In the picture-perfect world of Hollywood, you’d think a set of gleaming teeth, perfect cheekbones, and a chiseled jaw would mean you were set for life. But according to Rob Lowe, a man who possesses all of these qualities, being too pretty as an actor is actually a detriment.
He told The New York Times: “There’s this unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people, that they can’t be in pain or they can’t have rough lives or be deep or interesting. They can’t be any of the things that you long to play as an actor. I’m getting to play those parts now and loving it. When I was a teen idol, I was so goddamn pretty I wouldn’t have taken myself seriously.”
In his early years, outside of a few hits like St. Elmo’s Fire, Lowe starred in forgettable fare like About Last Night and Bad Influence, playing unmemorable characters. The 50 year-old actor has only lately been able to flip the script—playing odd characters like the plastic surgeon in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, and showing off his acerbic wit on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation. Last year, he got a chance to flex his dramatic chops when he played JFK in the National Geographic Channel’s Killing Kennedy.
Lowe is partly right. A scan of the Best Actor nominees show few with Movie Star good looks. There are outliers— Matt Damon, Jude Law, James Franco—but for the most part, the crop is filled with character actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day Lewis, or Sean Penn, none of whom would find themselves on the cover of People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”
The “get ugly to be taken seriously” route has long been one that extraordinarily beautiful actresses have undertaken to win Oscars—including Charlize Theron in Monster and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. And there’s a long history of pretty boys being relegated to softball roles, until they uglied up (Matthew McConaughey is the most recent practitioner, losing weight in Dallas Buyers Club).
But many pretty boys don’t necessarily have to get ugly; they just need to hold out for parts that go against type, and help people see them as something more than a pretty face. It’s worth noting that nearly all of the actors who must undergo this transformation are part of Jimmy Kimmel’s Handsome Men’s Club. So here’s how the pretty boys fare in Hollywood.
Matthew McConaughey: For years slotted in bad romantic comedies The Wedding Planner, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, he seemed like he’d be forever cast as the handsome rogue, until one day, he decided he’d had enough. "The first move was saying no to things that were very similar to things I’d done,” he told The Daily Beast last year. He chose parts as a sleazy stripper/club owner in Magic Mike, a fugitive in Mud, a corrupt detective in Killer Joe, and passed on a $15-million part in a Magnum P.I. reboot. McConaughey’s transformation from the shirtless bongo player on the beach to Serious Actor was complete when he lost almost 50 pounds to play AIDS victim Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. With an Oscar in one hand, and True Detective under his belt, he’s now a certified critical darling, something no one would have predicted a few years ago.
Brad Pitt: Brad Pitt’s entrée as sexy thief J.D. in Thelma and Louise set him on the fast track to heartthrob status, starring in A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall, and Cool World, before nabbing the part of Jeffrey Goines, a mental patient who is also the leader of the 12 Monkeys Army, for which he later won a Best Supporting Actor award at the Golden Globes in 1996. Pitt had already gotten booked for Se7en, lobbied hard to get the part in 12 Monkeys, the director Terry Gilliam has said. "He was sick of being seen as a blond bimbo," Gilliam told the Daily Llama. Pitt cut his hair and wore brown contact lenses to de-pretty himself. Gilliam told Film Scouts: “We caught Brad at a perfect time in his career, I think, because, you know, his face has been all over the place. ‘Sexiest man in America.’ And he hates it. He was very bold in saying ‘I don't want to look like Brad Pitt.’”
Ryan Gosling: Though he’d been doing weird, indie parts before The Notebook, the ultimate romance drama with Rachel McAdams cemented Gosling as a dreamboat. Later, his turn as a lothario in the box office hit Crazy Stupid Love made him even more swoon-worthy. But throughout his career, Gosling’s worked hard to push back against his good looks, choosing parts like the crack-addicted school teacher in Half Nelson (which earned him an Oscar nomination), an alcoholic husband in Blue Valentine, and a getaway driver in Drive. He even gained a ton of weight for The Lovely Bones, in a role he was fired from. He told GQ: “People always say, ‘Go make the Fractures so you can make your Half Nelsons. And the truth is, I got way more opportunities out of Half Nelson than I did out of Fracture. I’ve always been surprised at how many opportunities I’ve gotten out of the things I really believed in, versus the things I thought I should be doing.”
Tom Cruise: Though he’d shown promise in Taps and The Outsiders, by the time he starred in Risky Business and Top Gun, Cruise’s status as a Handsome Movie Star was solidified. It wasn’t clear if Cruise was a really good actor or just playing slight variations of himself, until he starred as paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, for which he nabbed an Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe. His character was balding with a mustache, and the disillusioned and angry Kovic was miles away from the cocky assured types Cruise had been playing. His role impressed the critics, and the question of whether or not he can act has largely been settled with praiseworthy parts in Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, and Collateral.
Bradley Cooper: Before David O. Russell cast the Coop in Silver Linings Playbook, people’s expectations of him were rather low. Sure, he was the star of The Hangover, but how hard was it to play a cocky asshole? And, it seemed, he played only cocky assholes in movies like Wedding Crashers. His role in Playbook as the manic-depressive, lovelorn Pat earned him an Oscar nomination, and people realized that Cooper was perhaps a good actor. He told Details: “I had no idea how many people didn't think I was really an actor. That surprised me. To me, I look at that guy in The Hangover, and that's a full character that I worked on with the director to fit the story. Just like Sack Lodge in Wedding Crashers. So I'm creating characters that I think are full and rich, and everyone thought I was that guy. People must have thought I was that dude—this cocky asshole of a guy. But that's what people had to go on.”
Heath Ledger: Before the McConnaissance, there was Heath Ledger’s own resurgence, cut sadly short. The hunky Australian had made a big splash in the Shakespearean rom com 10 Things I Hate About You, and seemed to be on a straight and narrow road to boring but well-paid roles in blockbusters like A Knight’s Tale, Casanova, and The Brothers Grimm, with a few curveball parts along the way in movies like Monster’s Ball. Then came his turn as Ennis Del Mar, the gay lovelorn cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, and the rest is history. Still, even though he nabbed numerous nominations and accolades for the part, when he was announced as the Joker, fans were outraged. His Australian director Gregor Jordan told The Guardian, “When Heath first started gaining movie-star status, I think he got railroaded into doing some movies he wasn't really that keen on. There was a lot of pressure on him to become the next Brad Pitt or the next whatever. But he wanted to be an actor rather than a movie star. Which is a risky thing to do, because at the end of the day you're really on your chops as an actor rather than your straight appeal and the roles tailored for you. I think he's pulled it off." When he died just after The Dark Knight was released, it was even more clear that Ledger was a risk-taking actor who happened to be easy on the eyes. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously.
Channing Tatum: Channing Tatum was just another pretty face until 2012. That’s when he proved to the world that he could act, produce, and dance, and look really good doing so. Before Magic Mike, it appeared that Tatum would be relegated to romantic dramas like Dear John and The Vow, playing handsome, uninteresting men. Though he’s not yet portrayed a dark character or revised his look drastically, Tatum has found that playing against type in the 21 Jump Street reboot has helped him rebrand himself. (You mean the really hot guy is funny?) Those serious Soderberg flicks (Side Effects, Haywire, and Magic Mike) didn’t hurt either, leading critics to praise him in articles like “So It Turns Out That Channing Tatum Is a Pretty Good Actor.” Soderberg said of Tatum in Grantland: “There aren’t a lot of guys like him right now, that are that age, that are men, that are masculine, but not in a bogus way. And I like him, personally. He’s value-added, as I like to say.”
Johnny Depp: The king of Pretty Boys who refused to go quietly to Heartthrob Land, Depp very early on in his career shrugged off any attempts to be pegged as a hunk. He famously hated being on the TV show 21 Jump Street for that reason, and has since starred in a string of movies as a variation of freaks, outsiders, and eccentrics, starting with Edward Scissorhands and proceeding to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and many more. What’s ironic about Depp’s refusal to be the swashbuckling leading man is that by the time he starred in a mainstream blockbuster, albeit as a pirate in Keith Richards drag, it was a transgressive career move. Pirates director Gore Verbinski told Rolling Stone: "He's always played against the type—that's been his thing, the way he escaped being typecast as a good-looking leading man.”