9 Performances That Broke The Mold


carelllPhoto: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
If you’ve seen the gripping first trailer for this fall’s eagerly awaited drama Foxcatcher, you’ll know that Steve Carell is virtually unrecognizable as the eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Although the actor underwent a major physical transformation to play the character — including the addition of the biggest prosthetic nose you ever did see — some crafty makeup isn’t the reason his performance already has some critics talking Oscar.

Carell has become one of the biggest stars in the world for his ability to play lovable losers to perfection, in films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and on NBC’s The Office. But, as du Pont, Carell loses the aw-shucks demeanor and becomes something else entirely. It’s a chilling, menacing performance, and it’s likely going to change the way audiences look at him forever.

Carell’s startling turn in Foxcatcher is exactly the kind of role that every actor craves, one that takes our preconceived expectations and completely obliterates them. So, here are nine other actors who reinvented themselves with immersive, career-defining performances.

Tom Cruise - Tropic Thunder
Thanks to some kooky shenanigans involving a certain talk show and a certain couch, Cruise was in need of a major jolt to help resuscitate his once Teflon career. Does a fat suit, a bald cap, and an insanely potty-mouthed spoof of a Hollywood exec count as a jolt? Why, yes. Yes it does.

Jim Carrey - Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
The elastic-faced funnyman put the theatrics aside to play Joel Barish, the hapless hero who’s looking to get some seriously sad memories permanently wiped from his brain. If Carrey’s performance were an equation it would look something like this: endearing + mournful + refreshing = a revelation.

Adam Sandler - Punch Drunk Love
It’s no surprise that modern master Paul Thomas Anderson was behind one of the most inspired bits of casting ever, when he tapped professional man-child Adam Sandler to play the oddball introvert at the heart of this peculiar romance. Rather than ditch the manic energy that’s fueled his most famous performances, Sandler channeled it to create one of the most wildly unpredictable characters ever.

Jamie Foxx - Ray
The In Living Color alum showed flashes of brilliance in films like Ali and Any Given Sunday, but nothing could prepare us for his startling turn as the title character in this acclaimed Ray Charles biopic. Foxx didn’t just play the legendary singer — he flat out disappeared into him, and got an Oscar for his troubles.

Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
When Christopher Nolan announced that Aussie heartthrob Heath Ledger would play The Joker in the second installment of his Batman trilogy, the news was met with a collective “huh?” Then the movie was released, and Ledger’s macabre, terrifying turn as Gotham’s most notorious villain became the standard-bearer for all comic book baddies ever since.

Mo’Nique - Precious
Prior to her Oscar winning turn in Precious, Mo’Nique’s filmography included illustrious titles like Phat Girlz, Beerfest, and Half Past Dead. Then Lee Daniels’ triumphant story about an African American teen trying to survive her abusive mother came along, and changed everything. Mo’Nique’s blistering turn as the terrifying matriarch was ugly and brutal, and we couldn’t look away.

Reese Witherspoon - Walk The Line
Her bubbly performance as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde turned Reese Witherspoon into America’s undisputed sweetheart, but it was her gutsy portrayal of June Carter Cash in James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic that turned her into one of America’s greatest young actresses.

Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
After living and working in virtual irrelevance since his heydey as an '80s movie star, Mickey Rourke came back with a vengeance in Darren Aronofsky’s poignant character study about an aging wrestler on the ropes. Tender, sad, and vulnerable, it's a career-reviving performance if ever there was one.

Sean Penn - Carlito's Way
No one would have expected that the actor who played spaced out surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High would turn in one of the most talked-about performances of 1993. But, that's exactly what Penn did, as the afro-sporting, weasel-faced lawyer Dave Kleinfeld. Just like that, Sean Penn: Mr. Madonna died, and Sean Penn: the actor was born.