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When you boil it down to its simplest form, the job of an actor is to slip into someone else’s skin. While most roles just call for a change of clothes and a new backstory, some require the performer to change their appearance in a way that makes them completely unrecognizable from their off-set selves.
While transformations are nothing new in Hollywood, the advancements made in the fields of makeup and prosthetics have allowed actors to look more outlandish than ever when they take on a role. Here’s a look at some actors that have played characters that look nothing like them, with a shot of their on-screen looks first and a look at their true selves second.
Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth (“Game of Thrones”)
During the record-breaking run of HBO’s dark fantasy epic “Game of Thrones,” the character Brienne of Tarth became a true fan favorite. Always clad in dark armor and priding herself in her prowess on the battlefield much more than in her outward appearance, actor Gwendoline Christie was almost all business in this intimidating role. Ostensibly free of makeup and wearing her hair shorn close as to not block her vision, fans of the character were stunned when they saw Christie on red carpets promoting the series.
In real life, one of the only things that Christie shares with her on-screen persona is her impressive stature (she towers at 6 feet 3 inches). The English actor has worked as a model and is regarded as a fashionista, often wearing colorful gowns that steal every eye while walking a carpet with her castmates. Bold red lipstick seems like just about the last thing Brienne of Tarth would be caught wearing while walking the Kingsroad, but Christie pulls it off like she was born in it.
Joel Edgerton as Nick Jacoby (“Bright”)
After you watched him in Netflix’s 2017 film “Bright,” it might shock you to know that Joel Edgerton isn’t actually a frightening orc. The actor spent three hours every day in the makeup chair while making the movie, giving him a look that bears no resemblance to his actual appearance, even down to his yellowish irises. The role was one of Edgerton’s most-watched to date, with a reported 11 million users streaming the movie in its first three days on the service. Many audience members probably had no clue who was under that impressive facade.
When he’s not dressed as a hulking orc in a police uniform, Edgerton has the looks of a steely-eyed leading man. The Australian star has built his career on commanding the screen in intense movies like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Animal Kingdom” and “Black Mass,” but he showed his tender side in the Oscar-nominated 2016 romantic drama “Loving.” Turns out that his ears aren’t pointy, his skin isn’t the color of slate and, worst of all, he’s not even bald!
Sacha Baron Cohen as Brüno (“Brüno”)
Sacha Baron Cohen, perhaps best known for his Borat character, has built a reputation for wearing many faces that look nothing like his own. His long-running character Brüno might be the one that looks the least like the real man. In 2009, the comedy icon brought the larger-than-life character, who’s a gay Austrian fashion journalist, to the big screen and fooled many people into thinking Brüno was indeed an actual person. For those not in on the joke, seeing Baron Cohen out of character on a red carpet was quite the shock.
Sacha Baron Cohen
When he’s acting in one of his many non-comedic roles, Baron Cohen takes many by surprise with his dashing looks. The actor is so ridiculously over the top when playing characters like Brüno, Borat and Ali G that seeing him looking nonchalant in a tailored suit can be jarring. In real life, Cohen is not Austrian (he’s English), not blond and appears to not have a penchant for cheetah prints. Sorry to disappoint you.
Glenn Close as Mamaw (“Hillbilly Elegy”)
Few actors in modern memory have been able to change their appearance on-screen as fluidly as Glenn Close and she went all out for 2020’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” In playing the role of Mamaw, the rough-as-sandpaper, chain-smoking matriarch of the troubled family at the Netflix film’s center, Close earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. While she’s gone out of her way to play characters that look nothing like her in real life before, the differences between Mamaw and Close are downright shocking.
Born and bred in Connecticut, Close’s own background couldn’t be more different than that of her on-screen counterpart, who was pure Appalachia. Mamaw’s billowing t-shirts, which were about four sizes too big for her, and unkempt hair also make a stark contrast to Close’s own sleek sense of style. If “Hillbilly Elegy” was somehow the first film of hers you’d ever watched, you wouldn’t believe who was hiding beneath the costume and makeup.
Tyler Perry as Madea (Various Films)
When “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” hit theaters in 2005, many people weren’t familiar with Tyler Perry, who wrote the screenplay and played a scene-stealing role as Madea. The part saw Perry, a 6-foot-5-inch man, donning a muumuu, a curly gray wig and bright red lipstick to bring the intimidating grandmother to life. When people saw Perry out of character, doing interviews promoting the movie, they had to be stunned.
Madea can do a lot of things but pulling off a flawless five o’clock shadow might be beyond her reach. Perry, meanwhile, has no problem doing that or rocking a pair of glasses that don’t look like they came out of Estelle Getty’s wardrobe on “The Golden Girls.” Despite looking nothing like her off-screen alter ego, Madea has become Perry’s signature role, as he’s brought the beloved character to life more than 10 times on the big screen so far. The media mogul has said the part comes from a very personal place and is “exactly the PG version of my mother and my aunt.”
Kristen Wiig as Alexanya Atoz (“Zoolander 2”)
“Zoolander” and its 2016 sequel are known for getting their A-list cast members to radically change their appearances in hilarious ways. “Saturday Night Live” icon Kristen Wiig is maybe the most extreme example, as she completely morphed her looks to play the over-the-top villain, Alexanya Atoz, in “Zoolander 2.” While promoting the movie, Wiig revealed that she spent roughly five hours in a chair every day getting her makeup and hair done and then had to spend another two hours getting it all undone at the end of the day.
When she’s not being done up like a high-fashion caricature, Wiig’s style is firmly down to earth. Unlike Alexanya, she doesn’t have lips that look like they were inflated using a bicycle pump and doesn’t attempt hairstyles that look like they came from another planet. Her looks in “Zoolander 2” may be right up there with her Dooneese character from “SNL” in terms of the most dramatic departure from her actual appearance.
Conleth Hill as Varys (“Game of Thrones”)
Like Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne, Conleth Hill’s Varys was a favorite of many fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Also like Brienne, the actor playing this conniving character looks virtually unrecognizable when you see him out of character. Throughout his long run on the show, the most constant things about Varys’ looks were his baby-smooth face and head. Yet, when Hill wasn’t busy filming the show, he liked to leave the razor and scissors on the shelf.
When “Game of Thrones” was in the middle of its run as one of the biggest TV shows on the planet, Hill had to be one of the few main cast members who could walk around in public without getting noticed. The veteran actor, who hails from Northern Ireland, bears almost no resemblance to his on-screen counterpart, including an alarming lack of dress robes in his red carpet appearances. Despite only earning mainstream fame in the last decade because of his role in the show, Hill had already earned two Tony Award nominations for his long career on the stage before that.
Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly (“Bombshell”)
Like Glenn Close, Oscar winner Charlize Theron has become renowned for drastically changing her appearance in order to take on different roles. While her transformation into the serial killer Aileen Wuornos for 2003’s “Monster” is the stuff of Hollywood legend, Theron’s morph into TV journalist Megyn Kelly for 2019’s “Bombshell” might be even more stunning. Using various prosthetics, nose plugs to make her nostrils bigger and a bag of tricks to severely alter the shape of her eyes, makeup artist Kazu Hiro reportedly had Theron in his chair for about three hours a day during filming.
The makeup that transformed Theron into Kelly for “Bombshell” was so impressive that it won the movie an Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling. The differences are subtle enough that they don’t make the South African actor look fake when she’s on screen but drastic enough that it doesn’t look like her actual self. While the two women share a similar complexion and blond hair, Theron and Kelly don’t look much alike in real life, making the actor’s seamless change into her subject on the screen one of the most amazing you’ll likely ever see.
Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus (“Tropic Thunder”)
The 2008 Hollywood satire “Tropic Thunder” is full of ridiculous characters but Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as the laser-focused method actor, Kirk Lazarus, might take the prize. In the film, Lazarus is a white Australian actor who gets surgery to darken his skin in order to play a Black American soldier in the fictional movie the characters are making. Downey wore blackface and a wig for the role, undergoing a stark transformation that’s drawn plenty of controversy over the years.
Robert Downey Jr.
While Downey is one of the world’s most recognizable stars, it’s still difficult to see him under the makeup he wore for “Tropic Thunder” — even in the scenes where he was Kirk before the skin-darkening treatment, as he had phony blue eyes and blond hair. Downey’s full-throated performance in the film, which was intended as a rebuke of self-serious actors who co-opt other people’s identities in the name of art, earned him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. In response to the critics who have called the performance racist, Downey has said he thought twice before signing up but that his heart was fully into it and his intentions were purely satirical.
Mila Kunis as Molly (“Four Good Days”)
When you think of Mila Kunis, you probably picture her infectious smile, olive-colored skin and dark hair, but she went out of her way to transform into someone else for 2020’s “Four Good Days.” The drama saw Kunis play a long-time heroin addict who is struggling to get sober and repair her relationship with her mother. In addition to blond hair, which was enough of a stunning change to Kunis’ looks, she lost 20 pounds, wore fake teeth and put on makeup that made her skin look drained of all life. It was a far cry from the confident, lively woman audiences have been used to seeing on screen for decades.
While Kunis has been acting in major projects since she was a teenager, the 37-year-old star has said that her performance as Molly in “Four Good Days” was the hardest work of her career. In an interview with Yahoo, the actor said the part was “hands-down the most challenging” role she’s ever done and that she was “very happy” when production ended. The aforementioned Glenn Close played Kunis’ mother in the film, so at least she was working with someone who could relate to undergoing that kind of dramatic change.
Johnny Knoxville as Irving Zisman (“Bad Grandpa”)
Like Sacha Baron Cohen, Johnny Knoxville has made a career out of pranking unsuspecting people on film through his work in the “Jackass” franchise. But he went deep undercover for the 2013 hidden camera comedy “Bad Grandpa,” which saw him playing Irving Zisman, an awful caretaker of a young boy. It’s tough to imagine a “Jackass”-related film being nominated for an Oscar but the impressive makeup work done to turn Knoxville into an old man earned it one.
The eyes are the biggest giveaway that it’s Knoxville under that suit of makeup and prosthetics but the transformation is still amazing. Keep in mind that the actor was only 42 years old when “Bad Grandpa” came out, meaning they aged him more than twice his actual age to reach Irving’s ripe old age of 86. We’ll have to wait a few more decades to see how close they actually got it.
Tom Felton as Grand Guignol (“A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting”)
Plenty of the buzz built up around Netflix’s 2020 family horror film, “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting,” came from leaks showing Tom Felton’s transformation for his role. The handsome young actor played a ghoulish figure known as Grand Guignol in the film and fans couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw images of him from the set. The “Harry Potter” film series actor’s signature blond hair and piercing blue eyes were nowhere to be found under this grimy veneer.
When Felton was playing the irritating Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” movies, his true looks were more or less untouched, which made his role in “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” a stunner for unsuspecting viewers. It was one of those performances that likely had many people wondering why the creepy guy looked so familiar, despite his unwelcoming appearance. Felton spent several hours in makeup every day to get prepared for the role, which saw him wearing cat-eye contacts and having a face marked with scars.
Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick (“The Rhythm Section”)
When images of Blake Lively in character for her 2020 thriller, “The Rhythm Section,” came out, the word that appeared in most headlines was “unrecognizable.” The actor is well known for her stunning looks, which typically include glowing skin, luscious long hair and a daring sense of fashion. As the character Stephanie Patrick, a prostitute with a severe drug habit, Lively’s complexion was ghostly, her hair was unkempt and shorn and her clothes were frumpy and tattered. If it was someone’s first introduction to her, they would’ve been amazed to see her off the set.
In real life, Lively’s looks are far from the pallid, sickly ones viewers saw in “The Rhythm Section.” As for the hair, which may have been the most drastic departure from the actor’s actual appearance, there was an entire team on the set dedicated to handling the numerous wigs Stephanie wore throughout the twisty picture. Lively reportedly helped the crew sift through dozens of wig choices to find the ones she thought worked best for the story, regardless of how dreadful they made her look.
Bill Moseley as Otis Driftwood (“The Devil’s Rejects”)
When audiences first saw director Rob Zombie’s cult-horror hit “The Devil’s Rejects,” they would’ve been forgiven for not recognizing veteran actor Bill Moseley. After decades of appearances in scary movies, Moseley totally morphed his looks to play serial killer Otis Driftwood, seen on the right in this picture. His long, stringy hair and thick beard were a total departure from Moseley’s normally clean-cut appearance.
When Moseley showed up on red carpets to promote that 2005 film, he probably could’ve strolled right past most photographers without much of a fuss. The Connecticut native couldn’t look more different than the Southern-fried sadist he was playing on screen. In total, Moseley has played Otis three different times on the big screen starting with 2003’s “House of 1000 Corpses,” making him arguably the actor’s signature role. For another instance of Moseley drastically changing his appearance for scares, check him out as Chop-Top in 1986’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.”
David Harbour as Hellboy (“Hellboy”)
While David Harbour has become a recognizable star in recent years, you’d likely never place him under the mountain of prosthetics and fake hair he was wearing in 2019’s “Hellboy.” The actor, who is best known for his work on “Stranger Things,” became the latest to play the hulking red demon. Harbour reportedly spent a total of 150 hours in the makeup chair while shooting the movie, which is more than six full days of his life.
You’d be hard-pressed to find many similarities between Harbour and Hellboy in terms of appearance. Harbour’s actual looks are much more everyman than demonic superhero, which is one of the things that has made him a favorite of audiences. As you can see, he doesn’t look much different than his popular character in Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which had to make spending so many hours in that makeup trailer a very new challenge for him.
Boris Karloff as Mr. Hyde (“Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde”)
Movie audiences in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s would have been forgiven if they thought Boris Karloff was just a hideous man. The legendary actor wore several monstrous faces during his long career but this one, from 1953’s “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” might be one of his most frightening. Movie makeup has come a long way since then, but the dramatic transformation Karloff underwent for the role is still remarkable.
When he wasn’t scaring audiences as Frankenstein, Imhotep or Mr. Hyde, Karloff had the looks you’d expect of a star English actor. Without all the makeup and prosthetics, he looked like he could’ve been cast as the kindly grandfather on a family sitcom. In real life, Karloff was a man who contained multitudes: he co-founded the Screen Actor’s Guild and was a great lover of gardening and cricket.