It's not uncommon for celebrities to play this sort of mock version of themselves on TV and in movies, often playing up some negative trait to make fun of their notoriety. Cameos are more common and usually entail the person coming off as a jerk. Occasionally, though, the part is much bigger.
Here, we highlight 13 of the best performances of actors in larger roles, either the lead or supporting character, as "themselves."
Gallery | Great Performances By Actors Playing 'Themselves'
- John Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich" (1999)
The title could have implied a documentary or biopic, but Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s surreal, mind-bending comedy merely employs John Malkovich as a kind of prop. The character is actually “John Horatio Malkovich,” the middle name being different than the real Malkovich’s Gavin. He’s also inaccurately portrayed as being single and living in New York and, most significantly, having a portal that goes into his brain.
- Paul Giamatti in ‘Cold Souls’ (2009)
Sophie Barthes’s “Cold Souls” was understandably received as a Charlie Kaufman wannabe, particularly reminiscent of “Being John Malkovich.” Only here the actor is the main protagonist. Giamatti plays a version of himself, an actor struggling with a performance who decides to free up his body by putting his soul into storage. The conceit does seem forced, almost because of the “Malkovich” success, given that unlike that other movie this one arguably would have worked just fine with a totally made up actor character as the lead.
- Neil Patrick Harris in the 'Harold and Kumar' Movies
Originally just a celebrity cameo in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” the fictionalization of “Neil Patrick Harris” was such a popular character that he’s wound up a regularly recurring part of the franchise. He even got his own character posters for “Harold & Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay” and “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas,” the latter of which also featured him on the main poster as well. His extreme self-parody of being a misogynistic drug fiend ended up being even more ridiculous a couple years after the first movie when he officially came out as gay.
- Jean-Claude Van Damme in ‘JCVD’ (2008)
There’s nothing like playing “oneself” to become relevant again. Just as NPH restarted his career thanks to his memorable self-parody, Van Damme also regained some of his fame following this starring vehicle that uses his initials as its title as well as the credit for his fictionalized character’s name. The movie imagines the Muscle From Brussels as being at a low point in his life, hardly the action star he once was, being a hostage during a bank robbery. Some of the joke of the premise is that JCVD is not quite the physically adept hero he is known for playing. He also autobiographically breaks the fourth wall to discuss his real-life marriages and drug problem.
- Steve Coogan in ‘The Trip’ (2010)
Coogan might actually be more well-known in the U.S. for playing “himself” than for playing any other character (unlike in the UK where he’s best known as Alan Partridge). He has played “Steve,” a version of his own persona in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” and in Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” and “The Trip,” the latter being the performance most easily mistaken for the real deal. Riotously joined again (as he was in “Tristram”) by fellow actor and comedian Rob Brydon, here he travels the Northern English countryside visiting restaurants for a magazine column he’s been commissioned to write. The film is actually an edited version of a lengthier TV series, which is expected to continue soon in a second season.
- Richard Pryor in ‘Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling’ (1986)
In this film, co-written, directed, produced, and starring Pryor, he plays a character named “Jo Jo Dancer.” Unlike others on this list, that’s not even remotely close to his own name and so is a good indication that it’s a fictionalization. But while not exactly autobiographical, the movie and character have been viewed as a version of Pryor’s own life and personality. It’s about a comedian who burns himself badly while freebasing cocaine, just as Pryor had done years earlier. The character is even portrayed as having grown up in a brothel, like the real star.
- Audie Murphy in ‘To Hell and Back’ (1955)
Hardly the most well-known film today, “To Hell and Back” was actually Universal’s biggest hit of all time until the release of “Jaws.” It is based on the autobiographical book of the same name by Audie Murphy, a highly decorated World War II hero who became a Western star by the 1950s (though he’s most famous as the lead in the Civil War-set adaptation of “The Red Badge of Courage”). When it came time to turn “To Hell and Back” into a movie, Murphy wasn’t interested in playing himself, especially more than 10 years older than the role called for. But he was convinced, and though it’s hard to say how fictionalized his performance is, it’s a given that even movies as based on truth as this feature a good deal of dramatic license.
- Marcello Mastroianni in ‘Intervista’ (1987)
In the Federico Fellini classic “8 ½,” Mastroianni plays a sort of fictionalized version of the Italian director. 24 years later, Fellini made another film about filmmaking, but featured himself in the main role. It’s hard to tell if he’s really performing much or if he’s simply being fairly authentic in spite of the fictional mockumentary context. Actress Anita Ekberg, the female lead of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” co-stars as herself, and she might not entirely be in on the level of fakery that she’s a part of. But Mastroianni (male lead in “La Dolce Vita”) is all performance when he shows up as himself in costume as Mandrake the Magician. It may not necessarily be self-parody but it’s definitely self-aware and self-reflexive.
- Peter Falk in ‘Wings of Desire’ (1987)
The American actor best known for playing Detective Columbo at the time has a cameo in this German film that is so extended it doesn’t quite meet the definition of the word. His fictionalized self is in Berlin to shoot a movie when he comes across the main character, an angel named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) who has been watching him. While most adults can’t see angels, Falk can because he was formerly an angel who decided to become mortal. He’s a significant part of the story, as he helps Damiel make his decision of whether or not to shrug off his wings and become a real man, too.
- Joaquin Phoenix in ‘I’m Still Here’ (2010)
Initially sold as a documentary (which we could still make a case for it being) and now considered a mockumentary, this film follows Phoenix’s pretend career change to become a rapper called “J.P.” And now that we know it to be a performance, it’s sometimes celebrated as being one of his best yet, even though his character comes across as being ridiculously unbelievable (this was true even before confirmation that it was all an act). And, as it seems to be a big part of fictionalizing oneself, he is also seen doing a lot of drugs. Interestingly enough, this movie features a number of celebrity cameos, but not all are self-parodies because some weren’t let in on the truth/joke (David Letterman in particular).
- Michael Cera in ‘Paper Heart’ (2009)
You can see Cera in “This Is the End” playing a wild parody of himself (having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs) in one of the most memorable cameo appearances of the movie. A few years earlier, he played a more normal (and genuine?) fictionalization of himself as the love interest of quirky young comedienne Charlyne Yi. The idea is that she is making a documentary with filmmaker Nicholas Jasenovec (who is the film’s real director, though on screen he is played by actor Jake Johnson) on the concept of love. While doing so, she meets Cera and then begins filming her own relationship with him. In actuality, though, Yi and Cera were never a romantic couple.
- Andy Kaufman in ‘My Breakfast with Blassie’ (1983)
It was generally difficult to tell when Kaufman was being himself or just a character -- or if “himself” was always just a character to a certain degree. His part in this hour-long film is no exception, as he appears alongside wrestler ‘Classie’ Freddie Blassie, both playing themselves, in a lampoon of the film “My Dinner With Andre.” Similarly consisting solely of conversations, there is a lot of scripted elements to “My Breakfast with Blassie” and much of the improvisations were likely more performance than a real dialogue between two real men.
- Albert Brooks in ‘Real Life’ (1979)
This under-appreciated comedy spoofs the famous original reality series “An American Family,” as a Hollywood director makes a documentary about a common household. That director is “Albert Brooks,” a loose incarnation of the actual writer/director of “Real Life,” and is played by Brooks himself. Often called the West Coast Woody Allen, Brooks as an actor has often seemed to play the same character over and over, which makes it seem as if he’s always playing himself, or at least a variation of himself. So it’s fitting that he literally does just that here. But he also plays the whole “experiment” so broadly that it’s hard to believe he’s really such a schmuck.