Every once in a while, a role comes around that demands just a little bit more from you. Of course you need to learn your lines, get to know your character fully, and get to the emotional truth in each scene, but sometimes you’re asked to perform a skill you just don’t possess—yet. Here are 13 famous actors, from Margot Robbie to Mahershala Ali to Leonardo DiCaprio, who trained hard and took up new skills to embody their characters—frequently winning major awards along the way.
Mahershala Ali learned to play piano for “Green Book”
To play Don Shirley (to Oscar-winning effect), a famous concert pianist on a tour through the south, Mahershala Ali spent three months training at the piano with Kris Bowers, the composer of the film’s score. As Bowers told Backstage, “The thing that was most incredible to me was his dedication, focus, and attention to detail. Our first lesson, I figured we’d start with basics. I’d give him a major scale and some other things. We were only supposed to be there for an hour, and I spent three hours with him playing the C major over and over again.”
Natalie Portman learned ballet for “Black Swan”
For her role as ballet dancer Nina Sayers in the 2010 dramatic thriller “Black Swan,” Portman trained for at least five hours a day while she continued on with her career and filmed other projects. Though she had a stunt double and had some previous dance training, the actor admitted to the New York Times, “It was a rude awakening to get there, and to be, like, I don’t know what I’m doing. If I had known how not close to ready I was, I never would have tried it. I’m glad I was a little ignorant slash arrogant.” The results? A well-deserved Oscar for best performance by an actress in a leading role.
Robert Downey, Jr. learned to play the violin for “Chaplin”
There were many distinguishers about silent film legend Charlie Chaplin—one of was that he carried his violin with him almost everywhere he went. To accurately portray the actor, Downey Jr. learned to play the violin (and some tennis) left-handed. The 1992 film, directed by Richard Attenborough, earned three Oscar nods (including one for its leading man).
Margot Robbie learned to skate for “I, Tonya”
Robbie’s transformative performance as disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding had her on the ice four hours a day, five days a week for five months. Her ice skating coach for the film, Sarah Kawahara, told Backstage it was important to get her comfortable on the ice so she could “act” while skating: “It’s not a matter of just learning to skate and stop and turn around; it’s looking like you don’t have to think about it. That way, she can act and she can do her dialogue and she can do confrontation and have emotion without separating her feet from her character.”
Adrien Brody mastered the piano for “The Pianist”
Given the plot of “The Pianist”—a Polish Jewish radio station musician struggles to survive in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II—it should be no surprise that Brody was dedicated to mastering the piano for the film. Additionally, he went fully method for the role, telling BBC at the time, “I gave up my apartment, I sold my car, I disconnected the phones, and I left. I took two bags and my keyboard and moved to Europe.” The film was nominated for seven Oscars, and won three (including best actor in a leading role for Brody).
Jennifer Lawrence chopped wood and skinned a squirrel for “Winter’s Bone”
By now you’ve probably heard about Lawrence’s breakout role in the 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone.” (It was nominated for four Oscars, after all.) In it, the actor plays a teen who protects her young siblings while searching for her drug-dealing father. She learned to chop wood and, yes...skin a squirrel for the role. The scene is not for the squeamish, so do not look it up.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy learned an indigenous language for “The Revenant”
In “The Revenant,” DiCaprio’s character journeys through the wilderness that is home to the indigenous Arikara people. An Indigenous cultural consultant taught DiCaprio and the rest of the cast the Arikara language, which is only spoken by a few remaining elders in North Dakota. The film earned 12 Oscar nominations and three wins, including the first win for DiCaprio.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon learned the guitar and the autoharp (respectively) for “Walk the Line”
As Johnny Cash and June Carter, Phoenix and Witherspoon were determined to deliver authentic performances, so both learned their respective instruments. Witherspoon sought the help of Catherine O’Hara’s autoharp teacher, who helped the actor for the film “A Mighty Wind.” Another example of hard work being recognized: five Oscar noms including a win for Witherspoon.
Olivia Munn learned sword fighting for “X-Men: Apocalypse”
For her role as Psylocke, a ninja mutant with sword-fighting skills, Munn trained for five months, six hours a day to learn how to safely wield a katana sword. She ended up performing 95% of her own stunts for the film, and loved it so much that she still sword fights as a hobby today.
Daniel Day-Lewis tracked, hunted, and skinned animals for “The Last of the Mohicans”
Known for his method acting, Day-Lewis lived as a survivalist while training to play Hawkeye in this 1992 adventure drama. He picked up a useful skill in the process though; he learned how to hunt his own food.
Tom Cruise learned to fly a helicopter for “Mission Impossible: Fallout”
Cruise is well-known for performing all his own stunts and pushing himself to the limit; the latest entry in the “Mission Impossible” franchise was no exception. For “Fallout,” Cruise and his stunt coordinator wanted to do an epic helicopter action sequence and spent over 2,000 hours in helicopter training and stunt training to become an expert flyer, culminating with the death-defying helicopter chase you see in the film.
Channing Tatum learned to tap dance for “Hail, Caesar!”
After seeing Tatum in “Step Up” and “Magic Mike,” it wasn’t wrong for the Coen Brothers to assume the actor could tap dance when they cast him in their recent flick “Hail, Caesar!” But Tatum told Vulture that he didn’t know how to tap and the six-minute scene took months of preparation. “I spent about three months preparing. It’s the most I’ve ever prepped for a six-minute section in a movie. We went over Christmas and New Year’s [in 2014], so I had all that time to let it gestate,” he said. “I let it sink into my bones over the holiday break. When I’m nervous about something, I drill it to a point that is probably unhealthy, but as long as it works even halfway, I’m happy at the end of the tortuous day.”
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