A Brief History of Actors Playing Themselves


The pop cultural impact of 30 Rock can be felt in many ways, but the most improbable of them all is that Alec Baldwin is somehow cool all of a sudden. As we reported earlier this week, Baldwin is going to appear in James Toback’s new film — a mockumentary about the Cannes Film Festival — and he’ll be playing himself. Of course, there’s an argument to be made that he plays himself in 30 Rock anyway — but in any case, the news got us thinking about the whole idea of actors playing themselves, which seems to have been undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years. Here are a few of the most notable examples, good and bad.

Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD)

Who’d have thought that perhaps the finest “as himself” performance of the last decade would come from Jean-Claude Van Damme? We’re actually pretty big fans of Van Damme’s early martial arts films — Bloodsport is a genre classic — but even so, we’d be lying if we ever expected a performance quite as good as the one he puts in here as down-at-heel aging action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. As in, serious talk of actual Oscar nominations good. Funny old world, etc.

Tom Jones (Mars Attacks)

We have a soft spot for Tom Jones anyway, so his unexpected appearance as himself in Mars Attacks only added to the already surreal and whacked-out appeal of this relic of the days when Tim Burton actually made good films.

Steve Coogan (A Cock and Bull Story)

The thing with Steve Coogan is that because he’s best known in the USA for a) Alan Partidge, b) dating Courtney Love and c) verbally disembowelling the nasty little man from the News of the World last year, his talents as an actor tend to get overlooked. He did a fine job playing himself in this adaption of Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which isn’t as silly a statement as it sounds — his gently self-satirising role as Steve Coogan came in addition to two other roles, those of Walter Shandy and the eponymous Tristan, all of which he carried off with aplomb.

Al Pacino (Jack and Jill)

Conversely, how far south has poor Al Pacino’s career gone these days? He got nominated for a Razzie award for Worst Supporting Actor for this… playing himself.

Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm)

There’s been a slew of meta-television of late, but surely no show has taken up the idea and run with it quite like Curb Your Enthusiasm: a show about TV executive Larry David trying to come up with a show to follow up his ultra-successful ’90s comedy Seinfeld, starring Larry David as, yes, Larry David. The show even addressed his real-life divorce, which constitutes going above and beyond as far as we’re concerned.

Jerry Seinfeld (Seinfeld)

And speaking of Seinfeld, this is the show that arguably started — or at least popularised — the whole idea of meta-television. Now that virtually everyone on the planet has seen Seinfeld a bazillion times, it’s easy to forget that it was quite the revolutionary concept in its time — a show as surprisingly bleak and bizarre as it was hilarious, a show that was as the famous PR phrase went, “about nothing”, starring a hitherto largely unknown comedian as himself. The idea didn’t exactly have “sure-fire hit” written all over it, put it that way.

Woody Allen (every Woody Allen film, ever)

Sure, the characters aren’t called “Woody Allen”, but Allen has basically made a career out of playing a creepily priapic neurotic New Yorker for half a century. We’re well aware that he has a legion of fans, but honestly, if we never see him stuttering and stammering through an excruciating oh-look-how-awkward-I-am scene again, it’ll be too soon.

Bruce Campbell (My Name is Bruce)

In which aging B movie star Bruce Campbell battles the unleashed Chinese god of the dead, all the while believing he’s actually in a film, albeit one that does suffer from a mysterious lack of script, cameras, etc. Hilarity ensues.

Everyone in Coffee and Cigarettes

We’re particularly partial to the hugely conversation between Iggy Pop and a particularly surly Tom Waits, and also Cate Blanchett going on a squirm-inducingly awkward date with herself. (As an aside, we heart Cate Blanchett. She’s always good.)

John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich)

And yes, of course, the all-time classic. Malkovich! Malkovich Malkovich!