Great acting typically requires using every tool in one’s toolbox: physicality, facial expressions, mannerisms, and voice. Really skilled actors can take away one of those things and still give a good performance. John Hawkes, for example, couldn’t rely on body movement when playing a paraplegic in The Sessions, yet he still delivered emotionally devastating work. Jean Dujardin, meanwhile, didn’t utter a word playing a silent movie star in The Artist, and he won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
When doing voicework, actors leave behind all but one of their tools, which makes the job much harder. While it may seem easy to stand in front of a microphone and read lines, it actually isn’t. Stripped of most of the other things they typically rely on to create a full-blooded character, actors have to compensate by putting the one tool they have left into overdrive. They have to create that character with just their speaking ability.
Lots of big movie stars have taken a turn at voice acting over the years. Often, the results were unmemorable. There are, however, some cases where stars proved to be uncommonly good at voice acting. We celebrate their accomplishments here.
Here are 16 Huge Movie Stars Who Became Amazing Voice Actors.
16. Bill Murray
From the start, Bill Murray has been a larger-than-life performer. Via Saturday Night Live roles like Nick the Lounge Singer and “nerd” Todd DiLaMuca, he proved to be a comedic force of nature. The movies quickly capitalized on this quality, allowing Murray to play the wild man in Meatballs, Stripes, and Groundhog Day, among many others. These days, he’s widely considered to be a fine dramatic actor as well, thanks to celebrated turns in Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers.
Murray’s crazed energy and impeccable comic timing have made him a much in-demand voice performer. While the two Garfield movies themselves weren’t so hot, he brought the lasagna-eating feline’s trademark sarcasm perfectly to life. Later, he memorably portrayed a droll badger in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Most recently, he was the voice of Baloo the bear in Disney’s live-action/CGI remake of The Jungle Book. That character — one of the most beloved and distinct in Disney’s library — needed an actor who could convey his outsized personality. Murray was just the guy, which no doubt helped the film become a $947 million blockbuster smash.
15. Freddie Prinze, Jr.
For a while during the 1990s, Freddie Prinze, Jr. was poised to be the Next Big Thing. He was talented, good-looking, and in possession of real charisma. And for a time, he was definitely a top young star. I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scooby-Doo were both hits, and She’s All That quickly became a touchstone movie for teens of that era. Prinze’s time as a leading man was short-lived, though. A string of hardcore flops — Wing Commander, Boys and Girls, Head Over Heels — damaged his career. He couldn’t open a picture anymore.
It’s rare to see Prinze onscreen these days, but it’s incredibly easy to hear him. The actor has moved into the world of voicework, where his success has been undeniable. He’s worked on the animated features Delgo and Happily N’Ever After, as well as the videogames Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Disney Infinity 3.0. His vocal talents have most recently been put to use on the popular animated TV series Star Wars Rebels, where he plays the character Kanan Jarrus. Through this voicework in these projects, Prinze gets to play a variety of roles, rather than just the heartthrob role that movies repeatedly shoved him into.
14. Sarah Michelle Gellar
Since we’re talking about Freddie Prinze, Jr., we should also talk about his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar. She, too, has found great success in the world of voice acting. Gellar first gained fame playing Kendall Hart on the soap opera All My Children, fame that increased multiple times over with the TV smash Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The actress parlayed her show’s popularity into a career on the big screen, co-starring with Prinze in I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scooby-Doo, and snagging lead roles in Cruel Intentions, The Grudge, and Simply Irresistible.
Gellar still appears in both television and film, but she works just as much on projects that only utilize her voice. Like her husband, she is a regular on Star Wars Rebels, where she plays Seventh Sister. She previously provided a multitude of voices on the hit animated sketch series Robot Chicken, guested on American Dad and The Simpsons, and worked on the feature films TMNT and Happily N’Ever After. Gellar’s strength as an actress — seen most prominently on Buffy — is her ability to bring an identifiable human quality to a character, even in the midst of bizarre or otherworldly stories. It is this quality that makes her an indispensable vocal performer.
13. Johnny Depp
Johnny Depp has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the most eccentric, innovative actors around. He’s got the chops to take on serious roles in heavy-duty films like Black Mass and Public Enemies. He also isn’t afraid to lose himself or become virtually unrecognizable beneath heavy makeup and outlandish costumes, as Pirates of the Caribbean, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Lone Ranger have proven. Even if he’s received some recent criticism for relying on the eccentricities a little too heavily (hello, Mortdecai!), there’s no denying that Depp doesn’t shy away from taking risks.
That fearlessness extends to his voicework. Rather than choosing safe, mainstream animated fare on which to work, Depp has opted for movies that are off the beaten path. He re-teamed with pal/frequent collaborator Tim Burton for the macabre stop-motion animation film Corpse Bride, and, more notably, provided the voice of the titular lizard in Gore Verbinski’s comedy/Western Rango. Many people thought the latter was one his best performances ever. Depp’s fondness for “going weird” makes him a natural in the field of voicework. He comes equipped with fresh, unexpected ideas that greatly benefit whatever project he’s involved with.
12. Anne Hathaway
Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway can do it all. She’s a skilled dramatic actress, as Rachel Getting Married, Interstellar, and Brokeback Mountain prove. She can do comedy — just look at The Devil Wears Prada, Get Smart, and The Princess Diaries. Action? Check out her surprising work as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. And did we mention that she can sing? Her Academy Award for the musical adaptation of Les Miserables was much-deserved.
There is literally nothing Hathaway can’t do. Such versatility makes her a great fit for animated fare, as she’s able to authentically project a wide range of emotions with just her voice. The actress provided English dubbing for the acclaimed Japanese feature The Cat Returns, voiced a version of Little Red Riding Hood in Hoodwinked, and has appeared on both Family Guy and The Simpsons. Her most notable character in the voice realm has been playing the bird Jewel in the hit movie Rio and its sequel. Doubtlessly, her immense skills will be called into use for similar projects in the future.
11. James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones is a classically-trained theater actor with a background in Shakespeare. He starred in Othello all the way back in 1955. He has won two Tony Awards during his career: one for The Great White Hope in 1969, and one for Fences in 1987. His first film role was in about as prestigious a movie as you can get, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He has since appeared in everything from Conan the Barbarian to Field of Dreams to Coming to America. It’s a pretty impressive resume.
Jones is most identifiable for his deep, booming, authoritative voice. The actor hasn’t done a ton of voice-only work, although he has used that remarkable gift to bring alive two of the most well-known, easily identifiable characters in cinema history. One is Mufasa in The Lion King. The other, of course, is Darth Vader in the Star Wars pictures. A sense of power and strength was absolutely essential to both of these characters, which made Jones the perfect choice to portray them. Their place in the annuls of motion pictures has been solidified by his commanding performances.
10. Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks is the definition of a “comedian’s comedian.” Everyone in the world of comedy loves and respects his unique, perfectly-honed comedic voice. Audiences love him, too. After breaking through to the mainstream via his short films on Saturday Night Live back in the ’70s, Brooks made the leap to the big screen with roles in the box office hits Taxi Driver and Private Benjamin, plus the films he crafted for himself: Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America among them. As an actor, he has earned praise for both comedic roles (Broadcast News) and dramatic (Drive, A Most Violent Year).
Brooks’ ace comic timing and hilariously dry style of delivery have been a welcome addition to animated movies. He played Jacob the Tiger in the Eddie Murphy remake of Dr. Dolittle and Russ Cargill in The Simpsons Movie. This past summer, he was Tiberius, a red-tailed hawk who tries to avoid eating his new animal friends in The Secret Life of Pets. In much of his own work, Brooks has employed a kind of anxious quality to mine laughs. He lent that quality to his most famous voice-only character, Marlin, the perpetually worrisome father in Finding Nemo and the recent sequel Finding Dory. Even when only giving a vocal performance, Brooks is able to be funny and sympathetic simultaneously.
9. Seth Rogen
There’s no doubt that Seth Rogen has a real gift for raunchy comedy. Whether he’s playing a guy living next to a frat house in Neighbors, celebrating a drug-fueled holiday with friends in The Night Before, or facing the apocalypse with other celebrities in This Is the End, you can count on Rogen to deliver edgy jokes centered around sex, weed, and profanity. Although his humor is very R-rated, it’s not mean. There’s a core of decency underneath the adult material, which is precisely the thing that allows him to get away with it.
Rogen has been able to bring these qualities to a number of animated projects. His decent streak has even made him a favorite in movies aimed at kids. The actor had voice roles in The Spiderwick Chronicles, Horton Hears a Who!, and Kung Fu Panda before getting his first really juicy character, the blobby B.O.B. in 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens. That character, played with lovable goofiness by Rogen, spun off into a videogame and some short cartoons, including a Halloween special. On the edgier side of things, he voiced the titular foul-mouthed, pot-smoking alien in the Simon Pegg comedy Paul. Currently, Rogen is earning laughs playing a libidinous hot dog searching for the meaning of existence in Sausage Party. With his boisterous laugh and unique way of hitting a punchline, he expertly uses his vocals to crack up adults and kids.
8. Eddie Murphy
Axel Foley. Prince Akeem. Sherman Klump. Donkey. What do they all have in common? They’re all characters brought to life by Eddie Murphy. The difference is that the last one on that list is animated. Murphy had an incredible streak of hit movies as an actor in the 1980s: 48 HRS, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Boomerang, Coming to America. He was the king of the R-rated comedy.
After becoming a father, Murphy showed more of an inclination to work on family-friendly projects, including animated fare. He effectively provided comic relief as the voice of Mushu in 1998’s Disney epic Mulan. Then, in 2001, he landed what would become one of his signature roles, Donkey in the Shrek series. The character was intended to be a sidekick, but Murphy’s sassy delivery made Donkey the real star of the show. Three sequels followed, further cementing the popularity of the animated jackass.
On the smaller screen, the comedian played Thurgoode Orenthal Stubbs on the TV series The PJs. Whereas he seemed to grow lackadaisical with his live-action roles (Meet Dave, Imagine That), Murphy exhibited great enthusiasm for parts that utilized his distinct voice. He’s been on a hiatus from acting for a few years — one that ends with the upcoming release of the drama Mr. Church — but we bet he’ll spend more time performing in front of a microphone in the near future.
7. Samuel L. Jackson
After well-regarded supporting roles in Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Jurassic Park, Samuel L. Jackson had the kind of moment most actors only dream of. He went from being a star to being a cultural icon. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction made audiences revere him as a performer. The role of Jules Winnfield utilized every ounce of the “cool” that permeates his entire being. Jackson is one of those rare thespians; he possesses an X-factor that makes him extraordinarily fascinating in whatever he does.
And because his voice is both instantly recognizable and able to expressively convey the full gamut of emotions, he’s found real success as a vocal artist. The roles he has chosen are as cool and quirky as you’d expect. Jackson had the lead in the TV series Afro Samurai and was a character named Gin Rummy on several episodes of The Boondocks. On the videogame front, he was a cop in Grand Theft Auto – San Andreas, and he has voiced his Nick Fury character in the Disney Infinity games. On the big screen, he portrayed a snail racer in Turbo. His biggest success as a voice actor, though, was as the ice-wielding superhero Frozone in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Even when you can only hear him, Jackson retains the magnetic personality that made him a household name.
6. Paul Giamatti
Few actors consistently earn MVP status the way Paul Giamatti does. No matter how good or flawed a film is, no matter its genre, if Giamatti is in it, you know there’s going to be at least one solid element. Aside from the obvious talent, part of what makes him so effective in so many different things is that he has an Everyman quality. Giamatti could be your next door neighbor, your mailman, or the guy who does your taxes. Because he doesn’t radiate the Movie Star Power that some on this list have in spades, he’s able to disappear into character, allowing us to see the person he’s playing rather than seeing him.
Giamatti has had massive success acting in pictures such as Sideways, American Splendor, and Straight Outta Compton (to name just a few), but he clearly relishes the chance to take on the unique challenges of voice acting, too. His ability to morph deeply into character has served him well in this regard. The actor has worked on animated fare as diverse as Robots, The Ant Bully, Turbo, Ratchet & Clank, Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and the animated adaptation of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head. We’re guessing you weren’t aware of that. Giamatti probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
5. Will Ferrell
Coming from the famed comedy troupe the Groundlings and, later, the storied halls of Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell has grown exceptionally skilled in creating unusual, exaggerated characters. It’s what he’s been trained for. His best feature films are the ones that allow him to do just that: Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights, Buddy in Elf. Roles like these give him the perfect opportunity to shine, to truly build a fictional person from the ground up and invest him with quirks, foibles, and hilarious eccentricities.
It’s no wonder he’s also been drawn to animation, where such larger-than-life characters are the norm. Ferrell voiced the monkey-owning Man With the Yellow Hat in 2006’s Curious George. He then moved on to play a blue-skinned alien supervillain in Megamind, and the nefarious Lord Business in The LEGO Movie. In every case, Ferrell brings the sense of total commitment to a gag that has turned him into one of this century’s biggest comedy stars. Even without utilizing his physical skills, he can make you laugh out loud.
4. Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks. Hollywood royalty. Two-time Academy Award winner. A-List leading man for more than 30 years. He’s a genuine movie star in an era where genuine movie stars are becoming increasingly rare. Equally adept at both comedy and drama, Hanks is without question one of the most vital, important actors working today. Who ever would have guessed that the guy in a dress on the sitcom Bosom Buddies would go on to become a modern-day Jimmy Stewart?
As a much in-demand actor, Hanks hasn’t devoted a lot of time to taking on voicework — with two big exceptions. His delivered a vocal and motion capture performance for Robert Zemeckis in 2004’s The Polar Express. And then there’s Woody. Hanks has given voice to the cowboy doll in three Pixar Toy Story movies, in addition to the TV special spinoffs and videogame representations. The actor injects Woody with such humanity (ironic, we know) that you completely buy into the idea that this toy is real. Without the utter sincerity of his lead performance, Toy Story would not be the classic that it is. Hanks has been smart not to dilute his most famous creation by lending his tones to too many other works. It makes Woody that much more special.
3. Robin Williams
If Robin Williams had not existed, animation would have had to invent him. One of the most brilliant, quick-witted minds in the annuls of comedy, his humor often found him assuming other personalities and using different voices. His range was impressive; the speed with which he could shift from one to the other was downright awe-inspiring.
Before his tragic suicide, Williams racked up a career full of highlights that were sometimes comedic (Mrs. Doubtfire), sometimes dramatic (Good Will Hunting), and sometimes a little of both (Good Morning, Vietnam). Then there were the vocal performances. Williams brought his singular talents to a wide variety of stories. First and foremost, he memorably portrayed the riotously manic Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Later, he played a robot in the appropriately named Robots, a baseball team owner in Everyone’s Hero, an information-giving holographic device in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and two different penguins in Happy Feet. For each part, he brought the unique energy for which he was known and loved by fans the world over. Williams is sadly no longer with us, but his estimable cinematic contributions will live forever.
2. Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson is one of those performers who continually surprise you. Unlike many stars of her caliber, she refuses to play it safe. Yes, there are mainstream pictures — playing Black Widow in the Marvel movies, for instance — but she balances these out with riskier films like Under the Skin and Don Jon. Johansson has never had any interest in assuming the “America’s Sweetheart” persona that some of her contemporaries (Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson) made work to varying degrees. Instead, she’s opted to forge her own path.
Considered one of the most beautiful women in the world for obvious reasons, Johansson also has an incredible voice with an appealingly smoky quality. She has put that voice to good use as King Neptune’s daughter Mindy in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, in a variety of parts on Robot Chicken, and, most recently, as Kaa, the enormous python of The Jungle Book. Those were all solid turns, but Johansson’s crown jewel in the voicework department is a stellar turn playing an operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her. The actress brought a sultry-yet-sympathetic quality to the O.S. that star Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with. Not to diminish Phoenix’s work, but without a credible “Samantha,” the picture would utterly fall apart. Johansson skillfully helps us understand why the main character connects to this piece of artificial intelligence, and the movie achieves unexpected levels of emotion as a result. Many critics felt she deserved an Oscar nomination, despite never physically appearing onscreen. That’s how great Johansson was.
1. Mark Hamill
When we say the name Mark Hamill, what character comes to mind? We’re betting that, for most of you, it’s Luke Skywalker. But we also bet that more than a few of you said the Joker. That’s because Hamill has proven himself to be something of a legend in the field of voicework, playing the popular Batman villain in multiple big and small-screen iterations of the Dark Knight, including Batman: The Animated Series and the recent R-rated The Killing Joke.
So while he may be best known for his role in the Star Wars pictures, Hamill has reinvented himself as one of the most prolific and versatile voice performers working in the entertainment business today. His credits include, but are by no means limited to, Avatar: The Last Airbender, My Friends Tigger & Pooh, The New Woody Woodpecker Show, Metalocalypse, Robot Chicken, Dragons: Riders of Berk, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Regular Show, Transformers: Rescue Bots, and Miles From Tomorrowland. That’s in addition to scores of other animated shows/films, plus more than a dozen videogames, including LEGO Marvel’s Avengers, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Call of Duty 2. It is an impressive resume from a movie star who has perfected the artistry of voice acting.
Which of these movie stars is your favorite? Do you have a performance of theirs that you love? Did we leave anyone out? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.