Warner Bros. Pictures
Being an actor isn’t all about dressing up in cool costumes and getting paid thousands for it. Pretending to be someone else all day is pretty tough work, especially if that person is a particularly unsavory or difficult character. Actors and actresses put in hundreds of hours of hard work to make sure they nail their roles, and the majority of them do so with aplomb. Your favorite classic movies and cheesy rom-coms wouldn’t be the same without the efforts of their stars.
While pretty much everyone in the acting business works hard for their craft, there are some who go above and beyond in the name of entertainment. They might undergo a serious physical transformation, or get so immersed in a character that they find it hard to let them go at the end of filming. Maybe they insist upon staying in character even when the cameras aren’t rolling. Some even take their work home with them and impact their families with their extreme method acting. Here are just a few of the stars who’ve seriously gone the extra mile for their roles in the past. It’s no coincidence that a lot of them are Oscar-winners!
The critically acclaimed Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever was actress Halle Berry’s big break. She portrayed a crack addict – a role that she had to fight for due to initially being considered ‘too pretty’ to play an addict. Once Berry had secured the part, she went all-out to ensure that her depiction of Vivian was true to life. She spent time in a real crack den shortly before filming began, and even refused to wash for two weeks before shooting began. While the smell wasn’t exactly pleasant for her co-stars, in enabled Berry to truly get into character and nail her role.
Jared Leto has gone full method actor for quite a few of his roles. He lost a staggering two stone (12.7kg) for his role as a heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream before putting another five stone back on for Chapter 27. While his casting as trans woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club remains controversial, there’s no question that he truly put effort into nailing the role. He lost over 40 pounds, turned up to the set each morning already in character, and refused to communicate with others unless he could do so as Rayon. Leto’s efforts won him an Oscar and critical acclaim.
20th Century Fox
Daniel Day-Lewis is so famous for his method acting that when he announced last year that he was retiring from acting, some joked that he was doing so to prepare for a role. The stories that come from the sets of his various movies are astounding. When Day-Lewis portrayed a man with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, he wouldn’t leave his wheelchair and forced others to spoon-feed his meals. When filming The Last of the Mohicans, he would only eat food that he had tracked, hunted, and killed himself. He didn’t bathe for the entirety of the shooting of The Crucible in order to get that authentic 17th century feel. He insisted that everyone on the set of Lincoln refer to him only as ‘Abe.’ The list goes on and on and on.
To prepare for his role in the heart-breaking Second World War drama The Pianist, actor Adrien Brody made some major sacrifices. He portrayed Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, a role that eventually earned him an Oscar. However, not only did he obsessively practice the piano in order to replicate his character’s musical talent, he also completely isolated himself for weeks. He sold his flat and car and moved to Europe, leaving his family, friends, and girlfriend behind. Said-girlfriend swiftly dumped him, but by that point, Brody was long-gone. He wanted to replicate the feeling of isolation that Szpilman must have felt after all of his friends and family died in the Holocaust, and clearly did a pretty good job of it considering all the acclaim he earned for the portrayal.
The Weinstein Company
Marilyn Monroe is one of the most iconic figures in movie history. Playing her on-screen must be a daunting prospect! To manage her nerves, My Week With Marilyn actress Michelle Williams did everything she could to embody Monroe. She pored over hours and hours of footage of the actress to study her mannerisms, her voice, and every intricacy of her public persona. Williams put on weight to get Monroe’s famous curves and bleached her hair every few days to avoid her roots showing. She even tied her knees together with a belt in order to perfect Marilyn's sexy wiggly walk. Williams’s performance was so on point that it earned her a Golden Globe Best Actress award and numerous other nominations.
Nicolas Cage is famous for frequently engaging in intense bouts of method acting. To get into character in his 1989 black comedy film Vampire’s Kiss, he ate a live cockroach on set. Nice. Even more prolific was his commitment to his role in the drama film Birdy. Partially set in the Vietnam War, Birdy addresses the traumatic experiences that two teenage boys face when they sign up to fight in the conflict. Cage’s character ends up in the hospital with a bandaged face, so to prepare for this, he decided to have several teeth pulled out WITHOUT ANAESTHESIA. He also insisted that doctors kept the same bandages on his wounds for over a month, leading to numerous infections developing. Now THAT is commitment (to a slightly worrying degree).
Actor Marlon Brando made his film debut in 1950 drama flick The Men. Brando portrayed Ken Wilocek, a World War II veteran left paraplegic due to injuries he sustained during the conflict. In order to fully get into character, Brando stayed in a hospital bed for an entire month, specifically in a veteran’s hospital. His experiences alongside and conversations with these injured servicemen had a major influence on his interpretation of the role. While The Men was a commercial failure, it was a hit with critics. They particularly praised Brando’s performance, helping to skyrocket his eventually illustrious career.
Christian Bale is barely recognisable in the 2004 thriller The Machinist. He depicts Trevor Rezink, the titular machinist who begins to experience severe insomnia. The condition causes Rezink to become emaciated – a look Bale also adopted. He lost more than 62 pounds for the role and looks suitably gaunt because of it. Bale actually wanted to lose another 20 pounds, but filmmakers stopped him from doing so on health grounds. When filming ended, Bale immediately had to begin gaining back the weight – and then some – for his role as Batman in The Dark Knight. He did so in the space of six months, using a combination of weightlifting and pizza binges to bulk up.
Back in the mid-90s, Billy Bob Thornton received critical acclaim for directing, writing and starring in this drama. Sling Blade tells the story of Karl Childers, a man with a mental disability. He has recently been released from prison after serving 25 years for murder, and subsequently makes friends with a mother and her young son. One of the many memorable aspects of Karl’s character is his famous limp. It turns out that Thornton went to pretty extreme lengths to nail this gait. He spent the entirety of filming with crushed glass in his shoes, with the pain of this triggering the limp. Ouch!
Mrs. Doubtfire is one of the late Robin Williams’s best-loved films. His portrayal of a desperate father who dresses up as this no-nonsense nanny quickly won all of our hearts. Despite the comedic nature of the film, Williams took his role very seriously. He would apparently stay in character when the cameras stopped rolling – both on and off-set. That’s right – Williams would walk about town still in full Mrs. Doubtfire attire. It’s a wonderful image, isn’t it? It becomes even more hilarious when you consider that Williams once walked into a San Francisco sex shop and bought numerous dildos while in costume. I bet that sales assistant got the shock of their life.
Anne Hathaway sacrificed A LOT for her Oscar-winning turn as Fantine in Les Misérables. She wanted her character to truly look like she was on the brink of death, and did everything in her power to make that happen. She lost around 25 pounds of weight and underwent a diet so strict that she refused to reveal its contents for fear of glamorizing extreme weight loss. Most strikingly, she agreed to have her hair cut off – on-screen, no less – to truly get into Fantine’s tragic mindset. The role affected Hathaway so deeply that she later claimed that she still wasn’t “sane” when collecting her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She gave herself to her character so fully that she found it hard to find herself again.
The Reader is a poignant tale of a love affair between a younger man and an older woman. Set in post-war Germany, the young man is later horrified to discover that his former lover – portrayed by Kate Winslet – used to be a guard at a Nazi concentration camp. Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role in this movie and received general critical acclaim. Part of the reason she was so excellent in the role is her off-screen dedication to the part. Winslet insisted upon speaking in German at home while filming the project and became so immersed in her character that it took her two months to return to normal after filming wrapped.
The biographical movie The Doors, based on the band of the same name, wasn’t particularly well-received upon its release in 1991. However, actor Val Kilmer received much praise for his dedication to the role of lead singer Jim Morrison. Kilmer lost a significant amount of weight to prepare for the role and did extensive research about Morrison and his life. He spent six months constantly rehearsing Doors songs on a daily basis, and got so good at replicating Morrison’s voice that the singer’s own bandmates couldn’t tell the difference between the two men. Impressive stuff! Kilmer became so invested in the role that he had to undergo therapy once filming had concluded.
Shia LeBeouf is known for being one of the most — erm — eccentric actors in Hollywood. However, his method acting in two of his films is next-level crazy. To prepare for the movie The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, he actually took the drug LSD and filmed his experience after learning his character would take acid. He then sent the tape off to co-star Evan Rachel Wood for feedback. Likewise, he prepared for the war movie Fury by joining the National Guard. He then, in his own words, “pulled my tooth out,” “knifed my face up,” and “didn’t bathe for four months.” That's commitment.
While Joaquin Phoenix was filming the 2005 biographical movie Walk the Line, he decided that the best way to nail the part would be to stay in character as Johnny Cash 24/7. He made everybody call him JR (Cash’s real name) and literally didn’t break character for months on end. He met with Cash himself in order to learn the singer’s mannerisms and learned to play guitar from scratch. Then, after filming wrapped, he just stopped. He realized within a few months that he’d totally forgotten most of his guitar chords! Unlike a lot of method actors who struggle to get out of character, Phoenix can seemingly switch his talents on and off like a tap.
Heath Ledger’s turn as classic Batman villain The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight was one of the most iconic performances in the history of the franchise. Ledger was initially reluctant to appear in the movie, claiming that the superhero genre wasn’t really his thing. However, he later became totally dedicated to the role. Before shooting even began, Ledger placed himself in voluntary isolation. He spent this time creating visual and written interpretations of the character in order to truly get inside The Joker’s head. When production began, Ledger became so immersed in his role that he struggled to sleep, and began taking the prescription pills that would eventually lead to his tragic death.
Columbia Pictures / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Actress Rooney Mara underwent a complete physical transformation to play Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Even outside of filming, she abandoned her usual brightly colored clothes to wear Salander’s all-black outfits. She got multiple piercings for the role, including one on her nipple, and dyed her hair jet-black. She even showed up to her audition drunk because she felt it’s what her character would do. Well, it landed her the role, so who are we to judge? Unfortunately, Mara hasn’t been invited back for the movie’s upcoming sequel, a fact she’s devastated by. To be honest, so are we!
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