15 actors who were almost unrecognisable in their roles

Ellie Harrison
·6-min read
 (Rex)
(Rex)

Sacha Baron Cohen made headlines this week when fans saw his wild new hairdo in the trailer for The Trial of the Chicago 7. David Tennant, too, shocked many with his new look as serial killer Dennis Nilsen in Des.

But these actors’ transformations are mild compared to some of the on-screen metamorphoses out there.

Read on for a list of 15 actors who were almost unrecognisable in their roles in films and on television…

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003)

TheronRex
TheronRex

Charlize Theron gained 30lb, wore dodgy dentures, and shaved and bleached her eyebrows in order to look like Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Was it worth it? Yes. The legendary critic Roger Ebert called her turn in Monster "not just a performance but an embodiment, one of the greatest in the history of cinema”. Theron won 17 awards, including the best actress Oscar.

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980)

De NiroRex
De NiroRex

In the Martin Scorsese classic Raging Bull, Robert De Niro played an Italian-American middleweight boxer. The timeline of the movie spanned several decades, which meant De Niro had to have a convincing fighting physique but also portray Jake LaMotta as older and overweight. He gained 60lb for the role by eating as much pasta as he possibly could.

Eddie Murphy as Saul in Coming to America (1988)

MurphyRex
MurphyRex

Eddie Murphy played several small characters in this 1988 romcom, including elderly Jewish barbershop customer Saul. The actor and the film’s director John Landis devised the role as revenge for Jewish comedians adopting “blackface” in the early 1900s.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope in Southpaw (2015)

GyllenhaalRex
GyllenhaalRex

Jake Gyllenhaal gained a lot of muscle for his role as a boxer who loses his family and suffers from depression. His training schedule consisted of two sets of 1,000 press-ups a day, a five-mile run, and intensive boxing practice.

Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in The Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

McConaugheyRex
McConaugheyRex

On a diet of egg whites, chicken, and Diet Coke, Matthew McConaughey reduced his weight to just 9.5 stone for HIV drug drama The Dallas Buyers Club. He also avoided sunlight for half a year. The actor previously said that when people stopped asking if he was alright and started suggesting he seek help, he thought: “There we go. That’s the perfect spot.”

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl (2015)

RedmayneRex
RedmayneRex

When Eddie Redmayne played Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, the decision to cast a cisgender male as a transgender female was widely criticised. “There is a hugely valid argument that Lili should be being played by a trans actress and that at the core of the issue there is little opportunity for trans people and there is a huge job discrimination,” said Redmayne. “What’s complicated to me, from an actor’s point of view, is that I feel like everyone should be able to play everything.”

Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in Quiz (2020)

SheenRex/ITV
SheenRex/ITV

In the ITV drama about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal, the hair, and make-up department excelled at making Michael Sheen look just like show host Tarrant, with his perma-tan and side-parting. But Sheen was also applauded for totally nailing Tarrant’s nasal chuckle and showbiz smile.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

MaraRex
MaraRex

With the help of dyed, jagged hair and bleached eyebrows, a temporary tattoo and piercings in her ears and nipple, Rooney Mara managed to transform into Stieg Larsson’s emo hacker. She also lost 15lb for the role. Despite all of this, there was only one thing Mara was nervous about on the shoot: riding a motorbike.

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007)

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BlanchettRex

Cate Blanchett managed to avoid prosthetics and extreme diets when she morphed into Bob Dylan for this biopic. A simple combination of sunglasses, a suit, a wig, and a cigarette did the trick.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice (2018)

BaleRex
BaleRex

Christian Bale has made a name for himself by going to extreme lengths to transform his image for movie roles. Take Machinist, when he dropped down to eight and a half stone to portray an insomniac. He didn’t do anything nearly as drastic for Vice, but it’s still one of the films where he is least recognisable. Bale spent four to eight hours a day in the makeup chair on set, with his scalp shaved and eyebrows bleached to prepare his head for wigs and prosthetics. He also studied hundreds of hours of Dick Cheney footage to capture his mannerisms.

Emma Thompson as Nanny McPhee in Nanny McPhee (2005)

ThompsonRex
ThompsonRex

To portray the childminder in the beloved children’s film, Emma Thompson was given wonky, cartoonish teeth, a swollen nose, and mottled skin. It only took an hour and a half to make her unrecognisable, which is nothing in the scheme of things.

Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

RobbieRex
RobbieRex

Wearing a frizzy red wig, with porcelain skin and an array of facial scars on her cheeks and chin, Margot Robbie looked just the part in this period drama. The actor did find it strange not being in her own skin on set, though. “It was very alienating," she said. "I felt very lonely. It was an interesting social experiment."

Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy in Fargo (2017)

McGregorRex/C4
McGregorRex/C4

Ewan McGregor played dual roles in the third season of Fargo. For one of them, he had to look very different, with thinning hair and a more plump physique. “There was not one paparazzi shot, not one fan shot that ended up online. Because no one knew it was me,” McGregor said.

Julie Lake as Angie in Orange is the New Black (2013)

LakeRex/Netflix
LakeRex/Netflix

Julie Lake’s new look in the Netflix hit was surprisingly easy to achieve with makeup artists simply painting her teeth in hues of mud green and mustard yellow. “I wish I could say it takes three hours to make me look hideous, but the make-up alone is two minutes and the hair is 20,” she once said. “It's amazing how hideous you look with bad teeth.”

Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass (2015)

DeppRex
DeppRex

Johnny Depp transformed into a notorious real-life mobster for this crime thriller with the help of bald caps, hair implants, facial prosthetics, icy contact lenses, and teeth-staining. The actor wanted to meet James Bulger in person, to examine his mannerisms, but the criminal refused. Instead, Depp studied footage of the thug and interviewed his lawyer.