By: Brennan Carley, Taylor Cavallo, and Dan Siering
Actors are a fickle breed. They thrive off their annual awards shows, heaping praise on one another like it’s the last time they’ll ever be in a room together.
If history has taught audiences anything, it’s that actors and actresses love to leave their comfort zones—after all, how else does someone get a critic to describe his or her work as edgy?
For as long as movies have existed, actors who’ve carved themselves a groove—whether it be the funniest woman in the business or the guy who can shed a tear like no other—relish the opportunity to leave that genre. Take Eddie Murphy, for example: after years of gross-out comedies—all the Shrek films included—he delivered a bomb of a heartbreaking performance in Dreamgirls, and oh, how the critics crooned. Morgan Freeman took a journey opposite of Murphy’s, segueing his years of experience in dramas like The Green Mile and Driving Miss Daisy into family-friendly fare like Bruce Almighty and The Bucket List.
When we sat down to pick the five actors we wanted to highlight, it was close to impossible to narrow it down. Inside, we present the five most shining examples of actors who have both soared and failed in leaving their comfort zones.
Meryl Streep, one of Hollywood’s timeless and most talented actresses, gave one of her finest acting performances in the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice. Through the eyes of Stingo, a young writer, the story chronicles the life and past life of Sophie, a concentration camp survivor whose husband and father were killed by Nazis. The film is complex, and flashbacks add volume to the plot. During the film, it is revealed that Sophie had to make a choice between her two young children—one would be gassed and the other would be sent to a children’s camp. Filled with romance and despair, this film is famously one of the saddest movies of all time, and Streep plays the tortured Polish immigrant who survived unthinkable atrocities unbelievably well, truly evoking real and raw emotion in her viewers. It is one of Streep’s most famous roles, and the movie in general is surely something that will never be forgotten.
The Devil Wears Prada
In The Devil Wears Prada, a light-hearted, slightly dramatic comedy from 2006, Streep plays Miranda Priestly, a tough editor of a fashion magazine. Anne Hathaway, her young employee, is naive and has not yet been taught the rough reality of a job in the fashion world. Streep plays the part of ridiculous, over-the top fashion world witch extremely well. While the role is entirely different than anything she had done before, especially when compared to Sophie’s Choice, she played her demanding, powerful and rude part to perfection, receiving critical praise for her role, which is considered to be one of the main reasons for the film’s great success. While it is perhaps difficult to even remember that this is the same actress as in Sophie’s Choice and countless other Hollywood dramas, Streep’s role in The Devil Wears Prada truly presents her talent and versatility as a multifaceted actress capable of performing a multitude of roles in various genres.
Lost In Translation
Despite over a decade in the field, the crown jewel of Murray’s dramatic career is still Lost in Translation, a deliberate yet powerful film in which he stars as an aging actor who develops a strong relationship with a young college grad while abroad in Tokyo. Starring opposite Scarlett Johansson, Murray delivered such a convincing and emotionally real performance that he was honored with an Oscar nomination. Though he did not win a gold statue, Murray can still find solace in being a rare talent who has artfully made the leap from comedy to drama.
Getting his start on Saturday Night Live, Murray made the inevitable leap into comedic film in the early ’80s and enjoyed an expansive comedic career in cinema for nearly two decades. A highlight of Murray’s comedic tenure is Groundhog Day, a doleful comedy in which Murray must endlessly relive Feb. 2 until he has wholeheartedly changed for the better. Well into his late 40s, Murray decided to make a jump that few comedy actors attempt and entered into the dramatic sector. The legendary actor, with comedic skills doused in melancholy, easily made the genre switch and now has become a respectable actor outside of comedy.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Who knew, then, that Carrey could do drama so seriously? In the cerebral Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carrey played a man trying desperately to piece together the fragments of memories he later discovers he has paid to forget. Kate Winslet brought out Carrey’s inner romantic—the memories of their relationship literally crumble around him as he struggles to decide whether or not he’s still in love with her. Everyone knows that Carrey can do frantic better than anyone, but what was truly memorable was when he and Winslet’s character relaxed on a frozen lake in near silence. It was memorable, it was beautiful, and it was Carrey’s best work to date.
It’s a fact—Jim Carrey has put out some seriously unfunny movies. I’m starting to think that he’ll do anything, no matter how completely stale and un-laughable the material, for a paycheck. Last year’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins was a blow to diehard fans of the classic children’s novel. His comedic high was debatably Bruce Almighty, a knowingly goofy movie that was in on the joke. His charm and enthusiasm seemed genuine, and his chemistry with Jennifer Aniston was believable. Who can forget when Bruce sent a monkey flying out of a mugger’s backside? It was comedic gold.
Natalie Portman received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Nina, the emotionally fragile, perfectionist ballerina who embarks on the slow path to a neurotically-driven insanity in hopes of getting in touch with her dark side in the 2010 film Black Swan. The role in itself is extremely difficult. Analogous to the ballet Swan Lake, which the movie is centered around, Portman at times needed to play both a naive, innocent girl and a sinister, hallucinating maniac, truly highlighting her acting abilities, as both parts were played to perfection, realistically and with an eerie sense of ease. Not only was her acting phenomenal, but she also trained and rehearsed for months before the filming of the movie in order to perform all the ballet routines herself, adding another layer of authenticity to her role. Black Swan, an aesthetically pleasing psychological thriller, was an incredible movie that took something truly beautiful, namely the artistry of Tchaikovsky and ballerinas in general, and willfully perverted it, making it into something truly terrifying.
Portman unfortunately didn’t make the best decisions in agreeing to play Isabel in the 2011 fantasy, fairytale comedy film Your Highness. Isabel, a female warrior avenging both her innocent father and brother’s deaths, plays the archetypical strong, sassy female character, who eventually gets won over by a male protagonist, in this case, Thadeous, played by Danny McBride (another unfortunate choice). The crude humor and stupidity of this comedy, which some reviewers were forced to strongly consider as possibly the worst movie ever made, was clearly a disappointing choice for Portman, especially after her role in Black Swan, and other fantastic movies such as V For Vendetta and Garden State. However, there have been some other unfortunate choices on her part as of late, such as Thor and No Strings Attached, as none of these films truly capture her acting abilities as exhibited in Black Swan. Not only was Your Highness terrible, but Portman’s acceptance of the role at all was laughable and confusing.
One of the founding members of the “Frat Pack,” actor Vince Vaughn has established himself in Hollywood as one of the most popular comedic actors in the industry. While Vaughn was prime to begin a formidable comedy career, the still youthful actor was elected to revive the role of Norman Bates for a shot-by-shot remake of the classic thriller Psycho by Gus Van Sant. The film was an utter flop at the box office and received bitter reviews from critics, ultimately winning two Razzies for Worst Remake and Worst Director.
Vaughn was vaulted into stardom after his starring role in Swingers, an early ’90s cult comedy hit that revolved around the quirky antics of two L.A. bachelors. Since the Psycho disaster, Vaughn has stayed clear of serious roles and has focused on expanding his comedic resume. The actor has since wiped away most of the bitter taste of his unsuccessful plunge into the dramatic world, yet he still stands as a stirring example of the all-too-common occurrence of actors failing to expand genres.