Traits of great actors include both pure ability and the ability to transform into a plethora of diverse roles. While there are plenty of actors frequently associated with performing more dramatic roles like Daniel Day-Lewis or Judy Dench, traditionally comedic actors have often stepped into more serious roles and performed amazingly well. Why are comedic actors often successful when leaving their familiar surroundings?
Some actors often get type-cast in roles after appearing in other films. It’s often hard to imagine a certain actor or actress playing anything else other than a role that made them wildly popular. Think about it: can you disassociate Daniel Radcliffe from his role as Harry Potter or Dustin Diamond as Samuel “Screech” Powers from Saved By The Bell? While it may be tough to step out of the shadows of these roles, there have been many cases of the converse to have happened, especially when it comes to comedic actors and actresses.
Tom Hanks made a living playing various comedic roles in the 80s with films like The Money Pit, Splash and Dragnet before turning to more serious roles in films like Castaway, Forrest Gump or Philadelphia, with the latter 2 films earning him Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years. Bill Murray may be best known for comedic films like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters 1 & 2 and Stripes, but films like Lost InTranslation and even Groundhog Day show the range of talent he possesses.
Like Tom Hanks, other comedic actors have gone on to win Oscars as well: Jonah Hill for Moneyball, Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost, or Robin Wiliams for Good Will Hunting to name a few. The ability to break free from the comedic chains is a testament for actors like these to truly showcase their repertoire and it has absolutely paid off for so many.
There are plenty of other cases of comedic actors and actresses in dramatic roles: Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Steve Carrel in Foxcatcher, Dan In Real Life and the upcoming About A Boy; Kristen Wiig in Skeleton Twins, John Goodman in Fallen or even Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction or Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Seeing these people performing in roles we normally don’t see them in gives us fans a better appreciation for their work and the acting ability they possess. But what makes it seem like such a seamless transition for these actors?
Any stand-up comedian will tell you that a large portion of their material derives from some of the “darker” aspects of their personal lives. Using pain and insecurity is a tool in the tool belt for many performers and is often therapeutic in many ways. Harnessing emotions and experiences and translating them in a humorous way for audience members to relate to in a comedic way is a mainstay in the comedy world. Because there are underlying traits in these performers, being able to tap into that for more of a serious role often enhances their performances and makes them a good fit for another type of performance. It’s very tough to make someone laugh.
An example that I often use comes from Danny McBride. Best known for his role as Kenny Powers on Eastbound & Down or the numerous films he’s done with the likes of James Franco, Seth Rogen and that whole crew, Danny McBride has always, to me, shown darker sides to his more comedic characters. I have always had the feeling that if, given the chance, he could succeed in more serious roles, and I believe I was proven right with his role in Alien: Covenant. His character of Tennessee in the film still had comedic moments and dialogue, but he performed tremendously as more of a dramatic actor in the film.
Are comedic actors the only ones that can play dramatic roles? No, absolutely not. There are certainly plenty of cases of comedic actors failing: Jim Carrey in The Number 23 or Eddie Izzard in Valkyie, but it does seem to be a natural progression for a lot of them. With examples of both successes and failures, what are some of your favorite films or performances by comedic actors in serious roles? Who are some of your favorite comedic actors that have the potential to break out into drama? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.