14 Movie Stars Who Took Huge Pay Cuts To Reinvent Their Careers

List Rules
Vote up the actors who had the most impressive reinventions.

Navigating an acting career over time requires a lot of work. If an actor has a big hit in a particular genre, there's an understandable tendency to want to continue working in that genre. Dwayne Johnson usually makes action movies, Melissa McCarthy primarily makes comedies, and so on. On the other hand, if there's no variation, audiences can quickly become tired of seeing a performer do the same thing again and again. Then, of course, there's the simple fact that nobody hits a home run every time. A big old flop is bound to happen sooner or later.

Typecasting is another pitfall. Actors occasionally have to fight to break out of a box they've been put in. This entails making movies that go against their image so that a new facet of their talent can be demonstrated. And to do that, there's generally a pay cut involved. The following actors all achieved massive success yet, for various reasons, reached a point where they felt the need to reinvent themselves. They did this by working with auteurs, taking on roles no one would ever expect them to play, or walking away from sure-thing studio paychecks in order to pursue passion projects. In doing so, each of them completely revitalized their careers.

Which of these stars had the most successful relaunch? Vote up your favorites.

  • Robert Downey Jr.
    Photo: The Shaggy Dog / Buena Vista Pictures

    Robert Downey, Jr. was tangentially connected to the so-called "Brat Pack" in the 1980s. Movies like Weird Science, Less than Zero, and Back to School established him as a young actor with a charmingly off-kilter charisma. By the early '90s, he started showing greater range, earning a best actor Oscar nomination for Chaplin and getting rave reviews for his work in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Sadly, a severe drug addiction began to derail his career, earning him a reputation as unreliable. Several arrests and a lengthy jail sentence made it seem like his acting days were over.

    After finally achieving sobriety, Downey set about trying to prove himself all over again. That meant taking whatever work he could get, just to prove he could be depended on. A stint on the TV show Ally McBeal helped bring him back into the public eye in a positive way, as did supporting roles in The Shaggy Dog, Gothika, and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. They weren't great films, but they re-established him as an appealing - and, more importantly, drug-free - performer. 

    Eventually, Downey was able to regain his A-list status as an actor who could command millions of dollars per film, with the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes franchises his best-known work.

  • Matthew McConaughey
    Photo: Dallas Buyers Club / Focus Features

    Matthew McConaughey broke onto the scene with a star-making turn in the legal thriller A Time to Kill. It marked him as an actor well worth watching. A-list directors started calling, including Robert Zemeckis, who cast him in Contact, and Steven Spielberg, who gave him a significant role in Amistad. Then, in 2001, something changed. A frivolous romantic-comedy he made with Jennifer Lopez called The Wedding Planner became a surprise hit. Lured by the easy payday these films came with, McConaughey increasingly turned up in rom-coms, to diminishing returns. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past made people forget the promise of his early work.

    The actor realized what was going on and did something entirely unexpected - he disappeared for 20 months. He said in The Hollywood Reporter: "Being gone, not seeing me shirtless on the beach, not seeing me in your living room, or in your theater in a rom-com, I became a new good idea. Where’s McConaughey been? We forgot about him."

    After returning, he vowed only to appear in movies that pushed him as an actor, starting off with William Friedkin's Killer Joe that cast him as a sleazy cop-slash-hitman. This was the beginning of the so-called "McConaissance" - a series of career-redefining roles. Among them were performances in Mud, Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street, and an Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club. Audiences fell in love with his abilities all over again.

  • Robert Pattinson
    Photo: Good Time / A24

    Unlike Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson was a virtual unknown when he took on the role of sparkly vampire Edward Cullen. To the extent he was known at all, it was for a small role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The Twilight saga didn't necessitate a ton of deep acting. Pattinson mostly had to smolder onscreen. Because that was most people's first impression of him, the actor was saddled with an image of being nothing more than a pretty boy.

    For a time, Hollywood tried to keep him in that mold. Pattinson was cast in romantic movies like Water for Elephants and Remember Me. When those didn't work, he made a concerted effort to go the indie route, working with inventive directors who would challenge him. He teamed with David Cronenberg for Cosmopolis, Robert Eggers for The Lighthouse, and the Safdie brothers for Good Time, all of which earned him considerable acclaim. Those diverse roles proved he could be a great character actor, rather than merely a generic lead.

    Ironically, showing that range allowed him to go back and forth between those independent features and ultra-commercial fare such as Christopher Nolan's Tenet and 2022's The Batman.

  • 4
    557 VOTES
    Andrew Garfield
    Photo: Hacksaw Ridge / Lionsgate

    Andrew Garfield has an extensive background in theater, having graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He has performed in the landmark plays Death of a Salesman and Angels in America. For movies, he has made a concentrated effort to achieve a balance, taking roles in "big" movies so that he has the freedom to go off and do something smaller. A key supporting role in The Social Network proved to be his breakthrough, setting him up for leading man status. 

    By far, his most mainstream work was playing the titular superhero in The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel. He earned positive reviews for his take on Peter Parker, yet the experience was something he described as "heartbreaking," given that both pictures were widely considered to be creative disappointments. Garfield told The Guardian making the Spider-Man movies was disillusioning because "the focus is less on the soul of it and more on ensuring we make as much money as possible."

    The solution to that disillusionment was a deep dive into his creativity. Garfield skipped trying to be a blockbuster star, pouring himself into passion projects instead. For Martin Scorsese's Silence, he spent a full year studying Jesuit spirituality in order to play a priest, and for Hacksaw Ridge, he fully educated himself on the life of Desmond Doss, the man he portrays in this true war story. He even learned to sing so that he could play Rent creator Jonathan Larson in Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2021 movie tick, tick...BOOM! - for which Garfield earned his second Oscar nomination.

  • 5
    378 VOTES
    Joaquin Phoenix
    Photo: We Own the Night / Sony Pictures Releasing

    Early in his career, Joaquin Phoenix needed to get out from under the shadow of his brother River. He did this through a series of small but significant turns in Ron Howard's Parenthood and Gus Van Sant's To Die For, among others. His career hit a peak in the early 2000s, with an Oscar nomination for Gladiator, blockbuster hits in The Village and Signs, and another Oscar nomination for Walk the Line

    At this point, Phoenix was poised to become the kind of mass appeal, bankable star that most actors strive to be. Instead, he seemed intent on making sure people saw his characters onscreen, not him. To do this, he pulled back, making small auteur-driven projects. He continued collaborating with director James Gray, with whom he'd had early success in The Yards, on We Own the Night, Two Lovers, and The Immigrant. He also teamed with Paul Thomas Anderson on both The Master and Inherent Vice

    The effect of these choices was that it established him as a chameleon, able to disappear into roles so fully that audiences forgot they were watching Joaquin Phoenix. He eventually brought this ethic back to blockbusters, playing the title character in Joker, for which he won an Academy Award.

  • 6
    395 VOTES
    Winona Ryder
    Photo: A Scanner Darkly / Warner Independent Pictures

    Winona Ryder was arguably the most popular young actress of the '80s and early '90s, due to an incredible string of hits. Beetlejuice, Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Reality Bites all struck a chord with audiences while showing what a diverse and engaging performer she was. It was considered common wisdom at the time that she'd eventually win an Oscar. In fact, she was nominated twice, for The Age of Innocence and Little Women

    Then came the scandal. In 2001, Ryder was convicted of shoplifting more than $5,000 worth of clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. She was fined and sentenced to community service for the offense. Suddenly, people stopped talking about her acting and began speculating about why a highly paid star would need to steal in the first place. To let things calm down - and because the incident earned her the reputation of being a kook - she made herself scarce onscreen, only taking small roles in low-profile films. 

    The Darwin Awards, The Ten, A Scanner Darkly, and Sex and Death 101 may not have lit the box office on fire, but they kept Ryder working, allowing her time to put the shoplifting event behind her. That paved the way for a return to bigger roles in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and on the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.