There’s a common understanding among the creative community that some comedians are also some of the best dramatic actors. That doesn’t necessarily go the other way–you don’t see many known dramatic actors suddenly jumping into comedy. Why is that?
Comedy is hard. Especially improv and stand-up comedy. But also the kind of comedy you see in television shows and in film. The level of expertise it takes to get comedy right demands the utmost presence from the actor. For this reason, many excellent comedians have also built a keen–even uncanny–toolbox of acting skills, including listening, timing, vulnerability, and bravery. When these talents are applied to dramatic roles, the best comedians shine.
Here are some of the best dramatic performances given by comedic actors!
Stranger Than Fiction (Will Ferrell)
Will Ferrell is mainly known for comedic roles in films such as Anchorman, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers. While we agree he’s a stellar actor whose comedic style has substantially impacted the entertainment industry and viewers alike, we’d like to highlight one of his best dramatic performances.
In the 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an Internal Revenue Service agent whose life is burdened by data, order, and a closely held schedule. Here’s what we love about it: Crick begins as a rigid guy who believes he’s ordered his life to the extent that he can manage it. He doesn’t allow for any surprises or rule-breaking. Ultimately, he discovers that some things–including love, passion, and dreams–are not manageable. Ferrell plays this arc with gentility, truth, and–yes–humor. But the comedy he displays in this role is character-driven, which means it arises organically as the character faces new relationships and challenges. This film garnered Ferrell the award for Best Actor from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films in 2007.
Dan in Real Life (Steve Carrell)
Most of us know Steve Carrell as the cringe-inducing boss on The Office, Michael Scott. The Internet and our brains are both rife with Michael Scott quotes and scenes that bring a smile to our faces just thinking about them. But did you know he’s also given several memorable performances in dramatic roles, as well? One of our favorites is the film Dan in Real Life.
Carrell plays Dan, a single dad who’s dedicated his life to raising his two girls while also learning to be a bachelor. He doesn’t have time for anything other than his fatherly duties until he meets a woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche), who instantly captures his attention, and soon after, his heart. Unfortunately, Marie is dating Dan’s charismatic brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). Here’s what we love about it: technically, this is a romantic comedy. So, there are plenty of laughs to go around. But Carrell brings a depth of emotion to the role that also brings tears to our eyes. Playing against an underlying melancholy, Carrell shows us what it looks like when someone with a broken heart learns to let light in through the cracks.
Lost in Translation (Bill Murray)
Bill Murray is a genius. While he started on Saturday Night Live, he quickly went from the small screen to the big screen. His first films were comedies–Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters, to name a few. While he does boast some skilled dramatic performances earlier in his career, his audience wasn’t yet ready to accept him as a dramatic actor until later in life.
Murray’s role in Lost in Translation inspired rave reviews and lead to his first Academy Award nomination. Directed by Sophia Coppola, this film is heartbreakingly beautiful. Murray plays Bob Harris, an aging movie star for whom the limelight and the luster of life, in general, has faded–until he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson). Charlotte is roughly 30 years Bob’s junior, but the two connect on a deep level. Here’s what we love about it: This film manages to keep a strong tension alive from the moment Bob and Charlotte meet to the end of the film–a tension that creates a tightrope between the longing to feel fully alive and the constraints of unchangeable circumstance. A lesser actor would not have been able to hold this tension, much less had us sitting on the edge of our seats for two hours. Murray is empathetic and eminently relatable in this role.
Dead Poets Society (Robin Williams)
Robin Williams has always brought depth to his roles. He’s the epitome of the idea that the best comedic actors also make the best dramatic actors. While Robins did find much success in both comedic and dramatic roles at the height of his career, there’s one that stands out above the rest, Dead Poet’s Society.
Williams won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal as John Keating, the inspirational English teacher who inspires his students to go against the status quo. Here’s what we love about it: as the tagline of the film states, “He was their inspiration. He made their lives extraordinary.” Williams seemed to use his roles to help him work out the questions he grappled with in his own life. He brought such transparency and urgency to this particular role that we can’t help but notice that Williams seems to forget he’s acting at times. He pleads with the younger men around him to take hold of life by finding as much beauty and hope as they can through both high-minded and ordinary pursuits. Williams’ passion and desperation both reach through the screen upon every viewing of this film.
Punch-Drunk Love (Adam Sandler)
When most people think of Adam Sandler, they think of comedies such as Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, and Billy Madison. As a result, he’s a surprisingly controversial actor; people either love him or hate him. Regardless of which side you fall on, we can all agree his performance in Punch-Drunk Love was formidable.
In this film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Sandler plays Barry Egan, an entrepreneur. Egan has social anxiety and is given to moments of uncontrolled anger until he seeks help and finds love in one of his sister’s co-workers, Lena Leonard (Emma Watson). Here’s what we love about it: Sandler proves the strongest performances come from actors who make themselves vulnerable. This truth is evidenced throughout the film. In one scene, he tells a doctor with all sincerity, “I don’t like myself sometimes. Can you help me?” The doctor responds, “Barry, I’m a dentist. What kind of help do you think I could give you?” While it ends in a laugh, the moment pierces the viewer and creates empathy for Barry.
Don’t take our word for it! Here’s what acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert said about Sandler, “Given a director and a screenplay that sees through the Sandler persona, that understands it as the disguise of a suffering outsider, Sandler reveals depths and tones we may have suspected but couldn’t bring into focus.” Perfectly stated.
Ray (Jamie Foxx)
Jamie Foxx began his career as a cast member on the show In Living Color. Thus, audiences generally saw him as a comedian and expected as much from him in subsequent roles. In 2005, however, Foxx wowed audiences with his stunning portrayal of Ray Charles in the film, Ray.
Since Ray follows the biography of Ray Charles, we don’t need to provide a plot summary. We’ll just cut to the chase–here’s what we love about it: there’s an acting term known as “conditioning forces.” These are forces that are working on the character that the actor needs to imagine and work through. They can be physical such as blindness, a migraine, or a limp. They can also be mental, such as anxiety, depression, or the tense mental static of holding a secret. That said, the way Foxx created Ray using the conditioning force of blindness was masterful. He also managed to layer the internal motivations of Ray Charles into his on-screen relationships with leading ladies, Regina King (Margie Hendricks) and Kerry Washington (Della Bea Robinson). There were times when we didn’t like Ray, but we always loved Jamie Foxx’s portrayal.
The Truman Show (Jim Carrey)
Jim Carrey seems like the kind of guy we’re not sure we could keep up with during a conversation. He seems to be “on” most of the time and runs on a higher caliber of energy than most of us! His roles in Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, and Ace Ventura are tour de forces of comedic prowess. And then there’s The Truman Show.
This 1998 film starred Carrey as Truman Burbank, an insurance salesman who discovers his whole life is a reality TV show. This role, playing opposite Ed Harris (Christof) and Laura Linney (Meryl Burbank), garnered Carrey a new level of respect as a dramatic actor. Here’s what we love about it: In a four-star review of the film, Roger Ebert writes, “We catch glimpses of his manic comic persona, just to make us comfortable with his presence in the character, but this is a well-planned performance; Carrey is on the right note as a guy raised to be liked and likable, who decides his life requires more risk and hardship.” Carrey is purposeful in his portrayal and authentic in the execution.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller)
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” This quotation is both the central theme of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and a clarion call for the main character, Walter, played by Ben Stiller. We usually think of Ben Stiller as a character actor, meaning we know him for playing big, silly, and unrealistic roles–think Zoolander, Dodge Ball, and There’s Something About Mary.
When Stiller starred in the title role and directed this film, we fell in love with him. Here’s what we love about it: Not only do we watch him begin as a beat-up worker who’s given little respect, then grow into a man who pursues both love and life, but we also get to watch Stiller engage in grounded scene work. His scenes with co-star Kristen Wigg (Cheryl Melhoff) and Sean Penn (Sean O’Connell) are subtle and authentic. Also, we never realized how piercingly blue Stiller’s eyes are until he played a role that evoked something other than laughter.
The Skeleton Twins (Kristen Wiig)
The Target Lady, Gilly, and Dooneese (the creepy woman with tiny hands); these are just a few of the recurring characters Kristen Wiig played on SNL. After leaving the show, she went on to play roles in comedic movies such as Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, and Anchorman 2. We all love a woman who can make us laugh! We also love a woman who can reach our hearts and bring tears to our eyes.
Kristen Wiig has played several dramatic roles that we think are highly underrated. We imagine this is the case because her small and big screen hits were so iconic that audiences have difficulty accepting her in a dramatic role. If that’s the case, they’re missing out. Here’s what we love about her dramatic roles: focusing on the 2014 film The Skeleton Twins, in which she plays opposite Bill Hader (Milo Dean), Wiig embodies one of the most profound definitions of acting “to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” She can be present, engage with her scene partners in the moment, and make honest choices in outrageous situations. We hope she’ll continue to find projects that allow her to show the emotional depth and dramatic breadth she’s capable of portraying.
Passengers (Chris Pratt)
Chris Pratt is probably best known for his long running role on the TV comedy, Parks and Recreation. He was actually cast on that show for 6 episodes, but the show runners and audience liked him so much he ended up staying on the show until the very end. After playing the goofy Andy Dwyer for seven seasons, he transitioned to the big screen mostly in the action/adventure genre. One of his best dramatic roles did include some action, but it was mostly grounded in realism.
In the 2016 film, Passengers, Pratt played Jim Preston across Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora Lane). IMDB shares this synopsis of the film, “A malfunction in a sleeping pod on a spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet wakes one passenger 90 years early.” Bascially, it’s a love story where two people get stuck on a spaceship together and have to figure how to live and love one another. Here’s what we love about it: When Jim is trying to decide whether to wake Aurora up, we watch him fall through the levels of despair and loneliness, one after another. His performance is reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Castaway–he’s all alone with no immediate hope. Pratt’s performance is so engaging that most of us are relieved when he wakes Aurora up, regardless of the consequences.