The Art of Acting Alchemy: 17 Times Actors Turned Roles Into Gold

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Some actors shine among the others. And sometimes those actors get roles that manage to make them shine even brighter if that was even possible. Their skills can turn a character and script into something memorable and impactful.

WARNING: There will be some spoilers ahead!

1. The Grey (2011)

The Grey Liam Neeson
Image Credit: Open Road Films and Inferno Distribution.

From a distance, it would be easy to classify this role as another throwaway for Liam Neeson, but The Grey is a true study of survival and human nature, and Neeson's quiet intensity propels the flick to greatness. 

2. Woody Harrelson in Into the Furnace (2013)

Woody Harrelson in Into the Furnace
Image Credit: Relativity Media.

Woody Harrelson's turn as the deeply sinister Harlan DeGroat resonates in a film without a particularly strong script. Whether he's delivering a vicious beatdown or serving a menacing glare, Harrelson is as magnetic each time he crosses the screen in Into the Furnace

3. Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners (2013)

Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a man who discovers his six-year-old daughter has gone missing. Detective Loki is Jake Gyllenhaal’s role, the head of the investigation for the girl and her friend. We see both of these characters grow angrier and angrier as the days go by after the girls are kidnapped. This is especially true in Keller’s case as he grows more desperate to find his daughter, using gruesome tactics to find information.

4. Matthew McConaughey in True Detective (2014)

True Detective Matthew McConaughey
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

Detective Rustin “Rust” Cohle was McConaughey’s role in the first season of True Detective. A pair of Louisiana State Police are searching for a serial killer. You can tell how this allows actors to flex their acting muscles. 

5. J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash J. K. Simmons
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

J. K. Simmons’ role as the aggressive Terence Fletcher can be highly intimidating. His anger is palpable every time he’s on screen. The specifics of Simmons’ ability to display different arrays of emotion are evident. 

6. Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Muppet Christmas Carol
Image Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

I once heard someone describe Michael Caine and Tim Curry’s roles in their respective Muppet Movies as outstanding but for different reasons. They claimed that Tim Curry was excellent because he acted like he, himself, was a Muppet.

Michael Caine, on the other hand, acted like the Muppets were real people. That description has always stuck with me; others seem to feel the same way. A significant number of people applauded how Caine plays the role completely straight, despite the muppet antics.

7. Toni Collette in Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary Toni Collette
Image Credit: A24.

I find the amount of detail in Hereditary to be fascinating and impressive. Still, I wouldn’t enjoy the movie half as much if it weren’t for the acting, Toni Collette included. Playing the mother of our central family, Annie Graham, Toni must go through quite the roller coaster of emotions in this film. First, she loses her mother at the beginning of the film, not appearing too distraught, and then loses her youngest later on, completely shattering her. 

8. Christian Bale in The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Christian Bale has quite an impressive collection of roles under his belt. However, what’s even more amazing is how he was able to play two characters in one movie, both acting as the same person. Are you confused?

In The Prestige, Bale plays the magician Alfred Borden. At the film’s end, it is revealed that Borden is not one person but a pair of identical twin brothers. The brothers use this to pull off one of their signature tricks of Alfred entering one wardrobe and coming out of another. 

9. Tom Cruise in Magnolia (1999)

Image Credit: New Line Cinema.

It seems that what people love most about Tom Cruise’s role as Frank T.J. Mackey is how he was able to subvert expectations from his previous roles. Cruise plays someone with a charming sense of self in most of his films. This personality is seen in Magnolia, too. However, this turns out to be a facade, and he continues to crumble as the movie progresses. 

10. Tom Hardy in The Drop (2014)

The Drop
Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Bob Saginowski is Tom Hardy’s character in The Drop. A bartender for his cousin’s pub; when the local mobsters start to use the place as a bank, he turns away. One scene in particular shows Hardy’s skill as an actor: the reveal of the true killer of Richie Whelan: him. As he tells the story, Saginowski doesn’t even bat an eye at the gruesome details of what he did to get rid of Richie. It is truly a chilling scene.

11. Denzel Washington in Glory (1989)

Glory Denzel Washington Matthew Broderick
Image Credit: Tri-Star Pictures.

Denzel Washington’s character, Private Silas Trip, is portrayed beautifully by the actor. The scene where he is whipped and doesn’t break eye contact with Col. Robert Gould the whole time gave me chills. You can read so much anger and pain in his eyes the entire time, and he never says a word. 

12. Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Haley Joel had a lot of weight on his shoulders regarding being a central character in The Sixth Sense for being 11 years old, and he crushed it! His delivery of the iconic “I see dead people” line was excellent, and he was very good at portraying Cole Sear as a young boy tormented by a secret. The ending scene between him and his mother is also incredibly heart-wrenching. 

13. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood Daniel Day-Lewis
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his role as Daniel Plainview, and it’s no wonder why. The actor brings this silver miner turned oil prospector to life, filling us with dread. One of my favorite scenes is the infamous “I drink your milkshake” scene. It’s terrifying to see him go from somewhat calm to angry enough to bash a man’s head within five minutes.

14. Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)
Image Credit: The Weinstein Company.

My respect for Joaquin Phoenix’s acting abilities grows with every role I see him in. His role as Freddie Quell in The Master is no exception. Phoenix portrays the troubled, struggling, and traumatized drifter so well it makes me concerned for his mental health! The processing scene is awe-inspiring. His answers to the second line of question are unsettling and sad to watch and listen to.

15. James McAvoy in Split (2016)

Split James McAvoy
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

I have heard people go back and forth on whether or not Split is a good movie. However, I know a constancy among them, and it’s James McAvoy’s role as Kevin. This role is impressive because Kevin isn’t just one role; it’s multiple. Kevin has various personalities; we see quite a few throughout the movie. Each personality is different, but McAvoy can switch between them beautifully.

16. Anthony Hopkins in The Father (2020)

The Father Anthony Hopkins
Image Credit: UGC Distribution.

Hopkins shines as bright as the sun in all his parts, but this one hits a little differently. Anthony (the character, not the actor) is an older gentleman who is suffering from dementia and is pushing away his daughter and any caregivers who come to help. 

A word of warning: If you have seen someone deteriorate due to dementia like I have, I would proceed cautiously. To call Hopkins’ acting convincing would be a significant understatement.

17. Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe
Image Credit: A24.

The Lighthouse is a strange, twisted movie and tale. So, in other words, it’s my kind of movie! The movie balances solely on the shoulders of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, and boy, do they hold that film up like Atlas holds the world, Dafoe in particular. His work as the lead lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, is one for the history books. 

Author: Molly Locke

Title: Freelance Journalist

Expertise: Movies, Video Games, Travel


Molly Locke is a freelance journalist for Wealth of Geeks fresh off the presses with a degree in business management focused in digital and social media marketing. Having been traveling since before she could walk, she's gained quite a bit of insight on what this world is all about. Movies and video games are her bread and butter, as is being able to talk about their stories, quality, effects, and impact endlessly.