Actors may like to slip into roles and disappear, but at the end of the day, an actor looks how they look. They may try to gain or lose weight and apply makeup and prosthetics, but those can only go so far. Sometimes, they don't even make that effort. When actors are charged with playing real-life people in movies, they take a number of different approaches. Sometimes, they work as hard as they can to resemble the person they're playing. Other times, they simply let it go.
Acting isn't just looking like someone else, though. It's also getting inside that person's skin and figuring out what makes them tick. Sometimes, the people casting a movie ignore what the real-life person actually looked like, instead going with someone who can truly inhabit the person. Often, those performances work well, although that isn't always the case. Either way, though, the results are always interesting.
If casting directors were always concerned with casting actors who looked like the people they were playing, we wouldn't have performances like Leonardo DiCaprio's in Catch Me If You Can. In the film, Leo plays Frank Abignale Jr., a young con artist who manages to avoid federal authorities for years.
Leo was the perfect choice for the role, even though he looks almost nothing like the real Frank. He was the perfect choice because his charm and good looks make you want to believe him, even when he's lying through his teeth. As an actor, Leo cons you into believing he's Frank, even though they look nothing alike.
Ben Affleck is better remembered as the director of Argo, but he also starred in the Best Picture-winning film. Ben played Tony Mendez, a CIA agent charged with rescuing diplomats who were trapped in Iran. The actor/director bares no physical resemblance to Tony at all. I fact, there was a small controversy around Ben's decision to cast himself, as he is not latino.
In Argo, Ben's direction is what really shines. He performs in the lead role, but his purpose as mainly to be an avatar for the film's many plot mechanics. He performs that role well, but pretty unremarkably — so maybe a different actor was the right choice.
Apollo 13 is meant to be the perfect combination of popcorn entertainment and serious prestige. While it works well on both of those fronts, it wasn't overly concerned with sticking too closely to how its characters looked.
For Tom Hanks, who plays Jim Lovell, the captain of Apollo 13, appearances didn't matter at all. What mattered was that Tom captured the appropriate feeling of leadership and uncertainty, which he does quite well. The story of Apollo 13 is compelling on its own. There's no need for extra makeup to make it more interesting or true to life. In fact, that may have distracted from the film's thrilling space rescue tale.
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King George VI was a king, so naturally many people knew what he looked like. It was probably smart, then, that the folks in charge of casting The King's Speech weren't too concerned with finding someone who looked just like him. Instead, they focused on the actor who could give the best performance, and wound up with Colin Firth.
In the role, which focuses largely on King George's stutter, Colin plays the King with all the fragility and fear you might expect. It's a wonderful performance, in part because it doesn't rely on prosthetics or makeup. Instead, he's allowed to play the king looking like Colin Firth, and he's all the better for it.
Goodfellas is remembered as a definitive gangster movie, but you may not realize that the real Henry Hill looked almost nothing like Ray Liotta. Even so, the actor turned in an iconic performance, and managed to give audiences a new window into what it was like to be a gangster.
In movies where the character is a real person, but not someone whose face is well-known, casting someone who looks like the real person becomes even less important. What matters more is getting a sense for that character, and that's what Ray Liotta does so well in Goodfellas. His Henry Hill is charming and slimy in equal measure.
When The Social Network was released in 2010, it felt incredibly relevant. Today, it feels more true to life than it ever has, and that's in large part thanks to Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Mark Zuckerberg. Although the two look almost nothing alike, Jesse was able to get at something deeply real about the founder of Facebook.
The actor's proof is a great piece of evidence in favor of casting that doesn't emphasize physical appearance. Instead, Jesse clearly dedicated his time to trying to understand Mark better, and got a sense of what make the young billionaire who created a massive social media platform tick.
The idea behind Frost/Nixon was fairly simple. The goal was to reproduce the process that led to the famous interviews between the two men in the late 1970s. Michael Sheen played David Frost in the film, and although his performance as the cartoonish talk show host was perfect, he doesn't have much of a physical resemblance to the man he's playing.
Instead, the movie works hard to suggest that although David Frost may have seemed like a lightweight, he managed to get things out of Nixon that no one else could. The two of them had real conversations about what Nixon was thinking and feeling during Watergate, and Michael Sheen played those scenes perfectly.
These days, Lindsay Lohan isn't exactly known for her incredible performances. When she was cast as Elizabeth Taylor in Liz & Dick, a TV movie about the actress's tumultuous relationship with Richard Burton, there was some understandable caution around the project.
As it turns out, that caution was totally warranted. Not only did Lindsay look nothing like Elizabeth Taylor, she also didn't have any idea of how to realistically portray the famous actress on screen. Elizabeth Taylor was a legend in her own right. Sometimes, it's better to leave those kinds of figures alone, instead of having other actors play them on TV or in films.
Before Leonardo DiCaprio had his Oscar, he was working pretty hard to get one. In J. Edgar, Leo plays J. Edgar Hoover, the famed FBI director, over the course of more than 50 years. While the performance is occasionally compelling, Leo was a strange choice to play the man, in part because he looks nothing like him.
If that was the only reason not to play J. Edgar, it would still be a good performance. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other issues as well. In general, Leo is simply too charismatic to play someone like J. Edgar Hoover, who famously worked from the shadows. He had influence over everything, but he never put himself at the forefront.
Brad Pitt isn't the kind of actor who really transforms for roles, even when he's playing a real-life figure. In Moneyball, the actor plays Oakland A's manager Billy Beane, and it's one of his very best performances.
That's true in spite of the fact that Brad looks almost nothing like Billy. That detail doesn't matter, in part because we're so focused on all the things that make the performance work. Because he's so handsome, it can be easy to forget that Brad Pitt is also an incredibly talented actor when he wants to be. He's an effortless movie star who can play a character while still being himself.
Does Cate Blanchett bear any physical resemblance to Katharine Hepburn? No. Does that matter? Also no. Despite dawning the actress's signature accent, Cate manages to bring a ton of humanity to the character. She may not resemble Katharine physically, but when you watch her in The Aviator, you feel like you're watching the actress anyway.
Cate won an Oscar for playing Katharine, and it's one that she richly deserved. Doing an impression of one of the most famous actresses ever to live could easily become a parody of itself. Instead, Cate infuses every moment she's in with genuine wit and heart.
Today, Johnny Depp is known for totally transforming himself to play characters. He puts on tons of makeup and wild costumes whenever he gets the chance. It's strange, then, that to play John Dillinger, a notorious gangster, Johnny made almost no effort to look like the real man.
It's telling that Public Enemies is one of the actors last great performances. He didn't have anything to hide behind. Instead, he had to find another way into the character, and in doing so, he accessed his abilities as an actor in a way he hasn't very often in recent years. Sometimes, physical resemblances only hold you back.
For the most part, the people on this list were well cast, even if they didn't really have much of a physical resemblance to the characters they were playing. In this case, though, Nina, a biopic about Nina Simone, probably should have gone in another direction.
Although the movie was released, it was quickly buried after audiences realized that makeup had been used to darken Zoe Saldana's skin for the role. It was a mistake to make the movie with Zoe, and one that was rightfully forgotten by history. Sometimes, resembling the person isn't just important for the role, it's also important to keep the movie from being hugely problematic.
First Man is a movie about Neil Armstrong, but it wasn't overly concerned with the groundbreaking astronaut's looks. Although they gave Ryan Gosling Neil's crew cut, the two look almost nothing alike otherwise.
Even so, the story of the astronaut's journey to the moon is still powerfully rendered, even as Ryan gives a largely internal performance. The movie cuts against the grain of conventional biopics, and gives its actors a chance to shine without hiding them behind layers of makeup and prosthetics. Ryan Gosling may not look like Neil Armstrong, but he plays the quiet, internal man to perfection from the very first scene.
JohnLennon.com/The Weinstein Company
It's true that resembling the person your playing isn't the most important thing to nail a character. There are plenty of great performances where the actor looks nothing like the person they're supposed to be playing. In the case of Nowhere Boy, which follows a young John Lennon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson managed to give a remarkably strong performance in spite of looking nothing like the famous musician.
It may have been a little helpful if Aaron had resembled John a little more, but the movie works well anyway. The Beatle led a fascinating life, and Nowhere Boy tells his story quite well.
Liam Neeson has had a wild career, but one of his signature roles is Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved thousands of Jews from concentration camps during World War II. Although Liam looks almost nothing like the actual Oskar, he was able to bring a deep humanity to the character, in part because he wasn't an obvious hero.
Schindler's List is widely regarded as a great film, and Liam's performance is a central reason for that greatness. It's a depiction of the Holocaust that feels as horrifying as it should, and it's all grounded in the greatness of his performance.
YouTube/The Weinstein Company
Benedict Cumberbatch earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Alan Turing, the gay codebreaker who invented the first computer. That nomination came in spite of the fact that the two men look almost nothing alike.
That's because Benedict found real nuance and humanity in Turing, a figure who was largely overlooked by history. His story in The Imitation Game is both tragic and moving, and that's largely thanks to Benedict's performance. He could have worn prosthetics to better approximate the actual man, but he didn't need to. He had a firm handle of the character and how to communicate his humanity.