Hollywood has a way of telling us who we are and who we should be, and there’s no one more amenable to its requests than its own biggest commodities — actors. The handful of molds are generally unchanging: the blonde bimbo, the unmarriageable brunette, the debonair gentleman, the dopey, dorky friend. Any number of people can fill these steadfast forms — Jean Harlows are replaced by Grace Kellys are replaced by Marilyn Monroes are replaced by Madonnas. But once an actor has been molded into an archetype, it’s often difficult for them to be anything else. Still, even those who get caught in the quicksand of typecasting can sometimes eventually make it out, like these pigeonholed actors, who, for better or for worse, finally played a kind of different role.
Robert De Niro, Stardust
In 1990, Robert De Niro was offered the role of Dick Tracy, but, worried that he would be typecast as the tough guy he perfected in Taxi Driver, he politely declined. The part eventually went to Warren Beatty — after Jack Nicholson turned it down as well — but by then, De Niro had already been pegged as film’s favorite hard-ass…which is why it’s a little surprising that he played a cross-dressing pirate in the 2007 fantasy movie Stardust.
John Travolta, Pulp Fiction
Danny Zuko was perhaps not the most obvious choice for Tarantino’s Vincent Vega, but it revitalized Travolta’s career and took him from fluffy, singing, dancing, leather-jacket-wearing “bad boy” to a truly dark role as a hitman. While he found a way to make use of his dancing skills on Pulp Fiction’s set, Travolta tried on an entirely new persona as Vincent, one he took with him to later films like Get Shorty and Face/Off.
Anne Hathaway, Brokeback Mountain
Up until 2005, Anne Hathaway was a life-size Disney princess. She was Mia, rebel princess, in the Princess Diaries; she was Ella in Ella Enchanted; and she voiced Red Puckett (aka Little Red Riding Hood) in Hoodwinked!. Then, a funny thing happened. In 2005, Princess Mia took her shirt off in Brokeback Mountain, and everything changed. As Lureen Newsome, Hathaway not only got jiggy on the big screen but also struggled with the emotional difficulty of being married to Jake Gyllenhaal’s closeted character Jack Twist, ushering her right out of Neverland once and for all. Since then, Hathaway has played a number of different roles, from serious to playful, and surely hasn’t been afraid to take her clothes off.
Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire
He was cinema’s stock creepy acquaintance, the one who seems to shows up just about everywhere he doesn’t belong — in Billy Madison, Pulp Fiction, Mr. Deeds, etc. Sometimes you cross the street to avoid saying hello to Steve Buscemi’s character. And sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised, if a little unsettled, to see him. But you’d never go out of your way to track him down. But in the limelight of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi is top dog. As Nucky Thompson, he has the lead roll, the power, the women, and even the uncharacteristically decent looks. If Hollywood had a high school reunion, Steve Buscemi would win it.
Amanda Seyfried, Chloe
After she played the ditzy blonde sidekick in Mean Girls, the murdered party-girl best friend in Veronica Mars, and the poster child for naiveté in Mama Mia!, it was shocking to see Amanda Seyfried reveal a darker side as the licentious, psycho-stalker title character in 2009’s Chloe. We think we liked her better with a backwards “K” bedazzled on her chest, but she can definitely bring the twisted when given the spotlight.
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
An extreme Australian method actor who refuses to be typecast by his race, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tropic Thunder character Kirk Lazarus throws audiences for a loop when he shows up in blackface. Blurring racial boundaries all over the place, Lazarus undergoes surgery to metamorphose into his screen persona but kind of turns back into a white guy when the surgery wears off, leaving audiences fairly confused about his skin color and really confused about when it’s OK to laugh.
In the process, Robert Downey Jr. shows us that he, like the meta-actor Kirk, isn’t limited by race (after all, he’s a white guy playing a white guy playing a black guy who turns back into a white guy). But beyond the race thing, Downey’s Tropic Thunder role is an aberration from his usual mainstream action hero heartthrob shtick; he’s no longer the traditional superman with the rough exterior of a David and the nonchalant fearlessness of the immortal. He steals the show nonetheless, but his contribution is the over-the-top, politically incorrect humor he pushes farther than he ever has before, not the wide-eyed admiration of a love-struck audience.
The Rock, The Tooth Fairy
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made a name for himself as a hero of the hunky, intimidating variety, most likely as a result of his pre-acting professional wrestling career and his transition to the big screen with roles like The Mummy‘s Scorpion King. But in 2010, Johnson got in touch with his ethereal side and slapped on a pastel onesie and some wings to show us that The Rock could just as easily be a fairy.
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Amy Adams knows what to do with a gritty script, but any proof of that — like the 2005 indie Junebug — is overshadowed by her high-grossing hits like Enchanted, which have won her a reputation as the lovable airhead who takes on gloom with charming, girlish positivity. We worried she’d be doomed to another decade or so of rom-com fluff, until we saw her in The Fighter. In that film, she reached the same wide audience while demonstrating her pluck as the bitchy, sexy, no-bullshit dropout bartender Charlene, a role that got her nominated for an Academy Award.
Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris
Over the course of his career, Owen Wilson has cultivated a reputation for being a “bro.” Between Zoolander, Wedding Crashers, and the Focker movies, he hasn’t tried too hard to combat the stereotype — which is why it was surprising, this year, to find out that he is actually a good actor who can play more than one kind of role. In Midnight in Paris, he’s a writer who’s more infatuated with the past than obsessed with the prospect of getting laid and finally lets go of the pretty-boy, man-child thing to metamorphose into, well… Woody Allen.
Steve Carell, Dan in Real Life
Steve Carell plays a variety of characters in Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and The Office, but each and every one of them is somewhat over-the-top. Enter Dan in Real Life, the 2007 Peter Hedges movie that finds an atypically subtle Carell delivering a performance that’s both touching and funny, and without the sap that his fans generally run from.