Brow Beat

When Actors Play Themselves—for More Than Laughs

This Is the End breaks the fourth wall.

Photo by SMPSP – © 2012 Columbia Pictures.

“I’ve often been accused by the critics of being myself on the screen,” Cary Grant once said. “But being one’s self is more difficult than you’d suppose.” Grant was not, of course, talking about literally playing himself—that practice was much less common in his heyday. Lately, it seems we never go more than a week or two without some reasonably famous actor popping up as himself or herself in an otherwise fictional film. The latest high profile example is the apocalypse comedy This is the End, which features everyone from James Franco to Emma Watson to Aziz Ansari in character as themselves.

But playing yourself this way has its own difficulties, and is prone to its own clichés. It’s been three decades now since the “and so-and-so as himself” flourish started to feel familiar, and even as the examples pile up, few films have gotten more out of the technique than a handful of laughs.

The practice goes back a long ways—think of Buster Keaton and Cecil B. Demille in Sunset Boulevard—but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it became a really well-worn cinematic trope. Its rise partly coincides with the rise of mainstream tabloids—Star was founded in 1974, Us Weekly in 1977—which helped erase the distance that once existed between Hollywood stars and their fans. We used to know little about such stars besides what studio publicists chose to divulge. Today, we often know all about their romantic lives and personal backstories. In this new world, playing yourself has become a handy way to manipulate your public image.

This usually involves satirizing Hollywood by poking fun at your own vanity or willingness to sell out. In Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon work on Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season, the sequel to their Oscar-winning drama. Just before filming a scene, Damon whispers, “Think about the paycheck.” More notably, Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player wove in several famous faces playing themselves. Midway through, a producer played by Tim Robbins is pitched a script to be cast with unknowns. “This story is just too damned important to risk being overwhelmed by personality,” says the screenwriter. “That’s fine for action pictures, but this is special. We want real people here.” At the end of The Player, we see Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis in the final cut of that pitched film, a knowing comment on the way art becomes commerce in Hollywood, with these actors along for the ride. By acknowledging their participation in this process, Roberts and Willis earn a little goodwill with a cynical audience.

Among the many famous people playing themselves in Coffee and Cigarettes, Cate Blanchett stands out: She appears as herself and as her hipper, poorer, nonfamous cousin Shelly. The two have an awkward catch-up session after having not seen each other for a couple of years. Shelly takes small digs at Cate’s lifestyle, noting that it’s “kind of cheap” that she has to use her suite both as a hotel room and for her publicity shoot. An uncomfortable Cate smiles and nods, attempting to relate to her cousin’s less glamorous life. It highlights an apparent discomfort with success—while also demonstrating just how talented an actress Blanchett is.

In such roles, actors typically win over audiences by being self-deprecating—which  is probably why, when actors play themselves, they so often play jerks. When an actor has a squeaky clean reputation, such a performance can also help expand an audience’s sense of that performer. In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Neil Patrick Harris revived his career by playing himself as a coked-up party animal who uses his Doogie Howser fame to bed women. He was later cast as the womanizing Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother.

There is a certain samey-ness to these uses of the technique, even in wildly disparate films. What separates Being John Malkovich from this bunch is that it doesn’t just have fun with celebrity, it has fun with identity itself. The film still goes in for some traditional Hollywood satire, though, as when Sean Penn, playing himself, says that, after the unlikely career turn Malkovich has taken in the movie, “I think that a lot of us will move into puppetry.” But almost a decade and a half later, the movie still stands out for the way it used the trick of an actor playing himself to do something genuinely new and different—even though Malkovich told Newsweek that playing himself was just another role. “Once, you play an alcoholic; once, you play a psychopath; once, John Malkovich.”

This is the End is not quite so clever, but it does do more with the idea than most films—mostly by being sincere. Jay Baruchel, the least well-known of the stars in the film, is depicted as an outsider save for his friendship with Seth Rogen. And the tension between the Hollywood star and his less famous friend gives the movie its emotional center. Such earnest approaches to playing oneself are surprisingly rare, and, perhaps for that reason, affecting.

At this point, it’s more interesting to emphasize the simple humanity of Hollywood stars than it is to poke fun at their public identities. Twelve years after she popped up in The Player, Julia Roberts played a character pretending to be Julia Roberts in Ocean’s 12. It’s a complicated conceit, one that eventually involves her cameo-mate from the Altman film, Bruce Willis. But what all the hijinks highlight is that Roberts, too, is a real person. And making that clear is more difficult than you’d suppose.