Some actors are so serious about their craft that they’ll transform their entire look and even risk their health for a movie role. The results are fascinating, but there’s a sense in which they’re also more than a little unsettling. These 20 performers pushed their bodies to the extreme in order to better inhabit their characters.
20. Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables (2012)
Anne Hathaway was cast as Fantine for the 2012 version of Les Miserables. It wasn’t an easy role to play. Fantine starts off as a beautiful and innocent young woman, but is forced to turn to prostitution to support herself and her daughter. She becomes more and more ill on the streets until finally she dies. And Hathaway would have to sing while portraying her character’s journey.
Hathaway lost weight – 25 pounds over the course of just two weeks — and had her head shaved on camera to boot. She told the Deadline website in 2012 that the head-shaving “completely undid” her and by the end of the shoot she “had no vanity left.” But it was all worth it in the end. The following year, she took home an Oscar for her performance.
19. Zac Efron in Baywatch (2017)
Zac Efron was always an attractive man, but could he make it in Baywatch? And perhaps even more importantly, could he go up against the incredibly ripped Dwayne Johnson, his co-star in the 2017 movie? Efron rose to the occasion impressively. He looked very different in Baywatch to how he’d looked in High School Musical and other, previous roles.
In 2017 Efron told film critic Emanuel Levy, “I wanted to be accurate and to look like an Olympic athlete and so I started training like one. I trained my ass off. It was really, really hard. I still continue to train but I’m not doing two or three a day workouts anymore. And I’m not eating exorbitant amounts of food in pre-packaged boxes. I’m on a break for a while.” Good call.
18. Tom Hardy in Bronson (2008)
Tom Hardy was cast to play the infamous criminal Charles Bronson in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 biopic about him. And since the “most dangerous prisoner in Britain” was very much still around, it raised the stakes considerably. According to Hardy, Bronson didn’t think much of him when they first met. But that soon changed.
Hardy trained relentlessly to build his upper body strength, plus he shaved his head and grew a moustache just like Bronson’s. The inmate was so impressed that he wrote of Hardy in his 2008 prison diary, “He looks awesome and I’m so f**king proud of him. You wouldn’t want to meet him down a dark alley at 3am. Tom looks more like me than I look like me.”
17. 50 Cent in All Things Fall Apart (2011)
In 2010 rapper 50 Cent began losing weight to play a football player stricken with cancer in All Things Fall Apart. And he had a personal reason for wanting to play the role. He explained to the Call and Post newspaper that year, “I had a friend of mine who actually experienced cancer, and it’s what motivated me to write this screenplay.”
50 Cent continued, “You don’t have to make everything personal, but that project was. That’s why I committed to playing a role where I lost 54 pounds. I had to discipline myself enough until I achieved it but … I got it.” He also mentioned that the only reason he was allowed the time to lose so much weight was because he was financing the movie himself and could make his own schedule.
16. Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider (2018)
To play the iconic video game heroine Lara Croft in the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, Alicia Vikander had to change up her look. Her take on Croft had to actually look like somebody who ran and jumped her way across the world in pursuit of archaeology. It would take a lot of work on her part.
Vikander began working with Swedish trainer Magnus Lygdback, the man who helped Gal Gadot become Wonder Woman. She took up rock climbing, fighting and swimming training for seven months before the cameras started rolling and gained 12 pounds of muscle. She even got to show off her new look at the 2017 Academy Awards thanks to a backless dress. Lara Croft would approve.
15. Matt Damon in The Informant! (2009)
Matt Damon was better known as an action star — the man behind Jason Bourne — when he was cast as Mark Whitacre in Steven Soderbergh comedy The Informant!. Suddenly he needed to be much flabbier than he actually was. Damon rose to the challenge impressively, since it mostly involved eating.
Damon’s friend Ben Affleck made fun of his new body, yet he persevered. He told Entertainment Weekly, “I definitely got doughy. I started eating like crazy and drinking dark beer. Between meals on set, I’d eat a No. 1 Value Meal at McDonald’s and then Doritos on top of it. It was absolute heaven.”
14. Will Smith in Ali (2001)
When Will Smith was cast as iconic boxer Muhammad Ali, he didn’t really look all that much like him. He was skinny, for a start. So Smith set out on an intense training regime which pushed him to his limits. Apparently, by 1998 he’d changed so much that his Legend of Bagger Vance co-star Charlize Theron asked to squeeze his muscles.
In 2020 BESTFIT magazine asked Smith what his toughest film workout had been. He answered, “Without a doubt, that was when I was bulking up for Ali. It was a case of piling on muscle and mass, whilst trying to stay in shape.” He added, “It was intense, and involved a lot of running and treadmill work to ensure I was burning any excess fuel that didn’t add size.”
13. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014)
Jake Gyllenhall seriously disappeared into the role of Lou in Nightcrawler. He employed method acting techniques that got downright dangerous at times. At one point he smashed a mirror in-character, which resulted in a painful injury, a trip to the hospital and a permanent scar. And then there was the weight-loss transformation.
Gyllenhaal decided that his character — a shady crime paparazzo — should be thin and gaunt, so he set about losing weight. Some nights he would forego food altogether. He told Variety magazine in 2014, “I knew if I was hungry that I was in the right spot. Physically, it showed itself, but chemically and mentally, I think it was even a more fascinating journey. It became a struggle for me.”
12. Charlize Theron in Monster (2003)
Charlize Theron is practiced at transforming herself for roles, but probably her biggest challenge was when she played murderer Aileen Wuornos in the intense 2003 movie Monster. Wuornos was an infamous serial killer, who was executed the year before the movie came out, and Theron wanted to look exactly like her.
In 2004 Theron told The Baltimore Sun, “There were no prosthetics except a cellophane-thin strip of plastic on my eyelids and a cream on my face to give me a sun-damaged look. But that’s my own hair; there were no wigs.” In addition to this she gained 30 pounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Theron won an Oscar for her performance.
11. Christian Bale in Vice (2018)
Christian Bale might have seemed like an odd choice to play one-time Vice President Dick Cheney in the 2018 movie Vice. He doesn’t really look anything like him. But Bale gamely shaved his head and started to pile on the pounds. He had fun gaining weight at first, but later on he seemed to change his mind.
In July 2018 Bale said, “It’s horrible. If you’re losing weight, there’s nothing to it except for going to bed hungry and feeling miserable…[Gaining weight] is the complete opposite. You’re absolutely just losing all discipline and gorging like crazy. I need to stop it, it’s not healthy for your body.”
10. Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Hillary Swank didn’t do things by halves when she played a female boxer in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. In January 2005 she told the site MovieWeb site, “My training was two and a half hours of boxing and approximately an hour and a half to two hours lifting weights every day, six days a week. The producers asked me to gain 10 pounds of muscle. I gained 19 pounds of muscle.”
Not only that, Swank even had to adjust her sleeping and eating schedules. She told the website, “I slept nine hours a night but I had to wake up in the night and drink protein shakes because I couldn’t go that long without eating.” It doesn’t sound easy, but Swank ended up winning a Best Actress Academy Award for her remarkable performance.
9. Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, 2013
In Dallas Buyers Club Matthew McConaughey played Ron Woodroof, a real person who was given 30 days to live after being diagnosed with AIDs but ended up living another seven years. AIDs takes a terrible toll on the body and that was what McConaughey wanted to show. He set about losing an alarming amount of weight.
In 2014 McConaughey told the BBC that although he lost weight “in as healthy a way as I found possible” he still experienced some side effects. He said, “I became clinically aware, almost hyper, I needed three hours less sleep a night.” Yet this experience helped him become closer to the character he was playing.
8. Demi Moore in G.I. Jane (1997)
Demi Moore was a sex symbol in the ‘90s, but she wasn’t afraid to hide her good looks if she thought it made for a better movie. In 1997’s G.I. Jane she plays Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil, a woman trying to make it as a Navy SEAL. Her superiors assume that she’ll fail, but of course, they’re proved wrong.
Moore shaved off her beautiful dark hair and started doing intensive workouts. She underwent the same sort of training actual SEALs go through, including exercising in the mud, rain and ocean. Unfortunately, her efforts went unrewarded. The movie was a critical and commercial dud and Moore won a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress.
7. Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010)
Proper ballet dancing is extremely difficult, and so is playing a ballet dancer for a movie. Natalie Portman had to do grueling work to portray the main character of Black Swan, a talented ballerina who feels her grip on sanity slipping away. The actress lost 20 pounds and even ended up dislocating a rib while rehearsing.
Not long after Black Swan Portman found out she was pregnant, and that put her transformation into a new perspective. In 2011 she told the Daily Mail, “I was barely eating, I was working 16 hours a day. I was almost method acting without intending to. I do wonder now how people can do this kind of role when they have a family.”
6. Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw (2015)
Right after losing weight for Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal had to transform himself yet again to play a disgraced boxer in Southpaw. It was an amazing achievement, but perhaps not a completely healthy one. Southpaw’s director Antoine Fuqua told Deadline, “He trained in New York at Church Gym with real fighters. We literally turned him into a beast.”
However, becoming a beast wasn’t easy. Fuqua told the website that in order to turn Gyllenhaal into a “electric, powerful fighter,” he’d made him go to the gym every day. Eventually this became a habit, or perhaps even an obsession. Fuqua said, “I think he broke up with his girlfriend because he was just in the gym every day.”
5. Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Renée Zellweger had to go up several dress sizes in order to play the weight-obsessed title character in Bridget Jones’s Diary. In 2000 she told the CNN website, “I was very successful until we started to do night shoots. They just leave you so fatigued and with absolutely no appetite and I was repulsed at the thought of those obligatory Snickers bars.”
These days, though, Zellweger has some thoughts about the “fatness” of Bridget. In 2016 she told Vogue, “I put on a few pounds. I also put on some breasts and a baby bump. Bridget is a perfectly normal weight and I’ve never understood why it matters so much.” She added, “No male actor would get such scrutiny if he did the same thing for a role.”
4. Chris Hemsworth in In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Chris Hemsworth not only plays Marvel’s Thor, he’s considered one of the sexiest men in the world. So it came as a terrible shock to a lot of people when he drastically changed his look for a role. He was playing a sailor left adrift for months after a shipwreck, and so he had to look the part.
In December 2015 Hemsworth reflected on his changing appearance to People magazine, saying “You play all sorts of games — if I eat this maybe I don’t eat that. The insanity is nuts.” But he added that he felt that to do the story justice, “we had to suffer in some way and we did. In other words, not a whole lot of acting was required.
3. Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
For years Chris Pratt was the funny, slobby Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation. Then Guardians of the Galaxy came along and everything changed. After a lifetime of feeling like he was too fat, Pratt decided that he would slim down for the space-based superhero movie role and never look back.
It worked amazingly well: Pratt looked great as Star-Lord. In 2017 he told Men’s Health magazine, “When I was fat and unhappy, the only moments of respite I got were when I was eating. I felt great shoveling food down my neck and totally negative in-between. Now mealtimes are sometimes lame, because that’s the way it can be when you’re eating healthily. But all the time between meals, I feel great.”
2. Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire (1996)
Before Matt Damon was an A-lister, he took a supporting role in Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire, playing a soldier turned heroin addict. In order to better embody the part, Damon shed 51 pounds — it was challenging, but it changed his life. Francis Ford Coppola saw what a devoted actor he was and gave Damon his breakout role in The Rainmaker.
Damon embarked on the transformation without the help of a nutritionist, and once the movie was finished he actually had to take medication 18 months to counter the effects of the stress he’d put on his adrenal gland. During a 2016 Reddit AMA, the actor described the weight-loss diet as the most physically challenging thing he’d ever done.
1. Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004)
Christian Bale is arguably the king of movie transformations. In 2004 he lost 62 pounds for his role in The Machinist, in which he portrayed a man suffering from insomnia and paranoid delusions. This extreme method acting won him some rave reviews from critics. And strangely, he seemed to quite enjoy making himself unhealthily thin.
In 2018 Bale told The Guardian that he’d found The Machinist “an amazing experience.” He went on, “When you’re so skinny that you can hardly walk up a flight of stairs … you’re, like, this being of pure thought. It’s like you’ve abandoned your body. That’s the most Zen-like state I’ve ever been in my life.” But it’s not recommended, at all.