The three-time Oscar winner, who said 2017's Phantom Thread was going to be his last film, was fiercely picky about which roles he accepted, not least because whatever he did take on was going to take over his life for as long as it took. A sampling of his efforts:
Day-Lewis earned his first Best Actor Oscar playing artist and writer Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot. To do so he mastered use of the toes on his titular extremity—and remained in his character's wheelchair throughout the shoot, having crew members spoon-feed him.
The Englishman suffered a broken nose and a back injury while training to box like average Joe turned activist Gerry Conlon, who was wrongfully convicted of being involved in an IRA bombing, in The Name of the Father. He took butchering lessons and caught pneumonia after eschewing insulated winter attire making Gangs of New York because his character Bill "The Butcher" Cutting wouldn't have had access to a thicker coat.
When Day-Lewis took on the title role in Lincoln—"a very, very bad idea," he recalled thinking to the New York Times—he spent about a year reading everything he could, both biographies and Abraham Lincoln's own writing, and studying photos of the 16th U.S. president to nail his expressions. And when filming began, he spoke in Lincoln's reedy Kentucky-by-way-of-Illinois voice throughout—and co-star Jared Harris was asked to stay in character too so that his British accent wouldn't be distracting.
"Without sounding unhinged, I know I'm not Abraham Lincoln," Day-Lewis told the Times. "I'm aware of that. But the truth is the entire game is about creating an illusion, and for whatever reason, and mad as it may sound, some part of me can allow myself to believe for a period for time without questioning, and that's the trick."
The way the Emmy winner approaches the role of Kendall Roy on Succession isn't for everybody—including classically trained stage and screen star Brian Cox, who seems to turn his part of domineering family patriarch Logan Roy on and off at will and thinks if would benefit Strong personally to lighten up a bit. But Strong takes both Kendall's plight and his responsibility for communicating it to audiences incredibly seriously.
Kieran Culkin, who plays whimsically profane youngest sibling Roman Roy, told the New Yorker that Strong "puts himself in a bubble" on set and keeps to himself—much like Kendall in season three, surrounded by the team he's assembled to go nuclear on Logan but alone in his futile quest.
Strong also doesn't like to rehearse because, he explained, "I want every scene to feel like I'm encountering a bear in the woods."
The three-time Oscar winner is just so Jack—his grin, the raise of his eyebrow, his frequently foreboding but endlessly cool cadence the stuff of parody legend—that he's been mistaken for a guy who slips into every role without a care in the world.
A 1986 New York Times feature describes Nicholson as the ultimate preparer, taking violin lessons and doing scholarly research on ol' Beelzebub, hell and evil before playing a literally devilish rogue in The Witches of Eastwick. Classically trained in the Method way, he revealed that in a scene where his about-to-be-jilted writer character in Reds hands Diane Keaton an envelope, inside was a real, intimate poem he'd written for the actress, "the kind of thing no one else sees, but you know it's there," he said.
And while he was always looking to get at the core of a character, to come up with a secret about him that was for the actor alone to know and then use to make the performance sing, Nicholson really did bring his own experiences into these parts. He came up with the lines in The Shining when unraveling writer Jack Torrance snipes at his wife Wendy (played by Shelly Duval) to not bother him when he's working.
"That scene at the typewriter—that's what I was like when I got my divorce," he told the Times. "I was under the pressure of being a family man with a daughter and one day I accepted a job to act in a movie in the daytime and I was writing a movie at night and I'm back in my little corner and my beloved wife, Sandra, walked in on what was, unbeknownst to her, this maniac. And I told [director Stanley Kubrick] about it and we wrote it into the scene. I remember being at my desk and telling her [in his scary voice], 'Even if you don't hear me typing it doesn't mean I'm not writing. This is writing'...I remember that total animus. Well, I got a divorce."
"I only felt that I could truly do this story justice if I approached it with the eye of a curious woman who was interested in possessing a journalistic spirit so that I could read between the lines of what was happening in the film's scenes," Lady Gaga told the Los Angeles Times, explaining why she didn't meet the real-life version of the character she plays in House of Gucci. "Meaning that nobody was going to tell me who Patrizia Gucci was. Not even Patrizia Gucci."
In the course of doing her best to "play the truth," she spent three years delving into Patrizia's story, which includes the murder of her ex-husband, Maurizio Gucci (played by Adam Driver), and Patrizia being sent to prison for having him killed. Going brunette was the easy part: Gaga spent roughly a year and a half living with the rageful fashionista inside her head and spoke with a thick Italian accent for nine months.
"I never broke. I stayed with her," the SAG Award-nominated singer-actress said. And it was rough, she admitted.
In a later Zoom chat for The Envelope with fellow actresses who'd given standout performances in 2021 that didn't take quite so much out of them, Gaga said, "I'm always thinking when the movie's over and I'm a bag of bones going home, that there has to be this other way for me to tell stories without abandoning myself. I still feel like I have a lot to learn in that way... I don't create a safe environment when I work. I chain-smoke cigarettes, and I'm writing tons of notes, and I'm working on all sorts of sense memory and personification. My therapist always tells me that I should try to work at 70 percent, because I'm hurting myself. Hearing about you being with your loved ones and the way that you're able to balance your lives is a really important message for a lot of people."
Yes, we know what you're thinking: Isn't Tom Cruise just being "Tom Cruise" in every movie? (Which, incidentally, has been a recipe for success nine out of 10 times for the past three decades.)
Perhaps, but Cruise has been as close as it gets to living his real life as if he were super-agent Ethan Hunt for more than 25 years now, not least because he's made eight Mission: Impossible movies (including the two now scheduled for release in 2023 and 2024). He does his own stunts and has to stay in that sort of shape in between films, and has learned how to skydive, fly helicopters, scale mountains and ride motorcycles.
And he's nothing if not serious about all of it, knowing that he's got one job and it's to entertain you. (Plus he's been nominated for three Oscars for other films, so he's got chops.)
To prepare to play music legend Ray Charles, who went blind during childhood due to an illness, Foxx—at Ray director Taylor Hackford's request—agreed to have his eyes glued closed.
"Imagine having your eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day," Foxx, who at least won all the awards for his efforts, told the New York Times in 2004. "That's your jail sentence."
He weathered panic attacks and claustrophobia for two weeks before he sort of got used to it. In the film, he wore prosthetics made to look like Charles' actual eyelids. Foxx already knew how to play piano, but he studiously practiced for the part and all the playing onscreen is his. (And, incidentally, he lost almost 30 pounds to obtain Charles' wirier physique.)
Foxx had met Charles, but once production got underway he didn't see the artist, not wanting his portrayal of the young "Georgia On My Mind" singer to be influenced by the mannerisms of the older version.
Carrey revered Andy Kaufman and he admits he was probably insufferable for the four months he spent portraying the late comedian in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon—and the experience of bringing his hero to the screen was eventful enough that it made for an engrossing documentary, 2017's Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.
"I didn't black out, but the balance was way in Andy's corner," Carrey, who won a Golden Globe for acting in a musical or comedy but was skipped over by the Academy, recalled to the Los Angeles Times. "I broke a couple of times on weekends and stuff, but pretty much from when I woke up to when I went to bed, the choices were all his."
They were Kaufman's, or the choices of his alter ego, unmitigated d-bag Tony Clifton, who would sometimes treat their director, Milos Forman, rather poorly. "I love Milos and I respect him greatly, but Tony doesn't," Carrey explained. "Somewhere in the background, there's a little piece of Jim going, 'Oh, no, you're not going to do that.' But I was just along for the ride."
But while those involved with the documentary felt he channeled Kaufman's spirit appropriately, tales of Carrey's behavior on set were too much for Martin Freeman—who's never worked with Carrey but had a hot take for the Off Menu podcast last year: "For me, and I'm genuinely sure Jim Carrey is a lovely and smart person, but it was the most self-aggrandizing, selfish, f--king narcissistic bollocks I have ever seen. The idea anything in our culture would celebrate that or support it is deranged, literally deranged."
Two Oscars, two transformations—and for the first, playing Brandon Teena in the utterly devastating Boys Don't Cry, Swank cut her hair short, taped her breasts down and stuffed her pants (as Brandon, who was born Teena Brandon, does in the movie) and ventured out into her Los Angeles-area neighborhood, introducing herself as "Hilary's brother, James."
"I was treated so differently in public," Swank told the New York Times in 1999. If shopkeepers thought she was a boy, they watched her more closely. And, she added, "If people couldn't define what I was, they didn't want to have anything to do with me.
Actually making the film, based on a tragic true story (Brandon was murdered on New Year's Eve in 1993 by two men he'd counted as friends until they found out he was biologically female) was more upsetting than Swank had anticipated, so she had then-husband Chad Lowe join her on the set. "I told him I was having a really hard time getting through this," she said. "I had to keep a little bit of distance from the fact that this actually happened to someone."
Determined, compassionate commitment to do the character justice aside, Swank acknowledged to Variety in 2020 that if the film were made today, the role would be better served by a trans actor.
At the time it was made, Swank explained, "I mean, trans people weren't really walking around in the world saying, 'Hey, I'm trans.' Twenty-one years later, not only are trans people having their lives and living, thankfully, [although] we still have a long way to go in their safety and their inclusivity, but we now have a bunch of trans actors who would obviously be a lot more right for the role and have the opportunity to actually audition for the role."
The Oscar winner admittedly went down the rabbit hole to play ruthless Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, for which he also gained 50 pounds.
"That was an all-encompassing experience for me," Whitaker recalled to PeopleTV in 2018. "I started working on it months and months before I even came to Africa, just trying to learn Kiswahili and understand the history."
He was so immersed, he basically needed an exorcism when it was all over. "I remember the first day when I knew we were done I was taking a shower and I was just trying to get the voice [out of my head], screaming it out of myself to let myself feel free," Whitaker said. "Certain things stayed with me for a long time. Some characters stay with you longer."
And it was no picnic for the rest of the cast, either. "Forest stayed in character the whole time," co-star David Oyelowo remembered to PeopleTV in 2019. "It was a nightmare." Pause. "Sorry, Forest, it was a nightmare."
He recalled walking past Whitaker one night in their hotel and saying hello, and the actor replied with an unintelligible series of growls. "Literally, that was the sound he made," Oyelowo insisted. "I went, 'That's the last time I'm speaking to you for the entire thing." He laughed. "But you know, you watch the performance and you go '[shrug of acknowledgment] it was worth it.'"
The original Method man. The iconic actor's name inevitably comes up in discussions of the process—the real process—and Brando did, in fact, infuse his work with emotion wrought from his own life experience, most memorably in his 1950s-era films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront.
"Everything that you do—make it real as you can," the two-time Oscar winner once advised, as heard in the 2015 documentary Listen to Me Marlon. "Make it alive. Make it tangible. Find the truth of that moment.