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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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One More Thing by BJ Novak (2014): 4/5 stars

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There’s a video on Youtube of BJ Novak telling the story of “Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle.” It’s pretty grainy and the sound quality isn’t that great… and I’ve watched it enough times that when I reached the story in Novak’s first story collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, I could hear his voice in my head and could probably have recited the story nearly by heart myself.

Maybe that’s a sign I’ve followed BJ Novak’s career too closely, along with the fact that I recognised a few of the collection’s shorter “stories” as originally being from his Twitter account, but ever since I started watching The Office and Ryan Howard became one of my favourite characters on the show even in his most hate-able moments (that blond hair), I’ve been a big fan. So in fairness, this is a pretty biased review, as I already knew his sense of humour and writing style was in my wheelhouse.

Regardless, I loved this book, and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish reading it. Every time I thought “I’ll stop after this story, save the rest for the next day,” I found myself reading another. Some were longer, while others were only a few lines (for example, “The Literalist’s Love Poem”: Roses are rose. Violets are violet. I love you.). The thing that I found most engaging about the collection was the tone.

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