“I don’t get offered stuff where it’s just about relationships and family and love. It’s like, ‘It’s about a family.’ ‘OK, and are there any animals talking in it?'”
It feels like some actors fall squarely into one of two buckets: those who are great at comedy and those whose acting chops are better suited to drama.
But sometimes an actor who’s normally known for making us laugh is able to switch effortlessly into a tear-jerking, incredibly intense role that pretty much shocks audiences everywhere.
Here are 16 hilarious actors who have shifted to more dramatic roles, from Will Ferrell to Jennifer Aniston:
While Steve Carell will always be Michael Scott in my head, he proved himself as a dramatic actor in Foxcatcher, where he portrayed John du Pont, the heir to a massive fortune and wrestling enthusiast who recruited two US Olympians to serve as wrestling coaches, only to kill one of them years later. “I don’t really think about comedy and drama as separate genres,” Carell told Little White Lies. “Ultimately, I prepare for them in the same way — it’s all about trying to make it as truthful as you can. A character in a comedy doesn’t know that they’re in a comedy, and the same goes for drama. You don’t act a drama as if you’re in a drama — it’s just life, it’s just what’s happening.”
Melissa McCarthy might have earned an Oscar nomination for her hilarious role in Bridesmaids, but she also proved her dramatic talents in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, when she played a struggling writer who forged letters from famous authors in order to pay the bills. McCarthy said she doesn’t find a huge difference between comedic and dramatic roles. “I’m a character actress. I connect to the character, and when you do that, all you can do is serve the character,” she told Deadline. “It dictates everything; how they look, how they laugh, who they love. You start to completely think only in those terms from the character out. You get so wrapped up in the character. And you do that for a comedy or a drama. It doesn’t change.”
While Uncut Gems wasn’t Adam Sandler’s first foray into drama, the 2019 film was definitely responsible for launching him into the serious actor stratosphere. Sandler said his wife Jackie convinced him to take such a dramatic role. “I loved the movie, but I was scared to do it,” he said during an appearance on Ellen. “Then, I asked Jackie to read it. We do this together, me and Jackie, we discuss what I’m gonna do and she gives me strength and courage to jump into this stuff. So she read it and was like, ‘You have to do it.’ I jumped in and I had to do so many scenes where bad things happen and I have to be naked and stuff — that’s terrible for everybody — but it was an amazing time.”
Jennifer Aniston has acknowledged that she’s often seen as “a rom-com person,” but surprised audiences with her dramatic turn in Cake, where she played a woman living with chronic pain after a car accident. Aniston initially worried that audiences wouldn’t like seeing her in a role that was such a departure from her usual parts. “It was a terrifying, risky thing,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “But, I just said, ‘You’ve got to try. At this point, who cares? If you fall flat on your face, fine, you fall flat on your face.’ That’s what people are probably expecting anyway, because everybody loves to sit there with their little swords and get ready to go, ‘Aha, see? You suck!'”
Will Smith is now an acclaimed dramatic actor, even nabbing the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in King Richard. Before he started churning out serious movies, he was best known for both his rap career and his role in The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. His role in Six Degrees of Separation is often seen as his dramatic breakout performance. Smith actually turned to method acting to prepare for that role, but later said that it took a toll on him. “When that psychological ground falls, it’s horrendous,” he told E!
After taking on characters like Borat and Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen said it was difficult to imagine himself in a starring role in a drama. “For me to make the transition from comedy to drama was something that I’ve been reluctant to do,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve dabbled in it in Hugo and Les Misérables and a little bit in Sweeney Todd, but to actually take a lead role where the character was essentially relatable was something that I was not used to doing … I was used to playing the larger-than-life, peculiar, outlandish, fascinating characters.” Cohen went on to star in The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and The Spy, roles that were both far more serious than his previous fare.
When Mo’Nique, normally known for her stand-up and sitcom work, took on the role Mary Jones, an abusive mother in 2009’s Precious, she said she was excited about the challenge such a dramatic role would bring. “It was challenging because I love to laugh, baby, I love to laugh,” she told the Associated Press. “But it was appreciated because I don’t know of any other director that would have given two fat, Black women the opportunity to do what we did. The world needs to see it because guess what, Mary Jones exists, baby. So does Precious.”
In the 1970s, Steve Martin rose to fame for his comedy, from his stand-up to his guest appearances on Saturday Night Live. By 1981, he had nabbed the lead in Pennies From Heaven, his first dramatic role. Martin told NPR that he had a hard time getting the public to understand his new image. “It took a long time,” he said. “But I did know this — that one day, it will be forgotten. And so I just did what I was going to do. And there was this, you know, hangover effect of wild and crazy guy, wild and crazy guy. And now, it’s a dim memory.”
Eddie Murphy, known for both his tenure on Saturday Night Live and his roles in comedies like Coming To America and The Nutty Professor, decided to take a break from acting, only to return in 2016 with a dramatic performance in Mr. Church. “What was exciting for me about Mr. Church was you have this whole performance where everything is the opposite of what I usually do,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t get offered stuff where it’s just about relationships and family and love. It’s like, ‘It’s about a family.’ ‘OK, and are there any animals talking in it?'”
In 2014, Kristen Wiig took a sharp departure from her Saturday Night Live past with starring roles in dramas The Skeleton Twins and Welcome To Me. Wiig told Elle that while she understands why Hollywood categorizes actors as comedic or dramatic, she was grateful to break out of that mold and have the opportunity to try out dramatic parts. “Comedy is where my heart lies, but there’s also something really satisfying about being able to step away with a small crew, become a character and get to know her for a few months at a time.”
After leaving the sitcom circuit following the end of Mork & Mindy, Robin Williams starred in dramas like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society. He said that public perception affected his transition from comedy to drama. “Sometimes people can do both, and it’s just, sometimes, people have such an image of people as one thing that they won’t accept them doing a drama,” he told ABC7. “Sometimes, it’s just luck of the draw. With me, it started a little bit with Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets, just having the luck to be in a movie that powerful. It had a power to it that people went, ‘Oh,’ and changed their perception.”
Whoopi Goldberg was building up her career in comedy through her one-woman show when she first read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and knew she wanted to be a part of it. “I’ll play the dirt on the floor,” Goldberg told Walker. Luckily, Walker had seen Goldberg’s comedy, and believed that she could pull off the more serious role of Celie, who is abused by her husband and father. Stephen Spielberg, who directed the film, offered Goldberg the role on the spot after watching her perform her E.T. parody. Goldberg was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her role.
After starring as a comedian pitted against murderous gangsters in True Story, Kevin Hart told Variety that he felt confident in his abilities as a dramatic actor. “I know the world of drama is there for me if I want to take it,” he said. “If I want to go and do it, I know I can do it well, and I think the baby steps that I’ve taken with Upside [and] Fatherhood, it was about just slow walking my audience into going, ‘Oh, my God, like Kevin can act. It’s not just being funny. We know in the world of comedy and action and comedy and adventure, he can act. He does that very well. But oh, my god, he can do this, too.'”
Bill Murray is one of many Saturday Night Live alums who has proven they have what it takes to pull off a dramatic role, transitioning from hilarious flicks like Caddyshack and Groundhog Day to more serious movies like Lost In Translation. While he’s racked up nominations and acclaim for his dramatic work, Murray said that he actually prefers comedy to drama. “‘Look, your life is very melancholy right now and you’re doing melancholy movies. So what do you think’s gonna happen? It’s just gonna get worse.’ Which is what was happening,” he told Vanity Fair. “For years I’d been thinking, ‘Gosh, I’d really like to be funny again.’ You know? ‘I’d really like to go and be funny again.'”
After being a comedy staple in the 1990s, Jim Carrey pivoted to more dramatic roles in movies like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, and Man On The Moon. Carrey calls each of his dramatic roles his “kids” and said that each of them are uniquely special to him. “Eternal Sunshine is a concept and a very rare moment where a writer and director capture a primal human thing, which is the idea of being erased,” he said. “I love all the comedies. Sometimes I pick the really edgy and darker stuff.”
And finally, Will Ferrell told the Washington Post that he loves having the opportunity to attempt more serious roles. “I really loved that experience of getting to do a straighter role, that more dramatic kind of turn, in Stranger Than Fiction. He also added that he was inspired to try his hand at more dramatic roles after realizing that some of his favorite comedians had found success in dramas. “I was a fan of stuff that Jack Lemmon had done, and even Tom Hanks, who I think we all now forget totally started out in comedy. Even Bill Murray, who’s one of my comedic heroes, has done such solid work in dramas now.”
Do any other hilarious actors who have turned to drama come to mind? Share them in the comments!