Comic actors who went seriously dark on the big screen

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·10 mins read
(Credit: Lionsgate/Sony Pictures Classics/Vertigo Releasing/Fox Searchlight)
(Credit: Lionsgate/Sony Pictures Classics/Vertigo Releasing/Fox Searchlight)

It’s easy for comedic actors to become boxed in to that genre. Once you’ve been funny on the big screen once, the roles coming your way will often be of the sillier variety. Many actors have made great careers out of this and have starred in a string of incredible comedies. Others, though, have decided to step out of the genre and try something different — either as a one-off or as a complete change of creative direction.

This week, Paul Blart: Mall Cop star Kevin James comes to digital and DVD in the UK with his new movie — grisly horror-thriller Becky. As another comedy star embraces his darker side, here are some of the most interesting examples of comedians who took a left-turn into the bleaker side of cinema.

Kevin James (Becky)

Kevin James as a white supremacist killer in 'Becky'. (Credit: Vertigo Releasing)
Kevin James as a white supremacist killer in 'Becky'. (Credit: Vertigo Releasing)

Previously best known for his role as part of the Adam Sandler stable of actors, it’s fair to say that Becky is a change of gear for Kevin James. He portrays the violent white supremacist Dominick, who invades the home of the title character (Lulu Wilson) in order to uncover a key that will grant him access to a MacGuffin which is crucial to achieve his political aims. Paul Blart, this ain’t.

Read more: Fans petition for James to get House of Cards role

The film sees James use his hulking physicality for sinister seriousness rather than slapstick, feeling genuinely dangerous at the centre of a bloody story. His next project? Adam Sandler’s new Netflix comedy Hubie Halloween. Well, it was a fun change while it lasted.

Robin Williams (One Hour Photo)

Robin Williams in 'One Hour Photo'. (Credit: Fox Searchlight)
Robin Williams in 'One Hour Photo'. (Credit: Fox Searchlight)

The early noughties saw comedy legend Robin Williams take a clear step away from the broad laughs that had made him one of the most beloved performers in Hollywood. He starred in Christopher Nolan’s dark thriller Insomnia in 2002 and, in the same year, delivered one of his finest ever turns in Mark Romanek’s bleak One Hour Photo.

Read more: Williams remembered at Mrs Doubtfire reunion

Williams plays a technician at a supermarket photo kiosk, who becomes obsessed with one of his female customers — a fascination that only deepens when he discovers that her husband is having an affair. It’s a deeply uncomfortable movie, which spotlights Williams as a versatile and unsettling performer. Jack Nicholson was originally offered the role, but it’s difficult now to imagine anyone but Williams making the film work this well.

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

Steve Carell as John du Pont in 'Foxcatcher'. (Credit: Sony Pictures Classics)
Steve Carell as John du Pont in 'Foxcatcher'. (Credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

Steve Carell didn’t just go dark for his role in 2014 drama Foxcatcher. He went so dark and ugly that he earned himself an Oscar nomination. Set in the 1980s, the film follows millionaire philanthropist John du Pont in the events leading up to his murder of wrestler David Schultz. Critics were impressed by more than just Carell’s bizarre fake nose, with his chilling performance receiving wide acclaim.

Read more: Carell “looked like a serial killer” in 40-Year-Old Virgin

Carell has taken on more dramatic roles in recent years, including as Donald Rumsfeld in Dick Cheney biopic Vice and the journalist David Sheff in addiction drama Beautiful Boy. It’s still Foxcatcher, though, which shines as the best of Carell’s non-comedy oeuvre.

Jim Carrey (The Cable Guy/The Number 23)

Jim Carrey in 'The Cable Guy' and 'The Number 23'. (Credit: Sony/New Line Cinema)
Jim Carrey in 'The Cable Guy' and 'The Number 23'. (Credit: Sony/New Line Cinema)

Jim Carrey’s trademark, rubber-faced charisma always had a bit of an edge. Even in his broadest comedy roles, there was something a little darkly off-kilter about the man behind the funny voices and the gurning. The Cable Guy, directed by Ben Stiller and released at the peak of Carrey’s powers in 1996, is a sort of hybrid between comedy and darkness. Carrey is the titular weirdo, who becomes dangerously obsessed with one of his customers. The film baffled audiences when it was first released, but it is now a bona fide cult classic.

Read more: Carrey on notion of Truman Show sequel

He went full horror-thriller in 2007 with Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23. Again, he plays an obsessive character — this time somebody who is fascinated by the “23 enigma”, which suggests everything in the world is connected some way to that number. Violence inevitably follows. The film did reasonably well at the box office, but was blown an enormous raspberry by critics.

Mo'nique (Precious)

Mo'Nique as abusive mother Mary in 'Precious'. (Credit: Lionsgate)
Mo'Nique as abusive mother Mary in 'Precious'. (Credit: Lionsgate)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mo’Nique was a successful stand-up comedian and TV personality, hosting her own late-night talk show in 2009. That same year, she took on a very different project, and won an Oscar for it. Mo’Nique portrays Mary — the abusive mother of Gabourey Sidibe’s titular teenager — in Precious.

It’s a harrowing and powerful movie from director Lee Daniels, which propelled Mo’Nique to the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Sadly, her career in acting hasn’t been able to blossom since, with her refusal to “play the game” and campaign for her Oscar apparently souring her image in Hollywood.

Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems)

Adam Sandler in 'Uncut Gems'. (Credit: Netflix/A24)
Adam Sandler in 'Uncut Gems'. (Credit: Netflix/A24)

Just as with Jim Carrey, it has always felt like there’s a darkness within Adam Sandler. He made a more dramatic film in 2002 with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and has appeared in some comedies which are considerably less broad than Hotel Transylvania or Happy Gilmore. The role that really saw him bring that edge to the fore, though, was earlier this year in the Safdie Brothers’ ultra-stressful thriller Uncut Gems.

Read more: Safdies reveal how Uncut Gems would’ve changed without Sandler

Sandler plays a chancer of a jewellery dealer, who lies and exaggerates his way through scam after scam in the hope that his life will eventually turn around. Really, though, it’s just an inexorable journey into more and more suffering — and swearing.

Danny DeVito (Batman Returns)

Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Batman Returns'. (Credit: Warner Bros)
Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Batman Returns'. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Danny DeVito made his movie debut in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but he really rose to fame for his role on the sitcom Taxi in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He continued on to a string of comedy roles on the big screen before taking on the loathsome Batman villain Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Read more: Colin Farrell unrecognisable as Penguin in The Batman trailer

Penguin is the leader of a criminal circus troupe and, with his deformed appearance, is one of the most memorable villains of the pre-Marvel superhero movie world. Following up Jack Nicholson’s work as Joker in the first Batman movie was always going to be a tough task, but DeVito pulls it off.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Sweeney Todd)

Johnny Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen in 'Sweeney Todd'. (Credit: Warner Bros)
Johnny Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen in 'Sweeney Todd'. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s image is one of a devilish prankster, through his various characters like Ali G, Borat and Bruno. His movie work has often played into that image, but he tried something grimmer in Tim Burton’s gore-drenched 2007 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As the flamboyant barber-cum-con man Adolfo Pirelli, he tries to extort Johnny Depp’s title character and then becomes his first victim.

Read more: Borat sequel has already been filmed in secret

Cohen’s performance as Pirelli combines the best of his skills, with his faux-Italian exterior emphasising over-the-top comedy until the tone switches magnificently into something darker and more dangerous. It’s an about-turn conveyed beautifully by Cohen, right up until the point that he gets his throat cut in graphic fashion.

Billy Connolly (The Boondock Saints)

Billy Connolly as Il Duce in 'The Boondock Saints'. (Credit: Franchise Pictures/Indican Pictures)
Billy Connolly as Il Duce in 'The Boondock Saints'. (Credit: Franchise Pictures/Indican Pictures)

A comedy icon on the British stand-up scene, the movie roles of Billy Connolly have often tapped into that same persona — or the gentle, avuncular charm he is capable of turning on when it’s suitable. His role in 1999 vigilante thriller The Boondock Saints was very different. Connolly played the violent hitman known as Il Duce — The Duke. He’s hired to kill off the two title characters, only to discover he’s their father.

Unappreciated on its release, The Boondock Saints is now a cult classic with a large following of fans who love its hard-edged ideology. Connolly returned to the role of Il Duce for the 2009 sequel.

Simon Pegg (Inheritance)

Simon Pegg in 'Inheritance'. (Credit: Vertical Entertainment)
Simon Pegg in 'Inheritance'. (Credit: Vertical Entertainment)

Simon Pegg’s comedy characters appear to be getting darker in recent years, with The World’s End protagonist Gary King only a whisker away from being a villain. He’s certainly more difficult to like than the lovable title character in Shaun of the Dead. This year, though, he took on a very troubling role in the indie thriller Inheritance.

Read more: Pegg wants to join Tom Cruise in space

Pegg plays a man who is discovered in a bunker beneath the home of a recently deceased political figure, having been held captive by many years. Lily Collins’s protagonist learns increasingly horrifying details about him throughout the film and, by the end, his status as an evil man with horrible crimes in his past has been cemented.

Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale)

Takeshi Kitano in 'Battle Royale'. (Credit: Toei Company)
Takeshi Kitano in 'Battle Royale'. (Credit: Toei Company)

Takeshi Kitano started his showbiz career as part of a comedy duo in the 1970s. He decided to go solo and became a high-profile TV personality, including as the lord of Takeshi’s Castle on the cult Japanese game show. Brit kids of the early noughties will remember the show being narrated by Craig Charles on Challenge TV.

Kitano subsequently moved into films as both an actor and a director, crafting numerous yakuza stories and dark-edged stories. In the West, he is perhaps best known on the big screen for his role as teacher Kitano in the violent thriller Battle Royale. He portrays the teacher of the class who are dropped on a secluded island and told to fight to the death. It’s a long way from barmy game shows and slapstick comedy.

Lee Evans (Freeze Frame)

Lee Evans on the poster for 'Freeze Frame'. (Credit: Universal)
Lee Evans on the poster for 'Freeze Frame'. (Credit: Universal)

Britain’s sweatiest and most high-energy stand-up comedian successfully carried that persona over into the world of movies, with roles in films like There's Something About Mary and Mouse Hunt. His 2004 movie Freeze Frame, though, couldn’t be more different. With a shaved head and shaved eyebrows, Evans plays a man acquitted of a triple murder who subsequently chooses to film everything in order to provide him with a constant alibi.

Mostly lost to time, this is a deeply strange project that showed a completely different side to Evans and his affable clown style. Unsurprisingly, it’s not one of the more well-remembered elements of Evans’s lengthy career in showbusiness. People remember the perspiration-drenched buffoonery a lot more.

Watch: the latest Johnathan Milott and Cary Murnion film, Becky