The Toronto International Film Festival is Hollywood’s annual showcase for its most prestigious, Oscar-winning films.
For many big-name actors in attendance, however, there is a somewhat different agenda: reinvention.
The gathering, which runs from Thursday to September 14, will this year see an unusual number of major stars hoping to overhaul their screen images, including Robert Downey Jr., Adam Sandler, Reese Witherspoon, Richard Gere, Bill Murray, Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Aniston, Al Pacino and Chris Evans, among others.
Some, like Downey and Evans, want to remind audiences that they can be more than action heroes. Actors like Sandler and Aniston want to go beyond the comedies they’re best known for. And with major studios eschewing adult-oriented drama, many of them just want to embrace a meaty role wherever they can find it.
Downey, best known today as the star of “Iron Man” and “Avengers,” stars in “The Judge,” the story of a big-name lawyer who returns to his small town and has rocky encounters with a distant family and friends. The film, which opens in Toronto Thursday night, could restore Downey’s image as a dramatic actor who, in a much older phase, starred in such films as the addiction drama “Less Than Zero.”
“I think the same way we love to see new colors from actors like Robert or Johnny Depp in big studio movies, we also want to see them go back to their roots and go to some deeply emotional places in movies like this one,” “The Judge” said. ” director David Dobkin.
Actors have sought to break the constraints imposed by Hollywood since at least the days of Charlie Chaplin, who went from playing the tramp to an Adolf Hitler-like character in “The Great Dictator.” But Toronto, with its abundance of high-profile movies and media — and where a warm reception can mean awards and box office bounties — is seeing plenty of such attempts this year.
The timing of the festival is crucial. Come fall, many serious fans — not to mention award-winning voters — begin to pay more attention to the films, so a noticeable effort to take on tough parts can pay off.
One role model is Matthew McConaughey, who last year launched his renaissance as a serious performer playing an AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club,” which had its world premiere in Toronto. McConaughey went on to win the Academy Award for Lead Actor for his work in the film.
Another popular performer (and former McConaughey co-star), Witherspoon, is aiming to take a similar leap this year. Witherspoon hopes his recent reputation for making a number of lukewarm novels will be dispelled by a pair of rigorous dramas, the literary adaptation “Wild” and the Sudanese refugee story “The Good Lie.”
She is one of many stars to place multiple bets on the table in Toronto.
Sandler hopes his string of studio comedy duds will be forgotten in light of whimsical drama, “The Cobbler,” and suburban sex tale, “Men, Women & Children.” And Pacino, who has had a series of largely forgettable roles in capers and crime movies, will star in “Manglehorn,” in which he plays an eccentric Texan who must live with a past crime, and “The Humbling,” an adaptation of ‘a novel by Philip Roth in which he plays a failed actor whose life is energized by an erotic encounter.
If their work is good, many of them could find themselves newly adopted by a large constituency. “Because Toronto audiences are overwhelmingly regular moviegoers, the reaction to a favorite actor in a new role can be particularly electric,” festival artistic director Cameron Bailey said in an email. “They’re fans, not experts, and they’re excited.”
Casting these actors against type, of course, is not straightforward. Gere made his reputation in Hollywood playing a certain type of slick upper-middle-class character – who made his turn as the desperate homeless in Oren Moverman’s drama ‘Time Out of Mind’ a little hard to sell to financiers and studios.
“I wouldn’t even say the word ‘homeless’ and I’d have all those raised eyebrows,” Moverman said. “People would say, ‘Isn’t he a symbol of white male power? “”
In an age where constant coverage makes a celebrity’s mark increasingly rigid, actors are more emboldened than ever to make those departures.
Chris Evans is loved by millions for his performances as Captain America in films that have grossed billions of dollars worldwide.
But in Toronto, he’ll seek recognition for a less familiar guise: as the director and star of an independent drama. The man known for saving his country in nifty spandex will unveil ‘Before We Go’, the story of a woman who misses her overnight train from New York to Boston and has a series of complicated encounters.
“I know I’ve spent a lot of my career in a superhero costume,” Evans said. “But I also want to be perceived in another way.”
In some cases, like Pacino’s or Bill Murray’s, it comes when recent turns haven’t been so successful. Murray gives what is sure to be a talkative performance as the grumpy, eccentric Vietnam veteran in the comedy-drama “St. Vincent.”
Maguire, another dramatic actor who has had mega success in a superhero franchise, will be looking to expand his post-Spider-Man life further. He will make his debut with “Pawn Sacrifice,” a period drama based on chess facts he produced and in which he plays Bobby Fischer.
“It’s definitely a thing,” he said, when asked about men in tights taking on dramatic roles. “It’s time in a big way,” he said of those whose superhero roles are behind them. “When you’re in a franchise like that, you have years of your future that are determined because those movies take so long to prep, shoot, and market. And when they end, you can actually think about what to do next.
In the decade since the end of her long-running “Friends” TV franchise, Aniston found success on the big screen – occasionally in dramas but mostly in comedies, such as “We’re the Millers,” which was the second-highest-grossing comedy of 2013. But recently, she’s been craving something different. So she took the lead role in Daniel Barnz’s “Cake,” in which she plays a member of a pain support group who becomes obsessed with another member’s suicide.
She called the role “100% the most difficult” of her career. “It was just a pretty extraordinary emotional journey and a physical one as well. Just a tough story to tell.
Stars also know that one serious role begets another. Even while filming “Dallas Buyers Club,” McConaughey landed the lead role in HBO’s “True Detective,” and then, shortly thereafter, Christopher Nolan’s upcoming sci-fi epic “Interstellar.”
Change may also be a response to the rise of the small screen.
“I think now that television is so good, we get so used to seeing actors playing the same roles for six, seven, eight years,” Moverman said. “Cinema can offer something different: variety. »
Yet reinvention is not easy. Last year in Toronto, Aniston also attempted such a transition with “Life of Crime,” a cuddly flick based on an Elmore Leonard novel. The film was released last week to a modest box office.
Evans said he and other actors had to keep in mind that they could only control their own reinvention to a certain extent.
“You can stand there and say, ‘I’m going to do all these things differently. But if people think your movie is bad, it’s over.
Times writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.