Actors and their Surprising Career Choices that Actually Worked

I haven’t been keeping up with the award show season too much this year, mainly because I’ve only seen eight Oscar-nominated films, three of which were in the Visual Effects category. But I have been paying enough attention to see that there was a lot of hype around Dallas Buyers Club, particularly for star Matthew McConaughey. I read that he lost 30 pounds for his role, a level of dedication usually seen by method actors like Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis. And his work is getting rave reviews, including nominations or wins from the SAG awards, the Golden Globes, and of course the Academy, where he is the frontrunner to win Best Actor at the Oscars tonight.


To an extent, this surprised me. While I know he’s taken serious roles in the past (and is currently getting equally positive attention for True Detective), when I think of Matthew McConaughey, I think of a shirtless, bongo-playing, “I get older and they stay the same age,” How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, stoner-surfer-sort-of-actor, and I’d guess a lot of audiences thought the same. After the reviews I read prior to seeing Dallas Buyers Club, I wasn’t shocked by how good he was, but I still find it a bit hard to reconcile McConaughey’s portrayal of Woodruf with, say, his similarly-named character Wooderson.


Then again, this certainly isn’t the first time an actor has broken out of their trademark style of role and done a remarkable job. Here are nine other actors who managed to surprise me with their roles:

Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Like McConaughey, Jim Carrey had done some serious roles before Eternal SunshineThe Truman Show is hardly slapstick, after all. But he was certainly more well known for movies like Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty. Then he played Joel to Kate Winslet’s Clementine in a film that never fails to make me feel joyful and depressed at the same time.

Steve Carell, Little Miss Sunshine

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As far as I know, Steve Carell was solely a comedic actor for the better part of his career. AnchormanThe 40-Year-Old VirginThe Daily Show, and of course The Office: he’s brilliant at all of them, but although he has some touching moments as Michael Scott, and although Little Miss Sunshine is probably, technically a comedy, his role as Olive’s gay, suicidal uncle still came out of left field and blew me away.

Maya Rudolph, Away We Go

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I don’t know if actresses are less typecast than actors or if it’s the opposite—that they are typecast but find it harder to break out of their original genre than male actors—but actresses who reinvent themselves are more of the child-star-who-didn’t-become-Lohan-esque variety. But Maya Rudolph (and John Krasinski) in Away We Go proved to be an example of a funny woman who can do serious—and wonderfully bittersweet.

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad

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For a lot of actors, the role they played in a late-90s/early-00s television show is the role they’ll be known as for good. Sarah Michelle Gellar will always be Buffy, Zach Braff and Donald Faison will always be JD and Turk, and James Van Der Beek will always be crying Dawson Leery. So who would’ve thought that Malcolm (the role Frankie Muniz will always be known for)’s silly dad Hal would end up being known as one of the most intense, terrifying television characters ever.

Hugh Laurie, House

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Speaking of television, Hugh Laurie may not have been well-known on American TVs before he limped into our Tuesday evenings as acerbic, Sherlock Holmes-inspired doctor Gregory House, but anyone who did recognise him from UK programmes like Jeeves & Wooster or Blackadder (both of which I, Anglophile nerd that I am, had been watching on PBS along with the classic series of Doctor Who) would know him more as a comedic actor than the dramatic star he’s become.

John C. Reilly, Step-Brothers

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I’ve talked a lot about comedic actors doing serious roles, but it goes the other way around as well. John C. Reilly’s filmography leaps from dramatic, critically acclaimed films from Gangs of New YorkThe Hours, and an Oscar-nominated turn in the musical Chicago, to the ridiculous—Talladega Nights and others. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that he can do it all, but the first time I saw Step-Brothers I was shocked how hard I laughed.

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

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I’ve loved Anne Hathaway since The Princess Diaries, so I knew she could sing a bit as she performed a few songs in the mediocre adaptation of one of my favourite children’s books, Ella Enchanted. But there’s a big difference between the soundtrack of a kid’s film and the operatic ability needed to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables. And yet Anne pulled it off. Maybe we should’ve known from the Oscars (no, no, not the one she hosted; let’s forget about that one).

Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

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In most of my above examples, I’ve known the actors were  talented before seeing the role that changed my view of them, but like Matthew McConaughey I didn’t have a very high regard for Reese Witherspoon’s acting ability. Sure, she was great in Legally Blonde, a role that seemed tailor-made for her, but it wasn’t until Walk the Line that I realised she’s actually a very good actress. Now if only she would do some more films that are decent enough to actually show that.

Daniel Radcliffe, Equus

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Child stars often have a difficult time once they grow up, and if I had to make a list of actors most likely to be typecast, I would have guessed that Daniel Radcliffe would forever be Harry Potter. When I heard that his performance in Equus was well-received in London and was coming to Broadway, I couldn’t resist checking it out (any other connotation not intended). While the production wasn’t incredible, Radcliffe proved that he had range beyond “kid wizard,” and has since gone on to succeed in a variety of different roles.


2 thoughts on “Actors and their Surprising Career Choices that Actually Worked”

  1. Great review. When actors step into roles that are so very unlike their personalities, or those we’re used to seeing them play, I say, “Now that’s what I call acting!” Those are the times when I’m truly entertained.

    1. Thanks! And yes, I completely agree–there are actors who are known for playing a certain type of role, and they’re great to watch, but it’s amazing to see when an actor really transforms themselves to play a different type of role.

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