10 Amazing Transformative Performances
From Robert De Niro to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB’s Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey
When the filmmakers behind DALLAS BUYERS CLUB were looking to cast Ron Woodroof, the real-life subject of their film, they immediately hit upon Matthew McConaughey. “‘Who is Ron Woodroof?’ and in my mind, it was Matthew,” says producer Robbie Brenner. “Like Ron, he’s from Dallas, he’s handsome, and he has a twinkle in the eye. Matthew also has intensity and intelligence like Ron did, mixed with that cowboy charisma and fighter’s spirit. He was beyond perfect for the role.” But while perfect on paper, McConaughey knew it would still take an enormous amount of work to become Ron Woodroof, a man struggling with full-blown AIDS. On a physical level, the role required McConaughey to lose an enormous amount of weight. Emotionally, however, McConaughey had to accomplish even more – he needed to understand and express the indomitable spirit that made Woodroof press on when he was given a death sentence by doctors.
Transformation is nothing new to Jared Leto, who has moved from TV heartthrob to indie idol to rock god in his short career. In recent years, Leto has been selective about his film roles, picking only those that offered the most interesting challenges. Previously he signed up for Jarrett Schaefer’s Chapter 27, a biopic about Mark David Chapman, the man who assassinated John Lennon on December 8, 1980. For this bulky role, Leto put on 67 pounds by drinking melted ice cream mixed with olive oil. For DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, Leto performed an even more remarkable transformation by losing more than 30 pounds to transform into the HIV+ transsexual Rayon. Becoming Rayon was much more than a dieting trick: Leto had to find her voice, her walk, the way she wore clothes and makeup, and even more her will to live. Once inside the role, Leto didn’t emerge as himself until after the production was over.
When Sean Penn was cast to play Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk, many had a hard imagining the intense, straight actor playing the wise-cracking, sometimes flamboyant gay San Francisco politician who was assassinated in 1978. It’s hard enough to play a historical figure, but even harder to play one who still lives large in people’s minds and hearts. But for Cleve Jones, who worked with the real Harvey Milk, “Sean nails it, and it's not just my opinion. That is the opinion of every person left alive who knew Harvey Milk.” And the critics were equally impressed.
Having positioned herself as a young woman of poise and intelligence in films like Sense and Sensibility and Titanic, Kate Winslet did a complete change up as Clementine, the fun and fickle neo-punk love interest of Jim Carrey in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Her rumpled look and candy-colored hair made her a wondrously strange creature, the perfect character for a tale filled with wonder and awe.
Few actress have demonstrated their real beauty by stripping themselves of their natural beauty as perfectly as Charlize Theron did with the aptly named Monster. Based on the life of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Patty Jenkins’ film is a powerful exploration of a woman struggling with (and mostly losing to) her inner demons. To achieve the look, Theron, who’d been an international fashion model, put on 30 pounds and sported prosthetic teeth. But in the end, it’s not the physical change, but the inner one that makes Theron’s acting so riveting.
Without question, Robert De Niro is one of America’s great actors, and his role as the boxer Jake LaMotta stands out among his stellar roles. He not only embodies La Motta, but brings to life two versions of the same man. To capture LaMotta at his fighting prime, De Niro trained with the real LaMotta, until the boxer known as the Raging Bull felt the actor was ready. To capture the older LaMotta, De Niro had to gain over 60 pounds and put on heavy make up. But more than the physical transformation, De Niro had to capture the full range of this champion’s life, from the triumph of his peak fighting form to the melancholy of his body and spirit disintegrating.
In Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Nicole Kidman signed up to play Virginia Woolf, the first of three women oppressed by circumstances and tragedy in this dramatic triptych. To appear as the real-life writer, Kidman worked with makeup artists to apply a prosthetic nose to capture Woolf’s peculiar look. But to find Woolf’s genius and inner torment, Kidman had to rely completely on her own ingenuity. Ms. Kidman, in a performance of astounding bravery, evokes the savage inner war waged by a brilliant mind against a system of faulty wiring that transmits a searing, crazy static into her brain.
Daniel Day-Lewis' perfectly modulated and intense roles have made him one of the finest actors working today. And he often transforms his looks and persona to play real-life, historical figures. In Jim Sheridan’s 1989 My Left Foot, Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown, a real-life working-class bloke who suffers from cerebral palsy to such a degree that the only part of his body he can move is his left foot. Despite such overwhelming challenges, Brown went on to become a painter of some renown and then later penned the memoir which would become the basis for this film.And he went on to win his first Best Actor Oscar for the part. 23 years later, Day-Lewis transformed again to play a historical character, but with a much larger silhouette. In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the great actor put on a beard, facial makeup and a tinny speech pattern to capture the look and feel of the great emancipator. Lincoln is only the final triumphant role of a foreign actor who has come to embody American history, a performer who eases into a role of epic difficulty as if it were a coat he had been wearing for years. It is both a curiosity and a marvel of modern cinema that this son of an Anglo-Irish poet should have become our leading portrayer of archaic Americans. Hawkeye (The Last of the Mohicans), Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York), Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) — all are figures who live in the dim borderlands of memory and myth, but with his angular frame and craggy features, Mr. Day-Lewis turns them into flesh and blood. And the role gave Day-Lewis his third Best Actor Oscar.
Mo’Nique, perhaps best known for her comedy roles in stand up, on stage and in sitcoms, didn't seem like the perfect choice to play Mary, the abusive mother in Lee Daniels’ 2009 drama Precious. But Mo’Nique made the part personal, connecting to her own history of sexual abuse. Physically, she turned herself inside out to embody the self-hatred and trauma of the character.The role could have been a caricature of cruelty, but Mo'Nique refuses to play her the easy way. This monster has her reasons, shocking though they are. There is one word for Mo'Nique: dynamite. She tears up the screen and then, in a climactic scene with Precious and Ms. Weiss, tears at your heart.
In 1999, a largely unknown actress, Hilary Swank, exploded in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, a small independent film about the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993. Swank’s mesmerizing transformation into this real-life person amazed audiences.As Brandon, Hilary Swank gives a performance that’s a continual revelation. With his cropped, farmer-boy haircut and a padded tube sock stuffed down his jeans, Swank’s Brandon passes for a man easily enough. In preparation for the role, Swank spent time in public dressed as a man, and whether her choices are intuitive or intentional, they work as a marvelous subterfuge for a character who’s striving (against the cruelty of nature, unfortunately) for acceptance. Brandon’s swagger seems to spring straight from his joints. His full lips are always just a little cracked and chapped (few women willingly allow this to happen). You don’t actually ever forget that you’re watching a woman – but that’s exactly the point.