Contains mention of suicide and sexual violence
Some actors stick to one genre, while other great actors have incredible range and can tackle any role that comes their way. Some of the most awarded and recognized actors have jumped around from comedy to action to drama, putting on flawless performances each time. The best actors are the ones who have a diverse array of roles they’ve taken on. Remaining in just one genre is a sure way for an actor to hold themselves back from what they’re really capable of. People like Meryl Streep have become so acclaimed by tackling various different roles across all genres.
Actors like Leonardo DiCaprio make it look easy to portray a historical figure in one film and a TV actor in a more lighthearted comedy film. Some actors are great at one specific role, so they continue to portray it throughout their careers. However, it’s always more impressive seeing an actor who seems to forget who they are and take on the identity of various roles, putting on believable performances in all kinds of different movies. Not everyone is capable of such a feat, but here are 20 actors who do it so well that they make the audience forget they were even acting.
20 Heath Ledger – 10 Things I Hate About You & The Dark Knight
Joaquin Phoenix cemented himself as the Joker in 2019’s Joker, but over a decade before, Heath Ledger shined as the supervillain. Even Barry Keoghan from The Batman believes Ledger was the best Joker. The actor put on a believable performance as the villain, giving Phoenix a lot to live up to.
What further proves Ledger’s talents is he played a vastly different character in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. Ledger portrayed Patrick Verona, the stereotypical bad boy character who Julia Stiles’ Kat Stanford falls in love with. While his character was rough around the edges, he was a far cry from his character in The Dark Knight, proving Ledger’s versatility as an actor.
19 Toni Collette – Muriel’s Wedding & Hereditary
Muriel’s Wedding is a lighthearted comedy, with some heavier aspects coming in at the end. Still, Toni Collette portrays a carefree, scheming character named Muriel Heslop and provides comedic relief throughout the film. However, Collette portrays a vastly different character in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. The actress’ character Annie Graham copes with the loss of her mother and 13-year-old daughter while discovering her mother was involved in a cult that the family has inherited. Annie was a heavier weight to carry than Muriel, but Collete played both roles flawlessly.
18 Bryan Cranston – Malcolm In The Middle & Breaking Bad
Hal Wilkerson in Malcolm In The Middle is the laid-back father who relies too much on his wife when it comes to parenting his sons. He’s a pretty typical TV sitcom father, but the fact that Bryan Cranston was able to take on the role, as well as Walter White in Breaking Bad, is impressive. Walter is a drug lord who runs a meth lab from his RV. The characters are certainly disparate, to say the least. It takes some serious talent to portray such vastly different characters and make them both so believable.
17 Olivia Colman – Hot Fuzz & Tyrannosaur
Olivia Coleman excels at jumping back and forth between comedic characters and more dramatic roles. Hot Fuzz and Tyrannosaur are great examples. In the 2007 action-comedy, Coleman plays the very flirty PC Dorsi Thatcher with great one-liners that add to the film’s comedic effect. She does a full 180 for Tyrannosaur, portraying Hannah, the wife of an abusive man, who strikes up a friendship with a man named Joseph. Hannah is a lot heavier of a role than PC Dorsi, and Coleman does both roles justice.
16 Leonardo DiCaprio – Titanic & The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio has tackled a vast array of roles in the 30-plus years he’s been in the industry. 25 years after Titanic’s release, Jack Dawson remains one of his most memorable characters. Jack provided Rose with the love, compassion, and kindness her soon-to-be husband, Cal, never could. Jack was selfless, and DiCaprio made the role so believable it was soul-crushing to discover Jack wasn’t a real passenger on Titanic.
Even more shocking is in years to come, DiCaprio would nail the role of characters who were the polar opposite of Jack. The actor finally won an Oscar for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, playing Hugh Glass, a man exploring the uncharted wilderness and fighting to find his way back to civilization. The gritty intensity of DiCaprio’s The Revenant performance is in stark contrast to his previous status as a carefree heartthrob – perfectly demonstrating his skill as an actor.
15 Ed Norton – American History X & Moonrise Kingdom
In American History X, Ed Norton takes on the role of a Neo-Nazi named Derek Vinyard. Hatred runs through Vinyard’s veins until his experience in prison changes his perspective. Still, Vinyard is a heavy character from the film’s beginning to its end. Meanwhile, as Scout Master Randy Ward in Moonrise Kingdom, Norton fits perfectly into Wes Anderson’s aesthetic. Randy is a sergeant-like leader but with much better intentions than his American History X character. He also plays into the film’s lighter and more comedic tone very well.
14 Jim Carrey – The Mask & Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Jim Carrey discusses his acting approach as if he’s shedding his identity and taking on the persona of his character, which is why he so seamlessly transforms from characters like The Mask‘s Stanley Ipkiss to Joel Barish from Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. As Stanley, Carrey shows off his genius comedy skills, while as Joel, he proves his ability to succeed in more serious roles as well. Carrey puts on an emotional performance in Eternal Sunshine that earned him a Golden Globe nomination. He’s someone aspiring actors should look up to when it comes to completely inhabiting various roles.
13 Angela Bassett – Malcolm X & What’s Love Got To Do With It
Angela Bassett took on the role of Malcolm X’s wife in the Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X. Bassett’s acting was brilliant throughout the film’s many intense scenes. One year later, Bassett showed off how great she was at portraying the Queen of Rock and Roll, Tina Turner. While the role was very different from her Malcolm X role, Bassett moved effortlessly around the stage as Turner. Bassett is a true talent and these two roles demonstrate both her understated emotional gravitas and intense on-stage charisma.
12 Tom Hanks – Big & Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks has a diverse resume playing everyone from Woody in Toy Story to Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. However, two contradicting roles that prove his talents are Josh Baskin in Big and Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips. In Big, Hanks possesses a child-like wonder as he plays a child turned adult in the fantasy film. By contrast, in Captain Phillips, he’s resilient as he fights for his life after being abducted by pirates. These two roles operate at distinct ends of the psychological spectrum, highlighting Hanks’ versatility.
11 Will Smith – Independence Day & King Richard
Will Smith has proven himself a big fan of sci-fi films as he’s appeared in several throughout his career. In 1996, he starred as Captain Steven Hiller in Independence Day, where his character had to fight an alien invasion. In 2021, Smith starred as Richard Williams in King Richard, winning his first Academy Award for portraying Venus and Serena Williams’ father. Hiller’s renegade exuberance is in stark contrast to Williams’ demanding patriarch, highlighting Smith’s flexibility and charisma.
10 Adam Sandler – Happy Gilmore & Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler got his start on Saturday Night Live and spent most of his career making comedy films. One of his most popular is Happy Gilmore, where he puts his comedy skills to the test as a short-tempered hockey-turned-golf player. However, in 2019 Sandler shocked audiences with a serious role in the film Uncut Gems. Sandler plays a jeweler and gambling addict who gets himself in a mess trying to pay off his debts. Sandler may have cemented himself as a comedic actor, but Uncut Gems proves he’s capable of more, delivering a neurotic, unsettling performance wildly different from his jovial turn in Happy Gilmore.
9 Viola Davis – Fences & The Suicide Squad
In Fences, Viola Davis acts opposite Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson’s wife, Rose. Davis shows off her acting chops in one scene where she breaks down after her husband confesses he’s been having an affair. She shows many vulnerabilities as the character but plays a much tougher role in The Suicide Squad. Davis portrays the morally complex DC comic book character Amanda Waller and makes the role feel effortless. Her inclusion in a DC movie may seem random, but she fits right in with the cast, bringing some much-needed gravitas to some otherwise critically-questionable movies.
8 Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice & Mamma Mia
As a three-time Academy Award winner, it should come as no surprise that Meryl Streep can tackle various different roles. Sophie’s Choice is a heavy film, and Streep portrays the main character, a Polish immigrant named Sophie Zawistowska. Sophie’s husband has paranoid schizophrenia and often assumes she is cheating on him, which leads to a toxic relationship between the two, ending in suicide. Streep has a lighter, upbeat role in Mamma Mia, playing single mother, Donna Sheridan. Not only does Streep showcase the different characters she can play, but also what a great singer she is, demonstrating a breadth of talents.
7 Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List & The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes plays Amon Göth in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a very emotionally demanding film set in World War II times. Göth is an SS lieutenant and a violent character responsible for murdering many Jewish people in the film. In contrast, Fiennes’ role in The Grand Budapest Hotel is much different. While his character Gustave is accused of murder, as far as the film reveals, he isn’t actually guilty. Plus, the film’s approach is much more humorous and lighthearted. Gustave is a comical character, far different from Göth’s representation of pure human evil.
6 Charlize Theron – Monster & Mad Max: Fury Road
In Monster, Charline Theron portrays a prostitute guilty of various murders. Her character also deals with rape and a love affair with another woman making it no easy role to take on. However, Theron’s complete immersion in the role and heartbreaking commitment were enough to earn her an Academy Award. Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road character, however, was drastically different. As Imperator Furiosa, Theron took on an action film which, while the themes weren’t as dark as Monster, was still an intense role. The physicality of Furiosa demonstrates that Theron can play a variety of demanding parts.
5 Robert De Niro – Taxi Driver & Meet The Parents
Robert De Niro is another actor who can take on any role someone throws his way. He’s proven this by acting in serious films like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and the comedy Meet The Parents. Whether he’s playing a vigilante assassin in New York City or a grumpy father who disapproves of the man his daughter wants to marry, De Niro doesn’t disappoint. There’s a reason he’s such a celebrated performer, and a quick look at his various movie roles reveals why.
4 Gary Oldman – Dracula & The Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman brought the classic vampire tale to life in 1992’s Dracula. Oldman was terrifying in Francis Ford Coppola’s campy fantasy film as he made Winona Ryder’s character Mina Murray fall in love with him. He takes on a different role in the much more serious film, The Darkest Hour, portraying Winston Churchill. Oldman’s role even won him his first Academy Award at the 2018 ceremony. Accurately portraying a historical figure is tough, but Oldman’s acting was perfect, making it unbelievable he once took on the fantastical role of Dracula.
3 Tilda Swinton – We Need To Talk About Kevin & A Bigger Splash
In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton plays concerned mother, Eva Khatchadourian, whose son Kevin grows into a murderer after showing signs of violence as a child. On a lighter note, Swinton plays rockstar Marianne Lane in A Bigger Splash, where she reunites with an old lover who ends up the murder victim of her boyfriend. While it touches on the dark subject of murder, it’s a much lighter film and character, highlighting Swinton’s ability to dance between extravagance and understated subtlety.
2 Philip Seymour Hoffman – Almost Famous & The Master
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd in The Master. His character is a man who tries to help a traumatized World War II veteran, not realizing the dangers the man is capable of. This is a completely different character than Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. In the 2000 film, Hoffman plays a Rock journalist and a mentor to aspiring journalist William Miller. It’s a much more comedic role, highlighting Hoffman’s ability to translate sinister charisma and anarchic comedy.
1 Robin Williams – Mrs. Doubtfire & One Hour Photo
Robin Williams was a seasoned actor doing everything from Aladdin to Dead Poet’s Society. However, his range was best proven in Mrs. Doubtfire and One Hour Photo. In the comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams plays Daniel Hillard, who poses as an old woman so his ex-wife will hire him to take care of their children. The lighthearted role of the old British woman leans into Williams’ comedy background and might seem like a natural fit.
The role is nothing like William’s character in One Hour Photo, a much darker role where Williams plays a lonely man so dedicated to his work as a photo developer that he begins to stalk the people in the photos he’s developing. This unsettling voyeurism is even more alarming coming from a man like Williams, whom audiences most likely associate with laughter. Williams may have been known for his comedy, but he could just as well tackle a more dramatic role, making him one of the 20 great actors with impressively diverse resumes.