The 15 Greatest Movie Performances of Modern Actors Playing Against Type

8. Tom Cruise in Collateral


Tom Cruise certainly has numerous iconic roles, but most of the most notable usually have him playing some variation of a smart aleck hot-head. However, Cruise has made a living off these characters, not because we hate them, but he makes them palatable. We love characters with attitude, guts, and boyish charm. It’s all the better when they prove to have morals or a soft side like Charlie Babbitt or Jerry Maguire for example.

That’s what makes Collateral such a departure for Cruise. He plays action heroes often, but almost always of a certain caliber. Here he’s Vincent, a contract killer with a touch of grey and a few stops to make all across the city. Jamie Foxx is the taxi driver who gets roped into carting Vincent around town and he quickly learns just how cold-hearted and ruthless a man can be.

On introduction he seems like a genial and upfront sort of guy, but Vincent takes on a darker dimension that makes Michael Mann’s film far more interesting than many run-on-the-mill thrillers.


7. Jonah Hill in Moneyball


Thanks to Moneyball Jonah Hill was no longer the crude fat kid from films like Superbad (2007) and Knocked Up (2007), but it helped him prove he actually had acting chops. He played the recent college grad and numbers whiz Peter Brand opposite Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane.

The dynamic worked because Hill actually did a wonderful job playing the bookish foil to the worldly wise Pitt character. Not only did they work together well in the film, but rumor has it that Pitt also helped Hill get in better shape and it seems to have paid off.

Hill followed up this Oscar nomination with another notable turn in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and even his comedy fare like 21 Jump Street (2012) did not suffer. In fact, it probably gave him more credibility when he tried to drop the comedy for a moment and attempted to be sincere. Now people knew what he was capable of and every once and a while we can take him seriously. That’s not a bad quality to have at your disposal.


6. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation


In case you didn’t know already this is certainly not the Bill Murray we know from Caddyshack (1980) or even Ghostbusters (1984). The Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is older, perhaps wiser, and certainly more jaded than probably any character he has taken on before. It’s certainly a poignant performance as Bob Harris, a washed up actor, who heads to Japan to use his celebrity to advertise Suntory Whisky in Japan.

He walks through this foreign metropolis on an island far away from home isolated and alone. It feels very dismal for the start of a Bill Murray film, and yet it turns into a fully rewarding performance. Because Bob finds a friend. Both he and the newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are lost, not only in Japan, but within the waves of their lives. They are listless in the existence that they have at the moment and getting out of the funk seems like a tall order indeed.

Murray flourishes in this role, because he acts so genuinely. We empathize with him and this has-been character of his. He’s not constantly popping jokes or having to be the center of attention. He does not need to. Instead in all his nuance and understatement we come to appreciate this man who is lost and lonely just like a lot of the folks living in our great big world. There’s an often uncharacteristic vulnerability to it.


5. Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher

Steve Carell - Foxcatcher

True, Carrell has dipped his toe in drama before thanks to roles in films like Little Miss Sunshine (2005) and he’s even played jerks in films like The Way Way Back (Michael Scott was a lovable jerk). However, his turn as John du Pont in Foxcatcher is a striking departure on multiple levels.

From the get go this drama looks to be tense and since it’s based on a true story we essentially know the outcome. Du Pont will ultimately kill Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), but that is only the conclusion.

Carrell plays him as a tortured millionaire who wanted to be a leader of men setting up a sports facility to do just that. The prosthetics help, but Carell delivers his lines and utilizes little peculiarities in a way that is incredibly off putting. They don’t suggest a brazen murderer, but a man who is an isolated misfit. It’s certainly a chilling performance and it’s easy to lose the actor inside the role.


4. Charlize Theron in Monster


South African actress Charlize Theron is universally known for her astounding beauty and grace, making Monster an astonishing film for her to act in. It is a story about a prostitute-turned-serial killer after all. It was a brazen choice by director Paty Jenkins to give Theron the lead, and yet it paid heavy dividends.

It’s by far the biggest success Theron has achieved until her epic performance in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). But what made Monster strike such a chord is that as Aileen Wuornos, the actress dares to lose every shred of beauty, hiding behind this visage, and fully embodying not just this character but a real person.

A woman who committed murders, yes, but Theron makes her more complex than that. We are made to actually sympathize with her pitiful existence in a world that constantly uses and abuses her. It’s an extraordinary undertaking certainly deserving an Oscar nod.


3. Denzel Washington in Training Day


It usually, if not always, is a career boost when a superstar actor sheds the good guy persona for a moment and takes on something truly villainous. Denzel Washington played the All-American football coach in Remember the Titans (2000). That was about as upstanding, honorable, and courageous as you could get. But then came Training Day which introduced us to Detective Alonzo Harris.

He’s no saint. Not even close. In fact, he’s a real scumbag and that’s an understatement. Despite over a decade as part of the LAPD Narcotics Department, he’s feared by all, even his colleagues such as Officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). Alonzo has no sense of empathy, and corruption motivated by personal gain, is what makes him tick. Family is not even all that important to him. He looks after number one and simultaneously betrays whoever is in the way of his plans. He’s not above murdering people either.

It’s a wonderful juicy role for Washington and it garnered him an Oscar. Roles in films like American Gangster and even Flight allowed him to play these characters walking on the whole other side of the spectrum. It proves that audiences often enjoy it when the good guys turn bad, at least every once and a while.


2. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This is the high concept love story where Jim Carrey played it straight again as Joel. In fact, it really seems like he has had more success in dramas somewhat like Robin Williams or Bill Murray. However, it is often easy to forget that in Eternal Sunshine Kate Winslet is playing a character in Clementine that feel s very different than her usual roles. Ironically, she is known most for Rose opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. She’s nowhere as nasty or vile as Calvin Candie, but her Clementine is also no Rose.

Winslet flattens out the accent, slips in a few more four letter words, and wears her hair in a way that gives her the appearance of some surreal version of Pippy Longstocking with bed head. Visually and personality wise the performance is in a whole different realm altogether than anything Winslet has tried to play before. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch, because at its core this is still a love story.

It’s just that screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann and director Michel Gondry created a unique framework in which Carrey and Winslet could really break away from the status quo.


1. Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained


Leonardo DiCaprio was the quintessential teenage heartthrob thanks to ‘90s hits like Titanic (1997) and Romeo + Juliet (1996). That was how he made a name for himself and yet with the turn of the century he entered more mature territory thanks in part to collaborations with Martin Scorsese.

This new wave of films helped propel his career in a completely different direction thanks to performances in Gangs of New York (2002) and the Departed (2006) among others. However, I’m not sure if anyone could fully expect DiCaprio’s turn as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.

It was completely out of left field for an actor of such stature. The proprietor of Candyland is a conceited racist swimming in luxury, and filling his time eating cake and taking in Mandingo fights. He’s absolutely ruthless and despicable, but on top of that utterly ridiculous. He’s the type of absurd caricature that only Tarantino could create out of the mold of a stereotypical southern gentleman.

Supposedly the director advised DiCaprio to take the role to the extreme otherwise audiences would hold it against him. He obviously took the advice, because Calvin Candy is in every way imaginable over the top.

Author Bio: Tynan Yanaga is a college student and self-proclaimed amateur film critic and historian. He loves compiling lists and he has an immense fascination in classic films as well as film-noir. Follow his thoughts on the blog 4 Star Films: