Tobey Maguire. Andrew Garfield. Tom Holland. As viewers, we are on our third Spider-Man in 15 years. But why?
Because true Hollywood Stardom—capital S intended—is a tricky thing these days. In today’s cinema, it’s often the character that sells the film, rather than the star. In fact, even saying that a character can sell a film is a bit generous; it’s more accurate to say that intellectual property sells a film, characters aside. Need proof? How about the Summer 2017 movie slate of dark universes, emojis, transformers, apes, and superheroes, superheroes, superheroes.
Somewhat ironically, the superpowers of Hollywood studio films and individual A-List stars are diminishing. But if you look beyond the multiplex blockbuster, Hollywood is still largely populated by talented, multi-faceted, and compelling actors who resist being typecast and who relish pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. Think: Christian Bale from The Machinist to The Fighter to American Hustle. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. Charlize Theron in Monster. Leo finally winning his Oscar for The Revenant, etc.
These are all impressive feats, to be sure, but there are other types of transformative, comfort-zone-pushing performances, too. Ones where an actor doesn’t have to gain or lose a bunch of weight or even apply any prosthetics to simply disappear into a role. Here are five of my favorites, from a few surprising outliers in a star’s oeuvre, to entire careers built on the actor’s ability to transform.
True story time: in the car with my best friend after we saw Precious our senior year of high school, my friend said to me, “I thought Mariah Carey was supposed to be in that movie?” and it took several minutes of back-and-forth and “I don’t believe you”s for me to convince her that Mariah was, in fact, in the movie.
Carey gives an incredibly empathetic and unshowy performance, and in many of her scenes she simply listens to Precious and to her mother (played by Mo’Nique, who would go on to with the Oscar for her own comfort-zone-pushing performance). Between the subdued performance and ditching her usual ultra-glam look for a more stripped-down one, I can’t really fully blame my friend for not spotting her.
What’s the first thing you think of when you think about Samuel L. Jackson? For me, it’s his Ezekiel 25:17 speech from Pulp Fiction, followed closely by his expressing his frustration at the motherfucking snakes on his motherfucking plane. SLJ has given a ton of iconic performances, and something that links all of them is his distinctive, expressive, instantly recognizable voice.
That’s what makes his performance as the narrator of I Am Not Your Negro, the James Baldwin sort-of-documentary-adaptation, all the more impressive. Jackson’s voice is unrecognizable as he reads Baldwin’s words. It’s subdued and mellifluous, yet not trying to imitate Baldwin’s own distinct voice, either. Jackson, rather than relying on his own star-powered voice to carry the narration, instead wisely and boldly chose to forefront the words and relegate his fame to the background.
These days, Gary Oldman is best known for his roles as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter adaptations, and as Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But Oldman first gained attention for his transformative performance as Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy. Since then, he’s played some iconic villains in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, as well as in Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance. He’s portrayed the buttoned-up George Smiley and Dracula himself, and next he’ll be playing Winston Churchill.
In short: Gary Oldman seems not to even have a comfort zone to push, and is an OG of disappearing into his roles.
Like Gary Oldman, Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor whose entire career defied easy categorization. A trip down is IMDb page is one full of “oh yeah, he was in THAT” moments, because Hoffman was seemingly everywhere in the late 90s/early aughts. Seriously, here are some of the directors he worked with before he landed his first Oscar nomination for Capote in ‘06:
The list goes on! Hoffman had the ability to make even the smallest of roles pop. And though he became known for playing morally gray characters with a menacing edge (to say the least), he was equally adept at imbuing his characters with plenty of humor and heart, too.
Where to even start with Tilda Swinton? The first role I saw her in was the titular Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Since then, I’ve never seen her come even close to repeating a character or a look (not counting Okja or Hail, Caesar!, in both of which she plays twins).
Swinton is so cool, I’m convinced her role as a rock-and-literature-loving vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive is the least amount of acting she’s had to do in a while, and it speaks volumes to her chameleon-like capabilities that her least recognizable role in recent memory, the one that made people go, “wait THAT was Tilda Swinton?!” was Trainwreck. Which, to be clear, means Tilda Swinton is more recognizable like this or this or this than she is like this. Never change, Tilda. Or, I guess, please keep changing, all the time. We love you for it.