Worlds, stories, and characters are conceived on the page. Whether it be in a novel, comic book, or script, an infinite number of idiosyncratic features have been overcome by actors that redefined their characters. Sometimes roles are written for specific actors, but most of the time, filmmakers search the globe for that special someone. Most characters in entertainment transform to some degree once actors bring them to life (or impose their large personalities upon them). Great performers are respected for redefining characters.
Some roles are rewritten when the actor is cast or changed throughout filming, with the actor taking it in a different direction than anticipated. The role doesn't become fully realized until experimentation and improvisation take hold. This isn't just a matter of changing a few lines here and there; it's a holistic change to the entire vision or persona. Think of the infamous behind-the-scenes confusion when Johnny Depp unveiled his take on Jack Sparrow, or Robin Williams making Aladdin’s genie inseparable from his talent. These are some of the best movie characters that completely changed when a specific actor was cast to play them. Remember to vote up your favorites.
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a gamble for Disney; based on a theme-park ride and considered to be more mature (PG-13) than its usual fare, it was a risk - a risk taken to compete with other, more adult summer blockbusters. The casting of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, who at the time wasn’t considered mainstream, made the film even edgier.
From the get-go, Depp started making the character his own; he capped his front teeth and drew inspiration from one of his favorite rock stars, Keith Richards. According to Depp, when he saw the script, he changed it even more:
In the original screenplay Captain Jack was written as a swashbuckler, a pirate who swings in, sort of fights a little bit and then swings out, grabs a girl and that’s it. I had different ideas for him. This sounds weird but Captain Jack was born in a sauna. My sauna. I was looking at various aspects of the character and I figured this guy has been on the high seas for the majority of his life and therefore has dealt with inescapable heat to the brain. So I cranked the sauna up to about 1000 degrees and sat in there as long as I could until it started to affect me mentally.
Disney was concerned (to say the least) after seeing early footage. Executives called his character “drunk” and “gay,” resulting in conversations with Depp aimed at getting him to change things up:
Jerry was slightly uncomfortable and the Disney executives weren't exactly enthusiastic about it. I said, "Look, these are the choices I made. You know my work. So either trust me or give me the boot." And luckily, they didn't.
Now, Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history, simply because Depp didn’t back down.Change for the best?
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Before Robin Williams even said yes to the role, directors John Clements and Ron Musker told Disney animator Eric Goldberg to use Williams's stand-up albums as an inspiration for Aladdin’s Genie. The resulting animation was a big, blue guy sporting Williams's face. According to Goldberg:
Robin totally got what kind of potential animation had in utilizing his talents. If you think back on a lot of animation voices over history, especially from 1930s and '40s, many were radio actors. They could express so much with their voices... What Robin had in common with them is a set of vocal chords that were 100% elastic.
Anyone familiar with Williams's inimitable personality wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the comedian/actor improvised a lot of his scenes - which Disney kept in the film. The warmth, sincerity, and myriad impressions Williams brought to the role didn’t just change the film; that persona is the very catalyst through which Aladdin shows us the world.Change for the best?
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Although Christoper and Jonathan Nolan had already written The Dark Knight's script and had a vague idea of what they wanted the Clown Prince of Crime to be in their grounded universe, Heath Ledger made the role entirely his own. After discussing the character with Nolan, Ledger was cast as the Joker. Blocking out the pressure catalyzed by other depictions of the character, Ledger spent a month in a hotel room writing a journal as his Joker.
When production began, Ledger helped craft the character’s look, from wardrobe to makeup. It was even Ledger’s idea to show makeup/paint on the Joker’s hands because, naturally, this psychotic clown would apply the makeup himself. Even the Joker’s tendency to lick his lips was something Ledger came up with while experimenting with the "smile" prosthetic. According to Christopher Nolan, the key to both the character and Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance is its unpredictability:
A lot of what Heath did, he would discuss with me, but in terms - he'd give me hints about what he was going to do, or we would talk about it a bit, and I would try and be an audience for him or sort of gauge with him what he was doing. But a lot of it was about unpredictability, and I think he wanted to play his cards a little close to the chest.Change for the best?
- Photo: DreamWorks Pictures
Comedic legend Chris Farley was originally supposed to voice the eponymous character in DreamWorks’ Shrek. He did over half the work before his untimely passing in 1997. Unfortunately, not enough of the project was completed to use Farley’s contributions in the final product. In the wake of the tragedy, Farley’s Saturday Night Live castmate Mike Myers came in to replace him. The stylistic differences between Myers and Farley’s comedic approaches forced Shrek’s script to be rewritten. After Myers recorded his audio in 1999, a rough cut was presented to the actor in 2000. Upon seeing it, Myers decided he needed to redo all of his dialogue.
In the first go-through, Myers used an obtuse version of his accent to play the ogre. Myers come up with the idea to play Shrek as Scottish to contrast with Lord Farquaad's upper-class English accent. Since a good chunk of the film was already animated, this drastic change to the character required new mouth movements and gestures to be created. Ultimately, this ordeal cost the production an extra $4 million. Thankfully, this decision paid off: Shrek ended up earning more than a billion dollars at the box office.Change for the best?