9 Actors Who Took On Completely Different Roles The Same Year

Morgan Freeman - 'Glory' And 'Driving Miss Daisy' And 'Lean on Me' (1989)

If there’s one thing that’s true of all actors, it’s that they can take on a role in one movie and then play someone completely different in another. That’s the whole point of acting, and outside of typecasting, pretty much every professional performer does this.

Still, there are those who take on iconic roles that set them apart, and in some rare cases, they take a completely antithetical role the very same year. When a star does that, it’s often fascinating, as it shows incredible range.

1. Robin Williams – ‘Good Will Hunting’ And ‘Flubber’ (1997)

Robin Williams - 'Good Will Hunting' And 'Flubber' (1997)

Throughout the late Robin Williams’s long career, he’s played numerous characters in a wide range of genres. He may have started in comedy on TV’s Mork & Mindy (1978-1982), but before long, he was headlining movies that showed a clear ability for improv. He also showed a strong talent in more serious roles – he didn’t just dabble in drama; he earned Academy Awards for it.

In 1997, Williams starred in – or appeared in – four films. The two for which he received the most recognition were Flubber and Good Will Hunting. In Flubber, he takes on a role previously held by Fred MacMurray in The Absent-Minded Professor and perfectly approximates his predecessor’s charm, while injecting his own brand of hilarity in every scene.

In Good Will Hunting, Williams plays Dr. Sean Maguire, a psychologist tasked with helping protagonist Will Hunting (Matt Damon). Maguire is charming, sensitive, and funny – all adjectives associated with Williams as well. Despite being settled firmly in drama, the actor manages to add a bit of humor through improv in a touching story about his character’s deceased wife:

She used to fart in her sleep. One night it was so loud it woke the dog up. She woke up and was like, “Oh, was that you?” I’d go, “Yeah” – I just didn’t have the heart to tell her.

His performance starkly contrasts his zany work in Flubber and underscores how eclectic Williams was.

2. Gary Oldman – ‘Leon: The Professional’ And ‘Immortal Beloved’ (1994)

Gary Oldman - 'Leon: The Professional' And 'Immortal Beloved' (1994)

Gary Oldman is among the great actors of his generation, and his ability to transform into any role he’s given proves this. Over the years, he’s played everyone from centuries-old Count Dracula to futuristic Dr. Smith from Lost In Space.

In 1994, Oldman proved his mettle in two very different movies. First, he played corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional. Later in the year, he starred in Immortal Beloved as the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

Stansfield is a terrifying and imposing character in the former film. He’s quiet and reserved one moment, and screaming at the top of his lungs in the next. Stansfield is thought by many to be an underrated cinematic villain. 

The latter film tells the story of a letter Beethoven left after his passing and plays out as his friend tries to uncover the identity of the woman he wrote to. This results in various flashbacks depicting Beethoven’s life, his brilliance, anger, and frustration. Oldman becomes Beethoven in the movie, and it’s impressive.

Immortal Beloved director Bernard Rose described Oldman’s approach in an interview with The Los Angeles Times:

He’d do Richard Burton playing his scenes as Beethoven. Then he’d do more complicated bits like Richard Burton doing Robert De Niro’s scenes in Taxi Driver. The trick was to find more and more obscure situations. But no matter what we suggested, he did them perfectly. Besides being prodigiously talented, he’s a tremendous comic, a fun, happy guy. Someone should really cast Gary in a comedy.

3. Morgan Freeman – ‘Glory’ And ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ And ‘Lean on Me’ (1989)

Morgan Freeman - 'Glory' And 'Driving Miss Daisy' And 'Lean on Me' (1989)

The year 1989 was a busy one for Morgan Freeman, which wasn’t necessarily new – the actor had been working steadily since the 1960s. Still, in 1989, he had three notable performances in three completely different films. First, Freeman played US Army Sgt. Major John Rawlins in Glory; he clearly put a lot of heart into the role, and was a standout character in a film with a plethora of them. As Rawlins, he’s perhaps best remembered for the following monologue:

And who are you? So full of hate that you have to fight everybody, because you’ve been whipped and chased by hounds. Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain’t dying. And dying’s been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now, dying by the thousands, dying for you, fool. And all this time I keep askin’ myself, when, O Lord, when gonna be our time? Gonna come a time when we all gonna hafta ante up and kick in like men! Like men! You watch who you callin’ n*gger! If there’s any n*ggers around here, it’s you, just some stupidass, swamp runnin’ n*gger, and if you not careful, that’s all you ever gonna be!

Later that year, Freeman portrayed chauffer Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy, a film about a wealthy Southern widow, Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy), and a 25-year period of her life alongside her chauffer in a reprisal of the off-Broadway production that inspired the movie. Freeman’s performance was, as usual, a prime example of his ability to create fascinating, believable characters.

Finally, he starred as the lead in Lean on Me, a biographical drama about Joe Louis Clark and his struggles as the principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ, in the late 1980s. Freeman’s portrayal of Clark is evocative of the man’s struggles, yet he gives an authoritative approximation of the same. It’s a moving film that tells the tale of a real-life struggle that many viewers could relate to.

4. Michael Keaton – ‘Beetlejuice’ And ‘Clean and Sober’ (1988)

Michael Keaton - 'Beetlejuice' And 'Clean and Sober' (1988)

Michael Keaton had many hits in the 1980s, including establishing himself as Batman in 1989. The year prior, he starred in two films requiring wildly different types of performances. In Beetlejuice, he played the titular trickster, a ghost contracted to eliminate some troublesome living people from a house. It’s an iconic role, and one many people consider among Keaton’s best performances.

He said he didn’t fully understand the character at first, but eventually came on board and designed the look of Beetlejuice himself. As he explained to The Hollywood Reporter:

Here’s the amazing part about it: He [Tim Burton] never saw any of it. We discussed it. I said, “I want hair that looks like I stuck my finger in an electrical socket.” And I said, “I want mold because Tim said he lives under rocks.” So I showed up for work, and I walked on the stage and said, “This is either going to be way off the mark, or he’s going to – I don’t know what he’s going to do.”

Four months after Beetlejuice was a box office success, Keaton took on the role of Daryl Poynter in Clean and Sober, an entirely different type of film – a drama about real estate agent Poynter (Keaton) struggling with his addictions. Keaton’s performance received a stream of impressed reviews, and it’s so different from Beetlejuice that you almost forget the same actor played in both movies. (Interestingly, one of the supporting actors in Clean and Sober is Morgan Freeman, playing a counselor at a rehab facility. It’s a quiet, subtle performance; if you’d seen it at the time you’d hardly guess Freeman was about to have a massive breakout year of his own in 1989.)

5. Vincent D’Onofrio – ‘Full Metal Jacket’ And ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ (1987)

Vincent D’Onofrio - 'Full Metal Jacket' And 'Adventures in Babysitting' (1987)

Vincent D’Onofrio‘s acting career began in 1983, but it wasn’t until 1987 that he truly showed the world he could act. In that year, he played Pvt. Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War drama Full Metal Jacket. D’Onofrio appears in the first half of the film, which focuses on a group of trainees at a US Marines boot camp, and it’s intense.

Lawrence is a deeply troubled young man who takes nothing but abuse throughout his training, which comes to an abrupt end when he has an intense moment in the latrine, and his performance has long been lauded for his intensity and dedication to his craft. On the film’s 30th anniversary, D’Onofrio had this to say:

It was just acting. I was young, and I was a very confident actor, and I don’t get butterflies very often… I went in and knew that I had a job to do and saw the character in a particular way, and eventually, slowly, he [Kubrick] started to see what I was doing, and he never complained… I would just keep doing it.

That same year, D’Onofrio had a minor part in Adventures in Babysitting, and while he plays the character of Dawson with a similar level of intensity, they’re nothing like each other. Dawson is a mechanic who looks a bit like Thor from the Marvel Comics Universe. He’s well-toned and in great shape, which cannot be said of Pvt. Lawrence.

6. James Earl Jones – ‘The Greatest’ And ‘Star Wars’ (1977)

James Earl Jones - 'The Greatest' And 'Star Wars' (1977)

James Earl Jones‘ prolific career began in 1964, and by 1977, he found himself in five films. Of course, he wasn’t credited in one of them, but more on that in a moment. First, he played Malcolm X in The Greatest, a biopic about the life of Muhammad Ali, with the Champ playing himself.

Jones portrayed Malcolm X with aplomb, and his skills were unmatched until Denzel Washington took up the challenge for his 1992 biopic about the Black Nationalist leader. Jones’s polar opposite role in 1977 was Darth Vader. He only voiced the character, while 6-foot, 6-inch British actor David Prowse was physically Vader. At the time, Jones didn’t believe he should be credited for just lending his voice.

Eventually, Jones came around, and his vocal work around the character helped immortalize one of cinema’s greatest villains. Since his era-defining work in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Jones has become an international celebrity and continued voicing Vader for more than 40 years. In a 2023 interview, he explained how he landed the role:

George [Lucas] had hired David Prowse, but he said he wanted a so-called “darker voice.” And not in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of timbre. And the rumor is that he thought of Orson Welles. And then, [he] probably thought that Orson might be too recognizable. So… he ends up picking up a voice that was born in Mississippi, raised in Michigan, and was a stutterer. And that happened to be my voice.

7. Edward Norton – ‘Primal Fear’ And ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ And ‘The People Vs. Larry Flynt’ (1996)

Edward Norton - 'Primal Fear' And 'Everyone Says I Love You' And 'The People Vs. Larry Flynt' (1996)

It’s rare that an actor enters the profession and astounds the audience with his performance, but Edward Norton is one of them. In his first film, Primal Fear, he plays Aaron Stampler, a young man accused of murdering a priest. Stampler has dissociative identity disorder; another of his personalities, Roy, is the real killer.

It’s a legal drama with one actor playing two distinct parts. In fact, if you want to see Norton’s range from one end to the other, you don’t even need to watch two movies in a single year, as Primal Fear offers precisely that. Still, Norton did appear in more films in 1996.

He was also in Everyone Says I Love You, Woody Allen’s only musical. Norton’s character, Holden Spence, has three musical numbers – and he’s actually singing. The film is a romantic comedy and isn’t even in the same ballpark as Primal Fear. Still, Norton appeared in one more movie in 1996 that was different from the other two.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is a biopic about the life and legal woes of Hustler founder Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson). Norton played Flynt’s attorney Alan Isaacman, and while much of his part is fictionalized, he conveys the character perfectly. 

Norton’s debut year of three outstanding performances earned him an Academy Award nomination for one of them: Primal Fear.

8. Jim Carrey – ‘Eternal Sunshine’ And ‘Lemony Snicket’ (2004)

Jim Carrey - 'Eternal Sunshine' And 'Lemony Snicket' (2004)

Jim Carrey‘s career has somewhat approximated that of Robin Williams, in that he started out in comedy and transitioned to drama – and then back again. Carrey’s comedic work is definitive of the genre throughout the 1990s and beyond, but the man has range. He proved this by starring as protagonist Joel Barish in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Barish elects to have his memories of his ex-girlfriend erased (after he learns that she did the same). The film plays out during the procedure as he struggles to undo his decision by reliving various memories with his ex. Many critics and viewers found the movie to be poignant, well-written, and well-acted. Carrey discussed his feelings on the part in a 2019 interview:

It wasn’t about memory. It was about being erased. It was a different perspective on it. It was about how it would feel to be erased. That was the strongest pull for me. That’s a heavy feeling. That’s what hit me with the script. When he finds out that she’s erased him, it’s just a brutal thing to hit probably anybody’s ego, but a male ego especially.

I loved the idea that the memories went in reverse. There were so many things that made it different than your normal losing-your-memory movie. I love the clunky, sci-fi aspect of this movie. It doesn’t take it over, it’s just a function within it. It’s interesting.

Carrey’s other 2004 role was as Count Olaf in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. He offers a return to form as he hilariously chews the scenery (in a good way) in every moment he’s in-frame. That’s largely due to Olaf’s profession: he’s a stage actor, and Carrey clearly has fun with the role.

9. Adam Driver – ‘Marriage Story’ And ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ (2019)

Adam Driver - 'Marriage Story' And 'The Rise of Skywalker' (2019)

Whether you love or hate the Star Wars prequel trilogy, you’d be hard-pressed to call Adam Driver‘s Kylo Ren a purely bad character. He’s anything but, and much of that has to do with the intensity of Driver’s performance. He played Ren as a villain-turned-hero, and while it took three films to do so, it all comes to a head in 2019’s Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. Interestingly, Driver was initially apprehensive about taking the role, as he explained in a 2019 interview with Rolling Stone:

Just because people can remake something, or revisit a world, doesn’t necessarily mean they should. I’ve seen a lot of bigger-budget movies that sacrifice character and stories for spectacle, and I had no idea what it was going to look like or what the script was. But the first words out of J.J.’s [Abrams] mouth were about character and story. It was all really cool. And even then, you have doubts. Can I live up to that? I’m a fan of the movies. You don’t want to f*ck it up by any means. It seemed that because I was scared of it, maybe it was a good reason to do it.

That same year, he starred opposite Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, a film about a couple going through a bitter divorce. Driver is all over the place emotionally in his performance as Charlie Barber, and it’s intense. He proves his acting mettle in this role, which offered a bit more range than his final Star Wars performance.