Stars who played real people
Joe Exotic, of the Netflix documentary "Tiger King," gripped the attention of viewers when the series premiered in March 2020. He's a big-cat trader, a failed gubernatorial candidate and, at the time of this publication, an inmate in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. He's exactly the kind of character you'd expect Nicolas Cage to play — which might be why Cage signed on to play the eccentric real-life Tiger King in an eight-part scripted series.
Sometimes when actors play real people, their performances become intertwined with the way we think about those real people and their stories. Quick: What does Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell look like? If you thought of Tom Hanks, you're probably not alone. Keep reading to see more actors who have played real people.
Credit: Left: Netflix; Right: George Pimentel/WireImage
Joe Exotic - Nicolas Cage
In May 2020, the "National Treasure" star was cast as Joe Schreibvogel, aka Joe Exotic. Schreibvogel was convicted of animal abuse and murder-for-hire. The Cage-fronted project will be based on the Texas Monthly article, "Joe Exotic: A Dark Journey Into the World of a Man Gone Wild."
This is the first TV role for the Academy Award-winning Cage, who seems to share Joe Exotic's affinity for unusual pets. Through the years, Cage has owned an octopus and king cobras.
Credit: Left: Netflix; Right: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Ray Charles - Jamie Foxx
For his 2004 "Ray" transformation, Foxx lost 30 pounds. The actor had his eyes glued shut to experience temporary blindness.
"Once I got down to that weight, and when we got the hair together, and I put those shades on, and I listened to that music, I said, 'Watch out. Something is about to happen,'" he said.
Credit: Left: Express Newspapers/Getty Images; Right: Universal Pictures
Judy Garland - Renée Zellweger
YouTube provided a wealth of information for Zellweger when she portrayed the legendary singer and movie star in "Judy," the 2019 biopic treatment of Garland's life.
"I had the YouTube videos, and I put it so it reflected in a mirror, and I stood next to it, and I was watching the YouTube videos and I was doing my best to emulate [her], and I started to recognize that there were little movements that she would go back to, and I thought, 'Oh, this is her language,'" Zellweger said.
The actress won an Oscar for her performance in 2020.
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Marilyn Monroe - Michelle Williams
Williams portrayed the blonde bombshell in the 2011 film "My Week With Marilyn." To achieve Monroe's signature wiggle-walk, Williams practiced by tying a belt around her knees.
"There was a sort of a sense of a figure eight to her walk, that her shoulders were back, it looked like she had a sort of — like a balloon was attached to her breastbone," Williams said.
"Her nipples were always pointed up... That was the work that I wanted to start as early as possible, because I don't want any of those thoughts to be anywhere in my mind when I'm in the middle of a scene. I don't wanna be thinking, 'Point your nipples up.'"
Credit: Left: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Right: The Weinstein Company
O.J. Simpson - Cuba Gooding Jr.
Gooding Jr. chose not to contact the former football hero while researching his role for Ryan Murphy's 2016 series "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson." The show focuses on the infamous 1995 murder trial, during which Simpson was acquitted for the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
"I'm playing him at his most flamboyant, charismatic self. If I played him today, then I'd [have] probably visited fifty times but no, this was at a time in his career where he was in a different state of mind," the Oscar-winning actor told ET Online.
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Freddie Mercury - Rami Malek
Malek's performing chops in the 2019 biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" got him the Oscar for best actor. But he wouldn't have been able to nail the transformation without the artistry of hair and makeup.
The "Mr. Robot" star was outfitted with fake teeth, a prosthetic nose, a false mustache, and fake chest hair to become the Queen frontman. A special-effects team created a 3D print of Malek's head to ensure the items would fit.
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Fred Rogers - Tom Hanks
The "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" star told NPR that he watched about "eight million hours" of "Mister Rogers" programming to portray beloved children's TV host Fred Rogers in the 2019 film. Hanks was later nominated for an Academy Award.
Hanks and Rogers are distant cousins. According to Ancestry.com, the two share the same fifth great grandfather, making them sixth cousins.
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Elton John - Taron Egerton
The "Kingsman" star used his own voice to sing all the Elton John tunes in the 2019 biopic "Rocketman." He counts "Benny and the Jets" and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" among his favorites.
Egerton found that wearing many of the singer's costumes and zany everyday looks "liberating."
"I think there is something quite freeing about just sort of going 'To hell with it, I am going to wear what I like'," the actor told ET Online.
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Ted Bundy - Zac Efron
The "High School Musical" star took on his darkest role yet when he transformed into notorious serial killer Ted Bundy for the 2019 Netflix movie "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile."
To look the part, Efron lost 13 pounds by cutting carbs and cycling every morning. The "Hairspray" star also hid his pearly whites behind fake crooked and yellowing teeth.
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Queen Anne - Olivia Colman
Colman won a 2018 Academy Award for best actress for her performance as the demanding, petulant 18th century queen in "The Favourite."
This is not the first time Colman has played royalty...
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Queen Elizabeth II - Olivia Colman
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Al Capone - Tom Hardy
The "Mad Max: Fury Road" actor portrayed the aging, notorious Chicago mob boss Al Capone in the 2020 film, "Capone."
Besides Hardy, 16 other actors — including Robert De Niro — have played the Windy City's most famous gangster in a major film, going back to Rod Steiger with the movie "Al Capone" in 1959.
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Sharon Tate - Margot Robbie
It was the Australian actress who first reached out to Quentin Tarantino, but not by email or text. Before casting began for "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood," she hand-wrote a letter telling him how much she enjoyed his movies.
The "Pulp Fiction" director invited her to meet and talk about his upcoming projects.
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Megyn Kelly - Charlize Theron
A lot of work went into transforming the "Long Shot" star into Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for the 2019 drama "Bombshell."
Theron wore colored contacts and eyelid prosthetics to mimic Kelly's facial structure. A cast was made of the inside of Theron's nose, to make nose plugs that would widen her nostrils. Theron also donned a fake chin and a few different wigs (Kelly had different hair styles through the years) that lowered her hairline.
Credit: Left: Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News via Getty Images; Right: Denver and Delilah Productions
Eli Cohen - Sacha Baron Cohen
The actor Sacha Baron Cohen is a master of disguise. The actor portrayed real-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen in the Netflix series "The Spy."
Not everyone was happy with the show, namely Eli Cohen's widow. Nadia Cohen told Reuters that the show misrepresented her life in Israel while her husband was away, and that the creative license taken "raised [her] blood pressure."
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Gloria Steinem - Rose Byrne
The Australian actress portrays feminist icon Steinem in the 2020 FX series "Mrs. America." To achieve the human rights leader's Midwestern accent, Byrne worked with a vocal coach from the Juilliard School for more than two months.
Byrne did not consult Steinem for the part and instead relied on the activist's book, "My Life on the Road" and Carolyn Heilbrun's "The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem."
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Tonya Harding - Margot Robbie
To prepare for her role as the figure skating champ in 2017's "I, Tonya," Robbie consulted with the real-life sports star, who told her to skip leg day and focus mainly on her core strength. The "Suicide Squad" actress did 100 sit-ups a day and studied videos of Harding's life, career and performances for more than a year.
Credit: Left: Focus on Sport/Getty Images; Right: LuckyChap Entertainment
Robert Kardashian - David Schwimmer
The "Friends" star returned to TV to portray O.J. Simpson's best friend, lawyer and Kardashian patriarch (yes, those Kardashians) Robert Kardashian, in "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson."
Kardashian's ex-wife, Kris Jenner, was played by Selma Blair. Since then, Blair and Jenner have formed a friendship.
Credit: Left: Lee Celano/WireImage; Right: FX
Richard Jewell - Paul Walter Hauser
Comic actor Jonah Hill was originally in talks to star in the Clint Eastwood-directed project, but Hauser ultimately was cast in the titular role. Hill signed on as one of the producers.
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Jim Morrison - Val Kilmer
Kilmer lent his own vocals for some of the songs in the 1991 biopic "The Doors." The "Batman" star played Doors frontman in the film, which followed the singer's life from college to his untimely death.
Credit: Left: Chris Walter/WireImage; Right: TriStar Pictures
Selena Quintanilla-Pérez - Jennifer Lopez
To prepare for the titular role in the 1997 biopic "Selena," Lopez spent time with the late singer's family, even staying a week with the performer's sister at her home in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"We basically just hung out," Suzette Quintanilla told ET Online of her experience with J-Lo. "She was just wanting to hear stories about Selena and our lives together and being on the road. She asked a lot of questions, 'How was this? How did she do this?'"
"We watched videos together and I guess, [she] really just trying to vibe our family... not just who Selena was as a person, but us as a whole, as a family."
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Roger Ailes - John Lithgow
To physically transform into the Fox News chief, Lithgow donned a six-piece facial prosthetic. The prosthetics were done by Kazu Hiro, the same special-effects makeup artist who turned Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for the 2017 film "Darkest Hour."
Credit: Left: Getty Images; Right: Denver and Delilah Productions
Julia Child - Meryl Streep
Streep said she didn't have to prepare too much to play the iconic home chef in the 2009 film "Julie and Julia." While she did watch early episodes of "The French Chef" — Child's first cooking show — she made sure to give herself room to play with her depiction of the kitchen icon.
"In our film, I am a figment of someone's imagination ... I'm a fantasy Julia Child. That was my out, anyway. I didn't have to be absolutely dead-on," she said.
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Malcolm X - Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington portrayed the human-rights activist in the 2001 biopic "Malcolm X."
But this was not the first time Washington was in a production centered around the Muslim minister. In the early '90s, Washington played the civil rights figure in a New York City stage production called "When the Chickens Come Home to Roost."
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Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme - Dakota Fanning
The former child star played the Manson follower in the 2019 Quentin Tarantino movie "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood." Spahn Ranch owner George Spahn — played in the movie by Bruce Dern — gave Fromme the nickname because of the sound she made when he touched her.
The film scored Tarantino his biggest opening weekend ever.
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Winston Churchill - Gary Oldman
Oldman said he worked 19-hour days on the set of the 2017 Winston Churchill biopic "Darkest Hour." These grueling days included hours of prosthetic and makeup applications to transform into the former British Prime Minister.
"If you're going to do a part like this, you can't go in kicking and screaming about the makeup. You've got to surrender to it," Oldman said. "Maybe day 45 you come in, you're sleep deprived and you're a bit grumpy. But the fruits of it were such that I could put myself in a frame of mind.
"Once it was all in, I was in it. I had a ball. My thinking was that if at 65, Churchill could take on Hitler, then I could sit in a makeup chair for three hours."
Credit: Left: Walter Stoneman/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Right: Working Title Films
Dick Cheney - Christian Bale
Bale gained 40 pounds to play the former vice president for the 2018 film "Vice."
Bale is no stranger to taxing physical transformations for movie roles. The actor lost 60 pounds for the 2004 film "The Machinist." He bulked up again to play Bruce Wayne, but he also had to shrink down to 122 pounds for his role in the 2010 film "The Fighter."
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George W. Bush - Sam Rockwell
Rockwell received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the former U.S. president, in the 2018 Dick Cheney biopic "Vice."
The actor and Bush are actually (very distantly) related. According to Ancestry.com, the actor and the politician are eighth cousins, once removed. The two share a common Dutch ancestor who planted familial roots in upstate New York.
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Billie Jean King - Emma Stone
Stone and Steve Carell were strikingly close in age to the athletes they portrayed in the 2017 biopic "Battle of the Sexes," about the most-watched televised tennis match of all time. Stone was 28 and Carell, who played Bobby Riggs, was 54.
At the time of the famous 1973 match, King was 29 and Riggs was 55.
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Aileen Wuornos - Charlize Theron
To look more like the notorious murderer, the typically über-glamorous Theron gained 25 to 30 pounds and shaved off her eyebrows.
"I was so concerned about wanting to stay so true to Aileen, every decision that we made, we never forgot Aileen. When I saw it and when I see it today, I'm just really proud of what Toni G, our makeup artist, did," Theron said.
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Gwen Verdon - Michelle Williams
Williams danced and sang as Bob Fosse's muse, Gwen Verdon, for the 2019 FX drama "Fosse/Verdon." This was not the actress' first time performing in a Fosse musical. In 2014, Williams played Sally Bowles in the Sam Mendes-directed "Cabaret" on Broadway. The cast included Alan Cumming and Danny Burstein.
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Stephen Hawking - Eddie Redmayne
To become Stephen Hawking for the 2014 biopic, "The Theory of Everything," Redmayne trained with a dancer for four months, learning how to control his body. He also visited ALS patients to learn about the stages of muscle decline and practiced facial movements for hours.
Credit: Left: Santi Visalli/Getty Images; Right: Universal Pictures
Ruth Bader Ginsburg - Felicity Jones
Before Jones starred as the Supreme Court justice in the 2018 film "On the Basis of Sex," she studied Ginsburg's features in-depth. Jones wore teeth caps to more closely resemble her character.
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Katharine Hepburn - Cate Blanchett
Before starring in the 2004 film "The Aviator," Blanchett watched a marathon of Hepburn's first 15 films.
She also practiced some of Hepburn's favorite activities to get into the role. Notably, Blanchett learned to play tennis.
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Steve Jobs - Michael Fassbender
Director Danny Boyle was so shocked by Fassbender's transformation into the Apple founder that he didn't even recognize him when he first came to the 2015 "Steve Jobs" set in costume.
Audiences were less amazed. The film was a box-office flop. It spent a total of five weeks in theaters, two of them in wide release, before it was pulled from most screens.
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Tom Hulce
Credit: Left: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Right: The Saul Zaentz Company
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - Natalie Portman
Portman played the iconic first lady in the 2016 biopic "Jackie." Fifteen other actresses have portrayed Onassis on film, including Blair Brown, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Katie Holmes and Minka Kelly.
Credit: Left: Bettmann/Getty Images; Right: LD Entertainment
Jim Lovell - Tom Hanks
Hanks has played many real people, including Walt Disney, Charlie Wilson, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, Captain Richard Phillips and Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell.
Although they are all very different, each with their own story, Hanks told ET Online that he was able to find a common thread for all of them. They're all "undergoing the great crisis of their business lives," he said.
Credit: Left: Time Life Pictures/NASA/Getty Images; Right: Universal Pictures
Debra Newell - Connie Britton
Britton played Debra Newell, a Southern California mom being scammed by a dangerous, drug-addicted con man, in the 2018 TV adaptation of the Wondery podcast "Dirty John."
Credit: Charles Sykes/NBCUniversal via Getty Images; Right: Neflix
Andrew Cunanan - Darren Criss
Criss played the infamous murderer for the 2018 Ryan Murphy FX series, "American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace." The show won seven Emmys and two Golden Globe awards, one of which Criss earned for best actor in a mini-series.
Criss has worked on four TV series with Murphy during his career, including "Glee," "American Horror Story," and "Hollywood."
Credit: Left: H/O/AFP via Getty Images; Right: FX
Margaret Thatcher - Meryl Streep
Streep became the British prime minister for the 2011 drama "The Iron Lady." To achieve the look, the actress wore a prosthetic nose designed by Mark Coulier. Coulier is best known for creating all of Ralph Fiennes' prosthetics for the Harry Potter character Voldemort.
Credit: Left: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images; Right: Pathé
Abraham Lincoln - Daniel Day Lewis
Lincoln historian Harold Holzer claims that Daniel Day Lewis is the only film actor to accurately imitate the 16th U.S. president's voice. Lewis played the politician in the 2012 movie "Lincoln."
"The most frequent things we read are that he had a nasal voice, a high voice, but that somehow, miraculously, it floated over large crowds," Holzer said. "I think it's extraordinary. I think it's uncanny, and I think it's chilling, and I wish we can have somebody come back from the 1860s and say, 'That's the guy!'"
Credit: Left: US National Archives/Getty Images; Right: DreamWorks Pictures
Anita Hill - Kerry Washington
Washington was still starring in the series "Scandal" while filming the 2016 HBO feature-length drama "Confirmation."
Her Shondaland character, Olivia Pope, is partially based off of real-life crisis management expert and White House Deputy Press Secretary Judy Smith. Smith is portrayed in "Confirmation" by Kristen Ariza.
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Johnny Cash - Joaquin Phoenix
Phoenix did his own singing and learned to play guitar for his role in the 2005 movie "Walk the Line." The film's soundtrack sold more than 1 million copies and won a Grammy Award.
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June Carter - Reese Witherspoon
Witherspoon almost dropped out of "Walk the Line" when she learned that she would have to sing. The "Big Little Lies" actress attributes her aversion to singing to summer camp and being told she didn't have a good voice.
"When I found out I was singing, I was terribly intimidated, and to overcome that fear, that I sort of took to heart, was really a big accomplishment for me," she said.
Credit: Left: GAB Archive/Redferns; Right: Fox 2000 Pictures
Princess Diana - Naomi Watts
Watts wore some of Princess Diana's real clothing for her titular role in the 2013 drama "Diana." She may have looked the part, but the British press tore the movie apart for its "bland" dialogue and fictionalized happenings.
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Madam C.J. Walker - Octavia Spencer
Spencer found the early 1900s-style costumes she had to wear for the 2020 Netflix series "Self Made" to be incredibly uncomfortable.
"A lot of underwear, boots, petticoats, corsets, long skirts," Spencer told ET Online. "I'm so glad that we burned bras, and in my life, it's about burning those corsets."
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"Little Edie" aka Edith Bouvier Beale - Drew Barrymore
Barrymore wore blue contacts, a fake nose and fake teeth to play "Little Edie," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' first cousin, in the 2009 film "Grey Gardens." In an interview with Elle, Bill Corso, the prosthetics supervisor for the film, said Barrymore lost so much weight during filming that they had to fill out her costumes with padding to give her the right look.
Credit: Left: Archive Photos/Getty Images; Right: HBO
"Big Edie" aka Edith Bouvier Beale - Jessica Lange
In the 1975 "Grey Gardens" documentary, the real Little Edie is asked by director David Maysles who she would like to see play her mother in a movie about their lives.
Despite having been dead for more than a decade, Ethel Barrymore, Drew Barrymore's great aunt, was one suggestion thrown out to play Big Edie. Jessica Lange, who was 26 in 1975, ended up playing Big Edie decades later.
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Gretchen Carlson - Naomi Watts
Both Watts and Nicole Kidman played journalist Gretchen Carlson on screen in the year 2019. Kidman played the role in the movie "Bombshell," and Watts played Carlson on the small screen for "The Loudest Voice."
In real life, Carlson and Watts are friends. "When we met at the premiere of 'Loudest Voice,' it was like we had been friends for years, because she had studied so much about my life, because she couldn't talk to me," she said.
"So she understood me, and she wrote a wonderful Instagram message to me afterward about my bravery and courage," Carlson told ET Online.
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