8 Times Actors Played Themselves, And It Was Great


If all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, what does it mean when an actor plays his or herself? Are they simply taking method acting to its extreme? Are they applying Shakespeare’s quote to the real world? Or, are they just taking an acting job because it seems fun and interesting? Whatever the motivations may be, here are eight performers who portrayed themselves in highly entertaining ways.


Neil Patrick Harris – Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle


From a well-mannered child prodigy doctor to a drug-abusing, lecherous, still-somehow-surprisingly-likeable creepo, Neil Patrick Harris’ self-parodying take on himself in the Harold And Kumar franchise is a masterclass in how to subvert audience expectations. Plus, it opened tons of career opportunities for Harris — without Harold And Kumar, there is no Gone Girl, no Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, no How I Met Your Mother. Harris proved that if you have a game sense of humor about yourself, the world will respond kindly.


Jessica Biel – Bojack Horseman


Speaking of having a game sense of humor about yourself, when Jessica Biel was cast as herself as Mr. Peanut Butter’s girlfriend in one of its several 2007-set episodes of Bojack Horseman, she actually requested that the show’s creator and writers dig deeper and get meaner with their jokes. As such, her guest starring role is staggeringly frank, vicious, and incredibly funny. Hollywood, if you’re reading this article (I can dream!), please cast Biel in any and all of your dark-and-mean comedies you have slated.


Michael Cera – This Is The End


In a movie jam-packed with actors playing themselves, what makes Michael Cera’s performance in This Is The End stand out? Unlike his co-stars, who exaggerate what we already know about their personas, Cera goes pulls a 180, leaving his meek and awkward image behind for a performance full of braggadocio, cocaine, and sexual aggression. Plus, he knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em; rather than let this joke become stale, Cera’s exit in the film comes at the perfect time and in a perfectly grotesque manner. His pure fear in this moment is priceless, a note I wish he’d play more.


Ben Affleck And Matt Damon – Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back


Kevin Smith’s as-of-now-second-to-last film in the View Askewniverse features lots of self-aware nods and winks (there’s literally a moment where a character asks who would pay to see a Jay And Silent Bob movie, before all the characters turn to camera), but the most inspired moment comes from Smith’s chums and colleagues Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. As we see them prepare to reprise their actual breakout roles in Good Will Hunting, they fearlessly play themselves as out-and-out monsters, making fun of each other for bad career choices and chewing out plebeians who dare speak to them. Then “action” is called, and we see them fearlessly skewer their own pride and joy in a Good Will Hunting sequel that devolves into horrible accents, shotgun wounds, and applesauce puns. It’s the most fun I’ve seen these two have onscreen.


Carl Weathers – Arrested Development


I’m not sure what was more difficult for the characters of Carl Weathers: navigating treacherous jungles while a Predator stalks him, or navigating the treacherous Bluth family in Arrested Development. Thankfully, the Bluths don’t seem to puncture Weathers’ relentlessly peppy and upbeat performance as himself in the critically-acclaimed FOX comedy. Weathers seems to possess no ego, and is able and willing to portray himself with a hint of frugality and cheapness. In a show chock full of memorable catchphrases, Weathers earns his place in the canon with the immortal: “Baby, you got a stew going.”


Sir Ian McKellen – Extras


If you are an aspiring actor, please watch this clip from Extras, in which Sir Ian McKellen breaks down what it means to perform in an effortlessly efficient manner. There, I just saved you tuition to Juilliard (though let’s be real: were you actually going to get into Juilliard?).


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Airplane!


Airplane! is a joke machine of the best kind. Its jokes are brilliantly stupid and surreal, often shattering the fourth wall. Case in point — at the beginning of the film, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is actually playing a pilot who is not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; in other words, he’s just a standard actor playing a standard character. Then, in the midpoint, a kid comes up to the cockpit and keeps insisting Abdul-Jabbar’s character is actually Abdul-Jabbar, the famous basketball player. Abdul-Jabbar denies this for a moment, until after a criticism of “his” basketball performance, he grabs the kid’s shirt and explodes with righteous anger, inadvertently revealing that he is, in fact, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Finally, this twisty joke heightens to Abdul-Jabbar’s character “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” literally holding a basketball. A beautiful joke rendered by a fearless performer.


John Malkovich – Being John Malkovich


The grandaddy of them all. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s complex-yet-achingly-human film begins with a bonkers question: what would it be like to climb into actor John Malkovich’s head and live as him for a few moments? To render this question onscreen, you need to get the actual Malkovich, who delivers a performance as himself full of sensitivity, fear, ego, brashness and all the wonderfully disparate things that makes us human. Plus, because Malkovich is an actor playing on expert mode, he later has to embody himself as other characters taking him over. In other words, Malkovich is an actor playing an actor who is sometimes played by other actors, and must differentiate between them all. Even if he wasn’t actually in that jewel heist movie, Malkovich is a treasure.

Which performance do you like the most? Which actor should’ve stuck to characters? Recent favorites of this trope include Anna Faris in Keanu and Ben Stiller in Don’t Think Twice; what are some others I missed? Give me a follow on Twitter, where I play “Greg Smith”, an anxiety-ridden comedy writer whose jokes attempt to hide a gnawing sense of incompletion in life. It’s, uh, quite a stretch.


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