5 Actors Who Were Completely Transformed For Iconic Movie Roles

Some of the biggest actor transformations include Tom Hanks, Heath Ledger, and Charlize Theron

By Rick Gonzales | Updated

For some actors, slipping into character might be second nature to them. But to get that comfortable in front of the camera, to make their role seem so believable, it takes years of practice, hard work, and dedication to the craft. Some roles, though, require so much more than learning lines. We have seen actor transformations that have been mind-boggling – Jim Carrey as the Grinch, Brendan Fraser in The Whale – but these are instances (remarkable at that) where the actor sat in a chair for umpteen hours to have make-up applied.

How far would you go to make a role believable? The following five actors went well beyond the make-up chair to take on their roles. They are actor transformations that are most amazing.


Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000)

actor transformations

It is amazing what some actors will put themselves through in order to make their roles believable. For Tom Hanks, he truly put his body through it. Cast Away told the story of Chuck Noland, a man working for FedEx who travels the world to make sure the FedEx system continues to work smoothly.

His busy schedule takes him away during the Christmas holiday and on a trip to Malaysia to resolve a FedEx issue, the plane is caught in a violent storm, sending it into the Pacific Ocean. He is the only survivor.

For Hanks to get the proper physical look, he gained 50 pounds during pre-production to shoot the beginning of the movie. The production was then delayed a number of times so Hanks could lose weight, and grow out his hair and beard, to make it look like he had been stranded on an island for years.

All told, the film took a year-long hiatus. Not only did Hanks make the actor’s transformation with weight gain and loss, but he also suffered a near-fatal injury when a cut on his leg became infected. Hanks was rushed to a hospital where he had surgery. Cast Away was halted for another three weeks to allow Hanks time to recover.

Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer (2013)

actor transformations

If any actor could be considered to be a chameleon, it would easily be Tilda Swinton. Throughout her acting career, she has gone through numerous transformations. A hairdo here, a touch of makeup there, a pair of glasses or braces and you have an actor transformation that is unbelievable.

Swinton was at her acting best in the 2013 film, Snowpiercer, a film that starred Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, and John Hurt about the remaining bits of humanity traveling on a train around the globe after a failed attempt to stop global warming, forcing Earth into another Ice Age.

Swinton went through numerous “looks” to get to her final vision as Minister Mason. To get there, Swinton combined many “political clowns” and a “voice” from her past as she was well on her way to her creation. In fact, director Bong Joon-ho said Swinton wanted to take her creation much further and he had to put the brakes on it.

“Tilda actually wanted to take the look further and I had to pull her back. She at the time really wanted to transform herself and look different than she ever looked before.”

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980)

actor transformations

Raging Bull tells the story of middleweight champion Jake LaMotta and his volatile life. This film would be the first of seven that would combine the star power of De Niro and Joe Pesci. It would also be the fourth time De Niro and director Martin Scorsese would work together.

De Niro is a force to be reckoned with in Raging Bull. He perfectly encapsulates what LaMotta was about through his violence and jealousy on screen, as well as his transformation from his (De Niro’s) ordinary body to that of boxer LaMotta finally to LaMotta after his retirement. De Niro put his body through a lot during filming including a massive 60-pound weight gain to show LaMotta later in life.

To achieve this amazing actor transformation, Scorsese shut down production for weeks while De Niro traveled to Italy to eat as much true Italian pasta as his body could handle. It is said that De Niro had done such a great job with the weight gain that Scorsese was truly worried and shut production down again for fear of De Niro’s health.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)

actor transformations

It was an immediately controversial bit of casting when director Christopher Nolan announced that Heath Ledger would be portraying Joker in the 2008 film, The Dark Knight. What started out as literal disgust by many, has since turned into only glowing remarks for Ledger’s bravura and over-the-top performance, which brought him numerous posthumous awards, including the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The actor transformation Ledger went through had nothing to do with weight gain or loss, nor did it truly have anything to do with him sitting in a make-up chair for hours upon end. His transformation had more to do with personality and how he tapped into something he’d never done before in his relatively short career.

Nolan, before signing Ledger on as the Joker, had approached him prior to The Dark Knight, to have him be his Batman in Batman Begins. It was a coveted role, just one Ledger never felt he could pull off. So, he passed and the role eventually went to Christian Bale. But Ledger was impressed with Batman Begins and reached out to Nolan to play the Joker even before there was a final script for the part.

Ledger looked at many different incarnations of the Joker in order to get his just right. He wanted to play the Clown Prince of Crime in a way not seen before, so again, his actor transformation was in his style.

He and Nolan saw eye-to-eye on how Ledger would attack the role, and in the end, it was an award-winning experience that Ledger said, before his untimely passing, that it was the most fun he’d ever had in front of the camera.

Charlize Theron in Monster (2003)

actor transformations

It was an Oscar-winning performance and if you were not told ahead of time that the actress portraying the infamous serial killer, Aileen Wuomos, was none other than Charlize Theron, you might not have known, her transformation was that shocking.

Theron took on the role of Wuomos in Monster, a film that was the directing debut of Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), who also wrote the script. The film tells the true story of Wuomos, a Florida street prostitute who murdered seven of her clients. Wuomos was eventually caught, tried, and put to execution in 2002.

It was a jaw-dropping transformation for Theron, a beautiful actress and model. To get the look right, Theron leaned on a “diet” of donuts and potato chips to pack on the 30 pounds she felt necessary. She then went with the no make-up, shaved eyebrows look to fully fit in Wuomos’ world.

It wasn’t the first time Theron went through this type of transformation for a role, she did the same (just the opposite) when she played a dying woman in the film Sweet November.

Honorable Mentions

These are only five of the amazing actor transformations that can be called remarkable. Shout out go to actors such as Jared Leto for his role in Chapter 27 and Dallas Buyers Club. Speaking of Dallas Buyers Club, how about the transformation Matthew McConaughey went through?

Jake Gyllenhaal went through an amazing body transformation for South Paw and Christian Bale looks absolutely emaciated in The Machinist. Some actors just know what it takes.