From Lily James to Eddie Murphy: 10 actors who really were ‘unrecognisable’ on screen

After a recent headline about a supposedly ‘unrecognisable’ Leonardo DiCaprio drew derision, we look at the times actors really did achieve a full transformation

Kevin E G Perry
Friday 14 May 2021 12:31
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The Princess Bride (1987) - Trailer

In a world where “engagement” is king, the New York Post’s claim in a headline earlier this week that Leonardo DiCaprio was “unrecognisable” in a newly released still from Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Killers of the Flower Moon was a stroke of genius.

The Post may have been roundly mocked for it, but why else would the internet have been ablaze over a picture of actress Lily Gladstone sat at a dinner table next to a man quite clearly recognisable as Leonardo DiCaprio? Still, since they brought the topic up, we thought we’d take a look back at 10 times actors really did disappear into their roles:

Tilda Swinton in Suspiria (2018)

Tilda Swinton was so difficult to spot under the layers of ageing make-up she wore to play 82-year-old Dr Josef Klemperer in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, that the film’s casting director initially tried to pass her off as someone else entirely.

The claim that the part had been filled by supposed first-time actor “Professor Lutz Ebersdorf” was later revealed to be a ruse. Impressively, that wasn’t even Swinton’s most unrecognisable role in the film – she also turns up later on, as the terrifying and grotesque coven leader Helena Markos.

Eddie Murphy in Coming To America (1988) and Coming 2 America (2021)

Eddie Murphy as Saul in Coming To America

Murphy plays multiple characters in both comedy classic Coming To America and its recent sequel, but by some distance the hardest role to spot in him is that of Saul, an elderly Jewish barbershop patron. The idea for Murphy to play a white man came from the original film’s director John Landis, who had been offended by an article he’d read about Jewish performers like Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson performing in blackface.

To subvert the idea, he told Collider in 2005, he suggested to Murphy that he play an “old Jew”. The transformation was completed by legendary make-up artist Rick Baker, who also worked with Landis on the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.

Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride (1987)

Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride

Billy Crystal is onscreen for less than five minutes in Rob Reiner’s swashbuckling adventure The Princess Bride, and given how different he looks you could be forgiven for missing that it’s really him playing wizened old healer Miracle Max.

Crystal collaborated with make-up artist Peter Montagna, who he’d work with before on Saturday Night Live, to create the character and provided him with two visual references: a picture of New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, and a photograph of Crystal’s own grandmother.

Glenn Close in Hook (1991)

Yes, that’s really Glenn Close

The very definition of a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo, Glenn Close has just a few seconds of screentime in Hook, Steven Spielberg’s magical take on Peter Pan. Close plays Gutless, a heavily bearded member of Captain Hook’s (Dustin Hoffman) crew who is sent to the “boo box” as punishment for a lack of faith in his captain.

Gary Oldman in Hannibal (2001)

Gary Oldman in Hannibal

Gary Oldman as built a deserved reputation over the years for his chameleon-like ability to transform himself for his roles, but he’s never been harder to recognise than he was as the quadriplegic, facially-disfigured child rapist Mason Verger in Ridley Scott’s psychological horror-thriller Hannibal. The role required hours of make-up and prosthetics, including a translucent silicone that was first invented by make-up artist Greg Cannom and his associate Wesley Wofford for 1999 science fiction drama Bicentennial Man.

Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002)

Nicole Kidman in The Hours

Transforming Nicole Kidman into Virginia Woolf for Stephen Daldry’s psychological drama The Hours took, well, hours. She’s said to have spent three hours a day in the make-up artist’s chair during filming, with much of that time spent applying a large prosthetic nose that rendered Kidman virtually unrecognizable. “I did enjoy being anonymous,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002. “It was fun to be able to go out of my trailer and not have anyone know me.” Fun, and rewarding too: Kidman took home the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

Charlize Theron in Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in ‘Monster’

Charlize Theron underwent a total transformation to play real-life prostitute-turned serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ Monster. Theron gained 30lb for the role, shaved her eyebrows and wore dentures designed to mimic rotting teeth. Make-up artist Toni G also covered her skin with layers of translucent washes of tattoo ink and green marble sealant in order to make her complexion look blotchy and weather-beaten. In the end, just like Nicole Kidman a year earlier, Theron carried off the Best Actress Oscar for pulling off the metamorphosis.

Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Just a year before she played blonde bombshell Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Margot Robbie looked very different as Elizabeth I in Josie Rourke’s historical drama Mary Queen of Scots. The film’s hair and makeup designer, Jenny Shircore, pulled off the transformation using fake boils and scars, a frizzy red wig and a whole lot of chalk-white makeup.

Martin Sheen in Judas & The Black Messiah (2021)

Martin Sheen has played everyone from an army captain in Apocalypse Now to the warm and wise President Bartlet in The West Wing, but even dedicated fans might not realise that it’s him playing scheming FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover in Shaka King’s superb biographical drama Judas and the Black Messiah. Lengthy make-up sessions and prosthetics were required to make Sheen look more like Hoover, but Sheen had no complaints as he wanted as much distance between himself and the character as possible. “He destroyed a lot of lives, including a lot of Black lives,” Sheen told ABC News. “I wasn’t very happy playing him.”

Lily James in Pam & Tommy (2021)

Admittedly the film hasn’t even been released yet, but I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who had to do a double take upon seeing the first pictures of Lily James as Pamela Anderson in forthcoming biographical comedy-drama Pam & Tommy. The film’s make-up artists have nailed Anderson’s Nineties look so accurately that trying to verify it’s really James in the photos feels like staring at a misprinted magic eye picture.

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