The 10 best actor transformations

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Johnny Depp as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass.
Johnny Depp as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros.

1 | Johnny Depp
Black Mass

From Edward Scissorhands to Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter, Depp has always been a chameleon. He’s being Oscar-tipped for his latest transformation: into notorious real-life mobster James “Whitey” Bulger for crime thriller Black Mass. Via a painstaking process involving bald caps, hair implants, facial prosthetics, piercing sky blue contact lenses, tooth-staining and makeup to achieve Bulger’s Irish complexion, Depp menacingly inhabits the role of the sociopathic South Boston gang leader. Bulger declined to meet Depp, who instead studied tapes and was offered advice by Bulger’s longtime lawyer, Jay Carney. However, he credits his convincing Boston accent mainly to hanging out with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

Watch Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

2 | Robert De Niro
Raging Bull

The yardstick of “method” transformations remains De Niro’s in Martin Scorsese’s pugilistic 1980 classic. Having trained like a pro to achieve Jake LaMotta’s middleweight fighting physique, he piled on 60lb to reach the girth of the retired boxer gone to seed. During a four-month filming break, De Niro embarked on a culinary tour of Italy and France, bingeing on pasta, cheese and ice-cream, before returning for the latter-day scenes – shot with minimal takes because he’d tire quickly. Scorsese was at one stage so startled by his star’s laboured breathing that he shut down production, fearing for his health. “The first 15lb was fun,” said De Niro. “The rest was hard work.” It paid off when hewon the Oscar for best actor.

Watch Charlize Theron in Monster.

3 | Charlize Theron

To portray Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, ex-model Theron had to “ugly up” to an unrecognisable degree. This included gaining 30lb (courtesy of “Krispy Kremes and potato chips”), wearing snaggly dentures, having her hair repeatedly thinned-out and frazzled, partially shaving and bleaching her eyebrows, and getting her skin layered with washed-off tattoo ink to give it a chapped, blotchy look. Theron’s startling turn won rave reviews, with late critic Roger Ebert calling it “not just a performance but an embodiment, one of the greatest in the history of cinema”. Theron duly won 17 awards, including a clean sweep of the 2004 Oscars, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards for best actress.

Tom Cruise performs as les Grossman at the 2010 MTV movie awards.
Tom Cruise performs as les Grossman at the 2010 MTV movie awards. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

4 | Tom Cruise
Tropic Thunder

Robert Downey Jr controversially wore blackface for Ben Stiller’s 2008 action comedy, but was outshone by Cruise’s extraordinary cameo. As perma-furious, potty-mouthed studio exec Les Grossman, the Cruiser created the most physically repellant character in his long filmography. He donned a fatsuit, bald cap and fake body hair to resemble a “human penis”. The pudgy prosthetic hands were Cruise’s idea, as was the uproarious scene where he dances to Flo Rida’s Low(“big dick playa!”). The role was kept secret and no photos of Cruise in costume were released to maximise the surprise factor for audiences. Grotesque Grossman proved such a cult hit that there have been rumours of a spin-off movie.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Photograph: Everett/Rex Shutterstock

5 | Rooney Mara
Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

When she landed the highest-profile role of her career as emo hacker Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of the Stieg Larsson bestseller – after 10 gruelling weeks of auditions and screen tests – formerly fresh-faced Mara fully committed to the character’s look. She lost 15lbs, had her hair dyed black and jaggedly cut, her eyebrows bleached, wore a merkin, got a temporary tattoo and a dozen piercings – four in each ear, three in her eyebrow and one in her right nipple. Most were removed after shooting wrapped, but Oscar-nominated Mara kept the nipple piercing for possible sequels. “It’s not something I want to ever get re-pierced,” she explained. “So I’m going to keep it in.”

Watch Christian Bale in The Machinist.

6 | Christian Bale
The Machinist

Intense perfectionist Bale is famed for his yo-yo frame, losing 2st to play a crackhead in The Fighter and piling on 3st for American Hustle, but it was Dostoyevskian 2004 psychological thriller The Machinist that yielded the most shocking results. To portray a paranoid insomniac, Bale lost 63lb by subsisting on a sub-500 calorie daily diet of one apple, one cup of coffee, a tin of tuna and the occasional whisky (Chris Hemsworth is the latest actor to following suit, losing more than 30lbs to play a starving sailor in the forthcoming In the Heart of the Sea). Bale also took up smoking to help him curb his appetite. By the end, the emaciated 6ft thesp weighed just 8.5st. To make matters more extreme, he then had to bulk back up to play Batman, gaining 7st, most of it muscle, in six months.

Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Photograph: Working Title/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

7 | Renée Zellweger
Bridget Jones’s Diary

When the Texan actor was cast as Helen Fielding’s chardonnay-swilling, Silk Cut-puffing, big pant-wearing heroine in Bridget Jones’s Diary, devotees of the novel complained that she was too American and too skinny. Zellweger duly tackled both their concerns. She mastered clipped English vowels by working undercover at London publishing house Picador and embarked on a 4,700 calories-per-day eating frenzy – featuring plentiful pasta, Snickers bars, milkshakes and toast with clarified butter – to gain 25lb. She’s currently shooting the third film in the series,Bridget Jones’s Baby, complete with prosthetic bump. After an 11-year gap, however, Zellweger had to hire a dialect coach because she’d forgotten how to to do the accent.

Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Photograph: Paramount/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

8 | Marlon Brando
The Godfather

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” It’s easy to forget just how radically Brando reinvented himself to play the oft-impersonated Vito Corleone in the 1972 mob classic. With a difficult reputation and a string of box office flops to his name, the actor was deemed “unbankable” before director Francis Ford Coppola took a gamble on him. Brando was also only 46 but managed to turn himself into a believable senior citizen. To make the Don “look like a bulldog”, he stuffed his cheeks with cotton wool for his screen test. For filming, Brando wore a custom-made prosthetic mouthpiece, hair dye and heavy ageing makeup, while speaking in a wheezy whisper. He won an Oscar for the career-resurrecting role but, typically, refused to accept it.

Eddie Murphy as Saul in Coming to America.
Eddie Murphy as Saul in Coming to America. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

9 | Eddie Murphy
Coming To America

“This is beautiful. Vat is that, velvet?” Forget the novelty fat suits and flatulence in The Nutty Professor films. Murphy’s greatest transformation came in this hit1988 romcom, in which he portrayed several minor characters, including elderly Jewish barbershop customer Saul. Part of the lovable comic chorus, Saul bickers about boxing with the two barbers (one of whom, Clarence, is also played by Murphy) and pronounces all his Ws as Vs (“Vait a minute, vat about Rocky Marciano?”). Murphy and director John Landis devised the role as payback for Jewish comedians adopting “blackface” in the early 20th century. After this film’s success, playing multiple characters became a Murphy staple.

Matthew McConaughey In Dallas Buyers Club.

10 | Matthew McConaughey
Dallas Buyers Club

He used to be notorious for taking his shirt off in naff romcoms but McConaughey’s Oscar-winning 2013 role showcased a much less buff bod. Part of the actor’s recent “McConaissance”, the fact-based HIV drug drama saw him drop almost 50lb by restricting himself to Diet Coke, egg whites, the odd spoonful of tapioca and a solitary piece of chicken per day, while eschewing exercise. After all, he needed to look sick. When his weight dipped below 10st, McConaughey said that people stopped asking if he was OK and started suggesting he seek help: “And I thought, ‘There we go. That’s the perfect spot.’” He even stayed out of the sun for six months to achieve the right pallor.


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