(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

A lot can change in a lifetime, so said the meme-able tagline for The Irishman this year. But it doesn’t even take a full life to observe a radical change in the trajectory of a life, as shown by the many artists who changed the course of their careers during the 2010s. It’s one thing to stage a comeback when you’re down and out in the public eye – after all, who doesn’t love an underdog story? – and another to successfully execute a 180-degree shift when things are going fairly smoothly.

This list pays tribute to those in the industry who pulled off pivots that caught us off-guard but did their job of redefining an already established star image. You might notice a running theme in this list: it’s disproportionately male, white and straight, unfortunately. This indicates that there is still room for the industry to improve in the 2020s and allow more opportunities for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ artists to spread their wings and avoid becoming pigeonholed into a single identity. But given the breadth of artists reshaping a well-known persona in this decade, they have many great playbooks to run.

A Few Ground Rules 

Before you ask “what about?” someone you think should be on the list, a quick note on my methodology:

  • I did not consider people rising to stardom from being virtually unknown, even if it was working in a completely different register or craft. (So none of the directors like Colin Trevorrow or James Gunn, who were plucked from relative obscurity to helm major franchise works.)
  • I did not consider people making comebacks from being in the cultural doghouse, so to speak. There’s a whole other list about that on the way, so alas, no McConaissance!
  • I did not consider people who were “cancelled” or otherwise fell from grace – this list is a celebration of the people who made positive changes, not a condemnation of those who saw their careers disappear.

So now, here are the top 10 career reinventions of the 2010s! (Note: some of them are paired because a number of people mirrored each other’s journeys, and their twinned success offers a great opportunity to reflect on larger forces within the industry.)

10. Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum: from dependable character actors to GIF gods

Dern and Goldblum both made names for themselves in the late 20th century as ace supporting players and great occasional leads, but both have seen surprising turns in their careers when many other actors fade into the background. With slightly hammier roles than their usually more grounded performing styles in Big Little Lies and Thor: Ragnarok, respectively, the pair quickly became favorites to a younger generation of Internet users quick to deploy their GIF-able moments. Their jovial off-screen personas and earnest engagement with fan culture have revitalized their professional lives. External recognition has followed, too: Dern appears poised to capture her first Oscar for a scene-stealing turn in Marriage Story, and Goldblum has leveraged his quirkiness and curiosity to headline a documentary series that served as a key component in Disney+’s launch plan.

Kingsman The Golden Circle TV Spot

9. Channing Tatum and Zac Efron: from self-serious matinee idols to self-parodic stars

At the turn of the decade, Tatum and Efron amounted to little more than pin-ups for teenage girls and gay men. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with satisfying the desire of these fanbases, to be clear, but anyone with a lot of appeal to these demographics tends to scare off straight guys. There’s a lot that we don’t have time to unpack in this, though some of it comes down to their fragile masculinity feeling threatened by their chiseled figures and supernatural good looks. Channing Tatum and Zac Efron found a way to crossover and pick up support from men by burlesquing their own appearances and turning their bodies into objects of comedy in the Jump Street and Neighbors series, respectively. They’ve each attracted the attention of some taste-making directors as well – Efron with Ramin Bahrani and Harmony Korine; Tatum, a bit more high-profile with Bennett Miller, the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. By expanding their appeal, each has been able to cash in on some off-screen history and passion – Tatum with the Magic Mike live shows and Efron with his fitness and adventure series on YouTube. (Note: this transformation is still ongoing because neither is immune from posting the occasional thirst trap.)

Making of A Star Is Born

8. Bradley Cooper: from funnyman to serious artist

Think anyone would refer to Cooper as “the good-looking one in The Hangover” in 2019? A decade ago, Bradley Cooper was riding high off the success of the surprise comedy smash. While his involvement with the series continued for two more ill-advised outings with the Wolfpack, Cooper worked diligently to ensure he would not be typecast as the smug jackass forever. He forged strategic partnerships with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood, who not only helped him string together three consecutive Oscar nominations for acting but guided his ambitions to step behind the director’s chair himself. While Cooper notably missed out a Best Director nomination for A Star is Born, the film established him as someone the industry would need to take seriously for the foreseeable future.

mrs. america cast

7. Elizabeth Banks: from supporting player to systemic changemaker

Whether from 30 Rock, The Hunger Games or any of her other countless supporting roles in front of the camera, Elizabeth Banks made an indelible mark as an actress. But in the 2010s, she took an important step behind the camera by taking over directing duties on the sequel to surprise hit Pitch Perfect. While others did it before her (Angelina Jolie) and since (Greta Gerwig), neither became such outspoken advocates for increasing female representation within key industry roles. Perhaps some of her comments following the box office performance of Charlie’s Angels, Banks’ sophomore feature, could have been a little better calibrated, but they cannot discount the enormous impact she’s had on the conversation surrounding women in film. She stepped up with confidence to claim the Pitch Perfect 2 job despite not having traditional qualifying experience. She simply trusted in her own observations from being on set and asking for help from her peers. Now, she’s empowering other women to do the same with her consistent voice on the press circuit for equality as well as through her activism with Time’s Up.

Watch Threat Level Midnight from The Office

6. Steve Carell: from the actor we feared how much we loved to one we love to fear

In 2010, Steve Carell began to tease the unfathomable – he was considering leaving The Office, the very show that made the comedian a household name (and was still successful). He followed through the next year, but to the surprise of many, it wasn’t to make more comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Get Smart. Carell has routinely played dark, unsettling and even characters that rely on skill sets he rarely utilized on The Office. Be it the quiet Vietnam veteran in Last Flag Flying, the earnest father trying to get his meth-addicted son clean in Beautiful Boy, or a sexually harassing news anchor on TV’s The Morning Show, Carell has drawn on surprising reserves of interiority to create emotionally complex portraits of damaged men. He even got the validation for his career shift with an Oscar nomination for 2014’s Foxcatcher, where he sent chills up spines as the disquietingly deranged John DuPont. The role is as chilly and precisely controlled as Michael Scott is wild and unpredictable.

Gwyneth Paltrow is leaving the MCU

5. Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson: from ingenues to brand ambassadors

A favorite viral clip of 2019 involved Gwyneth Paltrow, an important figure since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, appearing not to know that she was in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Discussion of franchise movie interchangeability aside, the episode solidified what most of us surmised about Paltrow for years: she’s now the frontwoman for Goop first and an actress second. While her lifestyle brand technically kicked off in 2008, its success accelerated in the 2010s. Whether Goop is famous or infamous probably matters little to Paltrow when she’s counting the millions she makes from it. Actors and actresses have long raked in revenue from side projects, but it’s still a bit shocking to watch someone as talented as Gwyneth Paltrow (an Oscar-winner, no less!) take a large step away from art and focus so extensively on becoming the public face of a commercial entity. She has good company in Oscar-nominated actress Kate Hudson, who’s taken a big step back from performing to focus on Fabletics, the line of women’s sportswear she co-founded. It feels a bit like we’re staring down the barrel of a major new trend: make your name interpreting other people’s lives on-screen, then take a step back and sell that same audience your lifestyle off-screen.

Adam McKay heart attack

4. Adam McKay: from comedy maven to political satirist

Admittedly, if you were really looking, writer/director Adam McKay’s transition into a multi-Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) is perhaps not that shocking. While his ‘00s comedies like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers linger in the cultural memory for their imbycilic characters and outlandish quotables, McKay was always putting American masculinity and capitalism under a microscope. His moving into a slightly more dramatic register with stories of recent history like The Big Short and Vice merely changed the way we talk about them. McKay has found a way for humor and go-for-broke aesthetic choices to educate audiences about complex institutions like the financial system and Washington bureaucracy. If all the awards attention is not a strong enough barometer for success, take a look at films like The Laundromat and Bombshell, both of which borrow a page or two from McKay’s style guide.

robert pattinson on playing batman

3. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart: from YA franchise headliners to indie icons

If you’d asked anyone in 2010 who would rise to indie stardom and revitalize the marketplace for younger audiences, it’s doubtful many would have said the heartthrobs of the Twilight series. But ever since Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart said farewell to their vampire franchise, each immersed themselves back in their craft and bequeathed their services to international auteurs. The list of directors for each is too imposing to list, yet it’s clear that many of them – the Safdie Brothers, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Kelly Reichardt – would not enjoy nearly the level of attention they do now without the star power of R-Pattz and K-Stew introducing them to wider audiences. While each looks set to return to the studio filmmaking that made their name in the ‘00s, they left an indelible impact on a flagging independent film scene and created a new off-ramp for young actors looking to re-establish themselves after bidding farewell to a high-profile character.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2

2. Chris Pratt and John Krasinski: from TV sweethearts to action movie hardbodies

After endearing themselves to audiences as boy-next-door nice guys on NBC comedies, both Chris Pratt and John Krasinski took a decidedly different tack when plotting their post-television careers. Perhaps sensing a lack of opportunity playing romantic leads or other comic roles, they hit the gym and reinvented themselves as buff action heroes. Each unveiled their post-dad bod transformations on Instagram, but with plenty of self-effacing humor to make sure everyone knew they were still the same fun-loving guys we’d want to grab a beer with. While it might not be top of the cultural conversation, the Krasinski-headline Jack Ryan is possibly among Amazon Prime’s most watched shows. And between both the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jurassic World franchise, Pratt has proved the unfathomable: it’s still possible to create a bona fide movie star in an era where intellectual property proves the primary draw to theaters.

Jordan Peele's Us Featurette

1. Jordan Peele: from sketch comedy royalty to Hitchcock’s heir

This list is full of incredible transformations, and perhaps recency bias helped influence the decision to put Jordan Peele at the top. But in stark contrast to the rest of the list, Peele’s reinvention was both dramatic and immediate. There was no ramp-up period, no acculturation to the idea that he was to be taken seriously as a major auteur. He went from being one half of the acclaimed sketch comedy show Key and Peele to an Academy Award-winning filmmaker in the span of two years with nothing else in between to prepare people for his ascendancy. (OK, fine, there was Keanu in 2016.) The pivot worked as well as it did because there were definite commonalities between Peele’s social satires on Key and Peele and his social thrillers Get Out and Us. He’s engaging audiences intellectually and cerebrally, uniting the art-house and mainstream in consensus around his prodigious talents. Peele is proving that there is still a market for smart, original material in cinema. His career reset is ultimately the one that holds the most promise for the future of movies, and for that reason, he takes the cake here.

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