Sometimes you can go through a whole movie without recognizing the main star. The credits start rolling and you think, “I don’t remember seeing them in it…?”
Alas, they were the protagonist all along! Only hidden beneath layers of prosthetics, weight gain, makeup, or all of the above. It’s a true show of dedication when an actor spends weeks or months transforming their body—or spends hours upon hours in makeup—for a role.
Here are some of the craziest examples of movie actor transformations that you probably didn’t recognize!
Of course, CGI doesn’t count! Andy Serkis didn’t exactly “transform” himself to play Gollum, for example.
This article is dedicated to actors who endured grueling physical conditions for the sake of practical authenticity in their roles.
8. Margot Robbie (Mary Queen of Scots)
We’re used to seeing Margot Robbie as a blonde beauty—or, for some of us, the supervillainess Harley Quinn of the DCEU.
In Mary Queen of Scots, however, Margot Robbie appeared as the 16th century Queen of England, Elizabeth I. The Aussie actress threw out her good looks in exchange for a pasty, balding ruler—one who was infamously… well… ugly. Not to be rude or anything.
Elizabeth I is regarded as one of the greatest monarchs in British history. She began life with a certain elegant and youthful beauty, but smallpox and lead poisoning made her go downhill.
With her face scarred, teeth rotting, and hair falling out, Elizabeth I refused to have any mirrors in her room. Per the fashion of the time, Elizabeth would paint her face white to try and cover her scars.
The makeup artists for Mary Queen of Scots really went to town with this, rendering Robbie unrecognizable in the final parts of the film.
7. Nicole Kidman (Destroyer)
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Nicole Kidman maintains a trim figure and lush locks as a woman in the Hollywood limelight, but the 2018 crime-drama Destroyer showed us a Kidman like we’ve never seen before—and we aren’t just talking a wig and some eyeshadow.
When Kidman stepped into the role of Erin Bell, a self-destructive character, it was time for a new look. Mottled skin, under-eye circles, and greying hair imbue Erin with a deep sense of exhaustion.
Stripped of all her feminine flair, Kidman delivers a hardened performance as a vengeful undercover cop. Destroyer may have leaned a little too heavily on Kidman’s transformation as a marketing strategy, but her acting is impressive nonetheless.
6. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Matthew McConaughey is the protagonist of this Oscar-winning drama, and he looks like little more than a hollow shell of his usual tanned and toned self.
He plays Ron, a self-destructive rodeo cowboy who’s diagnosed with HIV, so he isn’t exactly in tip-top shape. The nature of this terrible virus is harsh and unrelenting. Victims often become extremely skinny due to an overworked immune system and hormonal changes.
McConaughey lost 50 pounds to play Ron, slimming down to 135 pounds in a mere 5 months. He achieved this by predominately eating fish, egg whites, and wine, all while avoiding exercise.
McConaughey’s extreme looks married with such impeccable acting result in a movie performance to remember.
5. Tilda Swinton (Suspiria)
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You’d be forgiven for not realizing Tilda Swinton was the one playing Dr. Josef Klemperer in Suspiria. Especially given that he was credited as an actor named Lutz Ebersdorf—an actor who doesn’t really exist. Ebersdorf even had his own (fake) IMDb page.
When paparazzi got hold of on-set photos, they spread around news that the old man was actually Tilda Swinton in heavy prosthetics.
Director Luca Guadagnino denied the claims. Questions surrounding Ebersdorf’s lack of online presence—seemingly appearing out of thin air—were fought off by retorts claiming him to be a real psychoanalyst and not a professional actor.
A year later, his IMDb profile was deleted and Tilda Swinton was given the acting credit. The elaborate scheme was mostly born out of fun, but also added to the horror film’s mysterious, supernatural element.
Swinton’s transformation into the elderly doctor did manage to fool a lot of people (including actors on set), thanks to the genius of Mark Coulier’s makeup skills. She even wore a fake manhood under her costume to really get into character.
4. Jared Leto (Chapter 27)
We saw Jared Leto’s bony frame alongside Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, and then we saw the complete opposite in Chapter 27 when Leto refused a fat suit and instead gained 67 pounds to play his role as John Lennon’s killer.
You’d think putting on weight would be a lot more fun than losing it, but Leto’s diet of “microwaved ice cream mixed with olive oil and soy sauce” isn’t exactly the dream.
While Leto reportedly hallucinated while fasting to play a heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream, he was literally immobilized by Chapter 27. When his doughy physique made it hard to walk, Leto had to sit in a wheelchair for periods of time.
The suddenness of Leto’s weight gain meant that his cholesterol rocketed, and doctors became concerned for his long-term health. And all for a movie that critics didn’t even like…
3. Christian Bale (The Machinist)
Christian Bale spends half his career morphing from one body shape to the next. Notorious for his extreme yo-yo dieting, Bale bounces from six-pack abs to beer bellies for his demanding roles.
Bale’s number one body weight transformation has to be his performance in The Machinist, which is still the most amount of weight lost just for a movie role. At just 120 pounds, it’s surprising Bale even had any energy to make a movie.
Bale starred as the insomniac machine worker Trevor, who’s little more than just a skeleton. His malnourished state—achieved by living off nothing but coffee, cigarettes, and apples—is uncomfortable to watch. Eventually, Bale had to stop his diet under doctor’s orders.
2. Charlize Theron (Monster)
Charlize Theron may have put on 50 pounds for her part in Tully, but you could still tell it was her. Monster, on the other hand, made her utterly unrecognizable. She was 30 pounds heavier with hair fried to a crisp to play the real-life prostitute-turned-murderer Patty Jenkins.
To achieve an accurate look, Theron had her skin mottled, teeth yellowed, and eyebrows plucked to oblivion. It’s surprising that no prosthetics were used to create her damaged look. Yes, that’s Theron’s real greasy hair in the movie!
Mainly, though, it was Theron’s gritty performance and dedication to the role that was the real transformation.
1. Jim Carrey (How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
The lazy use of CGI in How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an insult to Jim Carrey, who was literally trained by the CIA to endure torture for his embodiment of the Grinch.
If you know anything about the actor, you can tell it’s him beneath the layers (and layers, and layers, and layers) of makeup just by his legendary facial expressions. Carrey is a master at contorting his face into all kinds of images, which is what made his Grinch so iconic.
Carrey had to sit still for 8.5 hours every day to be “buried alive” in prosthetics during filming. He initially tried to quit the role, but pulled through when the CIA operative was brought in.
He was only able to endure a hundred more torture-by-makeup days by distracting himself and altering his mental state. Yikes. Thanks Jim.