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Switching out roles

What is an actor to do when his or her career begins to dwindle? For Hollywood’s top leading stars the answer is quite clear — go against the grain. Most successful thespians fall prey to playing similar roles with few variations. Cameron Diaz, Mike Myers and Sandra Bullock have all stuck to one formula that works for them. Even Academy Award-winner Sean Penn has played the grief card more than just a few times.

Tom Cruise, who usually plays the hero of his big-budget films, has done a role reversal with Michael Mann’s Collateral. In the film, Cruise plays an assassin who forces his taxi driver to make his hits. Mann’s stylish thriller gives the veteran actor license to play a role he has rarely taken advantage of. Cruise completely throws himself into the character and gives one of his best performances since 1999’s Magnolia. He is unrecognizable portraying Vincent, a contract killer with no remorse.

Cruise has sunk his teeth into a fair share of box-office revenue with films such as Top Gun, A Few Good Men and Jerry Maguire. But his latest projects have been met with mixed reactions. Minority Report was a smart sci-fi action-thriller but barely broke even domestically despite Steven Spielberg’s stamp of approval and special effects that would normally drive in the summer crowd looking for mindless action.

Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai attracted sizeable audiences, but the films weren’t on par with Cruise’s successful track record.

For most actors, finding a niche in Hollywood can be very successful but also very limiting, as the public will typecast them into that part. Julia Roberts, for example, spent the majority of her career playing lovesick women or quirky gals, each looking for the right guy. Except for a few discrepancies, the characters in Notting Hill, My Best Friend’s Wedding and America’s Sweethearts are all the same.

It wasn’t until Roberts strapped on a wonder bra and a rather foul mouth in Erin Brockovich that she shed that all-too-familiar image.

Her performance was rewarded with Oscar gold and Roberts was recognized as an actress with incredible range rather than an actress with untapped potential. Roberts is clearly gunning for a second statuette with Mike Nichols’ upcoming film Closer, which dissects modern relationships. And should she win, Roberts has to thank Cate Blanchett for good timing with her pregnancy and allowing Roberts another chance to go against her usual romantic-comedy fares.

But changing public persona is not always so lucrative. Tom Hanks’ mobster character in Road to Perdition gained stunning reviews but did little to change Hanks’ warm public perception. Hanks has been known for playing a wide range of characters from a gay man with AIDS (Philadelphia) to a child who grows up too quickly (Big) to a hero in World War II (Saving Private Ryan), and Road to Perdition did nothing more than to establish him in his position.

This swift change in actors’ preferences often comes after a few duds and loss of attention from fickle movie audiences. Jim Carrey, who burst onto the scene in the early ’90s with Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber, took a critical beating with Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (how much ass-talking can audiences be forced to take?) and suffered commercially with that ill-fated Batman Forever. Carrey then performed a 180-degree change with The Truman Show but again stumbled with The Majestic. He bounced back last summer with the success of Bruce Almighty and satisfied critics with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, mixing the slapstick comedy with a few noticeable dramatic turns sprinkled in.

Cruise takes full advantage of Collateral as a chance to really surprise audiences with an unexpectedly dark performance. This is a trick that nearly all film stars have employed at some point during their careers. Roberts, Hanks, Carrey and now Cruise have altered the courses of their careers by wisely picking roles that challenge the public to see them out of their norm.