More Extreme Movie Roles

Many actors have gone to extreme measures for their art. This includes weight loss, weight gain, learning to play instruments, learning languages, physical training, special skills training, psychological preparation and more. Christian Bale recently topped the “most extreme movie roles” poll published by Lovefilm. Here are some more examples of actors that have shown extraordinary commitment to their roles.

Natalie Portman "Black Swan"
Natalie Portman "Black Swan"
Mila Kunis "Black Swan"
Mila Kunis "Black Swan"

Natalie Portman & Mila Kunis

Black Swan (2010)

Portman and Kunis went through exhaustive preparation for their roles as competing ballerinas in Black Swan. While both normally have petite figures, they each lost an extra 20lbs (9kg). Towards the end, Portman became so thin that director Darren Aronofsky had to push her to start eating again, because of concern for her health. The intensive training schedule spanned six months, 5 to 8 hours a day, 6 days a week; with a program that included swimming, muscle toning, cardio, Pilates and Ballet. Portman’s dance training began a year out from shooting, with the last six months being the most extreme. She slept only a few hours a night and persisted through the demanding regime with the help of coffee and painkillers. In an interview with Vogue, Portman describes the experience: “The discipline was good for the part – it hurt a lot; your body is in constant pain.” Her brilliant performance and hard work has earned a Golden Globe and the 2011 Academy Award for Best Actress.

Adrien Brody "The Jacket"
Adrien Brody "The Jacket"

Adrien Brody

The Pianist (2002). The Jacket (2005).

For the role of Polish-Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist, Brody learned to play Chopin on the piano. The actual audio and the close up shots of hands playing were provided by professional pianist Janusz Olejniczak, but Brody spent months practicing the piano so that the shots of him playing in the film would look realistic. Despite his naturally tall, skinny frame, he lost an additional 30lbs (13kg) for the role. His performance was widely acclaimed and at 29 years old he became the youngest actor to receive the Academy Award for Best Actor (2003).

For thriller movie The Jacket, Brody’s character is confined to a mental institution and he becomes the subject for experiments, where he is bound in a straight jacket and put into a mortuary drawer for hours at a time. To attempt to comprehend the character’s psychological trauma, Brody would remain lying on the metal gurney in the straight jacket, even when not shooting. He also subjected himself to extended sessions in a real sensory deprivation chamber.

Forest Whitaker "The Last King of Scotland"
Forest Whitaker "The Last King of Scotland"

Forest Whitaker

Bird (1988). The Last King of Scotland (2006).

For the biographical film about jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, Whitaker learned to play the saxophone and did substantial research for the role. His performance won the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival 1988 and he was nominated for a Golden Globe award.

In preparation for his Academy Award winning portrayal of Ugandan General Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker immersed himself in research about the charismatic but ferocious dictator. He studied books, documentaries, TV interviews and recordings of Amin’s speeches, and learned Swahili to be able to imitate Amin’s accent. While shooting on location in Uganda he met with members of Amin’s family, including some of his Government and Army officials and even the country’s King. He also learned to play the accordion and gained 50lbs (23kg) to embody Amin’s bulky physique.

Hilary Swank "Million Dollar Baby"
Hilary Swank "Million Dollar Baby"
Hilary Swank "Boys Don't Cry"
Hilary Swank "Boys Don't Cry"

Hilary Swank

Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Million Dollar Baby (2004).

For her transgender character Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, Swank spent about a month living as a man, she cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothing and taped her chest. She reduced her body fat to a lean seven percent and would stay in character even when off camera. Her performance was critically acclaimed and she achieved the 1999 Best Actress Academy Award.

To prepare for her part as waitress turned boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, Swank transformed herself into a fighting machine, gaining nearly 19lbs (9kg) of muscle. She trained in boxing and weightlifting for about 3 months, up to 5 hours per day, 6 days a week. To be able to put on so much muscle, Swank had to consume huge amounts of protein that required eating every hour and a half, drinking up to 60 egg whites in a day and taking flaxseed oil. In an interview, she described how sleep was also part of the training program: “I needed a lot of sleep at night because my body was going through this change, but I couldn’t go to sleep without waking up and eating. So I would wake up, and I would drink protein shakes.” Her outstanding performance earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress in 2004.


Marlon Brando "The Men"
Marlon Brando "The Men"
Edward Norton "American History X"
Edward Norton "American History X"

Marlon Brando

The Men (1950)

Brando is considered to be one of the greatest American actors that ever lived and many believe him to be the original leader in method acting. For his film debut in The Men as a paraplegic World War II Lieutenant, Brando stayed nearly a month in bed at a real life veterans hospital and spent much of the duration of the film shoot confined to a wheelchair, even when offset.

Edward Norton

American History X (1998). Rounders (1998).

To play a neo-Nazi trying to turn over a new leaf in American History X, Norton shaved his head and altered his usually slim body by gaining about 30lbs (13kg) of muscle.

As a result of their roles as poker players in Rounders, both Norton and co-star Matt Damon partook in the 1998 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, although they didn’t make it pass the early rounds.


Matt Damon "The Bourne Identity"
Matt Damon "The Bourne Identity"
"Courage Under Fire" / "The Informant"
"Courage Under Fire" / "The Informant"

Matt Damon

Courage Under Fire (1996). The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). The Bourne Identity (2002).The Informant (2009).

Damon was so committed to his role as a drug addicted soldier in Courage Under Fire that he lost 40lbs (18kg). His sudden extreme weight loss significantly affected his health for some time after and he had to take medication for damage done to his adrenal glands.

He dropped his weight again by losing about 30lbs (14kg) and learning to play the piano for his portrayal of the shady Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

For his character of CIA agent Jason Bourne in spy thriller The Bourne Identity, Damon spent 6 months training in boxing after director Doug Liman suggested that he needed to “walk like a fighter”. He also did extensive training with a former Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T) shotgunner.

To become tubby whistleblower Mark Whitacre in The Informant, he gained considerable weight by apparently just eating everything he could see.

Heath Ledger "The Dark Knight"
Heath Ledger "The Dark Knight"

Heath Ledger

The Dark Knight (2008)

Ledger’s exceptional performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight posthumously propelled him to mega-stardom and earned him the 2008 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In an interview with Empire Magazine, Ledger shared how he got into character, "I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown.” Ledger intense immersion into the role is thought to have worsened his existing problem with insomnia, which may have contributed to his untimely death due to an overdose of prescription drugs.

Meryl Streep "Music of the Heart"
Meryl Streep "Music of the Heart"
Russell Crowe "Body of Lies"
Russell Crowe "Body of Lies"
Rene Zellweger "Bridget Jones's Diary"
Rene Zellweger "Bridget Jones's Diary"
Vincent D'Onofrio "Full Metal Jacket"
Vincent D'Onofrio "Full Metal Jacket"
Eric Bana "Chopper"
Eric Bana "Chopper"
Dennis Hopper & Isabella Rossellini "Blue Velvet"
Dennis Hopper & Isabella Rossellini "Blue Velvet"

Meryl Streep

Music of the Heart (1999)

In Music of the Heart, Streep plays violin teacher Roberta Guaspari. She learned to play the violin for the role, practicing 6 hours a day for about 2 months.


Russell Crowe

Body of Lies (2008)

For his role as tubby CIA boss in Body of Lies, Crowe put on an amazing 63lbs (28kg) by supposedly indulging in cheeseburgers and cupcakes.


Renée Zellweger

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)

Zellweger plumped up by 20lbs (9kg) to play the memorable Bridget Jones in romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary. She also spent a few weeks undercover doing work experience at the London office of publishing company Picador.


Vincent D’Onofrio

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

D’Onofrio is famous for breaking Robert De Niro’s Raging Bull (1980) record for weight gain, when he put on a massive 70lbs (32kg) to play Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket.


Eric Bana

Chopper (2000)

Bana gained nearly 30lbs (13kg) for his portrayal of Australian criminal Mark “Chopper” Read in Chopper. Bana’s beefy transformation into a hardened, violent figure was a shock for audiences who knew him up until that point as a TV comedy actor.


Isabella Rossellini & Dennis Hopper

Blue Velvet (1986)

In David Lynch’s cult film Blue Velvet, there is the infamous scene depicting a disturbingly abusive sexual encounter between Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini) and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). In part of the scene, Frank inhales gas through an oxygen mask while kneeling on the ground and looking between Dorothy’s open legs. In a behind the scenes interview, Rossellini reveals that she was actually naked underneath her robe for scene, because underwear would’ve been visible on camera. The day of shooting this scene happened to also be the first day she and Hopper met.

Will Smith "Ali"
Will Smith "Ali"

Will Smith

Ali (2001)

Smith began training to become legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in the biopic Ali nearly a year out from shooting. He was coached by Darrell Foster, who was a former professional boxer and trainer of former world champion Sugar Ray Leonard. In an interview with Time magazine, Foster tells how he moved Smith to Miami for training, so that he could become accustomed to the humidity of the African shoot locations. Smith had to run three miles each morning, lift weights and practice boxing for several hours each day. He bulked up by about 30lbs (14kg) on a high protein diet, eventually reaching a muscly 224lbs (102kg).

Jared Leto "Chapter 27"
Jared Leto "Chapter 27"
50 Cent / Twitter photo
50 Cent / Twitter photo

Jared Leto

Chapter 27 (2007)

The usually trim and toned Jared Leto became virtually unrecogniseable when he put on about 60lbs (27kg) to become the flabby Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27, a film about Chapman’s murder of John Lennon.

50 Cent

Things Fall Apart (2011)

50 Cent (real name Curtis Jackson) shocked the world when he posted photos of himself on Twitter looking extremely gaunt. The rapper/actor’s transformation was so dramatic from his normally bulging biceps that rumors quickly spread that the photos were a hoax. However, 50 Cent soon confirmed that they were real and that his weight loss of 55lbs (25kg) was for the film Things Fall Apart, in which he plays a footballer with cancer.

Vincent Cassel "Mesrine"
Vincent Cassel "Mesrine"

Vincent Cassel

Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1(2008)

To play French gangster Jacques Mesrine in the epic two part film Mesrine: Killer Instinctand Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1, the ordinarily lean Cassel put on about 45lbs (20kg) over the course of 4 months. He managed to gradually lose the weight over the 9 months of shooting.

Benicio Del Toro "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
Benicio Del Toro "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
Tom Hardy "Bronson"
Tom Hardy "Bronson"

Benicio Del Toro

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

For the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Del Toro put on 40lbs (18kg) to play lawyer Dr. Gonzo, who travels with a wacky journalist to Las Vegas in a bizarre, drug-fuelled adventure. Del Toro has commented that he put on the weight with the help of donuts.

Tom Hardy

Bronson (2008)

Hardy gained a huge 42lbs (19kg) in just five weeks to become the hulky lead in Bronson, a biographical film about notorious British criminal Michael Peterson, re-named Charles Bronson. Bronson is well known in Britain for being a dangerous, loose cannon who has spent over 30 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement.

More by this Author


Comments 2 comments

Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

More great roles....kudos for naming Brando in The Men...that movie does not get mentioned very often...voted up


Alecia 4 years ago

Fascinating and inspiring! Your wring draws me in and makes me want to watch more!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working