Noovie 9: 'SNL' Players Go Dramatic

Chris Rock opens up the book of "Saw" and turns away from comedy in "Spiral." But he's not the only "SNL" actor to make such a turn. Here are nine more.

Matt Lissauer

By Matt Lissauer

SNL Players Go Dramatic - Chris Rock in poster art for "Spiral."

© Lionsgate / Courtesy Everett Collection

Chris Rock is a man of many talents. Certainly, the most famous is his stand-up comedy. Rock got his big breakthrough when he joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in 1990. This cast of not-yet-ready-for-Primetime-players included such future comedy greats as Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and David Spade. A year after he joined "SNL," Rock would take his first dramatic turn, playing a crack addict in Mario Van Peebles' 1991 crime drama "New Jack City." Rock starred alongside Wesley Snipes and Ice-T and proved his acting chops were just as sharp as his comedic timing.

This weekend, Rock returns to crime drama and suspense in "Spiral," a movie that has connections to the "Saw" franchise. Rock plays a brash detective who investigates a series of copy-cat murders inspired by "Saw" psycho killer Jigsaw. It's definitely a change of pace for the comedian. And doubly so for a generation who has grown used to Rock as the zany zebra from "Madagascar." As we get ready to jump from our seats once again, let's take a look at nine more "SNL" players who took a dramatic turn to great and surprising effect.

  • 1Will Ferrell
    Will Ferrell in "Stranger Than Fiction."

    © Sony Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

    Will Ferrell is known for his cast of wacky characters, from San Diego's classiest anchorman Ron Burgundy to immature adult stepbrother Brennan Huff. But along the way, Ferrell turned in some impressive dramatic turns. In the indie dramedy "Everything Must Go" Farrell delivered an understated performance that drew on his comedic chops, playing an alcoholic who relapses and loses his job and his wife on the same day. But, it was before that, in "Stranger Than Fiction," where Ferrell really shined. Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, an uptight IRS agent who soon hears a narrative voice that dictates his every move. Crick learns that he's actually a character in an author's (Emma Thompson) forthcoming novel. In order to overcome this dilemma, Crick must determine if he's in a comedy or a tragedy. Ferrell proved himself a worthy "everyman," something that also served Jim Carrey well in his dramatic turns.

  • 2Kristen Wiig
    Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in "The Skeleton Twins."

    © Lionsgate / Courtesy Everett Collection

    Just like Ferrell before her, Kristen Wiig is known for her bevy of wacky characters. In fact, right now you can laugh along with her as one-half of the zany middle-aged duo Barb & Star. Wiig, though, has proved herself worthy beyond comedy. In "The Martian" she provides some levity but mostly plays it straight as NASA's director of media relations, Annie Montrose. Wiig also plays against type in the indie drama "Welcome to Me," where she pokes holes in her wackiness with a deep and powerful performance as a mentally ill woman who dreams of local TV stardom. In "The Skeleton Twins," though, Wiig truly shines. Playing alongside fellow "SNL" alum Bill Hader (who also turns in a remarkable performance), Wiig finds humor and pathos as Maggie, the estranged twin sister to Hader's Milo. Maggie discovers that even though they drifted apart, they really do need each other.

  • 3Mike Myers
    Mike Myers in "54."

    © Miramax / courtesy Everett Collection

    Mike Myers is a man of many voices and latex skins. This combination came together perfectly in the "Austin Powers" films and "So I Married an Axe Murderer." Of course, we cannot leave out his headbanger with a heart of gold, Wayne Campbell. But Myers has completely disappeared into latex and accent a number of times for serious roles.

    In 2009, Myers applied the same amount of make-up when he appeared as British General Fenech in Quentin Tarantino's war flick "Inglourious Basterds." The stunt-casting here would have served the film even better if QT got his first pick for "Bear Jew" Donny Donowitz -- Adam Sandler. Then, in 2018, Myers came full circle with "Wayne's World." Donning makeup once again, Myers portrayed a (fictional) record exec in Queen biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody." His role was a reference to the famous "Wayne's World" scene featuring the titular song. But, it was in "54" where he completely disappeared into his makeup. Myers portrayed Studio 54 club founder Steve Rubell. Extensive reshoots turned the drama into a mess, but it was Myers' performance that stood out.

  • 4Billy Crystal
    Billy Crystal in "Mr. Saturday Night."

    © Columbia / courtesy Everett Collection

    Billy Crystal always looked marvelous when he transformed into 1950s actor Fernando Lamas on "SNL." Crystal would have actually made his "SNL" debut in the very first episode of the show. The producers instead cut his sketch. On film, the actor has turned in a litany of great understated comedic film performances. Crystal turns in such a performance in the recent release "Here Today." Much the same, Crystal has turned in some equally understated dramatic roles.

    Crystal's directorial debut, "Mr. Saturday Night," was a passion project for the comedian. In spite of its flaws, Crystal delivers a compelling performance as Buddy Young Jr., a failed '50s comedian whose success got the better of him. Prior to that, Crystal starred in "When Harry Met Sally." Sure, this is a rom-com, but there is some great dramatic acting from Crystal. Case in point as he pleads his case to Meg Ryan at the end of the film. Director Kenneth Branagh even knew Crystal would bring his trademark sarcasm to great effect in the role of Horatio the Gravedigger in Branagh's epic, unabridged adaptation of "Hamlet."

  • 5Maya Rudolph
    John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in "Away We Go."

    © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection

    Before Sam Mendes would take on James Bond. And before he would give us a thrilling one-take run through WWI. Mendes found pathos from two of NBC's hottest stars of the day. "Away We Go" stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph at a time when they were known more for hilarious "Office" hijinks and classic "SNL" sketches. Rudolph plays Verona, wife to Burt (Krasinski) and a soon-to-be mother. Verona and Burt are struggling to make ends meet. Their lives soon are upended when Burt's nearby parents decide to move to Belgium. The kicker is that their move-out date is one month before the baby is due. The two then hit the road in a quest to find a new place to settle. It's a trip filled with emotional truths, as well as hilarity and joy.

  • 6Will Forte
    Will Forte in "Nebraska."

    © Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

    "Nebraska" is many things. It's a state. It's a fantastic and stark album by Bruce Springsteen, which includes the equally fantastic and stark title track. And -- terrible allegations about the filmmaker aside -- it's also an Oscar-nominated film from Alexander Payne. The film features a powerfully raw performance from Will Forte. Forte's knack for zany, out-there characters served him well in prep for the role. In the stark drama, Forte plays David, the younger son to Woody (Bruce Dern). David travels with his dad to the eponymous state to collect what may or may not be prize winnings. The casting of Forte came against the best wishes of the studio. But he was hired knowing that he could bring a certain "wide-eyed" quality to the role.Forte found just that, even if his performance didn't land him an Oscar nod alongside the six the film did receive.

  • 7Bill Murray
    Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in "Lost in Translation."

    © Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection

    Bill Murray notoriously became an "SNL" lead when Chevy Chase left after just one season. But any behind-the-scenes drama was quickly forgotten on camera. Murray’s sharpness at improv was present in characters like Nick the Lounge Singer or forever-nerd Todd DiLaMuca. Not to mention on-screen characters like Ghostbuster Peter Venkman or time-trapped weatherman Phil Connors.

    Murray found a second career in 2003, after starring in Sofia Coppola's romantic drama "Lost In Translation." Murray was in a career slump at the time. But not nearly as much as his on-screen persona Bob Harris. Some might point to his sardonic performance in Wes Anderson's teen comedy "Rushmore" as a career rejuvenation. "Lost In Translation," however, would truly be his renaissance (Murrayassance?). Murray would go on to win a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for his performance. He would also nab an Oscar nom. Murray continued this streak with more darkly wry performances in Anderson and Jim Jarmusch dramedies. Thus, turning himself into a turn of the millennium indie darling. Much has been written about "Lost In Translation." We just wish we knew what Bob whispered to Charlotte at the end.

  • 8Eddie Murphy
    Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose and Beyonce Knowles in "Dreamgirls."

    © DreamWorks / courtesy Everett Collection

    Eddie Murphy is another "SNL" alum that has had multiple career resurrections. He began his career in stand-up, and broke out on the New York sketch show. This led to a number of brilliant big-screen '80s comedies. He even proved he had some action chops in "Beverly Hills Cop" and "The Golden Child." By the ‘90s, Murphy’s career would veer into family-friendly fare. This backfired a bit, causing him to lose some standing as a comedic legend for a new generation.

    Despite all that, in 2006, Murphy floored critics and audiences alike in the musical drama "Dreamgirls." Murphy channeled a hot-tub-less James Brown with a raw and raucous performance as Motown-esque singer Jimmy Early. Along with co-star Jennifer Hudson, Murphy was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar. They both won the former, but Hudson would be the sole "Dreamgirls" acting Oscar winner.

    A decade later, Murphy would stun critics once again in the biopic "Dolemite Is My Name." Though snubbed by the Oscars, Murphy's performance did land him another Golden Globe nod. His performance even elevated him to win the Razzie Redeemer Award. Past Razzie recipients receive this award once they become a "respected artist." Murphy even beat a fellow “SNL” alum to claim that award (see below).

  • 9Adam Sandler
    Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems."

    © A24 / courtesy Everett Collection

    2020 might have been an unprecedented and historic awards season. 2019, however, was just as nearly strange (sans face masks and social distancing). Vying for acting awards that year was Murphy and the unlikely but equally terrific Wesley Snipes for “Dolemite Is His Name.” There was also J-Lo for “Hustlers” and 9-time Razzie winner Adam Sandler for “Uncut Gems.” While surprising to many, true Sandler fans knew that if pushed, he could turn in an award-worthy performance.

    Throughout much of the 2000s, while he was also appearing in dreadful paycheck comedies like "Jack & Jill" and "Grown Ups," he was turning in a few emotional performances in a number of dramedies. He kicked this off with a raw and powerful performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," and turned in more equally honest and emotional performances in "Spanglish," "Reign Over Me," and Judd Apatow's "Funny People." Even if the films failed to click, critics couldn't deny his acting.

    In 2017, Sandler turned in another emotional performance in Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories," opposite "SNL" alum Ben Stiller (he was on the show for one season). It all culminated in 2019, with his amazing turn in the Safdie Brothers' NY-set crime thriller "Uncut Gems." Critics expected Sandler to land a number of high-profile awards but he still earned a respectable Independent Spirit Award. In 2020, Sandler followed it all up with a return to form, and another Razzie nod, in "Hubie Halloween." Still, though, we'd like to think he's got a few more powerful roles left in him.

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About the Author

Matt Lissauer

Matt Lissauer

Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.

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