When it comes to acting, going over the script is probably the easiest bit. The real challenge is learning the ins and outs of your character, including their exceptional skills. Even though many movies include stuntmen and sound dubbing, its actors still need to go to great lengths to make the film more realistic.
Actors spend months learning how to surf, how to wield a sword, how to ice skate, how to hold their breath for a terrifyingly long amount of time…In other words, actors don’t just play their characters,they ultimately become them.
Here are some surprising skills actors had to master to get into character.
For his role on Breaking Bad, as the chemistry teacher turned drug lord, Bryan Cranston took actual lessons on how to cook meth. “We were taught how to make meth by DEA chemists who were our consultants on the show,” the actor revealed in his interview with Howard Stern.
While they didn’t actually cook it, they were given precise instructions on how to do it. Bryan described the process as “interesting, intricate, and dangerous.” Three words that pretty much sum up his character. Good to know that Walter White really knew what he was talking about when he lectured Jessie.
To say Shia Labeouf committed himself to his role in Fury would be an understatement. Labeouf joined the U.S. guard, pulled out a tooth, cut a scar onto his face, and didn’t shower for four months, all so he could perfect his part as soldier Boyd “Bible” Swan.
That’s some unbelievable dedication right there. But is it possible he took it one step too far? Yes. Even his co-star, Brad Pitt, warned the actor he was pushing too hard. Apparently, his radical behavior annoyed everyone on set. They felt like he was just trying to outshine them by proving he was the most dedicated star.
Krasinski said that preparing for his role as navy SEAL Jack Silva was an unforgettable period (and a far cry from his life on The Office as Jim Halpert). “It was the most extreme metamorphosis of my body that I have ever seen,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
The rough training Krasinski went through turned him into an absolute beast. “We learned how to fire a whole variety of different weapons and learned how to maneuver through rooms with lights, without lights. We learned how to maneuver through buildings on fire… we did all that sort of training,” he added.
To play blind pianist and singer Ray Charles, Jamie Foxx had to glue his eyelids shut, lose 30 pounds, and, most important, prove to the star that he was worthy of playing him. Foxx said his meeting with Charles was unforgettable, and so was walking around with his eyes shut for two weeks.
The actor told The New York Times that gluing his eyes shut made him feel like a prisoner in his own isolated world. But Foxx’s dedication and perseverance paid off. He was showered with praise for his outstanding act, and he took home an Academy Award for Best Actor.
In the crime drama, Snatch, Brad Pitt plays an Irish traveler named Micky the Gypsy. To get into character, the talented A-lister developed such a strong Irish accent that it’s practically impossible to recognize he’s the man behind the voice.
But Pitt panicked the first few times he tried to sound Irish. He struggled to perfect the unintelligible dialect and was worried he would ruin the movie. Ultimately, Pitt nailed the incomprehensible language and surprised many Irish natives who were blown away by how accurate he sounded.
Learning how to surf is exciting, hard, and, at times, painful. Just ask Patrick Swayze, who broke four ribs on the set of the 1991 thriller, Point Break. Swayze, as well as his co-stars Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty, had to learn how to ride waves to make the movie more realistic.
The cast moved to Kauai, Hawaii two months before the filming began and spent hours in the water with professional surfer Dennis Jarvis. Of the three stars, Reeves was the only one who continued to surf after the movie wrapped up.
For her role as zombie slayer, Michonne, in AMC’s The Walking Dead, Danai Gurira spent one month with a sword master learning how to wield her character’s trademark katana. Despite learning relatively rigid techniques, Gurira felt it was important to develop a style that would fit her self-taught character.
“She [Michonne] wasn’t trained in the bamboo forests of Japan,” the star explained; “She figured it out.” This wasn’t Gurira’s first time swinging swords on stage. She had done it a few times before, but it was all theater training work and never as professional as what she had to do as Michonne.
If you watched the coming-of-age drama Call Me By Your Name, there’s a high chance you spent the next couple of weeks daydreaming about Timothée Chalamet. The charming young actor played Elio Perlman, a young Italian boy who adores classical music and spends most of his time composing his own pieces on the piano.
To get into character, the French actor flew to Italy where he became fluent in the language and learned how to play both the piano and the guitar from scratch. That’s an impressive set of skills for a young actor to learn in such a short amount of time. Bravissimo!
Adrien Brody was only 29 when he played Polish Jewish pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, in the WWII drama, The Pianist. The actor revealed he was depressed for a year after the movie wrapped up. “I was very disturbed by what I embraced [in making that film] and of the awareness that it opened up in me.”
His spectacular performance in the heart-wrenching film won him a Best Actor Academy Award, making him the youngest male actor to snatch such a valuable prize. To get into character, Brody dedicated himself to the instrument and practiced for four hours a day until he was able to play famous works by the romantic composer Frédéric Chopin.
To perfect her role as former Olympic skater Tonya Harding, Robbie spent hours on the ice rink practicing her moves over and over again. Four hours a day, five days a week for 12 weeks, to be exact. Even though the movie featured a stunt double, Margot still had to train hard to learn the basics.
The actress performed the entire first minute of Tonya’s real 1994 Olympic routine! Her coach, Sarah Kawahara, felt it was important to make her look as natural as possible. She told Backstage, “It’s not a matter of just learning to skate; it’s looking like you don’t have to think about it.”
Jennifer Lawrence’s first Oscar nomination was for her role in the 2010 mystery drama Winter’s Bone. She played Ree Dolly, a teenager from a broken family with two dysfunctional parents and two younger siblings who desperately need her care and protection.
To fully convince the audience that Lawrence felt at home in nature, she had to learn basic survival skills, like chopping wood, and some nauseating acts like skinning squirrels. Not a skill for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. But Lawrence is one tough actress, and she handled the training like a pro.
To play American fur trapper, Hugh Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio went through some serious physical challenges. He ate raw bison liver, spent days swimming in frozen rivers, and even slept inside a dead animal’s carcass. But apart from the physical torture, DiCaprio learned something neat – how to speak the indigenous language Arikara.
With the help of dialect coach Craig Falcon, Leo managed to pick up this nearly extinct language. “Leo (DiCaprio) was a good student. He would really get himself into character when he was speaking Arikara or doing sign language,” Falcon told APTN National News.
To play the legendary civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, Idris Elba had to perfect a South African accent. The British actor admitted it took him a while to get good at it. “I couldn’t do it at the beginning, and you know why? Because I couldn’t understand what he’s doing to make him talk like that. And it turns out it’s his traditional language, Xhosa.”
He also said that getting into character took a lot of reading, watching documentaries, and trying to gather as much information as he possibly could on South African culture. Even after all that preparation, Elba still felt a bit undeserving of the role. But he had to “put any reservations aside and just do it.”
Natalie Portman’s performance as Nina Sayer, the tortured ballerina in the 2010 thriller, Black Swan, is hauntingly beautiful. To perfect her elegant and swift moves, Portman trained for nearly eight hours a day and pushed her fragile body to its limit. The exhaustion helped the star grasp her character’s struggles.
Portman’s schedule was so grueling, she dislocated a rib during rehearsals. “It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down,” she revealed. The award-winning actress took the pain and turned it into art.
Jesse Eisenberg’s character in Now You See Me is a swift and crafty magician who seems to always be one step ahead of everyone. To become the notorious illusionist, Jesse learned as many tricks as he could with the magic consultants on set.
“It was really fun, and it kind of became the thing where we would try out different tricks to each other,” he revealed, “I, of course, didn’t know one-tenth of one percent of the stuff he [the consultant] does, but it was just fun being in that world all the time for a few months.”
2016’s Suicide Squad featured some wacky characters, including the creepy and devilish Harley Quinn. While the movie received mixed reviews, Margot Robbie played her part to perfection. She made loony look cool, and her character became everyone’s Halloween costume that year. Apart from roller skating, Robbie picked up on a really neat “party trick” for the movie.
With the help of a free diver, she learned to hold her breath underwater for a whopping five minutes. “It’s kind of like meditating underwater,” she said. The actress nailed five minutes and was ready to go for five and a half but was advised against it.
To play the daring French street performer Philippe Petit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt learned how to walk across tightrope wires and said he enjoyed every minute of it. While he didn’t actually dance or hop on a thin wire hanging 400 meters above the ground, he still got really good at walking across it.
Joseph was given lessons by the wire-walking man himself, Philippe, who set up a whole workshop to help him perfect the craft. If any of you have ever tried walking across a tightrope, you know it’s no joke. It might seem easy, but just one step on the wire is enough to wobble your world.
I’m sure none of us were surprised when we saw Channing Tatum tap dance in the 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar! After stripping in Magic Mike and breakdancing in Step Up, we all knew the actor could move. While he looked like a natural tapping his feet on stage, it took him months to perfect the six-minute scene.
“I spent about three months preparing. It’s the most I’ve ever prepped for a six-minute section in a movie,” the actor told Vulture. Tatum ended up delivering a top-notch, clickety-clack performance that was worth every sweat and tear.
Tom Cruise has rightfully earned his daredevil reputation. The actor has no fear when it comes to doing his own crazy stunts. In Mission Impossible: Fallout, Cruise really took it to the extreme when he skydived 200 mph without a harness.
He also spent around 2,000 hours training and studying to become a helicopter pilot. The actor became a flying expert and even learned how to do a corkscrew dive, an advanced and scary flying maneuver that only the bravest attempt. It’s safe to say, if he ever gets sick of acting, he could easily find a job as a stunt double.
If you’re going to play the legendary Charlie Chaplin, you have to be willing to dedicate yourself to the fullest. This unique character’s silence carries so much personality that devoting yourself to his art is an absolute must. When Robert Downey Jr. got the part of Chaplin, he knew he would have to put in the work.
The actor learned to play the violin (and some tennis) left-handed, just like Chaplin. The 1992 masterpiece, Chaplin, directed by Richard Attenborough, earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Leading Man.
Johnny Cash and June Carter’s relationship was inspirational, authentic, and heartwarming. To deliver that same authenticity in the film, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon had to learn the guitar and autoharp (respectively) to play their iconic song, “Walk the Line.”
Both actors received professional help and top-notch guidance on how to master their instruments. The actors’ hard work didn’t go unnoticed! The film received five Oscar nominations, including one for Witherspoon’s excellent performance.
Mastering the art of wielding a Katana sword is no joke! To play a sword-swinging ninja mutant, Olivia Munn trained for five months, six hours a day. Incredibly, the actress became so good that she ended up performing almost all the stunts herself.
“It’s really important to me that Psylocke was as believable as possible, and that meant to me that I had to really know what I was doing and be strong,” the actress told Vanity Fair. Munn revealed she fell in love with the art and still practices sword fighting as a hobby.
For her insane underwater scenes in Avatar 2, Kate Winslet had to get comfortable with holding her breath. The actress learned how to free-dive (diving without the use of any scuba gear), so she spent a generous amount of time preparing her lungs for the plunge.
Winslet learned how to hold her breath for seven whopping minutes! Her longest record was seven and 14 seconds. She told The Hollywood Reporter that her experience was both incredible and crazy. Winslet didn’t just play a “water person.” She became one.
Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill is one quick and intimidating fighter. To play The Bride, she had to train eight hours a day for three months. She took lessons in three styles of Kung Fu, as well as lessons in sword fighting, knife fighting, knife throwing, and hand-to-hand combat.
Thurman described the training for her film as absurd. Quentin Tarantino monitored her progress every week and made sure she was following the strict schedule. It’s safe to say that by the end of the film, Thurman could probably have taken him down with one blow.
Jacob Elordi revealed that for the film The Kissing Booth, one person from the film’s crew pretty much “threw” him on a motorbike and told him to spend some quality time with it on the freeway. We’re assuming (and hoping) that he spent some time zigzagging and circling in an empty parking lot before filming began.
The actor revealed he fell off a few times but eventually got the hang of it. Right after the movie wrapped up, Elordi made plans to get his very own motorcycle: “Mum, if you’re reading this… I’m buying a motorbike,” the young actor revealed in an interview with Just Jared.
Chadwick Boseman’s spectacular performance in the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom took a lot of dedication and hard work. The actor devoted himself to the trumpet and spent hours learning how to play it.
Boseman’s co-star, Glynn Turman, revealed that the cast used to hear him practice in his hotel room. He said that Boseman’s incredible efforts inspired the rest of them to be just as professional and good as he was. “He had that (trumpet) going hard in his hands at every moment,” Turman told the morning show Today.
While some movies call for just one actor to acquire a new skill, other movies involve the whole cast. After casting deaf actor Millicent Simmons in the 2018 horror film A Quiet Place, director John Krasinski had the whole cast learn sign language for every line of the script.
95% of the movie takes place in silence, and Krasinski said that Simmons really helped everyone get a feel of what it’s like to experience life that way. He said she was a “guide through what it’s like to experience the world without hearing it.”
To prepare for his role as a heavy metal musician who lost his hearing, actor Riz Ahmed took sign language lessons with ASL coach Jeremy Lee. Ahmed spent seven months meeting up with members of the deaf community and learning more about their lives.
The director of the film, Darius Marder, praised Ahmed for his dedication. “He’s extraordinary, and his physicality is extraordinary. He doesn’t just learn ASL, he embodies it. Remember, ASL is 50 percent in your face. Riz just took to it,” the director told Den of Geek.
Bradley Cooper’s performance in A Star Is Born, as the troubled yet talented country singer, Jackson Maine, earned him many compliments. Not many people knew he could sing! But it wasn’t so much a hidden talent of his as much as it was hard work and dedication.
Bradley spent around a year and a half taking vocal lessons and six months learning how to play the guitar and piano. He also worked with a dialect coach to get the accent he wanted his character to have. He based it on the California\Texas hybrid accent of his fellow co-star, Sam Elliott.
To play Captain Jack Aubrey, Russell Crowe learned everything there is to know about sailing. He spent months studying and researching how it was to be a naval officer in the 19th century. But the long hours spent reading were the easy part of his preparation. Learning how to play the violin was the real challenge.
He spent three months practicing under the guidance of Australian Chamber Orchestra leader Richard Tognetti. Crowe referred to it as the hardest thing he has ever done for a film. Three short months is surely not enough to master the violin, but we salute Crowe for his attempt!
Lui Yifei worked hard to become the legendary Chinese warrior Mulan. She spent seven hours a day for at least three months mastering the art of “wushu,” a form of Chinese martial arts that includes both barehand techniques and weapon-play.
Mulan’s cinematographer Mandy Walker revealed that Lui Yifie performed 90% of her stunts, including sword fighting, horseback riding, different battle scenes, and swift martial arts moves. According to Lui, “Every night when I did my homework, I found something new. That passion got me through the next day’s training. Each day I allowed myself to forget who I am for the moment.”
In the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara’s character, Lisbeth Salander, is an exceptional computer hacker with raven black hair, shaved off eyebrows, and piercings everywhere. And while some actors would prefer to rely on different makeup techniques to do the trick, Mara actually went ahead and did all of that.
She shaved her brows, pierced her nipple and face, learned how to ride a motorbike, and, most incredibly of all – learned how to hack computers. Before the movie, Mara told Vogue she used to dress up way girlier, but today, she “literally roll[s] out of bed and put[s] on whatever is there. I have really enjoyed being a boy this last year.”
For his 2014 comedy, chef Jon Favreau teamed up with pro chef Roy Choi to teach him the ins and outs of the culinary world. Favreau compared filmmaking to cooking by saying that the common thread is that both chefs and moviemakers have an “OCD enjoyment of doing something well repeatedly and getting lost in it.”
Favreau fell in love with cooking during filming and continues to develop his newfound skill off-set. “I’ve learned football. I could learn to be a fireman one day, but this one’s different. It doesn’t stop with the movie. I’m still wanting to learn more, to cook more,” he admitted.
Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award in 1990 for his spectacular performance in My Left Foot, playing an Irish writer with cerebral palsy. His character, Christy Brown, is confined to a wheelchair and only has control over his left foot. Above all odds, Day-Lewis’ character becomes a writer and an artist.
The movie is a real tearjerker, and Day-Lewis’ preparation for the role is incredible. The actor learned to write and paint with his toes and spent two months in a clinic in Dublin with cerebral palsy patients so he could familiarize himself with the condition. Now that’s dedication!
Another crazy Day-Lewis acting story revolves around his 1992 adventure drama, The Last of the Mohicans. The star picked up on some essential survival skills when he trained for his role in the the film. Day-Lewis’ character, Hawkeye, does a lot of running and skinning (animals) and fighting with tomahawks.
Day-Lewis learned the ins and outs of surviving in the wild, including how to hunt his own food, how to build a canoe, and how to fire and reload a 12-pound flintlock on the run. Next time someone asks you what’s the one thing you would bring to an isolated island, just tell them, Daniel Day-Lewis.
This might be a bit underwhelming compared to the other skills on this list, but we decided to put it on here anyway because, well, Ryan Gosling. For his role as dreamy Noah Calhoun in the 2004 romantic drama The Notebook, the actor spent weeks doing “Noah things.”
He spent two months in Charleston, South Carolina building furniture with his “cabinet sensei” who taught him all he needed to know to be the most believable Noah possible. Gosling made some impressive tables and chairs (that were featured in the film!) and put some significant muscle mass on his thin figure.
In Green Book, Mahershala Ali plays famous pianist Don Shirley. To get into the shoes of this incredible musician, Ali spent three months practicing on the piano with the composer of the film, Kris Bowers. Bowers was impressed by Ali’s dedication:
“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.”