People make sacrifices all the time, for lots of reasons. Our time is limited, and you can only be in one place at a time. Actors are no different. They make sacrifices in their lives, sure. But it’s when they make those sacrifices for their craft that people sit up and really take notice. With that in mind, here are 10 actors who went far beyond what anyone could have expected to make sure they gave a convincing performance.
10. Sylvester Stallone – Rocky
Sylvester Stallone was born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946. After a difficult upbringing, some of which was spent in foster care, he dropped out of college to pursue acting. He struggled to make ends meet, getting only a few uncredited roles. He even appeared in an adult film called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s.
One day, trying to keep warm, he went inside the NY public library and found a book by Edgar Allan Poe. He became fascinated by the poet and his writing, and began writing scripts. After a few tries, he was able to sell one for $100.
Writing was a struggle, and he wound up pawning some of his wife’s jewelry. Soon after, they were divorced. Things got so bad for Stallone that he was even forced to sell his dog for $25. It was at this point Stallone realized he’d hit rock bottom.
Two weeks later, after watching a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone began writing frantically on a script. That script was Rocky. He finished it in a mere 20 hours. After a series of rejections, he was offered $125,000. But since he also wanted to star in the film, he turned down the offer. They increased their bid, but Stallone still said no. Finally, the studio relented and agreed to let him star. The catch was now he would only get $35,000 for the script, in addition to a small percentage of the profits.
Rocky went on to win three Oscars in 1976, including Best Picture. Oh, and one more footnote: Stallone tracked down his dog and purchased him back for $15,000. The dog appeared in the film as Rocky’s own canine companion, Butkus.
9. Jim Carrey – Man on the Moon
Jim Carrey is best known for his bizarre, hyperkinetic comedy. That’s why it came as such a surprise when he showed with films like The Truman Show that he could give understated, nuanced acting performances as well. Carrey put his dramatic chops to the test with Man on the Moon, directed by Milos Forman. Carrey plays the role of Andy Kaufman, an entertainer, actor, performance artist, and “professional wrestler.”
Throughout filming, Carrey refused to break character. He alienated friends and family in the process. He even refused to answer to his own name, insisting on being called “Andy.” Things got even weirder than that. Jerry “The King” Lawler, a wrestler known for his feud with the real Kaufman, played himself in the movie.
In 1982, Lawler got in an argument with Kaufman in a joint interview on Late Night with David Letterman. The segment ended with Lawler slapping Kaufman, and Kaufman throwing coffee in Lawler’s face. Carrey was set on experiencing everything Kaufman felt during his life, and wanted to truly reenact those events. Everyone else – Lawler, the director, the insurance company – was against it. But Carrey ended up spitting in Lawler’s face, just so he could get him riled up. When they recreated the Letterman incident, Lawler didn’t hold back.
Lawler and Carrey didn’t become vengeful enemies or anything, so don’t worry. And though the movie itself didn’t do so well at the box office, Carrey did receive a Golden Globe for his performance.
8. Christian Bale – The Machinist
Christian Bale is known for altering his appearance for the various roles he’s played throughout his career. He got ripped in American Psycho and Reign of Fire, then starved himself for Rescue Dawn. He bulked up for The Dark Knight, only to lose weight again for his role in The Fighter. But he went to the extreme for the role of Trevor Reznik, an insomniac who starts to doubt his own sanity, in The Machinist.
When he made Reign of Fire back in 2002, he weighed around 183 pounds. Most of that was muscle. Not two years later, he became pretty much skin and bone. Bale more closely resembled a ghoul than a person, and weighed in at a mere 120 pounds. He achieved this on a daily diet of black coffee, a can of tuna, an apple, and a pack a cigarettes to suppress his appetite. He reportedly wanted to lose an extra five pounds before filming, but doctors warned him against it. They strongly believed he could actually die if he lost any more weight. Bale’s body was so weak, and his muscles so nonexistent at that point, that he couldn’t run for more than a minute or two before becoming exhausted.
Amazingly, within months of finishing The Machinist, he gained back 68 pounds and once again got ripped for Batman Begins. The Machinist bombed at the box office, earning just $64,000 on its opening weekend. Which means that far more people saw the pictures of Ghoul Bale, than saw the movie itself.
7. The Whole Cast – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is regarded as one of the best films in history, winning the “Big Five” Oscars. Jack Nicholson stars as a criminal who pleads insanity to avoid prison, and then rebels against the oppressive hospital staff. Not well known about the film is that many extras, and even some crew were actual patients and staff members in the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital, where the movie was filmed. For instance, the character Dr. John Spivey is played by Dr. Dean Brooks, the real superintendent at the hospital.
Throughout the production of the film, the cast lived on the hospital grounds. There, they interacted with real psychiatric patients. During their time there, director Milos Forman organized unscripted group therapy sessions, where the actors could develop their characters naturally. Many of those sessions were captured on film without the actors knowing it. Some were even included in the film. Danny DeVito developed an imaginary friend while filming, and expressed very real concerns for his own sanity to Dr. Brooks.
Brooks reassured him, however, saying that if he still considered his “companion” fictional, things were fine. Sydney Lassick, on the other hand, suffered a mental breakdown. He became overwhelmed and had to be removed from the set. Louise Fletcher, playing the role of the evil Nurse Ratched, ripped off her clothes in front of her colleagues. This was done in an attempt to become closer to the other actors, since she felt isolated because of her role as an antagonist.
6. Adrien Brody – The Pianist
Roman Polanski hand-picked Adrien Brody to play the role of a Jewish piano player struggling to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during WWII, in a story based on true events. In order to prepare for the film, he lost 30 pounds in just six weeks. He put himself on a strict diet of a couple boiled eggs, a small piece of fish or chicken, and some steamed vegetables. His quick weight loss put him in a cranky mood, which helped in developing his character even further. And as the title of the movie suggests, Brody practiced playing the piano four hours each day.
To further immerse himself in the role, he broke ties with friends and family. He sold his car and apartment back in the States. He disconnected his phone, and only took two bags and his keyboard with him when he moved to Europe for the duration of the production. For the following six months, he encouraged a sense of loneliness and loss within himself. He avoided personal connections and material possessions in order to keep in character. Brody was guided by Polanski, a Holocaust survivor himself, every step of the way.
What Brody believes to be the greatest thing he got from playing the role is the sense of how little his petty material desires matter in the real world, compared to what his character went through during the war. The Pianist won three Oscars: Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
5. Robert De Niro – Cape Fear
Martin Scorsese’s decision to direct this remake of a classic ’60s thriller came as little shock to anyone familiar with his work. Themes like corruption and guilt, mixed with violence, criminals, and conflicted outsiders have always been right up his alley. After receiving critical acclaim for movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, Cape Fear proved to be a wise move on the director’s part. The story follows a convicted rapist who begins to stalk the family of the lawyer who unsuccessfully defended him.
Robert De Niro’s performance as the convict, Max Cady, is among the finest of his career. Everything about him screams maniacal violence and revenge. This is particularly true of the prison scene where he does push-ups with pictures of Stalin in the background, his body covered in tattoos, moments before being released. The scene is so iconic it was even parodied by The Simpsons.
De Niro went through a total body transformation for the role. He got absurdly ripped, had all of his tattoos made with vegetable dye (which lasted for months), and paid a dentist $5,000 to give him bad teeth. After production, he paid another $20,000 fix them. The movie went on to be nominated for two Oscars, including a Best Actor nomination for De Niro.
4. Joaquin Phoenix – I’m Still Here
Remember that weird period when Joaquin Phoenix seemed to have lost his mind? He made bizarre talk show appearances, sporting an overgrown beard and talking about giving up acting to become a rapper. The hosts, not sure how to handle him, would politely chortle with a perplexed look on their faces. And then he actually did “quit” acting, and performed as a rapper on a few occasions. For about two years, people were convinced Phoenix had gone completely off the rails. Drugs, prostitutes, insanity – everything was on the table as far as the public was concerned.
It turns out, it was all a ruse. Or, sorry – performance art. It was intended to show, and document, the negative trends of celebrity life and culture. A daunting task, to say the least. Phoenix was seen as a madman throughout the duration of the project. To make matters worse, critics were ruthless with the documentary that resulted, I’m Still Here.
The film bombed at the box office, netting just $97,000 in its opening weekend. It got so little press coverage that many still believe it to be a “rough” phase in Phoenix’s life. But while Phoenix survived relatively unscathed, producer and director Casey Affleck (Ben’s brother) nearly went bankrupt as a result.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis – All of his Movies
Daniel Day-Lewis is famously “method” when it comes to acting. He’s notorious for the extreme measures and in-depth research he makes in preparation. The actor is highly selective when it comes to the roles he takes, starring in only seven movies since 1996. He’s also very secretive with his private life, rarely giving an interview or making a public appearance. And when he’s making a movie, he rarely – if ever – breaks character.
During the production of the 1989’s My Left Foot, Lewis spent most of his time in a wheelchair – just like his character. He had the crew push him around and spoon-feed him between takes. His agent called it “a load of nonsense,” and Lewis even damaged two ribs from sitting too long. He did win an Oscar for the role, though. For his part in The Last of the Mohicans, Lewis spent a period of six months in the wilderness. He learned to live off the land, fish, and even skin animals. In Gangs of New York, Lewis caught pneumonia after refusing to wear a coat. He had wanted to harden himself to the cold weather.
Defending his method, he said: “I’m never far away from a sense of potential absurdity of what I am doing, and maybe as I get older I have to work harder and harder to obliterate it. That’s maybe why I seem to take it far too seriously.”
2. Marlon Brando – The Men
Like Day-Lewis, Marlon Brando gained fame (and notoriety) for his intense method approach to acting. Prior to starring in The Men, a movie about a group WWII vets who had to cope with the mental and physical injuries of war, Brando spent a whole month is a VA hospital. Very few members of staff or patients knew who he was, and he blended in among the amputees.
Lying in bed for days on end, he observed as others tried in vain to do even the most basic of tasks. He tried to emulate them, learning bit by bit what it means to be a paraplegic. Brando learned how to lift himself out of bed using only his arms, and how to stumble into his wheelchair. Eventually, he revealed who he was and why he was there. Several of the patients ended up appearing in the film. The vets began confiding in him. Brando became especially close to a patient who, for the better part of the year, learned how to light a cigarette without using his hands. He’d lost both of his own.
One night, he and some of the vets went to a popular bar in the San Fernando Valley for a drink. Like all of them, Brando was in a wheelchair. An old lady came up to them and began talking about the healing powers of prayer. If they believed enough in God, they would walk again. Brando looked at her for a while, and then with a gigantic effort, hoisted himself up at the amazement of everyone there. He then began a soft-shoe dance up and down the barroom floor, screaming “I can walk! I can walk!” Laughing, he disappeared into the night.
1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger gave a career-defining, Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. In preparation for the role, Ledger got deep into method acting. He locked himself in a hotel room for a month. He limited his contact with the outside world, opting instead to feverishly research and refine his take on arguably the most iconic comic book villain in history. Ledger said in an interview, “I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath – someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts.”
He also kept a journal, scrawling sinister quotes and phrases like, “Inside. He’s laughing red and black and red and black till there’s nothing left to laugh. Until, almost tenderly, he turns inside out through his mouth.” He kept himself in character throughout most of the filming, to the point where the crew members began to feel disturbed by his distorted antics.
The world was shocked when Ledger died before the release of the film. Brought on by a combination of sleeping pills, painkillers, and anti-anxiety medication, some believe his demise was influenced by this role. Upon hearing of Ledger’s death Jack Nicholson, who had played the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, said, “I warned him!” Of course, it’s still speculation as to whether the film played any actual role in his overdose. All we can do is chalk it up as another Hollywood legend.
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