7 Actors Who Risked Their Health for Movie Roles

Often, acting isn’t as easy as we think. When filming a role, most well-known and successful actors don’t just show up on the first day of set ready to read their lines. In fact, many actors know that in order to do a good job, they truly have to get into character. Some Hollywood stars have taken their method acting to the extreme, giving up their belongings, picking up extra jobs, and undergoing extreme weight changes to prepare for upcoming roles. Here are seven actors and the craziest things they’ve done to get into character.

1. Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro | Francois Durand/Getty Images

When De Niro first started acting, he managed to wow Martin Scorsese, landing him major roles in movies such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. So, what’d he do? Cracked writes that for Taxi Driver, De Niro got a hack cab license and drove people around New York, which was slightly puzzling considering the movie didn’t actually have a lot to do with cabs.

For Raging Bull, De Niro played professional boxer Jake LaMotta. In order to ensure the scenes were accurate, he trained almost every day, sometimes even with LaMotta. He got so into character that one day during training De Niro broke LaMotta’s ribs and teeth. The plus side? De Niro was in the best shape of his life.

However, that didn’t last long. After production shot the boxing scenes, they halted production for four months, so De Niro could then get into character portraying an older, larger version of himself. Basically, it required him to eat constantly, gorging on meats, pasta, and fatty foods in order to pack on more than 60 pounds, per Cracked.

2. Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody | FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

There’s no denying that Brody deserved an Oscar for best actor in The Pianist. The acting was exceptional. But there’s a reason Brody did such a good job. In order to accurately play the role of Władysław Szpilman, Brody literally gave up everything. What Culture writes that Brody gave up his apartment, sold his car, disconnected his phones and moved to Europe. Why? Brody needed to truly feel what it was like to lose everything.

In order to properly portray Szpilman, who was a Holocaust survivor, Brody also had to undergo a physical transformation, including resembling Szpilman’s appearance as it was after years in captivity. Translation: He couldn’t eat much.

“It was excruciating,” Brody told SFGate. “I was extremely weak, and I mentioned it to Roman, and it was kind of what he wanted, you know? He wanted it to be truthful.”

3. Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise | Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

In order to prepare for Collateral, Cruise decided to go all out prepping for his role as an assassin. What’s the one thing any proper assassin needs to be able to do? Blend into a crowd, of course, which is something Cruise didn’t have a lot (or any) experience with. In order to figure out how to become unnoticeable, Cruise dressed up like a FedEx worker and delivered packages inconspicuously.

“We had the wardrobe, I got my mission — go in and deliver this package to this place. Then go and buy coffee and sit down and just talk. It was a great acting exercise. I’m a very good stalker now,” Cruise told Contact Music.

Director Michael Mann added that, “The objective was simply to be somebody else. Tom could put on a beard, sunglasses, and baseball hat and someone still goes, ‘There’s Tom Cruise.’”

4. Christian Bale

Christian Bale

Christian Bale | Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

For his role as Trevor Reznik in The Machinist, a movie about an industrial worker who suffers from severe insomnia and begins to question his own sanity, Bale lost more than 60 pounds. It isn’t something the director, Brad Anderson, asked Bale to do, either. Instead, Bale took it upon himself to do so, according to Weird Worm.

“I wouldn’t have done that amount of weight loss if I hadn’t thought the movie itself was worth seeing,” he told People.

Shortly after The Machinist wrapped up, Bale then earned the lead role in Batman Begins, and was given six months to gain back a good chunk of weight and muscle — a tough feat when you’ve just starved yourself to the point of having no body fat or strength.

5. Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger | Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Up until Ledger was cast in The Dark Knight, he was notorious for playing more light-hearted roles, including A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You. Playing the Joker required a bit more preparation, which Ledger took to an interesting level. What Culture writes that he locked himself in a hotel room, isolating himself from everyone, and took prescription drugs in order to get into a Joker-like state of mind.

Ledger slept an average of two hours a night while playing “a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going,” What Culture reports Ledger saying.

Sadly, prescription drugs is exactly what Ledger died from.

6. Gene Hackman

Gene Hackman

Gene Hackman | Tim Boyle/Newsmakers

Hackman went all out when preparing for his role in the 1971 crime drama, The French Connection. The film was about New York detectives Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo, who were based on Narcotics Detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. Grosso, his partner, and other New York detectives were responsible for breaking up an organized drug ring in 1961, seizing 112 pounds of heroin, according to Weird Worm.

Hackman wanted to feel mentally prepared to take on the role of Doyle, so he, along with his co-star Roy Scheider, spent a month in a patrol car with Grosso and Egan. Weird Worm writes that Hackman become so engrossed in the role that he even helped restrain an unruly suspect during one of his shifts.

7. The Cast of Saving Private Ryan

Cast of Saving Private Ryan

Cast and director of Saving Private Ryan | MYCHELE DANIAU/AFP/Getty Images

Steven Spielberg wanted a movie that portrayed the absolute terror that comes along with war. How do you get all-star actors such as Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Vin Diesel to realistically portray the intense death and destruction that comes along with war? You find a way to make it realistic.

Cracked writes that in order to prepare the cast, Spielberg put them through their own private hell. Cast members were put through a 10-day boot camp with Dale Dye, a retired marine, whose job was to make their lives completely and utterly miserable.

“Dale Dye is a man with a mission and we were the subjects … make that victims,” Hanks said to the Chicago Tribune. “It was very cold and it was very miserable. Things were demanded of us as human beings that are rarely demanded of actors. Our hands were raw. They were like hamburger by the time we were finished.”

“The experience gave us a heightened awareness of how human behavior is conditioned to accept something like war,” he added. “Our job as actors was to imagine [that] a man with a weapon is behind that rock and he’s going to kill you.”

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