7 Actors Completely Transformed By A Lee Daniels Production

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This weekend Lee Daniels’s highly anticipated historical drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler hits theaters, and moviegoers should brace themselves accordingly. Having directed and/or produced films like Monster’s Ball, Precious, and Shadowboxer, there are few productions from Daniels that haven’t shocked and awed audiences the world over. His unabashed and unapologetic depictions of sexuality and violence on-screen have been deemed by some to be downright offensive (it’s tempting to call him the Henry Miller of modern-day film). Still, others laud him as one of the most important storytellers of our generation, and with the excitement surrounding The Butler, it’s clear that the Academy Award-nominee has garnered much respect for his very particular vision and voice.

One little-known fact is that Daniels actually started out working in casting, having always had a keen eye for a specific kind of talent not easily visible to others. Where someone else might see a good, capable actor, one could argue that Daniels sees something greater—a willingness to be transformed on screen. He has been instrumental in helping actors like Halle Berry and Mo’Nique achieve Oscar dreams, while veterans like Nicole Kidman and Helen Mirren have earned themselves a bit of indie street credibility under his watch. As we gear up for yet another Lee Daniels production, Paste takes a look back at some of the most shocking transformations actors have undergone in his films.

1. Mo’Nique, Precious (2009)
Directed by Lee Daniels
The adaptation of Sapphire’s beloved, critically acclaimed novel Push was surely a daunting task. There was much to-do about casting for the lead role, and Gabourey Sidibe’s breakout performance as Precious Jones catapulted her into Hollywood and even garnered her an Oscar nomination. However, the most unforgettable performance of the film belonged to comedian Mo’Nique, who would go on to take home the 2010 Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress In A Supporting Role. As Mary, the physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive mother of Precious, Mo’Nique transformed into an absolute monster. And yet, somehow, by the end of the film she managed to bring out these subtle complexities in her character’s story—complexities from which audiences could not quite turn away. Whatever comfort we experienced in labeling Mary ‘monster’ was ultimately compromised, and—in delivering such a powerful character—Mo’Nique and Lee Daniels succeeded in transforming Sapphire’s tale in a way that longtime fans of the novel were able to wholeheartedly appreciate.

2. Helen Mirren, Shadowboxer (2005)
Directed by Lee Daniels
Just one year prior to playing Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (for which she received an Oscar), Helen Mirren shocked audiences everywhere when she took on the role of Rose in Shadowboxer. In a single film and in just one role she played an assassin, a savior, and the terminally-ill lover/stepmother of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character. The celebrated actress gave an intense performance (to say the least), and brought new understanding to the very notions of eros and thanatos. In her final scene Rose shockingly embraces both the life and death drive, and Mirren further enhanced her position in the acting world.

3. Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001)
Produced by Lee Daniels, Directed by Marc Forster
At the beginning of Monster’s Ball Leticia Musgrove has a husband on death row, and by the end of the film she’s fallen in love with the man who put him to death. What many viewers found most troubling about this particular Lee Daniels production is that Leticia seems broken throughout most of the story, and (arguably) only achieves her deliverance at the hands of a man (Hank, played by Billy Bob Thornton). Throw in the fact that they were in an interracial relationship, then throw in another one of Daniels’s famously graphic sex scenes, and Berry’s Oscar win (the first for a black woman in a leading role) garnered as much anger as it did applause. Still, the shock awe, and even rage is indicative of a powerful transformation that took place, where Berry was so unrecognizable (though it should be noted that she has consistently tried to avoid typecasting in her lengthy career) it was uncomfortable to watch at times. Whether the film was enjoyable or not, most would agree that, as Leticia Musgrove, Halle Berry delivered one of the most controversial performances on this list, which is saying quite a bit.

4. Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy (2012)
Directed by Lee Daniels
The Australian beauty best known for playing the likes of Virginia Woolf in The Hours or Satine in Moulin Rouge went down a new path when she transformed into Charlotte Bless in last year’s thriller, The Paperboy. With lines like, ‘F—-in’ a man’s the most natural thing on Earth,’ and heated scenes d’amour with both John Cusack and Zac Efron, (on whom she also urinates in the film), Kidman seemed frighteningly comfortable as she played the love interest of one very young suitor (Efron) and the fiancé of an imprisoned murderer (Cusack). A twisted Southern belle if there ever was one, the actress truly earned her spot on this list with one unforgettable dramatic reenactment of fellatio that had ‘Lee Daniels production’ written all over it. Charlotte was tragic, offensive, and often difficult to watch. But like the other characters on this list she was made wholly human through the brilliant collaborative efforts of a talented actor and one fearlessly impressive filmmaker.

5. Matthew McConaughey, The Paperboy (2012)
Directed by Lee Daniels
Somewhere between How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, Matthew McConaughey decided to break loose the chains of pretty-boy typecasting. Along with recent indie hits like Bernie and Mud, McConaughey’s role as Ward Jansen in The Paperboy helped solidify him as a more serious actor, able to carry smaller films with darker narratives. McConaughey was perfectly convincing as an accomplished Southern reporter with a secret life that would eventually catch up to him. His on-screen transformation alone was both haunting and powerful, as he moved from Southern gentleman to a cautionary tale of sorts, his emotional scars eventually becoming physical tragedies for all to see.

6. Sean Combs, Monster’s Ball (2001)
Produced by Lee Daniels, Directed by Marc Forster
Daniels has utilized the talents of many a musical performer in his productions, with artists like Mariah Carey, Eve, Mos Def, and Lenny Kravitz all being cast in some significant parts. Still, the idea of seeing Sean “Diddy” Combs in a dramatic role sounded pretty bizarre back in 2001, but he definitely left his Bad Boy swagger at the door when he took on the role of death row inmate Lawrence Musgrove in Monster’s Ball (even if he couldn’t quite shake that heavy New York City accent). As a direct result of his performance, Combs surprised naysayers and critics everywhere, going on to land roles on the big and small screen and, perhaps most impressively, a lead role in the television production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun.

7. Mariah Carey, Precious (2009)
Directed by Lee Daniels
There were surely people who walked out of Precious without knowing that Mariah Carey had played a small but significant role in the film. As social worker Ms. Weiss, the singer was stripped down of all her visible diva qualities and appeared on-screen for the first time in her life without make-up, or her characteristic golden locks. However, the pop star’s physical appearance was not the only shock. As the only character to truly hold Precious’s mother Mary accountable for her vicious actions, Ms. Mimi delivered a short, but steely performance and truly held her own in Lee Daniels’s most celebrated production to date.

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