14 of the most incredible actor transformations in film

From wigs and prosthetics to body suits, the props used by these actors to convey their characters raised each role to another level

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Actors alter their appearance for movies all the time. Whether they’re playing fantastical creatures with the help of make-up and CGI or going on extreme diets to lose or gain weight, the results are usually jaw-dropping.

Sebastian Stan took to Instagram to show his transformation for his role in A Different Man, in which he plays Edward, an outcast who undergoes major facial reconstructive surgery to change his appearance. His transformation was thanks to the creative and hyper-realistic use of prosthetics.

Here are 14 more extreme character transformations that mostly relied mostly on the use of incredible make-up and prosthetics.

Pierce Brosnan as Artie Crawford

Irish actor Pierce Brosnan looks unrecognisable in photos shared online from the set of his new film The Last Rifleman. Thanks to facial prosthetics, a bodysuit and make-up, he has been completely transformed into Second World War veteran Artie Crawford, 89.

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

When Nicole Kidman took on the role of famed author Virginia Woolf in the 2002 film The Hours, she did her homework. Kidman committed to the role by studying Woolf's writing, rolling her own cigarettes and learning to write with her right hand.

But the impressive physical transformation was achieved by make-up artists who worked on Kidman for three hours a day.

Aside from a mousy brown wig and make-up to change the shape of her eyes, a prosthetic nose was the key to Kidman's transformation.

She loved how the prosthetic nose changed her appearance so much that she wore it in private to disguise herself from paparazzi hounding her at the time because of her very public divorce from Tom Cruise.

Kidman's performance in The Hours won her the Academy Awardfor Best Actress, making her the first Australian to win the Oscar.

Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells

Matthew McConaughey gained more than 18 kilograms for his role as Kenny Wells in Gold. The crime-adventure film, inspired by true events, follows Wells, a balding, slightly overweight businessman with a dream of finding gold in Indonesia.

Audiences are used to McConaughey losing weight or getting in top physical shape for roles such as Dallas Buyers Club and Magic Mike. However, seeing him on screen 18kg heavier with prosthetic, crooked teeth and a balding toupee for which he had to shave his head was a striking change for the actor.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

Rooney Mara went all the way – getting dyed and pierced to play Lisbeth Salander in the American adaptation of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Other parts of her physical transformation included having her eyebrows bleached, her hair cut and getting her ears, eyebrow, nose and body pierced.

Mara's look was a complete shock to audiences who had last seen her as the brunette, fresh-faced girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network.

Most of the piercings were removed after she completed shooting, however, she kept her ear and body piercings.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney

Christian Bale is no stranger to extreme body transformations.

From his roles in American Psycho, The Machinist and The Fighter, he has always proven himself a committed actor. But audiences saw Bale as they’ve never seen him in the 2018 biographical political satire Vice.

The film depicts the life of former US vice president Dick Cheney and how he quietly wielded power and influence over George W Bush.

In order to transform into the former vice president, Bale gained more than 18 kilograms and spent between four and eight hours a day in make-up.

His scalp was shaved and his eyebrows bleached so he could better wear wigs and wrap-around prosthetics that covered his neck, cheeks and chin. He also wore two small appliances to widen the sides of his nose.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos

When Charlize Theron was cast as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the 2003 biographical crime drama Monster, no one was quite sure what to expect. Theron committed to the role by gaining 13.6 kilograms, professionally thinning her hair, bleaching and shaving her eyebrows and wearing brown contacts.

Then there was the make-up. To make her complexion appear damaged and weather-beaten, airbrushed layers of translucent washes of tattoo ink were applied on Theron’s face along with a green marble sealant that created realistic texture. She also wore fitted prosthetic dentures to change the shape of her mouth and replicate Wuornos’s stained and crooked teeth.

The dramatic transformation, along with an incredible performance, won Theron her first Academy Award for Best Actress.

Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci

While critics weren’t too kind to Jared Leto about his performance as Paolo Gucci in the biographical crime drama House of Gucci, they couldn’t deny his impressive physical transformation.

Whether it's losing 13.6 kilograms in Dallas Buyers Club or gaining 30kg in Chapter 27, Leto doesn’t shy away from the physical demands of a role. In House of Gucci Leto spent six hours a day to physically appear as close as possible to Paolo Gucci, the eccentric and disgraced Gucci designer.

The final result was effective thanks to prosthetics designer Goran Lundstrom who initially worked off a 3D scan without having ever met Leto. Lundstrom and his team then created a three-piece bald cap that managed to cover Leto’s long hair, as well as facial prosthetics and a fat suit.

Tilda Swinton as Dr Klemperer

Tilda Swinton is a renowned shapeshifter on screen — but even for the elusive actress, this transformation was truly unbelievable.

Swinton played three characters in the supernatural psychological horror Suspiria: Madame Blanc, Helena Markos and most shockingly Dr Klemperer.

After months of experimentation, Swinton was transformed into male psychiatrist Dr Jozef Klemperer, 82, with the technical prowess of award-winning make-up artist Mark Coulier.

Coulier used prosthetics and make-up to change Swinton’s face structure — thickening her jawline, changing the shape of her mouth, giving her new ears and most noticeably, creating a specific texture for her skin. This particular feature required a lot of research to realistically recreate physical signs of ageing.

Colin Farrell as the Penguin

One of the most surprising transformations of recent years is Colin Farrell as the Penguin in The Batman.

Early images and videos of Farrell that showed a make-up and prosthetic team preparing the actor for the role went viral. Farrell spent three to four hours in a make-up chair every day for the application of facial and wrap-around neck prosthetics that transformed him into the villianous character.

As far as transformations go from a technical perspective, Farrell’s wasn’t the most difficult in comparison many others. But it’s the fact that he isn’t known to go to extreme lengths to change his physical appearance makes this transformation so effective to his fans.

Emmy Rossum as Angelyne

Emmy Rossum’s '80s punk-rock glamour Barbie transformation for her role in the limited series Angelyne is mindboggling.

Set in the mid-1980s, Angelyne, the alter ego of "it" girl Ronia Tamar Goldberg, is the true life story of the blonde bombshell who took over Los Angeles’ billboards in an attempt to become famous for being famous.

The transformation, which Rossum has described as both terrifying and liberating, was thanks to a combination of wigs, bodysuits, lenses, and a breast plate. It took a full makeup and prosthetic team 11.5 hours to transform Rossum into character for the first time but with some alterations managed to cut the time down to seven hours.

Sean Penn as John Mitchell

Sean Penn’s transformation into former US Attorney General John Mitchell in the film Gaslit was unbelievably realistic. In the eight-part series, Penn played Mitchell, a key player in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

Prosthetic make-up and hair designer Kazu Hiro began his process with a 3D scan of Penn’s head. After using historical photos of Mitchell to mark the differences between their faces, Hiro created a full prosthetic face that included cheek and nose pieces made of platinum silicone, along with a balding head for Penn.

The transformation took about two-and-a-half hours each day and included a full body suit to change Penn’s frame.

Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker

The transformation of Jessica Chastain into real-life evangelist TV show host Tammy Faye Bakker for the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye is mesmerising.

In reality, Bakker was a larger-than-life personality with a very over the top look that could easily have been translated into caricature. The make-up team on the film wanted to honour her but also be authentic to how she looked and the way she styled herself.

Chastain committed to sitting for one to two hours a day to change her more angular face to appear fuller. Cheek appliances were used to widen her face and a prosthetic was used to cover the dimple in her chin.

Bakker’s hair, her wings in particular, were a recognisable part of her. Chastain wore more than a dozen, including wigs under her wig, to mimic Bakker’s natural hair texture.

Make-up was also applied heavily in Bakker's style with lots of eyeshadow in varying, bold colours under thinly plucked and drawn eyebrows and heavily mascaraed lashes.

Chastain’s performance of Bakker won her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Tom Hardy as Al Capone

Typically, Tom Hardy doesn’t come to mind when you think of American Gangster Al Capone.

However, Hardy has never been afraid to completely change his appearance for the sake of authenticity. Fans have seen the actor gain muscle or weight in a variety of roles throughout his career.

Hardy was unrecognisable in the film Capone, thanks to the vision of make-up artist Audrey Doyle. The Venom star was transformed into the ageing and squat notorious mob man through prosthetics that added weight to his face. He was also given facial scars, a bald cap and wig for a receding hairline, and contacts to make his eyes appear bloodshot.

Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I

As intimidating as it may be to play one of the most recognisable historical figures, Margot Robbie disappeared on screen in her role as Queen Elizabeth I in the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots.

The transformation, which truly elevated Robbie’s performance, was thanks to award-winning hair and make-up artist Jenny Shircore, who has worked on films such as The Secret Garden, and Beauty and the Beast.

With chalk-white make-up that got thicker and heavier as the queen aged in the film, shaved brows, a frizzy red wig, facial scars covering her cheeks and a prosthetic nose, Robbie was able to embody the character without becoming a caricature.

Scroll through the gallery below for more actor transformations

Updated: August 02, 2022, 4:13 AM