The Complete Transformation of an Actor

23 Feb

By: Open Book

There are actors who can completely transform themselves right before our eyes. They have the innate ability to take on physical mannerisms without constraint. Leaving audiences wondering how did they do that? Some of these actor’s have portrayed legendary figures such as, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Howard Hughes, Mark Zuckerberg, Ray Charles, John Nash, Katharine Hepburn, Muhammad Ali, Erin Brockovich, Elizabeth Windsor and George VI of Britain just to name a few.

During a recent viewing of the DVD commentary of the film Aviator. A Professor of Psychiatry and researcher at the UCLA School of Medicine, Jeffrey M. Schwartz M.D. worked with Leo DiCaprio to transform him into Howard Hughes who suffered with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or (OCD). He spoke about the rituals a person adopts at an early age and the physical manifestations that derive from performing these patterns over and over again. However, as we get older we learn how to override these ritualistic behaviors through self-directed neuroplasticity. Now this is an over simplified description to give you an idea of the psychological research happening to understand what takes place inside the brain when people take on   new personas.  

Creature of habit is a word often used to define people.  In a recent study for a European cell phone manufacturer they found 100,000 people are more predictable than not.  Although, many of the people (who participated in their study) were from different parts of the world, they all had similar travel histories. Meaning they went to work, to school than home again.[1] For most of us it’s hard to stop certain rituals we’ve come to rely on. This is why diets are a multi billion-dollar industry! Because many people have difficulty adopting new eating habits. However Swartz discovered during treating patients with OCD by way of PET scans of the brain states,

Mindfulness, or conscious awareness, which revolves around the central idea that the mind is an active participant in the world and that its actions have a physical effect on the workings of the brain.”[2]

Could it be some people have the inherit ability to be more consciously aware than others? Meaning can some unlock their brain more easily than others? Through self-directed neuroplasticity people are capable of rewiring their brain. In an interview from http://www.vision.org Dr. Swartz states,

People can learn to change how their brain responds to circumstances by focusing their attention differently. Focus of attention influences how the brain responds to phenomena, and those changes leave physical traces that you can see with brain imaging.” [3]

Many award-winning actors have stated the challenges of portraying a legendary figure or someone with really recognizable physical conditions (case in point, Colin Firth who portrayed George VI of Britain in The King’s Speech who had a stuttering problem).  Yet, there is a fine line between impersonation and complete transformation. Meaning impersonation is an exaggerated characterization of another person.  However, transformation entails understanding a person’s internal dialogue of desire, fear and motivations so the physical mannerisms are more naturally adopted and complete. For example DiCaprio had to show a progression into Howard Hughes extreme OCD problem, which believed to be exasperated by his later addiction to morphine and opiates. So it required DiCaprio to be mindfully aware so he could switch back and forth, in and out of character, in order to take direction from Martin Scorsese! Simply put, he was able to rewire his brain to become a person suffering with OCD whose condition becomes more advanced over the course of the film.  Now imagine films are also shot out of sequence, so some days he played Hughes with a mild case of OCD, then the next, Hughes in the most advanced stages. This had to have taken an extreme amount of self-discipline and focus to say the least.

Another, actor that comes to mind is Robert DeNiro in the 1990 film Awakenings. He played Leonard Lowe who was awakened after decades in a catatonic state. His performance in that film got him an Oscar nomination. There are many actors who are really amazing at adopting other personas. Can you think of the most amazing transformation on film by an actor and what made them so believable?

Please join us for a discussion on this topic: Thursday, 2/24/11@7pE/12UTC

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91 Responses to “The Complete Transformation of an Actor”

  1. 4string February 23, 2011 at 9:22 AM #

    I’m always amazed when I watch a movie and totally forget about the actor. That’s talent. In Walk the Line, I totally forgot about Joaquin and just saw Johnny Cash.

    I have to disagree with putting Julia Roberts in with some of the actors you named. She, to me anyway, plays the same person over and over. I also guess her off-screen persona has turned me off a bit–I say this as someone who used to love her. Gwyneth Paltrow is another one of those I don’t get all the acclaim about. Though I really like Will Smith, he’s the same in a lot of movies. He even reuses some of the same lines over and over. lol

    I guess this is a mini rant about Oscars, but I hate that comedies get overlooked. I’m not an actor, but from what I understand, it’s harder to do comedy than drama. I’m impressed with actors like Amy Adams who can pull both off with finesse. It seems that to get an Oscar nom, you have to be in a drama, play a real life person, make sure that person is either extremely ugly (like in the case of Charleze in Monster) or has an incredibly tragic life like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas or any role Hilary Swank tends to take. lol

    • Open Book February 27, 2011 at 7:27 AM #

      4string: Julia Roberts is a romcom actress and typically all these films have suffered the same formulaic character and plot line most consumers and critics have come to despise. LOL!! However, Erin Brockovich is a drama and JR was able to show her characters growth and her performance was heartfelt, which a lot of audiences could relate to. But I can’t argue with your assessment of GP your spot on about that one. I also agree with Joaquin Phoenix was great in Walk the Line.

      RE: Comedies? Well filmmakers have gotten really slick about making comedies appear like dramas so they will be considered for Oscars. Case in point American Beauty and Forrest Gump? Although they are listed as dramas both of these films are dark comedies.

      Hmmm! I think I covered everything.

  2. Lurker February 23, 2011 at 10:11 AM #

    For me, one stands out almost instantly, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. But we can discuss this more!

    • Littlebells February 23, 2011 at 8:44 PM #

      LOOOOOOOOOVED him in that! Oh my gosh I have so many actors that make complete transformations but because I can’t think off the top of my head, I”m going to go do some research and come back to this article. I will say 4string, I do agree with you and the Julia Roberts thing. She’s ok, but she has the same mannerisms in most films. It’s kind of like that with Jennifer Aniston too. Ok, off for a date with the hubs and then research, research, research!!!!!

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 2:55 AM #

      Lurker,

      Rain Man was such a good role for Dustin. I loved Leo in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? He did amazingly well in that film.

      • Littlebells February 24, 2011 at 8:22 PM #

        Honestly, that’s been my most favorite role of his because it takes extreme talent (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man) to make a character which such real disabilities be believable. Now that’s acting!

  3. ozzie20 February 23, 2011 at 5:26 PM #

    Very interesting article! I’ll have a think about which actors can do that for tomorrow discussion.

  4. Lurker February 24, 2011 at 6:51 PM #

    I have a few others to add to the discussion tonight.
    Anthony Hopkins (Hanibal Lechter)
    Cate Blanchette (Aviator)
    Robin Williams (pick one)

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 6:55 PM #

      I love Robin Williams. He’s so funny. Didn’t like him very much in the role that he took where he played a store clerk though. I can’t remember the name of it.

      • 4string February 24, 2011 at 6:58 PM #

        One Hour Photo? That movie creeped me out.

        • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:02 PM #

          yeah. that’s it. I couldn’t watch it. way to creepy. but it just shows how a person can change characters so well.

        • kim February 24, 2011 at 7:04 PM #

          I agree Robin Williams is so good in comedies and the dramas. My favorite Dead Poet Society.

          • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:06 PM #

            Its been years since i’ve seen dead poets society.

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 6:56 PM #

      Have you seen The Rite yet?

      • kneon65 February 24, 2011 at 7:02 PM #

        No but I heard it was very good.

  5. kneon65 February 24, 2011 at 7:01 PM #

    Okay, I’m here and I will throw out the Queen of transformation. Meryl Streep.

    I also agree with Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman (yes Rainman but don’t forget Toostie)

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:03 PM #

      Tootsie was so funny.

      • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:05 PM #

        Tootsie was a classic.

        • ozzie20 February 24, 2011 at 7:13 PM #

          I agree with Meryl Streep. How about Eric Bana?

          • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:17 PM #

            Eric Bana????

            • ozzie20 February 24, 2011 at 7:28 PM #

              I didn’t recognise him at all in Star Trek.

              • 4string February 24, 2011 at 7:44 PM #

                I didn’t know he was in Star Trek. Wow.

                • ozzie20 February 24, 2011 at 7:51 PM #

                  Yup, he was the baddie, Nero. It made my jaw drop when I found out.

                  I’m talking about the 2009 movie. That was another movie I wasn’t going to watch because in my mind no one could touch the originals. Wrong again, I loved it! 🙂

    • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:06 PM #

      Meryl Streep you are so right.

      • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:08 PM #

        Meryl Streep? Maybe I’m missing something but i’ve never noticed her being able to completely transform herself.

        • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:10 PM #

          I thought her portrayal of Julia Child was pretty good recently.

          • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:11 PM #

            I haven’t seen that one yet. 🙂

            • 4string February 24, 2011 at 7:14 PM #

              I haven’t seen that one either, but I have never truly left her behind the character she’s playing. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s good.

        • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:11 PM #

          Oh watch her last movie she became Julia Childs. I heard her next movie she is playing Margaret Thatcher.

          • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:12 PM #

            I will definitely have to check it out. Thanks.

            • ozzie20 February 24, 2011 at 7:54 PM #

              What about The Devil Wears Prada? I thought she was excellent in that.

              • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:57 PM #

                I actually have that on DVD. I still like watching it and you’re right. I thought she did a fabulous job.

      • Littlebells February 24, 2011 at 8:28 PM #

        Yay I am finally here for a discussion!

        Aaaahhhh Meryl! I loved her and Redford in OoA. She is a consummate performer: From Sophie to Miranda to Sister Aloysius and so forth…her range is so broad and I’m never disappointed with her acting.

        Ok, back to reading posts!

  6. klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:13 PM #

    Can I say when I watched Little Ashes I actually forgot that RP was himself, he became Dali, especially towards the end of the film.

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:15 PM #

      I agree with that. RP was very good.

      • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:18 PM #

        I agree – RP pulled of the Dali eccentricities pretty well at the end of the film.

  7. Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:13 PM #

    Got one more for you Jamie Foxx in Ray….
    That had to be tough to play.

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:15 PM #

      He portrayed Ray very well. I’m sure that was extremely difficult to play.

    • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:16 PM #

      Oh yeah forgot about that one. Denzel was good as Malcolm X too. He looked so much like him too.

  8. Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:17 PM #

    So has everyone seen Kings Speech yet? I don’t want to comment and put up spoilers if you haven’t.

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:19 PM #

      I’ve seen it twice already. Colin did an excellent job.

    • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:21 PM #

      I did the other day and it surprised my husband (he actually said it was very good).

      I have to say Colin was great but so was Helena Bonham Carter, she became the Queen mother. Just as did Helen Mirren when she became Queen Elizabeth II and of course Dame Judi Drench when she played Queen Victoria.

  9. Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:22 PM #

    what about Robert De Niro in Awakenings?

    • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:26 PM #

      I’m really trying hard to remember if I’ve seen it. Maybe I haven’t.

      • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:31 PM #

        Its about a man who ends up with some mental coma and comes out of it for a while but then lapses again. its very good.

        • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:33 PM #

          Yes, I agree it was a very moving movie, I highly recommend.

    • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:26 PM #

      Yeah, De Niro was very good in that it had to be hard to play opposite of Robin Williams.

      • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:30 PM #

        I wouldn’t think it would be very hard. They were in very different zones (mentally) and I think Robin would be serious when he would need to be.

  10. klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:23 PM #

    I have to say British History especially the royalties through time is something that I love to read about and I have to say for the most part I haven’t seen anyone do a bad job.

  11. klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:25 PM #

    The big surprise to me was Billy Connolly in Mrs. Brown he did a great job.

  12. klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:29 PM #

    It has to help the actor/actress if there is some kind of reference to work off of, I would think, but it may also work against them because then people would have something to compare too.

    So, maybe having diary and/or personal papers would be helpful

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:32 PM #

      Also finding a comparison with the person they are playing. Also just studying and watching the person 24/7.

  13. Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:43 PM #

    Ladies,

    Are you still here?

    • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:43 PM #

      Yes, trying to formulate some questions. You have any?

      • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:47 PM #

        Yeah I was beginning to think that you all left.

        • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:49 PM #

          nope. still here.

  14. Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:48 PM #

    I can’t think of any at the moment.

  15. Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:48 PM #

    So here’s a question –

    Why are some of these performances we’ve commented about so memorable? Why do they stay with you?

    • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:50 PM #

      IMO, because that person’s battle with whatever they were going through touched consumers in some way that they could relate to it.

      • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 7:52 PM #

        True, in some degree there was an emotional connection that was made.

        • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:56 PM #

          I think too that people don’t really understand how actors can completely transform themselves into another person and it stays with them. Does that make sense?

          • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 8:01 PM #

            Meaning the viewer may be aware of how hard it truly is and can appreciate the performance? I think you may be right. I think as you get older there is a realization of what it takes to achieve certain levels of skills in just about any profession. So I think you can appreciate what you see in some of these performances we’ve mentioned.

            • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 8:03 PM #

              What is even more impressive is when you realize that while filming the movie it is shot out of sequences. So that makes it even more difficult.

              • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 8:06 PM #

                So true!

            • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 8:06 PM #

              Yes. It is difficult and takes alot of research

              • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 8:08 PM #

                See that sounds like fun to me researching a role, not that I would ever want to be an actress. No thank you, I give everyone credit that can act and do a good job at it.

    • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:57 PM #

      Wow, tough questions. They have had to touch us in someway either by scaring us to death (Hannibal), brought the character or person back to life (Queen Victoria), humanized the character (Malcolm X), and/or moved us with the compassion or laughter (Tootsie).

      • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:58 PM #

        well said!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:59 PM #

          Thank you I have my moments 😉

          • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 8:00 PM #

            your welcome.

      • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 8:02 PM #

        That’s a great answer! True. They drew on an emotional response. Interesting how you pulled all that together.

  16. Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 7:51 PM #

    Johnny Depp is another that can transform really well.

    • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 7:58 PM #

      Okay I will probably get in big trouble with all the Johnny Depp fans, but all of his recent characters all seem to be the same Captain Jack Sparro.

      • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 8:00 PM #

        really? I would say that willy wonka was way on the other end of the spectrum compared to Jack Sparrow. Then again, perhaps he needs to refresh his “bag of tricks”

        • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 8:01 PM #

          See I’m not a fan of his and Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka. I actually liked Johnny’s earlier works, like Sleepy Hollow.

          • Lurker February 24, 2011 at 8:03 PM #

            I didn’t see WIlly wonka, I can’t picture anyone but Gene Wilder, can’t do it.

            • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 8:06 PM #

              Exactly. Gene Wilder was the perfect Willy Wonka. I remember seeing him in an interview that he had to prove that he could do that role to the directors and producers. He walked in to the audition and did the part were he walks to open the gate.

              • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 8:11 PM #

                did he have to do the somersault? 🙂

                • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

                  I think he did. I just remember that he had to really prove that he could do the part and they took the chance.

                  • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 8:18 PM #

                    well he did a fantastic job. Well ladies, i’m going to go for the night. its been fun!

                    • klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 8:22 PM #

                      Good night. Talk to you soon.

            • Parisienne February 24, 2011 at 8:07 PM #

              Me either but it was really good. Complete 360 from Gene Wilder’s version.

              • ozzie20 February 24, 2011 at 8:35 PM #

                Kind of a wierd reason why I like the second better than the first, apparently Roald Dahl didn’t like the first one at all. He said it veared from the story. The second version, although it was made well after his death, his family were brought in to help and kept closely to the book. They said had he been alived he probably would of loved this version.

                As I grew up reading his books, I kind of felt the same way he did so when the new version came out I loved it not only because it was closer to the book but his family had a played a big part in making it the way he would of wanted it to be…..Plus I love Johnny Depp!

          • Littlebells February 24, 2011 at 8:34 PM #

            Edward Scissorhands will always be my favorite movie of his. Sigh, he was so sweet and naive and I cry every time I see that movie. I think movies that stick with me are the ones that I connected with emotionally and at least knew someone in my life who acted the same way. If an actor can capture the true essence of a person and their mannerisms, it is more memorable. I hate watching movies and thinking, “No one would EVER act that way!” (,aybe) or “Why on earth would anyone say THAT!?”

            I have always loved Shirley Maclaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment because my mother and I have a very similar relationship. Our experiences are different, but the dynamics are eerily similar. I sob every time I see that movie.

            • kneon65 February 25, 2011 at 3:24 PM #

              Sorry we missed you last night littlebells.

              • Littlebells February 26, 2011 at 12:34 AM #

                Sorry I missed you! Just know ladies, I am reading but who the hell knows when I’m ever gonna be here at the same time with you lovely ones! 🙂 I’m making a list of all the foreign films you mentioned so I can put them on my netflix cue. Your film knowledge astounds me!

  17. Lurker February 24, 2011 at 8:22 PM #

    Ladies, I need to sign off! Thanks for joining!

  18. klf1988 February 24, 2011 at 8:26 PM #

    Well everyone its been fun but I’m going to call it a night too. Talk to everyone soon.

  19. Open Book February 27, 2011 at 7:52 AM #

    Wow! Everyone, have come up with some really memorable performances by actors.

    Parisienne/Ozzie/Littlebelles: Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Completely Agree!!! I really loved him in Finding Neverland. Have u seen that film?
    Kneon: Meryl Streep in Being Julia, also if I may add Sophie’s Choice. Anyway really agree with u about Julia Child she did a complete transformation there!!
    Lurker: Dustin Hoffman in Rainman is an excellent example of complete transformation!!!!

    Another couple of actors performances I’d like to add are:

    Angela Bassett- Tina Turner
    Daniel Day-Lewis-My Left Foot, Gang’s of New York and There will be Blood

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