Home Entertainment Top List Thursday – Top 15 Actors in Unrecognizable Roles

Top List Thursday – Top 15 Actors in Unrecognizable Roles

8 min read

At its essence, acting is about becoming somebody else, becoming several somebody elses. And sorry, Steven Segal’s entire career, but just changing your on-screen name and profession isn’t good enough. Luckily there are actors who take this a lot more seriously, who disappear into their chosen roles so convincingly, that you don’t even know who they were originally.

Now with today’s level of CGI wizardry, it’s possible to make just about anybody look like anybody/anything else (hell, they could even make Darryn look like a normal boy), but I’m not looking at these all-CG creations a la Andy Serkis as Gollum. This list is for people who just through some wonderful makeup, incredibly convincing performances and maybe a smidge of digital assistance, completely transform themselves.

Glen Close – Hook

Air Force One (1997) Directed by Wolfgang Petersen Shown: Glenn Close

Now I will admit, this isn’t immediately the most obvious candidate for this list, but it’s a personal favourite of mine, just because so few people even know it exists. In Hook, director Steven Spielberg acquired the cameo services of several high profile actors/celebrities, but it’s this short turn from Glenn Close as a male pirate being shoved inside villainous Captain Hook’s (Dustin Hoffman) boo-box that stands out the most, simply for the fact that it doesn’t stand out at all. I wonder how many of you have seen this scene several times, and never knew it was Close under that scruffy beard?

Willem Dafoe – Shadow of a Vampire

Willem Dafoe

Let’s face it: Willem Dafoe has kind of a creepy face. But in Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalized account of the filming of classic vampire film Nosferatu, Dafoe takes that creepiness to a whole new level as he transforms himself into some kind of proto-vampire.

Tim Roth – Planet of the Apes


There are very few good things to be said about director Tim Burton’s attempt to reboot classic sci-fi franchise, Planet of the Apes, back in 2001, but Rick Baker’s makeup work was definitely one of them. But while most of the cast was still recognizable beneath their ape prosthetics (and Helena Bonham-Carter somehow transformed into Michael Jackson), the same cannot be said for Roth. The Resevoir Dogs actor was not only unrecognizable on looks alone, but also temperament as he became a snarling, savage beast.


Robert De Niro – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

ROBERT DE NIRO returns as the suspicious patriarch Jack Byrnes in the third installment of the blockbuster series--?Little Fockers?.

Multiple award winning actor Robert De Niro is one of the most recognizable faces/voices in Hollywood, but for Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s original tale of love and monsters, De Niro- thanks to some Oscar nominated makeup effects – totally transformed himself into a hulking, grotesque monster that somehow still evoked our pity.

Nick Stahl – Sin City


Nick Stahl is definitely not the world’s biggest actor, but even those people that know would have a severely hard time recognizing him as the horrific – and very aptly named – Yellow Bastard in Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel.

John Rhys-Davies – Lord of the Rings


Truly, there are several members of the cast from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings that could be on this list, but this to me has always been the most impressive. You know Gimli the Dwarf, the shortest character on screen? Yeah, that’s John Rhys-Davies (whom you may recall as Sallah from the Indiana Jones movies) who at 6ft1″ is actually the tallest member of the cast. Now that’s some trick photography! And, even more impressively, he pulled it off with just 9 and 3/4 fingers!

Ralph Fiennes – Harry Potter


It still boggles my mind how The Iron Lady got a makeup Oscar but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows didn’t. I mean, just look at this. Fiennes goes from old boy British leading man to a slimy, snake faced wizard with an affectation for holding his wand really daintily.

The Entire Cast – Cloud Atlas


Any movie where Halle Berry plays both an old Chinese man and young Jewish lady, Hugh Grant is a tribalistc savage and Hugo Weaving is both a kind of cockney boogeyman and a vicious, heavyset female nurse, simply has to be on this list. The end.

Here’s a bit from the end credits, showing off all the incredible transformations.

John Travolta – Hairspray


John Travolta has played a wide variety of characters in his movies, but never has he branched out quite as far as he did for the musical comedy Hairspray, playing a frumpy, overweight girl.

Eric Stoltz – Mask


It was said that the extensive, Oscar winning makeup and prosthetics used to transform Eric Stoltz’  into Roy “Rocky” Dennis, a real boy born with a rare genetic disorder resulting in severe facial deformities, in 1985’s Mask was so good, that the film’s own cast and crew didn’t recognize the young actor once he was out of it. Couldn’t do much about being a ginger though.

John Leguizamo – Spawn


Actor John Leguizamo normally boasts a string bean-like physique on his 5ft11″ frame, which is why it was so hard to recognize him as the diminutive and portly clown, the Violator, in the 1997 adaptation of comic book Spawn. Well, that and the whole being a demon thing.

Tom Cruise – Tropic Thunder


The genius of Tom Cruise’s cameo as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder is not just the fact that it was completely uncredited and thus a surprise for viewers, but rather the fact that the makeup and Cruise’s performance was just different enough from the norm so that when you saw him for the first time, you thought that he looked kind of familiar, but you just couldn’t quite place him. I mean, it couldn’t be Tom Cruise, right? This guy swears too much, right? Wrong. Hilariously wrong.

Tim Curry – Legend


Tim Curry is most famously known for two roles, both requiring some visual transformation: Pennywise the evil clown in It and Dr Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show. But there’s a third role that he should be more famous for, but largely due to the fact that he was completely unrecognizable in layers of body paint, latex and neck muscle destroying, three-foot long fibreglass horns and one hell of a performance, there are still too many people that have no idea that it was actually him as the Devil himself in Ridley Scott’s 80’s fantasy classic Legend.

John Hurt – The Elephant Man


While veteran actor John Hurt may currently be experiencing a bit of a late career boom thanks to a certain alien doctor transforming into him, it was a young John Hurt being transformed into an almost alien looking man that is arguably his most famous role, as he play the real life Joseph Merrick in David Lynch’s 1980 film, Elephant Man. Merrick’s tragic life due to a grotesque deformity had been adapted for stage several times before, but the actors did it with very minimal makeup as it was thought that the amount of prosthetic work required would completely hide the performance. Hurt proved them all wrong, turning in a heart breaking performance through layers of latex and makeup. The role earned him an Oscar nomination, and although he eventually lost to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (a role that required a different type of physical change) the Academy was so impressed with the work that had been done, that it inspired them to created Best Makeup and Visual Effects category we know today.

Gary Oldman – Hannibal


It’s a well known fact that award winning actor Gary Oldman is half human and half chameleon. The man has made a career out of magically turning himself into a different completely different person every single time he is on screen, and most of the time the only makeup effects he requires is a bit of a bad haircut (which begs the question of how in Zeus’ name it took until 2012 for him to be nominated for his very first Oscar). There are plenty of roles you could pick for this list: his lecherous, Princess Leia bun wearing vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; his weirdly coifed space mogul in The Fifth Element; his punk rock incarnate turn in Syd and Nancy – the list just goes on and on.

But it was his uncredited performance as self-mutilated antagonist Mason Verger in Hannibal, Ridley Scott’s sequel to Silence of the Lambs, that easily stands out. The makeup work is astounding and coupled with a vintage performance from the actor, it’s safe to say that was it not for a short blurry flashback sequence showing an unmutilated Oldman, moviegoers probably still wouldn’t have any idea exactly who played the character on-screen.

Last Updated: December 19, 2013


  1. Les Grossman! Oh man, I forgave Tom Cruise for a lot after that role.


    • RinceGivesRspectsToMadiba

      December 20, 2013 at 13:16

      Agreed. I loved his role in that. Weren’t there rumors there was going to be a full on movie with that character?


  2. RinceGivesRspectsToMadiba

    December 20, 2013 at 13:20

    Awesome list Kervyn!


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