clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

There’s a Reason Why Hollywood Loves a Good Body Swap

‘Freaky’ is just the latest movie to utilize a trick that’s been a well for screenwriters and the ultimate showcase for actors

Juliette Toma

As a closeted gay teenager in the early 1990s, director Christopher Landon often struggled with his identity. Some days, he wished he could blend into his high school surroundings and disappear. Other times, he wanted to be a different person altogether. “There were days where you’re just like, ‘God, if I could just be someone else,’” he recalls. “I even had thoughts like, ‘It would just be so much easier if I were a girl.’”

Nearly three decades later, Landon’s friend Michael Kennedy approached him with an idea that felt cathartic. He pitched him Freaky, a high-school-set horror movie in which a shy, 16-year-old girl named Millie fatefully switches bodies with a local serial killer called “The Butcher.” Kennedy also grew up closeted—he’d experienced a similar gauntlet of abuse in hallways and lunchrooms. As for Landon, he immediately connected with the “bucket of blood” his writer friend had thrown onto the classic subgenre. “For me, it’s always about the reinvention of existing things,” Landon says. “High school is already a horror movie. ... There’s so much going on during that period in your life—it’s so ripe for the picking.”

In select theaters on Friday, Freaky operates much like Landon’s previous Happy Death Day movies. It features a young female protagonist (Kathryn Newton) with family issues, who’s thrown into a nightmarish reality and must convince her friends to help her escape it. Instead of being stuck in a time loop like Tree, however, she’s trapped inside the body of a Jason Voorhees–esque slasher played by Vince Vaughn. Leaning on a specific suspension of disbelief—the body-swapping is triggered when Millie gets stabbed by a magical dagger—Freaky amps up the laughs and scares of its premise and, like other body-swap movies, injects its bizarro tale with real moments of pathos.

“I was very amused by the idea of attempting to make a really funny, violent, gory Disney film,” Landon laughs. “I just loved all the different things I could do with a movie like this. They’re very sneaky in their subversiveness.”

Since its mainstream introduction with 1976’s Freaky Friday, the body swap has been a reliable comedic plot device for filmmakers and a showcase for actors looking to stretch their range—but most unexpectedly, it’s been an allegorical playground for screenwriters. More than just highlighting differences in age, gender, and circumstance, the trope functions most profoundly as a morality tale, preaching the importance of empathy and understanding. “It’s the ultimate expression of standing in someone else’s shoes,” says David Dobkin, director of the body-swap comedy The Change-Up. “It’s a classic story, and it works in so many different ways.”

That’s a sentiment shared by numerous directors over the last 45 years, as adaptations such as Vice Versa and Freaky Friday and the recent Jumanji reboots have all morphed and tweaked the entertaining subgenre. Making a good body-swap movie has its challenges—it requires perceptive casting, detailed preparation, and intuitive direction. But the best entries have continued to find creative ways to interrogate the petrifying experience—and valuable lessons—of temporarily inhabiting another body.

The earliest body-swapping stories were birthed out of the genre of wish fulfillment. F. Anstey’s 1882 comic novel Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers opens with a businessman expressing his desire to return to childhood and relive his school days. When a magic stone transforms him into his younger self, his son morphs into a grown man, swapping places with his father and awkwardly living in a new, adult world.

Over the next century, only a handful of stories utilized the concept, but those that did kept Anstey’s divine-interventionist template. In the 1940 comedy Turnabout, based on Thorne Smith’s novel, a bickering married couple expresses the desire to switch places and experience the other’s life—a wish that manifests into reality the next morning. Mary Rodgers put a modern twist on the body-swapping fable when she wrote Freaky Friday in 1972. Adapted four years later into a movie starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, the story took Anstey’s original conceit but changed genders, showing the humorous, everyday chaos of a mother and daughter switching bodies after an argument the previous night.

Both the novels and their respective cinematic adaptations found easy comedy in the polarity of their protagonists. But underneath these wacky situations, they hinted at universal truths, specifically humanity’s innate nostalgia and desire to change life’s circumstances. “We often daydream of a different scenario, or we wish we could go back and re-experience things that were good, or change them,” says Jonathan Hetterly, a licensed mental health counselor and host of the YouTube channel Shrink Tank. “There’s always this internal yearning of wanting things to be better.”

By the late 1980s, Hollywood went all-in on this accessible concept. Within the span of a year, three body-swap movies hit theaters with nearly identical plots. Like their predecessors, they all kept the body swapping in the family: In 1987’s Like Father Like Son, Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron accidentally switch bodies—forced to navigate the whiplash of attending high school and aiding hospital patients without blowing their covers; Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage had similar tasks in 1988’s Vice Versa, which dramatized a department store VP and his middle-school son changing places; and a month later, George Burns and Charlie Schlatter pulled off the switch in 18 Again!, in which a comatose grandfather inhabits his grandson’s body. “I don’t think Hollywood knew what their next-door neighbors at Warner Bros. or at Sony were doing,” Schlatter reflects. “It’s kind of this weird thing that happened.”

That surge extended into the next decade, as body-swap stories expanded outside paternal transformations. An old man and his bride changed bodies during a wedding reception in 1992’s Prelude to a Kiss, and a boyfriend and girlfriend traded lives in the 1996 Australian comedy Dating the Enemy. In 2002, director Tom Brady (not that Tom Brady) stretched the concept into campier, more explicit territory with The Hot Chick, in which Rob Schneider plays a criminal who switches bodies with Rachel McAdams’s teenage mean girl.

When Disney approached Mark Waters to remake Freaky Friday a year later, the director wasn’t looking for a body-swap script. He’d read and seen the original, though, and felt a contemporary update could offer plenty of family-flavored humor. “The concept of it is naturally appealing,” Waters says. “These two women have chosen to be confrontational, not see eye-to-eye, and have forgotten the love in their relationship.” It also didn’t hurt that he’d cast Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan in her prime. That movie’s success (it made $110 million against its $20 million budget) inspired Dobkin to ask Waters for advice before making 2011’s The Change-Up. In his own mainstream variation, starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, a workaholic attorney swaps bodies with an unemployed rake. Though both protagonists share the same age and gender, the comedy plays on their personality differences and “the fact that one of them was never going to grow up, and one of them grew up before he was able to have a childhood,” Dobkin says.

Though the concept had mostly been used in mid-budget comedies, it was only a matter of time until a major studio would invest in the trope’s blockbuster potential. In 2017, director Jake Kasdan began the most ambitious body-swapping expedition to date with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Adding another wrinkle to the subgenre, he adapted the 1995 movie by turning four teenagers into video game avatars—embodied by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan—who must cooperate inside a virtual jungle. Two years later, he doubled down on the premise in a loaded sequel that added and swapped even more bodies. “I hadn’t been focused on someday making the Lawrence of Arabia of body-switching movies,” Kasdan jokes. “I think because it’s standing on the shoulders of all the [ones] that came before it, we were able to dodge a little bit of the feeling of familiarity.”

Between these popular titles, independent films and numerous television episodes have also played in the body-swap sandbox (everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the 2016 animated Japanese drama Your Name). The subgenre even developed different subcategories—comedies like 1988’s Big and 2004’s 13 Going on 30 experimented with body growth; Lily Tomlin’s soul split residence with Steve Martin’s body in 1984’s All of Me; and John Travolta and Nicolas Cage “scientifically” traded visages in 1997’s Face/Off. But no matter the variation, each of the movies share safe and satisfying resolutions—characters confide in friends, iron out mistakes, and revert back to their original selves having gained priceless wisdom.

Effectively selling these mystifying odysseys, though, is where the real challenge lies. “There’s no question,” Kasdan says. “The whole thing is dependent on the ability of those actors to do this in an entertaining way.”

Executing an effective body-swap performance, one that includes realistic energy and improvisation, requires a commitment to collaboration. Aside from learning to inhabit two opposing characters, both acting participants must study each other’s habits, traits, and speech patterns. In other words, they have to sell the continuity of their screen partner’s soul.

To prepare Vince Vaughn for his teenage girl transformation in Freaky, Landon pulled out his personal video camera. He knew the actor’s 6-foot-5 stature would contrast nicely with Millie’s fragile persona, but wanted to keep the character grounded and “go beyond the impersonation.” The director began recording diaries of Newton in character. He interviewed her about Millie’s relationship with her mom and sister, and what it was like to lose her father. At one point, Landon took Newton to a Sweetgreen in Los Angeles and filmed his young star—still in character—ordering a salad. “She was kind of nervous and apologizing for managing her order too much,” Landon says. The director was mostly concerned with capturing Millie’s body language: “The way she’s kind of frumpy and folded, and the way that she bites her nails a lot—things like that I thought would be really helpful for [Vince] to watch.”

Vaughn helped Newton, too. The pair spent time together before shooting—they developed The Butcher’s hulking presence and methodical gait while determining more of Millie’s subtle gestures and mannerisms. The goal, like in all body-swap movies, was to make audiences forget they’re watching a 50-year-old man—even one that’s walking daintily and speaking in a softer register—and to believe there’s actually a teenage girl inside that body. “That really does happen for people,” Landon says. “I think a lot of it is because he sort of gave himself permission to be emotionally present and captured by this character.”

Waters used a similar video diary approach before shooting Freaky Friday. Instead of recording character traits, however, he used rehearsal time to shoot the script backward with a small camcorder. Worried Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan might fall into generic depictions of adolescence and middle age, Waters filmed them reenacting the post-swap versions of themselves. That meant Curtis, despite playing a teenager in the movie, acted as the mother, giving Lohan a performative study guide and line-reading template to follow. “You get an essence of how a middle-aged woman playing a therapist would respond to the situation,” Waters says, “so Lindsay kind of has a little less guesswork about what she’s trying to achieve.” Throughout shooting, Waters was careful not to tinker with the pitch of his actors’ performances, adjusting the teen angst and motherly scolding only slightly. “I never push it so far that it feels unreal and forced,” Waters says. “You just have to go with your instinct that this is the way the mom would be responding now.”

Because of the demanding schedules of Jumanji’s star cast, Kasdan didn’t have as much time to help craft the dual personas of his four protagonists. Still, he made sure they spent time with the teenagers they were embodying. Before shooting the first movie, Kasdan remembers sitting down with Johnson and Alex Wolff for lunch to discuss how they would share their character, Spencer, and keep his tics and tendencies in agreement. The director requested the same process with his other pairings, hoping they could bring something fun to the script. For Kasdan, the logic was simple: “How can we develop some characteristic that both actors can play that ties them together and helps us sell the conceit, but gives an inner life?”

On set, in the midst of shooting his first large-scale movie, the director relied on teamwork. During one sequence in The Next Level, Black and Gillan each spend a few minutes exchanging characters back and forth, turning their identities into fluid puzzles. It’s a continuity test for the audience to keep track of the swapping personalities, and Kasdan made sure to have certain cast members at the ready to help with those transitions—to make sure nothing was lost from actor to actor. “What’s great about them is they’re hugely agile,” Kasdan says. “Jack is a well-known comic genius, one of the funniest people in the world. And Karen can do anything.” The key though, Kasdan says, is that both actors “have to be really game to do it completely. You can’t half-ass it.”

Schlatter agrees. Although he didn’t have the same kind of integrative preparation while rehearsing for 18 Again!, the 21-year-old knew he’d be responsible for portraying a very specific cigar-smoking, smooth-talking George Burns. He stocked up on the actor’s old movies at Blockbuster—this was the ‘80s—and consumed his late-night television appearances. And since his grandfather resembled Burns, Schlatter leaned on those personal characteristics too, gleaning small details to match his then 91-year-old screen partner. “George did tell me to make sure you keep that cigar in the left hand,” Schlatter says. “He said,I keep that in the left hand so if I ever have to adjust the microphone, my right hand is free.’”

Thanks to his theater background, Schlatter didn’t find the task of embodying two different roles to be terribly challenging. The actor, now 54, “always played the crazy character” in high school productions, and “almost didn’t feel comfortable in my own person.” As he looks back, the job was one of the few that let him feel totally creative and free—the kind of gig most actors don’t have the opportunity to try in a typecast career. “I do tons of voice-over—that’s what I love about that, you could be anything,” he says. “Not to crap on [Robert] Redford’s career, but I would think you’ve got to get a little bored.”

Several years after shooting Freaky Friday, Waters returned to the body-swap well to direct the Fox pilot Eva Adams. The comedy starred Will Arnett as a misogynist sports agent who becomes hexed after a one-night stand. The following morning, he wakes up as a woman (played by Rhea Seehorn) and spends the majority of the episode trying to comprehend and live inside his new female body. According to Waters, the pilot tested positively with audiences, until one focus group shook the premise’s foundation, and eventually nixed the whole show. “This one person said, ‘So who does she have sex with? Men or women?’” Waters remembers. “We were all like, ‘Fuck, we never thought of that. We’ve made a huge mistake.’”

When depicting all the realities that body-swap stories entail, filmmakers often find themselves in similar kinds of tricky situations. What does it mean for a young kid, trapped in an adult’s body, to kiss his father’s girlfriend? How far can you take the disguise before things get too creepy? In Freaky Friday, Waters made sure that Curtis, embodying her teenage daughter, only briefly kisses her fiance on the cheek, avoiding any murky territory. It’s a safer route, but not always feasible. Although Big is still highly regarded, it’s easy to see the movie’s romantic subplot—between Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins—through a darker lens (a queasiness that SNL examined in a 2018 sketch). “That would be quite traumatizing in a lot of ways—a teenage-developed brain all of a sudden having the faculties and agency that comes with being in an adult body, or even a fully formed adult brain,” Hetterly says. “They’re dumping stages of development [and] we know that doesn’t tend to play out particularly well for people.”

Nowadays, studios mostly punt on any kind of incestuous or underage insinuations. But some of the subgenre’s most fascinating avenues have led to those bigger, more complex questions.

Part of the reason Dobkin agreed to direct The Change-Up was because of the script’s ability to interrogate ethical boundaries. Because his story didn’t focus on generational or gender differences, Dobkin had more space to poke around the lesser-depicted aspects of body-swapping—namely, masturbation and adultery. In one scene, while each is trapped in the other’s body, ladies man Mitch asks his married buddy, Dave, to have sex with a recent fling for him. Despite being in Mitch’s body, Dave rejects the urge to cheat on his wife. “Fucking in the mind is not cheating,” Mitch responds. It’s a Descartian outburst, one that philosophically questions whether Dave’s adulterous mind would really be responsible for the actions of Mitch’s body.

The movie ultimately takes a moral stance on Mitch’s offer, a decision that keeps it from fully submerging into tragedy—and pushes a seemingly absurd comedy into philosophically deep waters. “We all felt that the obvious truth is you are where your consciousness is. If you’re in someone else’s body, it’s still you—you’d still be cheating, you’d be having that experience,” Dobkin says. “The whole movie is [tiptoeing] that line.” These tensions, however, can still provide open-hearted moments when handled delicately. Halfway through Freaky, for example, Vaughn, as Millie, sits in the backseat of a car with her crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton). Though normally too shy to admit her feelings, Millie has a strange confidence in her new skin, and despite her middle-aged male appearance, Booker admits his attraction to her. “You’re still Millie to me,” he tells her, and eventually, the two lean in to share a first kiss.

“The joke isn’t about man-on-man kissing,” Landon says. “In fact, it’s not a joke at all.”

Landon shoots the scene thoughtfully and romantically, and though he acknowledges the subversive nature of the set-up—outwardly, two men locking lips—he was glad test audiences responded to the honesty of the moment. “He’s telling her in the act of that kiss that he’s never cared about what she’s looked like. He’s always been drawn to the person that’s underneath,” Landon says. “And for me, that was kind of one of the messages of the movie. It’s a fun scene because it does play on so many different levels.

“There’s a lot of different, weird stuff that I get to play with in movies like this,” he adds. “As soon as you [mash up genres], you’re sort of giving your audience, and yourself, permission to go anywhere.”

When Kasdan considered taking on a Jumanji remake, the superficial comedy never appealed to him. “It’s not inherently funny to me to see a man pretending to be a woman,” he says. Instead, the script’s fantasy elements and bigger ideas—the human growth attached to the soul switching—grabbed his attention and became the biggest point of emphasis. “I knew that I would have loved it when I was 10,” he says. “If we did it in a certain way, with a certain voice, and made it more comedically sophisticated.”

Throughout production, Kasdan kept the focus on his characters’ inner transformations. Equipped with The Rock’s handsome looks, bulging biceps, and leadership skills, Spencer tests the range of his new attributes, becoming more confident and acting kinder to himself. The same goes for Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), an intimidating jock who inherits Hart’s body. The swap shrinks his strength and dominant presence, but forces more introspection and cooperation. “A lot of what we are is the accumulation of our experience,” Kasdan says. “In particular, [our characters] are going through these adventures in the bodies of these [avatars] who are nothing like themselves—they’re discovering something about their own capability that they hadn’t anticipated.”

Landon also engages with that therapeutic throughline in Freaky during a scene that plays more like a confessional. Inside Vaughn’s body, Millie shares a moment with her mother in a dressing room to discuss her father’s recent death. In a different body, it’s easier for Millie—and, in effect, her mother—to express her deeper, once-repressed feelings. “She finally has the permission and freedom to be honest about how she feels about this relationship,” Landon says.

These kinds of inward, reflective journeys make up the heart of body-swap movies. More than other morality tales, their endings spotlight the importance of acquiring greater perspective, contentment, and gratitude—for being back in one’s own body, and for having experienced the daily life of someone else. As Hetterly notes, “if we’re discontent in the present, we’ll look at the future or the past with more rose-colored glasses.” But, after life-altering events, those inclinations often change because “when we experience things that shape our views and morality, they tend to have more long-lasting effects and impacts.”

It might be obvious, simple messaging, but as Waters says, “all good comedy concepts are ones that don’t take a lot of explanation.” The body-swap format, in particular, gives filmmakers authority to engage with basic human instincts and insecurities, using different settings and genres as glossy packaging. It also gives actors the ability to tap into their inner child—“when we were at our purest and our most fun,” Schlatter says—and expose the underused parts of their personalities. It lets Judge Reinhold slide down stairwell banisters, Jamie Lee Curtis shred on electric guitar, and Jack Black access, well, even more of himself.

“These experiences,” Kasdan laughs, “would probably put people into an institution.” But at such a polarizing time, the chance to inherit somebody’s body remains an enticing imaginary prospect—an antidote to our narrowed, isolated worlds. Even if that means being a serial killer for a day. “We seem to be losing our ability to empathize,” Landon says. “I think that’s why body-swap movies have endured. There’s a high yield—there’s a lot to say.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

The Ringer-Verse

‘Star Wars: Visions’ Analysis and Awards

Tea Time

September Streaming Recommendations, Adele’s New Boyfriend, and Yet Another Britney Spears Documentary

The Big Picture

The 2021 Movie Star Ranking: 35 Under 35

View all stories in Movies