We all love a good cameo by a celebrity appearing as themselves for a brief, but fun, little moment. However, what I have always found more amusing is when a famous person portrays themselves in a more prominent starring role from a movie, or in a TV guest appearance that serves as the main focus of that episode (or episodes), or even as the lead of the whole story. With Nicolas Cage playing himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, we wanted to take a look at our picks for some more of the best performances by athletes, musicians, or actors who played themselves.
Neil Patrick Harris (Harold & Kumar Movies)
Future How I Met Your Mother cast member Neil Patrick Harris was still best known as the star of Doogie Howser M.D. when he stole the show in the 2004 stoner comedy classic Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle as a highly dramatized version of himself. The Emmy nominee would reprise the role in two sequels that more heavily blend the actor’s reality with increasingly absurd fiction, including getting kicked out of Heaven by Jesus in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas after he was previously gunned down by prostitutes in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
Cate Blanchett (Coffee And Cigarettes)
Every vignette in Coffee and Cigarettes - Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 anthology of short films starring celebrities as themselves - is gold, but Cate Blanchett leads one of the more unique and thought-provoking of the bunch called “Cousins.” The segment is, additionally, one of the most profound testaments of the two-time Oscar winner’s chameleonic talent, as she makes it so easy to forget she is playing both herself and her brunette relative, Shelly, who struggle to relate to each other while catching up in a hotel lobby.
James Van Der Beek (Don’t Trust The B**** In Apartment 23)
In 2012, James Van Der Beek made his big return to TV as a series regular on Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 in a role very close to his heart: James Van Der Beek. The actor brilliantly pokes fun at his post-leading the Dawson’s Creek cast career and predicts his future Dancing with the Stars stint as the famous best friend of Krysten Ritter’s Chloe - the title character of ABC’s short-lived, but much-acclaimed, comedy.
Bill Murray (Zombieland)
Most people would consider Bill Murray’s surprise appearance in Zombieland to be one of the greatest cameos of his career (and there are several incredible examples to choose from). However, with only four other characters in the main cast of the classic 2009 zombie comedy, I think we can justifiably count the Oscar nominee’s iconic, hilariously dead-pan portrayal as his post-apocalyptic self as a starring role despite lasting mere minutes.
Keanu Reeves (Always Be My Maybe)
Another example of a relatively brief appearance that still earns the right to be called a starring role occurs in 2019’s Always Be My Maybe when Marcus (Randall Park) is shocked to learn that his childhood friend (and crush), Sasha (Ali Wong) is dating none other than Keanu Reeves. The John Wick star pulls no punches in his partially improvised portrayal of a wonderfully absurd version of himself in the Netflix original rom-com, in which, during a restaurant double-date, he shows up wearing glasses with no lenses and asks the waiter for a dish that plays with “the concept of time.”
Heather Langenkamp (New Nightmare)
After playing Nancy Kerrigan in two Nightmare on Elm Street movies made her one of the top Scream Queens of the 1980s, Heather Langenkamp would give, arguably, her best performance in the franchise when she returned - not as Nancy, but as herself - in 1994’s New Nightmare. The cleverly meta thriller, in which the actress is taunted by a demon assuming the appearance of Freddy Krueger, also stars fellow horror icon Robert Englund as this new take on the iconic villain and himself as well as writer and director Wes Craven.
The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night)
The cinematic phenomenon of famous musicians offering a fictionalized peek into their lives off-stage (such as Nick Cave in 2014’s quasi-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth or Foo Fighters in the horror-comedy Studio 666 more recently) arguably began with The Beatles. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr exhibit solid comedic timing and profound athleticism while running from a swarm of screaming fans in 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night - the first of a number of dramatized films the Fab Four made together.
LeBron James (Trainwreck)
Pro basketball star LeBron James has portrayed himself onscreen several times and most recently in 2021’s Space Jam: A New Legacy - a sequel to the hit Michael Jordan/Looney Tunes collaboration from 1996. However, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Small Forward received the most acclaim of his acting career so far for playing himself in Trainwreck - star and writer Amy Schumer’s 2015 rom-com which depicts him and Bill Hader’s “sports doctor to the stars” as best friends.
Stan Lee (Mallrats)
Before his heartbreaking death in 2018, Stan Lee perfected the art of the cameo by appearing in countless Marvel movies. One of his first and most prominent acting gigs (for which he was actually mentioned in the opening credits, too) was as himself in Kevin Smith’s 1995 Clerks follow-up, Mallrats. The comic book icon makes you a “true believer” in his acting ability when he shows up for a couple of scenes to give comic book-obsessed Brody (Jason Lee) some much-needed relationship advice.
Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
It is no secret among die-hard Seinfeld fans that Jason Alexander’s deeply neurotic and troublesome character, George Costanza, was heavily inspired by the personality and life experiences of co-creator Larry David. On his follow-up to Seinfeld - the long-running, HBO original comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm - David has earned several Emmy Award nominations for playing a version of himself who makes George look like a saint, burning bridges with Hollywood heavies and alienating friends and average bystanders at every turn.
Kate Winslet (Extras)
Star and co-creator Ricky Gervais’ Hollywood satire Extras is chock full of amazing celebrity guest appearances, but Kate Winslet made a damn good case to be considered the funniest in the Emmy-winning comedy’s history. The British Titanic star is seen playing a nun on the set of a film about the Holocaust (which she admits she agreed to star in purely to win an Oscar, having not yet won for The Reader) before later proving herself to be a master in double entendres when offering fellow extra, Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen), phone sex tips.
John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich)
It is a bit rare for an actor to appear in a movie as him or herself while also playing the title character, but 1999’s Being John Malkovich - from from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze - is also a rare kind of movie, and in many ways, too. The two-time Oscar nominee is understandably shocked and frightened by the discovery that a Manhattan puppeteer (John Cusack) has been using a magical portal to be able to take a walk in his shoes for 15 minutes at a time in this wildly creative comedy.
Bruce Campbell (My Name Is Bruce)
Another rare example of an actor playing themselves in the titular role of a film is Bruce Campbell in My Name is Bruce, which is also the last film the B-movie icon directed himself. Campbell is hilarious in the 2007 horror-comedy as a boozy, washed-up version of himself who is forced to channel his iconic Evil Dead character, Ash Williams, in order to defeat a demon wreaking havoc on a small town in Oregon.
Oprah Winfrey (30 Rock)
Another example of a memorably, and often awkwardly, hilarious guest appearance on an acclaimed TV comedy is Oprah Winfrey on Season 3 of 30 Rock. Liz Lemon (star and creator Tina Fey) is delighted to find the larger-than-life media mogul seated next to her on an airplane and cannot help but seize the opportunity to received a dose of wisdom, but who could really blame her for that?
Kevin Garnett (Uncut Gems)
As much as I agree that Adam Sandler deserved greater awards attention for his lead performance in the relentless 2019 thriller Uncut Gems, I think we should be more angry at the fact that former NBA player Kevin Garnett received no awards attention at all. I would go so far as to say I’m glad the Safdie Brothers did not get the athlete they originally wrote the part for (the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire) because Garnett is electrifying as himself (circa 2012), whose interest in a rare opal sets off a series of increasingly dire circumstances for the Sandler as self-destructive jeweler, Howard Ratner.
The This Is The End Cast
The whole point of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s 2013 directorial debut This is the End is to watch the entire cast (including Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and many, many more) as hilariously exaggerated versions of themselves who struggle to endure the Apocalypse and a merciless barrage of gags at their expense. Highlights also include an excruciatingly vain (and demonically possessed) Jonah Hill; a lewd, coke-snorting Michael Cera; an axe-wielding Emma Watson; and Channing Tatum employed by a cannibalistic Danny McBride as his sex slave.
You've got to love seeing a famous person let loose and introduce a different, completely fictional side of themselves to the world on screen. I cannot wait to see more examples of actors playing themselves in the future.
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.