The best actors are the ones that lose themselves so completely in a role that we barely recognise them anymore. It’s a hard enough task with only one character to play, so anyone who can pull it off multiple times in the same film is worthy of our respect.
Tom Hardy’s double performance as infamous gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray in Legend, which comes out this weekend, already has many critics raving. To celebrate it, we rifled through our mental DVD collections and came up with this list of the best performances by actors playing multiple roles.
Bill Bailey (Hot Fuzz, 2007)
In a movie with almost as many memorable one-liners as Airplane!, Bill Bailey’s sardonic West Country grumble that “nobody tells me nothin’!” is surely one of the greatest. It’s funny enough when Simon Pegg’s supercop arrives at the police station on his first day to find the friendly and clean-shaven desk sergeant who greeted him the night before reduced to a slovenly mess. Finding out that they are in fact two different people is about as perfect a punchline as one could ask for.
The cast of Monty Python (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975)
The Pythons are no strangers to the concept of playing multiple roles in the same film, or even the same sketch, but they took it to the limit with what is arguably the greatest of their feature films (yes, even better than The Life of Brian). Watching John Cleese as Sir Lancelot as he gazes in disbelief while a Frenchman, also played by John Cleese, blows raspberries and hurls insults, is reminiscent of classic comedy The 39 Steps. You can almost see them panting with the speed of the costume changes.
Dick Van Dyke (Mary Poppins, 1964)
Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent in Mary Poppins is awful, and everyone knows it. But can we talk for a second about his portrayal of Mr Dawes, the owner of George Banks’ place of work? Sure, watching him hobble about on two sticks, supported by a dozen lackeys, is a great piece of physical comedy. But his almost brazenly American accent sounds even weirder in Victorian London than his cockney chimney sweep. Still, we’ll always love Dick Van Dyke, no matter how bad his accent, and watching his bizarre pseudonym ‘Navckid Keyd’ unscramble himself in the end credits never gets old.
Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, 2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis walked away with Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth movie (and an Oscar to boot), but arguably more fascinating is Paul Dano’s work as the twins Paul and Eli Sunday. Dano was originally only meant to play one of the Sunday brothers, but after Kel O’Neill dropped out of the role of Eli (he was supposedly put off by Daniel Day-Lewis’ refusal to break character off-screen) Anderson gave Dano four days to prepare for the role and hastily rewrote the script. The decision paid dividends: the contrast with the well-spoken Paul – not to mention the fact that he disappears from the movie after just one scene – made Dano’s performance as the evangelical Eli all the creepier and more compelling.
Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, 1974)
He may have played more roles in History of the World, Part I, but for our money Mel Brooks was never funnier onscreen than in his immortal comedy Western. Watching the lecherous governor cavorting around the office with a half naked woman (“Gentlemen, affairs of state must take precedent over the affairs of state!”) and fail to get to grips with a paddle ball never gets old, and few sights in a Mel Brooks movie are weirder than seeing a Native American chief talking in Yiddish.
Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove, 1964)
Even before he starred in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War satire Peter Sellers was the king of playing multiple roles, having gained critical acclaim for his performances in The Mouse That Roared. Though his characters in Dr. Strangelove never meet, each is essential to the film’s story of toppling dominos. Col. Mandrake was born of Sellers’ experiences in the RAF during World War II, while the actor faked a head cold onset to make President Muffley even more pathetic. But it’s the mad scientist with his seemingly Nazi-supporting phantom hand that is most synonymous with Sellers’ work today.
Denis Lavant (Holy Motors, 2012)
Undoubtedly the most bizarre film on this list, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors would almost feel like a series of completely disjointed sketches were it not for the mesmerising and mercurial performance of French actor Denis Lavant. Chauffered around Paris in the back of a white limousine, Lavant twists and contorts himself into becoming, among others, an old beggar woman, a scarred assassin and a doting father. The highlight comes when he transforms into Monsieur Merde; a sort of feral take on Oliver Twist’s Fagin, who kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and turns her dress into a burka.
No, really. This one has to be seen to be believed.
Jesse Eisenberg (The Double, 2014)
Watching Richard Ayoade’s take on Dostoevsky is like watching Jesse Eisenberg’s two greatest roles pitted against each other. On the one hand there’s Columbus from Zombieland: shy, nebbish, the punchline to a never-ending cosmic joke. On the other there’s his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network: a man who’s smarter than everyone else in the room and never lets them forget it. Few actors could play both of these roles as well as he can, and seeing the two face to face in the same movie is an absolute treat.
Sam Rockwell (Moon, 2009)
OK, this one is technically cheating because (spoiler alert) the two characters are actually clones. But damn it, there are few actors working today who are more consistently underrated than Sam Rockwell. After years of outstanding supporting roles in films like Galaxy Quest and The Green Mile, he finally got to take centre stage in Duncan Jones’ Moon, and he didn’t disappoint. Watching Rockwell and Rockwell slowly snap as their entire reality comes crashing down about their ears is heartbreaking, and makes us take a long, hard think about what exactly makes us human.
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving and Doona Bae (Cloud Atlas, 2012)
We could go on for hours about all the reasons we love Cloud Atlas (in fact, we already did), but top of the list is the central conceit of having each member of the cast turn up in each of the film’s six interwoven stories. It’s impressive enough seeing Hugh Grant transform from a sharp-suited ’70s businessman to a cannibal warrior in a post-apocalyptic world, but the mindblowing revelation of, say, Halle Berry playing a Korean man makes it all the more astounding that the legion of make-up artists involved were completely overlooked by the Academy Awards.
Which do you think is the most memorable performance? Let us know in the comments below.