The job of any actor is to lead a kind of double life: their own private life as well as the life of whatever character they’re performing.
Some method actors have definitely taken this concept to the extreme, going as far as embodying their character even while they’re off screen and off stage, never slipping out of character.
But what happens when an actor isn’t playing a role? What if they were to just… show up as themselves? Or, at least, a version of themselves. Maybe one that’s downplayed, maybe one that’s exaggerated, but either way rooted in their actual celebrity persona.
Here are several great movies where famous actors made a cameo (or even starred) and played themselves instead of a character.
8. Zoolander (David Bowie)
David Bowie is technically more of a musical legend than an actor, but he has appeared in a handful of films, including 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1986’s Labyrinth, and 2006’s The Prestige.
But one of his other rare cinematic performances was as himself in the 2001 comedy film Zoolander, starring and directed by Ben Stiller. The first Zoolander had us in stitches, and at one point Bowie himself steps on-screen as “Let’s Dance” ripples through the speakers.
Not only is David Bowie remembered for his influence on the glam rock genre, he also made a huge impact on the fashion industry with his androgynous outfits. Thus, he was the perfect person to judge a fashion competition between Zoolander and Hansel on the runway!
7. Zombieland (Bill Murray)
One could argue that Bill Murray always plays a variation of himself in every movie, complete with his specific Bill Murray sense of humor. But in Ruben Fleischer’s apocalyptic comedy Zombieland, Bill Murray literally appears as himself.
When the survivors of a zombie outbreak find themselves in the Murray mansion, they believe the actor has also been victim to the plague—but it actually turns out that he just wears zombie makeup to blend in and play golf from time to time.
When Murray’s scare-prank on Colombus backfires, he’s left to bleed out and ponder his life regrets while teetering on the brink of death. (“Garfield, maybe?”) Heartbreaking as it sounds to watch the great Bill Murray die, he goes out with his iconic humor still intact.
6. Uncut Gems (Kevin Garnett)
Adam Sandler surprised viewers with his gritty performance in Uncut Gems as a jeweller and gambling addict who conducts his business like a gangster. But the high-wire, neon-lit thriller flick also stars former NBA MVP Kevin Garnett as an obsessed, hyperbolic version of himself.
Amar’e Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant, and Joel Embiid were all considered for the role during the arduously long pre-production phase, but we’re glad they settled on Garnett for his fiery portrayal of a gem fanatic.
When Garnett shows up to Howard Ratner’s (played by Adam Sandler) New York City jewellery store, he insists on getting hold of a precious opal for good luck with his game.
5. Harold & Kumar (Neil Patrick Harris)
Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t just appear in one of the Harold & Kumar movies. He appears in all three of them!
The running gag involves Harris randomly appearing at points throughout the movie franchise, and he’s painted as both a heavy drug user and complete womanizer.
Ironically, Harris didn’t come out as gay until 2006, meaning his playboy persona had to be changed in the third movie to reveal that he was only “pretending” to be straight. His real-life partner David Burtka also makes a self-referential cameo.
And even when Harris isn’t on screen, the other characters are talking about him. His extreme drug-induced personality was so loved by fans that the writers considered making a spin-off movie dedicated to him, but nothing seems to have come to fruition yet.
4. I’m Still Here (Joaquin Phoenix)
Casey Affleck’s mockumentary spoof I’m Still Here basically recorded Joaquin Phoenix’s public breakdown… or so viewers have suspected.
When director Casey Affleck was asked during press conferences and interviews if the film was real or a hoax, he skirted around the edges of a solid answer. The actor himself was reported to laugh throughout an entire screening. But is it actually funny? Or sort of tragic?
The candidly filmed movie follows Phoenix after he announces his “retirement” from acting, complete with chain-smoking and a scraggly beard as he attempts to break into the hip-hop industry.
Joaquin Phoenix had checked himself into rehab five years earlier, and has continued to build an impressive filmography since the release of I’m Still Here. Therefore, it’s hard to say how much of his hard-partying spiral was real and how much of it was fake.
3. This Is The End (The Entire Cast)
This Is The End is special because it doesn’t just feature one celebrity cameo. It doesn’t even feature a handful of them.
The entire cast of This Is The End play comedic versions of themselves as they attend a house party at James Franco’s house. You’ll spot familiar faces like Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Rihanna… the whole lot! And they’re all playing themselves.
When the apocalypse suddenly strikes, Franco and his usual co-star buddies—Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, etc.—end up stuck in his Los Angeles home, trying to survive.
The outrageous humor of This Is The End is accentuated by the fact that everyone’s playing themselves (some more exaggerated than others) and how they would supposedly act during such an event.
This Is The End was Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut, and it was a feature-length adaptation of the hilarious 2007 short film Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse. Anything with Seth Rogen is bound to make us laugh, but him playing himself is a double win.
2. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Nicolas Cage)
The most recently released movie on this list stars Nicolas Cage as the washed-up actor trying to revive his career stereotype.
Tom Gormican’s witty and action-packed comedy unfolds at a mansion in Mallorca, where Cage is the guest of honor for a billionaire playboy cinephile. Cage only takes up the offer because his work has dried up, but what he doesn’t expect is to end up being a spy for the CIA.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is the most meta and self-aware movie you’ll see this year. Cage and his host Javi Gutierrez (played by Pedro Pascal) come up with a script while on acid, and it’s the same script that ends up playing out in the film.
It’s clever, it’s funny, and it’s got lots of great Nicolas Cage. What more could you ask for?
1. Being John Malkovich (John Malkovich)
If you like anything surrealist, this movie will be right up your alley. Spike Jonze’s bizarre dark comedy Being John Malkovich is the ultimate satire movie, starring John Malkovich (obviously).
And it’s not just the American actor who plays himself in this one. John Cusack plays him, too! Let me explain:
Craig Schwartz (played by John Cusack) is an unemployed puppeteer who takes up a new job at an unusually low-ceilinged office. There, he finds a secret door that’s actually a portal into the mind and body of John Malkovich. After 15 minutes, you’re ejected onto the New Jersey Turnpike.
Weird, huh? And the craziest part is when Malkovich himself goes through the portal, only to end up in a warped dimension where everyone around him—the waiters, the diners, the women—all look like him and can only say the word “Malkovich” over and over again.