The Hollywood system was more or less founded upon type-casting, with studios employing famous actors on contracts and relying on their consistent, controlled public images to sell tickets for their pictures. Things have certainly changed, but moviegoers still tend to expect certain things from certain actors, which makes it all the more exciting when those actors say screw the expectations. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but here are eight times actors playing against type worked wonderfully.
1. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Despite a few bids for artistic integrity in films like Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger was known primarily for hunky leading man roles in romantic comedy and adventure films like 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale. Upon his casting as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins, online forums went into a frenzy declaring him wrong for the part. Ledger’s Joker, in fact, was a revelation, as the actor gave the cackling super-villain a new sort of anarchic menace. Ledger disappeared into the role, turning his scarred, drawling madman into the true star of the movie, outshining even the titular Dark Knight.
2. Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
Steve Carell played lovable doofus Michael Scott of The Office on television before transitioning to high-profile film roles in Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin playing other lovable doofuses. It’s hard to imagine an actor more seemingly ill-suited to portray eccentric sociopath billionaire John du Pont than Carell. Thanks to a liberal amount of makeup and prosthetic work, however, Carell was transformed for Foxcatcher into the aged heir, embodying his nearly-catatonic speaking patterns while conveying the wounded menace beneath his attempts to mentor young wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum).
3. Robin Williams in One Hour Photo
Robin Williams earned his fame as a fast-talking funnyman with apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy, before branching out with more subdued roles in acclaimed films such as Good Will Hunting. Perhaps no film went further against the comedian’s public persona than the psychological horror film One Hour Photo. Williams plays Sy Parrish, an employee working at the one hour photo center of a Costco-esque department store who becomes obsessed with a young family who he sees as perfect. His obsession grows and threatens to turn violent as the film goes on, but Williams’s performance never loses sight of the tragic humanity behind the quietly disturbed loner. Thanks to his performance and his beloved onscreen persona, Sy Parrish was more complex than a simple villain.
4. Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder
Tom Cruise has played virtuous everymen (War of the Worlds), cocky action heroes (the first Mission Impossible) and even bloodthirsty villains (Collateral), but rarely has he portrayed any character so hilariously profane as short-fused studio executive Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. The bit part has Cruise forgoing his handsome looks in favor of a baldcap and fat-suit while unleashing strings of creative profanities and even more creative dance moves during the end credits. Just as comedian Steve Carrell showed off his dramatic chops in Foxcatcher, here dramatist Tom Cruise makes good use of his comedic muscles for a change.
5. Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Though his time in the public eye has been considerably reduced in recent years, Jim Carrey was once one of America’s most popular film comedians, relying on his rubber-faced funny-talking shtick to draw in viewers for films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask. For surrealist love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carrey managed to dial back his shtick to portray subdued sadsack Joel Barish, who arranges to have his memory partially erased so he can forget his ex-girlfriend. Despite the low-key performance, Carrey finds reserves of emotion while still employing (but toning down) his signature goofiness in some of the film’s more comedic sequences.
6. Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West
Like Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda was one of America’s favorite bastions of goodhearted American purity. He plays the unwavering moral center, for example in 12 Angry Men. Legendary western director Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) convinced the actor to use his blue-eyed charms for evil in Once Upon a Time in the West. Fonda plays the child-murdering outlaw Frank with a bone-chilling blend of magnetism and menace that works so well, it almost compromises the pure-heartedness of his other film roles.
7. Elijah Wood in Sin City
Elijah Wood has enjoyed a long career that began with purehearted innocent child roles (Deep Impact) before continuing with purehearted innocent adult roles (Lord of the Rings). After his turn as Frodo in Peter Jackson’s wildly successful LOTR films, he took steps to avoid type-casting with roles like Kevin in Sin City. Kevin is a cannibalistic serial killer with no regard for human life, including his own, and Wood’s meek appearance and affable, unwavering grin make the bespectacled sociopath seem far more plausible as a real-world criminal in the vein of, say, Jeffrey Dahmer. Who knew a hobbit could turn so bloodthirsty?
8. Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!
You could say Leslie Nielsen played against type so well that it became his new type. Essentially, Leslie Nielsen spent most of his early career as a straight-talking dramatic actor in films like sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. With Airplane!, he successfully lampooned his own onscreen roles by spouting ridiculous lines with the straightest of straight-faces, making hilarious lines all the more hilarious. Nielsen spent the rest of his career doing comedies to varying degrees of success, rarely surpassing the deadpan greatness he achieved as Dr. Rumack in Airplane!.