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Man of a Thousand Faces

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Eight of Lon Chaney's thousand faces.note 

"I benefit from the Mr. Potato Head syndrome. Put a wig and a nose and glasses on me, and I disappear."

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 multiple 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 Typecasting. These actors aren't Playing Against Type; they would never let themselves get pinned down to a type to begin with. Because of this, these types of actors often have rather average-looking faces with no striking features, which can easily be changed with makeup or clothing to look a variety of ways. 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.


  • 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.
  • Cate Blanchett can seemingly effortlessly slip into Katharine Hepburn, Bob Dylan, and Galadriel.
  • 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).
  • 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 fewer than eight, one of them female.
  • Ian Hart is Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Philosopher'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 (some viewers didn't think it was him for the first several seconds).
  • James McAvoy:
    • Paul Webster, the producer of Atonement, lampshades this in one of the movie's featurettes when he talks about McAvoy's skill as a performer.
      "It's an incredible transformation, it's not just make-up. He physically altered himself in a way that all the best actors do [...]. They kind of metamorphose in front of the camera."
    • The German magazine Jolie made the following observation about the actor's abilities:
      When someone mentions the name James McAvoy, it's usually followed by comments like, "Chameleon," "the man with the thousand faces" or "one of the most versatile actors of our time."
    • He showcased his multifaceted acting talent in Split, where he embodied a character afflicted with dissociative identity disorder. From io9's review:
      This sets the stage for an absolute acting tour-de-force for McAvoy, who gets to play multiple sexualities, genders and ages in a single movie with only a few wardrobe changes. And he's absolutely incredible in each role, completely believable and able to flip between the characters with a twist of his face or gleam in his eye.
  • 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, Commissioner Gordon, Mason Verger, Norman Stansfield, Jean-Baptise Emmanuel Zorg, Ivan Korshunov and Winston Churchill. And that's not getting into the wide variety of accents sported by Oldman from American (New York and Dixie) to British to German to even Russian.
  • 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. Sellers was such an accomplished chameleon that he once admitted in an interview that he no longer knew what his real accent was.
  • Meryl Streep is famed for her versatility, particularly her mastery of accents. Compare, just for example, Sophie's Choice, Out of Africa, Julie & 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, and does a complete 180 to play an islamist terrorist in Executive Decision. 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... a.k.a. Elrond, V, Agent Smith, The Red Skull, Mitzi Del Bra...The list goes on.
  • Kate Winslet is exalted for her phenomenal versatility in a range of characters, genres and accents. Consider Sense and Sensibility, The Reader, Steve Jobs, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Mare of Easttown, to name a few.
  • Late Brazilian actor Orival Pessini was this, thanks to Latex Perfection. His several characters has appeared in different TV comedy shows along the years. His best known character, the friendly alien Fofão, appered on Kid Shows. He also appeared with his own face in a few occasions. He and his characters can be seen here(he appears unmasksed in tuxedo, holding a mic).
  • Norwegian actor Sverre Hansen likewise over a career that spanned almost 50 years. In his time as an actor for Norwegian television, he managed to span almost every aspect of theatre in multiple roles, from sick old men to fools, misers and madmen. When educating at the Norwegian school for actors, his speciality was - masks, of course.
  • Fans of Epic Rap Battles of History would often praise EpicLloyd for being able to capture the exact appearances of the many, many characters he portray (e.g. Theodore Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Alfred Hitchcock, George R. R. Martin, etc.), even though most of these people don't look alike at all in real life.
  • John Hurt was another example, sometimes aided by elaborate make-up. His Quentin Crisp is utterly unrecognisable from his Caligula the following year, and far easier to mistake for the real Quentin Crisp. It is entirely possible to be a casual fan of his work, and have only the vaguest idea what he actually looked like.
  • Phil Hartman, who provides the page quote, was widely praised for his range as a comedic actor and performer. His ability to adapt to any performance and keep the cast working together earned him the nickname "Glue" from his Saturday Night Live co-star Adam Sandler.