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Actors Who Showed Off Their Actual Skills In Movies

Updated November 24, 2020 26.1k votes 3.9k voters 240.3k views15 items

List RulesVote up the most impressive scenes where you didn't realize the actor wasn't faking it.

Most of the time, audiences can settle into a cinematic experience safe in the knowledge that what they’re seeing on screen isn’t real - Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t really a robot from the future, and Chris Evans isn’t really a frozen super soldier from the past. But sometimes, the action on screen is more real than most realize, like when it’s Denzel Washington playing basketball against a pro - and succeeding - in He Got Game, or Daryl Hannah handing Harrison Ford an absolute beating with her gymnastics skills in Blade Runner.

Some actors, as it turns out, have talents and skills beyond the portrayal of fictional characters - and most relish the opportunity to show off their multifacetedness on the silver screen.

  • Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for his method acting and the nigh-unreasonable ways in which he’s gotten into character for his roles, but never has he taken it as far as he did for The Last of the Mohicans. In order to portray Hawkeye, Day-Lewis went off the grid in the Alabama wilderness for six months prior to filming, learning how to live off the land along with a bevy of other survivalist skills.

    Day-Lewis learned to build canoes, track animals, and hunt with his flintlock rifle - an item that never left his side while filming, even at meals. Speaking of meals, Day-Lewis refused to eat any food he hadn’t hunted or gathered himself while making The Last of the Mohicans, while his co-stars snacked on craft services at the next table. 

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  • Dustin Hoffman has been a household name for decades, but it wasn’t until 2008’s Last Chance Harvey that he got to show off his initial passion onscreen. As Hoffman admitted to Parade magazine, “I originally wanted to be a jazz pianist.”

    Hoffman composed a song he called “Shoot the Breeze” after a romantic misfire, and in 1977, after Hoffman had achieved fame, Bette Midler wrote lyrics for it, and they performed it together. It’s that same song that Hoffman, portraying a man who never got to live out his dream of being a jazz pianist, plays in Last Chance Harvey.

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  • The scene in which Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance bashes down a door with an ax to get at his wife in The Shining is one of the most iconic in the horror genre. Everything in the scene comes off as authentic, from Shelley Duvall’s terror to Nicholson’s improvised “Here’s Johnny!” shout. Another bit of authenticity, as it turns out, was the door itself - which had to be strengthened due to Nicholson’s prodigious door-destroying abilities.

    In his younger years, Nicholson had been a volunteer firefighter and trained as a fire marshal, so he knew a thing or two about axing down doors. At first, director Stanley Kubrick intended to have Nicholson bust through a prop door, but the actor made matchsticks out of it in short order, so a regular, reinforced door had to be brought in. Even then, Nicholson didn’t have much trouble with it. 

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  • A short but memorable scene in Aliens sees Lance Henriksen’s Bishop holding the hand of Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson down on a table and repeatedly stabbing a knife between his fingers at ever-increasing speeds, something that’s affectionately referred to as the “knife game.”

    Apparently, Henriksen gets asked all the time if he can pull off the trick in real life, and he answers that he can, because what audiences saw on film was Henriksen performing the trick - albeit, sped up with a little movie magic.

    Henriksen, who spent time in the Navy, told The A.V. Club:

    A cop pulled me over at one point - this was really funny - and he tapped on the window, and then he looked down at me and said, "Bishop!" And he said, "Do the knife trick!" [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve been asked to do that about a million times.
    He said, "Get out of here. Just don’t do that in front of me."

    On one reshoot of the scene - the one that ended up in the film, no less - Henriksen caught Paxton’s pinkie finger with the knife. So, he could definitely do the trick, even if he didn’t always do it perfectly. 

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