Sure, it’s cool if an actor transcends their own identity and become someone else. It’s amazing to witness. But sometimes, you just want Bill Murray to show up and be Bill Murray. He doesn’t need to sleep inside a bear and keep himself up for days to please an audience, because he’s one of those actors who are the same as their characters, or at least pretty darn close.
Some actors disappear into a role. Actors who are a lot like their characters prefer to lay a foundation from a familiar place. Larry David usually performs a slightly demented spin on his real life self. Robert Downey Jr. could probably morph into a whole other guy (Tropic Thunder, anyone?), but who doesn’t like RDJ just as he is?
No one is saying these actors don’t have chops. It’s just that audiences want to see Morgan Freeman doing Morgan Freeman. Let Walken be Walken. Jared Leto may have the time to live as his character for months on end, but Bruce Willis has sh*t to do. He ain’t got no time for that. Or for memorizing lines, apparently.
In film and TV roles: Walken is the king of kooky, playing offbeat characters that fill audiences (and other characters) with dread and wonder (usually at the same time). And they’re always drenched in Walkenness. He’s…you know, just…kind of…wee-erd.
Notable quote: “You know, there’s nothing you can do about your public image. It is what it is. I just try to do things honestly. I guess honesty is what you would call subjective: if you feel good about what you’re doing, yourself, if you figure you’re doing the right thing.”
In film and TV roles: Bill Murray always seems to be playing slightly altered versions of himself. Lost in Translation (an aging movie star) and Zombieland (himself as a zombie) are obvious examples, but there’s always some Bill poking out in any role he’s playing. Even if he’s morphed into the skin of a former president and is getting a handy from his cousin, he’s still Bill Murray. He’s especially Bill Murray.
Notable quote: “There aren’t many downsides to being rich, other than paying taxes and having relatives asking for money. But being famous, that’s a 24-hour job right there.”
In film and TV roles: Same. Like, more or less exactly the same, whether the movie is a cynical, grotesque treatise against humanity (Se7en), a superhero blockbuster (The Dark Knight), or a goofball comedy (RED).
Notable quote: “People need to start to think about the messages that they send in the movies.”
In film and TV roles: Same. Downey is known for bringing himself to the role, with some minor tweaks. Although Downey is capable of disappearing into his part (see Chaplin), he’s mostly asked to play roles that mirror his snarky charm. Tony Stark is Downey is Tony Stark.
Notable quote: “I think I’ve been lucky, being my frequent appearances on Court TV have brought to me another level than just the actor guy.”
In film and TV roles: Uncomplicated and not impressed with the trappings of fame, Sandler is just fine making one silly film after the other. Audiences love them. The box office proves it at a collective revenue of $2 billion and counting. He’s had his moments of playing opposite of his usual lovable schlubs in Reign Over Me and Punch Drunk Love, but it seems as though he’s still just playing a more existentially fraught version of himself. Exhibit A: Funny People.
Notable quote: “My name is Adam Sandler. I’m not particularly talented. I’m not particularly good-looking. And yet I’m a multi-millionaire.”
In film and TV roles: Jackson seems exactly like he is on screen, sans the violence. He’s the reason audiences buy the ticket. No need to hide that.
Notable quote: “I’m a good son, a good father, a good husband – I’ve been married to the same woman for 30 years. I’m a good friend. I finished college, I have my education, I donate money anonymously. So when people criticize the kind of characters that I play on screen, I go, ‘You know, that’s part of history.’”
In film and TV roles: No matter the role, Jack is still Jack. Whether he’s busting out of an asylum or hacking down a door with an axe, Nicholson can be counted on for that oh- so-Nicholson essence. He has skittered off the path with some surprising performances, such as About Schmidt, but the Jackness is strong with this one.
Notable quote: “When I come up against a director who has a concept that I don’t agree with, or maybe I just haven’t thought of it or whatever, I’d be more prone to go with them than my own because I want to be out of control as an actor, I want them to have the control, otherwise it’s going to become predictably my work, and that’s not fun.”
In film and TV roles: There hasn’t been a role yet that can make Matthew McConaughey disappear completely. He may lose tons of weight or slip on a bald cap, but he can’t mask who he is. All right all right all right.
Notable quote: “There aren’t many things that are universally cool, and it’s cool not to litter. I’d never do it.”
In film and TV roles: Willis seems to be completely okay with playing various versions of himself. That doesn’t mean he has no range. He’s been brilliant across several roles, including Pulp fiction, Die Hard, The Fifth Element, and The Sixth Sense.
What Just Happened is a prime example of the thin line between Bruce IRL and Bruce in movies. Willis plays a depressed and angry version of himself. You can’t help but believe this is what it’s like to hang out with him.
Notable quote: “I wake up laughing. Yes, I wake up in the morning and there I am just laughing my head off.”
In film and TV roles: Malkovich is so Malkovich it’s difficult for him not to be Malkovich. Case in point, Being John Malkovich, an entire movie based on the premise that Malkovich basically is in real life who he is in movies. As much as he delves into a character, there’s no getting away from his Malkovichness.
Notable quote: “Some directors expect you to do everything; write, be producer, psychiatrist. Some just want you to die in a tragic accident during the shooting so they can get the insurance.”
In film and TV roles: One imagines Rogen walks from his real life right onto the screen, sans make up or costume changes. His persona has resonated with audiences since his debut in Freaks and Geeks. The average guy with hilarious and real world reactions to myriad situations.
Notable quote: “I don’t make the best movies in the world, but at times, I do feel like I’m adding something to the cinematic community.”
In film and TV: In movies like Independence Day and Men in Black, Smith comes across as slightly more arrogant than he is in real life, but his charisma and kindness translate more or less directly from real life to the silver screen. As for his television roles, well, to quote the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song: “In west Philadelphia born and raised…” You know the rest.
Notable quote: “In my mind, I’ve always been an A-list Hollywood superstar. Y’all just didn’t know yet.”
In film and TV roles: Cera may have a Keyser Söze moment in store for us, but so far we’ve mostly seen hin play characters who seem very close to his real personality, in Arrested Development, Super Bad, and Scott Pilgrim.
Yet Cera is obviously aware of his image, and lampoons it as a narcissistic troll in A Very Murray Christmas and a coke-snorting, sexually-out-of-control version of himself in This Is the End.
Notable quote: “Since I was 15 I’ve felt kinda like…an old man.”
In film and TV roles: If you wanted to know what Gervais thought of show business before the Golden Globes, look no further than his series Extras, in which he takes the piss out of everyone and everything, including himself. Gervais’s bread and butter is taking down the very industry he works in.
Notable quote: “People confuse the subject of the joke with the target of the joke, and they’re very rarely the same.”
In film and TV roles: At his most serious and at his most goofy, the characters he’s played seem like Clooney at different times of the day or night, with different levels of intoxication.
Notable quote: “I can’t give you 150 takes. I can’t even give you 30 different ways of doing it! I don’t have the talent or the range for it.”
In film and TV roles: He is Baskets the Clown (Baskets). And it can be impossible to tell how Zach Galifianakis the actor and Zach Galifianakis the awkward, moronic host of Between Two Ferns differ from one another.
Notable quote: “Inappropriateness is funny to me. Rudeness is hilarious.”
In film and TV roles: On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is Larry David, playing out exaggerated versions of things that happened to him in real life. For Seinfeld, David and Jerry Seinfeld based the titular character on David’s life, and the duo’s way of seeing the world. David is known for dry musings about the small things that snowball into big things. He will probably morph into Bernie Sanders in a few years.
Notable quote: “Well, I always think the worst things are going to happen here, because I’m – basically inside, I’m a bad person, and so the bad kind of takes over.”
In film and TV roles: Rourke trained as a boxer before he began acting. In the early ‘90s, he took a break from the business and boxed professionally. He retired a few years later, in 1994, and returned to acting with Sin City. His major comeback, 2008’s The Wrestler, revealed Rourke’s talent to a new generation. And also he was basically playing himself. The film captures the rise and fall of a once-great wrestler battling for a shot at redemption.
Notable quote: “Where I come from, being a hard man is being able to take a good beating and then get back up again and carry on fighting.”
In film and TV roles: Same. Does Seagal ever break the fourth wall with himself at home when he’s all alone in what we imagine to be a dojo-style master bathroom?
Notable quote: “You can say that I lived in Asia for a long time, and in Japan I became close to several CIA agents. And you could say that I became an adviser to several CIA agents in the field and, through my friends in the CIA, met many powerful people and did special works and special favors.”