10 great performances by actors tackling multiple roles in the same film

We celebrate some of the finest performances by actors tackling multiple roles in the same films. But is there any room for Eddie?

This week, Edward Norton’s latest film, Leaves Of Grass arrives in American cinemas. Norton plays the two lead roles, a professor of philosophy and his drug-dealing twin brother. As excellent an actor as Norton is, it got me thinking about the ups and downs of actors taking multiple roles in one film in the past.

It’s a bold and rather theatrical device that goes back about as far as Captain Hook being played by the same actor who plays the Darling children’s father in stage productions of Peter Pan, a technique largely adopted in film adaptations of the story, too. Done well, it’s impressive. When it’s bad, it’s Meet Dave, or that bit in the third Pirates Of The Caribbean film where there are hundreds of Jack Sparrows flitting about.

But whether Leaves Of Grass proves to be excellent or just over-wrought, here are ten really great multiple performances to think about.

Alec Guinness – Kind Hearts And Coronets

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Probably the most famous early instance of an actor playing multiple parts on the big screen, Guinness played (deep breath) Duke of Chalfont, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne, Rufus D’Ascoyne, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne, Henry D’Ascoyne, and he even dragged up to play Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne. And he gets killed in every single role.

The fruits of his labours make for a terrific caper of a comedy, truly the kind they don’t make any more. Eddie Murphy, take note, because fat suits are just not enough.

Peter Sellers – Dr. Strangelove

Mike Myers was hailed as the modern Sellers for his character hopping in the Austin Powers series, but he never really trumped the marvellous work put into Captain Mandrake, President Muffley and, of course, Dr. Strangelove by Sellers. Were these roles not so acclaimed you might even be troubled to notice that they’re the same person.

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Sellers’ appearance and acting differs wildly between characters, from the exasperated Mandrake to the bat-shit insane Dr. Strangelove and his Nazi-afflicted alien hand syndrome. He’d have taken yet another role, that of Major King Kong, if he hadn’t sprained his ankle before filming.

Christopher Reeve – Superman III

What about Michael Keaton as Batman? What about Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man? Well, what about them? Not every superhero can get on here. As posited by David Carradine in Kill Bill Volume II, Clark Kent is a character created by Superman to conceal his identity, whereas those other guys were always themselves before they donned masks to fight crime. Anyway, he does literally play good Supes and evil Supes at the same time in the only good part of Superman III.

Even though Clark is Supes, the same person, Reeve puts in vastly different performances as each.

I maintain that in Superman II, you actually have to give kudos to Lois Lane, the 70-years-running winner of the annual award for Least Observant Reporter Ever, for actually twigging what’s going on. Reeve is so definitive in both roles that the next big screen Superman, Brandon Routh, was a dead ringer for him.

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Thomas F. Wilson The Back To The Future trilogy

Michael J. Fox in drag was kind of creepy in Back To The Future Part II, so I’m going to give this space on the list over to one of the seemingly unsung talents in the trilogy. Yep, Wilson gamely races from manure truck to manure truck not only as boneheaded bully Biff Tannen, but as his ancestors, descendants and parallel selves as well.

There’s certainly enough evidence since the trilogy ended to suggest that he ended up somewhat typecast, but he’s done a fair bit of stand-up comedy, poking fun at his fame from the trilogy. Now make like a tree and get outta here.

Mike Myers – So I Married An Axe Murderer

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He kind of had to make the list, but for So I Married An Axe Murderer more than Austin Powers. People tend to overlook this generally underrated gem, in which Myers gives probably the most normal performance of his career as Charlie, the paranoid spouse of a suspected serial killer.

Of course, to offset that, he also stars under prosthetics as his mad Scottish father, a drunkard who believes in a coalition between Colonel Sanders and the Rockefellers, and bullies his other son for having a big noggin.

Nicolas Cage/John Travolta – Face/Off

There hasn’t really been a good film starring John Travolta since Face/Off, and it boasts not one, but two, rather good multiple performances, as Travolta and Cage swap characters at around the half-hour mark.

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Both build on the early character beats from their co-star, and in an action film about duality, these are actually pretty good performances. Everything’s dialled up to 11. It’s a John Woo film, so that’s naturally the case, but these two still stand out amongst all the action.

Nicolas Cage – Adaptation

With his recent body of work, I firmly believe that Cage is the finest comedy actor working today, whether he means to be or not. You haven’t laughed until you’ve laughed at him dressing up as a bear and punching a woman in the face in the remake of The Wicker Man.

Happily, Charlie Kaufman’s multi-layered and demented Adaptation is a fine example of Cage’s talents being put to good use in both the comedic and dramatic stakes.

As screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, he’s neurotic and tortured, while still giving his twin Donald a naiveté and sweetness that generally marks him as a much cooler guy. At the end of the film, Charlie has Gerard Depardieu in mind to headline his self-starring screenplay, but I hardly think he would have been nearly as nuanced as Cage’s performances are. Please, Nic, give me one film like this for every two or three National Treasures, and you’ll be just fine.

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Geoffrey Rush – The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers

In this rather under-appreciated biopic, Rush plays the title role, imbuing Sellers with palpable insecurity and egotism and bringing the audience closer to the man. In doing so, he also plays most of the characters Sellers played over the course of his career.

As well as doing theatrical soliloquies to camera as Sellers’ loved ones, in the form of Sellers wearing drag or dressing like them and imitating their voice.

Still with me? Good, and if you haven’t seen this one, you really need to give it a look. Post-haste.

The Pythons – Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

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What have the Pythons ever done for us? There are few comedies more frequently quoted than The Life Of Brian, but the lines are never more funny than from the mouths of Messrs Chapman, Cleese, Palin, Idle, Jones et al.

Alright, so they do the best line delivery, but what else? Well, they all play multiple roles, filling out the background as bystanders and hangers-on as well as making up the main cast. Would it be as funny if they’d got a real woman to play Brian’s boorish mum?

And, of course, they wrote the script, and Terry Gilliam did more animation, and Terry Jones directed, and once the film was released, Eric Idle gave us an anthem for crucifixion and John Cleese and Michael Palin gave a now infamous defence of the film’s alleged heretical content on Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Besides all of that, what have the Pythons ever done for us?

Oh, The Holy Grail. Dammit.

Dick Van Dyke – Mary Poppins

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Altogether now, “Ut’s Maaaaairy Pahppins!” No, aside from jack-of-all-trades street vendor Bert, Van Dyke has another credit in the Disney classic. His crotchety old bank manager Mr. Dawes Sr. inadvertently causes a run on his own bank by having an argument about tuppence. Later in the film, we see Mr. Banks, the prototype of the Disney dad who is always working and not spending all his time at home instead (lazy sod!), dragged into work by Dawes Sr. to answer for his son’s “conduct”.

All ends well when Dawes Sr. dies laughing at a joke about a wooden leg called Smith, his son being quite marvellously pleased that his father died happy. This one makes the list not only because Van Dyke is a terrific entertainer, but also because they were such different roles.

I remember being younger and not believing my dad when he told me it was Bert. We watched the credits all the way through on the VHS for me to triumphantly shout, “See! It was Nav… Navc…” The false credit Navckid Keyd started rearranging as I struggled to spell Dick Van Dyke. And, at the time, that astounded me more than anything else in the film.

Honourable mentions…

Alright, so Eddie Murphy should probably get a shout-out for playing multiple characters in several films, a recurrent staple that he attributes to his love of Peter Sellers. Unfortunately, there are as many hits as misses whenever he dons a fat suit or whatever. For every Nutty Professor, there’s a Norbit. For every Coming To America, a Vampire In Brooklyn.

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Bill Bailey’s run at this is one of the best sight gags in Hot Fuzz, with Sergeant Turner seeming a helpful and coiffed police officer in one scene and a maddeningly oblivious desk goblin in the next, until we see both of those in the same scene later on in the film.

While I’ve avoided mentioning TV examples or parts that entailed the actors playing themselves (i.e. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero), I’m aware that I won’t have covered every single film or actor that has done this, so why not share your favourites in the comments?

PLEASE NOTE: There’s one film that we love at Den Of Geek that we’ve deliberately left off the list for fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it. Those who have seen it will know which one we mean, but please don’t talk about it in the comments – it’s a fairly major spoiler that we don’t want to give away! (Sorry to the commenters whose posts we’ve removed with this in mind!)