Nostalgia: 10 Actors Who Transformed Themselves For An Iconic Role

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From Daniel Day Lewis’ method acting to Robert De Niro’s professional boxing bouts, these actors showed tremendous commitment to their roles offscreen.

It’s no coincidence that actors playing historical figures clean up at the Academy Awards. They have a responsibility to be as authentic as possible and, while they aren’t impervious to the pressures that go along with it, they often respond with a tremendous amount of commitment to their character. The result is an embodiment of their character that goes far beyond simply playing a part.

Here, 10 actors who lived and breathed their iconic role.

Chaplin (1992)

1. Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin 

Photo: David Benedict/Flickr

The film chronicles the turbulent story of English comic Charlie Chaplin and his rise to fame during the era of silent film. While the film wasn’t particularly well-received, Robert Downey Jr. was praised for his uncanny portrayal of the iconic actor.

Behind the scenes:
Downey credits much of his success in this role to Richard Attenborough who told him he was born to play Charlie Chaplin. That confidence in then-27-year-old actor was also reflected in the recourses he provided Downey, which included two dialect coaches and two more for movement training. Downey also studied Chaplin’s facial expressions from large digital print-outs. “There were so many subtleties,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

Pushing his character study to its limits, Downey insisted on learning to play tennis left-handed as Chaplin did. “I didn’t have to, but it was an opportunity to really go for broke and nail the character as much as I could,” he said.

Ray (2004)

2. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

Ray follows the life of soul musician Ray Charles who rose to legendary status while battling a heroin addiction for much of his career. Musician and actor Jamie Foxx played the icon in the film took home the Oscar for Best Actor that year for his portrayal.

Behind the scenes:
Foxx wore a pair of prosthetic eyelids that rendered him blind during filming. It was that additional touch of authenticity that allowed Foxx to fully experience the role rather than simply play it. “After six hours of being blind, you lose the sense of how a person is physically,” he told The Guardian. “It was amazing to hear the little buzzing voices all around you.”

Before filming, Foxx also studied footage of a young Charles to perfect his mannerisms. He even got to meet him in person. During that first meeting, Charles put Foxx through his paces on the piano. “You’re going to play me? Well prove it,” Charles reportedly said before the session began.

My Left Foot (1989)

3. Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown

My Left Foot is based on the life of Irish author and painter Christy Brown, who—due to paralysis caused by his severe cerebral palsy—wrote and painted using only his left foot. Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis later took home Best Actor at the Oscars for his heartbreaking performance.

Behind the scenes:
Day-Lewis, who is known for his dedicated method acting, spent eight weeks living in Dublin’s Sandymount Clinic for the Disabled where he actually learned how to paint with his left foot. It was during his time there that he produced several of the art works that were later featured in the film.

While on the set, Day-Lewis continued to go above and beyond expectations by remaining in character the entire time. “He’d call you by your film name, and you’d call him Christy,” Kristen Sheridan, daughter of director, Jim Sheridan, later recalled. “It was madness. You’d be feeding him, wheeling him around. During the entire film, I only saw him walking once.”

Even when Brown’s family visited the set unexpectedly, Day-Lewis remained in character, speaking in the same garbled voice of the late Brown. “I became grossly inconvenient,” Day-Lewis told The Rolling Stone.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

4. Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn

This biographical film chronicles the rise of country music star Loretta Lynn. Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for Best Actress and the film itself was nominated from six additional Academy Awards.

Behind the scenes:
Spacek’s award-winning performance was likely a product of her commitment to the role. Not only did she insist on performing the songs herself, she accompanied Lynn on tour to observe her mannerisms both on and off the stage prior to filming.

In fact, Spacek was so absorbed in creating the role that she remained in character in between takes.

Malcolm X (1992)

5. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X

Based on the 1965 autobiography Malcolm X co-wrote with Roots creator Alex Haley, this biopic explores his rise from a troubled youth to a powerful civil rights activist. Denzel Washington received an Oscar nomination for his performance as the iconic figure.

Behind the scenes:
This wasn’t the first time Washington tried his hand at portraying Malcolm X. He played the civil rights leader 10 year prior to his casting in Spike Lee’s film for a play at the New Federal Theatre in New York. It was then that he began to deepen his understanding of the legendary figure.

Leading up to his role in Malcolm X, Washington, a native to New York, spent time tirelessly researching the activist at Schaumburg Library in Harlem. “It became my home away from home and it’s a great resource library,” he explained in an interview with Fresh Air. “I can’t say enough about the work that I did, not just on Malcolm X, but other parts over the years I would always visit the Schaumburg.”

Gandhi (1982)

6. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi

This epic drama tells the story of Mahatma Gandhi, known for leading the Indian people into a non-violent resistance against British rule. British actor Ben Kingsley received an Oscar for his uncanny portrayal of Gandhi.

Behind the scenes:
Kingsley didn’t take his role lightly. “It’s an awesome responsibility, and the weight of it sort of lands between your shoulders,” he told the New York Times.

That attitude was also reflected in his preparation, which he says he went about “methodically and scientifically.” His research involved poring over every bit of material on the great liberator, which included everything from biographies to old photographs and newsreels. “All you can do is just look at them and hope something goes in.”

Kingsley also committed himself physically to the role, shaving his head and losing 20 pounds on Gandhi’s vegetarian diet. He even practiced yoga, started meditating and learned to spin cotton.

While these details don’t necessarily appear on camera, the Academy Award-winning actor says the effect his preparation had on his performance was visceral. ”The preparation is entirely systematic, practical and scientific, but when I play the role, whether it is Hamlet or Gandhi, some other kind of information comes to the forefront, a certain energy is released,” he told the New York Times. “There is some essence in me that adheres itself to the work. I can’t tell you what it is—I can’t tell you what the heart of my mystery is—because I don’t know; all I know is that it is the product of extremely hard work.”

 Schindler’s List (1993)

7. Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler

Directed by Stephen Spielberg, Schindler’s List follows the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved the lives of more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them at his factory.

The film earned seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Behind the scenes:
While auditions for the part of Oskar Schindler saw plenty of big names like Mel Gibson and Warren Beatty, Spielberg felt the part called for someone with a little less Hollywood clout. He opted for Irish actor Liam Neeson, who Spielberg said was the closest match based on what he’d read about the German industrialist. “His charm, the way woman love him, his strength,” Spielberg told the New York Times. “He actually looks a little bit like Schindler.”

Capote (2005)

8. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote

Capote trails the life of the famous writer during his time creating his non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood, which details the gruesome 1959 murder of a family in Holcomb, Kansas. The late Philip Seymour-Hoffman won Best Actor for his performance.

Behind the scenes:
Initially, Seymour-Hoffman had his doubts about the role. “I was shocked when they asked me,” he told The Telegraph. “I’m 5ft 9in, and at the time I was really big—a roly-poly guy who weighed about 240 pounds,” he recalls. “I didn’t say, ‘Yeah, good idea.'”

But once he started looking into the novelist, he found he shared similarities with Capote—both physically and as an artist.

To prepare for the role, Seymour-Hoffman lost the excess weight and spent five months combing through everything Capote had written, including his letters to and from Perry Smith, one of the men convicted of the brutal murders.

For the majority of filming, Seymour-Hoffman stayed in character. “It was the kind of role that technically I had to stay with because if I let it go it was pretty hard to try to get it back,” he told The Telegraph. “So during the day, even in between shots and during breaks, I’d try and stay in character vocally and physically so I wouldn’t have to try to bring it back up.”

9. The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

The Queen invites audiences into the conflict that arose between Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair (not to mention all of Great Britain) after her handling of the sudden death of Princess Diana.

Behind the scenes:
Helen Mirren is no stranger to playing queens. One of her earliest stage roles was as Cleopatra and, ever since, she’s played royalty at least six more times.

Not many of those roles, however, were more immersive than her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. “Whenever I see the Queen, I always think, ‘oh, there I am,'” Mirren joked during an interview.

Although lacking in physical resemblances with the queen, Mirren attempted to transform her look using the queen’s facial expressions. “Sadly, I used very little makeup,” she told ThoughtCo. “It had more to do with the set of the face, really. The set of the head, the set of the mouth.”

Mirren also studied footage of the queen’s public appearances to perfect her voice and mannerisms. Watching the film afterward, she could see that her hard work had paid off. “You can hardly tell the difference,” she said. “That’s the most amazing moment.”

10. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta 

Photo: Raoul Luoar

Raging Bull follows the troubled life of middleweight boxer Jake La Motta as he rose through the ranks to earn his first title shot. Robert De Niro won an Oscar for the physically demanding role.

Behind the scenes: 
In his quest for authenticity, De Niro gained 20 pounds of muscle and trained with Jake La Motta for nearly a year prior to filming. Adopting his unique crab-like boxing style, the actor became so good that La Motta signed him up for three professional bouts, two of which De Niro won.

De Niro’s prep for the latter part of the film, where he played a declining La Motta, would differ substantially. In preparation, the actor went on a pasta-heavy eating binge in Italy where he gained 60 pounds over the span of four months to better resemble the boxer.