Being an actor isn’t as easy as you’d think. Aside from memorizing lines, some actors needed to learn specific skills, like martial arts, flying a plane, or even mastering a made-up language!
Check out what weird skills actors had to learn to make your favorite movie.
The Matrix – Laurence Fishburne Learned Kung Fu
If you are a sci-fi or action movie fan, you have certainly heard of The Matrix. The 1999 movie was a hit in theaters and spawned two sequels. One of the most important elements of the film were the kung fu battles. But some of the cast, including Laurence Fishburne, never trained in martial arts before.
Before they even started filming, Fishburne had trained intensely in kung fu for four months to prepare for his fight scenes. Fishburne remarked on how the training was intense but he enjoyed it, saying that the training made him fitter than any other point in his life.
John Wick – Keanu Reeves Learned Tactical Firearms
Keanu Reeves is an actor that gets incredibly involved with his projects, especially the John Wick series of films. While he had some experience wielding a handgun for Point Break, among other films, he felt that he needed some expert training in order to embody the legendary assassin John Wick.
Reeves learned how to realistically handle and shoot various firearms by learning from LA SWAT at Taran Tactical Innovations, studying under veterans who are expert marksmen and were involved in military operations. Thanks to their training, Reeves mastered how to quickly reload and shoot multiple targets with a pistol, shotgun, and a rifle within seconds.
Batman Returns – Michelle Pfieffer Learned How to Wield a Whip
One of the most iconic villains in the Batman franchise is the superhero’s on-again, off-again love interest Catwoman. When Michelle Pfieffer got the part of the sexy cat burglar, she knew it would be a very physical role. So on top of a strict diet and exercise regime, Pfieffer had to learn how to use a whip.
Nearly 30 years after Batman Returns hit theaters, Pfieffer revealed on Instagram that she still had the whip from her time on set. She then posted a video showing off her whip skills like it was 1992 all over again. “Just like riding a bike,” she commented on her video.
That Thing You Do! – The Cast Learned How to Play Their Instruments
The musical comedy That Thing You Do! is a fun story about a fictional 1960s band and their rollercoaster ride as a one-hit wonder. The actors provided realistic performances playing their instruments on stage. You wouldn’t know that they couldn’t play a note a month earlier.
The film’s stars, Tom Everett Scott, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, and Johnathon Schaech, spent a month learning all the notes to The Wonders’ songs to realistically play them out on camera. It was Schaech’s first time ever playing guitar, and Scott’s first time ever playing drums. Can you imagine the pressure they must have felt?
Black Swan – Natalie Portman Learned Ballet
Natalie Portman was the perfect choice for her role in the psychological thriller Black Swan. She has a ballet dancer’s build, and can expertly convey complex emotions through her training and experience as an actor. There was one problem, though. Portman never learned how to ballet dance.
Before and during filming, Portman endured all the experiences of a professional ballerina. Training put heavy stress on her body, causing her to gain 20 pounds and dislocate one of her ribs during rehearsal. While she did use a double for certain dancing sequences, the pain Portman experienced and the discipline she learned was real.
Breaking Bad – Bryan Cranston Learned How to Cook Real Meth
Bryan Cranston is a celebrated actor, particularly for his role as the teacher-turned-meth-dealer Walter White on the award-winning show Breaking Bad. The dark drama was praised for its down-to-earth portrayals of the criminal underworld, including the scenes where Cranston and his co-star, Aaron Paul, were making methamphetamine. Well, that’s because the process was real!
In an interview with Howard Stern, Cranston shared that he learned how to make meth from the DEA chemists that were consultants on the show. While they never used the actual chemical ingredients to make meth (for obvious reasons), the measurements, technique, and science depicted on the show was real.
Winter’s Bone – Jennifer Lawrence Learned How to Skin a Squirrel
Winter’s Bone provided a breakthrough performance for current Hollywood starlet Jennifer Lawrence. The movie provided Lawrence her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It’s a good thing, too, because she earned it. It’s not every day that an actor needs to learn how to skin a squirrel!
Since her character grew up in the rural Ozarks of Missouri, Lawrence decided that she needed some hands-on training in order to embody her role as a teenage outdoors-woman that hunts wild game. To prepare, she learned how to chop wood with an axe, and skin a squirrel for a particular scene in the movie.
The Last of the Mohicans – Daniel Day-Lewis Learned How to Track Prey and Build Canoes
Daniel Day-Lewis has built a reputation on being a method actor, going to extreme lengths to experience the life of the characters he portrays. One such instance was when he took on the role of Nathaniel Poe. In order to portray a man who is a skilled tracker and hunter, he’d have to become one himself.
To prepare for the role, Day-Lewis spent half a year learning to live off the land. Throughout production of the film, Day-Lewis refused catering, and would only eat what he had hunted. He also carried a musket at all times, learning how to shoot and reload while running. By the end of filming, Day-Lewis finished building his own canoe.
Hail, Caesar! – Channing Tatum Learned Tap Dancing
When Joel and Ethan Coen were casting the role of Burt Gurney for their movie Hail, Caesar!, they thought Channing Tatum was an easy choice. After all, Tatum displayed impressive dance moves in Step-Up, Magic Mike, and other films. While Tatum did have extensive dance training, he never learned how to tap dance.
For three months, Tatum trained and learned how to tap dance. “It’s the most I’ve ever prepared for a six-minute sequence,” said Tatum in an interview. “When I’m nervous about something, I drill it to a point that it’s probably unhealthy, but as long as it works even halfway, I’m happy at the end of the tortuous day.”
X-Men: Apocalypse – Olivia Munn Learned Swordplay
A fan favorite among comic book fans, Psylocke is a mutant character within the X-Men franchise. As a ninja with mutant powers, it’s easy to see why the character is so popular. With this in mind, Olivia Munn took her role as Psylocke seriously when she was cast in X-Men: Apocalypse.
For five months, Munn did intensive sword training, learning how to effectively and safely wield a katana sword. The training plus a rigorous bodyweight exercise routine caused her to lose 12 pounds during filming. The hard work paid off, since she performed 95% of her stunts shown in the film.
The Walk – Joseph Gordon-Levitt Walked a Highwire
The 2015 biopic The Walk is based on the true story of tightrope walker Phillipe Petit and his 200-ft. highwire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. To do such a feat would require heavy physical training, expert skill, and willpower to safely walk across a wire. So Joseph Gordon-Levitt did just that.
While wasn’t 1,350-ft. off the ground like the real Petit, Gordon-Levitt nevertheless trained as if he was going to perform that dangerous tightrope walk. It was actually the real Petit who taught Gordon-Levitt how to walk on a wire. Gordon-Levitt took to it quickly, able to walk a wire unassisted within less than two weeks of training.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Tom Cruise Held His Breath for Six Minutes
Tom Cruise has garnered a reputation of doing his own stunts, and he takes pride in it. Throughout his career, Cruise ran, jumped, and fought numerous bad guys within the Mission: Impossible film franchise among other movies. However, one of the stunts he performed in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was literally breathtaking.
To prepare for an underwater sequence in the movie, Cruise trained with a diving specialist that taught him a technique that would allow him to hold his breath for six minutes, so that is legitimately Cruise doing that stunt without tricks. Luckily, the filmmakers got the shot within a single take. How long can you hold your breath?
Suicide Squad – Margot Robbie Learned Gymnastics
Embodying a superhero can be incredibly challenging for an actor. After all, most comic book characters by their very nature are larger-than-life, and can perform impressive physical feats of agility and strength. No one knows that truth better than Margot Robbie.
For her role as the clownish character Harley Quinn, Robbie went through extensive training in gymnastics. For six months, Robbie strengthened her body to learn how to safely backflip, tumble, and do other acrobatics that Harley performs in the film. This helped Robbie rightfully get praised by both filmgoers and comic book fans alike. Can you do a flip?
Now You See Me – Jesse Eisenberg Learned Magic
The movie Now You See Me is an entertaining heist film, featuring thieves that are trained in sleight-of-hand magic tricks and other stage magic illusions. While filming the movie, it’s no surprise that the lead, Jesse Eisenberg, picked up a few tricks along the way.
To help himself better understand the role, Eisenberg learned a number of different card tricks and other illusions and would perform them for the crew between takes. Afterward, he would break the “magician’s code” and show his audience how the trick was done. Eisenberg stated that he does this because he’s uncomfortable with misleading people.
Taxi Driver – Robert De Niro Drove a Taxi
The success of Martin Scorcese’s praised psychological thriller Taxi Driver is rightfully credited to the great performance of Robert De Niro as the troubled cabbie Travis Bickle. De Niro portrayed a New York cab driver incredibly convincingly. That’s because he was one!
Prior to filming, Robert De Niro got an honest-to-God taxi driver’s license and worked as a cab driver in New York. De Niro reportedly worked 12-hour long shifts for a month before he had to report to set for his scenes. During that entire time, De Niro said that he was only recognized once while driving fares to their destinations.
The Haunting of Hill House – Elizabeth Reaser Learned How to Embalm Bodies
The Haunting of Hill House is a critically acclaimed horror series produced by Netflix. While actors are expected to be exposed to some unsettling things while creating a scary television show, Elizabeth Reaser didn’t think it would go too far. That’s when the show’s producers started sending her embalming tapes.
After being cast as a mortician, Reaser was sent video clips of real bodies getting really embalmed from the show’s team. The production team figured that exposure to the actual sight of a body being prepared for burial would help Reaser get into character. Furthermore, Reaser trained with a mortician in Georgia, literally putting her hands inside cadavers.
Pollock – Ed Harris Can Paint Like Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock’s paintings have sold for millions of dollars, so it was a no-brainer that a film be made about him. Even if it did take actor Ed Harris ten years to get a movie about the artist made. During that time, Harris didn’t just learn how to paint, but learned how to paint like Pollock himself.
Harris observed Pollock’s method of splashing and flinging paint onto a horizontal surface so often that several of his paintings looked like they could be Pollock paintings themselves. Harris also slept in Pollock’s bed, and smoked Pollock’s favorite brand of cigarettes, to get into character.
Ricki and the Flash – Meryl Streep Learned Electric Guitar
Meryl Streep is known among her fellow acting peers as a total pro, able to tackle difficult roles with poise and excellent execution. However, for the role of an aging rocker in the movie Ricki and the Flash, Streep would have to learn a new instrument in her mid-sixties: the electric guitar.
Six months before shooting, Streep took guitar lessons from various teachers, starting with acoustic and working her way up to electric guitar. She not only got tips from her rock and roll co-star Rick Springfield, but also got a guitar lesson from music legend Neil Young! Her hard work paid off, and Streep’s performance as Ricki was praised by critics.
The Pianist – Adrien Brody Learned Piano
In order to embody his role as a Jewish musician in Poland during World War 2, Adrien Brody gave up his apartment, his car, and left his girlfriend for Europe, with only two bags to his name. Just so he could experience strife and master the piano like his character in The Pianist.
With seemingly nothing left in his life, Brody practiced and studied the piano to become a versatile player. While there are close-up shots of a professional pianist’s hands working the keys, the majority of the movie is Brody actually playing the piano. Brody’s preparation paid off, and led to him winning an Oscar for Best Actor.
The Right Stuff – Dennis Quaid Got a Pilot’s License
When Dennis Quaid got the role of pilot and astronaut Captain Gordon Cooper for the historical drama The Right Stuff, he wanted to prove that he had… well, the right stuff. Since he was portraying a real life pilot of the United States Air Force, Quaid figured he should become a pilot himself.
Quaid went to the Van Nuys Airport to take flying lessons and got himself a pilot’s license. He enjoyed flying so much that it turned into a hobby once filming completed. This experience also helped him out in other acting roles where he played a pilot, such as Flight of the Phoenix.
The Hunger Games – Jennifer Lawrence Learned Archery
The Hunger Games film franchise was powered by the success of the dystopian novels and the performances of Jennifer Lawrence. Her portrayal of Katniss Everdeen has become a feminist action icon for the youth of the time. However, to truly become Katniss, Lawrence needed to master the bow.
To prepare for the role, Lawrence learned archery from five-time Olympic archer Khatuna Lorig. Lawrence’s participation in archery not only helped her in The Hunger Games, but also helped archery itself. Due to the popularity of the movies, archery ranges saw a significant uptick in popularity.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Tom Cruise Flies a Helicopter
Tom Cruise continued his reputation as an onscreen daredevil in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. For one particular scene, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is in a heated helicopter chase over a snowy mountain range. The person who flew that helicopter? Tom Cruise himself!
Cruise logged in an impressive 2,000 flying hours of experience in helicopter training in order to become an expert. It’s a good thing, too, because a novice couldn’t perform a 360-degree downward spiral maneuver for the stunt. What’s your favorite Tom Cruise stunt story?
Chef – Jon Favreau Became a Chef
Filmmaker and actor Jon Favreau just wanted to make a movie about a food critic turned food truck cook called Chef. In order to ensure the movie was accurate, Favreau tapped celebrated chef and food truck owner Joy Choi to oversee filming. That’s when Favreau’s life forever changed.
Enamored by the cooking techniques he studied for the film, Favreau learned under Choi and other chefs to become a quality chef himself. This new hobby led to Favreau and Choi reuniting and learning new recipes on the Netflix series The Chef Show.
Phantom Thread – Daniel Day-Lewis Learned Sewing and Clothing Design
It comes to little surprise to movie fans that actor Daniel Day-Lewis took his role in Phantom Thread to heart. The period piece set in 1950s London had Day-Lewis portray a high-concept fashion designer specializing in dresses. So, being Daniel Day-Lewis, he decided to become a fashion designer as well.
While director Paul Thomas Anderson was writing the script for Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis went to work. He studied fashion design, learning how to cut, drape, and sew. He trained so well in the craft that he even re-created a fancy Balenciaga dress all on his own.
Game of Thrones – Emilia Clarke and Jason Momoa learned Dothraki
When building a fantasy film for a movie or television show, it can become very involved. Not only do the writers need to imagine the setting, the story, and the outfits, but there are other things you wouldn’t expect. For example, actors Emilia Clarke and Jason Momoa didn’t expect to learn a fictional language.
For the fantasy drama Game of Thrones, both Clarke and Momoa had to perform scenes entirely in Dothraki, a language made up for the show. While the writers could have simply made nonsense, they actually had the actors learn the verb-subject agreement and translations of the dialogue, so they could speak it fluently like a real language.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Rooney Mara Learned Skateboarding and Computer Hacking
Based on a series of best-selling novels, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo revolves around a genius computer hacker that has multiple piercings and tattoos. When Rooney Mara got the lead role, she could have just agreed to have fake tattoos and fake piercings put on her body. However, Mara went a couple steps further.
Mara decided to better know her character by actually enrolling in computer training courses. She even learned how to skateboard and ride a motorcycle in order to further understand the role. While the movie got mixed reviews, critics were still impressed by Mara’s transformation, and she received an Oscar nod.
G.I. Jane – Demi Moore Trained Like a Navy S.E.A.L.
For the film G.I. Jane, Demi Moore wanted to be taken seriously. After all, she was tasked with portraying the first woman Navy S.E.A.L. member, and needed to be in serious shape. So she decided that in order to properly act like a S.E.A.L., she had to train like a S.E.A.L.
Moore and several of her fellow cast members were sent to a Navy S.E.A.L. boot camp to train for weeks. For months afterward, Moore trained in the early hours of the morning, with miles of running and dozens of one-armed push-ups, before filming scenes later in the day.
The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke Trained As a Pro Wrestler
Prior to filming The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke was an actor that was a falling star. It had been over a decade since he had a prominent movie role, so he decided to take his role of downtrodden wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson seriously and trained in the squared circle.
For four months, Rourke trained as a pro wrestler for two hours daily. He also lifted weights and did heavy cardio in order to get into shape. By the end of training, Rourke was able to take falls and perform complicated pro wrestling maneuvers.
Say Anything… – John Cusack Learned Kickboxing
When John Cusack accepted the role of Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything…, he didn’t expect to find his new life-long hobby. In the movie, Lloyd is an avid kickboxer, so Cusack took some kickboxing classes in order to prepare for the part and fell in love with the sport.
For over 20 years, Cusack continued to train under kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez, and even competed competitively for a time! Cusack has since reached a sixth degree black belt in Ukidokon Kickboxing, and continues to train regularly. He’s used his kickboxing agility for fight scenes in movies like Grosse Pointe Blank.
Chaplin – Robert Downey Jr. Learned the Violin
Robert Downey Jr. considered it a privilege to portray legendary entertainer and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. He also had plenty of people who questioned his casting, including the film studio. In order to properly honor Chaplin’s story and win over critics, Downey got deep into Chaplin’s history.
Among his talents as a comedian and writer, Chaplin was also a quality violinist, and had a reputation of taking a violin with him almost everywhere. Downey not only took violin lessons, but also learned how to play it left-handed, like Chaplin. It was this dedication to detail that led Downey to an Oscar nomination for the role.
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