ByDavid Fox, writer at
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David Fox

One of the joys of watching films is being surprised by an acting performance that you did not see coming. Sometimes it comes from a total unknown, maybe someone making their movie debut, but to me it's all the more special when it comes from a well known but unexpected source.

Here are my 6 favourite outstanding performances from actors you wouldn't expect (note, spoilers follow for all the films below):

1. Nicholas Cage - Adaptation

Leaving Las Vegas is usually the quintessential film to point to if you're arguing that Nicholas Cage can act (when the mood takes him). After all it won him an Oscar and catapulted him onto the Hollywood A-list. But my go-to movie for Cage's acting skill is a much later film, 2002s Spike Jonze-helmed Adaptation. I choose it not just because of his performance (more on that later) but also because of the chronology of this film in terms of his career.

Leaving Las Vegas was relatively early on in Cage's career, he still had it all to prove, and a breakout performance from an actor at that time is not a total shock. By the time Adaptation rolled around though, Cage was well on his way to the career of coasting, scenery-chewing and bizarre acting choices that we known today. Cage followed his Oscar win by scoring roles in action films like the underrated Michael Bay thriller The Rock and goofy, dumb action films like Con Air and Face/Off; the former of which allowed him to sport glorious long locks, and the latter of which allowed him to spend most of the running time gurning instead of acting.

Cage did not win an Oscar for this.
Cage did not win an Oscar for this.

Cage's role in Adaption was really a dual role, playing a fictionalised version of the film's writer, Charlie Kaufmann, and his (entirely fictional) twin brother Donald, in a film that is simultaneously a story of Kaufmann's struggle with writer's block when adapting Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief, and a quasi-adaptation of the book itself.

If you've seen the film (or watched the trailer above) you'll know that Charlie and Donald are identical twins but very different people. Charlie is a genius writer but tortured soul, plagued by doubts, nerves, and worst of all, writer's block. Donald, on the other hand, is carefree, possess no self-doubt, and is an awful hack of a screenwriter using every cheap trick in the book to write his hackneyed twist-filled thriller "The 3" while Charlie tortures himself trying to turn The Orchid Thief into great art.

The last third of the film is where we really see its meta-greatness, as Charlie turns to his brother in desperation to help him finish his screenplay. Donald takes over writing duties and the film we're watching becomes the one he's writing, as he turns the elegiac tale of The Orchid Thief into a twist-filled thriller complete with sex, guns and car chases.

It's great to see Cage in his element here, as two very different characters, and he's believable as both. His performance here (in contrast to what came before and the many, many films to come after) is restrained and low-key, and it makes me wonder what more Cage could do with his talent if he cared enough, or was challenged enough.

2. Adam Sandler - Punch Drunk Love

Before Adam Sandler's films became nothing more than adverts he got to film abroad with all his friends, he had a few years of unbroken success with commercially successful and well-liked (if not critically acclaimed) comedies. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy made Sandler a household name, and was reasonable to assume he would continue in the same comedy vein for the rest of his career.

Understandably then it was a surprise when auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson picked Sandler as the lead for his follow up to the critically adored art-house film Magnolia. That said, Punch Drunk Love shares DNA with Sandler's most successful films and Sandler's character, the put-upon Barry Egan, is not too dissimilar from the angry man-children in his early films. Its director described Punk Drunk Love as "an arthouse Adam Sandler film" and it very much is, with the emotional fragility and volatility of Sandler's character played for pathos rather than cheap laughs.

Witness the scene below as a visibly nervous and uncomfortable Barry is belittled by his seven sisters at a family gathering, before reacting violently by smashing some glass:

In your regular Sandler comedy the scene would be played for laughs or omitted entirely, here the lingering camera work on Barry as he stands stock still means we can almost here what he's thinking: why did I come here, I don't like this, they don't like me... and it makes his eventual (over)reaction more understandable.

Punch Drunk Love yielded that kind of performance from Sandler, the kind no one would could have expected, and the kind we have yet to see since.

3. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

Okay, okay. Sitting here now it's easy to accept Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker as the definitive interpretation of the character on screen, but I remember the howls of anger from Batman fans when the casting was first announced.

Remember, this was a time when the Aussie actor was best known for teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, romantic drama Brokeback Mountain and cheesy soap Home & Away. Very few people thought this handsome, long-haired youngster would succeed in a role last held by legitimate, card-carrying maniac Jack Nicholson.

When quizzed about his left-field casting choice, director Christopher Nolan explained he picked Ledger "because he's fearless". So it proved. In The Dark Knight, Ledger, unrecognisable in his grunge-y, self-applied clown make-up, ambles around the screen, his every gesture and tick worth watching. He can be funny, too (as befitting a clown), turning the one-word line "...yeah" into a punchline during a confrontation with Gotham's mobsters.

Ledger's dedication to his craft was clear with his reimagining of The Joker. Admit it, when you think of The Joker, you're picturing this version, aren't you? The actor's untimely death robbed us of decades of potentially revelatory performances from the "fearless" Ledger, but at least his final performance was unforgettable.

4. Jim Carrey - Man On The Moon

I was flip-flopping between this and The Truman Show as the first standout "serious" performance of Carrey's career, but although The Truman Show came earlier, I technically saw Man On The Moon first, so I've plumped for that.

Man On The Moon came out in 1999, following hot on the heels of Carrey's acclaimed performance in the still-weirdly-underrated The Truman Show in the previous year. In these films, and the unfairly reviled The Cable Guy (1996), Carrey was moving away from his energetic, rubber-faced comedic performances that had made him famous in movies like The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and of course Dumb & Dumber.

Milos Forman - perhaps best known for the classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - was behind the camera for Man On The Moon, a comedy/drama biopic of polarising comedian Andy Kaufmann that took its title from the Kaufmann-referencing R.E.M. song of the same name.

The film was something of a pet project for Carrey, a lifelong Kaufmann fan who bore a striking physical resemblance to the former Saturday Night Live and Taxi star. Carrey went "method" for the role, staying in character at all times and insisting on being referred to as "Andy" even when the cameras weren't rolling. This must have put a strain on his co-stars, Paul Giamatti, Danny DeVito (who, oddly, knew and acted alongside the real life Kaufmann in the sitcom Taxi) Love; but it was well worth it judging from his performance.

Kaufmann was a true oddball; a comedian who would push the limits of what was acceptable - though he found fame through stand-up comedy (with his character "Foreign Man"), legendary sketch comedy show SNL and the sitcom Taxi (alongside the aforementioned DeVito, Judd Hirsch and a pre-Back To The Future Christopher Lloyd), he was not content with mainstream success. He began wresting women during his live act and was the self-proclaimed "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World" (a title which he still holds, I can only assume) as well as inventing an alter ego named Tony Clifton, a fat, boorish, aggressive Las Vegas lounge singer. "Tony" would often open for Kaufmann at his live shows, and for a while it was not clear that they were the same person. To keep up the illusion, Kaufmann would ask his brother or friend Bob Zmuda to appear as Clifton to allow them to appear in the same place together. Kaufmann even managed to land this entirely fiction person a guest appearance on Taxi.

Such was his love of elaborate ruses, many still believe that Kaufmann faked his own death to escape the trappings of fame and celebrity with which he was never comfortable. Man On The Moon's ambiguous final scene - with Zmuda watching Tony Clifton perform - leaves us to wonder if that's really Kaufmann on stage. And that's the thing about Carrey's performance: you really believe he's Andy Kaufmann. Some have dismissed it as an impression, but it's more than that - he's the embodiment of the man. Watching this film, you can almost believe he faked his own death only to resurface as a Canadian actor named Jim Carrey...

5. Channing Tatum - 21 Jump Street

Not every unexpected acting performance is a comedic actor playing it straight. Sometimes it can be the other way around, and an actor can show a surprising flair for comedy.

Such is the case with Channing Tatum who performed alongside comedy veteran Jonah Hill in the hilarious self-aware hit 21 Jump Street (a remake of an 80s TV show that helped a young Johnny Depp find fame; he has a cameo in this movie).

Tatum shot to fame in cliché dance extravaganza Step Up, which showcased his dance moves but not so much his ability to talk like a human person, his character, Chad Goodancer (OK, I don't know his name) had all the charisma of a door, and he was dismissed by many (me included) as a nobody we would never hear from again.

He appeared in the inevitable sequel to the critically reviled but financially successful Step Up film, but then parlayed that into more serious, respected roles with directors like Bennett Miller (of Capote and Moneyball fame) and Steven Soderbergh.

In 21 Jump Street Tatum plays a meathead rookie cop paired up with his nerdy best friend (Hill) and the two go undercover at the local high school to infiltrate a and stop a student drug ring.

Hill is on great form, as you'd expect, but it's Tatum that really surprises. His performance is loose and joyful, a world away from his sullen, uncomfortable scenes in Step Up, and he provides some of the film's funniest lines and reactions. His comic timing is perfect, especially for an actor without a reputation for being a comedy actor.

What do you think? Am I way off with my 5 picks, or do you agree? What are the unexpected acting performances that have stuck with you, and why? Please sound off in the comments below, and share this with your friends if you like it!


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