sat 13/07/2024

Listed: Actors playing themselves | reviews, news & interviews

Listed: Actors playing themselves

Listed: Actors playing themselves

Forget This Is The End. Here are 13 films with actors playing themselves that suck way less

Masking John Malkovich

Imagine a scenario in which Daniel Day Lewis is cast as himself. To get into character, he adopts his method technique of total immersion. For months he watches all of Daniel Day Lewis’s movies, studying his voice and physical movements to nail those telltale Daniel Day Lewis ticks. He reads all his EPK interviews and pores over his acceptance speeches.

Only when fully prepped is he ready for the cameras to roll, and on set he goes so far as to stay in character between takes, asking people to address him as “Dan”. Naturally he cleans up in awards season.

Actors have always answered the summons to play themselves. Who but an actor with the steeliest scruples could resist such a flattering opportunity to clip him or herself into a pair of ironic quotation marks? Television comedy - see Extras, The Trip and Episodes - has recently got in on the act. This week brings the release of This Is The End, in which Seth Rogen, James Franco and company are caught up in a Californian apocalypse. It is a dismal failure. To cheer ourselves up, and prove that these things don't all have to be about vanity projects, theartsdesk launches Listed, a new illustrated series. This week, we present a mini-almanack of actors and actresses who have portrayed themselves on screen. It doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, so feel free to share your own examples in the comments box.


The ur-text: Being John Malkovich (1999)

Charlie Kaufman's wonderfully playful script finds John Cusack's puppeteer locating a portal that leads into the mind of the eponymous actor. Malkovich was chosen partly for the rhythm of his name and partly because he is truly an enigma. In this clip he finds out what on earth is going on.


The resurrection: Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar (2004, 2008, 2011)

The squeaky-clean teen star of Doogie Howser MD reinvented himself by gamely revealing a potty-mouthed side in the Generation X comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Here he pops in the titular stoner’s back seat. The career reboot worked so well for him he did two more in the series.


The fantasy: Brigitte Bardot in Dear Brigitte (1965)

In a bizarre marriage of cinematic opposites, James Stewart stars as a college professor whose genius son falls for Brigitte Bardot and is summoned to meet her in France. “Delightful for to meet you,” says a game Bardot. In this clip, Billy Mumy stands in for every Bardot fan who ever lived as he gazes up at her in slack-jawed awe.

The prank: Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here (2010)

For a couple of years the star of Gladiator and scion of a modern Hollywood dynasty was thought to be going off the rails, bearding up like a hobo and hip-hopping like Oliver Reed. Turns out he was just in character for this mockumentary about the uses and abuses of celebrity. Not everyone was in on the joke. A fine, believable performance.

The saviour: Peter Falk in Wings of Desire (1987)

Falk was credited as "Der Filmstar" in Wim Wenders' fable about angels hovering over partitioned Berlin, though "Der TV star" would have been more accurate for the man who was Columbo. His subplot involves an actor, clearly Falk himself, who has renounced his angelic status so that he may experience what it is to be human. Here he addresses Bruno Ganz's wordless angel, whose presence he can feel but not see.

The surprise: Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)

Murray’s appearance was unbilled in this pleasing zomcom in which he sends himself up to the hilt. “You probably get this all the time,” says Woody Harrelson paying homage. Then adds, “Maybe not lately.” In this clip check out his reply when he’s asked if he has any regrets.


The hall of mirrors: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Not the last time these two (here joined by many others) would play versions of themselves, but put to ingenious use in Michael Winterbottom’s dramatic take on the tricky business of adapting Tristram Shandy for film.


The silence: Buster Keaton in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The parable about the great impact of the talkies on the stars of the silent age even includes footage of the younger Gloria Swanson, who plays the washed-up Norma Desmond. But there’s also a delightful card-table cameo from the great Keaton (plus silent actors Anna Q Nilsson and HB Warner). Keaton says just one word, twice, but his presence is sinuous with charisma.

The kidnap: Pamela Anderson in Borat (2006)

Was she in on the joke? Such is Sacha Baron Cohen’s commitment to staged authenticity that audiences found it genuinely hard to tell whether she knew in advance she was about to be bundled into a sack. She’s not a good enough actress to pretend.

The adolescent fulfilment: Flash Gordon in Ted (2012)

Movies featuring real actors are often riffing on juvenile fantasy, never more so than in Seth MacFarlane's bromantic comedy when Mark Wahlberg and his furry friend meet childhood hero Terrence McGoldrick, star of Flash Gordon, who in this clip reveals tastes incompatible with his status as saviour of the universe.

The horror: Errol Flynn in Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

Flynn flirt with Castro's revolution in this pitiful swansong, in which he cast his talentless underage girlfriend Beverly Aadland and played himself playing at being a journalist. The swashbuckler’s last ever words on film were “Thank you for saving every one of us.” He died within the year. No clip is available.

Buster Keaton says just one word, twice, but his presence is sinuous with charisma

Share this article


I'll tell you the worst I've seen: Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan supposedly revealing actorly insecurities in Jim Jarmusch's wildly self indulgent Coffee and Cigarettes. Only Steven Berkoff on stage in one of his actor monologues made me cringe more.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters