- Actors often transform into real-life musicians for biopics.
- Some actors go through physical transformations to play musicians like Marion Cotillard did to play Édith Piaf.
- Other actors, like Tom Hiddleston, practice with vocal coaches.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Musical legends have been brought to the big screen for decades, in biopics that range from transformative to mediocre. Finding actors who can accurately portray those artists often requires some musical training, studying of mannerisms, and physical transformations.
While some roles merely require learning some choreography and slight makeup, others are more intensive, like Jamie Foxx having his eyes glued shut to portray blind musician Ray Charles.
Here are 39 of the most notable transformations.
Anjelica Oswald contributed to a previous version of this article.
Jason Mitchell transformed into Eazy-E for “Straight Outta Compton.”
Mitchell’s transformation into the late N.W.A rapperEazy-E for “Straight Outta Compton” blew critics away. The actor “consistently out-acts the rest of the performers,” a New York Times review said. Mitchell, who has a similarly built frame to Eazy-E, gained weight, practiced a South Los Angeles accent, and learned how to rap for the role, according to the Los Angeles Times. Corey Hawkins became Dr. Dre and O’Shea Jackson Jr. transformed into his father, Ice Cube, for the film.
Tom Hiddleston played Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light.”
English actor Hiddleston transformed into the folk singer, Southern drawl and all, for “I Saw the Light.” Hiddleston stayed with singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell for five weeks and was coached in Williams’ mannerisms and singing style.
Kristen Stewart became rocker Joan Jett for “The Runaways.”
Jett and Stewart met before the movie was filmed so Stewart could learn about the rock star from the musician herself.
“The thing that came through to me was that it was important to her to capture it,” Jett told Interview Magazine. “She really wanted to nail it, so I gave her all The Runaways music that I could find; I gave her tapes of me talking…And she really soaked it in. When we were hanging out together on set, it was like I had a mirror image. Even just sitting around, we’d do the same thing at the same time.”
“Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman channeled his inner funk and broke it down as James Brown in 2014’s “Get on Up.”
The actor spent three hours in the makeup chair for his full-body prosthetics and wig to get the looks. And with the help of a vocal coach and choreographer and advice from some of Brown’s surviving relatives, as well as Mick Jagger, one of the film’s producers, Boseman gave an electrifying performance.
Jennifer Lopez’s breakout role came when she was cast as the beloved Tejano singer Selena in “Selena.”
The Puerto Rican actress was met with some backlash because of her heritage. Lopez perfected the late singer’s dialect and studied performance footage of the music sensation.
“This is someone who’s fresh in the public’s mind, so you need to do your homework on this gig,” Lopez told Entertainment Weekly.
Paul Dano played a young Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy.”
To play a younger version of the Beach Boys founder Wilson in “Love & Mercy,” Dano learned how to play piano and bass.
Wilson told the Chicago Tribune, “He looked a little bit like me at age 24. But the way he portrayed me producing records – you know? – was very factual, accurate, stimulating.”
Dano received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor. John Cusack plays an older Wilson in the film.
Jamie Foxx received universal acclaim for his portrayal of the blues legend Ray Charles in “Ray.”
He won the Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Critics’ Choice Award for best actor. To embody the blind pianist, he had to lose nearly 30 pounds and had his eyes glued shut every day.
Marion Cotillard received critical acclaim for her portrayal of French singing icon Édith Piaf in “La Vie en rose.”
She won numerous awards, including the Oscar for best actress. She wasn’t initially considered for the role. But when she met with director Olivier Dahan, he was transfixed by her eyes and how they reminded him of a photo of a teenage Piaf.
Joaquin Phoenix earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor for his portrayal of beloved country musician Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.”
He sang all of the songs in the film, mimicking Cash’s signature voice.
“Music is always part of how John communicates what he’s feeling and seeing,” Phoenix told ABC News. “And that couldn’t be faked.”
Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s breakout role was playing the Beatles member John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy.”
Based on a biography written by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird, the movie told the story of Lennon’s adolescence. It covered the relationship he had with his aunt Mimi Smith and his mother Julia Lennon, as well as the formation of his first band, the Quarrymen, which would evolve into the Beatles.
Johnson began dating Sam Taylor-Wood, the film’s director, and the two married in 2012.
Angela Bassett nailed the strong-willed Tina Turner and earned an Academy Award best actress nomination and won a Golden Globe for “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
Bassett prepared for her audition with the film’s choreographer, and after performing “Proud Mary,” she got the role. Laurence Fishburne, who played Ike Turner, also earned an Oscar nomination.
Miles Davis’ story was told on the big screen by Don Cheadle in “Miles Ahead.”
Cheadle was first roped into a biopic about Davis back in 2006 when Davis, who died in 1991, was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Afterward, Davis’ nephew said Cheadle would play his uncle in a film of his life. Cheadle eventually co-wrote a script, signed on to direct, and portrayed the jazz musician in “Miles Ahead.”
(Cheadle also portrayed Sammy Davis Jr. in 1998’s “The Rat Pack,” for which he won a Golden Globe.)
Queen Latifah became blues queen Bessie Smith for “Bessie.”
Portraying the “Empress of Blues” “left this mark on me,” Queen Latifah told NPR. The singer was praised for her role in the HBO film “Bessie,” which won an Emmy for outstanding television movie.
Jamal Woolard made his acting debut portraying Christopher Wallace aka the Notorious B.I.G. in 2009’s “Notorious.”
He reprised the role of Biggie Smalls in “All Eyez on Me,” a biopic about Tupac Shakur released in 2017.
Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace was a producer on “Notorious.” And according to MTV, she helped pick Woolard to play her son.
“He came in the room, and I said, ‘That’s my son,'” Wallace told MTV News.
John Lloyd Young originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway’s “Jersey Boys” and reprised his role in the movie adaptation of the same name.
Valli’s life as the front man of The Four Seasons has been documented on Broadway since 2005. Young won a Tony Award for his portrayal. Clint Eastwood brought the story to the big screen in 2014.
Val Kilmer played The Doors rocker Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.”
To land the role of Morrison, Kilmer made his own eight-minute video highlighting his singing abilities and changing his looks to match Morrison to send to director Oliver Stone. Once cast, he dieted for months and spent six months rehearsing songs. He also trained with Paul Rothchild, who produced all but one of The Doors’ albums. Surviving band members were not thrilled with the film.
Kurt Russell received an Emmy nomination for his memorable portrayal of Elvis Presley in the 1979 TV movie “Elvis.”
Before the movie aired, Russell reportedly told the Los Angeles Times: “I know one thing, there’s no in-between. It’s either really going to be great or really horrible, just stinking.”
It was a success. The film helped shoot Russell’s career forward.
“I said, if I’m going to do this, I’m going out in flames. I’m controlling this aeroplane,” Russell told GQ in 2016. “I’m taking it down, or I’m going to break through the clouds my way. And when I did that, that’s when I had an epiphany moment, saying, ‘Kurt, where have you been your whole life? Wake the f–k up. This is what you’re supposed to do.'”
Zoe Saldana’s transformation into Nina Simone for “Nina” was controversial.
Her skin was darkened and the filmmakers added prosthetics to make Saldana appear more like Simone.
In response to the casting choice and backlash, Simone’s daughter told Time, “It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture. It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”
But she also said she was against the making of the film.
“The project has been tainted from the very beginning,” she said. “Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life and everyone now knows that. This is not how you want your loved ones remembered.”
Dennis Quaid took on Jerry Lee Lewis for “Great Balls of Fire.”
Quaid practiced piano and took singing lessons for about three to five hours a day in order to learn how to imitate Lewis’ piano skills. Though Lewis wasn’t a big fan of the film according to AMC, Lewis said Quaid “really pulled it off.”
Gary Busey scored his first and only Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Buddy Holly in 1978’s “The Buddy Holly Story.”
He played the guitar and recorded the songs for the film, as well as lost 32 pounds to play Holly, according to Busey’s biography.
Jessica Lange received high praise for her transformative performance as Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams.”
She earned her fourth Oscar nomination for the role.
Meryl Streep wanted to play Cline, but later said, “When I saw [‘Sweet Dreams’] … I couldn’t imagine doing it as well or even coming close to what Jessica did because she was so amazing in it.”
Gary Oldman portrayed the late Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy: Love Kills.”
Goldman beat out Daniel Day Lewis for the part and initially turned down the chance to play Vicious. But after accepting the role, he started to lose weight to mimic Vicious’ skeletal body. According to GQ, the actor wasn’t eating enough and collapsed in his car, too weak to move.
He told Playboy that he doesn’t like himself in the film.
“I don’t think I played Sid Vicious very well,” he said.
Joe Mantegna played Dean Martin in the TV film “The Rat Pack,” earning a Golden Globe and Emmy nomination for his role.
About playing the role, Mantegna said, “My goal wasn’t to mimic him. It was to capture him.”
Sissy Spacek earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of country singer Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Lynn had chosen Spacek to play her based on a photo she saw of the actress. To prepare for the role, Spacek travelled with Lynn for a year to study how she spoke and sang. Spacek did all her own singing in the movie.
Lou Diamond Phillips’ breakout role was playing the late Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba.”
The biopic about the teen musician earned a Golden Globe nomination. Los Lobos singer David Hidalgo lent his vocals to the film, while Phillips lip-synced the words. A guitar instructor was also on-set to coach him on strumming the guitar.
Diana Ross transformed into Billie Holiday for “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Ross, a famous musician in her own right, played Holiday in this 1972 biographical movie based on Holiday’s autobiography of the same name. The movie was nominated for five Oscars, including best actress in a leading role.
Marc Anthony played salsa singer Héctor Lavoe in 2006’s “El Cantante.”
The biopic was told from the perspective of Lavoe’s wife Puchi, who was played by Jennifer Lopez. The movie was controversial for focusing on Lavoe’s drug addiction and death from AIDS, which he contracted through sharing needles.
Ethan Hawke learned trumpet basics to portray Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue.”
Trumpeter Ben Promane helped Hawke grasp basic trumpet skills and taught him how to look like he played the trumpet with his front teeth missing, like Baker. The movie was more drama than biopic though.
Michael Douglas won an Emmy for playing flamboyant pianist Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra.”
The movie was based on the memoir “Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace,” written by Scott Thorson, Liberace’s lover later in life. Matt Damon plays Thorson in the movie. Douglas didn’t actually play the piano for the film.
David Carradine played folk singer Woody Guthrie in the Oscar-winning movie “Bound for Glory.”
Aside from Guthrie and his first wife Mary, most of the people and events portrayed in the movie are fictional. The movie earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture, and won for music and cinematography.
Rami Malek played Queen front man Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The “Mr. Robot” star played the musician in the biographical movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” named after Queen’s hit song. The film followed 15 years of Mercury’s life – from the band’s beginnings to six years before his death. Malek won an Oscar, Golden Globe, and SAG Award for his portrayal.
Renée Zellweger starred as Judy Garland in “Judy.”
Taron Egerton played Elton John in “Rocketman.”
The Elton John biopic “Rocketman” is about John’s rise to musical acclaim starting from his years at the Royal Academy of Music. Jamie Bell, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Richard Madden also starred in the movie.
Daniel Webber played Vince Neil, Mötley Crüe’s singer, in Netflix’s “The Dirt.”
The Netflix movie is a biopic about how rock band Mötley Crüe formed and rose to fame.
Douglas Booth played Nikki Sixx, Mötley Crüe’s bassist, in “The Dirt.”
“The Dirt” is adapted from the autobiographical book “The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band,” authored by Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss.
Iwan Rheon played Mick Mars, Mötley Crüe’s guitarist, in “The Dirt.”
Rights to the book were first bought in 2006, but the film moved around to various studios until Netflix bought the rights in 2017.
Machine Gun Kelly transformed into Tommy Lee, Mötley Crüe’s drummer, for “The Dirt.”
“The Dirt” was released on Netflix on Friday, March 22.
“The Walking Dead” star Christian Serratos will portray Selena Quintanilla in a new Netflix series.
In November 2019, Netflix shared a first look at the actress transforming into Quintanilla for “Selena: The Series.” The show will debut on the streaming service on Friday, December 4, 2020.
Jennifer Hudson will star as “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin in an upcoming biopic.
The first teaser for the film, titled “Respect,” was released in December 2019 and showed the Grammy-winning singer performing the titular track.
“Respect” hit theatres in 2021 and the actress previously said that the late singer specifically asked Hudson to portray her.
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