Actors Playing Themselves

What does it mean when stars portray themselves? Are we getting a glimpse of  “the real person”? Far from it! We learn instead that the actor and the image are not the same person. Few performances are as artificial as those in which actors play themselves.

In an interview with the acclaimed actor Michael Cain, Michael Parkinson said, “Yours is the most impersonated voice in the business.” Cain responds, “Oh yeah, everyone– I– I can do it.”

“Can you do it?”

“Yeah, yeah . . . ‘Ello, My name is Michael Cain.” (When he says his name, it sounds like “my cocaine.”) The interviewer and the studio audience laugh. Michael Cain does not. He says, rather seriously, “I sound like a bloody moron.” What does it mean when an actor criticizes his own image?

Doesn’t it drive a wedge between the man and the star? If he can step outside of his own persona in order to criticize that persona, then he is not that person. As audience members, we often forget that distinction. We forget because we want to believe in stardom and we want to believe in stardom, so that we put ourselves in that star’s head for a while and imagine what it would be like to be famous.

In a comment on the interview on YouTube, Kev95682 wrote, “Michael Cain does the worst Michael Cain I’ve ever heard.” 36 people liked the comment, so they must agree. If Michael Cain, a great actor, cannot adequately portray himself, how can you and I?

Sometimes directors tell actors, “Stop acting! Be yourself!” If it is difficult to be yourself on any given day, imagine doing it in makeup and costume, under lights and camera, at the command of director and producer! To  give a realistic portrayal of yourself, would you slouch or pick a scab, as you might at home?

Actually, the director doesn’t want you to be yourself, no matter what she says. She wants you to play an idealized version of yourself, but she wants you to do it naturally. There is nothing more difficult than “acting natural.” It takes a great deal of craft.

Stars have been playing themselves since stardom began. Before film, certain actors were famous, but they were not stars. Sarah Bernhardt was well-known, but when she left the limelight, she could be herself (whatever that means). She didn’t have to pretend to be Sarah Bernhardt, the famous actress, all the time. That changed when the motion picture industry became a star factory.

Arguably the first star, Charlie Chaplin had an unusual amount of control over his image because of the early success of his films. He carefully molded his star image through continuities in the character of the tramp, press releases and public appearance. Chaplin did not play the tramp wherever he went, but he began to play Chaplin. Everywhere he went, he was the star. The performance of Charlie Chaplin replaced the actor.

When Norma Jean changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, she took upon herself a role that must have been difficult to maintain: the sex goddess. Everyone expected her to be Marilyn; they invited Marilyn to parties, not Norma Jean. Once she picked up the act, they wouldn’t let her put it down. But who can be sexy all the time? A bottle of barbiturates seemed to be the only out.

“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” Cary Grant once said. “Even I want to be Cary Grant.” Well, who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to be the witty, romantic, debonair gentleman of indeterminate origin? Even the actor that played Cary Grant on and off screen wanted to be him. So temper your star worship with the acknowledgement that a star is not a person, a star is a role.

Many actors have acted as themselves in movies. Steve Coogan gave a unflattering portrayal of himself as the egotistical, temperamental star in the metafilm Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006) (based on Laurence Sterne’s early metafictional classic of the same name), but we can recognize that Coogan was mocking himself and the image of the spoiled actor, rather than giving a realistic portrayal of himself. (See the trailer.)

When actors play themselves in movies, they often give tongue-in-cheek parodies of their star image, rather than portray themselves as their own private selves. Bruce Willis gave such an unflattering self-portrait in What Just Happened (2008), obstinately refusing to shave his substantial beard for a role and frustrating the director and producer of the film.

In Ocean’s Eleven (2004), the character Tess Ocean, played by Julia Roberts, takes advantage of her physical similarity to the actress Julia Roberts in order to get past the security of a museum. She plays the pregnant Julia Roberts and the act is successful for a time, until she runs into Bruce Willis (once again playing himself–he seems to be making quite a career of it). Willis is fooled by her appearance, but almost trips her up in small talk. Then he asks about Robert’s husband, and, before she can adequately answer, Willis calls him on his phone. She grabs the phone from Willis and moves away to the window. Rather than her supposed husband answering, however, Julia Roberts herself picks up the phone, so Tess Ocean, who is pretending to be Julia Roberts and is played by Julia Roberts, has a conversation with Julia Roberts. The complications mount. (Watch the hysterical scene on YouTube.) This scene passes through so many levels of reality and representation that the viewer is left as dizzy and confused as Tess Ocean herself.

John Malkovich played himself in Being John Malkovich (1999), a wonderful metafilm, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. In the movie, characters discover a small doorway that leads into Malkovich’s brain. When characters go through the door, they get to be John Malkovich for a while; they get to see what he sees and feel what he feels. The premise hits on the very reason we go to the movies: we want to put aside our own imperfect personalities for a while and be somebody else.

Eventually, Malkovich learns about the doorway and insists on going through it himself. What does Malkovich find in his own head? In the Malkovich inside of Malkovich, everyone is Malkovich and all they can say is, “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich?” “Malkovich Malkovich.” (Watch the clip.)

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t completely satisfied with this solution to the paradox. I think Malkovich would have entered his head at the moment that he was sliding down into his head at the moment that he was sliding into his head, forever and ever, caught up in an endless, hellish loop.

This endless loop, which all of us go through, even famous actors, is the attempt to be yourself. People are always telling us, “Be yourself!” But that is not easy. In order to be yourself, you have to know who you are, and, if you have enough meta-awareness to understand the roles that you are playing (such as man, American, white guy, radical, teacher, writer, Taurus, whatever), then you have separated yourself from those roles. You have become an actor: the actor playing himself.

But playing ourselves gets tiring. We long to be somebody else. We long to have other lives, other roles, and so we dream, we listen to music, we read, and we watch movies. If we can pretend to be someone else for a while, then we can set aside the burden of playing ourselves. We do not need pretension when we imagine ourselves in someone else’s head. When we take up the fantasy that we are a star, we can, ironically, be ourselves.

(Followed by an interview with Spanish film and TV actor Alejo Sauras on the burdens and blessings of stardom: Alejo Sauras On Being Famous in Spain and Alejo Sauras on Being Himself.)

1 thought on “Actors Playing Themselves”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *