Toronto is where Hollywood actors go to reinvent themselves

As Matthew McConaughey was shooting "Dallas Buyers Club," he landed the lead role in HBO's "True Detective" and then, shortly after, in Christopher Nolan's upcoming science-fiction epic "Interstellar."
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

The Toronto International Film Festival is Hollywood’s annual showcase for its most prestigious movies, the ones that might go on to reap Oscars.

For many of the big-name actors attending, though, there’s a somewhat different agenda: reinvention.

The gathering, which runs Thursday to Sept. 14, ‎will this year see an unusual number of major stars hoping to recast 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 stretch beyond the comedies they’re best known for. And with the major studios shying away from adult-oriented dramas, many of them simply want to embrace a meaty role wherever they can find it.

Downey, best known today as a star of the “Iron Man” and “Avengers” films, is starring in “The Judge,” a story about a big-time lawyer who returns to his small town and has fraught encounters with estranged family and friends. The film, which opens Toronto on Thursday night, could restore Downey’s image as a dramatic actor who in a much earlier phase starred in movies such as the addiction drama “Less Than Zero.”

“I think the same way that we like seeing new colors from actors like Robert or Johnny Depp in big studio movies, we also want to see them return to their roots and go to deep emotional places in movies like this,” said “The Judge” director David Dobkin.

Actors have sought to break the constraints Hollywood has placed on them 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 both prestige movies and media — and where a warm reception can spell both awards and box-office bounties — is seeing numerous such attempts this year.

The timing of the festival is crucial. In the fall, many serious fans — not to mention award voters — start paying closer attention to movies, so a notable effort to take on challenging parts can pay dividends.

One template is Matthew McConaughey, who last year jump-started his renaissance as a serious performer playing an AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club,” which world-premiered in Toronto. McConaughey went on to win the Oscar for lead actor for his work in the film.

Another popular performer (and former McConaughey co-star), Witherspoon, is aiming to make a similar jump this year. Witherspoon hopes her recent reputation for making a number of tepidly received romances 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 several stars to place multiple bets on the table at Toronto.

Sandler hopes his run of studio-comedy misfires is forgotten in light of a whimsical drama, “The Cobbler,” and a sex-in-the-suburbs tale, “Men, Women & Children.” And Pacino, who has had a string of largely forgettable roles in capers and crime films, 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 Philip Roth novel in which he stars as a washed-up actor whose life is energized by an erotic encounter.

If their work is good, many of them could find themselves newly embraced by an important constituency. “Because the Toronto audience is mostly regular moviegoers, the reaction to a favorite actor in a new role can be especially electric,” said the festival’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, in an email. “These are fans, not pundits, and they get excited.”

Casting these actors against type, of course, is hardly simple. Gere has made his Hollywood reputation playing a certain type of smooth, upper-middle-class figure — which made his turn as a forlorn homeless man in Oren Moverman’s drama “Time Out of Mind” a bit of a tough sell to financiers and studios.

“I wouldn’t even say the word ‘homeless,’ and I would get all these raised eyebrows,” Moverman said. “People would say, ‘Isn’t he a symbol of white male power?’”

In an era when constant coverage makes a celebrity’s brand ever more rigid, actors are more emboldened than ever to make these departures.

Chris Evans is beloved by millions for his performances as Captain America in movies that have grossed billions worldwide.

But at Toronto he will 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,” a tale of a woman who misses her late-night 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, such as that of Pacino or Bill Murray, it comes as recent turns haven’t been as successful. Murray gives what is sure to be a conversation-starting performance as a grumpy and eccentric Vietnam vet in the dramatic comedy “St. Vincent.”

Maguire, another onetime dramatic actor who found mega-success in a superhero franchise, will seek to further expand his post-Spider-Man life. He’ll debut “Pawn Sacrifice,” a fact-based period drama about chess that he produced and stars in as Bobby Fischer.

“It’s definitely a thing,” he said, when asked about the men-in-tights taking on dramatic parts. “A lot of it is time,” 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 much time to prep and shoot and market. And when they end you can actually think about what to do next.”

In the decade since her long-running TV franchise “Friends” came to a close, Aniston has 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 felt she craved 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 fixated on another member’s suicide.

She called the role “100% the most challenging” of her career. “It was just an emotional journey that was quite extraordinary and a physical one as well. Just a hard story to tell.”

Stars also know that one serious role begets another. Even as he was shooting “Dallas Buyers Club,” McConaughey landed the lead role in HBO’s “True Detective” and then, shortly after, in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming science-fiction epic “Interstellar.”

The change may also be a response to the rise of the small screen.

“I think now with TV being so good, we get so used to seeing actors play the same parts for six, seven, eight years,” Moverman said. “Cinema can offer something different: variety.”

Still, reinvention isn’t easy. Last year at Toronto, Aniston also attempted such a transition with “Life of Crime,” a caper film based on an Elmore Leonard novel. The movie came out last week to modest box office.

Evans said he and other actors need to keep in mind that they can only control their own reinvention so much.

“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 all over.”

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.