It isn’t easy being funny. It’s harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry; however, once they begin laughing at your antics, it can become difficult to get them to take you seriously.
As a comedy actor, finding a way to dispel such typecasting so that audiences can see you in a different light is most challenging—but one age-old Hollywood trick is to start taking on dramatic roles.
As with any attempt to shed one’s spots, some actors have had better success in dramatic movies than others. For the latter, many decided to return to their comfortable world of jokes and ludicrous plots rather than facing the ire of drama critics again.
But for those who struck success once, the next challenge was to prove that their performances weren’t one-off flukes—taking on even more dramatic roles, and if successful, earning a place in dramatic Hollywood society, usually laden with awards.
Here are our picks of the best comedy actors who undertook the difficulties of dramatic cinema and proved their mettle.
8. Uncut Gems (Adam Sandler)
Among intense thriller movies about New York jewellery store owners, Uncut Gems is the best of them.
Josh and Bennie Safdie’s movie about an in-debt-but-never-down-on-his-opportunities jeweller becomes a seat-gripping tale of precious stones and gambling, as the film’s protagonist Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler) attempts to clear his financial woes in one fell swoop.
If you knew of Sandler’s work in other dramatic projects before—such as Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Spanglish, and Funny People—then you’ve always known that Sandler has the potential to be a serious dramatic actor, at least when he cares to put in the effort.
In Uncut Gems, Sandler pushes his character to the edge. With a deft hand and his vast array of acting talent (which he does indeed possess), he gives life to Howard wholly before your eyes.
7. Greenberg (Ben Stiller)
Noah Baumbach’s film about the awkward and shy Roger Greenberg isn’t one of his best-known projects, but it does feature a well-crafted performance by Ben Stiller, who portrays the idiosyncratic mind of Roger as though he’s drawing on personal experience.
Paired with Greta Gerwig’s Florence, she and Greenberg slowly fall in love with each other as the film progresses, despite his recent breakdown and her recent breakup.
Stiller’s performance sticks out as a career highlight, as this remains one of the only occasions where the iconic comedy actor put aside his brand of comedy to try something profoundly different.
6. Lost in Translation (Bill Murray)
Sofia Coppola’s 21st-century masterpiece Lost in Translation remains the best movie the acclaimed filmmaker has yet produced. It tells the story of a fading Hollywood movie star and a recently graduated student, who both try to find meaning in their lives during a hotel stay in Tokyo.
Bill Murray’s Bob Harris (the faded movie star) is the antithesis of his usual character type. Here, he’s unusually stoic—and it’s almost unsettling, as if he’s had his zeal for life drained from him.
His slow return to feeling emotions beyond his empty and routine existence showcases how Murray built his character through improvisation and Coppola’s excellent script, as he’s afforded the perfect scene partner in Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte.
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Jim Carrey)
Easily one of the biggest comedy stars of the late-90s and early 2000s, Jim Carrey’s cinematic output shifted when he took on a role in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The film follows the eternally depressed Joel Barish, who chooses to skip work one day and head to the beach instead, for no reason other than a spur-of-the-moment impulse. There, he meets Clementine: the total opposite of Joel, who lights up his day with her effervescent personality.
The thing is, they might have met before. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explores the character dynamics and development revolving around a couple who erased each other from their memories.
Carrey’s role in the acclaimed drama is hard to imagine with anybody else in it. His personal style of comedy sits somewhere inside Joel, which impacts Carrey’s depressed performance and shows there’s a whole person hiding beneath Joel’s skin just waiting to be freed.
4. Being There (Peter Sellers)
As a comedy legend, Peter Sellers remains revered to this day as one of the first great comedy stars to shift into dramatic roles. His best was Being There, a film that followed a gardener named Chance.
Chance loses his job when his master dies, and is subsequently forced to move out of his home. Unfortunately, Chance has no other life skills and is wholly unaware of his surroundings—yet lands on his feet when a high-class family takes him in, thinking he’s a businessman in tough times.
Peter Sellers’ performance as Chance is so compelling in how he removes all sense of himself from the character, giving his performance a blank feeling that few could have pulled off.
3. Precious (Mo’Nique)
Many comedians have attempted to step into dramatic roles over the years, with varying degrees of success. However, Mo’Nique’s achievement with Precious is more than a straightforward performance—she goes to a place that’s downright evil.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire shows the life of a teenage girl who’s continually raped by her own father. The dark drama sees her life as she struggles with another incestual pregnancy under the beatings and abuse of her mother (played by Mo’Nique).
Mo’Nique’s performance is harrowing, haunting, and inherently wicked, as the jealous woman takes out her frustrations on her poor daughter. The role didn’t need a comedian in it, but Mo’Nique’s resulting Academy Award showed that nobody could have done it better.
2. Dead Poets Society (Robin Williams)
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Of all comedians to take up drama, none has ever achieved the feat like Robin Williams did. The beloved comedian flipped between drama and comedy at will, fully hitting both with every stride.
Dead Poets Society is Peter Weir’s film about a high-class prep school in the United States, which sees Robin Williams in the role of John Keating, the school’s new poetry teacher.
As he influences his students to think for themselves, their lives become impacted by their decisions—which leads to the suicide of a classmate, and the school forcing the young men into blaming Keating.
While Good Will Hunting is where Williams won an Oscar, Dead Poets Society is truly his best performance. Williams used his comedic talents to underpin John Keating with an inspiration that few ever feel from their teachers. Oh Captain, My Captain.
1. The Color Purple (Whoopi Goldberg)
Winner of the EGOT—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony—Whoopi Goldberg’s comedic roots have seldom stopped her from reaching heights that many dramatic actors could only dream of. She’s proven her abilities as a multi-talented performer time and time again.
In The Color Purple, she portrays Celie: a woman born and raised at the turn of the century, who’s married off during an era of intense racial divide and suffers serious abuse from her father and her husband.
Goldberg’s performance is one of dedicated craft as she brings across the pain and broad strength of Celie. She doesn’t overplay the part; instead, she gives her character a visceral complexity not commonly found amongst even the most talented actors.