Cloud Atlas appears to be this year’s Inception as it’s a big budget brainy sci-fi film. But, instead of traveling through different levels of dreams, this film follows the intertwining lives of various characters through their past, present and future. The cast is flooded with A-list actors including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant, all of whom tackle multiple roles. The whole film is a risky venture for the actors, who have to convince their audience that they’re completely different characters while acting in the same movie. It’s the sort of thing that if the actors don’t commit themselves, they could be laughed off screen. So, in honor of Cloud Atlas, we’ve decided to put together a list of 10 great risky performances in movies.

10. Leonardo DiCaprio – Total Eclipse

Before Leonardo DiCaprio smooched Armie Hammer in Clint Eastwood‘s J. Edgar, he played a homosexual French poet named Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse. The film revolved around a gay couple’s sexual affair. DiCaprio was young when he took on the role, this was way before he became the world’s most loveable ice cube in Titanic.  And back in the 1990′s sharing an intense kissing scene with David Thewlis could cost you a career. Though this may not be the high point of his career eventually it was unpredictable roles like these that made DiCaprio the actor he is today.

9. Adam Sandler – Punch-Drunk Love

It’s hard to imagine that Adam Sandler, the guy who recently starred in the comedy travesties Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy, was once in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. But in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler plays Barry, a lonely small business owner who gets tangled up in a phone sex scam. This film is a great example of how the right director can bring out the actor in a performer who’s known for a (successful, albeit) limited range. Anderson squeezed out a great performance out of Sandler. It was a shocking revelation. The film bombed horribly, but it did prove that Sandler had more than one note. And when all is said and done, more people will be talking about it, than – say – the two other films he made that year: Mr. Deeds and Eight Crazy Nights.

8. Cameron Diaz – Being John Malkovich

Cameron Diaz‘s hair wasn’t the only alarming thing in Being John Malkovich. Her transformation was startling. Diaz went from gorgeous model to a funky, big-haired dork who wasn’t afraid to be ugly. Her performance as Lotte stands out on her resume for a number of reasons, partly because she was great when she didn’t have to just be ditzy and good looking. The filmmakers took a risk by casting Diaz against type, but it worked.

7. Dustin Hoffman – Midnight Cowboy

The Graduate made Dustin Hoffman a leading man. When he decided to take on the role of Enrico Rizzo, a crippled third-rate con artist, in Midnight Cowboy many of the people closest to him were against it. Even Mike Nichols told him that he was going to undo what The Graduate did for his career, because he was playing a supporting role. But Hoffman committed himself to the project, and his raw performance got him his second Oscar nomination.

6. Henry Fonda – Once Upon A Time In The West

Sergio Leone gave America’s movie hero the chance to play a villainous man in the outstanding western Once Upon a Time in the West. Henry Fonda had always been the heroic actor, the good guy. That’s what audiences knew him and loved him as. But in Leone’s film, he gets a cold heart and a pistol. Fonda could have ruined his reputation as a decent man with this film. It turns out that later biographies did that way more effectively.

5. Rooney Mara – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara went to extreme lengths to land the lead role in David Fincher‘s American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Mara went through an extensive interview process and drastic physical changes to meet her director’s demands. She stopped eating, bleached her eyebrows, chopped her hair, pierced her nipples, and filmed a gruesome rape scene and an intense sex scene in which she lost all of her clothes. Mara gave an exciting and absorbing performance that could have ended her just-starting career. Now she’s working with Terrence Malick. And we just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Lisbeth Salander… except Noomi Rapace, of course.

4. Malcolm McDowell – A Clockwork Orange

It’s hard to sell a film that revolves around an unlikable and despicable character that enjoys rape and murder. Stanley Kubrick‘s A Clockwork Orange is a daring and violent masterpiece that leaves you thinking long after it’s over. Alex was a hard role to tackle, but thanks to Malcolm McDowell‘s fearless performance and Kubrick’s direction, the film is pure genius. And though McDowell has played hammy villains from time to time, he’s also managed to have a successful career as a working actor after this film, which isn’t always the case when playing such a figure (see: Anthony Perkins).

3. Heath Ledger And Jake Gyllenhaal – Brokeback Mountain

As should be obvious from this list, Hollywood (which has had numerous actors and actresses keep their sexual preferences in the closest) is always nervous about when performers play homosexuals, as they think it’s something audiences won’t forget. Both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal took a great risk by starring in Ang Lee‘s Brokeback Mountain. It wasn’t so much that the movie was a gay love story, but that its two leads were hunky, hot actors who were playing a pair of gay cowboys involved in a loving and unapologetic (and, at least for a moment, graphic) relationship. But their performances were transcendent, so in the end it didn’t matter.

2. Jodie Foster – Taxi Driver

At 13, Jodie Foster played the role of a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver. To prepare for the film, Foster hung around with a real-life working girl. She was exposed to the violent on-set shootout and let’s not forget, she unzipped Robert DeNiro‘s pants in a cheap motel. Her character was not kid-friendly, and parents often wonder if playing a role like this could prove damaging to the performer. But Foster churned out a breakout performance that put her on the right path to success.

1. Charlize Theron – Monster

Charlize Theron is completely unrecognizable in Monster. In this haunting film, Theron plays real-life murderer Aileen Wournos. The actress gained 30-pounds and transformed herself for the role. With this film she was able to prove that she was more than just a pretty face. And by distorting her own incredible looks, she managed to transform herself from being a “starlet” into a serious actress. Theron bet her career on playing ugly, and nearly ten years later she was the lead in two of this summer’s biggest movies. Something that wouldn’t have happened without Monster.

What are some other risky performances? Which did we miss?