The Dark Horse star and award-winning actor Cliff Curtis took method acting to another level in order to play the part of real-life chess legend Genesis Potini. The traditionally slim Curtis gained 4 stones – mainly through drinking beer in the 3 months leading up to the shoot and during production. Of his physical transformation, he says, “You become like this happy buddha – very jolly. None of my clothes fitted, not even my undies. It was all about being comfortable, and being fat and round and cuddly and warm. it was quite pleasant.”
Curtis was actually initially reluctant to go method for the film but took on the technique at the director’s insistence. “I wanted him to try working in a way he’d never fully explored before, by staying in character throughout the shoot, by gaining the weight himself rather than using prosthetics or a fat suit. This is challenging stuff at the best of times, not to mention the emotional toll of carrying the mental state of a character like Genesis.”
The method technique was made popular by screen legends such as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis. The method refers to the teachings of Lee Strasberg and to other schools of acting influenced by Stanislavski’s system, each of which takes a slightly different approach. Much is made of how method actors never break character during the shoot but like Curtis, some committed actors go even further – drastically transforming their bodies for film roles.
Oscar winners like Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlize Theron are among those stars who have made severe body transformations, including weight loss, weight and muscle gain; piercings and extreme makeovers. Sometimes a performer goes above and beyond the call of duty for a roll, often at the expense of their own health. Here are 10 examples of dedicated actors who went to extreme lengths to make their performances as true as possible and part of cinema history.
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher, 2014)
When director Bennett Miller saw Carell’s makeup test to play Charles du Pont, he was shocked by the striking resemblance. “He was moving around in a track suit, jogging around the room the way he’d seen du Pont do in videos,” Miller says. “It’s this limp way with his hands dangling in front of him, and it became clear he had studied the video. He just embodied it.”
Carell did extensive research, brushing up on the du Pont’s family legacy, and watching the documentaries on the man’s life. It took 3 hours to get into the makeup every day, Carell was always the first actor on set. This gave him time to get into the mindset of the character — and once there, he rarely left. He opted to isolate himself during the shoot. “I didn’t choose to connect socially,” he admits. “That aspect of it was hard, because I like being around people and keeping things light.”
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013)
To embody real life AIDS patient Ron Woodroof, McConaughey survived on an eating plan of Diet Coke, egg whites and a piece of chicken a day to slim down to a tiny 9.5 stone. He also locked himself away in his Texas mansion to avoid the sun and maintain his pale complexion, he put himself through a virtual winter.
‘I had to relearn how to entertain myself, because I wasn’t going outside…I was writing so much more, reading so much more. It ended up being this really fun adventure, internally.’
But his dramatic weight didn’t come without side effects : ‘As soon as I hit 143 pounds (10 stone 3 pounds), I started losing my eyesight.’
Charlize Theron (Monster, 2003)
In addition to shaving off her eyebrows, donning prosthetic teeth and tons of blotchy makeup, former model Charlize Theron packed on 30 pounds to portray real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. “I first began stuffing myself with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but after a while I got sick of them,” said Theron. “I love potato chips, so that was a good thing for me. I’m a salty girl so I had my secret stash with me of potato chips at all times.”
Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln, 2012)
Director Steven Spielberg says legendary method actor Daniel Day-Lewis had many of Abraham Lincoln’s physical features when he showed up on the Lincoln set. “That was his hair, his beard, he had very light makeup on his face. And we added the mole, of course.”
Day-Lewis did lose considerable weight for the part of the famously rail-thin leader.
When production began Day-Lewis completely disappeared into the haggard beard and reedy voice of America’s highest-regarded president. “I didn’t call him Daniel, and he didn’t call me Joe,” reveals co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “I called him ‘sir,’ and he called me Robert.” Gordon-Levitt says he was in part following his director’s example; Spielberg only called Day-Lewis “Mr. President.”
Christian Bale (The Machinist, 2004)
In one of his most infamous transformative roles, Bale stripped away his well-earned muscle to play insomniac Trevor Reznik in The Machinist. In order to lose a shocking 121 pounds the ever committed 6-foot actor cut himself off socially and subsisted on purely coffee, water and an apple a day for four months.
Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999)
Swank underwent significant preparation for the role of Brandon Teena by dressing and living as a man for at least a month, including wrapping her chest in tension bandages and putting socks down the front of her pants in much the same way as Brandon Teena had done. Her masquerade became particularly convincing. Swank’s own neighbours believed the “young man” coming and going from her home was Swank’s visiting brother. On top of the drastic change of appearance, Swank reduced her body fat to 7% to accentuate her facial structure and even refused to let the cast and crew see her out of costume.
Jared Leto (Chapter 27, 2007)
To play John Lennon’s overweight and obsessive assassin, Mark David Chapman, in the 2007 film; usually svelte Jared Leto gained an impressive 67 pounds through an intense diet. “[I ate] everything you think you’re not supposed to—pizza, pasta, ice cream, but my little trick was I would take pints of chocolate Häagen Dazs and put them in the microwave and drink them.” He goes on to reveal “The sick thing is, I would actually pour olive oil and soy sauce into the mixture as well—to get me bloated even more”. Unfortunately, his efforts went unrewarded—the film flopped and received mostly negative reviews.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, 2011)
Shedding her more innocent and relatively plain look from Fincher’s previous film THE SOCIAL NETWORK Actress Rooney Mara had her lip, brow, nose, and nipple pierced to play cult character Lisbeth Salander. Additional to the painful additions to her body, her eyebrows were bleached and her hair chopped as per Fincher’s dark vision.
The film’s Legendary make-up artist Pat McGrath recalls telling Mr Fincher at the beginning of the process: ‘Once we bleach her brows and dye her hair black, you’ll see—she’ll look threatening and otherworldly.’
Robert De Niro (Raging Bull, 1980)
Most people remember De Niro’s weight gain in the final reel of Scorsese’s boxing classic Raging Bull. Before he gained the 60 pounds to play legend Jake LaMotta in his loneliest, heaviest hours, De Niro got completely shredded to play the Italian middleweight boxert in his prime. The GoodFellas star underwent a full-on training routine, working closely with the real-life LaMotta on every aspect of a boxer’s regiment. In fact, De Niro was so dedicated to becoming a convincing brawler, he actually competed in three organized bouts, winning two. LaMotta was so impressed with De Niro’s dedication, he claimed the actor could have fought professionally if he wished.
Cliff Curtis (The Dark Horse, 2015)
Just like De Niro himself, traditionally slim Curtis gained 60 pounds for his compelling performance as Maori chess savant Genesis Potini. He achieved the extra heft mainly through drinking beer in the 3 months leading up to the shoot and during production.
A fat suit was offered to Curtis but the dedicated star risked mind and body to fully immerse himself in the lifestyle of Potini to do the part justice. Curtis admits the drinking did cause some minor tension at home but with the support of his family and the production, he was able to use the temporary vices as a means to achieve the look and on-screen “mania” of Genesis, who suffered from bi-polar.
The Dark Horse starring Cliff Curtis is in UK cinemas today.