Eight actors who didn't need special-effects makeup to play aliens

Like Scarlett Johansson in the new, breathtaking Under the Skin, these actors required no props or makeup to get in an extraterrestrial mood

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After wowing us with only her voice in the futuristic phone-love romance Her, Scarlett Johansson continues to score by taking on challenges—the newest one coming in Under the Skin. In this dark, arrestingly strange film (directed by Birth’s inspired Jonathan Glazer), Johansson plays a curious alien who adopts an alluring shape (and a wild wig) to attract specimens; along the way, she learns a little about human nature as well.

Here are eight actors who took similar plunges into alien roles with limited recourse to makeup, props or otherworldly intelligence—we think.

  • Joe Morton in The Brother from Another Planet (1984)

    He looks like any number of Manhattan’s homeless, but the title character in John Sayles’s cult indie comedy is actually an off-world escapee hiding in Harlem from two very white “men in black.” Terminator 2’s Joe Morton plays this symbolic innocent with equal parts slapstick expressiveness and tender intuitiveness, as when he awkwardly tries to high-five a new acquaintance.—Keith Uhlich

  • Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

    Britain’s Michael Rennie had a prominent career onstage and in more serious movies, but he’s best known for playing Klaatu, the humanoid—and impossibly dignified—alien visitor who touches down in Washington, D.C., to cause global panic. Rennie, who adds plaintive alarm to the script’s antiviolence message, is the most sensible guy onscreen, cooler than the U.S. military and his own robot sentry, Gort.—Joshua Rothkopf

  • Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997)

    Supermodels are from another planet to begin with, but Milla Jovovich displays serious chops and creativity in this kooky French-made adventure, in which she plays Leeloo, born in a secret lab from alien chromosomes. She’s floored by the sight of future downtown Manhattan, squeals in a strange language and flips with effortless grace into Bruce Willis’s taxi.—Joshua Rothkopf

  • Leonard Nimoy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

    We know it’s the remake—in fact, we prefer it. Director Philip Kaufman used the touchy-feely San Francisco of the 1970s to brilliant effect, as a place where alien behavior might go unnoticed (for a while). Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy plays against logical type as an empathic celebrity psychiatrist. But when he finally turns, chilly tones are his second nature.—Joshua Rothkopf

  • Mathilda May in Lifeforce (1985)

    The concept is space vampires—hard to buy, sure. (Audiences in 1985 didn’t either.) But Mathilda May makes our list for her total commitment to an alien being, one that takes its form from an astronaut’s mental picture and rains plague on his crew and London. It must be noted that May performs the role entirely in the nude, with a brazen confidence that’s thrilling.—Joshua Rothkopf

  • David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

    It wasn’t much of a stretch for glam-rock icon David Bowie to inhabit the otherworldly protagonist of Nicolas Roeg’s surreal sci-fi feature. As a humanoid alien come to earth to save his dying planet, the Thin White Duke utilizes his androgynous persona—notably in his exotic interactions with Candy Clark’s lonely Mary-Lou—to memorably moody and melancholy effect.—Keith Uhlich

  • Natasha Henstridge in Species (1995)

    Scientists shouldn’t play with martian DNA, especially if it results in the creation of an alluring temptress with a deadly hunger for a male mate. Model Natasha Henstridge plays the siren known as Sil, who prowls the Los Angeles singles scene as if she’s strutting along a catwalk in a butcher shop.—Keith Uhlich

  • Jeff Bridges in Starman (1984)

    An extraterrestrial visitor takes the form of a widow’s deceased husband. But what starts as a seemingly typical John Carpenter scarefest quickly morphs into a gentle love story, with star Jeff Bridges poignantly portraying this naive planetary traveler’s journey from language-mangling innocent to deep-hearted romantic.—Keith Uhlich

Joe Morton in The Brother from Another Planet (1984)

He looks like any number of Manhattan’s homeless, but the title character in John Sayles’s cult indie comedy is actually an off-world escapee hiding in Harlem from two very white “men in black.” Terminator 2’s Joe Morton plays this symbolic innocent with equal parts slapstick expressiveness and tender intuitiveness, as when he awkwardly tries to high-five a new acquaintance.—Keith Uhlich




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