Few of life’s pleasures are as comforting as sitting down in front of your television (or your computer, or your phone) and tuning in to (binging) your favorite show. It’s the characters that keep us watching, and the actors who play them.
But what about when our favorite stars take on roles so vastly different from the ones we’re used to seeing them in? It can be jarring and unsettling. And captivating.
These are the most remarkable instances of an actor defying a former role and behaving entirely other.
Not long ago, when Bryan Cranston’s name came up, people thought of only one thing: comedy. With a bevy of television roles under his belt—including a recurring one on Seinfeld—Cranston landed Malcolm in the Middle.
He played Hal, the father of a dysfunctional family.
Hal was an outrageous man—a cartoon come to life. He was also hysterically funny. After seven seasons on that show, Cranston went another way.
When Breaking Bad premiered, viewers were undoubtedly curious how the goofy sitcom dad would fare in an intense drama. He silenced the naysayers pretty quickly. Hal and Walter White could never be confused for the same person.
Arrested Development and Ozark actually have a few things in common. One’s a whip smart comedy about an eccentric family trying to survive some legal turmoil.
The other’s a dark drama about a money launderer trying to protect his family from a drug kingpin who oversees his efforts.
Both star Jason Bateman. He may be trying to keep his family from fracturing in both shows, but the characters couldn’t be further from one another.
Bateman’s quick-witted—albeit frustrated—responses in Arrested Development help make that show great. His white collar criminal staring down death every day in Ozark provides a tension unlike anything else on television.
For the Friends cast, escaping the shadow of the characters they played for so long seemed like a tall task. It hasn’t been easy for most of them.
Courteney Cox played Monica Geller on the show—a chef with perfectionist tendencies. She bucked that three years later.
That’s when Courteney was cast as a tabloid editor for two seasons on FX’s Dirt. A far less sanitized role, if the show’s title didn’t give that away, Dirt allowed Cox to break free of the Monica Geller role she was long associated with.
She returned to comedy in 2009 with Cougar Town on ABC.
Donald Glover can do it all. Singing, dancing, rapping, acting, stand-up comedy. None of these are too tall a task for his talents.
In the NBC comedy Community, Glover played Troy Barnes. Once a high school quarterback, Troy is now something of a nerd in community college.
Glover then created the FX drama (with a comedic flavors) Atlanta. Starring in the show, he’s in a bit of a different predicament than Troy Barnes ever was.
On Atlanta, Glover’s character tries to launch the rap career of his cousin. Unfortunately, he’s no stranger to hardship, which has landed him on the street at times.
Some actors are able to flip that switch in their brains—the ones that allow them to transition from drama to comedy and then back again.
Timothy Olyphant is exhibit A. If you were a fan of FX’s Justified or Deadwood on HBO, you know how intimidating he can be.
But in 2017, Olyphant hung up his hats and his sidearms for the suburban family life… with an undead twist. The Netflix horror-comedy series, Santa Clarita Diet, pairs him with Drew Barrymore as married realtors. Only, she needs to eat people. But he still loves her!
It is, no doubt, a far cry from those tough guy roles.
If you haven’t heard of Zendaya, you soon will. She’s played critical roles in the new Spider-Man films and was the romantic backbone (with Zac Efron) of The Greatest Showman.
She first established herself on the Disney show, Shake It Up. The music/dance-themed kids’ series would run for three seasons.
In 2019, she traded in that squeaky clean Disney image for something more serious. Starring in HBO’s Euphoria, Zendaya plays a high school student. But not just any old high school student.
Her character is a recovering drug addict who has returned from rehab and now deals with the darkest issues plaguing modern teens.
If you grew up in the ‘90s, it’s a near certainty that you watched Saved by the Bell. Girls wanted to date Zack Morris. Guys wanted to be Zack Morris. The kid could call “time out” and stop time!
How could actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar ever escape the shadow of that character?
Well, he’s tried. Since Saved by the Bell’s days ended long ago, Gosselaar has appeared in a handful of television shows. He was a detective for five seasons on NYPD Blue. And a lawyer for four seasons on Franklin & Bash.
In 2016, Mark-Paul played an aging MLB catcher in Pitch. That’s impressive range.
Woody Harrelson has been around so long, it’s hard to remember all the parts he’s played. Way back before he was a movie star, he played Woody Boyd on Cheers. For two-hundred episodes, we laughed with Woody in the now classic sitcom.
Harrelson’s body of work would broaden.
In 2014, Woody joined Matthew McConaughey in season one of HBO’s True Detective. The groundbreaking series garnered much critical acclaim.
Following two Louisiana detectives over many years, the show played like a horror series at times with its dark and foreboding tone. It’s hard to believe the guy in this show is the same guy behind the bar in Cheers.
The short-lived ABC series, My So-Called Life, introduced Claire Danes to the world. It was 1994 when we first saw her as a 15-year-old girl trying to survive high school life and all that comes with it.
Despite critical acclaim, the show was gone after one season.
Danes would fashion a career in film following the show. But it wasn’t until 2011 that she would find herself back in episodic storytelling. Homeland would feature Danes in a leading role far removed from that teenage girl.
Playing a bipolar CIA officer, Danes attempts to thwart a potential al-Qaeda terrorist plot against the U.S.
This one’s a real doozy. After Martin Sheen was through hunting rogue colonels in the jungles of Vietnam, he turned to television in the early 2000s. And he picked a good one.
Sheen was cast as President Josiah Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.
The character became one of the most beloved fictitious presidents Americans had ever seen. That show ended in 2006. In 2015, another series came calling. This one had nothing in common with The West Wing.
Netflix’s comedy series Grace and Frankie features Sheen as an attorney who leaves his wife (Jane Fonda) for his law partner (Sam Waterston)! Not very presidential.
A master of impersonations and out-there performances, Bill Hader was a fan favorite on Saturday Night Live. His “Stefon” is one of the most beloved recurring characters in the show’s history.
Hader is a creative guy. And he wouldn’t let SNL define him.
In 2018, Hader co-created Barry for HBO. Yes, Barry is also a comedy (a dark one), but Hader’s not the funny one. He plays a tormented hitman on assignment in Los Angeles when he accidentally catches the acting bug.
The circumstances and supporting players provide big laughs, but Hader carries the show as a conflicted man you don’t want to cross.
Taraji P. Henson
You may not have noticed her until recently, but Taraji P. Henson has been acting for a while. Mixed in between all the big movies, she starred in two hit TV shows.
Her characters couldn’t be further from one another.
In Person of Interest, Henson played a homicide detective for the NYPD. Once an Army Interrogation officer, she aligns herself with the mysterious John Reese (Jim Caviezel).
Henson then took on the role of “Cookie” on Fox’s Empire. She’s been on the other side of the law. A former drug dealer and inmate for many years, the fiery Cookie now co-runs a record label with her husband.
For years, fans of The Office fawned over John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert. He was the competent one in an office full of eccentrics. Jim knowingly looked at the camera when things went askew. He pranked Dwight, and he romanced Pam. Everyone loved Jim.
Since then, Krasinski has spread his wings wider.
Not only is he writing and directing now (A Quiet Place), but John has joined Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. In what, you ask? John is the new Jack Ryan.
Starring in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Krasinski has stopped terrorizing Dwight and started fighting terrorists. He’s come a long way since Dunder Mifflin.
Married… with Children was doing things on TV in the 1980s that no one else was. Dealing with issues in hilarious fashion, the dysfunctional Bundy family’s matriarch was Peggy Bundy, payed by Katey Sagal.
Between her outfits, her hair, and her personality, Peggy was one of a kind.
Apparently Sagal had more in her than this over the top performance. As Gemma Teller Morrow on FX’s Sons of Anarchy, Katey trades in her leopard print for leather.
The dark drama following an outlaw motorcycle club co-stars Sagal as the mother of protagonist Jax Teller. She’ll do anything to protect the people closest to her. And that includes killing.
Few actors present as distinctly as John Lithgow. When you hear his voice, you know it’s him. Lithgow has never been funnier than his performance as an alien in the form of a human in 3rd Rock from the Sun.
For six seasons, Lithgow cracked us up in the role.
In 2017, the actor took on something completely different. Cast as Winston Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown, Lithgow plays the prime minister post World War II.
With his raspy British accent and cane to keep him upright, Lithgow is nearly unrecognizable in the role. He even won an Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmy for the performance.
High school is a weird time for a lot of teens. That was made apparent in Freaks and Geeks. It only lasted a single season, but it’s become a cult favorite.
Its star, Linda Cardellini played a good student who begins hanging out with some bad influences. Fifteen years later, she met some others.
Those others were her family members. In the Netflix series Bloodline, Cardellini plays one of the adult siblings who becomes involved in criminal activity at her parents’ Florida inn.
Ultimately, she helps cover up the murder of one of her brothers. High school seems tame compared to that!
Anthony Anderson is a very funny man. In the early to mid-2000s, he found himself primarily in comedic roles. And they worked out well for him.
Then, in 2008, Anderson was cast as one of the lead detectives in the long running hit, Law & Order. Fifty episodes later, Anderson moved on.
2014 marked a new chapter for the actor. That’s when ABC’s Black-ish premiered. Anderson was back doing comedy, playing the conflicted husband and father of a black family in a white, upper-middle-class town.
The show has been highly rated and well received by critics in every season it’s been on.
It seems since the dawn of television, some form of Star Trek has been in production. 1995 saw the start of a new series, Star Trek: Voyager.
Set three-hundred years in the future, the series tracks the adventures of the USS Voyager. That ship’s captain is Kathryn Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew.
For seven seasons, Mulgrew captained the ship. Then, in 2013, she took on a role in another galaxy.
Mulgrew would play Galina “Red” Reznikov on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Sporting a Russian accent, Mulgrew’s tough as nails inmate (and chef) became a fan favorite of the hit show.
Like Courteney Cox, Friends’s David Schwimmer has also made attempts to shake his Dr. Ross Geller character and step into something more challenging.
He did so most startlingly in 2016’s American Crime Story. Gone was the woe-is-me persona. Instead, he was defending O.J. Simpson!
The first season of that show dealt with the infamous O.J. drama, including the circus that was his trial. Schwimmer plays none other than Robert Kardashian. Yes, of the Kardashian family.
Now deceased, Kardashian was a personal friend of O.J.’s who would become one of his defense attorneys. And Schwimmer portrays him quite convincingly on the show.
Glee was a show that not only took people by surprise—a musical series set in a high school—but also became a surprise hit.
One of its stars for a few seasons was Jonathan Groff. He played Lea Michele’s love interest on the show. And yes, he sang songs.
In 2017, Groff moved far away from a glee club. As Agent Holden Ford on Netflix’s Mindhunter, Groff delved deep into darkness.
Set in the early days of the FBI’s psychological evaluation of serial killers, Groff sits down with convicted murderers on the show, prompting them to reveal their most twisted compulsions. Nothing to sing about here.
William Shatner is as synonymous with Star Trek as a fish is with water. The two were just meant for each other.
But after the original series and several films playing Captain James T. Kirk, Shatner moved on. No, not talking about T.J. Hooker.
In 2004, David E. Kelley created a spinoff of his hit show The Practice. Boston Legal follows a law firm trio of James Spader, Candice Bergen and Shatner. The show ran for five seasons.
Though Shatner’s forte is not his ability to disappear into the characters he plays, he wasn’t doing anything close to space exploration in this show.
Long before he was directing Star Wars (and Star Trek) films, J.J. Abrams was just a lowly television series creator. He hit it big with Alias and Lost, but first came Felicity.
Starring Keri Russell in the titular role, the drama follows the experience of a college student in New York.
Russell broke from that in a big way in 2013. That’s when The Americans premiered. In the award-winning thriller, she plays a KGB officer posing as an American (in many disguises) as Cold War tensions heighten.
An innocent university student to a Soviet spy, all in the span of eleven years.
Before The Office was an American hit, it was a British one. Jim Halpert was Tim Canterbury. Martin Freeman played Tim, the forerunner to Jim. He was sarcastic, self-aware, and also a prankster.
Since The Office, Freeman stepped into a number of big roles.
He’s been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Panther), played Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit trilogy, and portrayed Watson on Sherlock.
But perhaps his role furthest from The Office came in Fargo, the FX series. In the first season, Martin exchanges his British accent for a Minnesota one, playing an insurance salesman entwined in some pretty dark dealings.
Fox Mulder will go down as an iconic television character. Played by David Duchovny, Mulder was a believer in the paranormal on The X-Files. The long running series paired him with FBI partner and skeptic Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson).
Duchovny went another direction with a second series after that.
In Showtime’s Californication, David played a novelist with a whole host of problems ranging from booze to drugs to the women he took to bed.
Combine that with the complex relationships in his life, his daughter included, and Duchovny had made fans forget about Fox Mulder. Until The X-Files returned in 2016.
As the protagonist on Mad Men, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is an adulterous ad agency director. He’s a strict, savvy business man, and an intriguing character, regardless of your feelings about him.
Hamm has a sense of humor in real life. Maybe that’s why he took on a different role in 2015.
In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, starring Ellie Kemper in the title role, Hamm plays Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. He’s a cult leader who has imprisoned a number of women in an underground bunker, convincing them that they’ve survived the apocalypse.
Hamm gets to display his comic chops in the role, something he couldn’t do as Don Draper.
One’s a medical drama. The other’s a British spy thriller. Both star Sandra Oh.
From the show’s inception until 2017, Oh played Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy. A surgeon, she was an aggressive and intelligent character whose relationships were one of the show’s focal points.
Then, in 2018, Oh was cast as the titular character in Killing Eve. As Eve Polastri, she’s an MI5 agent who becomes consumed with capturing an assassin (played by Jodie Comer).
Oh’s performance in that show earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series Drama. She can do it all, no matter the genre.
One of the most iconic television characters of all time, Archie Bunker saw the world a little differently. Or, maybe he spoke for the everyman, as he dealt with a culture shifting all around him.
Whether you agreed with him or not, All in the Family was a hit.
A decade later, the blue collar New Yorker moved south, to Sparta, Mississippi. Actor Carrol O’Connor did, that is.
The TV series based on the movie (based on the novel), In the Heat of the Night, ran for seven seasons. As the police chief of the small city, O’Connor plays a man who becomes close with black Detective Virgil Tibbs.
One of the funnier sitcoms of the late ‘90s was the Wisconsin based That ‘70s Show. The cast was great. So were the recurring gags. One constant was the romance between Eric and Donna.
Laura Prepon played the latter. She was smart, confident, and everything Eric wanted.
Prepon challenged herself in 2013, playing inmate Alex Vause in Orange is the New Black. While Donna may have indulged in certain activities that high school kids did in the ‘70s, Alex takes things a bit more seriously.
She’s in prison for working with a drug cartel! What’s more, she’s also in a love affair with protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).
Neil Patrick Harris
Among the more ubiquitous actors these days is Neil Patrick Harris. Another talent who can entertain in a wide variety of ways, Harris found stardom back in 1989.
As a teenage genius who becomes a medical doctor, Harris was the title character of Doogie Howser, M.D.
Years later, Neil hit it big again on How I Met Your Mother. His goody two-shoes reputation was gone, replaced with a hilarious, womanizing one. Barney Stinson was a fan favorite—a guy who would probably mock young Doogie.
How I Met Your Mother was a hit for nine seasons, winning multiple awards over that time, thanks in part to Neil.
Among the many breakout stars on AMC’s Mad Men was Christina Hendricks. Playing ad agency office manager Joan Holloway, she finds herself in a slew of tumultuous circumstances, including an affair.
Still, there’s a certain respectable professionalism about her. In 2018, Christina tried something new.
On NBC’s Good Girls, Hendricks plays a suburban mom. But not your typical one. Desperate for money, she and two cohorts take to a life of crime. After robbing a grocery store, they find themselves in a deeper hole.
The comedy-drama has been received well, thanks in large part to Christina taking on a role much different than what she’d previously tackled.
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