Actors building up a level of fame and familiarity with audiences can be a double-edged sword. While this comes with success, it can also constrain the types of roles that the actors play. Now, some actors excel only at playing a certain “type” of character, but others have a wider range.
There are many examples of actors stepping outside their comfort zone. Some passed with flying colors, others fell short.
10 Worked: Henry Fonda In Once Upon A Time In The West
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, Henry Fonda was the silver screen avatar of American decency. Some of his most famous roles include Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath, the civic idealist Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men, and ol’ Honest Abe himself in John Ford’s The Young Mr. Lincoln. One of his best roles, however, was also one of his darkest—he played the villain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Fonda’s character, Frank, is a ruthless killer, the kind of “black hat” associated with actors like Lee Van Cleef.
The film presents its villain having Fonda’s face as a twist unto itself—Frank and his gang are introduced massacring Brett McBain, his daughter, and his elder son offscreen. The gang advance on the surviving McBain, a boy no older than ten. Their approach is filmed in a wide shot, but once Frank is within shooting range, the camera pans to reveal that this murderous outlaw is none other than Henry Fonda.
9 Didn’t Work: Macaulay Culkin In The Good Son
Macaulay Culkin’s most famous role remains the plucky Kevin McAllister in the first two Home Alone films. In 1993, a year after Home Alone 2, Culkin starred in The Good Son as Henry.
Contrary to the title, Henry was in fact not a very good son at all, but a burgeoning psychopath. Culkin was clearly cast to play on his child-star fame, but the resulting film is remembered more as comical than scary.
8 Worked: Heath Ledger In The Dark Knight
It’s the stuff of recent Hollywood legend—heartthrob Heath Ledger, famous for The 10 Things I Hate About You and Brokeback Mountain, was cast as the Joker. The news was met with outcry, but he proved the naysayers wrong and then some. Indeed, The Dark Knight is most often the film cited in defense of unexpected casting choices.
As for the performance itself, what more can be said of its brilliance that hasn’t elsewhere? Ledger allows the role to subsume his screen presence—that his normal, handsome features were obscured by make-up no doubt helped him disappear into the role. Practically every moment he’s onscreen, every word that escapes his lips, has become utterly iconic. It should go without saying, but, Ledger’s Joker remains the best blockbuster villain of the 21st century, bar none.
7 Didn’t Work: Vince Vaughn In Psycho
Classics like Psycho don’t need to be revisited, but Hollywood studios often disagree. In 1998, a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller was released. It was nearly a shot-for-shot remake, yet the few changes that were there (such as shooting in color instead of black-and-white) only served to diminish the film.
Casting comedy star Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates was also an attempt to replicate Anthony Perkins’ disarming friendliness, but in practice, the casting embodied the film’s problem—identical intent doesn’t result in equal execution.
6 Worked: Tom Cruise In Collateral
Tom Cruise is the most reliable and dedicated action star working—even as he nears 60, he’s managed to maintain quality control on most of his projects and regularly does stunts that would scare men half his age. With age, he’s also moved away from the more dramatic parts he played earlier in his career—the opposite trajectory of most action stars.
While not usually renowned for his range, Michael Mann’s Collateral showed Cruise’s usual attributes could be used for scarier effect. His cool, aloof charisma reflects his character Vincent’s ruthlessness, while his undeniable charm makes him only scarier.
5 Didn’t Work: Eric Bana In Star Trek
For all his faults as a storyteller, JJ Abrams does have skill on the technical side of movie-making. One of his main strengths is casting, of which Star Trek is the shining example. The one actor who doesn’t quite work is Eric Bana as the villainous Romulan, Nero.
Bana is a leading man whose career never quite hit the A-List. Still, playing a villain of any sort is unusual for him. Perhaps to compensate for how his character was underwritten, Bana spends all his screen-time acting as loud as possible, and in the end, it doesn’t quite work.
4 Worked: Harrison Ford In The Mosquito Coast
Harrison Ford is one of the most significant movie stars of the latter 20th century—he could even be considered the movie star of that era. Despite this, the famously private and reserved Ford never had the ambition to be a Hollywood A-Lister, but only a character actor. He got his chance in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast as Allie Fox, a skilled but egotistical inventor.
Sickened with Reagan’s America, Fox moves his family to South America and his arrogance spells their doom. While not a success at the time of its release, The Mosquito Coast holds up and Ford has defended it as a favorite of the films he starred in.
3 Didn’t Work: Jake Gyllenhaal In Prince Of Persia
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time was one of the many pre-MCU/Star Wars Disney blockbusters which tried, and failed, to recapture the magic of The Curse Of The Black Pearl. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular prince, Dastan. Gyllenhaal is a much more eccentric actor than his pretty face would indicate.
It’s a good thing that he’s left behind any action hero aspirations and sticks mostly to indies since, aside from Source Code, a smarter film than Prince Of Persia by a long shot, and Spider-Man: Far From Home, where he at least got the chance to ham it up.
2 Worked: Willem Dafoe In The Last Temptation Of Christ
The Last Temptation Of Christ is a brilliant, transcendent work, yet also a controversial film for countless reasons. One of those reasons is the casting of Willem Dafoe as Jesus himself. Dafoe is most famous for villainous roles, a reputation helped by his sharp features and wicked grin.
He’s also a brilliant actor. The film’s purpose is to show the human side of Christ, to show him as conflicted and as afflicted with desire or self-doubt as any man. Dafoe utterly excels at this task.
1 Didn’t Work: Patrick Dempsey In Transformers: Dark Of The Moon
No one goes to Michael Bay movies to be wowed by the performances, but one casting in his Transformers movies stands out as a bizarre choice. That would be Patrick Dempsey in the third film, Dark Of The Moon. Dempsey is mostly known for his roles in Enchanted and incessant ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy, but in DOTM, he plays Dylan Gould, human liaison for the Decepticons.
In the character’s early scenes, before his allegiance is revealed, he works fine as a smarmy jerk, but once the truth comes, he never stops feeling out of place, especially acting against CGI characters.
NEXT: 10 Action Movies To Watch If You Love Transformers
Every Video Game Movie Confirmed For 2022 (& 6 That Are Possibilities)
About The Author