15 actors who magnificently played against type

The A-listers who took us by surprise by venturing outside their comfort zone, from Tom Hanks to Sylvester Stallone...

Predictability in a movie star is usually a cause for eye-rolling. However, there have been several classic instances in which a particular A-lister has confounded our expectations to deliver the sort of performance we didn’t see coming, be it scary, hilarious, moving or something else entirely. These are 15 examples of against-the-grain casting that worked magnificently well.

15. Tom Hanks (Road To Perdition, 2002)

It’s easy to typecast Hanks as the modern-day Jimmy Stewart; in truth, he has varied that persona throughout his career, especially in emotionally draining career highlights like Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away. But prior to Sam Mendes’ handsomely mounted period crime movie, he’d never played someone on the wrong side of the law. In the movie Hanks plays gangster Sullivan whose career involves killing for a living, and who must struggle to find the essential humanity needed to bond with his young son. Although Sullivan ultimately is able to do the right thing (in-keeping with many of Hanks’ other roles), the tone of the character is far more melancholy and haunted than we’re used to seeing from this most popular of stars.

14. Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity, 2002)

Matt Damon, the action star? Prior to the onset of the blockbusting, trendsetting Bourne trilogy, it seemed ludicrous that the boyish actor best known for Good Will Hunting would be able to kick ass with the best of them. Boy were we forced to eat our words when Damon’s amnesiac assassin obliterated our senses, a deadly weapon with formidably dangerous abilities that not even he can understand (at least initially). That Damon is able to ground the adrenaline-pumping set-pieces in something recognisably poignant (Jason is a man ultimately in search of himself) is another testament to his effectiveness in the role. Damon returns to his now-signature role in this summer’s Jason Bourne.

13. James Stewart (Vertigo, 1958)

There was always an underlying darkness and melancholy to the everymen that Jimmy Stewart played, most famously brought across in his suicidal yet compassionate businessman George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. However, rarely were his characters as troubling or unsettling as in Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s kaleidoscopic masterpiece that takes the bold step of de-humanising this Hollywood legend. As Stewart’s character Scottie’s mind unravels, the boundary between reality and fantasy shifting as his great love seemingly comes back from the dead, the actor taps into a cold, chilling air of sexual paranoia and control that’s upsetting to watch precisely because of his pre-conceived, affable demeanour.

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12. Christopher Walken (Catch Me If You Can, 2002)

Another acting legend famed for his array of demented weirdos, Walken once lamented that he all-too-rarely got cast as the father with a family and a dog. Props then to Steven Spielberg for casting Walken as a vulnerable, recognisable human being in his cracking 1960s-set crime caper, the actor largely leaving his oddball mannerisms at the door to portray the decent but unravelling father of Leonardo DiCaprio’s high-spirited confidence trickster. It’s a genuinely touching, heartfelt and quiet performance from Walken, its power heightened by its very normality, and proves that Spielberg deserves more credit for being able to elicit against-type roles from his stars.

11. Tom Cruise (Collateral, 2004)

To be fair, Tom Cruise had played a lot of dark and tortured roles prior to Michael Mann’s sleek neo-noir thriller, from his vampire Lestat in Interview With The Vampire to a misogynistic self-help guru in Magnolia. Even so the actor was rarely as cold or as viscerally dangerous than in his role as silver-haired assassin Vincent, Cruise forgoing his signature smile and digging deep into a complete sociopath with a callous disregard for human life. And for those who bemoan Cruise’s acting skills, his skilled weapons handling in the movie only serves to make Vincent’s presence all-the-more intimidating, nowhere more apparent than in the remarkably staged nightclub shootout.

10. Bruce Willis (Death Becomes Her, 1992)

Die Hard cemented Willis as one of our premier action stars but let’s not forget that at the time he was cast, he was best known for light comedy TV series Moonlighting. His return to comic material in Robert Zemeckis’ darkly humorous ageing satire Death Becomes Her is perhaps not quite as out-of-character as it seems, at least until one is exposed to the utter hilarity of his slapstick clowning, far broader and more unexpected than anything he’s done before or since. His brilliantly exaggerated horror at the physical transformations undertaken by co-stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn is truly rib-tickling and as far removed from his prototypical John McClane image as possible.

See also: revisiting Death Becomes Her

9. Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love, 2002)

It’s very easy to hate on Adam Sandler but there’s no denying that Paul Thomas Anderson elicited a superb performance out of him in this quirky, sweet story of psychosis, harmoniums and phone sex lines. Whereas Sandler’s aggressive man-child act tires very quickly in movies like the recent Pixels, here Anderson takes the time to build a compelling character around the actor’s familiar persona, working with Sandler to fashion an offbeat protagonist whose transition from understated sorrow to rage and back again is bracingly unpredictable, rather than annoying. In fact Sandler is so good, it makes one lament that he hasn’t worked with Anderson again (not least because Anderson is a huge fan of Sandler movies, citing the likes of Big Daddy amongst his favourites).

8. Albert Brooks (Drive, 2011)

Best known for his array of nebbishy, neurotic types (Taxi Driver; Broadcast News; Finding Nemo et al), Brooks startled everybody with his altogether more brutal role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s chrome-plated classic. As violent criminal Bernie Rose the actor cuts a surprisingly intimidating presence, his stoic, brooding silences occasionally giving way to horrific acts of violence. As with so many performances on this list, it’s Brooks’ shrewd sense of understatement that really terrifies, and Refn too needs to be applauded for so savagely turning a popular comic actor’s persona on its head.

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7. Sylvester Stallone (Cop Land, 1997)

It’s perhaps easy to underestimate Stallone’s dramatic chops; let’s not forget the first Rocky was based on his script and that his performance was a knockout too, far gutsier and grittier than anything in the sequels (entertaining though they are). It wasn’t until the mid-90s that Stallone properly stretched his acting range again beyond action fare as deaf small-town Sheriff Freddy Heflin in James Mangold’s thriller. In another actor’s hands, this could have descended into the worst kind of maudlin mugging; Stallone however beautifully underplays, sketching the character’s gentle, unyielding humanity in the face of a wealth of police corruption. It took until this year’s Creed for Stallone to tap into this wellspring again.

6. Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt, 2002)

The eyebrow-raising Hollywood lothario has over the course of his extraordinary career presented us with more memorably eccentric characters than anybody, whether it’s the disaffected blue collar worker in Five Easy Pieces, the freedom-loving mental patient in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or the purple-suited Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. However in 2002, Nicholson finally acted his age and tore our hearts out with his role as the recently bereaved, deeply lonely Warren Schmidt, the sort of gut-wrenchingly emotional, subtly calibrated performance that it would once have been impossible to imagine Nicholson playing. If his final scene doesn’t make you weep, there’s something seriously wrong.

5. Robin Williams (Insomnia/One Hour Photo, 2002)

It’s unclear why some of our greatest comic actors make for some of our greatest big-screen psychos. Maybe it’s because humour and horror often exist on that razor’s edge of uneasiness, meaning the shift from one genre to another is perhaps a natural step. Either way the late, great Williams’ transition from rip-roaring comedy (and occasional drama) to spine-chilling psychosis yielded two of his greatest, most atypical performances, the comedian using every aspect of his famed physicality to terrify us whilst resisting any semblance of mugging or scenery-chewing. Of the two it’s possibly One Hour Photo in which he’s at his scariest: a consummate depiction of banal insanity lurking right on everybody’s doorstep.

4. Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler, 1968)

Defying his cliched image as one of Hollywood’s most handsome matinee idols, Curtis here chilled the blood as real-life serial killer Albert DeSalvo in this disturbing, split-screen reconstruction of the latter’s crime spree and eventual capture. His handsome features subtly modulated to portray a downcast yet deeply disturbed individual, there’s no denying that Curtis worked overtime to get inside the criminal’s head, a far cry from the jubilant performance seen in Some Like It Hot just nine years earlier. The actor received a Golden Globe nomination but in truth the role’s power extends far beyond mere awards, showing how a star can turn their image inside out.

3. Leslie Nielsen (Airplane!, 1980)

We’re used to comedy actors veering into more serious territory, but the compass can swing the other way too. Rarely has a dramatic actor’s about-face into clowning been as roaringly funny as Nielsen’s appearance in this Zucker brothers classic, the actor (in a stroke of pure genius) sticking true to the poker-faced approach seen in the likes of Forbidden Planet in order to make the jokes land harder. Indeed his role as bumbling Dr. Rumack is, tonally speaking, just a couple of notches away from the performances for which he was previously known; however when witnessed in the context of a timeless comedy of escalating absurdity, it has us crying with laughter. Nielsen’s complete career reinvention led on to both the Police Squad series and subsequent Naked Gun films. And don’t call me Shirley.

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2. Henry Fonda (Once Upon A Time In The West, 1968)

Until the release of Sergio Leone’s sprawling, Ennio Morricone-scored Western opus, blue-eyed Henry Fonda was largely known for his portrayals of sturdy, dependable types. It was Leone’s desire to turn that very image on its head that resulted in one of the genre’s most iconic – and chilling – portrayals, Fonda’s alluring baby blues devoid of their former humanity as he brings to life cold-blooded killer Frank. It was a gamble that Fonda himself wasn’t sure would work; that Leone stuck to his guns and ultimately utilised his widescreen close-up compositions to grant Fonda a sense of implacable menace is one of the many reasons why the film remains a classic.

1. Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast, 2001)

“Gal, we had a phone call just before we left the house… It was Don Logan.” Has any actor so thoroughly – and brilliantly – shattered their perceived iconography as Kingsley did in Jonathan Glazer’s terrific British crime movie? As the utterly feral, deeply terrifying, brutish gangster Don the Oscar-winning Brit thesp gleefully tramples all over his saintly Ghandi image to deliver one of of cinema’s all-time-greatest monsters, a consummate portrayal of a personality so rampagingly psychotic that the terror often spills over into black comedy. Kudos must also go to Ray Winstone, often typecast as a thug, for going in the opposite direction as likeable safecracker Gal, the man against whom Don is pitted in an age-old battle of wills. That both actors play so brilliantly against type is key to the film’s power.