People often think of acting as a fairly cushy job, in which over-paid stars are constantly pampered. However, for every big name actor who takes it easy and phones it in, many more push their mind and body to the limit for a part. In some cases, these performers are so dedicated to their craft that they take things way further than they really need to.
That was the case for the following actors, who went to great lengths in their name of their roles for no good reason.
20. Nicolas Cage built an elaborate costume to play an all-CG character in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Nothing says going over the top with your method acting like creating a whole new form of theatrical preparation, which is exactly what Nicolas Cage did for the second Ghost Rider movie. Though he knew his character in the film was going to be entirely CGI, Cage wanted to make sure he gave his all anyway. To this end, Cage coated his face in ceremonial African corpse paint.
Cage also wore a layered costume complete with ‘magical’ symbols and amulets, all of which would be completely obscured by special effects in the final film, of course. The actor would describe his technique as ‘Nouveau Shamanic’, which makes it sound legitimate instead of just crazy.
19. Christian Bale put on 45 pounds to play Dick Cheney, discovered he could have just worn prosthetics
Christian Bale’s commitment to his roles has become legendary, in particular his (potentially dangerous) yo-yo dieting: most infamously he dropped to just 120 pounds in weight for 2004’s The Machinist, then immediately after bulked up to 220 for Batman Begins. For 2018’s Vice, Bale changed his body again to become Dick Cheney, the rotund former Vice President of the United States.
For Vice, Bale gained 45 pounds in fat, shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows and bought an exercise machine to give his neck some considerable bulk. However, Bale didn’t really need to do any of this, not least of all because playing the character as an older man would require him to spend hours in the makeup chair anyway. The actor apparently didn’t realise prosthetic make-up could have done the job.
18. Ashton Kutcher hospitalised himself trying a ‘fruitarian’ diet to play Steve Jobs
Though a heartthrob, Ashton Kutcher has never been taken that seriously as a dramatic actor, so when he was cast in a biopic of Apple founder Steve Jobs, Kutcher was keen to prove any doubters wrong. Going all in on the role, Kutcher adopted Jobs’ ‘fruitarian’ diet, which meant eating literally nothing but raw fruit and nuts.
The drastic change caught up with Kutcher literally two days before he was set to begin filming, when he doubled over in agony and was rushed to the emergency room. Not only did Kutcher become seriously ill as a result of the irresponsible diet, but Jobs wound up bombing with both critics and audiences, so it wasn’t worth it by any account.
17. Daniel Day-Lewis sent texts, made Civil War-era jokes as Abraham Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis is surely the most celebrated method actor of his generation. Some of his methods of preparing for a role have been more extensive than others, and his approach to playing Abraham Lincoln is maybe most notorious for its strangeness. He remained in character as Honest Abe 24/7 for weeks before shooting began and stayed that way until filming was complete.
More bizarrely, during shooting Day-Lewis made jokes to those around him about pop culture and political events that only would have made sense in Lincoln’s time. He also sent texts (obviously not a thing in the Civil War era) to Sally Field, the actress playing Lincoln’s wife, as though he really was Lincoln, always signing off with “Yours, A”.
16. Val Kilmer obsessively learned music he would never have to perform in The Doors
When Val Kilmer was cast as legendary rock singer Jim Morrison in 1992’s The Doors, he wasn’t doing things by halves. To get into character, Kilmer obsessively questioned the people who had known Morrison in real life. He also learned 50 of Morrison’s songs, despite the fact that only a handful of those would feature in the final film, with many of them featuring Morrison’s real voice dubbed in.
To take things even further, Kilmer insisted that everyone on set address him as Jim, which the cast and crew responded to by ignoring him like they would any real obnoxious rockstar. The resulting film proved divisive, barely recouping its budget at the box office and earning widespread criticism for its numerous historical inaccuracies.
15. Anne Hathaway made herself “really sick” extreme-dieting for Les Miserables
For her role in Les Misérables, Anne Hathaway really did have a miserable experience. In order to replicate the experience of a 19th century prostitute living in poverty, the actress went on what was essentially a starvation diet, losing 25 pounds in five weeks by eating nothing but two thin squares of baked ‘oatmeal paste’ a day once shooting began.
Hathaway even banished her husband from the house during this period, living in a state of hunger, isolation and depression, all for the sake of 13 days of filming. The result? An Oscar, as well as long-lasting health problems: for those 13 days, Hathaway was left “really sick…and it took a really long time to come back from it.”
14. Ryan Gosling gained 60 pounds for The Lovely Bones, got fired from the film
Remember 2009’s Alice Sebold adaptation, The Lovely Bones, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Ryan Gosling as father to Saoirse Ronan’s tragic murdered teen? No? That’s because that film never actually happened, or at least it didn’t happen quite that way. To play Jack Salmon, Gosling grew out a bushy beard and ultimately gained 60 pounds (partly by regularly drinking melted Haagen Dazs) in the weeks prior to filming.
However, Gosling had neglected to discuss any of this with his director first. Shocked by the actor’s unexpected change (and also realising that, at 28, Gosling was really too young for the role) Jackson promptly fired Gosling, leaving the actor “fat and unemployed,” in his own words. Mark Wahlberg then took over the role, and The Lovely Bones wound up under-performing.
13. Viggo Mortensen spent a year conducting research for Platoon, didn’t get the part
After making his debut as an Amish farmer in Witness, Viggo Mortensen was keen to become the next big thing, and set his heart on a breakthrough role in Vietnam war drama Platoon. Mortensen was initially cast in the pivotal role of Sgt Elias a year before filming began, and spent “a year or more…reading every paper, every book, every essay, watching every film, every documentary about Vietnam”.
Despite Mortensen preparing for Platoon as “rigorously as anything I’ve ever worked on”, he was dropped in favour of Willem Dafoe just before filming began. Dafoe would be nominated for an Oscar for playing Elias. It would be more than a decade before Mortensen finally broke big with The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
12. Leonardo DiCaprio slept in a real animal carcass, ate raw bison liver for no reason on The Revenant
After being nominated for three Academy Awards for his acting but going home empty-handed every time, Leonardo DiCaprio was determined to grab that gold. To that end, DiCaprio underwent just about the most gruelling shooting experience imaginable for The Revenant. This performance might have finally won DiCaprio the Best Actor Oscar, but it also nearly killed him.
On a shoot that lasted from October 2014 to August 2015, DiCaprio was constantly teetering between emotional burnout, hypothermia and death in freezing cold filming locations. He (voluntarily) waded through real frozen rivers, slept in real animal carcasses and ate a raw bison liver, despite him being vegetarian and the props department having already made him a fake one out of red gelatinous pancake.
11. Shia LaBeouf permanently scarred his face, pulled one of his teeth out for Fury
In 2014’s World War II drama Fury, Shia LaBeouf (still best known as the kid from the Transformers movies) seriously stepped up his method acting game. In order to get into character as tank gunner ‘Bible’ Swan, LaBeouf refused to bathe for 40 days before shooting began, and didn’t wash for the whole of the production.
Not only that, but LaBeouf cut his face with a knife in front of his cast mates when he decided his prosthetic facial scar didn’t look real enough (he’s still scarred today), and even pulled out one of his teeth. None of this had much bearing on his role, but LaBeouf managed to creep out his costars so much that they asked him to stay in a different hotel.
10. Robert Pattinson worked at a car wash as prep for playing a thief in Good Time
Since finding fame in Twilight, Robert Pattinson’s determination to shake off the glittery vampire image saw him seek out darker, more nuanced roles. One of his best was the thief Connie Nikas in Good Time, which saw Pattinson go to greater lengths than ever before to get into character. Before shooting began, Pattinson and his co-star/director Benny Safdie lived like their poverty-stricken characters would.
Pattinson wore (and slept in) his character’s clothes and moved to a dingy basement apartment in Harlem, where he never opened the curtains and lived off nothing but cans of tuna. What’s more, Pattinson and Safdie also got nine-to-five jobs working at a New York car wash, even though this isn’t something their characters do in the film.
9. Tom Cruise worked as a FedEx courier to play a hitman in Collateral
Tom Cruise isn’t necessarily known for his method antics on film sets (unless you count all the insane stunts on the Mission: Impossible films). One of his most impressive recent efforts, however, did find the actor going the extra mile, albeit a mile nobody asked him for. In 2004’s Collateral, Cruise plays a cold, calculating hitman who terrorises a taxi driver as he tours LA for targets.
So how did Cruise prepare to get in the mindset of this gun-toting sociopath? He went to work for FedEx as a courier of course. Prior to shooting Collateral, Cruise spent time as a longhaired, bearded delivery man in an attempt to see if he could become ‘anonymous’ like his assassin character. Of course, nobody recognised Cruise – then he completely changed his look for the film anyway.
8. Jared Leto put on 67 pounds, gave himself gout for a film nobody saw
In his time, Jared Leto has done all sorts in an attempt to prove that he’s a real actor, from his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club to his truly shocking image changes for Suicide Squad and House of Gucci. However, Leto’s most alarming transformation was in a movie barely anybody saw, when he portrayed John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman in the 2007 crime drama Chapter 27.
As he didn’t look the part, Leto set about piling on the pounds thanks largely to daily pints of ice cream and olive oil. The actor ultimately put on added 67 pounds – that’s five stone – to embody the bloated Chapman. Unfortunately, the rapid weight gain landed Leto in a wheelchair and gave him gout. Then the film opened to terrible reviews and near-nonexistent box office.
7. Brad Pitt starved himself to the point of ’emaciation’ for World War Z scenes that got cut
Pity poor Brad Pitt: the actor couldn’t know that all the hard work he put in slimming down for World War Z would be for nothing when half of the film was later rethought in post. The original bleak third act saw Pitt as one of many men and women kept as slaves/food for the zombie horde. To embody this, Pitt appropriately fasted to the point of ’emaciation’.
Unfortunately, the actor’s appearance in this nightmarish footage apparently shocked Paramount executives, who wanted a happy ending for their blockbuster. World War Z’s final act would be scrapped and then entirely reshot with a much healthier-looking Pitt.
6. Daniel Day-Lewis learned to speak Czech for an entirely English-language film
As we’ve noted already, Daniel Day-Lewis is both renowned and notorious for his method acting approach, going to lengths that many actors wouldn’t even consider in preparing for a role. One of the most startling examples of this was for his performance in 1988 drama The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
In the film, Day-Lewis plays a Czech doctor living through Soviet rule in the 1960s, so naturally the actor learned to speak Czech in preparation. The problem? The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an English-language film, and not once does Day-Lewis speak Czech throughout the entire movie.
5. Ryan Gosling learned Muay Thai for Only God Forgives, never got to use it in the film
When Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn pitched Only God Forgives to Ryan Gosling, he told the actor he would play a Muay Thai fighter. Gosling eagerly signed on and spent several months training intensively in Muay Thai for two or three hours a day, four days a week, all whilst following a strict, traditional Thai diet. Perfect preparation for a proper tough guy role, you’d think.
However, as Only God Forgives was developed, Refn’s vision changed somewhat. The director and Gosling decided the planned centrepiece fight would find his character suffering a total beatdown at the hands of a superior opponent. We never see Gosling land a single punch in the film.
4. Robert De Niro studied brain surgeons to play a mechanic in Brazil
When Terry Gilliam brought Robert De Niro on board for what was essentially a cameo in his science fiction satire Brazil, he likely never expected the lengths to which Bobby would go to prepare. Alas, it was the mid-80s, and De Niro was still at the height of his method acting powers; no way was he going to pass up the chance to shadow brain surgeons in order to convincingly play a… mechanic.
For his two brief scenes as air conditioning specialist Harry Tuttle, De Niro put in extensive research, as well as putting together his character’s kit and gadgets from scratch. Spending hours along familiarising himself with his new tools, De Niro also, bizarrely, decided to study neurosurgery and neurosurgeons, having likened Tuttle to one for some reason.
3. 50 Cent dropped 55 pounds, surgically removed his own tattoos for a film that never reached cinemas
2011 drama All Things Fall Apart cast rapper-turned-actor Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson as a football player ravaged by cancer and left skeletal by the disease. To get what he felt was the appropriate shape, Jackson dropped 55 pounds over nine weeks by subscribing to a liquid diet and running on a treadmill for three hours a day.
Going even further, Jackson also had some of his tattoos removed to save himself hours in the makeup chair. Sadly, he put all that work in for a film so bad it would go straight to video, and be mauled by all those who saw it.
2. Andy Serkis learned the violin for Topsy-Turvy, in which he never plays the violin
Back in 1998, when Mike Leigh shot his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, nobody had really heard the name Andy Serkis before. To play Gilbert and Sullivan’s choreographer, John D’Auban, Serkis researched the period and his character obsessively, studying ballet, Irish dance and ‘eccentric dance’ with a choreographer for four hours a day.
On top of all this, Serkis also learned how to play the violin. All this, for a film in which Serkis barely features and never once plays the violin, because his already-small role was later stripped back even further in the editing suite.
1. Oldboy’s Min-Sik Choi branded his own flesh, ate live octopus
The wonderful world of props and prosthetics means that actors don’t have to do horrible, dangerous things for real for the sake of entertainment, but many actors do so anyway – like Min-Sik Choi in 2003’s Oldboy. For the revenge thriller’s infamous octopus scene, Choi ate four of the wriggling sea-beasts, live, for real, though not before saying a Buddhist prayer prior to chowing down on each one.
Even more impressively/horrifying, Choi also burned his own body with a hot wire for the scene in which his character, Dae-su, tattoos himself. Such extreme actions were in addition to the 20 pounds Choi had lost for the role, and on top of the actor doing all his own stunts.