Acting is all about discovery and finding the truth of a character or situation. Sometimes though, in order to fully portray that truth, actors have to learn skills they don’t already have. It makes sense because, while Hollywood trickery can be used to fool an audience, it’s a sense of authenticity that often truly sells a performance. With that in mind, here’s 40 startling skills actors learned in order to better inhabit their characters.
40. Timothée Chalamet — speaking Italian
For the role of Elio Perlman in 2017’s Call Me By Your Name Timothée Chalamet learned several new skills. As he told Newsweek, while he already spoke fluent French, he added Italian to his repertoire. He revealed, “I went to Italy about a month and a half early for the film, taking Italian lessons every day in addition to piano and guitar lessons…”. Wait, he learned instruments too?
39. Kate Winslet — holding her breath for seven minutes
For the upcoming Avatar 2, Kate Winslet learned to hold her breath for a mind-boggling seven minutes and 14 seconds. She told The Hollywood Reporter, “I had to learn how to free-dive to play that role in Avatar, and that was just incredible.” Because of the intense secrecy surrounding the project, though, she was unable to reveal any character details beyond, “Yeah, I play a water person.”
38. Tom Cruise — flying a helicopter
Few actors are as intensely dedicated to doing their own stunts as Tom Cruise, and in 2018’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout he outdid himself. In order to film the movie’s climactic helicopter battle, Cruise actually amassed 2,000 hours of flight time over the course of three months of eight-hour days. So, yes, Cruise got himself certified to fly a helicopter rather than film in front of a green screen or use a stunt pilot.
37. Uma Thurman — three styles of kung-fu
When speaking to TIME magazine in 2003 about training for her iconic role as The Bride in Kill Bill, Uma Thurman wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. She said, “Three styles of kung-fu, two styles of sword-fighting, knife throwing, knife fighting, hand-to-hand combat, Japanese speaking. It was literally absurd.” Unfortunately, the experience seemed to cause some friction between her and director Quentin Tarantino.
36. Jacob Elordi — riding a motorbike
Australian actor Jacob Elordi learned how to ride a motorbike on the South African set of Netflix romcom The Kissing Booth. In 2018 he told pop culture site Just Jared that he had since become obsessed and added, “Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m buying a motorbike.” But during a 2020 video filmed for GQ, he admitted he’d wound up not taking the plunge. Why? Because his mom forbid it.
35. Chadwick Boseman — playing the trumpet
Late Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman’s final screen role was in 2020’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The dedicated actor learned to play the trumpet for the movie, as revealed by co-stars Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo in a Netflix look behind the scenes. Turman revealed, “We were all staying at the same hotel. It started sounding like a music school. You get off the elevator and you could hear Chadwick working on it.”
34. Ryan Gosling — building furniture
Ryan Gosling actually learned how to build furniture before filming The Notebook. He became an apprentice cabinet maker in South Carolina and some of his work even made it on-screen. He told People magazine, “We made all the Adirondack chairs in front of the house. We sat in them a lot. And we shot a scene where Rachel and I consummate our relationship on a table I made.”
33. Natalie Portman — ballet
According to Natalie Portman, filming 2010’s Black Swan took a huge toll on her, both mentally and physically. She told The Independent about gruelling eight-hour ballet rehearsals every day and admitted, “There were some nights that I thought I was literally going to die.” She added, “It was the first time that I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down.”
32. Margot Robbie — ice skating
Skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara worked with Margot Robbie for three months, four times a week, in the lead-up to shooting I, Tonya (2017). Despite having barely any ice skating experience, Robbie was eventually able to perform the entire first minute of Tonya Harding’s routine from the 1994 Olympics. Kawahara told ESPN that Robbie’s work ethic was great, and the results spoke for themselves.
31. A Quiet Place cast — American sign language
Millicent Simmonds’ casting in A Quiet Place (2018) spurred the rest of the main cast to learn American Sign Language. The deaf actress was able to guide the cast through their journey, even letting them know if they were making mistakes in their signing. Director/star John Krasinski said it helped lend a sense of reality to the film, which is about a family living in complete silence to avoid being attacked by alien monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.
30. Adrien Brody — classical piano
For his performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman in 2002’s The Pianist, Adrien Brody became the youngest winner of Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Then 29-years-old, he went full-method for the role, dropping 30 pounds and learning classical piano. In fact, he practiced the instrument for four hours every day and got to a point where he could play passages of Chopin.
29. Joseph Gordon-Levitt — tightrope walking
To learn how to tightrope-walk like legendary high-wire artist Phillippe Petit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt did the only logical thing: he went to the man himself. He trained with Petit for eight days before shooting The Walk (2015) and was able to walk perfectly along a two-feet high wire. But he admitted to The Los Angeles Times that it was a different story at 12 feet. At this height, his body would seize up with fear.
28. Bradley Cooper — Sam Elliott’s voice
In A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper played country music superstar Jackson Maine, who idolized his older half-brother Bobby, played by Sam Elliott. Cooper actually enlisted a dialect coach to help him master Elliott’s voice, as he wanted Maine to base his speaking voice on his half-brother’s. Amusingly, to convince him to take the role, Cooper showed Elliott footage of him reciting a real-life interview Elliott had given. Word-for-word. In his voice.
27. Russell Crowe — playing the violin and sailing a tall ship
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) gave Russell Crowe a chance to add a bunch of skills to his resume. He learned how to play the violin, perfected the accent of a British seaman raised in Dorchester, and also took sword-fighting lessons. On top of this, he also studied extensively with maritime consultant Andy Reay-Ellers about sailing tall ships.
26. Lui Yifei — horse riding, martial arts and sword fighting
Mulan cinematographer Mandy Walker waxed lyrical to Insider about star Liu Yifei’s dedication to the 2020 Disney movie. Walker stated, “She did pretty much most of the stunt work herself — the horse riding, the sword fighting, the martial arts, the battle sequences, the stunts.” Yifei confirmed in a featurette, “I’ve had three months of training process. It’s quite challenging — six or seven hours a day.”
25. Jesse Eisenberg — close-up magic
For his role as the world’s greatest sleight-of-hand magician in Now You See Me (2013), Jesse Eisenberg learned as much close-up magic as he could. He told The Los Angeles Daily News, “I learned a few things. I can do card and coin tricks now.” He added, “I can make someone focus on the one card in a deck that I want them to see.”
24. Rooney Mara — kickboxing
Rooney Mara transformed herself a year before she nabbed the role of punky computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011). She told Variety, “I did skateboarding to sort of get the teenage boy walk and a lot of kickboxing. I started the dialect training right away and did some computer training.” She also shaved her eyebrows completely off and got real piercings. That’s dedication.
23. Channing Tatum — tap dancing
The Coen Brothers’ 2016 movie Hail, Caesar! has a huge song and dance number as one of its most important scenes. The directors knew they wanted an actor with those chops to perform in the scene, so they hired Channing Tatum, who had danced in Step Up(2006) and Magic Mike (2012). Unfortunately, he had never tap danced and so underwent three months of intense training to be ready for the shoot.
22. Jon Favreau — the skills of a professional chef
Jon Favreau was sent to culinary school in preparation for his 2014 film Chef in which he played a food truck chef. He was also mentored by real-life chef Roy Choi, who put the actor/director to work in one of his own kitchens. Favreau was so fulfilled by the experience that he and Choi reunited five years later for The Chef Show on Netflix, which saw Favreau cook for his famous friends.
21. Keanu Reeves — surfing
In 1991 Keanu Reeves starred in Point Break, the best movie ever made about surfing bank robbers. He was taught to ride the waves by Dennis Jarvis — “the surf doctor of Hollywood.” Along with co-stars Lori Petty and Patrick Swayze, Reeves would arrive at Jarvis’ house every morning at dawn to absorb all they could about surfing and the surfing lifestyle.
20. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy — indigenous language
“Leo was a good student,” said Craig Falcon, the man who taught Leonardo DiCaprio to speak the indigenous Arikara language for The Revenant (2015). “He would really get himself into character when he was speaking Arikara or doing sign language.” Falcon, the cultural advisor on the movie, also taught the language to Tom Hardy. Overall, he felt, “It was amazing watching Leo and Tom transform themselves psychologically into these characters.”
19. Mahershala Ali — playing the piano
In order to convincingly portray Dr. Don Shirley for Green Book (2018), Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali spent three months learning how to play the piano. He studied with the film’s composer, Kris Bowers, who told Backstage magazine, “The thing that was most incredible to me was his dedication, focus, and attention to detail.” Ali also pored over documentaries about other pianists as he immersed himself in the discipline.
18. Robert Downey Jr. — playing the violin
Silent film icon Charlie Chaplin would take his violin with him wherever he went and would play it left-handed. When Robert Downey Jr. played him in 1992’s Chaplin, he took a year to perfect every aspect of his mannerisms, voice and movements. Amazingly, Downey also learned to play the violin with his left hand, just like Chaplin, despite being right-handed in real-life.
17. Reese Witherspoon — playing the autoharp
When she played June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk The Line, Reese Witherspoon did her own singing. But she also learned to play Cash’s trademark instrument the autoharp. In 2008, she admitted to Live About that it was a struggle to learn. She revealed, “The singing part for me was easier than the autoharp part. Playing the instrument was really difficult for me. I had never played an instrument.”
16. Riz Ahmed – American sign language
In 2019’s Sound Of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays a drummer who is losing his hearing. Striving for authenticity, he spent seven months learning American Sign Language with coach Jeremy Lee Stone. On top of that, though, Ahmed immersed himself in the deaf community, attending events and interacting with deaf people. In the end, he described the process as a privilege which enriched his life.
15. Olivia Munn — sword fighting
When Olivia Munn played Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), she went above and beyond to do justice to the character. She told USA Today, “I started training, doing six-seven hours a day of sword and Taekwondo; never picked up a sword before.” She added, “And since this is the introduction to the character in the X-Men world, the fight scene, for me, was the monologue. It meant everything to me to be able to do it.”
14. Sigourney Weaver — communicating with gorillas
In 2015 conservationist Ian Redmond spoke to the BBC about teaching Sigourney Weaver to communicate with gorillas. Weaver learned the tactics for her role as Dr Dian Fossey in 1988’s Gorillas In The Mist. Redmond was the ideal man to teach her, as he was Fossey’s real-life research assistant. Weaver learned contact calls and noises to reassure the animals and was also taught how to react to different gorilla vocalizations.
13. Michelle Pfeiffer — using a whip
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is one of the most iconic elements of 1992’s Batman Returns and her whip work is legendary. Pfeiffer told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that she trained with a whip master for months and was eventually able to perform all her own whip tricks in the movie. She did admit her training started awkwardly, though, when she drew blood from the trainer’s face on day one after accidentally hitting him. Whoops.
12. John Krasinski — manoeuvring through a burning building
When he signed on to play a Navy SEAL in 13 Hours (2016), John Krasinski transformed himself completely. Then known mostly for playing Jim in The Office, he bulked up at the gym and also underwent serious training with real SEALs. He told Yahoo! Movies that he learned how to use a variety of firearms, to maneuver through buildings with lights on and off, and even how to move through a building on fire.
11. Jim Carrey — how to endure torture
Jim Carrey revealed something insane about filming 2000’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas when he was a guest on The Graham Norton Show in 2014. He said, “The makeup took eight and a half hours. It was like being buried alive each day.” He justifiably freaked out on day one, so producers came up with a novel solution: they brought in a CIA operative who trained people to withstand torture. Jim laughed, “That’s how I got through it.”
10. John David Washington — talking backwards
John David Washington’s role in 2020’s Tenet required some unusual training, as he revealed to Good Morning America. “I had to learn how to blink, walk, talk, fight, run, block, punch backwards and forwards,” he said with a smile, before admitting he used an app to help him master the backwards dialogue. He said, “You speak a line or a word into the app and it says it backwards to you and you learn how to say that.”
9. Dave Franco — card throwing
For 2013’s Now You See Me, Dave Franco learned to throw playing cards in an offensive way. He trained with magician David Kwong for what was known on-set as the “sleight-of-hand-to-hand-combat” scene. Kwong told Wired magazine, “Dave Franco was an incredible workhorse, he had the most athletic uses of sleight of hand in that fight scene. He’s really producing hands of cards and throwing them.”
8. Tobey Maguire — catching food on a tray
156 takes. Over a 16-hour day. That is how long it took Tobey Maguire to nail the scene in 2002’s Spider-Man in which Peter Parker catches Mary Jane’s food on her cafeteria tray after she slips and hurls it in the air. Kirsten Dunst revealed on a DVD commentary, “Not CGI, by the way. That’s all Tobey, which is pretty impressive.” Learning to catch stuff on a tray, eh? Hollywood actors have all the fun.
7. Eddie Redmayne — walking and talking like someone with ALS
To play physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, Eddie Redmayne spent eight months studying the man. A vocal coach and a dancer taught him to control his voice and his body. This helped him mimic the small range of movements Hawking was capable of at various stages of his battle with ALS. Redmayne also met with other sufferers of the disease, as well as Hawking himself, who he said had a great sense of humor.
6. Daniel Day-Lewis — becoming a frontiersman
Daniel Day-Lewis is synonymous with method acting and, for The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), he truly became the frontiersman Hawkeye. He learned how to throw a tomahawk, construct a canoe, and skin an animal. The notoriously picky Day-Lewis told The Independent in 2003 that he took the role because he, “liked the idea of a man who had not been touched by 20th century neurosis. A life that isn’t drawn inward.”
5. Shia LaBeouf — going full method in the U.S. National Guard
Shia LaBeouf went to extreme lengths for 2014 World War II tank drama Fury. Very extreme lengths. He told Dazed magazine that he signed up for the U.S. National Guard, got baptized, tattooed a cross on his left hand and lived on an operational base for a month. He then revealed, “I pulled my tooth out, knifed my face up and spent days watching horses die. I didn’t bathe for four months.” An intense guy.
4. Colin Firth — martial arts
Before 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Colin Firth had never made an action film. This subversion of expectation is precisely why director Matthew Vaughn cast him, though. But he had work to do. Firth told U.K. newspaper The Daily Express that Vaughn said, “You’re going to have to train because in order to sell this to the skeptics, it has to be you.” He added, “So I learned to do it. And so, three hours a day, every day, six months later, there I was.”
3. Jennifer Lawrence — skinning an animal
In 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s character skins a squirrel. Even though special effects used in the scene, she did actually learn the process in real-life. She told E! News in 2010 that her brother’s friend showed her how it was done and, unsurprisingly, she didn’t enjoy the experience. She confessed, “He cut it open and then I went and cried in the house and let him finish.”
2. Nicolas Cage — playing the mandolin
Before making 2001’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Nicolas Cage freely admitted he had no musical aptitude whatsoever. But he was taught to play the instrument by musician Paul Englishby and became a dab hand. Englishby told WENN, “Cage actually played it and there is lots of footage of him doing that. It was incredible. He really is very talented.”
1. Kristen Stewart — Horseback riding
Kristen Stewart not only learned how to do stunts while riding a horse for Snow White & The Huntsman, but she also overcame a lifelong fear in the process. Speaking at WonderCon ahead of the film’s release in 2012, she revealed, “I hate ‘em. I fell off a horse once and hurt myself really badly. I broke and dislocated my elbow when I was, like, nine. I just had to not think about it.” That’s pretty darn brave.