Actors Who Took Extreme Measures in Hopes of Winning the Oscar

9:00 AM 2/23/2016

by Jackie Strause

2016's best actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio ate raw bison liver while shooting 'The Revenant.'

The Revenant still 1 Leonardo DiCaprio  - H 2015
'The Revenant,' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox


When it comes to guessing any given year's Oscars crop, the category of actors who undergo physical extremes is a good place to start.

Dating back to 1980 when Robert De Niro bulked up 60 pounds to play boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, decades of Oscar-nominated and -winning roles have belonged to actors who have physically transformed themselves onscreen.

This year, Leonardo DiCaprio, who, heading into the 2016 Academy Awards had been nominated five times but has never won, went to method-acting extremes by eating raw bison and enduring hypothermic conditions in real life, just as his character, Hugh Glass, did in Oscar frontrunner The Revenant.

From packing on pounds to shedding bodyweight, deglamorizing and method acting, a slew of Hollywood heavyweights have become known for their intense commitments to creating memorable self-transforming characters.

Here are 10 movie transformations that involved some of the most unusual, often life-threatening, tactics from actors who were chasing Hollywood's highest honor, the Academy Award.

  1. 10

    Hilary Swank, 'Boys Don’t Cry'

    Hilary Swank lived as a male for more than a month before cameras even started rolling for Boys Don't Cry.

    In the devastating 1999 drama, Swank played transgender teen Teena Brandon, who is brutally raped and murdered by male friends after they discover he is a trans man.

    To prepare for the role, the actress used method acting to the point that her neighbors thought she was a visiting male cousin named Billy.

    “I walked around trying to pass as a boy for five weeks before filming that movie,” says Swank, who strapped her chest down and adopted male mannerisms. “Seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and losing a bunch of body fat so that my face would be thinner."

    Swank, who went on to win best actress honors, said by the third week of filming she lost all femininity. "I thought I was never going to be able to find Hilary again," she has said. "I was totally lost."

    The treatment she received from others also had a lasting effect. ”If you don’t fit into a black-or-white definition of boy or girl you slip between the cracks and it’s a lonely place,” said Swank. ”People don’t want to have anything to do with you, and it put me in a state of real hopelessness. I cried a lot for days.”


  2. 9

    Daniel Day-Lewis, 'My Left Foot'

    Daniel Day-Lewis earned his reputation as one of Hollywood's most established method actors for his preparations as Christy Brown in My Left Foot.

    While filming the 1989 drama, the actor stayed in character as the writer with cerebral palsy; he never left his wheelchair, was lifted around the set and was spoon-fed by the crew. "I was 'in character' all the time," he has said. Before the film, he spent two months at a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin.

    Day-Lewis continued to gain notoriety for his role preparations for his acclaimed work in later films The Boxer (he trained as a real fighter), The Name of the Father (he slept in a jail), The Crucible (he lived on the 17th century set), Gangs of New York (he wandered around Rome in character as a butcher) and Lincoln (acted as "Abe" and "Mr. President" on set).

    "Absurd as it might seem, when you've been someone else for that amount of time, it's even more absurd when it's all over," he has said.

    Day-Lewis won the best actor Oscar for My Left Foot.

  3. 8

    Tom Hanks, 'Cast Away'

    After gaining 50 pounds in pre-production, Tom Hanks then spent a year losing the weight and preparing to be stranded on an island for Cast Away.

    In the 2000 film, Hanks plays delivery man Chuck Noland, who ends up on a tropical island for four years after a plane crash.

    Hanks first gained 50 pounds to play middle-aged Chuck before the crash. Then, after three months of filming in the Fijian island of Monuriki, he spent a year eating "miserly" portions and working out six days a week to shed 55 pounds. He also didn't trim his hair or beard.

    ”It was a burden,” the actor has said of both the physical and psychological preparations, and then having only the volleyball Wilson to work with onscreen. ”And it was a burden because I knew when the time came there wasn’t going to be anyone else to work off of.”

    During filming, production was halted for three weeks when Hanks ended up in the hospital for three days over a staph infection. The actor, who has made a career out of physically prepping for roles, recently revealed that he suffers from Type 2 diabetes, possibly due to the yo-yo dieting.

    For the film, the two-time winner (1993's Philadelphia and 1995's Forrest Gump) earned a nomination, but lost to Russell Crowe for Gladiator

  4. 7

    Heath Ledger, 'The Dark Knight'

    Heath Ledger went to dark places to become the hauntingly deranged Joker for The Dark Knight.

    The actor, who won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal as the iconic villain, was found dead in his apartment only months before the 2008 release of the Batman film.

    To prepare for the role of the onscreen sociopath, “He pretty well locked himself up in a hotel, in his apartment, for a month or so, to sort of galvanize the upcoming character in his own mind,” said his father, Kim Ledger. “That was typical of Heath on any movie. He would certainly immerse himself in the upcoming character. I think this was just a whole new level.”

    "It's definitely the most fun I've had, and the most freedom I had," Ledger said about his process in an interview with Empire magazine, in which he detailed his preparations.

    "I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month and I just locked myself away and formed a little diary and experimented with voices," he said. "I ended up landing more within the realm of, like, a psychopath, someone with no empathy. Very little to no conscience towards his acts. Which is fun, because there is no real limit on the boundaries to what he'd say or how you would say something or what he would do."

    The diary was later released, showing the handwritten notes and photographs that the actor collected, of playing cards, scenes from Batman comics featuring the Joker, drawings of clown makeup and stills from A Clockwork Orange.


  5. 6

    Charlize Theron, 'Monster'

    Charlize Theron made herself nearly unrecognizable for Monster.

    In the 2003 true-crime drama, Theron gained 30 pounds to help morph into serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

    "I’ve tried very hard in my career to change and transform. But, I’ve never done anything like this," the actress said about playing Wuornos, a prostitute convicted of murdering six men. (She sat on death row for 12 years before being executed in 2002.)

    After stuffing her face with Krispy Kreme doughnuts and potato chips, Theron says relied on her makeup artist Toni G and writer-director Patty Jenkins to fill in the rest of the details for her transformation into Wuornos, taking into account things like the sun damage from being homeless for her blotchy skin. Theron also shaved her eyebrows and wore prosthetic teeth.

    "The greatest thing Toni did was that my greatest fear was that I didn’t want it to be a caricature, wear a fat suit, put some prosthetics on my face," said Theron. "Patty said, ‘It’s got be real.’"

    The night before filming, Theron was granted access to thousands of letters that Wuornos had written to a friend during 10 of her years on death row to help her see a different side of the woman, which she took into account for her onscreen portrayal.

    Theron won the best actress Oscar for the role.


  6. 5

    Robert De Niro, 'Raging Bull'

    Robert De Niro packed on 60 pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.

    For the legendary 1980 biographical sports drama, De Niro — who brought the story of LaMotta to director Martin Scorsese, and the pair isolated themselves on St. Martin to create the movie — had only four months to put on the weight. He went on a binge-eating trip around Northern Italy and France and when he came back, he weighed 215 pounds (up from the 145 pounds when he left).

    "The first 15 pounds was fun, the rest was hard work," the actor has said about eating three large meals a day of pasta, meat and butter, as well as having ice cream and beer.

    De Niro, who lived and trained with co-star Joe Pesci before filming began to establish their onscreen bond, could only film for short periods of time after putting on the weight. At one point, Scorsese temporarily shut down production over health fears, as De Niro's weight had affected his posture, talking and breathing.

    De Niro won the best actor Oscar, and Raging Bull also won for best film editing.

  7. 4

    Jared Leto, 'Dallas Buyers Club'

    Jared Leto lost nearly 40 pounds and never broke character on set for his award-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club.

    In the 2013 biographical drama, Leto plays the HIV-positive transgender woman Rayon, alongside Matthew McConaughey, who also transformed himself for the role (see below). To drop the weight, Leto says he simply stopped eating — he weighed 114 pounds to get to his emaciated onscreen self.

    The 30 Seconds to Mars frontman, who is known for immersing himself in parts (he gained 70 pounds to play Lennon's murderer in Chapter 27 and appears as the highly anticipated Joker in the upcoming Suicide Squad), also shaved all the hair on his body, including his eyebrows, and altered his voice pitch.

    Leto stayed in character throughout the 25-day shoot and "road-tested" Rayon in public, once during a trip to Whole Foods. "Don’t ask me why, ‘cause I wasn’t eating. I would basically go there and stare at the cashews, and just salivate," he said. "Inevitably the day comes when you take her out for a walk: shaved, waxed, wigged-up, the whole bit. ... To get a little judgment, some meanness, a little condemnation was a useful thing for the part."

    Leto won for best supporting actor.

  8. 3

    Matthew McConaughey, 'Dallas Buyers Club'

    Matthew McConaughey dropped 47 pounds for his award-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club, which earned him a best actor Oscar.

    In the 2013 biographical drama, McConaughey plays the late AIDS patient-turned-activist Ron Woodroof. For six months before and during filming, the actor says he holed up in his Texas home, away from sunlight and distractions, to prepare for the role, including reading Woodroof's diary from two years before he contracted HIV.

    Physically, the actor set out to lose seven pounds per week, eating mostly fish and vegetables, just not much of it. For a treat, he said, "I found tapioca pudding and I found the tiniest little antique spoon in New Orleans, a little bitty sugar spoon, and I would eat it with that so it would last longer."

    Once he hit 143 pounds, McConaughey, who kept a nutrition diary and did very little exercise, said he started to lose his eyesight. He ultimately passed his goal and hit a low of 135 pounds. At his skinniest, “I would do five push-ups and be sore. I would run 30 feet and my legs would lock up," he said.

    Still, the actor says he learned a lot through the journey, and how strong the human body actually is: "All the acuity, energy and power I lost from the neck down transferred to the neck up."


  9. 2

    Leonardo DiCaprio, 'The Revenant'

    Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been nominated six times, finally won his first Oscar this year for his portrayal of Hugh Glass in The Revenant.

    DiCaprio is no stranger to method acting or physical tests of endurance (The Wolf of Wall Street, Aviator and Shutter Island are some of the strongest examples). Still, he upped the ante for the 2016 contender, which the actor ranks at the top of his most-difficult list.

    In the film, DiCaprio plays a 19th-century fur trapper who suffers a violent bear attack and is nearly left for dead. The actor calls the attack sequences "some of the more difficult things I've ever had to do in my career." He also, like his character, ate raw bison liver while shooting so audiences could see his "instinctive reaction."

    “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” DiCaprio has said of the Alejandro G. Inarritu-directed movie, which was filmed in the wilderness in Argentina. “Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.”

    The shoot has been called "a living hell," but the actor has no regrets. "I knew what I was getting into," he has said.

    DiCaprio competed against Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), Matt Damon (The Martian) and Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) for the best actor title at the 2016 Oscars on Feb. 28.

    Updated with DiCaprio's 2016 win

  10. 1

    Christian Bale, 'The Machinist'

    Christian Bale dropping a shocking 60 pounds for his memorable role in The Machinist, though he ultimately didn't earn a nomination for the role.

    As insomniac Trevor Reznik in the 2004 psychological thriller, Bale shed his 6-foot frame to a startling 121 pounds over four months before filming. The role was initially intended for a shorter actor, but Bale insisted he could hit the desired weight, surviving off water, an apple and one cup of coffee per day, according to a biography written by his former assistant.

    For his next role, he only had a few months to bulk up as Batman in 2005's Batman Begins, so he gorged on pizza and ice cream and began weightlifting to return to 180 pounds.

    Then for 2010's The Fighter, Bale again shed 30 pounds to transform into his Oscar-winning role of drug-addicted and retired boxer Dicky Eklund. For 2013's American Hustle, which also earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, he gained 43 pounds.

    "I didn't take this job because I went, 'Oh, there's a physical transformation needed," he has said of weight transformative roles. "I always go, 'Damn! There's a physical transformation needed!'" 

    The Big Short star, who is nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar again this year, dropped out of Michael Mann's upcoming Enzo Ferrari biopic over concerns surrounding weight he would need to gain for the film.