Acting Appreciation 101: Five Top Character Acting Examples in Film

February 21, 2016 5:31 pm Last Updated: March 12, 2016 9:47 pm

The art of shape-shifting, or character acting, is by and large misunderstood and under appreciated.

We can tell a musical instrument is hard to master because it’s external to us. The instrument of the actor—the physical body and the voice—well, in the words of John Lennon, “Everybody’s got one.” Built-in. Meaning most people think that they, therefore, must be able to act. “How hard could it be?” 

(L–R) Two of the greatest character actors of our era, Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of the Best Actor award for "Lincoln," and presenter Meryl Streep pose in the press room during the Oscars held at Loews Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2013. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
(L–R) Two of the greatest character actors of our era, Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of the Best Actor award for “Lincoln,” and presenter Meryl Streep pose in the press room during the Oscars held at Loews Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2013. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Plenty hard.  There’s a reason acting conservatories like Julliard and the Yale School of Drama exist: it takes practice. The greatest stage actor of all time , Laurence Olivier, said it takes 20 years to master. Or 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says in his book, “Outliers.”

It takes a lack of ego to be able to play ugly and to “take the hit” and play the fool.

The standard argument is, “But what about those people they just take off a street corner with no prior experience and they’re brilliant?” Most of that is showbiz publicity spin. Woody Harrelson was an “overnight success,” when he landed the television comedy hit, “Cheers.” The publicity machine didn’t tell you he’d been in New York ten years prior, studying and auditioning. This myth feeds the American/showbiz dream—anybody can do it.

Character Acting

The standard understanding is that one becomes a character, as in, you turn into someone else. But it’s actually the other way around. It’s you, putting yourself in various situations you would never normally be in. Thus, the character becomes you.

Here are five actors who pull it off splendidly, along with two videos; a before (an interview of the actor as themselves) and an after—of them as the character. 

1) Dustin Hoffman

Dustin Hoffman hit it out of the park for both “Tootsie” (where he played an actor so desperate for work he dressed in drag, passed as a woman, and got an acting job on a soap opera) and “Rain Man,” getting best-actor Academy award-nominated for “Tootsie,” and winning the best-actor Oscar for 1988’s”Rain Man.”

I remember the first line was [Napoleon’s voice] ‘Gosh, I’ll do whatever I feel I wanna do.’

His character for Rain Man was an autistic savant who, without trying, had every name and phone number in the phone book memorized. Hoffman said the key for the character kicked in when he realized Raymond (Rain Man) never looked anyone in the eyes.

2) Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise is one of our most underrated actors. “He’s too pretty to be good!” No, he’s actually very talented and very funny, and one of the least vain of the supremely good-looking actors out there. It takes a lack of ego to be able to play ugly and to “take the hit” and play the fool. Check out his character-acting in “Tropic Thunder.” He’s nearly unrecognizable. But first, Tom as himself with Jimmy Fallon talking about movie stunts. Which Tom tends to do himself.

And now pretty Tom as chubby, bald, hairy-forearmed Len Grossman, a Jewish Hollywood movie exec with some ghetto dance moves.

3) Jon Heder

Jon Heder on getting the character of Napoleon Dynamite (from an interview with Martin Patail from Portland Monthly): “And so when he (“Napoleon Dynamite” director Jared Hess) brought me the script … I remember the first line was [Napoleon’s voice] ‘Gosh, I’ll do whatever I feel I wanna do.’ I was like, ‘I get it. This is that crusty kid. It makes sense.'”

“The idea of the look for him was a little more after the fact. Jared’s wife was like, ‘Well, what do you think about giving Jon a perm? What if he had really tight, gross, curly hair? And maybe we should give him some glasses. That’ll make him even more pathetic.’ And we went down to the local thrift store and went through some clothes. It was there that we created the characters. It just made so much sense. This was that awkward teenager who just doesn’t have a clue.”

Jon Heder interview: 

Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite:

4) Daniel Day-Lewis

Interview on the Arsenio Hall Show:

Daniel Day-Lewis as the cerebral palsy-suffering Irishman Christie Brown, in the true-story movie made of Brown’s autobiography, “My Left Foot.” Having only the control of his left foot, Brown overcame this handicap, going on to become both an accomplished painter and a writer.

5) Robert Downey, Jr.

Robert Downey, Jr. interview:

And Robert Downey, Jr., playing a blonde, Caucasian Australian actor, playing an African-American G.I., in “Tropic Thunder”:

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Acting Appreciation 101.