When Actors Play Themselves (Or Not) - Raindance

We all know the feeling of being completely absorbed in a movie (hopefully). Any respectable film nerd craves that feeling when heading into the cinema. Whether you only watch romantic comedies, family dramas, or guzzle anything you can get your hands on, that feeling is what we intimately hope for. We could spend some time discussing the irony of craving a feeling you don’t realise you’ve had till it’s gone -but let’s not go there.

A movie is a curious beast, because you can’t not know you’re watching a movie, and yet the experience makes everything else disappear. Yet there are times when, however much you are drawn into the film, something reminds you that you are watching a movie. Seeing an actor playing something close to their persona is one of these.

Fifty Shades of Acting

There are as many styles of acting as there are actors, and many are famous for disappearing into their roles. Such a powerful actor as Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, is famous for diving entirely into his character: it takes him years to go into and out of a role. Seldom does he make a movie, but if you look at his IMDb credits, there are no bad movies, and all of them are carried by his incredible performances. (I can hear you, dear reader, yelling “Nine!!!” at your computer, but it has merits.) He’s so self-effacing that he even asked Steven Spielberg to call him “Mr. President” on the set of Lincoln.


On another level, take a look at Johnny Depp: he’s done a string of turkeys in recent years, yet his character constructions are every bit as thorough as they are offbeat, each in their own way.

When rehearsing Sleuth, Michael Caine saw Laurence Olivier struggle with his character on the first day. (“He stunk.”) On the second day, Olivier came back with a moustache and was his usual brillant self. “I can’t act with my own face.” Meryl Streep doesn’t know how to act badly, and creates distinct identities for everything she does.


Great actors are to be treasured and magnified by their directors.

Actors playing… themselves?

Some actors like to go as far from themselves as humanly possible because they find it distressing to reveal an intimate zone too close to themselves. However, some others don’t seem to mind it.

In recent years (sort of) Something’s Gotta Give got a lot of criticism for casting Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in roles that are so close to their public persona, that having such respected actors might have been a waste, as though they were merely playing themselves. It was also praised for the same feat, as it added an incredibly fun layer to the film. After all, they give us “some version of the truth” (see what I did there). And isn’t it fun to watch these two legendary actors play with each other and also with their image? It adds an entirely new level to the storytelling.


In not so recent years (like, really not so recent), Billy Wilder did some of the best casting of all time for Sunset Boulevard. Come to think of it, if you’re going to make a film about an ageing silent film star whose career died because of sound pictures, why not just hire an ageing silent film star whose career died because of sound pictures? Many turned Wilder down, and only Gloria Swanson was brave enough to take the role. He also cast legendary director Erich Von Stroheim as Max the Butler, and was even able to use a film in which he directed Swanson as the one Norma Desmond watches with William Holden (Queen Kelly).


So what?

So chances are that most of us indie filmmakers don’t have Jack Nicholson or Diane Keaton on speed dial. (If you do, tweet me, though.) But we do have access to very good actors who are willing to work with us (and vice-versa) and they exude something. And if you build characters who are complex enough, you can play with that yourself. We figured out Charlize Theron was not just beautiful when she played in Monster, she was also a damn good lesbian serial killer as well. So why not cast a guy who exudes charm and kindness as a psychotic serial killer? Why not jump off a cliff and give the audience something they didn’t know was there? And why not surprise yourself and have fun along the way?



Baptiste is a writer hailing from the part of France where it is always sunny. After a stint in politics and earning his Master's Degree in Management, he was a marketing intern for the 23rd Raindance Film Festival in 2015, then joined the team permanently in 2016 as the Registrar of the MA in Filmmaking. He is passionate about diversity in film, which he researches and writes about extensively. He is the producer of the hit webseries "Netflix & Kill" and the multi-award-winning short film "Alder", as well as a writer for stage and screen. His short film "U Up?" is currently in pre-production.