They say success isn’t linear, and this is true for some of the biggest movie and TV stars in the world. Sometimes actors and actresses get typecast in the same movie roles, whether it’s the pretty girl next door, the dumb model, or the good-for-nothing jerk. A lot of actors flourish in this type of career — take Seth Rogen, who’s in his zone playing the funny guy, or Zooey Deschanel, who is the perfectly quirky and adorable type.
Other actors and actresses hit obstacles in the personal lives, and their careers suffer as a result. Some, unfortunately, never make it back to film or television. But there are some actors and actresses who take on seemingly risky TV and movie roles after a slump, and the risk paid off. Some have rescued their career that seemed unsalvagable, transitioned from television to the big screen, or won an Oscar with these unexpected movie roles.
It’s no secret that making it to the big leagues of Hollywood is no easy feat. It’s a mixture of talent, grit, and pure luck, as these life-changing movie roles prove. We’ve compiled some of the most incredible, transformative movie roles that completely changed these celebrities’ trajectories.
Robert Downey Jr.— Iron Man
For Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man brought his career back to life.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Downey Jr garnered a reputation for his issues with substance abuse. He tried to rehabilitate his image with a role on Ally McBeal’s fourth season, but he was not feeling it. He continued his substance use, which ultimately got him fired from Ally McBeal.
His unpredictable behavior made him a risk to have on set.
After cleaning up his act and starring in a few movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zodiac, he proved he was reliable enough for the first MCU movie. It took some convincing from Iron Man director Jon Favreau, though; Marvel Studios was not on board with Downey Jr. until Favreau pleaded his case.
Sylvester Stallone — Rocky
Before this iconic boxing film, Sylvester Stallone was homeless.
According to Forbes, Stallone was an unknown actor trying to make it in New York in the ’70s, but later moved to California. During an audition he could feel was going south, Stallone mentioned a story he was working on and the producers asked him to bring it by later.
They loved the script, but they had one condition.
The producers didn’t want Stallone playing the main character, Rocky. Despite only having $106 in the bank and nowhere to live, Stallone refused to sell the script unless he played the main role. Eventually the producers agreed, and they gave Stallone one million dollars to make the movie, starring himself.
Matthew McConaughey —The Lincoln Lawyer
Matthew McConaughey’s career has had a number of ups and downs.
McConaughey got his big break in 1993’s Dazed and Confused, and people were excited to see where the young star would go. He was in a slew of playboy roles in rom-coms like Failure To Launch, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past in the early aughts, and it seemed like he had been pigeonholed.
But that’s when McConaughey changed the pace.
While keeping with his characteristic southern charm, McConaughey delved a little deeper with his rough, no nonsense role in 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Dubbed the “McConaissance,”McConaughey started taking on meatier roles after this film, and he even took home an Oscar for his performance in the 2013 drama The Dallas Buyers Club.
John Travolta — Pulp Fiction
John Travolta went from heartthrob to old school cool.
The release of Grease and Saturday Night Fever made John Travolta a ’70s icon but a couple decades later, he was in need of a revamp.Fortunately, the connoisseur of ’90s cool, Quentin Tarantino, had just the trick. The auteur cast Travolta as Vincent Vega, a sharp-suited contract killer, in Pulp Fiction. Starring alongside Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson, this role breathed new life into Travolta’s stagnating career.
Tilda Swinton — Orlando
Tilda Swinton is a revered performer now, and her role in Orlando is what made her an acting stalwart.
Her breakout role in the film adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel, Orlando, saw Swinton spread her wings and act her proverbial butt off (even though she describes it as a “non-performance”). The fantastical story stars Swinton playing Orlando, a nobleman that Queen Elizabeth demands remain young until the end of time. The role blurs gender lines and norms, and Swinton’s signature, ethereal androgynous look served the role perfectly.
Drew Barrymore — The Wedding Singer
Drew Barrymore did the impossible.
Transitioning from being a child actor into an adult artist is an uncomfortable process for many, and Drew Barrymore knows all about it. Her very public issues with substance abuse could have set her back, and it seemed like she was going to meet the same fate as other troubled child stars.
But she managed to turn it around.
Barrymore broke into more mainstream movie roles with Scream in 1996. But it was 1998’s The Wedding Singer that cleaned up Barrymore’s image and set her in motion as the girl next door. It also set up a great working relationship with co-star Adam Sandler, as the two have co-starred in several films since.
Hugh Jackman — X-Men
Hugh Jackman’s world was changed by this iconic role.
The formerly unknown Australian actor who cut his teeth acting, dancing, and singing in musicals became a worldwide phenomenon with his portrayal of Wolverine in X-Men. Jackman played the role of the hot-headed mutant for 17 years, but that almost wasn’t the case; five weeks into shooting the first film, Jackman was almost fired.
Can you imagine anyone else as Wolverine, though?
According to SyFy, Jackman had to have a serious talk with the producers. “The head of the studio pulled me aside, sat me down at lunch, and said that they were worried that they weren’t seeing on camera what they’d seen in the audition,” Jackman said. Clearly, everything worked out.
Ben Affleck — The Town
Ben Affleck was more of a character actor until he proved his chops.
Today, Ben Affleck is a legacy name, but things weren’t always this way. Often playing the oddly lovable jerk in Kevin Smith movies, Affleck was typecast as a not very credible actor— but things changed pretty quickly. After his directorial effort in Gone Baby Gone, public opinion began to change, and his role in The Town cemented his place as an incredible force.
Mickey Rourke — The Wrestler
This movie brought Mickey Rourke back into audiences’ hearts.
Rourke began as a Hollywood hunk, but after pursuing a career as a professional boxer, his money-maker took a beating. Broken bones in his face led to some poor reconstructive surgery leaving the former heartthrob completely botched. Tinseltown is extremely vain, and all seemed lost for Rourke until his moment of redemption in The Wrestler that scored him an Oscar nomination.
Liam Neeson — Taken
Liam Neeson went from middle to macho with his kickass role in Taken.
Before Neeson was brought on board for action-packed revenge film, Taken he was a middling actor. He had a decent list of average movie roles, but nothing worthy of A-list status. His role in 1994’s Schindler’s List gained him some fanfare, but he still wasn’t a mega-star. Then his role in Taken really shook things up. Because of his age, Neeson wasn’t an obvious choice for the action role, but can you imagine Taken any other way?
Chris Hemsworth — Thor
Chris Hemsworth recently revealed he was broke before scoring the role of Thor.
Prior to breaking into the US market, Chris Hemsworth had a role on a recurring Australian soap called Home & Away. In an interview with Variety, he revealed that prior to landing the Marvel movie, he was in debt. “A big reason I started acting was because I loved film and TV, but it was like we had no money,” he admitted. But today, Hemsworth isn’t just one of the most sought after name in Hollywood — he’s managed to leverage a steady paycheck in each of his movie roles.
Melissa McCarthy — Bridesmaids
This ensemble comedy made Melissa McCarthy a star.
Prior to starring in Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy had a handful of television roles, including Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly. But her role as the funny, socially-awkward, and straight-talking sister of the groom made McCarthy an indispensable part of the movie and propelled her into A-list fame.
Charlize Theron — Monster
Charlize Theron proved she was more than just a pretty face.
The former model had been typecast as “the girlfriend” in many movies including The Devil’s Advocate, Mighty Joe Young, and Reindeer Games, but things took a sharp turn when she broke through with a very surprising role. Monster saw Theron depict real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos who murdered seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990 by shooting them at point-blank range. Her portrayal went all the way there, without the makeup, high heels, and soft-spoken tenderness she had been stuck playing.
Bruce Willis — Die Hard
Without this role, the world may have never known Bruce Willis.
Four actors had turned down the role of John McClane, including Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before starring in the film, Willis had a fledgling singing career, releasing a soul album titled The Return of Bruno (yes, really). But everything changed after he took the role in Die Hard, and he took Hollywood by storm.
Steve Carell — Little Miss Sunshine
Steve Carell flexed his serious acting chops with these serious movie roles.
When Steve Carell started as a correspondent on The Daily Show, he was a breakout star. His roles on The Office, Anchorman, and The 40 Year Old Virgin turned him into a comedy juggarnaut, and fans became obsessed with his awkward and hilarious delivery. Still, it wasn’t long before he turned to more dramatic roles.
No one saw his performance in this indie flick coming.
Playing a suicidal scholar in Little Miss Sunshine was somewhat shocking for fans of the actor, but this new side allowed him to expand his horizons. Since then, he’s played a struggle single dad in Dan In Real Life and oscillated between funny and darker roles.