From Bradley Cooper to Kevin Costner -- When Leading Men Take On Dark Roles

From Bradley Cooper to Kevin Costner -- When Leading Men Take On Dark Roles

May 05, 2011

Last month, news broke that Hangover star Bradley Cooper was in talks to tackle the role of Eric Draven in a planned rebooting of The Crow. Today, we learned that the actor’s newfound interest in characters who live on the darkside is still strong – and that he’s also in negotiations to play Lucifer in a planned film version of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Alex Proyas (who, interestingly enough, was the director of the original version of The Crow) is set to direct what should be a massive production. In a move sure to upset literary purists, the film is said to be an “action vehicle that will include aerial warfare.” To further add potential insult to injury, rumors abound that it may be shot in 3D.

We could go on all day about how crazy it is to even attempt to turn Paradise Lost into a film – let alone an action movie – but what’s even more interesting is Bradley Cooper’s obsession with playing characters who most audiences wouldn’t associate with a hunky Hollywood leading man. With his looks and resume, Cooper seemed set for a long and profitable career starring in romantic comedies alongside actresses like Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Anniston with an occasional action movie thrown in just to keep things “fresh.” However, this move toward darker roles intrigues us – could Cooper be interested in a more rich and varied acting career? The Crow isn’t exactly deep, but Paradise Lost, even as an action-oriented feature, offers ample opportunity for an actor to really shine.

The question is, will audiences accept Cooper in these kinds of roles – or will his core audience be put off by the darker tone of his upcoming work? Cooper isn’t the first guy to tread this path – check out five of our favorite examples of leading men going against type in movies.

Kevin Costner in Mr. Brooks

Back in the late ‘80s and early 1990s, Kevin Costner was Hollywood royalty. Having made his name in movies like The Untouchables and Dances With Wolves (which earned him two Oscars), Costner was box office gold and the very definition of “leading man.” While his star lost some of its luster after the failings of Waterworld and The Postman, Costner was still bankable – and audiences identified with him as a star who was always going to be the good guy in his films. That changed in 2007, when the actor took on the role of the title character in Mr. Brooks, a man living a double life as a well-to-do businessman and serial killer. Yes, Kevin Costner, the guy who played Eliot Ness and Wyatt Earp, played a serial killer.

The funniest thing about Costner’s turn as a cold-blooded killer? He was really good at it. While Mr. Brooks is critically regarded as a middle of the road production, Costner did earn a great deal of praise for his performance as a calculating murderer. The actor hasn’t played a character nearly as dark since, but we’d welcome seeing him in more of these kinds of roles.

Tom Cruise in Interview With the Vampire

Sure, playing a vampire these days isn’t exactly a “dark” career move (just ask Robert Pattinson), but back in 1994, it was certainly a little more edgy – particularly for an actor like Tom Cruise.

Cruise was the good looking boy next door type who’d won America’s heart when he danced around in his underwear in Risky Business. Seeing him chomp down on the necks of unsuspecting victims wasn’t exactly sticking with his clean-cut image. Fans, both of Cruise and Anne Rice’s novels (which the film was based on), were not pleased by the casting decision to put the actor in the role of one horror’s most famous bloodsuckers, but most of them got over it when they finally saw the film. Cruise’s turn as Lestat didn’t please everyone, but it wasn’t because he didn’t put his heart and soul into it. The move away from the traditional leading man didn’t hurt Cruise’s career in the slightest, as he’s still one of the biggest stars in the world – and he’s even returned to playing villainous characters in films like Collateral.

Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley

Prior to 1999, the average filmgoer viewed Matt Damon as an all-American kid with a wholesome and clean-cut demeanor. That changed a bit as we sat on the cusp of a new millennium, thanks partially to Damon’s role as renegade angel gone nutso in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, but moreso to Damon’s chilling turn in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

In the latter film, Damon – who was best known for playing the troubled genius in Good Will Hunting – sheds his nice guy image and morphs into a conniving scam artist willing to commit murder to keep living the life he’s always dreamed of. To be honest, out of all the movies in this feature, buying Damon as a sociopathic monster is probably the toughest sell – he’s almost too young and innocent looking to really pull it off, but as things progress in Mr. Ripley’s narrative, viewers will start to see a different side to the actor – and it’s quite creepy. Damon has since gone on to become a huge star, but we’re hoping he’ll carve out some time to play more parts that go against his image as his career advances.

Christian Bale in American Psycho

These days, Christian Bale is best known for being Batman in Christopher Nolan’s wildly popular trilogy of films based on the DC Comics character. However, back in 2000, Bale was instantly recognizable for his turn as Patrick Bateman – the insane stockbroker/serial killer main character in Mary Harron’s American Psycho.

Unlike the other actors on the list, Bale wasn’t exactly an A-list star when he landed the lead in the film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel – he’d appeared in the Disney disaster Newsies and followed that up with Swing Kids. However, going from doing work for Disney (he also did voicework in Pocahontas) and playing Jesus in a television movie to having group sex with prostitutes before murdering them was definitely a risky career move.

Bale made it work, and has become one of our most revered modern talents in the process – proving you can make a career for yourself even if you’ve starred in a movie where you dismember someone with an axe. The actor’s work in American Psycho laid the foundation for the rest of his career – and we’d bet money that that quirky thespian will do more roles in this vein before he retires.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

Before his untimely passing in 2008, Heath Ledger was well on his way to becoming a Hollywood superstar. The actor, who spent much of his early career in forgettable films like 10 Things I Hate About You, was often regarded as simply another pretty face – one destined to star in fluff films that appealed to the lowest common denominator.

That perception began to change when Ledger appeared in Monster’s Ball and took a complete turn when the actor was nominated for an Oscar based on his work in Brokeback Mountain. Still, Ledger’s biggest achievement would come when he was cast as the villainous Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

With his leading man looks buried under layers of make-up, Ledger transformed himself from the fresh-faced kid of films like A Knight’s Tale into a monster straight out of our nightmares. The actor used the role of the Joker to shatter our preconceptions of him and what he was capable of, demonstrating that underneath it all he wasn’t just another good looking guy destined to play the regular gamut of leading man roles.

It remains to be seen how Ledger’s career would have gone after his turn as the Joker, but the actor did earn an Oscar for his work in the role – and likely would have gone on to a rich and storied career.

And there you have it. Bradley Cooper could totally make this dark character thing work for him – especially if he takes the time to check out how each of these five performers’ trips to the darkside work in their favor. There are lessons to be learned in each of these performances – and we hope Cooper takes them to heart, because it would be far more fun to watch him play characters like Eric Draven and Lucifer than to see him spend the next few decades landing in safe and predictable parts.

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