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The Six Most Successful Career Redefining Roles

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | February 9, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | February 9, 2010 |

Being typecast as a certain kind of actor is a bitch, particularly for younger actors (especially those on long-running television shows) who are identified with certain characters or types of roles. Unfortunately, there’s usually an expiration date on those types of characters/roles, so an actor is faced with one of two options: Ride it out as long as you can (see The Olson Twins and Michael J. Fox, to an extent) or do something dramatic to redefine yourself. Sometimes, however, you can overshoot when you’re attempting to redefine yourself — look at Elizabeth Berkeley (Showgirls) and Lindsay Lohan (I Know Who Killed Me), who essentially flushed their movie careers down the toilet by showing us too much. Of course, people like Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love), Jim Carrey (The Truman Show), and Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction) have also made these dramatic career movies, but in doing so, they didn’t redefine themselves so much as they expanded their options and gained some (fleeting) respect.

Meanwhile, Dakota Fanning is currently in the re-defining process, which she began by getting raped in Hounddog and will continue with The Runaways, though it’s my belief that she’s jumping the gun — she had several years left in that wise-beyond-her-years teenager character, and over-sexualizing herself this soon may backfire. Let’s hope she doesn’t fall into the Lohan pit and come out on the other side in the pages of Penthouse. Some actors, however, have managed to do it gradually — Jessical Biel is a good example of this.

I’m more of a fan of the huge risk-taking role that can redefine an actor all at once. These are the five best examples of that:

5. Natalie Portman as Alice in Closer: Portman was something of the Dakota Fanning of her time — she played a wise-beyond-her-years teenager (or younger) in moves like Leon and Beautiful Girls, and then safe daughter roles in Anywhere But Here and Where the Heart Is. Her issue, however, wasn’t so much the fear of being typecast in that sort of role as it was in her decision to play Queen Padmé Amidala in the second Star Wars trilogy. But, she deftly nipped that in the bud before the trilogy had even completed by starring in a erotic infidelity flick as a heartbroken stripper, which instantly gave her credibility as an adult actress. The key in this career redefinition: Find a good director, like Mike Nichols. It helps, too, if you can accomplish this feat without gratuitous nudity (see Showgirls).

Before Closer:

After Closer:

4. Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia: This one is kind of the gold standard for career redefining roles, but for the fact that at least the film before this one (Big) revealed that Tom Hanks was actually a great actor, and not just a leading man in a lot of decent-to-great 80s comedies. But in playing a gay man with AIDS in his Oscar-winning turn in Philadelphia, Hanks completely changed his career — before it, he was a comedian. After it, he was an Oscar caliber actor, and save for You’ve Got Mail, he’s never really turned back (sadly, for many of us, who miss the comedic version of Hanks).

Before Philadelphia:

After Philadelphia:

3. Heath Ledger as Skip in Lords of Dogtown: Before Catherine Hardwick’s Dogtown, Ledger was a Teen Beat pin-up boy, best known (at least in America) as the guy from 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale. He had attempted to break out before Dogtown in The Patriot, but that felt more like the guy from A Knight’s Tale doing a period piece. Dogtown, which was not particularly successful in and of itself, but it did establish Ledger as a credible actor, which would eventually lead him to an Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain and an Oscar winning one in The Dark Knight.

Before Lords of Dogtown:

After Lords of Dogtown:

2. Joseph Gordon Levitt as Neil in Mysterious Skin: After five years playing a teenager on “3rd Rock from the Sun,” JGL could’ve gone the way of Jonathan Taylor Thomas or Chad Allen and taken a quick trip toward obscurity, or worse, one of those drug-addled former child actors. But JGL took the Macaulay Culkin route (it didn’t work for Culkin, unfortunately — he was too synonymous with Home Alone): He took in a daring role as a victim of child abuse in Mysterious Skin, and he completely delivered. It didn’t get him a lot of notice with audiences, but it was recognized by the people that matter in Hollywood, which is how he ended up with Brick. Rian Johnson’s film may have given him the breakthrough role he needed, but Mysterious Skin was the career redefining one.
Before Mysterious Skin:

After Mysterious Skin:

1. Michelle Williams as Alma and Anne Hathaway as Lureen Newsome in Brokeback Mountain: Not only did Brokeback Mountain complete Heath Ledger’s career redefinition, it redefined the careers of both Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. Before Brokeback, Williams was Jen Lindley from “Dawson’s Creek.” After Brokeback she was an Oscar nominated actress and Hollwyood’s new indie darling. Likewise, before Brokeback, Anne Hathaway was a Disney actress (The Princess Diaries, Elle Enchanted). She exposed a little breast in a tasteful way, and now she’s a respected Oscar nominated actress. She doesn’t always pick the best parts, but she’s at least made the successful transition to an grown-up film star.

Before Brokeback Mountain (Michelle Williams):

After Brokeback Mountain (Michelle Williams):

Before Brokeback Mountain (Anne Hathaway):

After Brokeback Mountain (Anne Hathaway):

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.