These actors who broke typecasting have one thing in common - they were willing to take an incredible career risk in order to avoid being branded as one thing for life.
Play a Disney princess a few times, and the world is going to only see you as a Disney princess - which is why Anne Hathaway went after gritty and controversial dramas to deny a permanent "Hathaway archetype."
Typecasting has ruined so many potentially great careers. Just ask the cast of Gilligan's Island or The Brady Bunch how difficult it was for them to find work when their respective series ended. TV fans simply could not see many of those actors playing a different type of character. Just try to imagine Bob Denver (Gilligan) as an anti-hero, hard-drinking detective type. Can you picture Michael Lookinland (Bobby Brady) as a deranged villain?
Perhaps those actors could have played those types of roles. But they never got the chance because they were so resolutely identified with very specific character traits. Which actor took the biggest risk to break typecasting? Who defied their original screen persona? Who just couldn't break type?
- 1Photo: TriStar Pictures
In the early 1980s, Tom Hanks delighted TV fans playing Kip/Buffy Wilson in the lighthearted sitcom Bosom Buddies. The actor was then able to make the leap from the small screen to the big screen. He starred in a string of memorable comedies, including Splash, Bachelor Party, The Money Pit, Big, and The 'Burbs. Hanks brought his all-around nice-guy funny charm with him to all those roles.
Everyone loved Tom Hanks. He had funny, sweet, underdog charisma to go along with his impeccable comedic timing. But like many other comedy movie actors, such as Robin Williams, Hanks wanted to make a shift to drama.
In the early 1990s, people still had many misconceptions and fears about HIV/AIDS and homosexuality. Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia became one of the first Hollywood movies to even address AIDS.
It was a giant stretch for Hanks to play a gay lawyer, Andrew Beckett, who gets fired from his corporate Philadelphia law firm after one of the partners sees a lesion on his forehead. These kinds of movies are fairly common today, but Philadelphia was truly groundbreaking and daring. Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Then, he won it again the following year for Forrest Gump.
Hanks is Hollywood royalty now. His career spans virtually every genre and his reach has extended to writing, producing, and directing - which makes it easy to remember that, once upon a time, he was exclusively known as a lightweight comedy star.3874Successful switch?
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Over the course of six decades, Henry Fonda amassed over 100 acting credits. Fonda was one of American cinema's most cherished movie heroes, frequently embodying characters defined by honor and integrity.
Old Hollywood audiences looked at Fonda and saw him as Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, Wyatt Earp from Fort Apache, Abraham Lincoln from Young Mr. Lincoln, and Juror No. 8 from 12 Angry Men. His film characters were never the biggest, strongest, or wealthiest. However, they always acted from their sound moral authority and common decency. In other words, even when making the right decision was difficult, a Henry Fonda archetype like Juror No. 8 pushed other characters to do the right thing.
In the mid-1960s, Sergio Leone was looking to breathe some life back into the disappearing Western genre. One of the ways the Dollars trilogy director made his Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West stand out was by casting its villain completely against type. Leone approached Fonda with the wild idea of playing the antagonist in his new Western. The actor needed some persuasion, but eventually signed on to portray the heartless villain, Frank.
The story goes that Fonda showed up on the first day of production wearing brown contact lenses and a beard because he thought it would make him look more like a villain. However, Leone told him he should just look like he normally does - those baby blue eyes in particular.
The direction worked; Fonda fully became the ruthless mercenary. Imagine how hard it must have been for audiences to see Fonda wearing the black hat. Yet, he played the role with such conviction that viewers ultimately had no problem rooting against him.7410Successful switch?
- 3Photo: Monster / Newmarket Films
Most people don't see much downside in being one of the most beautiful people on planet earth. Charlize Theron, a model turned actress, was able to get recognized and score big-screen acting work because of her beauty. She landed parts in several high-profile films, including The Cider House Rules, Mighty Joe Young, and The Italian Job.
However, she hadn't scored that Oscar-caliber type movie role. Perhaps her perfect looks were actually holding her back?
"Jobs with real gravitas go to people that are physically right for them and that’s the end of the story," said Theron. "How many roles are out there for the gorgeous, f***ing, gown-wearing eight-foot model? When meaty roles come through, I’ve been in the room and pretty people get turned away first."
Theron's career trajectory did a complete 180 when director Patty Jenkins hired the South African actress in a role that could not have been more against type. Theron played real-life killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003's Monster.
In order to take on the role, Theron packed on 30 pounds and dirtied up her appearance. The physical transformation and convincing performance helped earn Theron an Oscar for Best Actress.
It also opened up the dramatic doors. Theron was no longer just a beautiful face but also a talented serious actress. She added several more challenging movies to her filmography that didn't rely as much on her glamorous looks, including North Country, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Tully.10441Successful switch?
- 4Photo: Dallas Buyers Club / Focus Features
With his charismatic smile, matinee idol looks, and pleasant Southern charm, Matthew McConaughey appears like the perfect romantic comedy star. How could Jennifer Lopez's professional wedding planner character Mary not fall in love with McConaughey's Steve Edison, even if he was the groom in the biggest wedding of her career?
After the easy success of 2001's The Wedding Planner, a string of McConaughey romantic comedies followed, including How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The actor played basically the same kind of romantic male lead - the womanizing, cocky, confident type that simply flashes a smile and girls swoon.
Almost all of his romantic comedies were box-office hits, and he enjoyed making them. McConaughey wrote in his 2020 memoir Greenlights:
The romantic comedies remained my only consistent box office hits, which made them my only consistent incoming offers. For me personally, I enjoyed being able to give people a ninety-minute breezy romantic getaway from the stress of their lives where they didn’t have to think about anything, just watch the boy chase the girl, fall down, then get up and finally get her. I had taken the baton from Hugh Grant, and I ran with it.
But the Texan had more on his mind than just cashing the easy rom-com paycheck. McConaughey took a big career risk in 2010 when he turned down an offer of $14.5 million to star in yet another rom-com. He wanted to escape from the genre in order to make darker films.
Then, the McConaissance began. The actor turned dramatic thespian landed roles in a string of heavy dramas: The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud, and HBO's True Detective. The dramatic part of a lifetime came along in 2013. McConaughey won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the biopic Dallas Buyers Club. The muscle-bound star even got to show off his method side when he lost 50 pounds in five months to play the AIDS-stricken Ron Woodroof. How he arrived at the realization that he needed to make a change required something of an experiment in humility, as he explained:
A few years ago, I did a really interesting kind of experiment. My assistants gathered every negative review I've ever had and it was a good, thick pile. I sat down and said, "We're gonna read every one of these." There was some really good constructive criticism. I'm like, "That's what I would've said about that performance. You're right."6040Successful switch?