Playing yourself in movies and on TV has been a staple since, well, the beginning of movies and TV. Yet it wasn’t until the last two decades that the practice of lampooning yourself really took off with shows like Seinfeld and movies like Birdman.
It’s still odd and surprisingly gratifying to see a fictional, usually reprehensible version of your favourite Hollywood star on screen. Who knew that audiences would love it so much that careers would be revitalized and actors would start scrambling for the opportunity to play their bad ole selves? Look at Friends’ Matt LeBlanc. He not only got a career-boost from playing an awful version of himself on Episodes, he got a Golden Globe for his efforts. Now that’s a neat trick.
Maybe it’s a bit of wish-fulfillment for the audience. We always knew that Hollywood acting types were evil, egomaniacal, and more than a little strange. Now here’s the proof right on TV and the big screen. That, and it’s just a lot of fun seeing actors act badly and get their comeuppance. It sure beats just reading about it in the tabloids.
So here are a few of the best examples of playing yourself on TV and in the movies. Remember – the roles are fictional, but any resemblance to real people is entirely on purpose.
14 Neil Patrick Harris (Harold and Kumar trilogy)
Neil did his career a lot of good when he played a self-destructive, egomaniacal version of himself in the original Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Harris showed producers he wasn’t afraid to play darker, drug-addled, stripper-loving characters. He also showed he could do funny.
This no doubt helped him the following year when he nabbed the job of the morally-challenged Barney on How I Met Your Mother. These days, he’s not only acting in diverse roles; he’s singing, dancing and telling jokes as himself when he hosts the Tonys, the Emmys, and the Oscars.
13 Arnold Schwarzenegger (Last Action Hero)
When a kid magically enters the movie of his favorite action hero, it sets off an adventure that included Schwarzenegger parodying his tough guy screen persona in all its exaggerated, improbable glory. To add to the fun, Arnold also parodied his actual self at a comical film premiere with his wife. That’s two Arnies for the price of one.
Despite being one of Schwarzenegger’s more intelligent films, Last Action Hero failed miserably at the box office. It's hard to say why. Maybe fans liked watching Arnie shoot bad guys in movies. But they did not want to watch him make fun of those very same movies.
12 Bill Murray (Zombieland)
Murray was hilarious in this cameo - which was kept hush-hush in the months leading up to this film’s 2009 release. When the zombie apocalypse survivors stumbled onto Murray’s mansion, the comic appeared as the undead version of himself in golf clothes. It seemed the end of the world hadn’t interfered with his golf game.
Entertaining his guests, Murray's character willingly recreated Ghostbusters. Later, after being accidentally shot, a dying Murray is asked if he has any regrets. “Garfield, maybe,” was his response.
And that would probably be his response in real life, as well.
11 Louis CK. (Louie)
This TV series probably wouldn’t exist without the previous success of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. In Louis, stand-up comic CK plays a slightly exaggerated version of himself as he performs on stage and deals with day-to-day family problems. You might argue that Louie is a little more neurotic and darker than the real Louis, though that would be a guess. Maybe the character is exactly like the real Louis.
What we do know for sure is that the TV character is less successful than the real one. Perhaps he's a version of CK from ten years ago when he was struggling to have a career.
In real life, the show is a big hit for FX, earning Louis all manner of awards for just being himself.
10 Wil Wheaton (The Big Bang Theory)
As genius Sheldon’s archest of enemies, former Star Trek: the Next Generation star Wil Wheaton initially had fun tormenting the gang on the show. He messed with Leonard and Sheldon’s minds. Then he stole the gang’s seats at a Raiders of The Lost Ark screening, and generally acted like a complete jerk. Lately, he’s been more of a friend, even appearing on Sheldon’s internet show Fun With Flags.
Not afraid to portray himself as a still-struggling actor, Wheaton was even seen in one Big Bang episode starring in a horrible low budget movie called Serial Ape-ist 2 alongside Penny. One isn't so sure the real Wil Wheaton wouldn't take that role if it were offered to him.
9 Warwick Davis/Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant (Life’s Too Short)
The diminutive Davis – best known for playing multiple characters in the Star Wars and Harry Potter movies – portrayed a darker, neurotic version of himself in the 2011-2013 mockumentary series Life’s Too Short. Just how autobiographical it was is debatable.
Sometimes, dwarf character Davis’ scheming and humiliations feel less like himself and more like a character from the mind of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (The Office/Extras), who also co-wrote and co-created Life’s Too Short.
Not to be outdone, working partners Gervais and Merchant also appeared in Life’s Too Short as self-involved versions of themselves. They always appeared together in an empty office behind twin desks.
Other celebs who showed up in strange variations on themselves included Johnny Depp, Val Kilmer, Sting and a hilarious Liam Neeson attempting to do comedy.
8 Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
We’d already had seen a variation on David in the guise of George on Seinfeld. But after the huge success of that sitcom, David could hardly portray himself as a complete loser who constantly gets himself into trouble. Instead, he portrayed himself as a rich, bored character who also constantly gets into trouble.
In a year-long story arc in Season Seven, David even provided Seinfeld fans with closure of sorts, as the cast was brought together for an ill-advised Seinfeld reunion show. Larry, of course, messed it all up.
7 Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Just how much of the Batman star was in the character of down-on-his-luck movie star Riggan Thomson in Birdman is tough to say. It’s hard to believe Keaton was ever as messed up as the suicidal Riggan. As well, the film-makers only came up with the idea of casting Keaton well into pre-production.
Yet, it’s hard to separate Keaton’s background from Thomson, who was literally haunted and harassed by Birdman, a character he played in several superhero blockbusters. No doubt, Keaton himself must have experienced a lot of self-doubt when he decided not to do a second Batman sequel back in the early 1990s.
Those films were box office gold. Keaton has never had a bigger hit, and his subsequent roles have been few and mostly forgettable.
Until now, of course.
6 Seth Rogen and Every Celebrity (This Is The End)
How would Hollywood actors survive a biblical apocalypse? Not well if this 2013 comedy is any indication. Written by Rogen and partner Evan Goldberg, the movie found the actors turning on each other as the supplies dwindled and the situation grew dire. The movie began with a huge celebrity party, featuring cameos from almost every star under the sun playing themselves. Emma Watson showed up to kick some ass, too.
For the most part, the actors played versions of their screen images. Franco was conceited and pretentious. Rogen was the lovable stoner, Baruchel was the neurotic, McBride was a jerk, Jonah Hill was the sweet, sensitive type, and Robinson was the sweaty one. It all ended in heaven with the Backstreet Boys playing angelic, dancing versions of themselves.
5 Matt LeBlanc (Episodes)
The former Friends star won a Golden Globe playing a jerk version of himself in this HBO comedy. And to tell the truth, he’s a real highlight as a character that combines Joey Tribbiani’s dumbness with a darker, self-centered, womanizing aspect. This LeBlanc tends to say what he thinks without…well…thinking. He owns a vineyard, a jet, a fragrance line, and has been known to sleep with his stalkers.
Much like LeBlanc in real life, the Episodes’ LeBlanc finds himself trapped in a horrible sitcom called Pucks (Shades of Joey?) that is literally ruining his career. All his pals from Friends refuse to appear in it. But not because it’s bad. It’s because they hate LeBlanc.
4 James Van Der Beek (Don’t Trust The Bitch In Apartment 23)
It’s been awhile since Dawson’s Creek, so maybe Van Der Beek needed this sitcom role. It could have acted as therapy for him. Or a way to finally distance himself from goody-two-shoes Dawson by giving into his dark side.
In the short-lived comedy, he played himself as a self-centered jerk of an actor who was not above using his ‘Dawson’ persona to get what he wants (including women) and get his moribund career back on track.
Throughout the series’ two year run, James fought typecasting while attempting a Dawson’s Creek reunion, launching a line of skinny jeans and appearing on Dancing WithThe Stars. But he freaked out when he found out fellow dancing contestant Dean Cain had a bigger dressing room.
3 Jean Claude Van Damme (JCVD)
Wow. Who knew the Muscles from Brussels was so…deep? And troubled. And criminal. In this acclaimed 2008 Belgian crime film, Van Damme portrayed a down-on-his luck action star who was broke, unemployed and on the losing end of a custody battle. Then things got real bad when he walked in on a post office hostage-taking.
The wild, unpredictable film’s highlight was a monologue in which Van Damme talked directly to the camera in a cryptic description of his career and ambitions. Then it was right back to the action. The film initially gave Van Damme’s career a boost, though he hasn’t followed it up with anything near as entertaining.
2 John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich)
It is said that Malkovich first read this Charlie Kaufman-penned script with a combination of horror and fascination. A movie where people use a portal to enter the mind of the actor? It was a weird idea but one which Malkovich was up for (to say the least).
The impression that one got about Malkovich in the movie was that of a slightly-bored celebrity. Indeed, his life seemed to actually get a little better when he was under the control of others and forced to do their bidding. Malkovich also sought the advice of his friend Charlie Sheen in another weird moment. Sheen giving life advice? Very strange.
The strangest scene occurred when the actor entered the portal himself and is transported into a world where everyone – men, women, children – looked like Malkovich and spoke only one word (You guessed it – ‘Malkovich’).
1 Adam West (Family Guy)
One hopes West is nothing like Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. That guy is seriously dumb, and more than a little creepy. The cartoon West – said to be 95 per cent helium - has been known to send his entire police force to South America in search of the cast of Romancing The Stone. On another occasion, he spent the town’s entire yearly budget on a giant, gold statue of the Dig ‘Em frog.
To be fair though, the strange role is a perfect showcase for West’s talent for the low key, deadpan comedy he made famous as TV’s Batman. West even appeared in the flesh on Family Guy in 2009. It was in a weird closing bit where he and Rob Lowe appeared in bed. The Family Guy universe was revealed to take place inside the lampshade of their shared bedroom.