Have you ever been watching a movie and you knew in the back of your mind you’d seen one of the actors before? But no, you just can’t place them. Then maybe you go look at IMDb and all you can say is, “He played him? No way!” Perhaps that exact thing happened with one of these 40 actors.
40. Bryan Cranston
For a long time, Bryan Cranston was hapless comedy dad Hal on Malcolm in the Middle. But then… Breaking Bad came along. Suddenly he was the actor behind Walter White, a crime lord who was a long way away from Hal. Cranston has a lot of fun with jokey fan theories about those two roles, and after such an impressive acting showcase, he deserves to.
39. Harry Melling
Remember obnoxious cousin Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter franchise? The child actor who played him, Harry Melling, changed quite a bit as he grew up. It might come as a big shock to learn that’s him playing Harry Beltik in Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit. Yes, there’s a lot of the name “Harry” involved here.
38. Oscar Isaac
Let’s be honest, many people admire Oscar Isaac for his movie-star good looks as well as for his acting talent. Alas, in one of his first blockbuster roles that handsome face was buried under tons of prosthetics. That was when he played the titular Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse, and no, the movie wasn’t a critical hit. Luckily, the same thing didn’t happen when he played Poe in the Star Wars sequels.
37. Stanley Tucci
Stanley Tucci is an extremely acclaimed character actor, and it’s not hard to see why. You probably wouldn’t realize at first that the man who played Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games also played the creepy serial murderer in The Lovely Bones. And not just because of their very differing aesthetics.
36. Julie Bowen
Julie Bowen played Claire in Modern Family, and it’s by far the role she’s best known for. And yet she popped up in a famous film way back when. She was love interest Virginia in Adam Sandler’s unexpected hit Happy Gilmore. The blonde hair is the same, but otherwise she looks completely and utterly different.
35. Rebel Wilson
There’s no doubt Rebel Wilson can sing. Just look at her in the smash-hit Pitch Perfect movies. But put her in a cat outfit for the ill-fated musical Cats movie and… Well. She’s scarcely recognizable underneath all that fur, which is probably a good thing considering what an utter disaster the film was.
34. Troy Gentile
Little Troy Gentile looked a lot like a young Jack Black. So much in fact that not only did he play a child version of his character in Nacho Libre, he did the same thing in Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny. But he didn’t grow up to look like Jack Black: he grew up to be Barry Goldberg from The Goldbergs.
33. Hugh Bonneville
Hugh Bonneville’s most well-known role is probably that of Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey. But many years before that he played a small role in the film Notting Hill as Bernie, the guy who doesn’t recognize Julia Roberts’ Anna Scott. Ironically, most people probably wouldn’t recognize him in that movie either.
32. Natalia Tena
Natalia Tena has popped up in more than one million-dollar mega-franchise. She played the purple-haired Nymphadora Tonks in Harry Potter and the purple-skinned Twi’lek Xi’an in an episode of The Mandalorian. But apart from having a color in common, those two characters are absolutely nothing alike.
31. Andy Serkis
You probably know Andy Serkis was the motion-capture performance artist for Gollum, but did you know Andy Serkis played the human (well, hobbit) form of Gollum as well? He was Smeagol, the weak-willed unfortunate who gets ensnared by the One Ring. Yet if you’ve seen Serkis play other characters, such as Klaue in the smash hit Black Panther, you might not ever realize that’s him.
30. Gary Oldman
Sometimes Gary Oldman is instantly recognizable on screen. And sometimes he’s… not. In Darkest Hour, for example, he hid himself behind a load of prosthetics so that he could play Winston Churchill. And in The Fifth Element, his character Zorg had such wacky hair that it’s easy to forget who’s under it.
29. Zoe Saldana
In Guardians of the Galaxy Zoe Saldana wore bright green makeup to play the alien Gamora. But before that and her rise to the A-list, she was in another big Disney franchise – Pirates of the Caribbean. She played Anamaria. But she was younger, and of course she wasn’t green, so many folks might have found themselves going “Hey! Is that really her?” upon rewatching the first Pirates.
28. Ted Levine
Ted Levine was the terrifying serial killer Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. But he was also the lawful Leland Stottlemeyer in the TV show Monk. The mustache disguises him a bit but mentally take it off and you might get a shock. Levine’s said parents have told him their kids watch Monk, let’s hope they don’t look into what else that nice Captain Stottlemeyer has appeared in.
27. Cole Sprouse
Many folks who catch reruns of Friends might assume Ross’s son Ben left acting after he got older. After all, he hasn’t been in anything else, right? Wrong! Ben was played by Cole Sprouse, and once he grew up, he got the role of Jughead on Riverdale. You’d probably never have guessed in a million years, though.
26. Brie Larson
Remember a 2010 movie called Scott Pilgrim vs the World? It was based on a comic book, ended up a box office bomb, but became a huge cult movie afterwards. And though the comic book in question wasn’t a Marvel one, it featured two future Marvel stars. One of them was Chris Evans, and the other was an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson as rocker Envy Adams. Yes, that’s really her. And it’s her doing Envy’s singing voice as well.
25. Sean Astin
Not so long ago a Twitter conversation about actor Sean Astin went viral. After someone described him as “Sean Astin from Stranger Things,” a Lord of the Rings fan yelled back, “SAM DIDN’T CARRY FRODO TO THE CRACK OF DOOM AND DESTROY THE RING TO BE REMEMBERED AS “THE GUY FROM STRANGER THINGS!” Yep, Sam and Bob are the same person.
24. Claire Foy
Chances are you know Claire Foy as the actress who played one of the most famous women in the entire world, Queen Elizabeth II, in The Crown. But after that she rendered herself almost unrecognizable to play hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. In fact, the idea that people knew her best as Elizabeth was one of the reasons she was cast.
23. Rami Malek
Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody took the world by storm. He gained a lot of critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2019. But many years prior to that a younger Malek played Ahkmenrah in the family comedy series Night at the Museum. It was his first movie role, and you might not recognize him.
22. David Thewlis
If you grew up with the Harry Potter films – and let’s face it, just about everybody did – you’ll know David Thewlis as the werewolf Hogwarts professor Remus Lupin. However, once upon a time he played a much, much nastier character, King Einon in Dragonheart. Thewlis really is an acting chameleon when it comes to the fantasy genre.
21. Michael C. Hall
If you were going to cast someone to play President Kennedy you wouldn’t necessarily choose a man famous for portraying a serial killer, would you? But that’s what the creators of The Crown did – they picked Dexter actor Michael C. Hall. Unfortunately it was a gamble that didn’t pay off, as many reviewers didn’t like his performance. He gets props for looking and sounding so different from Dexter Morgan, though.
20. Hugo Weaving
When watching The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, perhaps you thought the voice of Elrond sounded a little familiar. Google was still in its infancy back in 2001, so perhaps you wouldn’t have Googled it, but when you re-watched 1999’s The Matrix it might – might – have dawned on you. Elrond was a very different-looking Hugo Weaving a.k.a. Agent Smith.
19. James McAvoy
Back in 2005 some movie fans gained a very particular crush. Mr. Tumnus, the cute Narnia-dwelling faun from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe suddenly became… Well, sort of a sex symbol. He was played by, if you can believe it, James McAvoy. His future blockbuster role as the X-Men franchise’s Professor X just didn’t awaken the same feelings, we’re sorry.
18. Joel Edgerton
Actor Joel Edgerton has made a pretty big name for himself in recent years. He played Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s star-studded, Oscar-winning adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 2013. But a while before that he played a much less horrible character, the young version of Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. See if you can spot him in the film: he looks quite different, but that’s Edgerton.
17. Nicholas Hoult
A young, chubby-cheeked Nicholas Hoult first gained notoriety in the 2002 film About a Boy. He played Marcus, a picked-on kid who unexpectedly befriends Hugh Grant’s childless playboy. That couldn’t be more different from his role as Nux: a dying post-apocalyptic soldier in the instant classic Mad Max: Fury Road.
16. Joe Manganiello
Joe Manganiello’s played two famous comic-book characters in his career. Wait, two? Yep! Long before he was cast as Deathstroke for the DC Cinematic Universe, he played Peter Parker’s high-school bully Flash Thompson in the first Spider-Man movie. But you could hardly be blamed for not recognizing him.
15. Karl Urban
Turns out removing some facial hair can make an actor look really, really different. During the ’00s Karl Urban played Eomer in the Lord of the Rings franchise. But then at the end of that decade the beard came off and he appeared in Star Trek as Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Dangit Jim, he’s a doctor, not a Rohan warrior.
14. Rodrigo Santoro
Since Love Actually has such a big cast, it’s caused a lot of “Wait, is that…?” moments. But none of them are more shocking than this. Remember Karl, the object of Laura Linney’s affections? Well, his actor, Rodrigo Santoro, went on to play Xerxes, the terrifying giant villain in 300. Even if you watched one film right after the other (that would make for an interesting movie night) you’d never guess that was him.
13. Charlie Cox
Actor Charlie Cox was cast as the superhero Daredevil for the 2015 Netflix show about the character. And once he debuted, a handful of people – probably not very many – might have thought he looked vaguely familiar. If you were one of those people, you might have eventually worked out it was because Cox was in the little-seen but beloved 2007 fantasy film Stardust.
12. Tim Curry
Tim Curry is one of those people who disappears into roles so completely it’s impossible to recognize him from movie to another. If you didn’t watch the end credits, and if IMDb didn’t exist, you would be hard pressed to notice that Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show is also Long John Silver from Muppet Treasure Island.
11. Daniel Kaluuya
Daniel Kaluuya may be still a rising star, but he’s already done more than one famous performance. You might not have realized on first glance that Chris from Get Out and W’Kabi from Black Panther are the same person, but yep, both him. And also, neither accent used for those characters is Kaluuya’s own.
10. Elizabeth Banks
Before Elizabeth Banks got super-famous with her scene-stealing Hunger Games role, she played Betty Brant in the original Spider-Man movie and its sequels. That’s provided many a shock to folks who go back and watch the trilogy now that Elizabeth Banks is, well, Elizabeth Banks. The brunette Betty couldn’t look more different from the ridiculously dressed Effie Trinket.
9. Sean Gunn
For a long time actor Sean Gunn was known to most people as “Kirk from Gilmore Girls.” But then he was given the role of space pirate Kraglin in his brother James’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Many people might’ve had to wait until the credits to be sure it was really him. And also Gunn provided the motion capture for Rocket in the same franchise! Yep, Kirk from Gilmore Girls is a talking raccoon.
8. Elliot Page
Elliot Page is probably best known for playing Vanya in The Umbrella Academy, but in his earlier days he played a teen called Juno in the 2007 movie of the same name. If you catch it on TV, it might take you a moment to realize who you’re looking at, especially since no one’s exhibiting superpowers in that one. Page came out as transgender in 2020, but says he’ll continue to play Vanya as a woman on the hit Netflix show.
7. Toni Collette
You’ve definitely seen Toni Collette in something, even if you don’t know you have. She’s just that kind of actress. Did you know that the mother from The Sixth Sense and the hard-nosed hippie influencer from Knives Out are both Collette? Sure, she has wigs and the like to make the characters look different, but having them be so different is all down to her.
6. Rose Byrne
Rose Byrne got to show off her comic chops in the smash-hit Bridesmaids. If you only know her from that, you might be surprised to know a younger her popped up in a small role as Dorme in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Proof that absolutely everyone, no matter how big they went on to be, has been in Star Wars?
5. Olivia Colman
Just before she won her Oscar for The Favorite and became a big deal, Olivia Colman had a small role as the maid Hildegarde Schmidt in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. Seeing as she looks pretty different, and her name wasn’t even on the poster, you might well not recognize her as the woman who played Queen Elizabeth in The Crown.
4. David Wenham
So 2002 was a pretty big year for David Wenham. That was when he played Faramir in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, thus securing himself a place in one of the most beloved film series of all time. Yet just one year before, he’d had a tiny role as a drag queen called Audrey in the musical Moulin Rouge! Unless you studied both faces very carefully, chances are you would never guess they were the same person.
3. Vincent D’Onofrio
Vincent D’Onofrio got lots of acclaim for playing Wilson Fisk in the Marvel show Daredevil, and his performance there made people look back through his earlier body of work. Many folks were shocked to discover he played Edgar the Bug in the 1997 movie Men in Black. But shocked in a good way, since it proved how talented he was.
2. Julie Walters
Dame Julie Walters of course played Molly Weasley, the motherly yet fearsome Harry Potter character. But that’s far from the only high-profile franchise she’s been in. She also played Rosie in both of the highly successful Mamma Mia! films, rendered unrecognizable with those big glasses and brown hair.
1. Rory McCann
When Game of Thrones hit the airwaves, many people got curious about the actor playing the mysterious man called The Hound. What else had he been in? They were all absolutely stunned to learn he was also Michael “Lurch” Armstrong from Hot Fuzz, a character who looked as unlike The Hound as you could get. All together now: “Yarp…”