There is a pervading theory among some circles that being a comedic actor doesn't take much talent (even though it's actually more difficult to get someone to genuinely laugh than cry). It's also not a secret that to get some respect from mainstream critics — especially from the Academy Awards, who tend to treat comedians like a beggar they won't look in the eye — and avoid being pigeon-holed (can you imagine if Chris Farley had been given the chance to show his range?) comedians often turn to more dramatic roles to prove themselves in big ways.
Now, I don't mean those actors who always toggled between drama and comedy, I mean comedic performers who at one time were known strictly for making people laugh — whether it was through television, film, or stand-up. As much as I adore Robin Williams and Tom Hanks, they've always jumped back-and-forth between making you laugh and cry, while the likes of Bill Murray have always held incredible depth in their roles — even when they're chasing around a groundhog. I'm strictly referring names like Jim Carrey and Marlon Wayans, those who got their start in pure comedic roles (and in their case, it was on the sketch comedy show In Living Color, which also featured Jamie Foxx). Oftentimes, it's these names who impress us the most because drama is the least of what we had come to expect from them. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the nine best comedy-turned-dramatic actors and actresses! Jennifer Aniston
As everyone's favorite Friend, Jennifer Aniston is certainly known as a funny lady and still acts in a majority of comedic flicks. Back in 2002 though, Aniston impressed everyone with her turn as Justine Last in The Good Girl, playing a bored store clerk who starts up an affair with the new checkout kid who thinks he's Holden Caulfield (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). In his review for Vanity Fair, David Rooney wrote, "She successfully sheds her sitcom persona and puts the complex character across. She makes Justine smart enough to yearn for a better life but not so smart as to seem alien to her surroundings, keeping her sympathetic even in her most confused and duplicitous moments as she contemplates solutions like those of a murderous melodrama heroine."
Photo Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Ben Stiller is best known for absurdist comedies, like Tropic Thunder and Zoolander (or The Ben Stiller Show if you want to go really far back), but he's also dabbled in indie dramas, like the 2010 comedy-drama Greenberg. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach (who he's teaming up with again for 2015s While We're Young, the flick starred Stiller as a man returning to Los Angeles, trying to figure his life out while he house-sits for his brother. Co-starring Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans, the movie was met with positive reviews, with Roger Ebert saying this was the role Stiller was born to play. "What Ben Stiller does with the role is fascinating," wrote Ebert in his review. "We can't stand Greenberg. But we begin to care about him. Without ever overtly evoking sympathy, Stiller inspires identification. You don't have to like the hero of a movie. But you have to understand him -- better than he does himself, in some cases."
Stiller can soon be seen in the epic fantasy drama film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which is an adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 short story. After going through years of setbacks (seriously, it was originally conceived back in 1994 with Jim Carrey in mind) and many different production companies, the film is finally finished and ready for a December release. Not only is Stiller playing the lead — a man who lives inside a fantasy world where he gets to be the best version of himself — he also directed the flick. Based on the trailer alone, this film is going to be a serious game changer for Stiller. Hugh Laurie
England-born Hugh Laurie is a comedic legend and will forever be remember for his work with his friend and comedy partner Stephen Fry (A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster), but in 2004 he was introduced to American audiences as Dr. Gregory House on the Fox medical drama House. For years, many fans didn't even realize the actor was British, assuming his American accent was real. In playing the tormented, drug-addicted anti-hero, Laurie won two Golden Globes and created a character who you simultaneously loathed and loved despite the fact that he was completely unsympathetic. Sure, Laurie brought the darkest of comedy to the show, but he also brought an irredeemable character who tried, despite himself, to do something right.
His can most recently be seen in Mr. Pip, playing the only white man in a Papua New Guinea village who reads Great Expectations to a class of children during a time of war.
Adam Sandler is another one of those actors who was first known for appearing on Saturday Night Live before doing a string of 90s comedies, like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison — earning him a cult following and critic insults. In 2002 he starred in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, completely pulling himself out of the pigeon hole he had been going to waste in. Sandler played Barry Egan, an emotionally abused lonely man who has uncontrollable fits of rage as his only means of escape. He unknowingly gets pulled in a phone sex scam and finds himself in completely new situations, ultimately finding love. Roger Ebert, who previously wrote that watching Sandler is like nails on a chalkboard, saw Sandler in a completely new light and felt compelled to re-watch all of Sandler's comedies he had hated before. "The Sandler characters are almost oppressively nice, like needy puppies, and yet they conceal a masked hostility to society, a passive-aggressive need to go against the flow, a gift for offending others while in the very process of being ingratiating," he said. Ebert found that same theme to run in Punch Drunk Love, showcasing a cheerful face covering a tornado of unexpected hostility and violence.
While Sandler also impressed in Reign Over Me, it was Punch Drunk Love that forced all those who wrote him off before, to eat their own words and start seeing him as something to be reckoned with. Even after doing more "Adam Sandler films," with one performance he made it impossible to ever see him the same way again and that's amazing.
Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate
Before Precious, no one really knew what Mo'Nique could actually do. In playing Nikki on the sitcom The Parkers and featuring in a number of popular stand-up venues, Mo'Nique was one of the few women in comedy that really stood out despite Hollywood being dominated by male comedians. It wasn't her ability to make you laugh though that won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar, it was her ability to make you cry in a combination of horror and deep sympathy. In playing the villainous mother of Clarice Precious Jones, Mo'Nique didn't simply rely on cruelty to make Mary a real person, she made you understand her — which is shocking enough. CBS News called her portrayal of the worst mother imaginable searing and devastating, while Oprah was quoted as saying, "When I first saw the movie Precious, I was so deeply moved, I immediately called up the director, Lee Daniels, and told him that it just split me wide open." Even Sidney Poitier applauded the film for its unflinching bravery, impressed with Mo'Nique's power and confidence.
Mo'Nique drew from her own childhood molestation to create the character, saying that she knew Mary Jones and when action would be called, she became the monster she dealt with as a child. Through playing the role she was able to move past her childhood and come out the victor, taking control of what happened to her through wearing that mask and delivering a beautiful performance. Photo Courtesy of Focus Features
Most people probably know Zach Galifianakis by his impressive beard and strange stand-up performances — unless you've seen The Hangover trilogy — and while he has definitely cemented himself as one of the funniest guys around, he also showed impressive range in 2010s It's Kind of a Funny Story. The movie — which is basically One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for young adults — follows a teenager (Keir Gilchrist) who chooses to enter a psychiatric hospital for help after attempting to commit suicide. Playing Bobby, a psych patient who tries to convince everyone he's there on vacation, Galifianakis gets under your skin and delivers a beautifully complicated character.
The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Galifianakis's Gleasonesque movements and deadpan, behind-the-beat timing serve him well in this role, as does his ability to seem completely in earnest even when his actions and utterances are bizarre or nonsensical. Bobby is credibly troubled, neither a holy fool nor an over-the-top goofball, and his moments of wisdom are as believable as his bouts of instability." Photo Courtesy of Focus Features
Most know Maya Rudolph through her work on Saturday Night Live, but with 2009's Away We Go she showcased her dramatic acting skills. Though many critics thought the flick was condescending, showcasing two characters who are superior to everyone else in the film and the audience, they couldn't deny that Rudolph was charming and likable as Verona (one half of a married couple searching for the best place to settle down with their soon-to-be-born baby). She and John Krasinski had a genuine rapport with one another that really helped ground this film in the everyday insecurities we all feel.
"Rudolph makes you consider how rarely we see a real woman at the center of things. Even her occasional tentativeness works for the part," says CNN. Photo Courtesy of Artisan Entertainment
If you were anything like me, you grew up watching the talented Wayans' brothers on their sketch show In Living Color. Known for making people laugh, Marlon Wayans (one of the younger brothers) appeared in the show for several years, before moving on to co-star in The Wayans Bros. sitcom and release the Scary Movie series. But between the laughing, he appeared in 2000s Requiem for a Dream. Darren Aronofsky's intense vision of drug addicts' rapid descent into destructive delusion was a remarkable departure for Wayans. Playing a friend of Jared Leto's character, Wayans completely sheds his comedic image and brings to life a character desperate to survive.
The New York Times found Aronofsky's ability to get great performances out of unlikely actors especially impressive: "Probably the biggest surprise is Mr. Wayans, whose overstimulated comic work can border on hilarity and make you cringe at the same time. His hyperactivity conveys a desperate need for attention, which is frightening from someone who has so much presence. You can't take your eyes off him even though you can sometimes barely stand to look at him."Jim Carrey
Getting his start on In Living Color, Jim Carrey quickly became the go-to slapstick funnyman when you needed someone to contort their body in strange ways. After a string of major productions, like Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber, Carrey began leaning towards roles that had a bit more emotional resonance. He started slow with 1997s Liar Liar, which earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination, but ramped it up with The Truman Show in 1998 and Man on the Moon in 1999 (each awarding him the Best Actor Golden Globe). In 2004 he solidified his dramatic abilities with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie which — in my opinion — makes up for fifty Burt Wonderstones.
If you haven't seen it, it's basically about this guy who decides to erase the memory of his ex-girlfriend. A brilliant example of Maze Cinema, which means it doubles back on itself to redefine everything you thought you knew, Eternal Sunshine gives us a Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman collaboration that just can't be beat. And Carrey proved that not only can he appeal to everyone, he can give life to a character so desperate to hold on to one tiny fragment of love that he'll do anything to escape his own choices — even if it means breaking our hearts in the process.
Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote, "Carrey burrows far inside the emotionally withdrawn Joel until we see the soul worth saving."