Few performances pique an audience’s interest more than a funny man or woman shedding their goofy onscreen persona to show something more tender or heartbreaking underneath. Many people seem to forget that, for the most part, actors who pursue the art of performance do so hoping for serious dramatic work. Some just find an affinity for lighter roles and sly character parts that hone his or her comedic timing. For a large slew of actors that find success in the comedy genre, a dramatic turn is not as much a transformation but a return to the core of what they love to do.
On the flipside, some actors with a reputation for serious leading roles can find their niche (and be remembered most fondly) for showing off a goofier side. For instance, Leslie Nielsen was a recognizable straight man for many years before he used his gravitas as a deadpan strength in the comedy classic Airplane! After his success there, he reinvented his career with parodies and hilarious leading roles.
The past year has seen many noted funny men and women stripping away the smiles for sorrow. Steve Carell’s menacing turn in Foxcatcher, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s soulful siblings in The Skeleton Twins, and Zach Galifianakis’s brief appearance as a wound-up manager in Birdman (one of the sole non-absurd aspects of the dark comedy) are a few recent examples.
So, on that note, here are eight more unexpectedly great dramatic performances from funny men and women. These may not be their most memorable dramatic turns, but the ones that surprised audiences most with their depth and emotional resonance. Some are chilling villainous performances, while others show just how easily an actor can use their trademark charm in more effective and affecting ways.