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SNL Cast Members Who Did Wildly Different Roles After Leaving The Show

"Saturday Night Live" has been a comedy institution since it began airing on NBC in 1975, featuring some of the greatest comedic talents of every decade since. There have been well over 100 comedians who have passed through the halls of Studio 8H in 30 Rock, and most of them have gone on to have successful careers following "SNL." Chevy Chase was the first star to come up through the ranks of the show, quickly departing his fellow cast members to chase a movie career with box-office hits like "Fletch" and "National Lampoon's Vacation." 

As SNL has continued into the 2000s and 2010s, more once-in-a-generation talent has cropped up as a result of their performances on the sketch series. Often, these actors find most of their post-SNL success producing and starring in movies and TV shows that harness the unique comedy chops they demonstrated on the show. However, once in a blue moon, an SNL veteran will embark on a film or TV series role that not only takes advantage of their best skills but also challenges the audience's perception of them.

Although many SNL alumni have remained pigeon-held to comedies for the rest of their careers, these 15 veterans shook up expectations with roles, sometimes quite late into their careers. Others have even been lucky enough to have some of these more surprising roles become even more significant chapters in their career. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the hidden talent of SNL's biggest stars.

Bill Murray in The Razor's Edge

Bill Murray was tasked with the burden of being the first cast member to join "Saturday Night Live" after its first season, replacing the incomparable Chevy Chase. The charismatic (and sometimes difficult-to-work-with) comedian eventually charmed television audiences and transitioned to starring in some of the greatest comedy movies of the 20th century, like "Caddyshack" and "Ghostbusters." By the time the late '80s and early '90s rolled around, Murray was a bankable, reliable comedy star with many successes under his belt.

Although most audiences see the 2003 Sofia Coppola-directed "Lost in Translation" as Murray's breakout role in drama, the actor's first lead role in a dramatic film came in 1984, the same year "Ghostbusters" premiered. The film was "The Razor's Edge," an adaptation of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Though Murray remains his witty self throughout the film, it's quite a departure tonally from the comedian's more slapstick work in previous years, in which he plays Larry, an ambulance driver in World War I who returns home traumatized by what he had seen in Europe. 

Even though the film failed commercially, it was still a very personal project for Murray, who only agreed to appear in "Ghostbusters" after Columbia Pictures committed to making this film. One scene that Murray had rewritten, in which his character, Larry, criticizes a fellow ambulance driver, was a hidden eulogy to John Belushi, albeit one filled with an ironic distaste for his late SNL comrade (via What Culture).

Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls

At the 2023 Golden Globes, Eddie Murphy was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award for his long and illustrious career in film and TV. The honor reminded audiences of Murphy's journey, which began when he was cast on "Saturday Night Live" at 19 years old. Murphy has been credited with reviving the sketch show, becoming one of their most eclectic cast members in nearly 50 years of production. Characters like Gumby and Mr. Robinson have become legendary in SNL, which was evident when Murphy made a triumphant return to host the show in 2019

Murphy has also had one of the most successful movie careers of any post-SNL star. The actor starred in blockbusters like "Beverly Hills Cop," "The Nutty Professor," and "Coming to America," which all flexed his supreme comedic talent on the big screen. However, Murphy's role in the 2006 film adaptation of the Broadway musical, "Dreamgirls," garnered him a new level of acclaim. In the film, Murphy plays soul singer James "Thunder" Early, a role which allows him to play to his SNL strengths as their signature James Brown impressionist.

While there were no hot tubs in sight in "Dreamgirls," it is nonetheless a standout performance from Murphy in a film that co-starred the likes of Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. While Hudson won best supporting actress at the 2007 Oscars, Murphy lost best supporting actor to Alan Arkin for "Little Miss Sunshine," though it was Murphy's first brush with Oscar buzz.

Chris Rock in Fargo

Although Chris Rock is mostly known for his stand-up career (and these days, his confrontation with Will Smith at the 2022 Oscars), the comedian was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" from 1990 to 1993. He joined the show alongside the likes of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and David Spade, though he didn't last as long in the cast. Nevertheless, things worked out pretty well for Rock in the end. 

Rock's film career hasn't been as long and illustrious as the previous two entries on this list, however, he's had many successes with comedy movies like "Grown-Ups," as well as animated roles in the "Madagascar" franchise and "Death at a Funeral." Nevertheless, audiences were surprised when Rock was cast in Season 4 of the FX anthology series, "Fargo," as Loy Cannon — the criminal behind the invention of the credit card. His co-stars included veterans of dramatic acting such as Jessie Buckley and Jason Schwartzman. 

Although critics didn't rate Season 4 of "Fargo" as the series' best, Rock's performance was praised among its good qualities. The role even opened the doors for Rock to pursue other dramatic roles, such as his new spin on the "Saw" franchise, "Spiral: From the Book of Saw" which premiered in 2021, though that film also wasn't well-received (via The Guardian). Hopefully, Rock doesn't take the praise he's gotten for his dramatic acting for granted and continues to surprise audiences with the roles he takes in the future. 

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler initially joined "Saturday Night Live" as a writer in 1990, before making the transition to cast member, where he excelled alongside fellow performers like Chris Farley and Rob Schneider. In 1995, Sandler and Farley were fired during a mass exodus of cast members, though while Farley passed away in 1997, Sandler followed an extremely successful career making comedies for the next two decades, with films like "Billy Madison," "The Wedding Singer," and "The Waterboy." 

Throughout the 2000s, Sandler would also prove he had strong dramatic chops with roles in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," as well as the Judd Apatow film, "Funny People," as a fading comedian diagnosed with cancer. However, Sandler really knocked Hollywood's socks off with his performance in the 2019 Sadie Brothers film, "Uncut Gems," which saw him completely transform into the role of Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler whose gambling addiction results in a terrible, suspenseful fate, with some calling Sandler's tragic character one of the best performances of that year (via The Guardian).

Although Sandler was notably snubbed for an Oscar nomination for "Uncut Gems," he did win best male lead at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where the comedian's speech mocked the prestigious awards ceremony. For what it's worth, Sandler's recent role in the 2022 Netflix sports drama, "Hustle," may give him the opportunity to redeem his unappreciated and, frankly, deserved nomination for "Uncut Gems."

Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back

Not many fans of comedy know that Sarah Silverman was once a "Saturday Night Live" cast member, but for what it's worth, she might not either. The comedian joined the show in 1993 before she was abruptly fired after only 18 weeks. Though it was quite a blow for Silverman, she eventually found success elsewhere as a stand-up comic and performer in TV series like "Mr. Show with Bob & David" and "Greg the Bunny." She later had her own sitcom, "The Sarah Silverman Program," co-created by future "Community" creator Dan Harmon, which ran for three seasons.

Silverman's work in the film world, however, has been light. She's played supporting roles in films like "There's Something About Mary" and "School of Rock," while also voicing Vanellope von Schweetz in Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph." However, her role in the 2015 drama, "I Smile Back," really caught movie critics by surprise, as it found Silverman playing Laney, a mother battling an addiction to drugs and alcohol alongside a mid-life crisis. Reviewers praised her performance, with IndieWire even calling it "raw" and "bone-chilling."

The Hollywood Reporter also praised Silverman's performance, although they didn't have as many kind words to say about the film's story, calling it "well-made but predictable." Despite the praise for her work in "I Smile Back," Silverman's remained married to comedy, although she's made forays back into the genre with roles in "Battle of the Sexes" and Bradley Cooper's upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic.

Molly Shannon in Other People

Molly Shannon joined "Saturday Night Live" in 1995 and was one of five cast members who survived a mass exodus in between seasons. She very quickly became a household name through her work on the sketch show, particularly with her awkward Catholic schoolgirl character, Mary Katherine Gallagher. She left SNL in 2001, but not before starring in "Superstar," a feature film in 1999 where Shannon reprised her role as Mary alongside fellow SNL castmate, Will Ferrell.

Shannon has remained quite the superstar in the comedy world following her departure from SNL. She starred in the Mike White-directed comedy, "Year of the Dog," as well as films like "Wet Hot American Summer," and Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, "Marie Antoinette." However, she'd make her most surprising dramatic turn yet in 2016 with "Other People," playing Joanne, a woman diagnosed with cancer who is taken care of by her adult son, David, played by Jesse Plemons. 

Critics unanimously praised Shannon's performance, with The New York Post calling her "superlative," while The Hollywood Reporter deemed it a breakout performance. Though she became a superstar in the late '90s, Shannon truly earned the respect of film crowds — both dramatic and comedic — with her performance in "Other People." She's since made appearances in dramas like "Promising Young Woman" and "Horse Girl," both released in 2020, but the former SNL standout is likely overdue for another starring role. 

Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction

Just by watching his audition tape for "Saturday Night Live," you can tell Will Ferrell was born to be an electric comedic presence. He quickly became one of the show's biggest breakout stars thanks to sketches like "More Cowbell," and "Spartan Cheerleaders," as well as his impression of Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, which remains one of the show's funniest impersonations 20 years later. Still, Ferrell's highest highs were yet to come. 

After leaving SNL in 2002, Ferrell became a box-office machine, starring in generation-defining films, such as "Elf," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," and "Step Brothers." While his star power in studio comedies was reliable, it was quite unexpected when Ferrell starred in the 2006 film, "Stranger than Fiction," directed by "Monster's Ball" filmmaker Marc Forster. The film pairs Ferrell up with dramatic veteran Emma Thompson, who plays author Karen Eiffel typing her latest masterpiece. Unbeknownst to Karen, her tragic lead character is a real person, IRS agent Harold Crick (Ferrell), who must grapple not only with her voice in his head but with his predetermined fate.

Compared to Ferrell's more outlandish roles, his performance in "Stranger than Fiction" was called "highly focused" by Variety, while Rolling Stone labeled it "intimate." Ferrell would branch out into drama again with the 2021 Apple TV+ series, "The Shrink Next Door," alongside his "Anchorman" co-star, Paul Rudd, playing an anxious man whose therapist takes control over his life. 

Ana Gasteyer in Wicked

Ana Gasteyer quickly became a standout performer after joining "Saturday Night Live" in 1996. Her most well-known characters include her often-nude impression of Martha Stewart, the vocalist of husband and wife musical duo Marty and Bobbi Culp, and the host of the NPR food show, "The Delicious Dish," giving a monotone yet innuendo-filled review of Alec Baldwin's "Schweddy Balls." 

Although Gasteyer didn't transition to a blockbuster-filled career in movies after leaving SNL in 2002, she made an unexpected and critically-acclaimed turn into musical theater. In 2005, Ana Gasteyer joined the Chicago cast of "Wicked" as Elphaba, the lead role originated by Idina Menzel. She continued playing the role on Broadway from 2006 to 2007 and even earned a Jefferson Award nomination for her performance, which included a rendition of the show-stopping number, "Defying Gravity." 

Thankfully, Gasteyer's performance in "Wicked" didn't invoke Bobbi Culp from her "Saturday Night Live" days, though the actress certainly proved she had the vocal chops to carry an entire Broadway show. In an interview with Broadway World, Gasteyer compared the experience of performing on Broadway as similar to "Saturday Night Live," especially given the physical demand of singing eight shows a week. Gasteyer has continued to perform in theater, starring in shows such as "The Royal Family" and Stephen Sondheim's "Passion." She also reminded audiences of her vocal prowess when appearing in Season 2 of "The Masked Singer."

Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Following her tenure on "Saturday Night Live," which included co-anchoring Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey had one of the most successful transitions to TV stardom. Her NBC sitcom, "30 Rock," was a metaseries that parodied the workplace of a late-night NBC sketch show, with Fey playing the head writer alongside co-stars Jane Krakowski, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, and Jack McBrayer. She's even continued to shine behind-the-scenes, co-creating shows like "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "Mr. Mayor." 

Fey was also successful in the film world; she wrote the hit 2004 comedy "Mean Girls," and starred in comedies like "Date Night," "Baby Mama," and "Sisters." One of her more oddball starring roles in a film came with the 2016 biopic, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," based on a 2011 memoir by Kim Barker. Fey stars as the fictionalized Kim Baker, a reporter who accepts a job as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, befriending a BBC reporter played by Margot Robbie and a Scottish journalist played by Martin Freeman.

Though the role allows Fey to be her charismatic self, it's quite a different tone from the other projects she's been involved with. The film also doesn't lean into the dreary and grittier aspects of war enough that Fey's appearance is divergent in tone, yet even publications like The Guardian praised her for offering the film her inherent wit and likability. It's a shame that Fey's on-camera roles are few and far between these days.  

Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph in Forever

It's widely known by "Saturday Night Live" fans that the chemistry between its cast members throughout the 2000s was possibly the best the show has ever had. This has certainly carried on into future projects, especially with the Amazon Prime series, "Forever," starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. Rudolph and Armisen's SNL history dates back almost 20 years; Rudolph joined the show in 2000, while Armisen joined in 2002. They frequently starred in sketches together, including the eccentric "Art Dealers" and "The Prince Show," co-starring Rudolph as Beyoncé.

"Forever" takes the two on a wildly different, but just as strange, journey together. Its first episode finds the two as a mundane couple who take a ski trip to shake things up, though it ends with a twist of (spoiler alert!) Armisen's Oscar suddenly dying in a skiing accident, while the second episode follows Rudolph's June as she battles depression and grief, which ultimately results in her accidental death as well. The rest of the show follows the two spending eternity together in the afterlife, where June quickly grows frustrated with their return to the mundane. 

Critics particularly praised Rudolph's performance in the series, with The New Yorker calling her performance "bold," while IndieWire claimed that she "dominates the action." It's an example of how great chemistry formed between two comedians in 30 Rock can translate to stellar performances in a drama examining the banality of life and the unexpectedness of death. 

Will Forte in Nebraska

Will Forte was certainly one of the strangest and most unique comedians on "Saturday Night Live" in the 2000s. The performer was known for his deep commitment to characters, whether it be the incompetent action star MacGruber (who gained his own feature film and Peacock series), the absurd survivor The Falconer, or the incredibly politically-incorrect Hamilton Whiteman. This persona often remained in Forte's post-SNL projects, including the Fox sitcom, "The Last Man on Earth," which ran from 2015 to 2018. 

However, Forte would abandon the costumes, wigs, and facial hair for his role in Alexander Payne's 2013 drama, "Nebraska," which was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, as well as several more nominations at that year's Academy Awards. Forte plays David, the son of Bruce Dern's Woody, an elderly man who believes he won a million-dollar sweepstake and enlists his son to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to claim his prize. Playing David's mother is the delightful June Squibb, while former SNL writer and "Better Call Saul" star Bob Odenkirk plays Ross, David's older brother. 

While many critics lauded the career-pinnacle performance of an actor as legendary as Dern, publications like The Wall Street Journal praised Forte's portrayal of David by highlighting his "soulful delicacy." In an interview with Vanity Fair about the movie, Forte expressed his caution against performing in dramas, but felt that doing it helped him "get more comfortable in [his] own skin."

Bill Hader in Barry

Like Forte, Bill Hader also had quite the eclectic career on "Saturday Night Live." Despite his simultaneous battle with anxiety while on the show, Hader's characters were often deeply wacky, absurd, and heightened. Take, for instance, his Weekend Update city correspondent Stefon, whose descriptions of insane New York City club life would have audiences howling with laughter. Or, on the other hand, there's his impression of Vincent Price playing the straight-man to a selection of celebrity guest stars.

Even after leaving SNL, Hader continued to bank on his comedic talents with shows like "Documentary Now!" and voice acting roles in films like "Inside Out" and "The Angry Bird Movie." However, his HBO series, "Barry" would soon become one of Hader's most critically-acclaimed projects to date. The series, co-created by Alec Berg, with Hader also serving as a writer and director, stars the SNL veteran as a depressed hitman who discovers he may have a passion for acting, which he begins to pursue despite the deadly consequences it has on the people in his orbit.

Aside from winning Emmys for his performance, "Barry" shows a darker side to Hader than most SNL fans are probably used to. Particularly, the show's third season, which premiered in 2022, found the character sinking to his darkest depths, leading to publications like Rolling Stone calling it "dark as hell." Thankfully, some of Hader's co-stars have assured the show's fourth season will bring back the laughs. 

Kristen Wiig in Welcome to Me

Kristen Wiig joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in 2005, making a strong debut in the cast with characters like Target Lady and Gilly. Between then and her departure from the show in 2012, Wiig was nominated seven times at the Emmys for her work on the late-night sketch show, though her future in film would prove even more fruitful for the actress. In 2011, just before leaving SNL, Wiig co-wrote and starred in the Paul Feig comedy "Bridesmaids," which rocketed her to mainstream success and even netted her an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Wiig became a frequent star in studio comedies like "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," however, 2013 and 2014 would be pivotal for Wiig's career, as she starred in several films that brought out dramatic performances from the SNL alumni. There was "The Skeleton Twins," which partnered her with SNL co-star Bill Hader, as well as "Hateship, Loveship," co-starring Nick Nolte and Hailee Steinfeld.

However, it was "Welcome to Me" that truly showed off Wiig's ability to carry a dramatic role. In the film, she plays Alice, a woman struggling with mental illness who wins the lottery and uses her winnings to fund a talk show hosted by herself. Vulture praised the film's its ability to "[dance] between hilarity and disquiet, between goofiness and pathos," and likened it to a film about the home life of Wiig's wackiest SNL characters.

Kate McKinnon in Joe vs. Carole

Kate McKinnon made her debut on "Saturday Night Live" mid-season in 2012, later becoming one of its biggest stars during the 2016 election cycle with her impression of candidate Hillary Clinton. McKinnon remained a power player throughout the Trump presidency, performing as significant political figures such as Kellyanne Conway, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeff Sessions. By the time she departed the show in 2022, she was the longest-tenured female cast member, albeit Cecily Strong passed her with her 2022 swan song. 

McKinnon's strength during her time at SNL lay in her ability to completely lose herself in a character or impression, such as her paranormal survivor Ms. Rafferty, or late-night drinker and romancer, Sheila Sovage. However, her first post-SNL project, released just months before she departed the series in 2022, finds her channeling that skill for a more dramatic performance, albeit still a cooky one. The Peacock series "Joe vs Carole" adapts the now-iconic story of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, popularized by the 2020 documentary series, "Tiger King."

As Carole Baskin, McKinnon turns a familiar off-beat performance into a dramatic powerhouse against John Cameron Mitchell as the infamous Tiger King himself. Sadly, the series premiered to middling reviews, with Variety citing its narrative as overexposed and claiming that McKinnon was miscast. Nevertheless, given that McKinnon's post-SNL life has just begun, she has a lot of time to clock in a performance that is equally surprising for audiences as it is for her.