Acting is a difficult job. It requires the performer to not only create a character from scratch, but also to make that character feel fully-dimensional and real. The audience has to believe. That takes genuine creativity, in addition to the obvious talent. The challenge is considerable.
But what do you do when you’re hired to play yourself? Every once in a while, an actor is tasked with doing just this. For many, it’s a chance to get even more creative than usual — to shake up their public image a little bit by turning the audience’s perception of them on its ear. They turn their real selves into fictional creations that may bear little resemblance to real life, and it can be enormously fun to watch. We’ve got some terrific examples of times when actors pulled off such an unusual feat.
Here are 15 Actors Who Have Played Bizarre Versions of Themselves.
15. Elisabeth Shue – Hamlet 2
Elisabeth Shue made a name for herself in lightweight, fluffy fare such as Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail. For that reason, it was a bit of a surprise when Mike Figgis cast her as a prostitute in his heavy drama Leaving Las Vegas, opposite Nicolas Cage. She nailed the role, going on to earn an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Her success in the film didn’t substantially help her career, though. Shue was soon back to the fluff, appearing in The Saint, Hollow Man, and other largely forgettable pictures.
In 2008, she spoofed her career disappointments in the comedy Hamlet 2, the story of a high school drama teacher (Steve Coogan) trying to put together an ill-advised sequel to one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays. He gets help from — you guessed it — Elisabeth Shue, who has quit show business in frustration and now works as a nurse in a fertility clinic. The actress gamely offers herself up as someone who’s had enough success to inspire Coogan’s character, but not enough of it to avoid having to make a career change.
14. Paul Giamatti – Cold Souls
Paul Giamatti has developed a reputation as a versatile actor who excels in both comedy and drama. He also seems to truly love working, as evidenced by the fact that he typically appears in at least four movies per year. In the 2009 comedy/drama/sci-fi hybrid Cold Souls, “Paul Giamatti” is a desperately unhappy actor, one who is filled with with anxiety and insecurity. His mental commitment to the roles he plays has left him unsure of who he really is whenever he’s not in character. To solve this problem, he visits an experimental facility to have his soul removed from his body.
With that soul largely extracted, Giamatti becomes insensitive and unsympathetic, carelessly saying cruel things to the people around him. His acting starts to go downhill, and making love to his wife becomes problematic. Cold Souls turns a fine actor into a walking disaster, showing how the soul is essential not only to creating great art, but also to being a decent person.
13. Hugh Jackman – Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
You’ve got to hand it to Hugh Jackman — he has a sense of humor about himself. Although he’s played a fairly wide variety of roles, he owes his career to just one: Wolverine. Jackman has portrayed that popular comic book character in eight films so far (including cameos, like the one in the recent X-Men: Apocalypse), and it is the part he is most well-known for.
He makes fun of that fact with a cameo in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. The scene in question (which you can watch here) finds a real knight barging onto a stage where a play starring Jackman and Alice Eve is taking place. He points his sword at Jackman who, in an attempt at intimidation, strikes the famous Wolverine pose. The knight is left perplexed, even after Eve tries to explain what’s happening. It’s a funny moment in which the actor is humbled by the one person in the world who doesn’t know his most famous screen creation.
12. Carl Weathers – Arrested Development
Arrested Development is one of the most clever and original sitcoms in the history of television. Sometimes the jokes are front and center. Other times, they’re almost subliminally hidden in the background. The show is also known for setting up a joke in one episode, only to pay it off in a later one. But perhaps its best bits are those that are sort of random, like the recurring appearances from Carl Weathers.
The man formerly known as Apollo Creed is first introduced in a story arc in which he is hired to give acting lessons to Tobias (played by David Cross). Most of his advice, however, is about saving money or scoring freebies. He then directs an episode of a TV show based on the Bluth family despite, as we are told in a later season, not having secured the rights to do so. Weathers’ intermittent role is funny because it presents the actor as a self-absorbed moocher, always looking to work an angle. To say he was a good sport would be an understatement.
11. Neil Patrick Harris – The Harold & Kumar Series
Here’s what we know about Neil Patrick Harris: He started out as Doogie Houser on the wholesome ABC sitcom of the same name. He’s a multi-talented performer, who acts, sings, and dances. He is happily married to actor/chef David Burtka, and has been a vocal advocate for gay rights, especially marriage equality. His career has been free of scandal. These facts are what make his supporting role as himself in the three Harold and Kumar comedies so hysterical.
In the movies, Harris goes completely against his image. His “character” is a foul-mouthed, superficial narcissist who appears incapable of consuming enough drugs or picking up enough women. He’s a walking, talking id, perpetually skirting the fringes of getting in some serious trouble. The joy of the performance is that Harris plays this mirror version of himself with palpable delight. You can tell he’s having a blast saying and doing things you’d never catch him saying and doing in real life. Unsurprisingly, given his immense talent, he’s hilarious.
10. Larry David – Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David is a comedian who co-created the classic sitcom Seinfeld and served as the inspiration for the character of George Costanza. On HBO’s series Curb Your Enthusiasm, he plays Larry David, the comedian who co-created Seinfeld and served as the inspiration for George Costanza. The show is about as meta as you can get.
In real life, David is a talented and successful guy. On the show, he’s pretty much a hapless idiot, prone to foolish outbursts over inconsequential things. No matter what situation he’s in, David can be counted on to say and/or do the worst thing possible. There is no scenario he cannot make painfully awkward. The cringe-worthy, utter inappropriateness of his behavior proves just how fearless a performer David is — he has no qualms whatsoever about public perception. No other comedian has ever done so with such dedication (although Louie CK has been giving him a run for his money in recent years). Thankfully, it was recently announced that Curb will be coming back for a ninth season, so the awkwardness will continue.
9. Anna Faris – Keanu
Who doesn’t love Anna Faris? Crazy people, that’s who! The actress is wonderfully funny, even in her least successful movies. She’s happily married to Chris Pratt, making them one of the coolest couples in Hollywood. She’s a devoted mother who has dedicated her time and energy to various charities, including the March of Dimes. Heck, she and Pratt even donated a million bucks to a charity that provides eyeglasses to underprivileged children. By every account, she’s a perfectly nice and decent person.
So when Faris pops up for an extended cameo in Keanu, it’s as shocking as it is shockingly funny. The fun begins when two faux drug dealers (played by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) are forced by a real dealer to conduct some “business” at a mansion in the Hills. Peele goes in and discovers that the purchaser of said drugs is none other than well-known comedic actress Anna Faris. She gets high as a kite snorting narcotics before revealing a sadistic streak, encouraging the gang member who accompanies Peele to shoot him. In other words, she plays Evil Anna Faris. It’s an amazing bit of going totally against type.
8. David Hasselhoff – The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
If we’re being honest, David Hasselhoff is a B-list celebrity, at best. He’s virtually a household name, yet it’s really the concepts of his shows Baywatch and Knight Rider that are the true stars. To his credit, the Hoff has not only accepted this, he’s also seems to embrace it. On more than one occasion, he’s played himself in films, often in self-deprecating cameos.
One of those times was in, of all things, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. His appearance is — in the best SpongeBob tradition — deeply weird. During the third act of the film, SpongeBob and Patrick are on dry land and in danger of drying up. They need to return as quickly as possible to their home in Bikini Bottom. Arriving just in time (and from out of nowhere) to help them is Hasselhoff, attired in his trademark red Baywatch shorts. They hop on his back and he transports them, gliding through the water in dolphin-like fashion. The sight is ridiculous. The Hoff deserves points for being this game, not only allowing his Baywatch success to be spoofed, but also letting the movie make him look silly in the name of a laugh.
7. Warwick Davis – Life’s Too Short
Warwick Davis is an actor known for playing the lead roles in Willow and Leprechaun, as well as his work as Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi and Flitwick in the Harry Potter series. He’s more famous among sci-fi and fantasy fans than he is among the general public, which is essentially the premise behind the HBO series Life’s Too Short.
Davis plays himself as a man desperately hanging on to his tiny little piece of stardom, and trying to make it appear bigger than it really is. He likes to believe that he’s high-profile. He tries to get star perks, only to repeatedly be shot down. Whenever someone fails to recognize him — which is often — he feels humiliated. The fictional Warwick Davis also tries to suck up to celebrity aquaintances, including series co-creator Ricky Gervais, but they are frequently annoyed by his antics. Life’s Too Short only ran for one season, but it’s a very funny, insightful examination of lower-level fame and how even a taste of the celebrity life makes one hungry for more. A lot more.
6. Joaquin Phoenix – I’m Still Here
I’m Still Here is admittedly more of a stunt than a movie. Joaquin Phoenix began having a series of public “breakdowns” after allegedly quitting acting to launch a career in rap music. Director/friend Casey Affleck captured it all on camera, then assembled it into this movie, which attempted to pass itself off as a documentary. The ruse wasn’t very convincing, and few people were fooled once they actually saw it.
Nonetheless, Phoenix goes all-out in his portrayal of a neurotic, deeply troubled version of himself. In the film, he appears lost and hopeless. He cavorts with hookers. He takes drugs. He nearly loses his mind when people heckle his rap performance. The actor is known for fully immersing himself in his roles, and he doesn’t hold back playing this eponymous character. It’s the clumsy construction of the film that reveals its true fictional nature. Phoenix, though, feels like the real deal as he pretends to melt down on camera.
5. John Malkovich – Being John Malkovich
One has to wonder what John Malkovich thought when he was first handed Charlie Kaufman’s script for Being John Malkovich. It’s the story of an unhappy puppeteer (John Cusack) who finds a portal that leads directly into the mind of John Malkovich. Entrants stay there for fifteen minutes, seeing the world through the actor’s eyes, before getting spit out along the New Jersey turnpike. Furthermore, the Malkovich in the film is usually portrayed as either cranky or goofy.
To his credit, he recognized a brilliant piece of writing when he saw it. Malkovich visibly enjoys playing around with his image as an intense thespian. In fact, the movie works so well because not only does he allow himself to be mocked, he cheerfully participates in it. The most memorable scene comes when he enters his own mind, only to discover a world where everyone — man, woman, and child — has his head and they all speak only one word: “Malkovich.”
4. Sam Jones – Ted
One of the big jokes in Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 comedy Ted is that star Mark Wahlberg and his talking teddy bear are obsessed with Mike Hodges’ intentionally campy 1980 movie Flash Gordon. (And why wouldn’t they be? It’s quite awesome.) That film gave then-newcomer Sam Jones a decades-long career doing low-grade action movies and TV shows. Jones has worked consistently, but it would be a lie to say that he’s done anything especially memorable outside of his debut.
Maybe that’s why he agreed to play himself in Ted as an actor who triumphantly clings to the role that first brought him to the public’s attention. Jones capitalizes on his notoriety, partying like there’s no tomorrow and happily continuing to wear his Flash Gordon costume. There’s even a goofy dream sequence in which he and Wahlberg reenact one of the more notable scenes from the cult classic. In the end, he also gets to officiate the wedding between Wahlberg and love interest Mila Kunis. If Jones’ work in Ted convinces even one person to see Flash Gordon, it should be considered a rousing success.
3. Michael Cera – This Is the End
This Is the End features a who’s who of popular big screen comedians playing fictionalized versions of themselves as they face the Apocalypse. Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, and Craig Robinson are chief among them, but there are also scores of cameos. The central idea of the picture is to mock celebrity, to look at how famous people might react if the world was coming to an end.
Technically, we could have chosen any of the stars for this list, but there is one who goes above and beyond in lampooning himself: Michael Cera. The actor generally plays lovably nerdy characters with big hearts. Not here. In This Is the End, Cera is a super-obnoxious creep who’s jacked up on cocaine. He’s also a big-time pervert, sexually harassing any woman who enters his sights. Quite frankly, it’s a bit shocking to see him behave so atypically, which is why it’s also hilarious. As punishment for his sins, Cera meets a grisly death by impalement.
2. Al Pacino – Jack and Jill
Given his long, illustrious career, it must have seemed like a good idea for Al Pacino to make fun of himself onscreen. Unfortunately, he chose to do it in an Adam Sandler movie. And it wasn’t just any old Adam Sandler movie, it was one of Adam Sandler’s worst movies, which is saying a lot. We’re talking, of course, about Jack and Jill.
Most of the performances on this list are clever; this one is agonizing. Pacino is portrayed as something of an idiot. He has to endure a series of things that are embarrassing to watch such an esteemed actor do, like make goo-goo eyes at Adam Sandler in drag. (The fact that the drag use is completely unconvincing is what makes it lame, not the fact that Sandler is playing a woman.) Later, he’s forced to make a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. Yes, that’s a plot point, but let’s be honest — it’s also a real Dunkin’ Donuts commercial wedged into the movie. Not only does he appear in this ad, he’s required to rap in it. That’s right, rap. Pacino gets points for good sportsmanship, but egad, this is some depressing stuff.
1. Bill Murray – Zombieland
In Zombieland, an undead apocalypse has struck humanity and there are few survivors. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Emma Stone are among them. They make their way to Hollywood, where they end up at the mansion of a major movie star. It’s none other than Bill Murray. The cameo came as a pleasant surprise to moviegoers, who hadn’t been tipped off to his participation in the film.
This is perhaps the most satisfying bit of casting on our list. Bill Murray is so freaking cool that of course he’d survive the zombie apocalypse. His survival method is also suitably Murray-esque: he makes himself up to look undead so that he can continue to play golf and carry on his usual routine uninterrupted by those pesky brain-eaters. Zombieland makes wonderful use of Murray’s persona and the things we know about his off-screen life. Regrettably, while he’s able to survive the undead, he can’t escape Eisenberg’s nervous trigger finger; he’s shot and killed after being mistaken for a real zombie, thanks to his makeup.
Do you have any other instances of actors playing bizarre versions of themselves that you love? Let us know in the comments.