10 funny instances of actors playing themselves in movies

Feature Mark Harrison 5 Jul 2013 - 06:31

This Is The End doesn't have the monopoly on actors playing themselves in movies. Just check this lot out...

Last week saw the UK release of This Is The End, in which members of Judd Apatow's comedy troupe wind up trapped in James Franco's house, post-Rapture. Most of the world's population has been Raptured into the next life, or otherwise fallen into a great big hole in Franco's lawn.

The film is adapted from a 2007 sketch called Jay & Seth Vs The Apocalypse, which featured Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen squabbling with each other in a living room. Both reprise their roles here, as exaggerated versions of themselves. You know how Rogen is often criticised for playing himself in movies? Well, he literally plays himself in this one, to a certain degree. Elsewhere, Michael Cera plays a drug-addled dickhole, Emma Watson is a stir-crazy tough girl and Jonah Hill is a holier-than-thou nice dude.

Although the idea of basing a whole movie around fictionalised versions of famous faces in a sci-fi scenario is surprisingly original, there are many precedents for actors playing themselves in films. Mostly, they're happy to take the piss out of themselves, and we'd even say that most are quite well-judged.

As far as the bad ones go, some of them are just utterly forgettable. Edward Norton in The Dictator and Ryan Reynolds in Ted are two examples from last summer alone, and we bet you didn't remember either of them. Other bad ones are unforgettably naff, and the less said about the whole “Tess looks like Julia Roberts” sequence in Ocean's Twelve, the better.

But never mind those, let's look back at some of the funnier 'selfie' performances by actors in movies.

John Malkovich: Being John Malkovich

Still one of the straight-up best instances of anyone playing themselves, ever, here's a film that would have fallen apart without its eponymous star. The idea of finding a portal inside a famous actor's head requires the right actor. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman insists that there was never a second choice for the title role, as Malkovich has "an enigmatic quality about him that works."

Even if we'd like to see Being Nicolas Cage, it wouldn't have had the deadpan quality that Malkovich brings to this deeply surreal idea. We've written about this movie a lot over the years, and the scene in which Malkovich enters his own head remains one of the funniest and yet most disturbing movie scenes of the last 20 years.

If it had been someone like Cage, (who went on to play Kaufman in his next film, Adaptation) the film might have disintegrated from the sheer force of his eccentricity. The script is eccentric enough on its own, and perfectly matched by Malkovich's bewilderment. Altogether now: Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich...

Neil Patrick Harris: the Harold and Kumar movies

In a similar vein to This Is The End, Neil Patrick Harris appeared as a caricature of himself: a drug-addicted, womanising former child star in Harold & Kumar Get The Munchies. He was popular enough that he came back in the sequels, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, while also reviving his career as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother.

There are a number of highlights in Harris' jaw-dropping performances throughout the three films, but he's the notable stand-out in the mediocre second instalment. There's a hilarious scene as he tries to smuggle our heroes past a police roadblock while high on drugs and hallucinating a vision of himself atop a unicorn. “If you want to know the secret of being, you'll come with us”, he tells himself, before galloping away on a rainbow.

By the time of the third film, there's also an inventive attempt to retcon Harris' upswing in popularity, after his apparent death in part two. In real life, Harris is a celebrated Broadway star, on top of his How I Met Your Mother street-cred, and he's also openly gay. In the Harold & Kumar-verse, he was kicked out of Heaven, and his new public persona is an elaborate front for the out-of-control personality we encountered in the first two films. God bless you, Mr Patrick Harris.

Lou Ferrigno: I Love You, Man

In the background of I Love You, Man's central bromance, estate agent Peter is trying to sell Lou Ferrigno's Hollywood mansion. He has the exclusive sale rights, but he's finding it difficult to sell the place. On top of that, Lou Ferrigno doesn't seem to be a very reasonable bloke.

Things come to a head when Peter is out for a walk with his new best mate, Sydney, and sees Ferrigno sitting at a café with a rival estate agent. Sydney, played by Jason Segel, wades in and escalates matters, and with the immortal line “Fuck you, Hulk!”, he tries to throw a punch at Ferrigno.

If you haven't seen the film, you can probably imagine that this doesn't end well for Jason Segel's character, but Ferrigno's appearances throughout are fun, and don't distract from the main plot, counter to the usual tendency of celeb cameos in Judd Apatow movies.

Joaquin Phoenix: I'm Still Here

To be honest, this one only just scraped onto the list, because the finished film is both funnier than it was probably intended to be, and yet not as funny as many of the others on this list. The thing that lifts this into the realms of hilarity is that Phoenix actually method-acted as this version of himself for a year.

Starting with a bizarre appearance on David Letterman's chat show, Phoenix began a year or so of what looked like utter craziness. He grew a beard, wore sunglasses and insisted that he was starting a rap career. Casey Affleck's mockumentary on the process, I'm Still Here, appears to have the more lofty ambition of exploring how the public and other celebrities react to a public meltdown.

It doesn't help that Ben Stiller crapped all over it by being in on the joke and appearing in the film to offer Phoenix a role in the dreadful Greenberg, and also lampooning him during a presentation slot at the 2010 Oscars ceremony. In the end, the David Letterman sequence is still the funniest thing in the film. “We're sorry you couldn't be here tonight, Joaquin.”

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon: Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back

“What do I keep telling you? You gotta do the safe picture, then you do the art picture...” Ben Affleck tells Matt Damon as they shoot the fictional sequel, Good Will Hunting II: Hunting Season. “And sometimes you gotta do the payback picture because your friend says you owe him.” Cue both Affleck and Damon looking straight at the camera.

Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back is Kevin Smith's caper film, enlisting cameos from the likes of Mark Hamill, James van der Beek and Jason Biggs, all playing themselves, in its broad satire of Hollywood. As the View Askewniverse's answer to Rosencratz and Guildenstern stumble around the Miramax lot in an effort to shut down the mooted Jay & Silent Bob movie, they wind up on the set of this most egregious of sequels and hilarity ensues.

In a near replay of the bar scene from Good Will Hunting, Scott William Winters reprises his role as Clark, the blowhard who tries to embarrass Affleck's Chuckie in a bar. Once again, Damon slaps him down, but seeing as how things are adjusted for Sequel Escalation, Clark has gotten smarter. With no academic zingers in place, Damon whips out a shotgun and blows him away. "Apple sauce, bitch."

Bruce Campbell: My Name Is Bruce

The mightiest chin in Hollywood pokes fun at himself in this unabashed B-movie. At the beginning of the film, we see him filming the schlocky Cave Alien II and then interacting with his adoring fans; at one point, he kicks a wheelchair-bound man away from his car, like the charmer he is.

He's kidnapped from his trailer by one of his biggest fans, who has inadvertently awakened a demon called Guan-di in the small town of Goldlick. In a Three Amigos-style case of mistaken identity, the townspeople believe that Bruce will banish the demon and restore order, while Bruce obliviously thinks it's all a birthday surprise from his agent.

My Name Is Bruce is a terrific piss-take of Bruce Campbell's on-screen persona, with many nods back to his extensive B-movie filmography and a typically charismatic performance from the leading man. Better yet, it remembers to end with Bruce facing some shock last minute peril, because it really wouldn't be the same without it.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon: A Cock And Bull Story/The Trip

Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy has long been thought to be unadaptable for a live-action narrative, and Michael Winterbottom's 2006 film A Cock And Bull Story didn't exactly dispel that notion - it's a film about trying to make a film of Tristram Shandy, with the actors who play the characters also playing exaggerated versions of themselves.

This was the first time we got to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon sparring with each other as characters, and their bickering led to Winterbottom casting them opposite one another again in The Trip, as they travel through the UK reviewing restaurants. Though it was technically a TV series, it was also re-edited for a cinema release, and it's worth mentioning on the list.

The two intensely competitive actors end up exchanging impressions with one another at various points, with their Michael Caine-off being one of the more famous excerpts from the show. After the success of the first run, it's been announced that they'll be doing a sequel, The Trip To Italy, which is filming this summer.

Bill Murray: Zombieland

Arguably one of the best movie cameos ever, Bill Murray's arrival brings the otherwise energetic Zombieland out of a slight lull in its second act. Four mismatched survivors of the zombie apocalypse arrive in Hollywood and pick up a map to the stars' homes, with the intention of finding a deserted mansion and live it up a little.

They're all big Bill Murray fans, so they settle on his place, only to find that he's still alive and uninfected. Better yet, he wears zombie make-up so that he can still go out and socialise without being attacked by zombies. It's how you'd like to think things would really go down if Bill Murray were caught up in the zombie apocalypse.

The punchline comes when he plays a practical joke on Jesse Eisenberg's Columbus, while still in zombie garb, and winds up getting shot dead. Murray, who is famously difficult to reach for casting these days, is perfect in this role, and it's almost tough to enjoy the rest of the film as much after he's gone. Ladies and gentlemen, Bill Fucking* Murray.

* Not actually his middle name.

Have we missed out a particularly funny actor selfie that you love? Let's get some discussion going in the comments.

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The best 'Actor playing themselves' or close is Richard Todd in The Longest Day. In it he plays Major John Howard, the Paratrooper sent to hold Pegasus bridge, where he's eventually relieved by Capt. Todd of the 7th Parachute Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade, British 6th Airborne Division.So essentially, he's acting with himself.

A few additions -

The Hoff in Spongebob The Movie
Roger Moore in Cannonball Run
Martin Sheen in Hot Shots Part Deux
That Cylon in the opening credits to the A-Team series (okay, not a movie, but still good)

I second the Martin Sheen cameo


Alice Cooper in Wayne's World, Chuck Norris in Dodgeball and Smith & Mewes in Scream 3 but I think my favourite not already on the list is Billy Idol in The Wedding Singer.

Technically, Roger Moore didn't play himself in The Cannonball Run - he played Seymour Goldfarb Jr, who spent his time pretending to be Roger Moore. Meta, I suppose.

The mighty Sam Jones in Ted, surely!!!!!!! Much better than Reynolds.

Any idea why Zanuck didn't just hire him to play himself?

As I recall from an interview he did once, he was offered the roll of himself, but decided he wanted to be Major John Howard for whatever reason.

From what I've read, it seems mostly modesty that stopped him - he didn't want to be seen playing himself as some kind of hero, much easier to play the man next to him and big him up instead.

Thank you gentlemen. Very informative. Actor's choice is one thing. The decision forced on him during the casting process, would have been a different story.

"Sorry Captain Todd, we just don't think you're quite right for the role of Captain Todd..."

Topher Grace in Ocean's 11 & 12.

Bill Murray will continue to be a complete mystery to me.

what about Jean Claude Van Damme in JCVD!?

Affleck and Damon playing themselves is JASBSB's only saving grace. Watch the outtakes for that film to see them consistently crack up during that scene. Funnier than the entire movie.

I'm so glad that you mentioned in passing the whole "Tess looks like Julia Roberts" thing from Ocean's Twelve. That entire scene, concept, etc. is so ridiculous and bizarre that it amazes me every time I think about it. I couldn't believe what I was seeing the first time I watched the film.

The Cylon! Haha great shout!

I've heard of producers and executives saying dumber things.

Vanilla Ice. THAT'S MY BOY. Yes, mistifying.

In fact, most Adam Sandler movies have cameos like that. I'm surprised HAPPY GILMORE hasn't been mentioned yet (maybe because Bob Barker isn't technically an actor?).

And Joshua Jackson, alongside that other bunch of actors learning to play cards who I don't remember very well.

Also, we may not be able to speak about Julia Roberts in 012, but how about Bruce Willis?

Or Arnold in LAST ACTION HERO for that matter.

I second Alice cooper and third Martin sheen "I loved you in Wall Street!". I now bring to your attention Tom Jones in Mars Attacks. Now from Pick of Destiny, I pick Kyle Gass. Jack Black was funny with him; he is now not funny, and I wonder why.

And Bruce Willis & Julia Roberts did a very funny cameo in _The Player_, way back in '92!

Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters -- he plays the blue collar, wisecracking, gets-away-with-anything underdog we all wish we could strive for -- the heart and soul of a American I wish to be.

There's a great skit in one of Lewis Black's sets (The White Album, I think) where he talks about having to audition to play himself in a sitcom pilot...

#1 Bill Murray.

I was scrolling down...ready to point out that you'd missed the greatest cameo/self-playing performance of all...

And then you put it at number 1.

How am I supposed to troll now?

(I would mention though, that the Bill Murray one should be treated as a spoiler as it was an awesome surprise when we see those initials on his gate)

Oh, and 2 is bang on the money too. Although, yes, the TV-based The Trip bests it.

IGN had the same article last week...

Cheers, but it's not a top 10- the only order is alphabetical by film title. Mostly because it builds up to Zombieland at the end. :)

Good choices but I think you'll find it's technically Jay and Silent Bob that appear in Scream 3, as they're not playing themselves.

Speaking of Sandler: Eminem and Ray Romano in Funny People. Great scene.

That Cylon moment gets me every time - genius

Being Jon Malcovitch is a wonderfully obscure movie.

I am not sure if this is a massive coincidence, plagerism or that the author writes for both, but Empire did the top 50 actors playing themselves article earlier this week. it obviously included all the ones mentioned above and also many of those in the comments

William Shatner played himself in Fanboys and Showtime.

Or a major film came out starring actors playing 'themselves'...

You should really put a spoiler warning in this article. I know Zombieland has been out a while, but it really is a film where you should avoid spoiling the cameo, because it makes it all the more fun.

Julia Roberts plays a woman who "looks just like Julia Roberts" in Ocean's Twelve

While I like Murray, I don't really think the Zombieland cameo is THAT funny.

"Any regrets?"
"Garfield, I guess"


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