10 Actors and Filmmakers That Surprised Us Once

Once an actor or filmmaker has been working for a while, the public tends to know what to expect from them, in terms of both quality and range. Occasionally they will surprise us by making a movie or delivering a performance so different or well-made that it redefines what we thought they were capable of, and usually that changes the course of their career. A good example would be Jim Carrey’s dramatic work in The Truman Show, which suddenly put him in demand for both comedies and dramas from then on. Occasionally, though, an actor or director will only step out of their wheelhouse with one uncharacteristically great/different film or performance, before stepping back in to it again. Here are 10 examples:

1. Christian Slater (He Was a Quiet Man, 2007)

While Christian Slater has given memorable performances in everything from Pump Up The Volume to True Romance to his recent TV work on “Mr. Robot” and “Archer”, he’s never been seen as having much range, with all of his characters displaying a similar screen persona: cocky smart-alecks with a vaguely Jack Nicholson-esque delivery. However, there was one instance in which Slater gave a performance thoroughly unlike any he had before, in the indie black comedy/drama He Was A Quiet Man.

Slater plays Bob Maconel, a balding, overweight, middle-aged, bespectacled, misanthropic cubicle dweller who wants nothing more than to go out in a blaze of glory. On the morning he finally works up the courage to bring a pistol to work, he is about to go postal when a co-worker suddenly beats him to it, and ironically Bob is able to use his own weapon to gun the man down and prevent further deaths, becoming a hero. His co-workers shower him with praise, his boss (William H. Macy) gives him a promotion and his now wheelchair-bound office crush (Elisha Cuthbert) finally notices him. It all seems too good to be true, and as things get even stranger and darker for him, he begins to wonder what’s real and what’s not. Is someone as unbalanced as him capable of being happy, or at least doing the right thing?

Slater HWAQM

It’s a fascinating, challenging and at times surreal film, but Slater’s anti-social Everyman character keeps us anchored, and from his opening monologue about how men are no longer allowed to be men in our civilized and feminized world all the way up to the twisty ending that I had to look up on IMDB to understand, there is not a trace of the normal Slater persona anywhere to be seen. He fully inhabits this character, barely hiding the desperation in his eyes behind those nerdy glasses. It’s a performance that suggests Slater has untapped depths as an actor, that will hopefully be explored more in future roles as he ages and transitions away from leading man roles.

2. McG (We Are Marshall, 2006)

Joseph McGinty Nichol, aka McG, isn’t on too many people’s lists of highly-talented auteur filmmakers. He’s mainly known for the ridiculously over-the-top Charlie’s Angels movies and big-budget disappointments like Terminator: Salvation and This Means War, leading most to conclude that compelling storytelling and complex characters aren’t exactly high priorities for him. However, one blessed exception is the surprisingly affecting sports drama We Are Marshall (2006), about Marshall University’s attempt to rebuild its football program in 1971 after losing their coach and entire team in a devastating plane crash the year before. Still reeling and numb from their loss, the few surviving team members and some sympathetic school officials recruit a coach (Matthew McConaughey) from a neighboring town and attempt to build a new team, in that hope that it will help heal and rekindle the spirit of the small, grieving West Virginia town in which the school resides.


The story is fairly predictable, but packs a powerful emotional punch all the way through. It has the usual character conflicts, and ends with the standard Big Speech by the Coach and Big Game, and they’re well-handled, but it’s not really about football. It’s a movie about grief and healing, about mending broken spirits, in the guise of a sports movie. Taking on such a touchy subject with so many character relationships is no easy task for any filmmaker, and McG tells the story of a grieving community with great sensitivity, giving respect to these people and their loss while still delivering a feel-good ending that feels earned, not cheap. He also handles his wonderful cast (McConaughey, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn, Anthony Mackie, Kate Mara, Ian McShane, January Jones) just right, getting effective performances out of all of them and delivering scenes of emotional depth unlike anything seen in his previous films. McGinty is probably one of the most disliked directors working today, but We Are Marshall shows that given the right script, he has a lot more to offer than mindless popcorn thrills.

3. Jon Lovitz (Happiness, 1998)

To my knowledge, funnyman Jon Lovitz has only gotten to play one scene straight in his career – his cameo that opens Todd Solondz’s devastating indie drama Happiness – but boy, did he nail it. As the film opens, his character, Andy, has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Joy (Jane Adams), and over the course of the five-minute scene, we watch him try to maintain his composure as he absorbs this fact. Lovitz goes from shock to tearful sadness to bitter anger without missing a beat, and is mesmerizing to watch. See for yourself (NSFW language):

He finishes out the scene with a speech so tinged with barely-suppressed resentful rage, you can almost taste the bile coming out of his mouth. It’s as if Lovitz channeled all of his frustration at a lifetime of being a nerdy, overweight funnyman surrounded by beautiful serious actors into that one scene. Bravo. In a way, the scene has very little to do with the rest of the movie (and would have worked fine as a short film all on its own), but Lovitz makes it the highlight of the film.

Solondz also apparently got a similarly impressive dramatic performance out of funnyman Paul Rubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) in the film’s semi-sequel, Life During Wartime (2009), but frankly the first one was so hard for me to watch I didn’t have it in me to watch a sequel to it. Maybe someday, if I have two hours to kill and a lot of alcohol…

4. Emilio Estevez (The Way, 2010)

Emilio Estevez has been directing films almost as long as he’s been acting in them, directing his first in 1986 at the age of 24, shortly after establishing himself as a member of the famed “Brat Pack”, and he semi-retired from acting in the late ‘90s to direct full-time. However, none of the films he’s directed have been particularly popular or well-received. To a large degree, they often feel like regurgitations of other, better films (Bobby (2006) was basically Oliver Stone’s JFK meets a Robert Altman ensemble drama), and the fact that they tend to be politically preachy doesn’t help (even the otherwise hilarious Men At Work (1990) had a subplot about evil corporations dumping toxic waste in the ocean). However, The Way (2010) is not only light years ahead of his previous efforts, it’s one of the best dramas of the last 10 years.

Estevez’ father, Martin Sheen, stars as Tom, a reserved doctor, content with a life of work and golf and nothing more, who receives the heartbreaking news that his free-spirited son Daniel (Estevez) has passed away while trekking the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage through France and Spain. After collecting his son’s ashes, Tom decides to complete the trek himself as a tribute, and the film follows his journey as he does so.

The Way

Estevez captures both the spiritual and visual beauty of the pilgrimage, and tells his story with great humor and power. While it does go on a bit too long, it is a touching, haunting film regardless, and much more emotionally mature than any of his previous efforts. And while The Way is not a political film, it is rather politically incorrect by modern Hollywood standards, with a message that is undeniably pro-Christian and pro-family, and a protagonist that defies the Ugly American clichés (but must still occasionally put up with being stereotyped that way by the thoughtless Europeans and Canucks he meets). Sadly, his next film looks like it’ll be chock full of liberal preaching, but at least with The Way he got one right.

5. Bill Pullman (Surveillance, 2008)

Jennifer Lynch’s unbelievably dark and twisted horror thriller, Surveillance, is full of unusual casting choices: Julia Ormond as an FBI agent? French Stewart as a rotten highway cop? Cheri Oteri as a suburban mom? But most surprising of all was Bill Pullman in the lead role as a buzz-cut, hard-nosed FBI agent who is investigating a grisly mass murder in a small Midwestern town. Lynch (daughter of David Lynch) cast him after a more intense actor, Billy Burke, pulled out of the role at the last minute. Pullman has become known for playing the soft-spoken, good-natured Everyman, and even in edgier films like Lost Highway, he hasn’t deviated much from that. But even after decades of seeing him in all kinds of films, watching him in Surveillance is a revelation – I simply couldn’t have imagined he had such notes in him.


As Pullman’s character and his partner (Ormond) attempt to find out who is behind the murders, things quickly go from bad to worse for just about everyone involved, and the film’s mind-frack of an ending goes to some incredibly disturbing places, about which the less said, the better. But Pullman goes all the way with it, giving a performance utterly unlike any he has before. Although he did try to go edgy again with his guest starring role as a serial killer on the sci-fi show Torchwood, his performance (like pretty much everything else in that last season of Torchwood) was way over-the-top. Which just goes to show how difficult it is to pull off a role like that and get it just right, but pull it off Pullman did, in the case of Surveillance.

6. Stephen Hopkins (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, 2004)

Filmmaker Stephen Hopkins is probably not on anyone’s list of great auteurs – he’s basically a studio workhorse who’s primarily known for directing a string of thoroughly unremarkable big-budget mediocrities – Predator 2, Blown Away, Lost in Space, etc. (Although his work on TV shows like 24 is pretty solid, and for the record I personally enjoyed the hell out of The Ghost and The Darkness, but that movie’s ugly critical reception and weak box office suggest I remain firmly in the minority there.) However, he has made one film that was undeniably artfully-made and well-received: the HBO biopic The Life And Death of Peter Sellers, which got nearly unanimous critical praise, won 9 Emmys (including Best Director for Hopkins) as well as several Golden Globes.


While most of the attention was (rightfully) given to Geoffrey Rush’s extraordinary lead performance as Sellers, Hopkins’ solid, artful work as director should not be overlooked. He navigates several decades of British and Hollywood history with a sure hand, while finding just the right tone to deal with his difficult protagonist – witty and fascinated but never cloying or sympathetic. The film, which depicts Sellers’ rise to movie stardom and early death in 1980, revolves around his tempestuous relationships with his wives (Charlize Theron, Emily Watson) and directors Blake Edwards (a wonderful John Lithgow) and Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci), and utilizes every gimmick from fantasy sequences to fourth wall breaking to make its point. In lesser hands, this material could’ve spun wildly out of control, resulting in a goofy mess of a film. But Hopkins makes it all work perfectly. Sadly, his next film was the awful supernatural thriller The Reaping (2007), but hopefully he’ll find that directorial spark again in the future.

7. William Hurt (A History of Violence, 2005)


It says something about the power of William Hurt’s performance as the villain of David Cronenberg’s brutal thriller A History of Violence, that he received an Oscar nomination for it despite only being in one scene, near the end of the film. His character isn’t even particularly essential to the plot – it revolves around Viggo Mortensen’s protagonist – and Hurt is on screen for less than 10 minutes, but he is so intense and commanding in the role that when the film is over, it’s hard to think of much else. Hurt is, of course, a brilliant actor, but he almost always plays sensitive, intellectual types (his other Oscar nods were for playing a reporter, a teacher, and a drag queen, respectively), but here playing Richie, an almost demonically evil Irish mob boss, is thoroughly unlike any role Hurt has played before or since, and he utterly plays it to the hilt.

We are first introduced not to the man himself but to his voice, as he calls up the film’s hero, Tom Stall (Mortensen) in the middle of the nights and asks, with his voice full of barely-veiled menace, “Are you going to come see me? Or do I have to come see you?” Tom takes the hint and goes to visit him at his mansion in Philadelphia, where he sits behind a desk in a darkly-lit room like a medieval Lord of the Manor, waiting for their fateful encounter. The two characters verbally spar in a tense, drawn-out scene worthy of Tarantino’s best writing, until it explodes into darkly comic violence that wraps up the film’s central conflict beautifully and decisively. Hurt has played a lot of different roles before, but after seeing just how scary he can be in this film, I am convinced he could play anything.

8. Charles Bronson (The Indian Runner, 1991)

Seeing the great Charles Bronson in a non-action movie is a rare thing. Seeing him in a straight-up drama in which he is not involved in any violence at all is rarer still; which is why it surprised so many when, after decades of leading roles in action thrillers like Death Wish and The Mechanic, Bronson turned up in a supporting role in Sean Penn’s searing drama The Indian Runner. Based loosely on the Bruce Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman”, the film involves two small-town brothers, straight-arrow cop Joe (David Morse) and wild, temperamental Vietnam veteran Frank (Viggo Mortensen). Bronson, minus his trademark mustache, plays their father, a kind-hearted retired farmer, in what Roger Ebert praised as “a performance of quiet, sure power…he is so good it is impossible to think of another actor one would have preferred in his place.”

Bronson Indian Runner

Bronson’s character, the family patriarch (referred to only as “Mr. Roberts”), has a complicated relationship with his now-grown sons. He loves them both, but while he is grateful that Joe turned out well and gave him a grandchild that he dotes over, he is not entirely sure what to do with Frank, who means well but appears to be a ticking time bomb that is beyond help. He tries to do right by his family while dealing with the challenges that come along with retirement: financial difficulties and obsolescence, and is finally, heartbreakingly, overwhelmed by it all. With no gun, squint, facial hair or quippy one-liners to hide behind, Bronson pulls off this tricky, uncharacteristic role so adeptly that it’s easy to imagine a parallel universe in which he had an entire career as a character actor doing roles like this instead of being an action icon. Which would’ve been our loss, of course, but still.

9. Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD, 2008)

In his best roles, Jean-Claude Van Damme projects an almost childlike innocence and neediness that transcends the goofy action he’s involved in. Take, for example, his genetically-modified soldier in Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier (1992), or his innocent clone of a serial killer in the underrated Replicant (2001). Even while kicking the snot out of his enemies, you get the sense that deep down he just wants to be liked. (And not killed by bad guys, of course.) But never does he display this side of his personality more than he does in the semi-autobiographical dark comedy/thriller/drama JCVD (2008). The film’s plot concerns Van Damme (playing a somewhat fictionalized version of himself) becoming trapped in a bank robbery-turned-hostage situation in his native Belgium, but the film’s real subject is Van Damme himself. What is it really like to be a washed-up action star who still enjoys some level of the fame he dreamed of, but is widely treated like a joke?


The film goes deep, and Van Damme delivers a surprisingly sympathetic performance. From the virtuoso opening credits in which he performs an entire action scene in one take (only to have it ruined at the end by a careless extra), to a sad (and weirdly funny) divorce court scene in which he loses custody of his daughter, to the rambling, passionate six-minute monologue in which Van Damme bares his soul to the camera, “JCVD” is packed with emotionally challenging moments, and Van Damme never steps wrong. For me, the most memorable scene is one in which a Taxi driver who claims to be a fan of his badgers him to the point of exhaustion. He tries to be polite and gracious, but everything he says just causes her to be more and more belligerent. I imagine most celebrities have had at least one encounter like this with a weird fan; rarely has a film made fame seem like more of a double-edged sword, and with his weary and weathered face and all of his action-hero artifice stripped away, Van Damme embodies this theme perfectly. JCVD’s warm reception from critics and audiences alike earned him a comeback that continued with The Expendables 2 and voice work in this year’s Kung Fu Panda 3, but we have yet to see a performance as powerful and affecting from him as we got in JCVD.

10. Hayden Christiansen (Shattered Glass, 2003)

After getting famous overnight with the oft-maligned Star Wars prequels, Hayden Christiansen gave a series of underwhelming performances in mostly unmemorable films before his career fizzled out, but the young actor did give one undeniably excellent performance before it all went kaput. In Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass”, he played Stephen Glass, the New Republic reporter who was busted in the late ‘90s for writing a series of fabricated articles. The film follows Glass he becomes a rising star at the magazine until one of his “stories” falls completely apart under scrutiny, ultimately exposing him as a fraud for the world to see and leaving everyone at TNR with a huge egg on their face.


Co-star Peter Sarsgaard got most of the critical and awards attention for his (admittedly outstanding) supporting work as Glass’ boss, Chuck Lane, who does the right thing and fires him after finding out the truth. But Christiansen’s fine work in the lead role should not be overlooked. Not only does he mimic Glass’ mannerisms perfectly, but his overall performance is top-notch. At first we see the film from his point of view, as he amuses his co-workers with his entertaining stories and charms using a combination of flattery, neediness and self-deprecation. He doesn’t smooth-talk anyone, but wins them over by coming off like a sensitive little brother who needs their support, constantly asking “are you mad at me?” and puts on an act of wide-eyed innocence. Then, as the film’s point-of-view shifts and he emerges as the villain of his own story, we watch with the fascination of a car wreck as he desperately scrambles to cover his tracks and avoid getting caught. Check out this scene where Lane tries to catch him in a lie, and he uses everything he can think of to wriggle out of getting caught – lies, improvisations, emotional appeals, and verbal attacks.

This is a role that would’ve been challenging for a seasoned film actor, and Christiansen nailed it. While I am not a fan of his, I must admit that if he’d gotten more roles like this, his career probably would’ve lasted longer.

11 comments to 10 Actors and Filmmakers That Surprised Us Once

  • Nice list, and so hard to not love Slater’s performance in Heathers just because it kickstarted his wannabe-Nicholson affectation.

    I’d also add the below:

    Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent — so much better than a potty-mouth female version of Chris Farley, would love to see her do more like this. [SPOILER ALERT] Staying with this one, despite Bill Murray showing on prior occasions his ability to stretch his dramatic chops, he’s pretty much been giving variations on the same performance since Rushmore … not that I’m complaining. Not that St. Vincent’s too different, but once his character has a stroke, Murray ratchets up his skills more than even I, super-fan, expected.

    Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me — Yeah, the trademark yelling typically associated with his goofball characters pops up, but it’s a different kind of inner rage being channeled. Sadly one of the few movies dealing directly with post-9/11 emotions, and native New Yorker Sandler nailed the emotions.

    • Sandler was great in Reign Over Me (a little over-the-top in some scenes, but overall great). But he also did Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Click – he’s gone back to that well plenty of times. I never saw St. Vincent, but since I’m still trying to figure out what everyone sees in Melissa McCarthy, I’ll have to check it out.

      In regards to your below comment: man, Anthony Michael Hall was fan-freaking-tastic in The Dead Zone. Great show, too – exploited its premise beautifully.

      Re: The Last Seduction, Linda Fiorentino was so ridiculously evil in that movie that she made everyone else look pretty good by comparison. And while we’re on the subject, when is John Dahl gonna make another movie? Sure, he’s worked on like every TV show in the last 10 years, but I miss his talents up on the big screen.

      • I was disappointed by all those other Sandler performances, even Punch-Drunk Love, though at least Kate Beckinsale made Click worthwhile.

        Highly doubt St. Vincent will disappoint. More I think about it, need to make that an Amazon digital purchase.

        Don’t get me started on Dahl. Even with Rounders an Unforgettable being only so-so, after Red Rock West and Last Seduction, couldn’t wait for more. Yup, still waiting.

    • Rufus

      St. Vincent is very good and I too thought McCarthy was excellent.

  • Whoops, almost forgot Anthony Michael Hall in Pirates of Silicon Valley and The Dead Zone series — Farmer Fred (Ted) is all groweds up and he’s all groweds up and he’s all groweds up.

  • Bill Pullman also more deliciously devilish than usual in The Last Seduction.

  • .Scott M.

    How about Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast”? That was a surprise!

    • Oh man, he was amazing in Sexy Beast. Absolutely knocked it out of the park. The only reason I didn’t include it was because it wasn’t a one-off. He’s played a bunch of bad guys in other movies since then.

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