25 great movie performances by actors in multiple roles

From Thomas F Wilson in Back To The Future to Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off - when actors play multiple roles...

The dramatic use of actors playing multiple characters is a bold and rather theatrical device that has its ups and downs. It goes at least as far back 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 (hello to Jason Isaacs).

It’s used a lot in cinema too. Done well, it’s impressive, but when it’s bad, it’s Jack & Jill. Whether used in comedy or drama or outright horror, there are countless examples of actors delivering terrific performances in more than one role at once, and that’s before we even get past Cloud Atlas

For the purposes of this list, we’re omitting actors playing characters and themselves (e.g. Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero, or The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse) characters with multiple personality disorder (Andy Serkis as Gollum, any iteration of Jekyll and Hyde) and Ernest Goes To Jail (because reasons.) These are 25 great performances by actors who took on more than one character, and though practically outnumbered, bossed it.

25. Bill Bailey, Hot Fuzz

In a film that has no shortage of visual gags and running jokes, one of our favourites is the curious case of Bill Bailey’s Sergeant Turner, who mans the front desk at Sandford’s police station. From one scene to the next, he’ll be either an affable and well-coiffed receptionist or a maddeningly unhelpful desk goblin.

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The punchline to Bailey’s Jekyll and Hyde act comes when we find out that they’re actually twins and the two Turners share a couple of scenes together on either side of the film’s action-packed finale. “Nobody tells me nothin’!”

24. Warwick Davis, Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series had the cream of British acting talent on retainer over the course of a decade, with a magic school faculty peopled by the likes of Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Robbie Coltrane. Next to Alan Rickman, Warwick Davis is the only one of them to appear in all eight films, playing a number of different characters. He’s most prominent as Professor Flitwick, the Charms teacher who drastically changes his appearance between the first two Chris Columbus directed films and Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner Of Azkaban.

He also earned a credit which eluded many of his co-stars in the Hogwarts-free Deathly Hallows Part 1 under prosthetics as Griphook, a goblin who Harry and his friends rescue from the clutches of Voldemort. The character is more prominent and far more sinister in the final instalment as he helps the trio to rob the wizarding bank, Gringotts, but he also re-appears as Flitwick during the final battle.

23. Jet Li, The One

The One has an almost unimprovable action premise, updating Highlander by having a multi-versal serial killer who travels between worlds, becoming steadily more powerful as he assassinates his alternate selves until he arrives at his last target, who seemingly lives in ‘our’ timeline. None of this is to say that The One is an unimprovable movie, with its dodgy CGI and dreadful soundtrack, but they probably made a good choice by casting Jet Li as the unstoppable killing machine.

And so, Gabriel Yulaw faces off with sheriff’s deputy Gabe Law and the film wisely showcases Li’s fighting skills rather than his acting for the most part. The reason this makes the list is that Li employed distinct kung-fu styles for each character (Xingji Quan for Yulaw and Bagua Zhang for Law) to differentiate the two characters. It’s a touch that may well be lost on those who aren’t experts, but it does show dedication to the performance, even if the film doesn’t necessarily measure up.

22. John Lithgow, Raising Cain

Without that multiple personality exemption, you could say that John Lithgow plays a whopping five different characters in Brian De Palma’s preposterous psychodrama Raising Cain. Principally, he’s a child psychologist called Dr. Carter Nix, whose own fractured psyche and personal history comes to bear on his own wife and daughter.

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This film is all over the shop and the psychological shenanigans require Lithgow to bounce between wholesome family man, nefarious brother, abusive father, middle-aged nanny and 10-year-old boy. Raising Cain isn’t recognised as one of De Palma’s best, but it’s a twisty and melodramatic examination of identity with a cracking lead.

21. Tom Hardy, Legend

Brian Helgeland’s Legend moons over ‘gangster princes’ Reginald and Ronald Kray in a weirdly nostalgic fashion, to the tune of £18 million at the UK box office to date. Love or hate its portrayal of crime in 1960s London, there’s no denying that Tom Hardy goes absolutely Kray Kray in creating the central double act, mustering twice the physicality that’s usually so celebrated in his performances.

The comparison of Hardy’s Ronnie to a Little Britain character is unkind, but there’s something in that – he’s certainly intended to be something of a grotesque in his psychosis. As lenient as the rest of it is, the contrast that Hardy brings to the twins – romantic lead and unpredictable maniac – is never less than fascinating to watch.

20. Dick Van Dyke, Mary Poppins

All together now – “Ut’s Maaaaairy Pahppins!” Sticking with Cockerneys, Dick Van Dyke has two credits in the Disney classic. His crotchety old bank manager Mr. Dawes Sr is absolutely unrecognisable next to cheery chimney sweep Bert. At a darker point in the film, Mr. Banks, the prototype of the Disney dad who is always working and not spending all his time at home instead (lazy sod!), gets dragged into work by Dawes Sr. to answer for his son’s “conduct” after an argument about tuppence causes a run on the bank.

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. If you first watched it when you were very young, it’s definitely possible to overstate the awe that comes with watching Dawes’ credit rearrange from the unknown actor/not-very-good anagram “Navckid Keyd” at the end.

19. Eddie Murphy, Bowfinger

Through parodies in 30 Rock and Tropic Thunder, Eddie Murphy’s tenacity for using fat-suits and make-up to play numerous characters in super-broad comedies has become a better punchline than you’ll find in most of Murphy’s actual films. There’s The Nutty Professor and then there’s Norbit. But our favourite example comes the under-appreciated gem Bowfinger, in which Steve Martin’s Z-list producer Bobby Bowfinger chances upon Jiff, (Murphy) a man who is the exact double of A-lister Kit Ramsey and casts him in his passion project Chubby Rain.

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Bowfinger is able to get his sci-fi opus made under the pretense that they’ve bagged Ramsey to star and hilarity ensues, especially due to the action star’s precarious mental state. As a member of the movie’s Schmientology analogue, MindHead, the production’s intrusions into his life convince him that he’s actually being stalked by aliens. Murphy is hilarious as both the superstar and his nebbish double and this Hollywood farce is well worth a look.

18. Geoffrey Rush, The Life & Death Of Peter Sellers

While we’ve ruled out actors playing themselves as well as a fictional character, we didn’t say anything about playing other actors and their fictional characters. In keeping with Sellers’ tenacity for dual roles, (more on which later) Stephen Hopkins’ biopic gives Geoffrey Rush plenty to chew on.

Indeed, aside from playing Strangelove and Clouseau and his myriad other characters, there are various soliloquies from his loved ones, in the form of Rush, as Sellers, imitating their voices or dragging up to address the audience. In the centre of it all, Rush imbues the character with palpable insecurity and egotism and makes for one of the better celebrity biopics in recent memory.

17. Jake Gyllenhaal, Enemy

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has had two films  in UK cinemas this year- the highly acclaimed and very dark Sicario is still playing in cinemas, but even that looks relatively accessible next to his surreal and uncompromising doppelgänger mystery Enemy. There are endless interpretations about what it all means, but most would agree that Jake Gyllenhaal turns in terrific dual performances.

He plays Professor Adam Bell, a man who’s disenchanted with his life until he discovers an actor, Anthony Claire, who looks exactly like him while watching a film recommended by a colleague. Adam becomes obsessed, but when they eventually meet, Anthony has some perverse ideas about how to make the most of the situation. That’s the simplest, least spoilery way of describing a real mind-scrambler of a film, but Gyllenhaal is the eerily naturalistic standout that centres the complex metaphor of the piece. Whatever that may be.

16. Dominic Cooper, The Devil’s Double

Embarrassingly touted as “Scarface In Arabia” in its marketing, Dominic Cooper gave a thus far unparalleled display of his acting talents in The Devil’s Double, playing both Iraqi soldier Latif Yahia and sadistic playboy Uday Hussein. Half-remembered from Uday’s schooldays, Latif is unexpectedly conscripted as a fedai, or body double, for the thoroughly shitty son of Saddam, with all the hedonistic horrors of his lifestyle included.

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The film inevitably takes some artistic licence with the true story on which it is based, but the film achieves a balancing act in which you’re uncertain of which character managed to make it out alive in order to tell it. Latif is the level-headed protagonist trying to survive an impossible situation, and Uday is a shrieking, psychotic man-child- so much of the film rests on Cooper’s shoulders and truthfully, he has never been better.

15. Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas

As mentioned, we could write most of a list out of actors who appeared in the dazzlingly ambitious Cloud Atlas alone. The Wachowskis teamed up with Tom Tykwer to adapt David Mitchell’s sprawling epic, which simplified and contextualised the six-pronged story for a visual medium by casting actors as various characters across different, subtly inter-connected time periods. Race and gender prove no bar to the roles in which they can be cast.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are all stand-outs, but for the sake of brevity, we have to focus on Hugh Grant on uniquely villainous form. In his most extreme casting here, he plays the terrifying chief of the Kona tribe, a bunch of war-painted cannibals who menace the survivors of post-apocalyptic Hawaii. It’s a tough film to fully encapsulate in a couple of paragraphs, but if you don’t see it for any other reason, you should see it to watch Grant furiously rage against type.

14. Mike Myers, So I Married An Axe Murderer

Just like Murphy, Mike Myers is well known for donning prosthetics to play multiple roles across his Austin Powers movies and, less notably, The Love Guru. But people tend to overlook So I Married An Axe Murderer, a Hitchcockian suspense spoof in which Myers delivers the most grounded performance of his career as Charlie, the paranoid spouse of a suspected serial killer.

Of course, to off-set that, he starts channelling his obsession with the Scottish accent (see also: Shrek, Fat Bastard) under prosthetics as Charlie’s father, a drunken gobshite who bullies his youngest son for having a big noggin and ardently believes in a conspiracy involving Colonel Sanders and the Rockefellers. Myers would later be called the modern Peter Sellers and the comparison has never stood up so favourably as it does here.

13. The Pythons, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

What have the Pythons ever done for us? There are few comedies more frequently quoted than 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. Could anyone but Terry Jones have played Brian’s mum so well?

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And, of course, Jones directed, Terry Gilliam did more animation, and the script was a group effort. 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?

Well, there’s The Holy Grail. But aside from that…

12. Lawrence Rickard, Bill

Oh, sod off! Yes, the Pythons’ influence is far-reaching and most recently and brilliantly felt in Bill, the first feature film from the troupe behind the marvellous Horrible Histories – Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Lawrence Rickard and Ben Willbond.

The latter two wrote the script for this Python-for-kids comedy adventure too and amongst a roundly terrific Pythonesque ensemble, it’s Rickard who stands out particularly in his multiple roles, partly as he plays more characters (eight!) than any one else. From spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham to the sadistic Lope Lopez, Rickard steals more scenes than any of his co-stars, most impressively as Chatty Guard, who pops up throughout the film in hilarious asides during the establishing shots.

11. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, Face/Off

Numerous pairings were floated as possibilities for the lead roles on Face/Off‘s road to the big screen, including Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, and even Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. We’d watch any of those movies, but director John Woo got it bang on by casting John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.

They swap roles around half an hour into the film, thanks to the fabulous bullshit high concept premise. Both build on the early beats of their respective characters and each of them generally has a whale of a time imitating their co-star. Everything’s dialled up to 11, but these two are still at their eccentric peak here and arguably Travolta hasn’t been better since this. We still hold hopes for a Cockney remake with Tom Hardy and Jason Statham- Fack/Off!

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10. Armie Hammer, The Social Network

“I’m 6’5”, 220 [lbs] and there’s two of me,” snarls Tyler Winklevoss when he and his brother are advised to quietly drop the matter of their intellectual property dispute with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg. A bit of trickery was involved here – Tyler and his twin Cameron Winklevoss were played by Armie Hammer and Josh Pence so that they weren’t 100% physically identical, but director David Fincher felt Hammer best resembled the real brothers, creating a digital map of his performance from the neck up to project onto his twin.

It’s a different way of doing it than just about every other multiple performance on this list, but it pays off magnificently. The two brothers are very much the wronged party here, but their entitlement and pomposity are so perfectly punctured by the tandem of Hammer’s performance(s) and Aaron Sorkin’s scathing script, you still root against them in favour of the flip-flopped mini despot Zuckerburg. The Winklevi are typical of Fincher’s almost invisible use of special effects, which is to say that both they’re quietly extraordinary.

9. Thomas F. Wilson, the Back To The Future trilogy

Another series of films that features actors playing multiple characters, but if we can all universally accept that Michael J. Fox’s drag act as Marty’s daughter was the weirdest and least convincing part of Back To The Future Part II, then it’s worth paying notice to one of the often unsung talents in the trilogy.

Thomas F. Wilson gamely raced from manure truck to manure truck throughout the trilogy, not only as boneheaded bully Biff Tannen, but as his ancestors, descendants and Donald Trump-flavoured parallel selves too. It’s disappointing that he didn’t seem to get much credit during the recent glut of retrospective pieces, because he’s hugely important. Plus, this is as good an opportunity as any to share Wilson’s musical tribute about his fans again.

8. Nicolas Cage, Adaptation

Whether he means it or not, Nicolas Cage has provoked more laughs than many comedy actors of his generation – you haven’t laughed until you’ve laughed at him dressing up as a bear and punching a woman in the face in The Wicker Man. Happily, we also get a handy reminder of how brilliant he can be every once in a while, in films like Charlie Kaufman’s demented meta-movie Adaptation, which puts him to fine comic and dramatic use.

Playing Kaufman himself, Cage is neurotic and tortured, while still giving his fictional 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 in a terrifically self-deprecating gag, but we hardly think that anyone could have measured up to the actual leading man, who is the only actor to have multiple roles in this very list. The world is Nic Cage’s head, and we’re just living in it.

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7. Alec Guinness, Kind Hearts & Coronets

Lawrence Rickard plays eight characters in Bill, and many decades earlier, Alec Guinness swept up the same number of credits in the raucously dark Ealing comedy Kind Hearts & Coronets. This is also probably the most famous early instance of an actor playing multiple roles as Guinness plays numerous ghastly members of the D’Ascoyne family.

Take a deep breath and count them off – Ethelred ‘the Duke’, Lord Ascoyne ‘the Banker’, Reverend Lord Henry ‘the Parson’, General Lord Rufus ‘the General’, Lord Horatio ‘the Admiral’, Young Ascoyne, Young Henry and Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne. That disturbance you felt in the Force was his eight different Guinnesses crying out and then being silenced by Dennis Price’s avenging protagonist Louis.

6. Sam Rockwell, Moon

Even six years on, this under-appreciated sci-fi drama from Duncan Jones is still obscure enough that we feel bad for spoiling it, but it would be out of the question to leave Sam Rockwell off this list. We’re trying to be as vague as possible, but if you haven’t seen Moon, skip the specifics and read on to number 2 in our list.

At the start of the film, astronaut Sam Bell believes he is alone on the lunar surface, with only a Kevin Spacey-sounding robot for company. After an accident sustained while carrying out his mining duties, it transpires that the corporation that employs Sam has a deeply unethical way of getting around the end of his three year contract. The result is a deeply compelling science fiction one-hander. Sort of. Either way, Rockwell carries the film and, as in all of his best work, he still finds an opportunity for a little of his patented Rockwell dancing, this time to Katrina and the Waves.

5. Christopher Reeve, the Superman movies

Whoa, didn’t we rule out multiple personalities? Couldn’t a case be made for any of the Batmen, if we’re counting Christopher Reeve’s turn as Clark Kent and Superman as two different roles? It certainly could, but we’re not here for that. If you really wanted to quibble, Reeve still deserves a spot in the top five just for the junkyard fight between the good and evil, fake-Kryptonite-afflicted Supes in Superman III, which stands as the saving grace of that movie.

But we’re not quibbling here – as David Carradine’s Bill posits in Kill Bill Volume 2, Clark Kent is a character created by Superman to conceal his identity. As played by Reeve, Superman’s disguise as Clark is so utterly perfect as to be definitive, with differences in posture and personality selling the magic. Even Brandon Routh, his big-screen successor in Superman Returns, was more of a tribute act to this performance than a distinctive version. While Henry Cavill and numerous other actors have played Superman in TV and film since, no one else has ever nailed both of those characters as Reeve did.

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4. Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove

As discussed with Myers and Rush, Sellers’ character-hopping tendencies have proven hugely influential in comedy and never more so than in his definitive turn(s) in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb), in which he plays Captain Mandrake, President Muffley, and, of course, the titular doctor himself. Unbelievably, he was to take on yet another role, as Major Kong, except that he sprained his ankle before filming.

Sellers’ performances are wildly different from one another, from the exasperated straight man in Mandrake to the batshit insane Strangelove with his Nazi-affiliated alien hand syndrome. Special mention should also go to 1959’s war comedy The Mouse That Roared, which served as a precursor to Sellers’ multi-tasking in this one.

3. Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator

Mistaken identity hasn’t figured as much as you’d expect in this list, although it’s a key facet of numerous movies with multiples of the same actor and is crucial to the finale of The Great Dictator. Charlie Chaplin’s mocking indictment of Adolf Hitler and Nazi ideology met with some resistance during production due to the British government’s policy of appeasement, but found obvious success in its propaganda value when it was released in 1940.

The film stars Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel, a transparent caricature of Hitler, and a Jewish barber who happens to look just like him. It has plenty of laughs, but the film ends with one of the most scorchingly compassionate monologues in cinema history, condemning fascism and pleading for brotherhood and goodwill. To this day, Chaplin’s film remains the most ingenious way of getting back at someone for stealing your look in all of recorded history.

2. Deborah Kerr, The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp

Powell and Pressburger’s The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp is rightly considered to be one of the greatest British films of all time. It’s different from the duo’s more propagandistic wartime films, but you could loosely call it an early comic-strip movie – Roger Livesey’s protagonist, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, is based on cartoonist caricature David Low’s popular character. But that caricature is imbued with vivid and moving life in a story that spans three generations of conflict. A big part of this comes in Deborah Kerr’s performance, as she plays three great loves of Candy’s life.

In 1902, Clive falls in love with an English governess, Edith, only for her to become engaged to a former rival, German lieutenant Theo (played by an equally magnificent Anton Walbrook.) Candy later marries Barbara, who is her spitting image, but he’s widowed not long after. Then in 1943, Home Guard driver Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon reminds both Clive and Theo of their late wives, but she’s seeing a brash young lieutenant who represents all that has changed about the more gentlemanly (romantic, even) conception of war in the face of the Nazis. Even at a young age, the 22-year-old Kerr is absolutely magnificent here and her recurring appearance epitomises the film’s theme of love and loss over time.

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1. Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Academy Awards voters have a way of making up for previous mistakes whenever they get it wrong with certain Oscar-worthy performances. While Reversal Of Fortune boasts a fine performance from Jeremy Irons, many would argue he deserved the Best Actor Oscar a couple of years earlier for his dual role as twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle in Dead Ringers and we’re inclined to agree.

The two gynaecologists take perverse pride in their interchangeability, often posing as one another in their personal and professional lives. Irons effortlessly distinguishes their personalities within their symbiotic relationship and helps to ground the central conceit, which is crucial to the tragic wrongness of it all. Director David Cronenberg composes the sad symphony of the Mantles, using seamless and un-showy effects to pull off the illusion exactly, but this is one of those dual performances in which the actor truly makes the film.