With the aid of makeup and prosthetics, it can be hard in modern cinema to distinguish the actor from the real people they often play. Still, it certainly saves time and money to cast someone who already resembles the subject of the film in the first place.
Sometimes casting agents really do excel themselves by singling out exactly the right actor for the role, physically at least – and here we’ve picked out some of the best.
20. Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis
The Two Popes took Netflix by storm. Telling the story of a tumultuous Vatican, this biographical drama stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis. Fans of the film raved about the actors’ resemblance to their characters, in particular Pryce’s uncanny similarities to Pope Francis. You might think a film centred around Catholicism would make for sombre viewing, but both Hopkins and Pryce manage to intersperse some well-placed humour among the film’s darker themes.
Hopkins deserves an honorable mention for his turn as Benedict XVI, including his deep brow and low smile, but it’s Pryce’s jowliness and – to be frank – remarkably oval head that takes the cake. This incredible likeness wasn’t lost on the critics, either: Pryce received his first ever Oscar nomination, for Best Lead Actor, for his turn as then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Ultimately, however, Pryce lost out to Joaquin Phoenix for playing the Joker, who – as far as we know – isn’t even a bishop. Pryce had been approached to play Francis on the day he became Pope, but initially turned it down. According to Deadline, one of Pryce’s sons called him that day and jokingly asked: “‘Dad, are you the Pope?'”
19. James Franco as James Dean
James Franco, who portrayed James Dean in the 2001 biographical TV series James Dean, bears a stark resemblance to his namesake. Franco went to extreme lengths to play Dean. He even took up smoking to truly inhabit the mind of the original rebel without a cause, and also learned how to ride a motorcycle, play guitar and do the conga. If you need an explainer on that last one, Dean in 1957 actually released a 7″ record featuring the actor on bongo drums and Bob Romeo on flute.
Much was made of the resemblance between the Jameses in the marketing of the TV series, which featured a poster declaring that “James Franco is James Dean.” Franco would go on to win a Golden Globe for his efforts. “I isolated myself a lot during the filming,” Franco told TNT. “I did this because I think [Dean] had a pervasive loneliness throughout his life and I wanted to feel what that felt like.”
18. Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe was, and remains, one of the world’s most famous figures. A symbol of sexual liberation in the 50s and 60s and one of the most famous pin-ups ever, it’s fair to say Monroe is a big part to fill. Michelle Williams is a perfect fit. Other actors had apparently been considered, including Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson, but Williams was the only one that producers ever met with. The Blue Valentine star had committed to the role two years before production even began on My Week with Marilyn. Initially hesitant to play Monroe, Williams told Vogue that “as soon as I finished the script, I knew that I wanted to do it … I never really had a choice.”
In addition to typical research for the role, which included reading biographies and watching Monroe’s work, Williams gained weight to simulate Monroe’s iconic figure. “Unfortunately, it went right to my face,” Williams continues in Vogue. Instead, in order to achieve Monroe’s body, foam padding was used.
17. Simon Ward as Winston Churchill
Many actors have played the legendary British leader as an older man – Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm – but the likeness of actor Simon Ward to a young Winston Churchill is hard to deny. Directed by Richard Attenborough, 1972’s Young Winston was adapted from the celebrated wartime leader’s memoir of his early years, which was published in 1930. Ward was a relatively unknown actor at the time the film was cast (the film also features talent such as Anthony Hopkins (as David Lloyd George) and Anne Bancroft (as Churchill’s mother)).
Churchill himself approached producer Carl Foreman regarding an adaptation of his memoir, having been impressed by Guns of Navarone. Initially, Foreman picked Thoroughly Modern Millie actor James Fox for the part. After production stalled for several years, Ward was chosen instead, not least for his resemblance to Churchill in his salad days.
16. Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs
In the five years following the death of Apple mogul Steve Jobs in 2011, two rival films about his life appeared. One, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, earned critical acclaim and a whole host of golden statuettes. The other did not. And yet, for our money, it’s the lesser film that was better cast. Michael Fassbender’s performance as Jobs is unabashedly brilliant, but – surprisingly – it’s Ashton Kutcher’s turn as the tech wizard that ended up turning heads. In the immediate aftermath of Kutcher’s casting, reaction was distinctly mixed, the actor best known for comedy roles in TV shows including Two and a Half Men and That 70s Show.
But it’s undeniable that Kutcher bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Steve Jobs, whether or not he was able to bring the dramatic gravitas required. Fassbender, who next took up the role, once said that he “studied Ashton Kutcher” in preparation for his performance as Jobs. Admittedly, this was said with something of a sarcastic smile.
15. O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube
Now this one might be cheating a little. O’Shea Jackson Jr bears a near-perfect resemblance to Ice Cube, from his arched eyebrows to the shape of his mouth, but that’s exactly what you’d expect – he’s Ice Cube actual son. Jackson Jr, who also raps under the stage name OMG, made his feature film debut in Straight Outta Compton, which depicts the rise and fall of the legendary rap group N.W.A. According to Jackson Sr (Ice Cube) in conversation with Jimmy Kimmel, his son’s casting was “spot on,” wryly adding that he “was born to play the part.”
Following the release of Straight Outta Compton in 2015, Jackson Jr has continued his acting career, from the black comedy-drama Ingrid Goes West in 2017 to 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Perhaps most importantly of all, Jackson Jr made a guest appearance on WWE Smackdown in October 2019.
14. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
Perhaps no film is more emblematic of biopic Oscar glory than The Theory of Everything, which sees Eddie Redmayne star as the renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The film focuses on the Hawking’s days as a young graduate, and the gradual onset of Motor Neurone Disease, the condition that left Hawking wheelchair-bound for most of his life. According to Catherine Shoard of the Guardian, “Redmayne towers: this is an astonishing, genuinely visceral performance … this is more than just skilful impersonation – it’s inhabitation. To look on as his face and body distort is to feel, yourself, discomforted, even queasy.”
That said, Redmayne has also attracted criticism for his performance, one in an infamous tradition of able-bodied actors playing disabled characters in order to scoop awards. As per Guardian columnist Frances Ryan, who notes Redmayne’s ability to “walk away – literally – with an award…for many disabled people in the audience, this is watching another person fake their identity.”
13. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln (2012) is a Spielberg classic, and comes complete with a star-studded cast including Sally Field and, unforgettably, Daniel Day-Lewis. With the help of some hairstyling and makeup, Day-Lewis looks scarily like the 16th US president. Day-Lewis turned down the project at first, with Liam Neeson cast instead. However, Neeson requested the part be recast after a table read made him realise he wasn’t suited. Day-Lewis was offered the part again and subsequently cast. Much as we’re semi-ironic fans of Benjamin Walker’s depiction of Honest Abe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it’s Day-Lewis’ unparalleled ability to literally hold his face differently that puts his performance a cut above the rest.
Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed several other times on screen, notably by Walter Huston in 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, and by Henry Fonda in 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln, but neither actor bears as significant a resemblance to the Civil War-era president as Day-Lewis. It seems only the actor himself harboured doubts about his performance, saying that, even after accepting the role, “I thought, this is a very, very bad idea. But by that time it was too late. I had already been drawn into Lincoln’s orbit.”
12. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
Most people would probably be quite offended at being compared to a serial killer, but it’s indisputable that Theron bears an uncanny resemblance to one. This is, of course, Aileen Wuornos. It’s lucky, then, that Theron was chosen to play the part of Wuornos in the 2003 biographical crime drama Monster, rather than be incarcerated in a case of mistaken identity. The film tells the story of a former sex worker, Wuornos, who killed seven of her clients over the span of one year from 1989 to 1990. Theron provides a detailed insight into the mind of a mentally ill criminal; to help her get there, she first gained 30 pounds and shaved her eyebrows in order to better resemble Wuornos.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, who would later find widespread fame with the Wonder Woman series, the film was also produced by Theron and stars Christina Ricci as a semi-fictionalised version of Wuornos’ jailhouse lover. Roger Ebert was effusive about the film, writing that “I didn’t recognize [Theron] – but more to the point, I hardly tried, because the performance is so focused and intense that it becomes a fact of life … This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”
11. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison
Nowadays, Val Kilmer is perhaps best known as an underwhelming Batman as well as the star of popcorn comedies like Top Secret! and Real Genius. But before his Bat-debacle, Kilmer starred in an amazingly well-cast biopic. Kilmer plays Jim Morrison in The Doors, a film about the eponymous counterculture rock band of the 60s and 70s. It garnered a mixed reception, as well as controversy after a negative response from Morrison’s family. The Doors has since become a cult film, however, in large part due to Kilmer’s unabashed performance as the hedonistic rocker. It’s hard to imagine, but true, that other actors had been considered, including John Travolta and even Bono of U2.
Director Oliver Stone had expressed an interest in having Kilmer play Morrison, which was enough motivation for the actor to spend thousands of dollars on an eight-minute audition reel showcasing his acting chops and singing voice. An honorable mention should go to Kilmer’s co-star, Meg Ryan, who herself bears a good likeness to Morrison’s companion (and frequent lover) Pamela Courson.
10. Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy
There have been more than enough films about John F Kennedy and his wife (see 2016’s Jackie for a superb turn by Natalie Portman as Jackie Onassis). In terms of movies about the youngest Kennedy brother, Ted, there’s been but one. Chappaquiddick (also known as The Senator in the UK) tells the story of the so-called Chappaquiddick Incident, in which Ted Kennedy’s negligent driving resulted in the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Perhaps the only solace Kennedy might have taken in such a tough film is his portrayal by Jason Clarke, who not only navigates the film with aplomb but also bears a striking resemblance to the Lion of the Senate.
Even more remarkably, Clarke doesn’t always appear similar to Kennedy – this is no case of happenstance genetics. It’s the furrowing of his brow, and the steeliness of his gaze, that transforms his look into that of the troubled senator. Clarke went on to star as real-life astronaut Ed White in the 2018 biopic First Man, which predominantly focuses on Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. Neither actor much looks like either.
9. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
Casting someone as the legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles was always going to be a challenge – until it wasn’t, when the casting team found someone who already resembled The Genius: Jamie Foxx. From his gleaming smile to his high cheekbones, the link between Foxx and Charles in 2004’s Ray is truly uncanny. Foxx would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Charles. Sadly, the musician didn’t live to see the praise for the story of his life: he died of liver disease only a few months before the film premiered.
Foxx shed his tough physique – 30 pounds of it – to take on the role, and even had his eyelids glued shut while on set. For Foxx to get to the set, however, Charles first had his own demands. “We played tandem piano,” Foxx told Today. “He said, ‘If you can play the blues, then you can play this part.’ So we played the blues … [he] said ‘The kid’s got it,’ and then he walked out.”
8. Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong
How far would you go for an acting role? What if your subject was steroid-cheat supremo Lance Armstrong? Well, for actor Ben Foster, that meant giving his natural resemblance to the disgraced cyclist an unnatural boost. While it’s true that Foster has a sharper jawline than Armstrong, but a softer face overall, it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two men as their faces convulse in cycling-induced, raging determination. That said, Foster took a more direct route to resembling his subject than most. It’s not uncommon, albeit unhealthy, for actors to gain or lose weight in accordance with their character, but few go as far as Foster did.
In an attempt to better understand Armstrong, Foster actually took steroids. “I don’t want to talk about the names of the drugs I took,” Foster revealed in a 2015 Guardian interview. “These are very serious chemicals and they affect your body in real ways,” Foster continues. “For my own investigation it was important for me privately to understand it. And they work.”
7. Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan
What does it mean for an actor to resemble the character they’re playing? Stature, features? What about gender? You might have assumed as a matter of course that you’d need a man to play Bob Dylan, but Cate Blanchett proved us all wrong. I’m Not There is a non-traditional biopic, with six different actors playing the lead in six different scenarios, which together aim less to be accurate accounts of Dylan’s life and more representations of the folk singer’s different public images.
Released in 2007, I’m Not There also stars the likes of Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and Heath Ledger – all of whom make convincing Dylans, but none of whom capture the same magic as Blanchett. With her aquiline nose and slender frame, Blanchett ends up looking far more like Dylan than some of the taller, burlier actors in the film. As per Anthony Curtis in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “it’s hard to imagine that any male actor, or any less-gifted female actor for that matter, could have lent such rich texture to the role.”
6. Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman
Imagine Jared Leto, and you’ll probably be thinking of the bug-eyed waif who fronts 30 Seconds to Mars and played the Joker in Suicide Squad, along with a host of other misfit characters over the years. But for 2007’s Chapter 27, Leto underwent a significant transformation to play the ultimate outsider. There’s no greater misfit to play than Mark David Chapman, better known as the man who assassinated John Lennon. Even better, Leto and Chapman resemble each other, providing Leto is carrying a little more weight.
According to the LA Times, to get into Mark David Chapman shape, Leto drank microwaved pints of ice cream mixed with soy sauce and olive oil on a daily basis, in what must be the polar opposite of a juice cleanse. The actor-singer-oddball gained 67 pounds in the process, putting on the weight so quickly that he contracted gout. After shooting concluded, Leto subsisted only on lemons and water, though reportedly the weight proved more difficult to get rid of than to put on. Ain’t that the truth.
5. Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde
An actor, comedian and author, Stephen Fry has often been compared to Oscar Wilde. From his withering humour to his vivacious gusto, there was only ever one choice for the lead in 1997’s Wilde. Given that the pair share so much in personality, and that they occupy a similarly trailblazing position (Wilde as a prominent gay playwright, and Fry as a famous gay comedian), you’d be forgiven for overlooking a lack of physical resemblance. But there’s no need. From Roger Ebert, Fry “looks a lot like Wilde and has many of the same attributes: He is very tall, he is somewhat plump, he is gay, he is funny and he makes his conversation into an art.”
“As I broke the membrane of my 30s and began to develop interesting new chins and a spreading waistline,” Fry notes in conversation with the legendary film critic, “I began to be told I should play Wilde. And he meant a lot to me. If you knew you were gay in the early 1970s, you felt very alone. You went to the movies about Wilde,” Fry continues, “and of course they were never very explicit; you wondered why that man was sent to jail for patting people on the head. But you knew that in Wilde you’d found a sympathetic sensibility.”
4. George C Scott as Mussolini
There can be few less flattering comparisons than to be compared to Il Duce – but, at the same time, we’d be lying if we didn’t point out the astonishing similarities between wartime dictator Benito Mussolini and US actor George C Scott. Thankfully we’re safe from libel, since Scott did in fact portray Mussolini in the miniseries Mussolini: The Untold Story, which aired in 1985. From his broad mouth to his high nose, it actually makes us a little uncomfortable to note how handsome Scott is, and what that might suggest about our feelings regarding a certain Italian autocrat.
Scott had previously caused a stir after he refused the Academy Award for Best Actor – for 1970’s Patton – having warned the Academy in advance that he would do so. Scott claimed that dramatic performances could simply not be compared given their unique circumstances. But what he can be compared to is Mussolini, as we’ve demonstrated.
3. Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo
From her iconoclastic artwork that put queerness and womanhood at the fore, to being plastered across white women’s MacBooks, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of Frida Kahlo on the world. So when it came to producing a biopic, the bar was high. Amazingly, for 2002’s Frida, the right actor came along at exactly the right time. Salma Hayek not only resembles the legendary painter in heritage and brow strength, but also produced the film, demonstrating a deep connection to Kahlo.
Hayek was, and remains, a pioneer for Mexican women in Hollywood. Arriving in Tinseltown around the same time as fellow Hispanic actor Antonio Banderas, Hayek got her first break in 1995’s Desperado, the second instalment in Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy. But it wasn’t until her star turn as Frida Kahlo that Hayek garnered widespread acclaim, as well as a Best Actress Oscar nomination. The film was nominated in six categories at the 2003 Academy Awards. It won for Best Original Score and Best Makeup, but we promise that Hayek’s transformation into La Friducha is, amazingly, all natural.
2. Toby Jones as Truman Capote
Much like the two Steve Jobs films, there was a duelling pair of Truman Capote movies in the mid-2000s. The better known of the two is Capote, starring an Oscar-winning Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the titular author. Nonetheless, we feel the better physical resemblance to Capote can be found in 2006’s Infamous, a markedly different film that ended up being overshadowed by rival biopic Capote’s success the previous year. This film stars Toby Jones, and the likeness is quite shocking. Whereas Hoffman stands a full seven inches taller than the famously short Truman Capote, Toby Jones is in fact almost the same height as his subject. The pair also share a broad forehead and tight-lipped smile that add up to a near-perfect resemblance.
Nor was this lost on the critics. Rex Reed of the New York Observer wrote that “they gave the Oscar to the wrong Truman Capote. I do not begrudge the versatile, popular Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar for playing the tiny terror in Capote, but he was doing an impression.” In Infamous, Reed continues, “a diminutive actor with a titanic talent named Toby Jones literally becomes the man himself.” It’s hard to disagree!
1. Joe Mazzello as John Deacon
On the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, much attention was paid to Rami Malek’s portrayal of timeless rock idol Freddie Mercury. From his immortal strut across the Live Aid stage to his wide-eyed wonder at the pleasures of the world, Malek’s performance earned a Best Actor win. Except it wasn’t actually the best. In our book, Joe Mazzello’s resemblance to Queen bassist John Deacon is far more convincing (especially considering it took Malek’s much-vaunted use of prosthetic teeth to achieve his look).
Like the bass player in almost any band, Mazzello isn’t exactly front-and-centre. But with his arched nose and wide brows, you’d be hard pressed to tell him apart from the real man. This is even more impressive when you realise you’ve actually seen Mazzello before: as Tim Murphy, the young boy in Jurassic Park. Freddie Mercury sadly died in 1991, and Jurassic Park released in 1993. Who could have guessed that then-child actor Joe Mazzello would end up so closely resembling Deacon, and playing him in a film to celebrate the impact of Queen?