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Top 5 actors playing against type

5 roles that challenged expectations, in honour of Matthew McConaughey's menacing turn in Killer Joe

Top 5 actors playing against type

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival sees Killer Joe come to our screens. Matthew McConaughey stars in the titular role, playing a hitman with a twisted moral code. For an actor whose most difficult challenge to date has arguably been trying to tell his slew of near-identical rom-com co-stars apart, this seems like quite a radical career move. Whether he pulls it off or not remains to be seen (see review), but in the meantime here are some of the most surprising performances on film:

Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut in The African Queen (1951)

A Humphrey Bogart character is rarely seen without a drink in his hand. Normally, he is also loving and leaving another poor woman. Again. In The African Queen, Bogart is still swigging the booze, but this time he is involved in an unusually gentle love affair with Katharine Hepburn’s Rose. Gone is the reserved cool he exhibited in his popular role as hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Instead, Bogart presents us with with a middle-aged, yet still child-like (he even pretends to be a hippo at one point), version of Huckleberry Finn on a perpetual river adventure. Despite this volte face, he is still trying to take down the Germans, a la Casablanca. Some things never change.

Sean Penn as Cheyenne in This Must be the Place (2011)

Sean Penn’s marriage to Madonna may have forever associated him with an ageing, eccentrically-dressed pop star, but he had never actually played one before This Must be the Place. Influenced by Robert Smith’s sartorial style, Penn shuffles around in dark skinny jeans, blowing his black tresses out of his eyes and re-applying his red lipstick frequently. It’s a departure from his stereotypical performance, which involves him frowning his way through an examination of the social issues of the day and earning a few Oscars in the process.

Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (2008)

Perhaps Tom Cruise’s infamous couch-jumping shenanigans on the Oprah Winfrey Show were just a warm-up for his role as Les Grossman; the credits of Tropic Thunder feature Cruise’s overweight Hollywood executive gyrating enthusiastically to Ludacris’ 'Get Back'. The cocky romantic lead of many a 90s film, Tropic Thunder let audiences see Cruise in a totally new light, as a man with a sense of humour about himself and about Tinseltown. Watch the expletive-ridden clip below, which coincidentally features Matthew McConaughey taking notes on how to defy characterisation.

Tom Hanks as Professor G H Dorr in The Ladykillers (2004)

The Coen Brothers’ much maligned remake of the Ealing Studios classic was a rare misstep in an otherwise surefooted career, but if nothing else, the film achieved one thing: it revealed that Tom Hanks can do 'bad guy' with panache. Sure, he’d played the antagonist two years previously in Catch Me If You Can, but he was still a force for good as the straight-laced G-man pursuing Leo DiCaprio’s charming conman. In The Ladykillers, he's all debonair, moustache-twirling villainy as criminal mastermind Professor G H Dorr, and gets his lips round some incredibly-crafted zingers: ‘And what, to flog a horse that, if not dead, is at this point in mortal danger of expiring, does this little square represent?’ Delicious.

Patrick Swayze as Jim Cunningham in Donnie Darko (2001)

Before you ask, he wasn’t in the bunny costume. Donnie Darko may be remembered as the film that put Jake Gyllenhaal on the map, but it featured another eye-catching performance, too. Swayze, the misunderstood prancing bad boy of Dirty Dancing and the supernatural love interest in Ghost, had made a career out of playing loveable leading men. It came as a surprise then when he portrayed Jim Cunningham, a gratingly tacky motivational speaker with (spoiler alert!) a secret 'kiddie porn dungeon' hidden within his mansion. A controversial character, the part proved that Swayze was much more than just a cack-handed pottery enthusiast.


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