Some actors are instantly recognizable every time you see them on screen. There's no disguising Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart or Robert DeNiro and that's okay. Many of their roles are playing similar characters and that's okay too. These are stars and we enjoy how each manifestation of their essential personification is developed in their films. And it is a mistake to claim that they were not good actors. Bogart, for instance, went beyond the usual tough guy he played in such films as The African Queen and Caine Mutiny.
Some film stars take on very different roles, that require lots of make up, weight changes, accents or elaborate costumes. But that's really just the window dressing. The real difference comes from within. Great actors assume different personas for different roles. They become their character and the results are transformative and exciting. Sometimes they are barely recognizable.
Below I've got an even eleven (really, you got a problem with the number 11?) actors who convincingly became two different people for two different films. The two performances must be within 20 years of one another so that the person aging isn't too much of a factor. No performances as children included and no performances in super intense make up (sorry Roddy McDowall in Planet of the Apes (1968)).
I'll be the first two admit two things: 1) It's possible to come up with dozens and dozens more actors and 2) In many cases the actors I cite are indeed physically recognizable from one role to the next. But in all cases they are different people beating no resemblance other than the man playing them.
(I guess I'm going to have to come up with a similar list for women now. A film blogger's work is never done.)
Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi (1982) and as Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000). This list is not in order except for Kingsley who must come first. I defy anyone to come up with two more different characters portrayed by the same actor. One is the great pacifist leader of India the other a manic English gangster whose way tougher than nails. Sir Ben is one of our greatest living actors and all you have to do is watch these two movies back-to-back for irrefutable proof.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008) and as David Kleinfeld in Carlito's Way (1993). As Milk, Penn was a middle aged gay man who was the first openly homosexual activist to be elected to public office in the United States. It was a performance that garnered him Oscar number two. Prior to that Penn had appeared as all variety of characters bearing no resemblance to Harvey Milk, none more different than a drug addicted, paranoid, young Jewish lawyer in Carlito's Way. With two Oscars to his credit Penn will no doubt go down in history as one of our greatest actors.
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007) and as Juan Antonio Gonzalo in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008). Any role is a departure from Anton Chigurh. There's never been anything quite like him and the debate as to what he represented will go on. Much of the fascination with the character is based on Bardem's Oscar winning performance. A year later Bardem appeared in VCB as a Spanish painter and prolific cocksman. His lovers included Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall (sounds like one of my weekends). Bardem featured in my favorite films of both of the last two years and his contributions were inestimable to both -- and as two very different men.
Walter Huston as Howard in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and as Sam Dodsworth in Dodsworth (1936). He was the quintessential old prospector in Sierra Madre. Wise in the ways of the hills and its occupants, both animal and mineral. Perhaps a little touched (check out his dance moves) but plenty savvy. As the title character in Dodsworth he was in another world. A retired automobile magnate who set off to tour Europe with his wife. Huston is wise here too but with altogether different sensibilities and life experience. Couldn't look a lot different either.
Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932) and as Emile Zola in The Life of Emile Zola (1937). As Camonte, Muni was one of the forerunners of all film gangsters to follow, especially Italian-Americans. You might even say he was a bit over the top. But as the real life Zola he was the understated muckraking French writer of fin de siecle France. Muni had an abbreviated career -- partially by choice -- but made the most of the roles he did tackle.
Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and as Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel (1932). They look alike but can't possibly be the same guy. One of them must be another member of the acting Barrymore family. Nope. Same guy. Potter is the meanest man in town and likely would be in most any town you dropped him in. Kringelein, meanwhile is as nice an old bloke as you'd want to meet. He's a bookkeeper who's as far from the wealthy Potter as you can get.
Dustin Hoffman as Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967) and as Ratso in Midnight Cowboy (1969). So one year he makes his film debut as a recent and highly honored college graduate living and loving in Southern Calfiornia. Two years alter he's playing...hmmm, why not just say the polar opposite. Ratso is everything Ben is not. New Yorker, sickly, repulsive and a hustler. After these two roles Hoffman wasn't just a star but a recognized great actor. Still is.
Laurence Olivier as Marcus Licinius Crassus in Spartacus (1960) and Szell in Marathon Man (1976). Both were bad guys. But one was a slave holding Roman Dictator and the other was a former Nazi concentration camp doctor. Olivier looked and sounded quite different in both roles (remember, this is the guy who starred as a wealthy Brit in Rebecca (1940) ). Olivier's ability to assume varying roles bordered on magic.
Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine (1946) and Professor Novotny in Hangmen Also Die (1943). Brennan was one of the top five character actors of the the first half of the 20th century. Yes, he usually played comical second bananas in cowboy films. But he shone in those roles and everything else he took on. See him in Ford's My Darling Clementine as the oneriest Papa you'll ever meet. See him in Lang's Hangmen Also Die as a loving father and doctor in Nazi occupied Europe. You might check him out too as the drunkard in To Have and Have Not (1944).
Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989) and as Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York (2002). Another possessor of two Oscars, the first as a man with Cerebral Palsy who paints using his left foot, the only limb he can control. He's in control of one helluva lot more in Gangs, where he is the ultimate sadistic gang leader. Day-Lewis doesn't take on many roles but the ones he does....
Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941) and as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958). To begin with the two fellas couldn't look a whole lot different. One is a super wealthy publisher and collector of most everything. The other is a corrupt border town cop who's as mean and ugly as a rattler. One of the world's most revered directors, Welles could act too. These films are but two examples.