In 2022, Tinseltown’s most gonzo, eccentric, and all-round WTF A-lister Nicolas Cage appeared on screen in his most out-there role yet: himself. In the black comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the Academy Award winner plays a fictionalized ‘Nicolas Cage,’ who gets caught up in a CIA mission involving his richest and most dangerous super-fan (Pedro Pascal).
Of course, the prolific actor isn’t the first Hollywood star to go super-meta. From horror-comedies to existential thrillers, here are some films which feature interesting performances by actors who didn’t exactly require much preparation for their parts.
1., 2., 3., 4., and 5. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, and James Franco // This Is the End (2013)
A gimp-masked Channing Tatum and axe-wielding Emma Watson are just some of the celebs proving they don’t take themselves too seriously in 2013’s star-studded This Is the End. But it’s the Judd Apatow brigade of Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, James Franco, and Danny McBride who share top billing in this most audacious of bromance comedies. Their fictionalized versions have to dodge everything from sinkholes to demonic possession after a Hollywood party rudely gets interrupted by a biblical apocalypse.
6. Joaquin Phoenix // I’m Still Here (2010)
There was initially some debate about whether 2010’s I’m Still Here was a real-life portrait of an actor who’d lost his senses or simply a joke stretched way beyond its breaking point. In the end, it proved to be the latter—but it’s still a surprise that Joaquin Phoenix’s career ever recovered.
The Oscar winner tests the patience of everyone (save for equally self-indulgent director Casey Affleck) with his scraggly-bearded, rapper-from-hell reinvention. I’m Still Here was apparently supposed to be a satire of the relationship between celebrity and the media. Instead, it’s more of a pretentious byproduct of two Sacha Baron Cohen wannabes with way too much time on their hands.
7. Paul Giamatti // Cold Souls (2009)
It’s the kind of outlandish Method tactic we can imagine Jared Leto gleefully embracing. But in this Charlie Kaufman-esque dramedy, it’s a fictionalized Paul Giamatti who essentially freezes his soul to inhabit that of a Russian poet, in turn inspiring an incredible lead performance in a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
The spiritual-tampering tale gets even weirder when the thespian discovers his original soul has been stolen by traffickers, mistaken for Al Pacino’s, and inhabited by an aspiring Russian actress. Giamatti has no qualms about presenting himself as an irascible sad sack or the kind of character actor who you half-recognize by face but not by name.
8. Michael Cera // Paper Heart (2009)
Your enjoyment of 2009’s Paper Heart will depend entirely on your tolerance for unashamedly twee indie cinema. This curious blend works as both a fictional rom-com and soul-searching documentary, and sees stand-up Charlyne Yi attempt to determine whether true love really does exist, only to find it via a chance encounter with Michael Cera. Well, kind of.
Although Yi’s interviews with the general public are presumably real, her road trip romance with the Arrested Development star appears to be entirely for the cameras, with both parties riffing on their self-conscious true-life personas to offbeat effect.
9. Bruce Campbell // My Name Is Bruce (2008)
Bruce Campbell could never be accused of simply turning up for the paycheck in this 2008 horror comedy. The cult filmmaker favorite produced, directed, and starred in this tale, which was undoubtedly catnip to The Evil Dead obsessives, but perhaps slightly alienating to everyone else. Campbell the performer is by far the best thing about the film; he stars as a washed-up B-movie star tasked with saving a mining town from a malevolent force by fans who can’t separate fact from fiction.
10. Jean-Claude Van Damme // JCVD (2008)
Who knew that Jean-Claude Van Damme had some pretty impressive acting muscles, too? Yes, after 20 years of competing with Steven Seagal for second-tier action movie supremacy, the “Muscles from Brussels” surprised everyone with a world-weary, self-aware performance that Time magazine hailed as one of 2008’s very best.
Van Damme still briefly gets to show off his martial arts skills, notably in a brief fantasy sequence that brings his ambiguous involvement in a post office robbery to a close. But by inhabiting a destitute, self-pitying version of himself rejected by even his own daughter, it’s his way with words that impresses the most, particularly an astounding six-minute, fourth wall-breaking monologue which completely deconstructs his persona.
11. Steve Coogan // Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story (2005)
Steve Coogan appears to like nothing more than playing Steve Coogan: He’s done so in the Jim Jarmusch anthology Coffee and Cigarettes (2003); the horror comedy Darkwood Manor (2011); and 2010’s food-tour sitcom The Trip (along with its follow-ups). A Cock and Bull Story also saw Coogan first team up with his The Trip co-star Rob Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom for another heavily improvised, self-knowing tale.
The comedians gladly send themselves up as egotistical actors battling for dominance while filming an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, itself a metafictional classic. Various dream sequences, flashbacks, and scenes from the film-within-a-film only further blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality.
12. John Malkovich // Being John Malkovich (1999)
Music video maestro Spike Jonze proved he was just as stylish, smart, and strange as a movie director with this hallucinatory debut. One of the finest films in a vintage year, 1999’s Being John Malkovich stars John Cusack as a struggling puppeteer who discovers a portal into the eponymous thespian’s brain. Cusack’s wife (a virtually unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), desirable colleague (Catherine Keener), and a 19th century Irish captain (Orson Bean) are just some of the oddballs who subsequently inhabit Malkovich’s mind, understandably driving the actor to the brink of existential despair. Remarkably, things get even weirder when the Oscar nominee enters the tunnel where he’s confronted by a nightmarish sea of replicas uttering nothing but ‘Malkovich.’
13. Howard Stern // Private Parts (1997)
Before 1997’s Private Parts, Howard Stern’s previous acting experience had been restricted to a cameo in Ryder P.I. (1986) and sketches in various VHS specials with names like Butt Bongo Fiesta. As such, hopes weren’t particularly high when the shock jock announced he’d be playing himself for a biopic of his rise to fame/infamy. However, Stern acquits himself relatively well in a film which doesn’t shy away from the more problematic aspects of his career.
14. Arnold Schwarzenegger // Last Action Hero (1993)
This 1993 flop was considered the one that ended Arnold Schwarzenegger’s golden streak. But three decades on and you could argue the self-referential blockbuster was simply ahead of its time: The Austrian Oak pulls double duty as Jack Slater, an invincible—but entirely fictional—LAPD cop whose movie world bubble gets burst by a teenage moviegoer propelled into the screen.
Things get even weirder, though, when the pair journey back into the real world to save a self-quoting Schwarzenegger from being assassinated at the premiere of the film they’ve just escaped from. Confused? You should be. But Last Action Hero is far smarter than its six Razzie nominations suggest.
15. Audie Murphy // To Hell and Back (1955)
Combat soldier Audie Murphy was not a “celebrity” in the traditional sense, but he was widely known as one of the United States’s most decorated WWII servicemen. He gained fame in 1945 after fending off an entire company of German soldiers at the Colmar Pocket in France for an hour entirely on his own. But the real-life Captain America initially wanted Tony Curtis to portray his heroics in the 1955 adaptation of his memoir.
Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Murphy was eventually persuaded to relive his traumatic experiences himself, lending the resulting movie—Jesse Hibbs’s To Hell and Back (1955)—an authenticity unmatched by many other war movies of the era. Murphy also bagged 10 percent of the profits, 60 percent of the studio rights, and a $100,000 paycheck for taking part in the movie, suggesting he was just as shrewd a negotiator as he was a military man.