Redemption, redefinition and renaissance: When actors change their path

This Friday, Michael Keaton will appear in ‘American Assassin,’ and we are forever grateful that he is continuously gracing the big screen today. For a long while, Keaton seemed to be an actor of the past, someone stuck with the haunting specter of ‘Batman’ and ‘Beetlejuice.’ But in ‘Birdman,’ one of the most meta films of recent memory, a comeback tale informed by the past of the actual man himself, prompting the actor’s own comeback tale, Keaton returned to prominence. And that got us thinking.

There are so many brilliant stories of similar nature: actors who fell off the map only to gloriously resurface, actors who redefined themselves in entirely unexpected ways, actors who turned their careers around with that one special performance.

In honor of Michael Keaton, we posed the following question: What are your favorite redemption or redefinition acting stories? Here are our answers:

Channing Tatum — 21 Jump Street

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We almost all were aware of Channing Tatum prior to 21 Jump Street. He was the guy from the Step Up movies and one of the many charming male leads of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, his being Dear John. There were rather judgmental notions of him, but it’s fair to say that, at that point, he hadn’t displayed particularly strong acting talent, and he hadn’t appeared, at least notably, in genres outside of romance and action.

But then came Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s comedy with Tatum and Jonah Hill — and an entirely new side of Tatum was unveiled, along with a massive hotbed of potential moving forward. Granted, Lord and Miller’s script and direction, the source material and Jonah Hill all provide much of the circumstance within which Tatum is able to shine. But it’s Tatum who, himself, also elevates Hill and the material. It’s the revelation of his intensely perfect comedic timing, of his pitch perfect rapport with an actor familiar with the genre that is so shocking from someone who hadn’t showed any indication of such. And, even better, it all comes with a film that works, a rated-R vehicle that can not only show off these comedic talents, but display them in their peak form.

Many may point to Foxcatcher for Tatum, which is undoubtedly a fascinating dramatic turn. But the build of the dramatic seemed to be more evident. 21 Jump Street through us all for a loop. It was perfect chemistry, almost as if one particle of unobtainium had a nuclear reaction with a flux capacitor — carry the 2 (of course) — changing its atomic isotoner into a radioactive Channing f*cking Tatum.

— Kyle Kizu

Steve Carell — Foxcatcher

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When you’re casting the role of millionaire murderer and recluse John du Pont, one doesn’t think to gravitate toward an actor who’s played a regional manager of a paper company, a mid-life virgin or the world’s greatest villain or, in Steve Carell’s case, all three. Known worldwide for his comedic chops, the actor had begun delving into more dramatic parts in such films as Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back when he was cast in Bennett Miller’s biographical drama, Foxcatcher. As the psychologically and socially stunted du Pont, Carell sheds any hint of past comic stylings while commanding the screen with a somehow paradoxically timid yet forceful performance. In lieu of caricature, upon which, arguably, his career was founded, he crafts a portrayal of subtlety – both exuding and manipulating pathos for du Pont’s own unnerving ends. Though he was denied a Best Lead Actor ‘W’ at the 87th Oscars, Carell’s grace in transitioning from comedy to drama was not lost on his long-time and newfound fans alike. He made doing something really hard look easy as hell (that’s what she said).

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

Kristen Stewart — Clouds of Sils Maria

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In Kristen Stewart’s defense, she actively resisted falling into a boring Twilight acting rut from the very first movie, with mixed results. The world may have seen her as lovably awkward Bella Swan for a good five years after she first swooned at Robert Pattinson, but Stewart herself never got that memo. Between starring in increasingly bad installments of the Twilight saga, Stewart started exploring indie roles in Adventureland and The Runaways. It took a few years after her final Twilight performance, however, for Stewart to really reinvent herself as one of the most surprising, talented young actors in Hollywood. The words “Kristen Stewart” and “Oscar buzz” would have seemed preposterous in 2012, but after a turn in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014, those were the exact words on everyone’s lips. Since then, Stewart has re-teamed with Assayas in Personal Shopper, turned heads in Certain Women and Cafe Society, and has a long list of prestigious projects lined up (starring opposite Laura Dern in a JT Leroy biopic? Yes please.) It’s worth noting that Stewart has also thrown off the expectations that her early roles placed on her personal life — from adopting an androgynous personal styl  to speaking out about her sexuality. A recent hosting stint on SNL earlier this year prompted the iconic line, “I’m, like, so gay, dude.” You do you, Kristen.

— Kate Halliwell

Robert Downey Jr. — Iron Man

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Robert Downey Jr’s comeback might be partly responsible for the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there are almost as many ramifications as there are MCU films. So that means something in the ballpark of 57,328,000 ramifications for the film industry. Obviously, not all of them are good — Universal threatened us with the Dark Universe, and studios’ focus on building cinematic universes takes resources away from mid-budget films. Whatever the long term consequences of the first Iron Man movie may be, RDJ’s comeback in that film heralded the modern age of comic book movies. He heralded it with the same all-in enthusiasm of a Stan Lee “excelsior!” Since this week’s question is about a favorite comeback acting story, I couldn’t respond with anyone besides RDJ, since his tenure as Iron Man has yielded the onscreen realization of my geek dreams, time and time again. Kevin Feige might be the mastermind of the MCU, but without RDJ’s first performance as Iron Man, I doubt we’d have gotten modern comic book gems like Deadpool or Wonder Woman. On a more personal note, my love for the MCU kickstarted my general love for film, so thanks RDJ, for bringing me into a world of blogging, trailer-analyzing, Oscar-predicting and pretentiousness.

— Harrison Tunggal

Featured image via Fox Searchlight.