10 Movies Where Actors Gave Performances You Didn’t Think They Were Capable Of


  • Actors can surprise audiences with unexpected performances, showcasing their range beyond their typical roles.
  • Comedic actors can excel in dramatic roles, demonstrating that empathy for the character is essential in all genres.
  • Transformative performances can change how an actor is perceived, allowing them to break free from previous associations and showcase their talent.



Actors can develop certain reputations based on their body of work, but occasionally a completely unexpected performance can catch audiences by surprise. Sometimes, actors keep getting offered similar roles because audiences want to watch them in similar movies, not because the actor has a limited range. This means that when they get the chance to show a different side to themselves, actors can make shocking transformations. Sometimes, a single performance can change how an actor is perceived.

Actors best known for comedic roles often have success in dramatic movies, and vice versa. There are some elements to a comedic performance that distinguishes it from a dramatic role, such as comedic timing, but the basis of deep empathy for the character is a constant requirement in all genres. A truly talented actor can excel in any genre, as some of these surprising performances show.

Related: 20 Great Actors Whose Incredible Range Is Proven By Just 2 Performances

10 Adam Sandler As Howard Ratner

Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler looking happy in Uncut Gems

His performance in Uncut Gems was more like Al Pacino than Happy Gilmore.

Adam Sandler is best known for his goofy comedies from the 2000s, but his performance in Uncut Gems was more like Al Pacino than Happy Gilmore. The movie follows Sandler as jeweler and gambling addict Howard Ratner as he dodges loan sharks and bookmakers in New York City. It’s a shockingly intense thriller, but Sandler manages to maintain the frantic pace with his remarkable emotional range. Sandler had played dramatic roles before Uncut Gems, but none of them were of such a high caliber. Sandler is reuniting with writers-directors Josh and Benny Safdie for an upcoming project, so he can prove that Uncut Gems was not a one-off performance.

9 LeBron James As Himself


Lebron James and Bill Hader at a cafe in Trainwreck.

LeBron James’ fictionalized version of himself is by no means Oscar-worthy, but he manages to get some great jokes in, and he fosters an unlikely chemistry with Bill Hader. James allows himself to be the butt of the joke at times, and he subverts the classic rom-com trope of the relatable best friend. The main character’s best friend in a rom-com is meant to be someone to talk openly with, but they are not meant to be 4-time NBA champion LeBron James. His acting skills were criticized years later in Space Jam, but Trainwreck allows him to play to his strengths.

8 Tom Cruise As Les Grossman

Tropic Thunder

Les Grossman dancing in Tropic Thunder

Tom Cruise’s performance in Tropic Thunder was so transformative that it was hard to comprehend that it was really the Top Gun star beneath the prosthetics. Not only is Cruise’s portrayal of sleazy producer Les Grossman notable for his smooth transition to comedy, but it also stands out as one of the few times Cruise has played a morally reprehensible character. Tropic Thunder features some incredible action scenes, but it doesn’t use Cruise in any of them. Instead, one of the greatest action heroes in Hollywood shouts profanities down the phone and dances to Ludacris. He didn’t have much screen time, but he stole every scene he appeared in.

Rumors of a Tropic Thunder sequel have been swirling for years, so Cruise could yet reprise his role as Les Grossman.

7 Daniel Radcliffe As Manny

Swiss Army Man

Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in the woods in Swiss Army Man

It showed that he had grown from a child star into a truly accomplished actor.

Daniel Radcliffe was just 12 years old when he first played Harry Potter, the role that would define the next decade of his career. Even after leaving Hogwarts behind him, audiences associated Radcliffe with witchcraft and wizardry, but 2016’s Swiss Army Man marked a completely unexpected turn. Radcliffe plays a zombified corpse with absurd powers which help Paul Dano’s character survive in the wilderness. The dark comedy allowed Radcliffe to distance himself from Harry Potter, and it showed that he had grown from a child star into a truly accomplished actor. Radcliffe has many bizarre roles, but Swiss Army Man combines strangeness with subtlety.

6 Kristin Stewart As Princess Diana


Kristen Stewart faced some critique for her seemingly limited emotional expression in the Twilight series. Nonetheless, she has steadily countered this perception with a series of impressive roles. Among these, her most striking portrayal was as Princess Diana in ‘Spencer’, which left a profound impact.

Much like Daniel Radcliffe, Kristin Stewart faced the challenge of freeing herself from the shadow of a huge franchise that dominated her early career. However, Stewart’s performances in the Twilight franchise also drew criticism for her apparent lack of emotional range. Stewart has quietly gone about dispelling this myth with a string of great performances, but none had the shocking impact of her portrayal of Princess Diana in Spencer. The biopic gave Stewart a platform to demonstrate her abilities, and she responded with an Oscar-nominated performance. Stewart’s British accent is faultless, and she shows incredible emotional depth as the tortured princess.

5 Meryl Steep As Miranda Priestly

The Devil Wears Prada

Meryl Streep is widely regarded as one of the finest actors of all time, but The Devil Wears Prada showed another side to her that had remained hidden. Streep made a name for herself in dramas such as The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Sophie’s Choice, claiming an astonishing collection of awards along the way. The Devil Wears Prada revealed that she also had the potential to be a brilliant comedic actor. Her performance as the smug quote machine Miranda Priestly allowed her to conquer yet another genre. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Streep has the ability to excel in any role she chooses.

4 Ben Kingsley As Don Logan

Sexy Beast

Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast

Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for his performance in Gandhi, the biopic of the Indian independence leader. Gandhi was extremely righteous and spiritual, two traits which completely oppose the character of Don Logan, whom Kingsley played in the 2000 crime movie Sexy Beast. Logan is a vile thug, prone to violence, intimidation, and deceit. Kingsley’s ability to shift from pious to reprehensible is astonishing, and his performance in Sexy Beast also showed that he had a flair for comedic dialogue. Ben Kingsley’s best movies include hard-hitting dramas like Schindler’s List and Shutter Island, but Sexy Beast showed a different dimension to his talents.

3 Steve Carell As John Du Pont


Steve Carell looking sideways in Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher is the type of movie that could fail if the performances are not at an elite standard.

Steve Carell helped create one of the funniest characters on television when he played Michael Scott in The Office. He also starred in comedy movies, such as Anchorman, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. None of this suggested that he had the dramatic chops required for Foxcatcher, a twisty psychological drama disguised as a sports movie. Carell rose to the challenge, displaying an intensity and a sense of control that was absent in his previous work. Foxcatcher is the type of movie that could fail if the performances are not at an elite standard, so casting a comedic actor was a risk. Carell received an Oscar nomination for his performance.

2 John Krasinski As Lee Abbott

A Quiet Place

Another actor who made a huge contribution to the success of The Office, John Krasinski could have struggled to separate himself from the role of Jim. In reality, this proved to be no trouble for Krasinski, who put in a masterful performance in A Quiet Place. Krasinski adapted to the horror genre with ease, and what’s even more impressive is that he also created and directed A Quiet Place. He and his wife Emily Blunt make an extremely compelling on-screen duo, and their success spawned a franchise. A prequel to A Quiet Place is due to release in 2024, which Krasinski will produce.

1 Henry Fonda As Frank

Once Upon a Time in the West

Henry Fonda was one of Hollywood’s great heroic figures. His characters often exemplified the ideals of honor and justice. In movies like 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe and The Longest Day, Fonda played characters who stood up for themselves and their values. Sergio Leone’s epic western Once Upon a Time in the West subverted the audience’s expectations of Fonda by casting him as a brutal villain. His character Frank is a sadistic assassin who kills an entire family at the start of the movie. His crimes would be repugnant enough, but the fact that they were being committed by an American hero made them even more chilling.


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