17 Times '90s 'It Girls' Went Dark For A Role - And Nailed It

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Vote up the actors who perfectly shed their 'it girl' image.

Every decade has stars so popular, they seem to define the era, and in the 1990s, there was no shortage of "it girls." Often, these actors were catapulted to stardom playing sweet or endearingly lighthearted characters and defined by that persona before later going dark and subverting that very persona. Some of these performances were in films and others for television, but each gave the actor an opportunity to play against type. This is a risky venture and not every actor is successful, but it can launch a star into even greater fame when it does pay off.

Some of these darker roles also came in the ‘90s, while others were released in later decades, often following the waning of the initial "it girl" status. In either case, the performances were good enough to provide new opportunities for the actors. Whether the film or TV show is dark, violent, or simply disturbing, these roles vary greatly from the persona each "it girl" was initially known for in the '90s.

Which '90s actors perfectly shed their "it girl" images? Vote up your favorite transformations below!


  • '90s Persona: Even though Natalie Portman’s acting debut was as a young girl trained by an assassin in Léon: The Professional, she quickly established herself in romantic comedies and feel-good melodrama. In each performance in the '90s, even as the mentor of a hired killer, Portman brought her naturally charming persona to the role.

    Dark Deviation: Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan is a psychological horror film about a dedicated dancer named Nina Sayers (Portman) who begins to lose her sanity while preparing to play the White Swan in the New York City Ballet company’s production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The arrival of a new rival named Lily (Mila Kunis) and incessant meddling from her mother (Barbara Hershey) push Nina over the edge.

    Why It Worked: The narrative works as a psychological thriller about a production of Swan Lake, while simultaneously placing each character from the film into one of the roles from the iconic ballet. Each actor is listed in dual roles during the closing credits, both as the character names in the film and the characters they represent from the ballet. This gives additional context to Portman's performance, depicting dedication reaching horrific extremes.

  • Keri Russell In 'The Americans'
    Photo: FX

    '90s Persona: Keri Russell established herself as a teen actor in the early '90s before her breakout role as the title character on the successful WB young adult series Felicity. Russell won a Golden Globe playing Felicity Porter and became such a cultural icon that it caused a massive reaction when she decided to cut her hair in the second season of the show.

    Dark Deviation: Russell returned to television for The Americans, this time as Elizabeth Jennings, a Soviet KGB intelligence officer posing as one half of an American married couple living in a suburb of Washington, DC. Despite being romantically connected to her partner and husband (Matthew Rhys), even sharing two children as a part of the elaborate cover, Elizabeth often uses seduction as a tool in their missions. She is also the more coldly dedicated of the two, willing to cross any moral lines in the service of her ultimate objectives.

    Why It Worked: The Americans subverted the stereotypical expectations about gender roles, making Elizabeth the more calculated and less emotional of the two KGB officers. While Russell played a character who felt more deeply than most in Felicity, she subverted this persona for the role of Elizabeth.

  • '90s Persona: Before shifting to a career in acting, Halle Berry was a model and beauty pageant contestant, and initially cast in roles that celebrated her beauty. Often, this meant the star was cast in romantic supporting roles.

    Dark Deviation: In Monster’s Ball, Berry plays Leticia Musgrove, the widow of a man executed on death row who unknowingly begins a relationship with the corrections officer responsible for carrying out the sentence. As an impoverished and grieving woman desperate to connect to another human being, Berry’s performance was vulnerable and full of anguish.

    Why It Worked: Hollywood tends to celebrate vanity-free performances, especially when they come from actors who are known for their beauty, and this may have played a part in Berry winning an Academy Award for best actress.

  • '90s Persona: After an award-winning breakout role on All My Children, Sarah Michelle Gellar rose to fame playing the title character on the WB teen fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As well as being physically tough, Buffy was known for having pure intentions despite the occasional mistake. 

    Dark Deviation: Adapting the 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to modern times and setting it in an elite private New York City high school, Gellar plays amoral teenager Kathryn Merteuil. Along with keeping her coke stash in a cross around her neck, Kathryn attempts to seduce her stepbrother (Ryan Phillippe) multiple times throughout the film.

    Why It Worked: For as many relationships as Buffy went through over the course of the seven seasons of the supernatural series, none of them were even a little incestuous. Gellar went from her established heroic screen persona to a clear villain in Cruel Intentions, and the against-type performance earned her praise from critics.

  • '90s Persona: Juliette Lewis rose to fame in teen roles, playing a member of the Griswold family in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and the daughter in a family targeted by a psychopath in Cape Fear. Even playing the girlfriend of a serial killer in Kalifornia, Lewis built her persona around a childlike innocence.

    Dark Deviation: While Lewis is in love with a psychopath in Kalifornia, she becomes an active participant in the violence as Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers. After Mallory falls in love with a criminal named Mickey (Woody Harrelson), the two begin a killing spree that becomes sensationalized in the media.

    Why It Worked: Lewis departed from her screen persona for Natural Born Killers, but the brilliance of the role is the gradual way this takes place. Mallory is still innocent when she first meets Mickey, but this slowly fades with each violent misdeed committed by the pair.

  • '90s Persona: Christina Ricci was a teen icon in the '90s, specifically known for playing angsty characters with a bit of an edge. Ricci’s teen performances were often dark, but only within the context of family films such as The Addams Family and Casper.

    Dark Deviation: For Black Snake Moan, Ricci was cast as irresponsible sex addict Rae Doole (Christina Ricci), who becomes the prisoner of religious farmer Lazarus Redd (Samuel L. Jackson) after he finds her beaten on the side of a road. The film shared a darker tone from some of Ricci’s other work, and the sexual nature of the role was a clear deviation from her family-based entertainment in the '90s.

    Why It Worked: The vulgar and graphic language in the screenplay is even more shockingly effective when coming from a former child star, not to mention the provocative handling of the subject matter as a whole.