Actors have long taken extreme measures to add authenticity to a performance, but portraying a sex worker requires a particular vulnerability. The lives of prostitutes, strippers, and porn stars are not just physically complicated but also mentally and emotionally taxing, making them some of the juiciest and most sought-after roles. Actors will go to great lengths to convincingly inhabit sex workers, but how far is too far?
10 Halle Berry In Jungle Fever
Director Spike Lee wanted to cast Halle Berry as Wesley Snipes’s wife in this interracial drama. But Berry, weary of being typecast from her experience in beauty pageants and soap operas, insisted that her feature film debut must be as Vivian, a crack ho. Berry’s on-screen companion was played by Samuel L. Jackson, who had spent time in rehab for crack cocaine, so Berry had to get inventive to rise to the occasion.
To inhabit Vivian, Berry spent time in crack dens and did not shower for 10 days during production. When Wendy Williams doubted Berry’s hygiene lapse in an interview, the actress responded, “Ask Sam Jackson! He had to get a whiff of it . . . constantly!”
With her role in Jungle Fever, Berry paved the way for her more controversial roles such as in Monster’s Ball for which she won the 2001 Academy Award.
9 Mark Wahlberg In Boogie Nights
Director Paul Thomas Anderson dove headfirst into the porn world by spending a year with porn legend Ron Jeremy, but prospective star Mark Wahlberg was reluctant to read the script. After the then-recent disaster of Showgirls and fresh off a career as an underwear model, Wahlberg wasn’t interested in portraying a rising 1970s porn star.
Anderson got Wahlberg to acquiesce, but Wahlberg’s on-set experience wasn’t exactly easy. To get in character, he had to wear a prosthetic penis, of which he said, “You have this weird guy putting it on, there’s no way to go to the bathroom.”
The first time the prosthetic was applied, it was to the measurements of famed porn actor John Holmes who is 15 centimeters (6 in) taller than Wahlberg. “So this thing went down past my knee. [ . . . ] You’d sit down, and the thing would bounce up,” Wahlberg explained.
He endured this clownish humiliation in front of the entire cast and crew. But apparently, Mark Wahlberg’s prosthetic penis grew on him (pun intended) because he kept it, saying, “Maybe at some point, I can sell it at auction for charity.”
8 Jodie Foster In Taxi Driver
Jodie Foster’s mother never thought that her daughter would get the role of underage prostitute Iris because Foster had auditioned for Martin Scorsese’s gritty drama in her school uniform. But Scorsese chose Foster to play opposite troubled Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Foster was a tomboy who hated wearing Iris’s halter tops and short shorts, but other parts of the rehearsal process proved more challenging.
In addition to spending time with real street girls, Foster went on several outings with her costar. De Niro was a committed method actor who took her out to diners as a mentally ill man growing increasingly unstable at society’s decadence.
Foster states that this was awkward, even to an eye-rolling degree, but “he really helped me understand improvisation and building a character in a way that was almost nonverbal.” At the tender age of 13, Foster was hoisted into the seedy world of Taxi Driver, but it was a role that launched her career.
7 Anne Hathaway In Les Miserables
Anne Hathaway wasn’t asked to audition for the role of 19th-century prostitute Fantine in this sprawling class-and-morality tale of the French Resistance because Hathaway was too young. But somehow, she finagled what turned out to be a three-hour audition where she sang several of the famed songs and performed Fantine’s crucial death scene for director Tom Hooper.
Once cast, Hathaway read Victor Hugo’s original 1,400-page novel and researched the period’s sexual slavery. To become Fantine, Hathaway lost 11 kilograms (25 lb) by going on a cleanse and then eating only two thin squares of dried oatmeal paste a day for 15 days.
After they wrapped, Hathaway remarked, “It was definitely a little nuts. It was definitely a break with reality, but I think that’s who Fantine is anyway.”
6 Emily Browning In Sleeping Beauty
In this Australian film, Emily Browning plays Lucy, a university student who takes a job with a mysterious group that caters to rich men. After proving herself initially as a caterer in lingerie, Lucy is promoted to a new role where she will be voluntarily sedated and sleep naked while male clients lie beside her, enacting their romantic fantasies. The rules forbid intercourse, but the atmosphere is still violating.
In preparation for the role, Browning meditated and used the Alexander Technique to focus on body stillness. Every day before shooting, she swam in the ocean at 5:00 AM.
On set, she wore prosthetic skin and eventually learned not to wince when a male client burned a cigarette on her neck in 14 separate takes. As her character spends less time asleep and flirts with vengeance, Browning torches money on camera, an experience she calls “amazing.”
5 Matthew McConaughey In Magic Mike
This male stripper story is interestingly based on Channing Tatum’s real life, but Matthew McConaughey steals the show as strip club ringleader Dallas. McConaughey said yes to the role over the phone, something he’s done twice in his life.
To prepare, he went to a male review with Tatum in New Orleans. McConaughey’s major takeaways were that the guys were actually very normal and that the production design was horrible. To spice things up, McConaughey asked if he could channel P.T. Barnum. Director Steven Soderbergh obliged, resulting in themed sets and props that are one of the most spirited aspects of the film.
To embody Dallas, McConaughey got regularly waxed in an LA strip mall. “Yeah. The Russian got me,” he told an MTV reporter with a smile. “She said ‘sorry’ after every time. She said ‘sorry’ 142 times.”
The script did not originally include a dance scene for Dallas, but McConaughey requested one. He made his dance the lewdest in the film, embodying it so fully that his thong tore. As McConaughey quips, “The character was a wonderful capitalist.” The better these strippers look, the more cash they make.
4 Charlize Theron In Monster
Monster is based on real-life Daytona Beach prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos. To become Wuornos, Theron gained 14 kilograms (30 lb) by eating Krispy Kremes and potato chips, heralding in the bodily transformation term “charlize-ing.”
For a week before shooting, Theron and director Patty Jenkins spent time at The Last Resort, Wuornos’s favorite watering hole. Each day, Theron practiced Wuornos’s walk and learned to speak with prosthetic teeth, leaving the bartender and locals in awe of the likeness. Jenkins wouldn’t look at Theron until she was costumed, no doubt helping to solidify the transformation.
Writer/director Jenkins sourced material from Wuornos’s prison letters that went beyond the grisly facts. The letters painted Wuornos not just as a homicidal maniac but also as a person who’d been dealt a bad hand in life. Among many horrific incidents, Wuornos was sexually abused as a child and thrown out of her house at age 15.
Theron went with this bold, heartbreaking interpretation. But after a month in Wuornos’s skin, Theron nearly had a breakdown. Her performance earned her a 2003 Academy Award.
3 Patricia Arquette In True Romance
In True Romance, Patricia Arquette plays Alabama, a call girl who steals cocaine from her pimp and then runs off with comic store assistant Clarence (Christian Slater). In iconic Quentin Tarantino dialogue, Alabama explains to Clarence, “I’ve been a call girl for exactly four days, and you’re my third customer.” But Arquette was determined to make those four days count.
Before the first few scenes, she allowed director Tony Scott to be her “persuader,” which entailed slapping her in the face. Once the effect had been achieved, Scott backed off. But in the heavy scenes toward the end of the film, Arquette approached him to repeat the practice. After they wrapped, perhaps by way of apology, Scott gave Arquette the film’s picture-perfect pink Cadillac.
It also bears mentioning that Scott is a sort of method director in that he will also fully inhabit his characters, even to a fault. For example, on set when Clarence’s father (Dennis Hopper) did not want an unloaded gun put to his forehead, Scott offered to have the prop master do it to Scott first.
But the gun’s cartridge was not removed, so he fell to the floor with a bleeding head. His dedication to his characters is evident. Instead of Tarantino’s scripted ending where the hero dies, Scott opted instead to have the pair escape and ride off into the sunset.
2 River Phoenix In My Own Private Idaho
In director Gus Van Sant’s breakout film, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves play street hustlers on a transatlantic journey. When Reeves got ahold of the treatment by Van Sant, who was little known at the time, Reeves liked it so much that he rode over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi) on his motorcycle to deliver it to Phoenix.
Once Phoenix got on board and came to Portland, Van Sant invited Phoenix to stay at his house. But the actors were so deep in street hustler culture that they, along with costar Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, turned the house into such a nonstop party that Van Sant had to move out and stay downtown.
Phoenix hung out with real-life street kid Mike Parker, who was Van Sant’s friend. Phoenix not only interviewed real hustlers (videos are online) but, according to Parker, partook in hard drugs and gay sex. Unfortunately, this same sense of experimentation caused Phoenix to overdose two years later at age 23.
1 James Franco In Sonny
It’s no surprise that James Franco undertook the craziest preparations to play a sex worker. Franco is known for his method acting. While playing James Dean, Franco cut off all contact with his family, friends, and girlfriend to tap into Dean’s loneliness.
In Sonny, Franco plays a New Orleans gigolo who yearns for a life outside of his mother’s brothel. Franco’s already immersive tactics were no doubt amplified by fellow actor Nicolas Cage, who is also known for his method acting and who directed Sonny. On Inside the Actors Studio, Franco describes not only hanging out with a gigolo but also following him into a room with a john. Franco sat in the corner and watched the two have intercourse.
Jenny Hatchadorian is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. She has an MFA from CalArts and was an Adjunct and Assistant Professor of Film for over six years. Her films have screened across the United States and have won Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Women & Film Award. Jenny writes a podcast of comedic essays called Everything Good. Her writing has been published by Story Club Magazine and Role Reboot. Follow her on Instagram.