In the upcoming Nine Lives (out on 17 August), Kevin Spacey plays a man turned into a cat. It’s an odd career choice given the huge star-power injection Spacey has recently received thanks to Netflix’s House of Cards. In honour of this weird decision, we’ve narrowed down ten of the strangest roles taken on by high-profile actors. Obviously, this is far from exhaustive, and if we’ve missed your favourite, do let us know in the comments.
10. John Travolta as Teri in Battlefield Earth
Even though this is an atrocious performance in one of the worst films ever made, it only ranks 10th in weirdness, as there is some explanation for why the star of Grease and Pulp Fiction took the role of the lead dreadlocked(!) alien. As one of Hollywood’s most fervent Scientologists, top billing in an adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth must have had a certain appeal.
9. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Derek Zoolander and Hansel in Zoolander
This one is weird less for the actors’ decision to take the role and more for the bizarre casting process, made all the more questionable by the fact that we now take the idea of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as sexy supermodels for granted. But think about that: Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson playing people famous for solely their looks, in a film that, for all its silliness, never makes fun of this basic conceit. In The Other Guys, Will Ferrell is irresistible to beautiful women, but it’s a premise that proves baffling to the movie’s characters; here we’re expected to believe that these two would genuinely be world-famously stunning.
8. Peter Fonda as Grandpa Burnett Stone in Thomas and the Magic Railroad
“No, you won’t. Because the magic you refused to believe in will get the better of you.” This line is said by Peter Fonda, star of Easy Rider, to an evil train in what remains one of the most bafflingly nonsensical films ever made. Featuring a portal between two different train dimensions, a Native American shaman, and Alec Baldwin as the Conductor, Magic Railroad is a jaw-dropping career low for Fonda.
7. George Clooney as the President and Sylvester Stallone as the Toymaker in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
Spy Kids 3-D is an infamously strange film, but very little about it causes as much confusion as the involvement of George Clooney and Sylvester Stallone. Clooney plays the President, who turns out to be Stallone’s villain in disguise, leading to a majestic Stallone impersonation by Clooney, and then Stallone plays his own three advisors (one of whom is a 19th-century German). For both of these stars, Spy Kids 3-D was probably a fun way to make some good money, but that doesn’t stop these roles from being serious black marks on both of their resumes.
6. Daniel Radcliffe as Manny the Corpse in Swiss Army Man
Without a doubt the best role on this list is Daniel Radcliffe playing a very useful corpse. With copious amounts of gas escaping Manny’s body, Hank (Paul Dano) uses him as a sort of life raft-cum-speedboat to get home in a surreal buddy adventure. Swiss Army Man is a far better film than any other in this top ten, and an enjoyable step in Daniel Radcliffe’s career, but that doesn’t make seeing Harry Potter as a farting, erect dead body any less disquieting.
5. Johnny Depp as Guy LaPointe in Tusk and Yoga Hosers
If you were feeling really mean, it would be possible to fill this list entirely with the career choices of Johnny Depp. It was very tempting to include his deeply uncomfortable portrayal of the Native American Tonto in Lone Ranger, but his appearances in Kevin Smith’s ‘True North’ movies fit better. Not only are these films horrifyingly dreadful, but Depp’s performance as a French-Canadian detective ranks up with his very worst. Absurdly accented, and existing solely so the audience can go ‘ooh, that’s Johnny Depp,’ LaPointe puts paid to the idea that Black Mass marked any sort of consistent return to form for the actor.
4. Michael Caine as Brad Crane in The Swarm
“And I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friend.” At least Michael Caine went on record to talk about the lovely house Jaws 4 bought him (although one has to assume The Swarm at least funded a kitchen refurbishment). I have never seen a bee-based film that even approached being good (looking at you, Jupiter Ascending), and it’s never pleasant seeing an A-list actor of Caine’s quality having to fight through dialogue about insects, especially when it’s this clunky. “I’m afraid to speculate. But… I think… the bees… did this.”
3. George C. Scott as Dr Jake Terrell in Day of the Dolphin
We admit it – half the reason this film made the list is the tagline. “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States” is without a doubt the greatest poster quote of all time, but what possessed an actor of George C. Scott’s calibre to take on a killer dolphin film is entirely beyond us. By the 1973 release of Day of the Dolphin, he had already starred in The Hustler, Dr Strangelove, and Patton (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar). In many ways it’s a pity that most leading actors have their careers so much more carefully managed in modern Hollywood – I for one would love to see DiCaprio follow up his Revenant success with a ‘super-animal vs the USA’ blockbuster.
2. Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in Dracula
We’re all fans of Keanu Reeves. He’s a charming lead who can easily take on stoner comedy, camp ’90s action, and modern gritty thrillers. One thing that eludes him, however, is any semblance of a believable English accent. Why Reeves would have wanted to work on the 1992 Dracula is no mystery – to act in a Francis Ford Coppola film alongside Gary Oldman is an opportunity you’d be mad to pass up – but surely there was a role more fitting Reeves’ talents than an English intellectual. It’s simply impossible to buy Ted Logan/Johnny Utah as Jonathan Harker, but even that doesn’t strain as much credibility as this list’s number one pick…
1. John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror
White actors donning ‘yellowface’ to play Asian roles in ’50s and ’60s Hollywood was depressingly common. From Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon to Mickey Rooney’s horrific Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, cinema at the time was chock-full of racism of all stripes. However, even in this context, the idea of John Wayne, famous solely for Westerns, playing a real-life Mongolian warlord is incredibly odd (though maybe not as odd as Brian Dennehy playing Kublai Khan as recently as 2007).
What gives The Conqueror the edge over all the other nine weird roles is not just the bizarre miscasting, though, but also the fact that this film may have literally killed its makers. Shooting downwind from a nuclear test site, much of the cast and crew died untimely deaths thanks to symptoms associated with radiation exposure. Thanks to fights breaking out on set, Wayne himself barely staying conscious due to overheating, a panther attack, and a flash flood, The Conqueror was already known as a cursed shoot, and this nuclear aftermath only compounded that. And all of the above so that John Wayne could play a racist interpretation of an historical figure. Bizarre.