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The 15 Greatest Movie Performances of Modern Actors Playing Against Type

03 August 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Tynan Yanaga

django unchained (2012)

There are numerous reasons to go to the movies, but one of the most substantial is to see our favorite stars in the next big film that comes out. But it’s true that even stars can get typecast or stuck in a certain niche. That’s what makes it so rewarding when an actor plays against type, at least when they nail it.

Such roles give the audience a different perspective, a different taste of what they can do, and often these types of roles can even help to redefine careers. In the 21st century there have undoubtedly been numerous such performances, but here are 15 worth considering.

 

15. Emma Watson in Bling Ring

The Bling Ring

She’s making a valiant effort certainly, but Emma Watson will always and forever be studious and quick-witted Hermione Granger in the hearts of fans all across the world. However, a film like the Bling Ring shows the actress working diligently to break away from the typecasting that still seems to hang over her.

In Sofia Coppola’s film she plays Nicki Moore, one of the culprits of the bling ring burglaries. Like her compatriots she’s obsessed with the stars and their lavish lifestyles. It’s quickly obvious this is no Hermione and it’s not even like free-spirited Sam from Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).

Watson’s has superficiality and an obsession for the Hollywood lifestyle that pervades her entire performance. She does a wonderful job at being such a hollow individual. The kind of teen society learns to look at for 15 minutes of fame, and then either give a reality TV show, or toss aside for good.

 

14. Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition (2002)

There’s a reason that Tom Hanks is known by some as the modern day Jimmy Stewart. He’s All-American. He’s an everyman and he’s generally good. Stewart brought more nuance into some of his later roles and Road to Perdition signals a similar change for Hanks.

He’s not the simple starry-eyed young man from Big (1988) or Forrest Gump (1994) for that matter. He still has morals and he cares about family, but what sets Michael Sullivan apart is his day job. He’s an enforcer for Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) and the Tommy gun is his best pal.

That means that the world he lives in is not some Middle America paradise, but a depression era gutter of rank buildings and booze. It’s not a typical Tom Hanks film, but he proves his aptitude at navigating this darker world.

 

13. Liam Neeson in Batman Begins

liam_neeson_batman_begins_ras_al_ghul_the_dark_knight_rises_reflection_of_batmans_persona

Much like Morgan Freeman or Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson perennially portrays so many characters who are the epitome of cool. Just take a look at his filmography for a moment. He played Holocaust hero Oskar Schindler, voiced the majestic Lion Aslan from Narnia, and played Jedi Knight Qui Gon Jinn, while also taking the law into his own hands after his daughter was taken.

In Batman Begins it felt like the same type of narrative. Henri Ducard was a master in martial arts who took it upon himself to train Bruce Wayne. He was a mentor, teacher, and altogether impressive individual will almost supernatural skill. But in Christopher Nolan’s the typical was subverted, because, of course, Ducard was actually Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows and he was prepared to bring Gotham City down to its knees.

It’s a far different villainous performance than that of the Joker or even Bane. It feels less theatrical and impressive. However, the understated performance by Neeson is still adequately evil in a quietly threatening sort of way. For once, the audience wants Neeson to falter and that he does at the hands of the Batman.

 

12. Geoffrey Rush in Pirates of the Caribbean

still-of-geoffrey-rush-and-keira-knightley-in-pirates-of-the-caribbean--the-curse-of-the-black-pearl-(2003)-large-picture

Geoffrey Rush has such a pleasant face and generally low key demeanor that he always seems perfectly equipped for the latest period piece whether it is The King’s Speech (2010) or The Book Thief (2013). Even to some extent in Shine (1996) he plays another easily likable character despite his difficulty with in social settings. Leave those performances behind for a moment and think of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).

Jack Sparrow is a wonderful hero, but every hero needs a great antagonist and Barbossa fits the bill. He of course is none other than Geoffrey Rush except his winning smile is more of a devilish grin highlighted by a row of yellowing pearly whites.

You can only imagine that Rush relished the opportunity to play such a scurvy dog with all the characteristics that go with the part. He got to dress and talk like a pirate after all. It turns out to be a good show and it gets even better when we find out the secret of captain and crew. They aren’t just a band of mangy seafarers. They’re ghost pirates.

 

11. Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love

Punch Drunk Love

Adam Sandler. He’s the silly guy from Happy Gilmore (1996) or, heaven forbid, Grown Ups 1 & 2. That’s what he’s made a career off of essentially. That’s why Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love was such an intriguing change of pace.

He plays a timid nobody who doesn’t have a girlfriend, works a dead end job, and is generally lonely without even seeming to realize it. Sandler instills Barry Eagan with a touch of whimsy and even child-like qualities. He’s one of those lovable losers who gets in way over his head. The biggest change is that we actually seem to feel for him.

Barry’s not some Adam Sandler buffoon falling in love and laughing at the antics of his crazy friends. He’s a different man than that and it’s certainly refreshing seeing Sandler doing something outside his general range of characters.

 

10. Robin Williams in Insomnia

insomnia-2002

Often Robin Williams appears most effective in dramatic roles where his brilliant comic ability is able to shine through. His ad-libbing and off the wall antics are generally superb and they can feel so wonderfully organic. Take a film like Good Morning Vietnam or even Good Will Hunting. There are parts that are very funny and yet underlining these stories is tragedy whether it is due to war or personal hardship.

However, he drops all pretenses in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and willingly takes on the role of a villain. Except he’s a villain, in Walter Finch, who doesn’t seem to think he’s in the wrong. He plays opposite Al Pacino, a policeman who has his own demons to deal with, and it makes for an interesting pairing. The killer and the cop so closely connected with each other. Furthermore, Williams carries the role with a smooth, matter of fact aloofness that is positively chilling. There’s no good guy here.

 

9. Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger than Fiction

There are usually two types of trends on this list: The normally “good” actors playing more villainous types or comedic actors taking on more dramatic fair. Will Ferrell’s performance in Stranger Than Fiction fits the latter category. Instead of donning some crazy getup like in Zoolander or Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, he dared to be himself in a sense.

It’s always gratifying to see a different side of actors than we normally do. Because let’s face it, life is a lot of fun and games sometimes, but it can also be filled with moral questions and pain. There is immense beauty when an actor is willing to acknowledge that with a performance as Ferrell does here. He’s willing to play a different kind of man.

Not his normal schmuck or cartoonish cut up, but a man in Harold Crick whose life seems to be utter normalcy. The world he lives in is only out of sync thanks to Emma Thompson. In that world there can be banality, stress, and humor as well, but it comes with everyday interactions.

 

 

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  • Veronica Clarke

    Some great movies on this list. I loved Robin Williams in ‘Insomnia’. He was so very nonchalant about the whole thing, a really different role for him.

  • Samuel Butler

    Sigorney Weaver in Working Girl, Harrison Ford in What Lies Beneath, Kathy Bates in Misery and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled.

  • Still D.R.E.

    Morgan Freeman in Gone Baby Gone, Samuel L Jackson in Unbreakable

    • Tobias Palma

      Unbreakable is a very underrated film.

  • Unkle Amon

    Burt Lancaster in 1900.

  • Pete Clark

    Hugh Grant in Cloud Atlas.

  • I disagree with the claim Bill Murray is against character in Lost In Translation. He is in his typical sarcastic persona not unlike the one in
    Groundhog Day and Quick Change. Only a bit more sad and middle-age-crisisy. The rest of the entries on the list are truly brilliant, indeed.

  • Tobias Palma

    Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder

  • M.

    Keanu Reeves in ‘Knock, Knock’

  • Sercan

    Me in my life

  • TheRealStrider

    Heath Ledger as the Joker!

  • Nancy Hall

    Aren’t these just examples of actors acting?