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Man of a Thousand Faces
Eight of Lon Chaney's thousand faces.note 

Most actors have a familiar energy that they bring to the screen, from the bubbly good-heartedness of Jennifer Aniston to the simmering intensity of Al Pacino. A few, however, bring a different energy to every character they play. They are chameleons, slipping fully into a variety of wildly dissimilar roles in which they are largely unrecognizable. They are masters of accents, alter their mannerisms for each character, and change their appearance so drastically that they seem almost like shape shifters.

This type of performance is usually a requirement for films with one actor playing Loads and Loads of Roles. It is also at the heart of many Biopics.

A hallmark of this trope is that seeing an actor's name in opening credits gives you no idea of what sort of character to expect. This may particularly apply to actors who make few public appearances, because the audience may have no conception of what they would be like out of character, making it more difficult to see the actor behind each performance.

This trope is the polar opposite of I Am Not Leonard Nimoy and Type Casting. These actors aren't Playing Against Type; they would never let themselves get pinned down to a type to begin with. You are unlikely to say, "Hey, It's That Guy!," because you won't even recognize that it is the same actor. Also contrast with actors who have a generally well-known persona, but undergo the occasional Beauty Inversion.

In voice acting, this is Man of a Thousand Voices. When the Man of a Thousand Faces is a character, they're a Master of Disguise.


Examples:

  • Pre-Batman Christian Bale was a pretty fair example of this trope.
  • Proof that Sacha Baron Cohen is an example is the fact he is consistently able to make his candid camera movies without being recognized.
    • One should think that people would look through it, given the fact that he's over two meters tall.
  • Cate Blanchett can seemingly effortlessly slip into Kathryn Hepburn, Bob Dylan, and Galadriel, as well as wielding a Streep-sized arsenal of accents.
  • Lon Chaney is the trope-namer, famed for his ability to transform himself convincingly into a wide variety of grotesque monsters.- and a Marine drill sergeant...
  • Daniel Day-Lewis radically alters his appearance, accent and everything else about himself for any role he does. It's pretty insane to compare his appearance in any movie he does beside his appearance receiving the Oscar nomination for said movie.
  • Johnny Depp may be one of these, as he seems to be nearly unrecognizable between Edward Scissorhands, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Willy Wonka.
    • Not to mention Sweeney Todd (though this one arguably resembles Edward).
  • Ian Hart is Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone. He's a bald assistant in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. He has a quite thick NE England accent as a working-class father in the 1930s in Liam. He puts on an American accent for a bit of undercover work in Sherlock Holmes and the Silk Stocking that sounds nothing like his own voice (personally, I didn't think it was him for the first several seconds).
  • Tom Jones, Daddy Warbucks, Hercule Poirot, and the lawyer from Erin Brockovich? Yep, all Albert Finney.
  • Alec Guinness played many roles - once, in Kind Hearts and Coronets, no less than eight, one of them female.
  • Paul Muni was, like Lon Chaney, well known for this (even if he's not as well known now). He played Tony Montana in the original Scarface, Wang Lung in The Good Earth, Emile Zola, Juarez, Louis Pastuer, and seven different characters - six of them waxwork mannequins come to life - in Seven Faces.
  • Eddie Murphy deserves a mention if only for this scene. He plays two people in that room - the obvious one and someone else. Can you guess who?
  • Gary Oldman has absolutely nailed depictions as diverse as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula, Beethoven, Sirius Black, and Commissioner Gordon. And yet Iím not at all confident that I would recognize him if I met him on the street.
  • Ron Perlman: Slade, Vincent, and Hellboy. All the same guy.
  • Richard Roxbrugh is known for creating unique voices for the parts he plays. It isn't immediately obvious that he's both Dracula in Van Helsing and the evil duke in Moulin Rouge!. BTW he's also played both Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty (the latter admittedly in the non-canonical The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film).
  • Both Dr. Strangelove and The Mouse That Roared were built around the fact that Peter Sellers was one.
  • Meryl Streep is famed for her versatility, particularly her mastery of accents. Compare, just for example, Sophie's Choice, Out of Africa, Julie And Julia, A Prairie Home Companion, and Doubt. And then watch Angels In America.
  • David Suchet completely nails the "rat-faced" Inspector Japp in the Peter Ustinov Poirot film Thirteen at Dinner. He then he goes on to play the dapper Belgian himself in Poirot. He's also almost unrecognisable as the piratical Reacher Gilt in Going Postal.
  • Tracey Ullman can do almost any accent, and play almost any part.
  • Hugo Weaving...AKA Elrond, V, Agent Smith, The Red Skull, Mitzi Del Bra...The list goes on.
  • Fictional example: The man who eventually becomes Clayface on Batman: The Animated Series.

Stop, or I Shoot Myself!ImageSource/Live-Action FilmsThe Blind Side

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