There are plenty of actors who get routinely typecast as the comic relief, a romantic love interest, an action hero or a villain. And once they get locked into a certain kind of role, it becomes harder to break out with each new project. Eventually, some actors choose to shed their stereotypes, while directors choose to take a chance on letting the thespians reinvent themselves. This is what is commonly referred to as casting/playing “against the type” or “against type.” It has happened numerous times in every genre; however, unless it had a profound impact on the actor’s career, we tried to avoid using comedies, as funny films often attempt to place notoriously serious actors in comedic roles just for laughs. Just in time for Steve Carell's non-comedic leading roles in "Beautiful Boy" (a film about drug addiction set for release on Oct. 12), here are 25 brilliant times actors played against the type.
Jimmy Stewart was always known for playing relatable, down-to-earth characters, like an earnest U.S. Senator in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a reporter in “The Philadelphia Story” and family man George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” However, director Alfred Hitchcock decided to test the limits of Stewart’s acting abilities when he cast him in the 1958 thriller “Vertigo,” in which he plays a mentally unstable, obsessive and disturbed individual struggling with a series of phobias. Although it seemed odd to cast against type in this situation, the juxtaposition ultimately made “Vertigo” even more suspenseful.
For more than 30 years, Henry Fonda almost exclusively played moral, upright heroes. Thus, audiences were shocked to see him portray a villain in Sergio Leone’s classic 1968 western, “Once Upon a Time in the West” — especially since Fonda’s merciless Frank character kills eight people in the film, including three children and several of his own men.
Tony Curtis was once referred to as “Hollywood's most handsome matinee idol,” and he almost always starred as the heroic or righteous protagonist. He was still the star of the 1968 thriller “The Boston Strangler,” but this time he played the real-life rapist and serial killer Albert DeSalvo. Curtis earned a Golden Globe nomination for his uncharacteristic performance.
Comic book fans get touchy when it comes to casting in feature films, especially in regard to the caped crusader. Although action and drama actors like Pierce Brosnan, Ray Liotta, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe were all considered for the lead in 1989’s Tim Burton-directed “Batman,” the role surprisingly was given to Michael Keaton. Fanboys balked at the decision, figuring the feel-good comedic actor and star of films like “Mr. Mom,” “Johnny Dangerously” and “Beetlejuice” would bring too much camp to the franchise, like in the 1960s TV series. However, Keaton blew audiences away with his portrayal of both Batman and his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, and he remains a fan favorite to this day.
Leslie Nielsen was a 54-year-old, established dramatic film and TV actor when he was cast in the 1980 slapstick comedy, “Airplane!” Nielsen read the script with a perfect deadpan delivery, including what is arguably the film’s most famous line: “Don’t call me Shirley.” The success of “Airplane!” and its 1982 sequel reinvented Nielsen as a comedic star, leading to his hilarious Frank Drebin role in the “Naked Gun” trilogy as well as 1996’s “Spy Hard,” 1998’s “Wrongfully Accused” and appearances in “Scary Movie 3” and “Scary Movie 4” in the 2000s, among countless other comedies.
Prior to 1996, George Clooney was known only for his TV roles, in which he almost exclusively played detectives and doctors. (Seriously, look at his Wikipedia page.) Makes total sense for a handsome, leading-man type. However, director Robert Rodriguez threw caution to the wind and hired Clooney to play a murderous robber on the run in the 1996 vampire flick, “From Dusk till Dawn.” Not only did it jump-start Clooney’s film career, but it also earned him Best Actor honors at the Saturn Awards and Best Breakthrough Performance at the MTV Movie Awards.
The character of Lotte in 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” was described as homely, so it was a curious choice to have her portrayed by the beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed actress Cameron Diaz. Even the film’s makeup artist, Gucci Westman, described styling Diaz in the role as “a challenge.” Although Cameron was barely recognizable under a crazy brown coif with brown eyes to match, she shined in the role and earned numerous award nods for her performance, including a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and two SAG Awards.
Remember the 1993 thriller “The Fugitive?" Harrison Ford was perfect as Dr. Richard Kimble — a man wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder — because Ford always plays such an honest, trustworthy family man. (As the animated sitcom “Family Guy” once pointed out, it seems like half of Ford's films are about getting his family back.) In fact, even if we didn’t know for sure that Kimble was innocent, we probably still would have believe him. Robert Zemeckis played right into this sentiment when he cast Ford in the 2000 psychological horror thriller “What Lies Beneath," which made things even more suspenseful and entertaining when the film flipped the script on its audience.
Samuel L. Jackson is usually cast in strong, powerful and loud roles, which is why it was odd to see him as a literally fragile man who suffers from brittle bone disease in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 superhero thriller, “Unbreakable.” Of course by the end of the film, it becomes clear that Jackson was actually a solid choice for the supervillain who eventually adopts the name “Mr. Glass.”
Audiences are used to seeing Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley in sophisticated and heroic roles, making his participation in 2000’s “Sexy Beast” odd based on the name alone. Even more out of character, Kingsley played an underworld gangster known for his violent, vile and psychopathic tendencies. Of course, the talented actor knocked it out of the park, and his performance earned Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Award nods, and he also won accolades from a large number of critics associations.
For the first 13 years of his film career, Adam Sandler strictly appeared in comedies — specifically dumb, crude, immature comedies. (And we loved every one of them!) But in 2002, Sandler teamed up with director Paul Thomas Anderson for the romantic dramedy “Punch-Drunk Love,” which not only saw him in a darker and more serious role, but also portraying a character with some actual depth for once. Interestingly, it was the last film of Sandler’s to be reviewed favorably until the release of “The Meyerowitz Stories” last year.
After films like “Easy Rider,” “Chinatown,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Shining” and “A Few Good Men,” casting Jack Nicholson as a sad, lonely and vulnerable man like the titular character in 2002’s “About Schmidt” seemed impossible. Yet Nicholson brought heart and sensitivity to his touching role in the dramedy, so much so that he surprisingly won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama. The win even shocked Nicholson himself, but for a different reason. In his acceptance speech, the actor quipped, “I'm a little surprised. I thought we made a comedy.”
It’s hard to believe now, but Matt Damon was once seen as a questionable choice for the character of Jason Bourne. Almost all of the young actor’s previous roles had been in dramas, and thus the physically demanding lead role was first offered to Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone. Not only did Damon eventually excel beyond expectation in 2002’s “The Bourne Identity” and three of its sequels, but he also insisted on doing most of the stunts himself.
By 2002, Robin Williams had proved he could do comedies, dramas and even action/adventure films. But turning him into an obsessive and psychotic stalker? That seemed far-fetched at first, until Williams proved everyone wrong with his role in the 2002 psychological thriller “One Hour Photo.” That same year, Williams also broke the mold with a similarly dark role in Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia.”
In 2002, Tom Hanks joined Adam Sandler, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Robin Williams as actors who were cast against the type that year. However, Hanks’ role may have been the most surprising, as “Road to Perdition” was the first major motion in picture in which he played a bad guy. Of course, Hanks’ character ends up being one of the more likable and decent men in the Oscar-nominated movie, but it was nevertheless odd to see America’s most beloved actor mowing down more than a dozen men with his trusty Thompson submachine gun.
Charlize Theron is one of the most beautiful (and talented!) women in Hollywood, which is why she began her film career with roles as the attractive girlfriend or wife in “That Thing You Do!,” “The Cider House Rules,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “Sweet November,” just to name a few. When “Monster” — a film about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos — was announced, few people would have pictured the gorgeous Theron as the plain-faced and unattractive murderer. However, the actress gained 30 pounds, shaved off her eyebrows and wore prosthetic teeth to transform into the infamous killer, and Theron’s performance ended up earning her an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award in 2003.
Jim Carrey’s early career was riddled with comedic roles, mostly of the slapstick or screwball varieties. He first tested the dramatic waters with 1998’s “The Truman Show,” 1999’s “Man on the Moon” and 2001’s “The Majestic,” but even those films contained a decent amount of lighthearted laughs. It wasn’t until the 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” that Carrey truly crossed over, and the results were astonishing. The funnyman proved he also possesses dramatic chops, and he, co-star Kate Winslet and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman made the dark, cerebral sci-fi film into one of the best movies of the 21st century — and the owner of a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Carrey himself earned SAG, Saturn and Golden Globe nominations.
Remember all that stuff about fan backlash when Michael Keaton was cast as the lead in 1989’s “Batman”? Well, when Heath Ledger was announced as the Joker for the 2008 Batman blockbuster, “The Dark Knight,” there were almost riots. After all, at the time, Ledger was known for only his lighthearted or romantic roles in films like “10 Things I Hate About You," “A Knight’s Tale” and “Brokeback Mountain,” leading few fans to believe he could tackle the dark and psychotic Joker character. Of course, Ledger shocked and shined in this career-defining role, and he eventually won Best Supporting Actor honors at both the Golden Globe and Academy Awards. Tragically, Ledger wouldn’t live to see any of this success: He died of an accidental prescription drug overdose at the age of 28 on Jan. 22, 2008 — six months prior to the film’s release.
For a while, Tom Cruise almost exclusively played characters who were cool, cocky or courageous (or all three), and he was almost always the hero. In 2004’s “Collateral,” however, he portrayed a ruthless hitman who was the antagonist to Jamie Foxx’s relatable everyman character. The formula worked: Both actors were praised for their performances, and “Collateral” even earned Cruise a Saturn Award nomination for Best Actor.
Elijah Wood’s career started when he was just a kid and grew through his teenage years. He continued his journey to becoming a serious actor with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which began in 2001 and ended in 2003. But it soon appeared as if the young, friendly faced actor was getting typecast. In response, Wood next accepted the role of a cannibalistic serial killer who preys on prostitutes in 2005’s “Sin City.” Needless to say, audiences soon realized that Wood could handle almost any role handed to him.
Jack Black was once the hottest comedic commodity in film, which included his starring or supporting roles in “High Fidelity,” “Saving Silverman,” “Shallow Hal” and “School of Rock.” However, in 2005, director Peter Jackson went against type when he cast Black as the lead in the monster film “King Kong.” The blockbuster was a success that netted more than $550 million at the worldwide box office, and Black’s performance helped him branch out of pure comedies (even though he still does plenty of those) with subsequent adventure movies like “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Goosebumps” and the “Jumanji” reboot.
If you need a neurotic guy for your film, hire Albert Brooks. If you want a morose and foul-mouthed mobster...well, that’s a different story. Heck, even “Drive” star Ryan Gosling thought Brooks himself wouldn’t accept the role of the violent Jewish gangster named Bernie Rose, but the funnyman signed on because Rose wasn’t a cliche. “There are six people you could always get to play this kind of part,” Brooks said, “and I like that the director was thinking outside of the box.” Not only did the 2011 crime thriller earn favorable reviews as a whole, but numerous critics singled out Brooks’ performance, with a few even calling it “Oscar-worthy.”
Liam Neeson is used to playing the hero (see "Schindler’s List," "Michael Collins," "Les Misérables," etc.) and has appeared in his fair share of action films, but casting him as a CIA assassin in "Taken" marked a complete turnaround for the Irish actor. Neeson went on to star in the film’s two sequels as well as numerous future action/adventure blockbusters, including "The A-Team," "The Grey," "A Walk Among the Tombstones" and "Run All Night."
When eight of your first dozen films are in the “Harry Potter” franchise (and three of the other four are also directed at kids or teens), it can be hard not to become typecast. However, Emma Watson successfully broke out in 2013 when she agreed to star in Sofia Coppola’s true-crime story, “The Bling Ring,” in which she played a fame-and-fortune-obsessed teen who, along with her friends, burglarizes the homes of numerous celebrities. Watson shined in the role, with many critics reporting shock that the actress who formerly played Hermione Granger could actually act so well. Although the overall movie was given mixed reviews, Watson was almost universally praised.
Hey, look, it's Steve Carrell again! When casting the role of philanthropist and convicted murderer John du Pont, “Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller made an unconventional decision by selecting funnyman Steve Carell. Known best for comedies like “Anchorman,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Despicable Me” and the TV sitcom “The Office,” Carell made his dramatic debut in the 2014 biographical film and wowed critics with his portrayal of the creepy multi-millionaire, and he eventually earned Best Actor nominations at the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe and Academy Awards. For the most part, Carell continued down the comedy path, but as his casting in "Beautiful Boy" shows, he's still capable of going against the type.