s Ball (2001)
The Movie: A woman falls in love with a widowed prison guard following the death of her husband — who was executed by said prison guard.
The Risk: Much was made of Berry’s performance in the movie upon release, with the actress displaying a lack of vanity and edginess that had, to be blunt, been absent in earlier roles. This is particularly obvious in a particularly graphic sex scene that features a drunken Berry begging to be made to feel good. Disturbing and almost unrecognizable as the same women who played Storm in the first X-Men movie, the role won Berry an Oscar.
CHLOE SEVIGNY — The Brown Bunny (2003)
The Movie: Described at one point by Roger Ebert as the “worst film in history,” Vincent Gallo’s art house road movie centered around Bud, a motorcycle racer haunted by a former lover and unable to connect with anyone else as a result.
The Risk: There’s no way of getting around this; Sevigny’s boldness in this part comes entirely from the part that she performs unsimulated oral sex on lead Vincent Gallo in a long scene midway through the movie. Asked about the scene at the Cannes Film Festival that year, she shrugged off the response by saying that she had “been intimate with Vincent before,” and that it was “no big deal.” Tell that to an audience not used to seeing that kind of thing outside of porn movies.
CHARLIZE THERON — Monster (2003)
The Movie: A semi-biographical account of the life of Aileen Wuornos, a real-life serial killer responsible for six men in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
The Risk: As the mentally-ill Wuornos, Theron is barely recognizable, both physically — she gained 30 pounds and wore fake teeth for the role — and in terms of her performance, which is unlike anything she had done before (or since). As the central character in the movie, she needed to hold everything together, and her performance does that easily; it’s difficult to take your eyes off her, no matter what horrific thing she does.
CHRISTIAN BALE — The Machinist (2004)
The Movie: A psychological thriller about a man whose insomnia leads to a terrible accident at work — which in turn leads to far darker events.
The Risk: Bale went the whole method route for this role, losing 62 pounds over months of dieting (he reportedly lived off water, coffee and an apple each day during filming). Apparently, he wanted to go further, but producers wouldn’t let him for health reasons.
JARED LETO — Chapter 27 (2007)
The Movie: The life of Mark David Chapman is retold up to his murder of John Lennon — except, of course, it is seen from his delusional, paranoid point of view.
The Risk: Leto, who won similar praise for his egoless performance in last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, gained almost 70 pounds to play the overweight Chapman, getting gout in the process, and shutting himself off from his co-stars in order to be able to play the loner in a suitably authentic way.
MARIAH CAREY — Precious (2009)
The Movie: Adapted from the novel Push, Precious tells the story of a woman raised in an abusive environment who is, eventually, able to escape her roots and try to create a better life for herself.
The Risk: We all know what Mariah Carey looks like, right? Well, this movie showed an entirely different side to the pop diva, and the transformation was stunning: She’s utterly convincing as an unpleasant, dowdy social worker who would likely frown upon the real-life Carey. Impressively, Carey replaced Helen Mirren in the role, but you don’t miss the British actress at all.
50 CENT — All Things Fall Apart (2011)
The Movie: As a football player succumbs to a deadly disease, he tries to deal with a family that still looks to him for support.
The Risk: Everyone who is surprised that Fiddy would drop 54 pounds to play a man dying from cancer, raise your hands. He was impressively dedicated to playing the dying football player in the movie, and like Carey in Precious, he’s almost unrecognizable in the finished product — even if his actual acting ability beyond the physical transformation is some distance behind that of Mimi.