Playing a character and successfully bringing it to life on-screen to convincingly incarnate another human form, is already really tricky in itself. So, to do all of that for multiple roles within the same movie – and in some cases, the same scene – is nothing short of genius. If the actor doesn’t have the versatility or the commitment to really pull it off, it looks really, really bad. But when it’s done right, it’s like a form of magic. You forget that these characters are being played by the same actor and fall under the movie’s spell. If an actor can convincingly play two characters or more in the same movie, then they’ve single-handedly pulled off the illusion that the entire institution of cinema is creating, and in many cases, hundreds of people working together can still fail. But not in these instances. Without further ado, here are the fifteen greatest multi-performances of all time.
15. Armie Hammer in The Social Network
In David Fincher’s moody, extremely popular and overhyped Facebook origin story, The Social Network, Armie Hammer plays both of Mark Zuckerberg’s archenemies, the Winklevoss twins. This was achieved using a painstaking process that left the entirety of one actor’s hard work by the wayside. Josh Pence is credited as playing one of the Winklevi (as they like to refer to themselves), but neither his face nor his performance are in the movie. Instead, Fincher shot the Winklevoss’ scenes twice, once with Hammer playing Cameron and again with Hammer playing Tyler. Then, in the editing room, he would digitally graft Hammer’s head onto Pence’s body. So, at the expense of Pence’s performance being ignored, Fincher bypassed all the awkward split-screen, body-doubling nonsense most movies with an actor playing two roles use.
14. Jason Isaacs in Peter Pan
The 2003 version of Peter Pan is not a great movie. It wasn’t a huge hit – it didn’t even make back its budget. In fact, the performances Jason Isaacs gives as both George Darling and Captain Hook aren’t even particularly compelling or noteworthy. But what is noteworthy and interesting is the thematic implications of his casting in both roles. George is the Darling kids’ cold-hearted father and Hook is their murderous arch nemesis. In the real world, the Darling children are oppressed by George. In Neverland, they’re oppressed by Captain Hook. And Jason Isaacs plays them both. Coincidence? I think not.
13. Warwick Davis in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Apparently the makers of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone could only find one little actor: Warwick Davis, who played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi and a leprechaun in Leprechaun. This narrow-mindedness may have been what spurred Davis on to create a talent agency that would find work for other dwarf actors. But before all that, he was heavily made-up and portrayed a goblin bank teller (a role he would later reprise in Deathly Hallows Part 2, a movie in which he found roles for over 40 of his clients) and Professor Flitwick.
12. Michael Cera in Youth in Revolt
Youth in Revolt is a pretty silly movie, but it’s also got some serious heart. Plus, it’s a terrific showcase for Michael Cera’s acting talent. Yes, he plays an awkward teenager, as usual (except in This is the End, where he plays himself as a coke fiend), but he also plays that teenager’s inner cool, rebellious alter ego, François Dillinger, who has confidence in spades and a pencil-thin moustache. Even with a supporting cast featuring the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, and Rooney Mara, Cera still steals the show with his brilliant, funny, heart-warming dual performance.
11. Tom Hardy in Legend
Tough guy Tom Hardy proved he had some serious acting chops in Legend, where he played both Kray twins in what ultimately turned out to be a pretty mediocre biopic. But there was nothing mediocre about Hardy’s performances as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, two gangsters who used violence and intimidation to get their way in 1960s London. The question is, why not just get twins or at least similar-looking actors to play the Krays? Having just one guy as both of them caused all kinds of problems with production – the visual effects guys certainly had their work cut out for them, and having to shoot each scene twice didn’t save any time. Director Brian Helgeland explained that over dinner with Hardy, he was simply “listening to him and looking at him…starting to think he could pull off playing both…because he has such a take on both of them.”
10. Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger
Steve Martin originally wrote the double role of action superstar Kit Ramsey and his dorky twin brother Jiff for Keanu Reeves, but after Eddie Murphy took the part and it became one (or rather two) of his most memorable performances, it’s hard to imagine Reeves doing it justice. Murphy just brings so much to the table. He ad-libbed the line, “You’re doing great! You’re going to be a star!” during Daisy’s topless scene, which turned out to be one of the funniest lines in the movie. And even besides Murphy’s excellent performance(s), the film Bowfinger as a whole is brilliant. It tells an incredible comical story of a cash-strapped producer who follows an unwitting movie star around with a camera and makes scenes happen around him during his day-to-day doings in order to make it look like he’s starring in his movie. It’s a hilarious premise and Martin’s script carries it out masterfully. It’s pure comedy gold.
9. Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part II-III
As the Back to the Future movies went on, naturally the timeline changes got more and more convoluted. In the first movie, Michael J. Fox was simply tasked with playing Marty McFly, an ‘80s kid who goes back to the 1950s to make sure his parents get together and he and his siblings are born. However, in the sequels, he goes 30 years into the future, back to alternate present day, and way back into the Old West. Fox had to take on the roles of his son Marty McFly, Jr., his daughter Marlene McFly (in a really, really creepy appearance), and his Irish immigrant great-great-grandfather Seamus McFly – and he pulls them all off admirably.
8. John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Sketch comedy, by its very nature, often requires actors to play a handful of roles over the course of 92 minutes of material. Otherwise, every 3-5 minutes when a new scenario and cast of characters is introduced, all new actors would have be brought in. The budget would be exponential and the casting process would take forever. But whether or not John Cleese played Sir Lancelot, the Frenchman, the Black Knight, and Tim the Enchanter out of necessity doesn’t detract from any of the laughter, nor does it detract from any of his range as an actor or talent as a comedian. Basil Fawlty is just the tip of the iceberg.
7. Mel Brooks in History of the World Part I
With History of the World Part I, Mel Brooks made a movie that would be every comedy writer and history buff’s dream: an anthology comedy made up of sketches poking fun at history. Even the title is a historical joke (there was never intended to be a sequel, it’s just a jab at Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World Volume I, which was the only volume he managed to write before being beheaded). Specifically, Brooks targeted the Stone Age, the Old Testament of the Bible, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution. It’s a hilarious historical satire, and as with most of Brooks’ films (he wrote, produced, AND directed this one), he plays multiple roles in it. He plays Moses, Comicus, Tomas de Torquemada, Louis XVI of France (of “It’s good to be the king” fame), and Jacques le Garçon de Pisse (which translates to “the piss-boy). Brooks’ appearances as President Skroob and Yogurt in Spaceballs are great performances, and he also provides laughs in every one of his diverse roles in Blazing Saddles, but the reason this one makes the list is simply because his five roles across four of the five segments that make up the film, make Brooks the star of this movie. He’s in the supporting cast of the other movies, playing second or even third fiddle to the likes of Bill Pullman or Cleavon Little, but this is Brooks’ movie through and through.
6. Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant
This is a recent example, and the film itself has been branded a disappointment, but I think it will gain a following later; it just needs some time. Alien: Covenant is a brilliantly made, chilling, terrifying near-masterpiece. It has the tense, slow build-up of Alien, Aliens’ roller coaster ride of thrills, and the big question-posing of Prometheus (but with actual answers). And best of all, it boasts terrific performances from its cast. Katherine Waterston in particular brings the Sigourney Weaver energy back to the franchise. But it’s Michael Fassbender’s dual roles as android models David and Walter that steal the show. One speaks with a British accent and is pretending to be sweet but is truly sinister, while the other speaks with an American accent and is kind and sweet and gentle, and to pull off both of these characters convincingly, sometimes in the same scenes, requires some serious talent.
5. Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap
For her very first film appearance, Lindsay Lohan really jumped in the deep end. She couldn’t have gone for a more ambitious undertaking. She played two twins, Hallie and Annie, who had been separated at birth and raised with two very different environments and accents. Aside from looking exactly like each other, Hallie and Annie have nothing in common. And Lohan deftly portrays both characters with confidence, variety, and skill. For timing, she wore an earpiece during two-shots in which the other sister’s dialogue would be played to her, but everything other than that is purely Lohan’s terrific acting. I don’t think people give Lindsay Lohan enough credit. Sure, she went off the rails with drugs, but that was what Hollywood did to her after she became a star at such a young age. She’s really a wonderfully talented actress and a truly sweet girl, giving her siblings small roles in all of her films.
4. Nicolas Cage in Adaptation
Nicolas Cage gets a lot of flak, but he’s an incredibly capable and versatile actor. He may choose some poor scripts and he may be a little loopy off-screen, but he’s an excellent performer. Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, Matchstick Men – he’s one of the greatest actors of all time. His versatility is never more on display than in Adaptation, where he plays screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald. With these characters, he plays the two sides of the writer and pulls them both off perfectly, as they continually riff off each other. Charlie is a born storyteller who struggles with writer’s block and strives to do something different and unique. Donald fell ass backwards into screenwriting via a Robert McKee seminar and became a much bigger success than Charlie by writing the most generic and cliché-ridden psychological thriller one could imagine. By playing both characters, Cage at times admires himself, is frustrated with himself, envies himself, pities himself, and it’s all just mesmerizing to watch.
3. Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor
Eddie Murphy is on the list again because he’s so versatile. Norbit isn’t on the list, for obvious reasons, but his work in The Nutty Professor is outstanding. He doesn’t just play Papa Cletus Klump, Mama Anna Klump, Granny Klump, Ernie Klump, Sr., and Richard Simmons spoof Lance Perkins, as if that wouldn’t be enough. He also plays two roles within one role. He plays the obese, good-natured Professor Sherman Klump, who is sweet and kind and clumsy, and then when he transforms, he plays Buddy Love, an obnoxious, loud-mouthed jerk, and he plays them both to comic excellence. Murphy told Oprah that the studio initially wanted the Klump family to be played by different actors, but he proved them wrong by sacrificing three hours a day to spend in the makeup chair and play damn-near the whole cast of the movie, and eek big laughs out of each and every character.
2. Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s risqué Cold War satire was a hard sell when it came to getting a studio to fund it. And strangely, a part of the deal struck with Columbia Pictures for the film’s production was that Peter Sellers must play multiple parts in the movie; the film is all the better for it. He blazed the trail for Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy to do the same years later. Each character has a different accent. He plays a British officer named Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President of the United States Merkin Muffley, and the crème de la crème, Dr. Strangelove himself. Strangelove is a crazy scientist ex-Nazi with all the movie’s best lines and moments. Sellers was the George Carlin of multi-character-playing in movies; he paved the way for all those who followed.
1. Mike Myers in the Austin Powers movies
Austin Powers was never even supposed to be a film character. Mike Myers created him because he wondered what ever happened to the London Swinger culture of the 1960s and he was the frontman of the band Ming Tea. It was Myers’ wife who pushed him to write a film for Austin to star in. Myers made the film a parody of James Bond, which created unto itself an entirely unique genre that combined hippies, Beatlemania, and espionage. For the film, he created the villain Dr. Evil, a comic pastiche of Ernst Blofeld, but he never planned to play the role himself. Instead, he sought to cast Jim Carrey in the role. Carrey had scheduling conflicts with Liar Liar, and thus began the saga of the greatest multi-performance of all time. Myers played Austin Powers and Dr. Evil in International Man of Mystery, before adding Scottish henchman Fat Bastard to the roster in The Spy Who Shagged Me and disco-loving Dutch lothario Goldmember in, well, Goldmember. Throughout the trilogy, Myers had both conversations and fights with himself, he did a bunch of flawless different accents, and all of that combined takes serious versatility. Mike Myers hasn’t been in anything for a while, and his last effort The Love Guru was poorly reviewed, but he needs to be remembered as a fantastic actor with serious range.