There’s almost always a character in a movie or television show that is frumpy, homely, or meant to be seen as ugly. These characters become ingrained in our minds in the way they are presented. But when the makeup and costumes come off, these actresses turn out to be a sight for sore eyes. Here is a list of beautiful actresses who have played “ugly” characters.
Actress Naomi Grossman is best known for her role as Pepper in seasons 2 and 4 of FX’s American Horror Story, being the first character to appear in more than one season of the show. Pepper is a microcephalic who gets placed into a mental asylum after being accused of a crime in American Horror Story: Asylum. She makes a second appearance in American Horror Story: Freak Show as a performer in the season’s sideshow.
Grossman shaved her head bald to play Pepper, a role she did not know she was auditioning for. Her role as Pepper is her biggest one to date, although she has acted in small roles in different movies and shows.
We all remember Anne Hathaway’s film debut in The Princess Diaries. Hathaway played the lead role of Mia Thermopolis, a frumpy teen-turned-princess after she discovers her father’s royal roots. In the movie, Hathaway’s character undergoes a serious makeover which sees her trading in her big unruly hair and glasses for a more chic, polished look. As it turns out, Hathaway’s “new look” in the movie is actually how she looks in real life.
In 2012 she reached another career breakthrough as Fantine in the film adaptation of Les Misérables, a role for which she lost a lot of weight and had her long hair ceremoniously chopped off on camera. In an interview, she has said that her roles do not “feel like sacrifices. Getting to transform is one of the best parts of [acting].”
When actress Taryn Manning was offered the role of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, she took the opportunity right away, saying in an interview that she “loved it and didn’t need to look any further. [She] was sold.”
Manning’s character of Tiffany Doggett is described as “a young woman from western Pennsylvania who proudly called herself a redneck.” In the first season, Manning bears receding gums and missing teeth, probably due to the fact that her character was a drug addict prior to imprisonment. Manning was already an (attractive) established actress prior to this role, having been in 8 Mile, Sons of Anarchy, and more.
Many people know Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson on AMC’s hit series, Mad Men. Moss’s character Peggy starts out in Mad Men as the secretary to the show’s main character, Don Draper. In her first episode, many of the characters scrutinize Peggy for her homely look, in comparison to the other women in the office. Many comments are made about how she should alter her appearance to fit in more at the office.
Although Moss’s character is frumpy and innocent, she became a proponent of feminism, as she constantly questioned the double standards between men and women on the show, which takes place in the 1960s.
America Ferrera made a career breakthrough when she landed the lead role in the ABC series Ugly Betty. Ferrera played Betty Suarez, an ambitious young woman who wore adult braces, glasses, and unusually bright outfits. The show centers around Betty trying to fit in after she lands a job at a high fashion magazine.
Ugly Betty made America Ferrera a household name, but many people saw her as Betty Suarez and not America Ferrera. Betty did get a slight makeover towards the end of the entire series, but fans were stunned anytime they got to see Ferrera on the red carpet as herself.
You already know Charlize Theron as the stunning actress in films like The Italian Job, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mad Max: Fury Road, and in the early 2000s she was considered Hollywood’s new “It girl.” At the height of her career, Theron was enlisted to star in Monster, a 2003 crime drama about Aileen Wuornos, who was a real-life lady-of-the-night-turned-serial killer from Florida. Wuornos was executed in 2002 for murdering six men in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Film critic Roger Ebert called Theron’s performance in the film “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema” and Theron ended up winning an Oscar for Best Actress for that role in 2004.
British actress Emma Thompson is well known for her roles in the Harry Potter franchise, Love Actually, and Sense and Sensibility, but do you remember her as Nanny McPhee? In 2005, Emma Thompson starred in Nanny McPhee as the movie’s titular character. Nanny McPhee is a magical nanny who appears to be a “frighteningly hideous” woman. Although the kids that she takes over try to do everything to oust her, they are won over and Nanny McPhee gradually becomes beautiful over time.
As you can see, Emma Thompson is a beautiful actress in real life, but she has certainly had to “ugly it up” to play the role.
You may not know her by name, but you might have seen her in an episode or two of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Thesy Surface plays Margaret McPoyle, the deaf-mute sister of “the gang’s” old elementary school classmates, who they always seem to be at odds with. Margaret has a unibrow and in the show, is shown to have an incestuous relationship with her two brothers.
Thankfully, Margaret McPoyle is just a role in a television show and is not actually how Thesy Surface looks or acts in real life. Maybe soon we’ll get to see her in more attractive roles in the future.
Judy Greer (Kitty Sanchez)
Judy Greer is an American actress and author, famous for a number of roles, but perhaps most bizarrely for Kitty Sanchez, on Arrested Development. She also played Ingrid Nelson/Fatty Magoo on It’s Always Funny in Philadelphia and Trixie on Californication. Still, her quirky role on Arrested Development is the one for which she’s most frequently associated.
“I remember making the choice to make people laugh,” she says, “because I was a very late bloomer. I looked kind of weird for a long time. It was easier to be the funny friend instead of the pretty friend. I just didn’t have the curves that most girls have, until very late, and I have really frizzy hair, and I had braces. I took ballet dancing for ever and there was a natural transition into acting.”
You’ve seen Vanessa Hudgens rise to popularity after her lead role in Disney’s High School Musical, but fast forward to 2013 and you will see her in the independent drama, Gimme Shelter. In the film, Hudgens plays a struggling teen who’s been in and out of foster care and is an object of abuse from her addiction-addled mother. After finding her birth father who takes her in, she is promptly kicked out when he finds out she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby.
As you can see, Hudgens made a huge change in her appearance in order to play the movie’s lead character, but this is obviously not how she looks every day.
In 2010, Rooney Mara was in Nightmare on Elm Street and The Social Network, but she rose to stardom for her lead role in the 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mara plays Lisbeth Salander, a troubled but talented investigator and hacker who is hired with special tasks.
Mara underwent an intense transformation to play the role. Her eyebrows were shaved off, her hair was chopped short, and she donned some intense piercings. Her performance was met with critical acclaim, as she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by and Actress in a Motion Picture and an Oscar for Best Actress.
One of Bette Midler’s most iconic roles was that of Winifred Sanderson, head witch of the Sanderson Sisters in the 1993 Disney film Hocus Pocus. Winifred and her sisters got executed during the Salem witch trials, but a spell was cast that will resurrect them if a virgin lights a special candle. Many years later (in 1993), that exact thing happens and the witches are brought back to life, only to continue on their quest to suck the souls of children to maintain their youth.
Hocus Pocus has become a cult classic for 1990s kids, who might not realize that Bette Midler is a talented actress and singer aside from playing Winifred.
The 1999 movie Never Been Kissed is a classic Drew Barrymore film. The movie is about Josie Gellar, who was a geeky girl in her high school days but gets to redeem herself as an adult when she is told to go undercover as a high school student. Barrymore’s character wears embarrassing outfits that often make her the object of ridicule, but once she realizes this she tries to shed her previous high school persona for a new one.
Barrymore certainly had to wear some embarrassing outfits for the role. Producers also turned her back into an ugly duckling for flashback scenes of Josie’s actual high school days.
Actress Cameron Diaz has captured eyes with her roles in The Mask and There’s Something About Mary throughout the 1990s, but when she was in 1999’s Being John Malkovich, she was not the sexy 1990s starlet that everyone came to know her as.
In the film, Diaz plays Lotte, a pet-obsessed woman who is able to “live out her transgender desires” when her husband shows her a portal that gives people access to the mind of actor John Malkovich. Diaz’s character is a far cry from the fun, flirty characters she is often seen playing, saying that she didn’t know people wouldn’t recognize who she was. Make-up artist Gucci Westman said that styling Diaz was “a challenge, to make her look homely.”
Kate McKinnon (Billie Jean King, Justin Bieber, And More)
Kate McKinnon is famous as a fabulously funny woman, who has taken on a whole slew of unforgettable characters on Saturday Night Live. It’s a good thing she landed the comedy spot too, because otherwise she says she’d have remained “destitute, unemployed, living in L.A.” It wasn’t a pretty picture.
There are also definite advantages to playing roles that so different from her usual “beautiful” look. She explains it, “I’m unrecognizable because I’m coated in cat hair and sweat. And there’s a sort of yeti quality to my presence … so I don’t think that people can see the face.” She’s drawn a lot more fame (and attention) when she spoofed Hillary Clinton.
Legendary actress Meryl Streep was cast in the 2014 film Into the Woods, in which she played The Witch. You can see that the producers certainly made her into a scary witch and if you aren’t familiar with any of Streep’s prior work, you would think that she would be scary to meet in real life.
In Into the Woods, Streep actually has two looks for The Witch. The frightening version is a result of a curse that is placed on her, but when the curse is lifted, The Witch turns into a gorgeous woman (who looks more like Streep’s real appearance).
When Salma Hayek was enlisted to play Frida Kahlo in the 2002 biopic Frida, the resemblance was almost uncanny. The artist Frida Kahlo is known for her unconventional looks, especially her iconic unibrow. Hayek was made to look just like Kahlo when makeup artists put a unibrow on her.
In an interview, Hayek admitted that at a young age she found Kahlo’s paintings to be “ugly and grotesque,” but as she learned more about Kahlo, she began to appreciate the work for its apparent “passion and depth.” To prepare for the role, Hayek even went so far as to seek out the help of Dolores Olmedo Patino, the lover of Diego Rivera, who was Kahlo’s husband.
Linda Cardellini is an actress and voice actress who has been in many movies and shows, but perhaps she is best known for her role on the NBC series Freaks and Geeks. You might have also seen her in 2002 movie version of Scooby Doo. Cardellini was cast as Velma Dinkley.
For Scooby Doo, the beautiful Cardellini was made to look homely and nerdy, with big glasses and Velma’s classic orange sweater. Cardellini reprised the role for Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, where Velma gets a makeover from Daphne and is made to look “hot” to impress a guy.
Mayim Bialik is on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory as Amy Farrah Fowler, the frumpy neuroscientist who is the love interest for one of the show’s main characters, Sheldon. Amy is highly intelligent and the stereotypical nerdy type. Although she tries to fit in with her peers, many find her to be a bit strange.
Bialik may play this unattractive character on the show, but in real life she has both beauty and brains. Like her character, Bialik really does have a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. She returned to acting after getting her doctorate to be able to spend more time with her children.
Mae Whitman is a young actress who starred in films like Independence Day, but many remember her for her performance as Ann Veal on Fox’s Arrested Development. Ann plays the girlfriend of Michael Cera’s character, George Michael. Ann is known to be rather homely and a stern Christian. It is a running gag on the show for Ann to be forgotten, because of how plain she looks.
Whitman isn’t much like Ann in real life and she has gone on to act in more shows and movies since the end of Arrested Development. Ironically, Whitman starred in the lead role of the 2015 movie The Duff, in which it is revealed that her character is “the duff” of her friend group, which stands for “designated ugly fat friend.”
Maisie Williams (Arya Stark)
Margaret Constance “Maisie” Williams is an English actress, famous for her role as Arya Stark on the HBO series, Game of Thrones, for which she won the Emmy Award for “Best Supporting Actress in Drama” as well as the Portal Award and Saturn Award.
On the show, she’s the younger of the Stark daughters, and she often looks pretty rough on many of the episodes, as she’s constantly forced to use her survival skills. She plays a strong young girl, who’s not afraid to tell people what she thinks. As Williams says: “She never really feels safe… She doesn’t want to rely on anyone too much because she’s worried they’ll be taken away from her. I think that’s really sad for someone her age, but it’s probably for the best because I don’t think she would have coped this long if she hadn’t prepared herself.”
Comedic actress Tina Fey is probably most famous for her role as Liz Lemon on NBC’s 30 Rock. Liz Lemon is the middle-aged head writer of a variety show. Lemon is described as a sarcastic and “sexually frightened know-it-all” who loves to eat, especially when stressed. Sort of a nerd, Lemon lacks a lot of social skills and is a big fan of Star Wars.
Fey created 30 Rock as a satirical sitcom following her role as head writer and performer on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Liz Lemon can be viewed as an exaggeration of all sorts of weird women, but Tina Fey can assure you that she is just playing a part.
Lea Michele rose to prominence in her role as Rachel Berry on Fox’s Glee. In the first season of Glee, Rachel is portrayed as an ambitious singer in her high school’s glee club, although she is not very popular. Despite her vocal talents, Rachel has an overly preppy sense of style and her personality is overbearing for many on the show.
Michele has stated that when she was first cast as Rachel, she gained a lot of weight, especially trying to adapt to the LA lifestyle as a native New Yorker. Glee has since been canceled but now, Lea Michele has taken on a new, sexy presence in the media, promoting her lifestyle composed of fitness, wellness, and eating right.
Patricia Heaton (Frankie Heck)
Patricia Helen Heaton is an award-winning American actress, with famous roles as Debra Barone on Everyone Loves Raymond (1996-2005) and Frances “Frankie” Heck on The Middle (2009-present). On the list of Funniest Women on TV, she’s ranked #24. She stirred up some ruckus when she called Planned Parenthood director Deborah Nucatola “Hannibal” on Twitter, based on a viral video that talked about abortion.
With The Middle, Heaton takes her hectic-and harried momtastic roles to the next level, but all the characters on the show aren’t cast to be supermodels. As Heaton explains, “Everybody has sort of great, special faces, kind of quirky looks. I go out of my way to make Frankie a little bit frumpy. We clip on these bangs and the clothes aren’t anything special. I just love it. Even with the extras, they go out of their way to find just ordinary looking people who just have that nice Midwest feel to them.”
Melissa Rauch (Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz)
Melissa Ivy Rauch is an American actress and comedian, famous for her geektastic role as Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz on the CBS sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. If you’re annoyed by how annoying her voice sounds, that’s intentional, modeled on her mother’s “sweet, high-pitched purr.”
Rauch explains, “My mom has a very high-pitched voice, and there are some similarities between her and the voice I use on Big Bang,” although my mom has the Jersey accent, so I took that out. But the tone of the voice is very similar to my mother’s.” As an extreme departure from any squeaky-clean Bernadette personae, she’s also modeled for an S&M-inspired Maxim photo shoot.
Sophie McShera (Daisy Robinson, aka Daisy Mason)
Sophie McShera is an English actress who plays the role of the plain kitchen maid, Daisy Robinson (Mason) on the award-winning period-drama, Downton Abbey. She got her first big break because of Saved by the Bell. She’d been watching the show, and then was asked at The Goodbye Girl audition whether she could do an American accent. Because of Saved by the Bell she answered, “Yes.”
Beyond her plain-maid part in Downton Abbey, she also took on the part of Drisella Tremaine, one of Cinderella’s infamously “ugly” stepsisters in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (2015). Of her evil, mean-girl role, she said, “It was so much fun playing the evil stepsister in Cinderella, but I did feel bad – every time we’d finish a take I’d have to say sorry to Lily [James]. I was upstairs and she was downstairs, so it was a complete role reversal after Downton Abbey. She still looked beautiful in her rags, though.”
Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly)
Yep, you’ve gotta know (and love) Jenna Fischer as her plain office-worker character of Pam Beesly in the ever-popular situational comedy, The Office. She once admitted to NPR that her first paying film job was a “sex education video for patients” — psychiatric patients that is. So, she’s come a long way…
Even though it does leave her looking plain (even boring), the role of Pam seems to be perfect for Jenna. She also admitted to NPR, “I’m so attached to Pam’s journey.” And, she said, “I just love playing this character so, so much.” It’s not hard to see why. When The Office first launched in 2005, she’d said that she didn’t really want to be a huge movie star. Instead she just wanted to “be on a long-running hit TV show.” Jenna got her wish, and she really did create for herself a “defining role.”
Tori Spelling (Violet Bickerstaff)
Yep, she had braids and glasses on Saved By The Bell, but that was Tori Spelling who played the role of Violet Bickerstaff. Remember, she was Screech’s love interest. Other than her other infamous role on 90210, Spelling is known for True Tori, which aired all kinds of dirty laundry at home.
If reality-TV marital problems (failures and controversies) weren’t enough, she also played Holly Hamilton on the short-lived sitcom, Mystery Girls. And, about the “ugly” thing: Spelling is famous for saying, “All it takes is for one person to say you’re ugly, and you’re like, I guess I’m ugly. And that was it.”
Alyson Hannigan (Willow Rosenberg)
Alyson Hannigan is a well-known (albeit plain) face, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as Buffy’s side-kick and friend, Willow Rosenberg. She wasn’t meant to be a hottie on set… She’s also a spokesperson for breast cancer. Concurrent with her role as Willow, she also appeared in American Pie (1999), Boys and Girls (2000), American Pie 2 (2001), and American Wedding (2003). (You’ll also remember her from her role on How I Met Your Mother.)
When her role as the famous witch “Willow” came to an end, she said she was going to “miss everything.” She explained, that it was” the most amazing and significant job of my life obviously…” She also met her husband, Alexis Denisof on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They’ve been married ever since, and have two kids together. It must be magic!
Kaitlin Olson (Deandra “Dee” Reynolds)
Kaitlin is an American actress, known for her role as Deandra “Dee Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And, yes, she’s a funny woman. She’s been described (quite appropriately) as a “drunken, rude, borderline sociopathic character.” She’s committed to that performance, and pulls it off really well!
In the multi-faceted, ever-changing (and evolving) role, she perfectly fits herself into the part. Nothing is really too raunchy or gross. Anything (and everything) is up-for-grabs for the sake of that laughable physical comedy. Happy, sad, angry, and even in the depths of despair and depression — she’s funny in her ugliness and vulnerability. She’s brilliant in her trashy and drunken multiverse.
Aimee-Ffion Edwards (Lucy “Sketch”)
Aimee-Ffion Edwards is a Welch actress, who’s famous for the (ugly) Sketch in Skins. The TV series ran for seven seasons (with 61 episodes, and broached many of the most controversial topics out there: mental illness, sexuality, substance abuse, bullying and death.
Sketch only appeared in the second season, which wasn’t so unusual since the entire cast changed. You may remember her as that weird-stalker chick, who may seem nice enough but who actually has some issues. Beyond being obsessed with Maxxie, she also is a too-young caregiver for her mother, Sheila, who has multiple sclerosis. Since her stint on Skins, she took on big parts on A Poet in New York and Being Human.
Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth)
Gwendoline Christie famously took on the role of Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, with a history of heart-breaking failure. She overcomes so much, and tells herself: “Words are wind. Let them wash over you.” And, of course, she was also Captain Phasma on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Remember her?
Her partner, Giles Deason, dresses her (it’s a collaborative effort) for all her red-carpet moments. And, yes, as he admits: “She’s a character herself, and her trail of various characters is brilliant – she’s pretty transformative, which is always an interesting thing from a designer’s point of view.”
Pauley Perrette (Abby Sciuto)
If you’re a big NCIS fan, you know (and love) Abby Sciuto! The role is played by Pauley Perrette, who’s also well-known as a writer, singer and civil-rights activist. Before making it big as an actress, she held all sorts of gigs, as she explains: “Not only was I bartending in club-kids scene, with a bra and combat boots and a white Mohawk, but I also wore a sandwich board on roller skates passing out flyers for Taco Bell in the Diamond District.”
So, Perrette made the perfect actress, able to imbue a whole host of roles. And, she just fell into one of the most fascinating characters on TV. Donald P. Belisario said that he’d created the part of an “alternafreak,” but that she was also the “smartest, most capable person” on TV.
When asked if she’s really “goth,” Perrette always says, “Who cares?” She also explains that Abby is “a smart, capable chick that cannot be reduced to a stereotype.” If you’ve ever seen her in action, you know that Abby is pure awesome!
Ellie Kemper (Kimmy Schmidt)
Yes, she’s odd, chaotic even “unbreakable,” but that’s Ellie Kemper, who’s known for her role as Kimmy Schmidt, a quirky fish-out-of-water outsider in the recent comedy series for which she’s received critical acclaim.
“Ellie plays a woman who has been held in an apocalyptic cult by a guy who thinks the world is going to end,” Executive Producer Tina Fey says. After being “held” for 15 years, she’s finally rescued, which would tend to make anyone a little odd and out-of-sorts, even in the most normal of circumstances. Add in Kimmy’s ecstatic quirkiness and her desire to have a new life. And, you’ve got the recipe for an unforgettable comedy.
Phyllis Logan (Elsie Hughes)
Phyllis Logan is a Scottish actress, known for her role as Elsie Hughes on Downton Abbey. She came from a small town outside Glasgow, and she appears to have been the first to pursue the acting profession. It just wasn’t done. And, she’d also been told to get rid of her Scottish accent, but for Downton Abbey, the role of Elsie Hughes works out well with the Scottish accent.
Although she’s the dowdy and dour matron-housekeeper on the show, she really glammed it up for the award ceremonies. Of her role, she famously has said, “I spend long days wearing a corset – but no pain, no gain.” While her father never accepted her dream of acting, she has made quite a life, though she admits that “the older you get, the parts get thinner on the ground and not quite as interesting, that’s for sure.”
Demi Moore (Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil)
You probably remember Demi Moore for her star-studded part, with Patrick Swayze, on Ghost, but her brutal, hardened role is that of Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil, on GI Jane. She was the test-case, designed to prove whether a female soldier could “make it” with their fellow male recruits.
Despite extremely harsh treatment and brutal conditions, she refuses to give up. She said she wasn’t interested in becoming a poster girl for women’s rights, but she wanted to prove she could do it. So, she’s brought up on trumped up charges that she is a lesbian. Senator DeHaven said, “No politician can afford to let women come home in body bags. Especially me. It was never gonna happen anyway.”
Kate Winslet (Sarah Pierce)
Kate Winslet is a famous English actress and singer, who’s roles and accolades are rather lengthy, including Academy Award, an Emmy Award, four Golden Globe Awards, a Grammy Award, a BIFA Award, an AACTA Award, and three BAFTA Awards. She’s beautiful, and you’d have thought she’d not be found in any role that was unattractive. But, then, she took on the role of Sarah Pierce, in Little Children.
As Sarah, she talks about Emma Bovary, from Gustave Flaubert’s infamous (and controversial) novel, Madame Bovary, saying that she had problems with it in the past. But, then, she says that there’s something beautiful, even heroic about her: “It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness.”
Delphine Chanéac (Dren)
From her name, Delphine Chanéac, you might just guess that she’s a French actress, model and DJ. In 2010, she appeared in the Canadian science-fiction horror drama, Splice, as Dren, which is actually “nerd” spelled backwards. She also appeared on the crime thriller, Verso. Beyond being simply another cautionary tale of a Frankenstein’s monster, this film offers a strange mix of comedy and horror, which jointly pushes the boundaries of genetic research, in science fiction and fantasy. “This is the disaster everyone warns about: a new species set loose in the world.” Yes, it’s “nightmarish parenting,” as Sarah Polley says. “I think it goes to strange human places as well as dealing with the creature.” Perhaps, after all, strange really is beautiful.
What these roles prove, more than anything, is that sometimes it’s often only possible to be taken seriously in an off-kilter role, when the character looks odd, ugly, frumpy, nerdy, and off-the-wall. Perhaps, it really is true what John Constable once : “I’ve never seen an ugly thing in my life. Let the form of an object be what it is. Light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”