For performers, stepping into the shoes of a real-life figure can skyrocket their career to new heights. Award ceremonies have been buzzing with excitement over biopics, war epics, and historical spectacles in recent times, like the electrifying portrayals in Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Judy.
Yet not all historically precise films revolve around the virtuous heroes. Often, they delve into the shadowy realms of villains: the despots, assassins, and kingpins. Despite the wickedness these characters embody, audiences can’t seem to get enough of these thrilling tales, and Hollywood is more than happy to oblige.
But for the actors themselves, embodying these twisted personas is no ordinary task. Yes, the film may bring them acclaim and admiration, but what comes at a price? Will the actor emerge from this experience forever changed, having spent months plunging into the psyche of a depraved serial killer?
In the end, only the actors themselves can unravel the enigma.
1. Forest Whitaker Became ‘Totally Consumed’ With Idi Amin – And Had To Literally Scrub Himself Clean Of Him
Forest Whitaker prepared for his role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland by immersing himself in Uganda, the country Amin ruled over in the 1970s. Whitaker aimed to understand what it was like to be both Ugandan and Amin himself. He pushed himself daily to delve deeper into the mindset he believed Amin had. The role consumed him to such an extent that even his dreams featured Idi Amin. Whitaker admitted that this character took over his life.
Idi Amin was infamous for his brutal reign, including the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda and being responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Stepping into Amin’s headspace had a profound impact on Whitaker, who needed a process to cleanse himself of the character after the movie was finished.
Whitaker revealed that it was only after the film’s completion that he decided to let go of the character. His first step was taking a shower, as if symbolically scrubbing himself to rid his mind and body of Amin’s presence. To reclaim his own identity, he found solace in being alone and talking out loud. He also changed back into his normal clothes, doing everything he could to reconnect with himself and be Forest Whitaker again.
2. Frank Lucas Told Denzel Washington ‘It’s A Dirty Business And… You’ve Got To Be Dirty’
Denzel Washington was drawn to the 2007 film American Gangster because of the intriguing contrast between the two main characters. On one hand, there was Frank Lucas, a powerful heroin dealer and drug lord. On the other hand, there was Detective Richie Roberts, the man responsible for apprehending Lucas.
Initially, it may seem that Lucas is the villain while Roberts is the hero. However, the movie delves deeper and reveals that Lucas is surprisingly honest in his personal life, whereas Roberts is not. This complexity intrigued Washington, who played the role of Lucas.
To prepare for the role, Washington had the opportunity to meet and have extensive discussions with the real Frank Lucas. During their conversations, Washington asked Lucas about his seemingly upstanding personal side. Lucas responded repeatedly, emphasizing the harsh reality of the drug business:
“As he kept telling me, ‘Denzel, it’s a dirty business, and if you choose to be in it, you’ve got to be dirty.’ There are no kind-hearted heroin dealers who succeed; they end up on the streets. It’s a world filled with criminals, just a den of thieves.”
Despite being in his 70s and confined to a wheelchair, Lucas was present on the film set. He had nothing but praise for Washington’s portrayal of him:
“He did an incredible job. Nobody in the world is as good as Denzel.”
3. Ralph Fiennes Said It’s Impossible Not To Feel ‘Slightly Soiled’ By Playing A Character Like Amon Goth
In the Academy Award-winning film Schindler’s List, we follow the story of Oskar Schindler, portrayed by Liam Neeson, who courageously saved over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
Contrasting Schindler’s heroic character, we witness the disturbing presence of Amon Göth, played by Ralph Fiennes, an SS officer responsible for a Nazi work camp.
Immersing oneself in the mindset of a morally corrupt Nazi officer was no easy task. According to Fiennes, portraying this character had a lasting impact:
There was a price to pay for this role. When you delve so deeply into such negative behavior for three months, you can’t help but feel a bit strange. There were moments when I may have even enjoyed it, which is unsettling. At the same time, it leaves you with a sense of being tainted. It raises questions about acting, human behavior, and how all of these aspects are perhaps closer to the surface than we like to believe.
4. Eric Bana Recognized That Chopper Read Was As Much A Performance As A Personality
The 2000 film Chopper delves into the captivating narrative of Mark “Chopper” Read, an actual convicted murderer who rose to fame by candidly chronicling his own criminal exploits in a memoir.
Much like the infamous Joe “Tiger King” Exotic, Read gained celebrity status through his audacious and unbelievable persona, captivating the public’s interest and resulting in over 200,000 book sales.
Eric Bana, who snagged the role of portraying Chopper, faced the challenge of blurring the line between the man and his performance. Reflecting on this, Bana remarked:
“His character was largely a performance…but there were moments of quiet introspection that unveiled the deep pain, damage, and gravity that resided beneath the surface.”
Bana also had the opportunity to engage with Chopper himself, sharing:
“Spending time with Mark was truly invaluable, although I was aware of the potential consequences if things didn’t go well. We simply listened as he divulged stories about prison life and his views on life and humanity. I absorbed his commanding presence like a sponge.
5. Eddie Redmayne Was Able To Show A Softer Side Of Murderous Nurse Charlie Cullen By Thinking Of Playing ‘Two Different Human Beings’
The 2022 film The Good Nurse is based on the true story of Amy Loughren, an ICU nurse who suspects her colleague Charles Cullen of intentionally killing patients. In the movie, Amy is portrayed by Jessica Chastain while Charles is played by Eddie Redmayne.
Before filming began, Redmayne had the opportunity to speak with the real Amy Loughren through a Zoom call. This conversation greatly influenced his portrayal of Charles Cullen. Redmayne shared his experience, saying, “My perspective on him was heavily influenced by the real Amy Loughren, whom I had the chance to spend time with on Zoom before we started shooting.”
During their conversation, Amy stressed that there were two distinct versions of Charles Cullen. When she first met him, he was a kind, gentle, and compassionate man who even saved her life. However, she later encountered a completely different person – someone arrogant and unrecognizable. Redmayne took this guidance to heart and aimed to depict both sides of Cullen’s character – the quiet friend and the explosively angry killer.
In summary, The Good Nurse delves into the chilling true story of Amy Loughren’s suspicions about her colleague Charles Cullen, and Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Cullen is shaped by the insights he gained from speaking with the real Amy Loughren.
6. Ray Liotta Says Hard Living Took Its Toll On Henry Hill
When Ray Liotta was preparing for his role in the iconic mobster film Goodfellas from 1990, he had a desire to meet the man his character was based on – Henry Hill.
Henry Hill had been a prominent member of the Lucchese crime family until he was arrested. However, instead of sticking with his criminal associates, Hill decided to cooperate with the FBI and help them apprehend other gangsters.
Initially, Liotta wanted to meet Hill in person to gain insights for his performance. However, Martin Scorsese, the director of the film, convinced Liotta that it wasn’t necessary to meet Hill in real life.
After Goodfellas was released and achieved tremendous success, Liotta finally had the opportunity to meet Hill. This encounter took place at a bowling alley. Liotta noticed that Hill had fallen into a lifestyle of partying and drug use, which made him lose the charismatic presence Liotta had envisioned for the character in the film.
A few years later, Liotta had another chance to see Hill during a photo shoot. The purpose of the shoot was to capture actors who had portrayed real people. They photographed Liotta and Hill in an alleyway with a Cadillac. Unfortunately, during this time, Hill was heavily intoxicated, emitting a strong odor of alcohol, and behaving as a loud and rowdy drunk.
The last encounter Liotta had with Hill left a lasting impression. He could clearly see the detrimental effects that drugs had taken on Hill’s appearance and state of mind. Liotta recalls hearing Hill’s voice, slurred and barely comprehensible, as he found Hill slumped against a tree, completely messed up.
7. Evan Peters Said He Needed To ‘Decompress’ After Taking On The Role Of Jeffrey Dahmer
When Evan Peters landed the role of portraying Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, he had a four-month preparation period to get into the mind of the notorious serial killer. During this time, he immersed himself in everything he could find about Dahmer, including interviews, films, and profiles.
To truly understand Dahmer, Peters went to great lengths during filming. He would wear weights on his arms and in his shoes in order to replicate the robotic nature of Dahmer’s walk. Although Peters was satisfied with his decision to take on this challenging role, he acknowledged that he might need a break from dark characters for a while, stating:
“I felt changed by it and I sincerely hoped that some good would come out of it if people watched it. So, that’s why I signed on to do this one. I said, ‘OK, now this will be the last one.'”
After six months of delving into the mind of Dahmer on a daily basis, Peters needed to decompress. To do so, he found solace in observing his co-star Richard Jenkins, who played his father in the film, portray a father in a much lighter movie – Step Brothers.
8. Gary Oldman Talked To People Who Knew Lee Harvey Oswald, And Found Their Memories Contradictory
When Gary Oldman was chosen to play Lee Harvey Oswald in the 1991 film JFK, he wanted to ensure he portrayed the infamous man accurately. Seeking guidance, Oldman turned to the director and writer, Oliver Stone, who had an interesting approach in mind.
Instead of providing Oldman with detailed instructions, Stone handed him airline tickets and some cash. He encouraged Oldman to personally speak with individuals who had known Oswald.
Throughout his conversations, Oldman discovered a peculiar inconsistency in the stories shared by these people. One would recount their version of Oswald, and then another would present a completely different perspective. Some even believed that Oswald was merely a scapegoat, claiming he was not the person they knew. On the other hand, there were those who firmly believed Oswald was responsible for the act. Oldman even suspected that some individuals he spoke to may have falsely claimed to have known Oswald, as they seemed to appear out of nowhere, claiming friendship with him.
Despite the confusion, Oldman found this unorthodox method of research to be highly intriguing and effective in preparing for his role.
9. Brad Pitt Feels Jesse James’s Life Was Sensationalized – Much Like Celebrities Today
In the 1800s, newspapers couldn’t get enough of the Wild West outlaws. These outlaws were like the celebrities of their time. Brad Pitt, who played Jesse James in a film, has his own take on their fame.
Pitt finds it funny that not much has changed since then. He believes that a lot of the fame surrounding these outlaws was manufactured and sensationalized, with very little truth behind it. It’s almost like the fame game hasn’t evolved much over time.
Being an A-list celebrity himself for over three decades, Pitt can definitely relate to the constant scrutiny from the public. It’s no surprise that he understands the pressures and attention that come with fame.
10. Bruno Ganz Says He Had To Build A ‘Wall Or Iron Curtain’ In His Mind While Playing Adolf Hitler
Many German-speaking actors have been hesitant to portray Adolf Hitler, one of the most evil men in history. However, Bruno Ganz, being Swiss and not German, felt he could take on the role. In the 2004 film Downfall, Ganz played Hitler, depicting his final days in a bunker.
Ganz’s portrayal of the dictator received critical acclaim, but some people felt that he humanized Hitler too much. In response to this criticism, Ganz stated that people need an intact icon of pure evil, though he himself didn’t know what that truly meant.
During filming, Ganz had to mentally separate himself from the role by constructing a metaphorical wall or iron curtain. He explained that he didn’t want to spend his evenings at the hotel with Mr. Hitler by his side.