The idea of suffering for your art is no new concept, and yet it’s still a thing – not least in Hollywood. There, however, suffering is defined by things like shocking weight loss for a role, mental torment and eating raw animal organs despite being a vegetarian. Indeed, some dedicated – perhaps too dedicated – actors have gone to these and other extremes over the years to “become the character.” Here are ten examples where they went a little too far for their own good.
10. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker, was a darker character in the comics than Jack Nicholson’s campy turn in Tim Burton’s movie would have you believe. In contrast, then, Heath Ledger went all out in capturing the Joker’s sinister spirit for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He locked himself in a hotel room for a month, kept a diary filled with scrawlings of clowns and cut-outs from movies that inspired him for the role – A Clockwork Orange included – and spent time perfecting the villain’s creepy cackle.
Ledger, however, tragically died from an accidental prescription drug overdose some months after shooting finished, with sleeping pills in among the mix of medications that led to his passing. While it’s unclear if he had trouble sleeping because of his disturbing turn as the Joker, some have suggested that he got too immersed in the role, which may have caused him insomnia and distress even after shooting ended.
9. Martin Sheen – Apocalypse Now (1979)
It’s no secret that the filming of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-based take on Heart of Darkness, was hellish – to the extent that Coppola even threatened to commit suicide at one point. The greatest tribulations however, were experienced by lead actor Martin Sheen.
Sheen was in the midst of an alcoholic crisis when he took on the role, and the prevalence of drink, drugs and awful conditions on set caused him to go off the rails: getting drunk, punching mirrors and almost attacking the long-suffering Coppola at one point. This culminated in Sheen telling his friends at the time that he might actually die during filming – and, indeed, he did suffer a near-fatal heart attack before it wrapped.
8. Shelley Duvall – The Shining (1980)
Director Stanley Kubrick’s torment of Shelley Duvall during the filming of The Shining is well documented. Shockingly, the actress has said that Kubrick pushed her relentlessly, causing her to cry so much during shooting that she had to drink water constantly to stay hydrated. What’s more, the stress was so great that Duvall’s hair began to fall out.
And Kubrick would pin countless reshoots of scenes on Duvall: the scene where Wendy is trying to stay away from Jack on the stairs, for example, was shot a record-breaking 127 times. Each day was complete misery for Duvall, though she would go on to admit that at the end of a shoot she’d go home feeling weirdly content because of it.
7. Tippi Hedren – The Birds (1963)
The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller about bloodthirsty birds attacking a seaside town is legendary. His means of achieving the right horror effect in at least one scene, however, was outright unethical.
That’s because in the scene where Tippi Hedren’s character gets beset by birds in a loft, real birds were used instead of mechanical ones, with Hedren having no prior knowledge that this was the plan. Hedren had to shoot that scene for a week and was pecked and bloodied by the birds until she collapsed. She subsequently required medical leave to recover from the trauma.
6. Johnny Depp – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
What better way to get into the head of legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson than to live with him? Johnny Depp did just that, embracing Thompson’s dangerous lifestyle, which entailed shooting propane tanks with shotguns, smoking next to barrels of gunpowder and digging through his manuscripts.
Six days a week of living, drinking, shooting and smoking with Thompson pushed Depp into the weird, on-the-edge mindset that was required to play him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Clearly the method worked, as Depp’s turn as Thompson/Raoul Duke in the cult classic movie perfectly captures the legendary writer in all his drug-crazed gonzo glory.
5. Adrien Brody – The Pianist (2002)
Playing the role of a Jewish-Polish piano player trying to survive Nazi-occupied Poland was always going to be harrowing, so it should come as no surprise to discover that Adrien Brody’s Oscar-winning effort in The Pianist was agonizing both physically and mentally. The 6’5” actor lost 30 pounds for the role, weighing in at just 130 pounds at one point.
What’s more, in order to portray a piano virtuoso, Brody played the instrument for four hours a day. To experience the loneliness of the part, moreover, he sold his car and apartment and disconnected his phones. Brody admitted that he was concerned he might not make it out of the role sane, and that it took him half a year after the movie to get back to a normal mental state.
4. Shia LaBeouf – Fury (2014)
Say what you will about Shia LaBeouf, but he pulls no punches when getting himself into character. When preparing to play a tank gunner in gritty World War Two drama Fury, for example, LaBeouf reportedly didn’t shower for weeks, which caused such a stench that fellow cast members refused to sleep in the same bunkhouse.
That’s not all – LaBeouf also cut his face in front of cast members and kept the wound open while the cameras were rolling. He even had a healthy tooth extracted for the movie in a procedure that was, apparently, performed by a Los Angeles man – not an actual dentist – who “didn’t ask too many questions.”
3. The whole cast – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
You can imagine that shooting a movie set entirely in an asylum would send everybody a bit, well, cuckoo. Well, the fact that the whole cast of this Jack Nicholson classic stayed in a real-life psychiatric hospital throughout the shoot did indeed, apparently, take its toll on everyone’s mental wellbeing.
Indeed, the cast got so immersed in the shoot that they actually began experiencing psychological side effects. Danny DeVito reportedly befriended somebody invisible, for example, while Sydney Lassick is said to have broken down during filming. Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched, even got naked in front of the whole cast once – at least, according to legend.
2. Jamie Foxx – Ray (2004)
Actors go to a lot of unpleasant extremes to capture the spirit of their characters, but making yourself completely blind has to be among the worst. And that’s exactly what Jamie Foxx did, albeit temporarily, when preparing for the role of the legendary soul singer Ray Charles in biopic Ray.
Yes, Foxx had prosthetic eyelids put over his own eyes, which meant he couldn’t see even if he wanted to. He wore the eyelids for 14 hours a day, which resulted in him suffering the odd panic attack. And to make things worse, he also went hungry. Why? Because he needed to lose 30 pounds for the role.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis – My Left Foot (1989)
The man who caught pneumonia and spent months living in the wilderness to get into movie roles is no stranger to losing himself in character. Day-Lewis’ turn as wheelchair-bound Christy Brown in My Left Foot, however, tops them all.
Day-Lewis spent the entire shoot hunched over in his wheelchair, even outside of shooting, and insisted that the crew spoon-feed him to ensure he stayed in character. He suffered for his efforts, though, having sustained a pair of broken ribs from his awkward posture in the wheelchair.