Sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes art imitates life. It’s a cliché, but it’s become a pretty neat aspect of filmmaking when actors or real life subjects become an actual part of a film. This weekend one of the more unique examples of this comes to a theater near you in Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris”, a film featuring the actual American men who helped stop an attack on a train in 2015 portraying themselves. Whether it’s to give the film a more realistic feel or as part of the larger narrative there have been many cases where actors play themselves in the real world in the context of a film. I took a look at some of the most notable and best. These are my picks for the Top 10 Times People Played Themselves in Movies.
For this list I looked at a wide variety of occasions where actors or real world people played themselves in the narrative of a film. I ignored cameo appearances because those deserve their own list. The cases presented here are ones where the actors played themselves as part of the story rather than a glorified appearance that felt forced, unneeded or meant nothing to the overall film other than a cool “look who it is” moment.
Also any film that utilizes a character in place of the real-life person, even if the actor playing that character was the inspiration, was not considered here as those are still fictional characters. So Eminem in “8 Mile” for example is not on this list because even though his life inspired the story he did not actually play himself but a stand in character instead.“The Last Action Hero” was also left out because while it is a meta film Arnold Schwarzenegger only played himself for a brief moment and portrayed one of his own characters the rest of the film.
People playing fictional versions of themselves or people actually acting as themselves in biopics were more the focus for this countdown. These are some of the most notable moments of life and art imitating each other through a person or persons who chose to portray themselves on the big screen.
What is your favorite instance of actors portraying themselves in a film? Let me know in the comments below and to see a pretty neat case of this kind of cinematic art you can check out “The 15:17 to Paris” this weekend.
10. Bruce Campbell in “My name is Bruce”
For those unfamiliar, Bruce Campbell is a legendary B-movie actor whose main claim to fame is his involvement in the celebrated “Evil Dead” franchise. In 2007 he went completely meta, taking a page from “The Last Action Hero” but flipping the script and playing himself in “My Name is Bruce” set within a real-world situation much like one of his B-movies where an ancient being is awakened in the real world and the people turn to Bruce to live up to his cinematic reputation as a warrior against the paranormal. All the while Bruce is convinced he is shooting a movie, considering the similarities to his works and the film’s real-world setting, until he learns the truth. Directed, written and produced by Campbell, this film was a hilarious send up to the actor’s reputation and played off of many of the tropes his B-movie outings made popular. Lighthearted, self-referential and purposefully ridiculous, the lines between reality and fantasy are drawn here with a real world genre legend at the center of it all paying tribute to both the good and bad of his own career.
9. Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”
If you’re unfamiliar with “Alice’s Restaurant” you need a cultural awakening. The original musical comedy track, at over 18 minutes long, was kind of like a short film unto itself and two years after its release it became a feature film in full. Now a Thanksgiving anthem, the track and the film follow Guthrie’s real life brush with the law where a case of littering led him to be ineligible for the draft, an ironic turn of events for a man who was not only anti-draft, but anti-Vietnam War at the time. The irony is truly steeped in the punch line, that the Army rejected a man for the crime of littering seeing him unfit enough to kill other men on the battlefield because of the offence. To bring his most famous project full circle Guthrie portrayed himself in the “Alice’s Restaurant” film where he reenacted the story of the song. While the movie stretches the story a bit, adding some new elements and stressing more if its anti-draft and anti-war sentiment, the film became a cult classic as we saw Arlo not only bring his own experience to life, but add a new element to his most famous comedic work.
8. Mahammad Ali in “The Greatest”
It might seem a bit over the top for an athlete to depict their own amazing career on screen, especially if they’ve earned the nickname “the greatest”. However, that’s exactly what the man himself, Mahammad Ali, did in 1977 with a film called, well, “The Greatest”. Chronicling the boxer’s career, from Olympic champion to the famed “rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, this film featured Ali playing himself in a biopic that included some pretty heavy Hollywood names in its cast including James Earl Jones and Ernest Borgnine. While there have been some claims of romanticizing the truth of Ali’s celebrated career, the fact that Ali himself took center stage to tell his own story gave the feel that we were getting a glimpse into his life first hand. Add in the actual boxing footage used for the film instead of reenactments and what we got was a picture that was more realistic than fantasy led by the man whose story made him one of the most celebrated American athletes of all time. And he’s not the only athlete to play himself on this list…in fact…
7. Jackie Robinson in “The Jackie Robinson Story”
Years before Ali another legendary African American athlete stepped up to tell HIS story, the iconic Jackie Robinson. This baseball legend broke racial barriers in America’s favorite pastime and long before his story got the Hollywood treatment in 2013 Robinson told it himself acting in his own biopic called “The Jackie Robinson Story”. The movie was filmed in the offseason of Robinson’s third year with the Brooklyn Dodgers and was praised for its authentic feel with Robinson himself being seen as a pleasant surprise given his limited acting range. It was a critical favorite and a box office success making it a rather rare case where a person appearing as himself in a dramatic biopic proved to be such a powerful draw. With a stripped down and simple story, Robinson’s willingness to portray himself provided a surprisingly humble take on his still young career at the time and the life that led to him being a legend. Robinson wanted his story to speak for itself, and thankfully refused to try too hard to drive home the sentiment as the film’s leading man.
6. Original Cast and Crew in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”
Wes Craven helped pioneer the slasher film subgenre with his “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. So when he decided to give the series a fresh coat of paint in 1994 he went meta, creating a film within a film with “New Nightmare”. The story revolves around the creation of a new “Nightmare” film but when Freddy Kruger finds his way into the real world he begins to torture the real-life actors and filmmakers behind the legendary franchise. Robert Englund , Heather Langenkamp and even Craven himself all played real life versions of themselves as they realize making a new “Nightmare” movie and reprising their roles might be the only way to stop Freddy for good. “New Nightmare” was a creative way to add a new chapter to the legacy of Freddy Krueger and pay homage to the original film and the cast and crew that played a part in creating an iconic franchise. As themselves, each actor and the director seemed to be genuinely enjoying their meta experience and it was a true joy to see a fitting homage to the original and even a new design for the famed villain that was much closer in image and character to what Craven originally envisioned Krueger to be.
5. John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich”
Probably one of the most famous modern cases of an actor playing himself, “Being John Malkovich” is a mind trip that sees the eccentric actor become the puppet of another man when a mysterious doorway gives the man access to Malkovich’s brain and thus control of his body. This leads to a wild series of events involving romance and immortality with Malkovich playing himself trying to figure out why he seems to have lost control of his own existence. It’s just the kind of strange cinematic experience this animated actor deserved that showcased his personality and personal style incredibly. Charlie Sheen also played himself in the film as a close friend to Malkovich, but it’s the titular actors performance that really stood out here as he genuinely seemed to be out of the loop and unaware that not only was he the subject of a movie, but he was also being influenced by an unseen entity within his own head. It proved to be a unique and quite popular film that was like nothing we’d ever seen before and challenged Malkovich to turn in a believable performance layered with ignorance and his own natural eccentricities.
4. Howard Stern in “Private Parts”
Howard Stern revolutionized the concept of a shock jock and his 1997 biopic, where he starred as himself, was just as no-holds-barred as his shows. This film not only featured Stern in the main role, it also included several of his radio show staff as we saw the man, myth and legend rise from his childhood to one of the most iconic names in modern radio. The interesting story behind this film was that it was conceptualized after a movie focusing on Sterns character Fartman was dropped. Stern released the autobiography “Private Parts” some time later which provided the basis for the film of the same name and Stern, being the entertainer and personality that he is, jumped at the chance to showcase his life in his own way. The film was comical and about as tasteful as you’d imagine a Stern production to be as the man himself even took a few jabs at those in his life who he felt deserved to be called out. As a result we got a modern biopic that melded sincerity with satire and, like Stern’s radio programs, managed to be oddly human and entertaining at the same time. It was all driven by its main subject and, honestly let’s face it the only way a Howard Stern biopic could have ever done justice to the man is if he himself was part of it and, thus, we get this masterpiece.
3. Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back”
You may not know Audie Murphy off hand, but this legendary and decorated World War II veteran had quite a career in acting after his service and starred in numerous war films, including “The Red Badge of Courage”. However possibly his deepest performance was as himself in “To Hell and Back”, a 1950s film based on his autobiography that showcased his experiences in the war where he earned pretty much every honor available at the time. It also included a depiction of the incident that earned Murphy the Medal of Honor. Murphy’s performance was raw and sincere thanks obviously to his understanding of the emotional impact of each moment and the role made the movie a truly captivating experience that earned critical and box office success. Today war films are a staple of cinema, but it’s rare for a soldier, especially one who experienced as much as Murphy, to get past the mental and physical scars of battle and be willing to relive their worst moments to make a story possible. Murphy’s performance and dedication to this project was commendable and today it’s still among the best self-portrayals in any film whatsoever.
2. Jean-Claude Van Damme in “JCVD”
A fabulous and thrilling drama that went under the radar in 2008, “JCVD” focused on famed action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and was a dramatization of his life with liberties taken to showcase the struggles of a down and out actor. Van Damme played himself throughout the film as he became wound up in a heist and had to use his iconic status and acting range to keep everyone safe while his financial woes tempted him to extort the criminals at the same time. It was a fantastic drama that took elements of JVCD’s own struggles and adapted them to an original story that was unapologetic and raw. Van Damme was at his best and turned in a truly mesmerizing take on himself with moments that spoke to the audience about his struggles and his regrets, including a very intimate monologue where he literally addressed the audience. It was a spotlight we rarely get to see actors embrace and critics and fans ate this film up like candy when it premiered and opened eyes to the humanity of one of the action genre’s most notable and iconic names. It might be mostly fiction story wise, but its roots are in real life and it’s possibly the best performance Van Damme ever turned in for a film where he took center stage.
1. The Entire Main Cast in “This is the End”
You might think this is a cheat for this list, but it’s not. The main cast of the 2013 apocalyptic comedy “This is the End” really did play themselves only in an alternate world where the rapture really came to fruition and the world burned. The results were hilarious in jokes that played out as actual conversations and diary entries calling back to moments in most of these actors’ careers. From their past movies to their own personality issues known to the general public this film was filled with heavy self-referential satire as the likes of Seth Rogan, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel and Jonah Hill simply acted as themselves in a situation where they were confined to a home as the world started to fall apart. At times completely out of control and at other times a strangely deep example of self-realization from its cast “This is the End” was not so much parody as it was possibility and was a rare case where actors played themselves in a scenario that, if you believe this kind of thing, could possibly happen one day and how they might react. As this list will show you there have been many times where actors chose to represent themselves on screen, but “This is the End” took that concept to a whole new level. It was creative and imaginative while still also being rooted in the real world lives of these actors and for that it tops this list.