We can never get enough of our favorite actors, so when they take on multiple roles in the same film, it’s a cause for special celebration. Assigning more than one character to a single actor is both a gamble and a sign of ultimate trust in his or her talent. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it flops, but when it works well film lovers are given a real treat
Often, the setup is that the characters are twins, which gives an actor the chance to showcase their talent for a range of personalities in one neat package. At other times, the literary motif of the double comes into play, and the performer gets to become the sinister antagonist to his or her own hero. And sometimes, an actor is just given multiple fun characters to make the most of in extravagant fashion.
When it comes to movies with one actor playing multiple roles, film lovers have been given some great material. We’ve picked some of the very best examples for this list, and hope you enjoy remembering these great performances which were (at least) twice as nice.
10. Jesse Eisenberg in The Double (2013)
In this modern retelling of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novella The Double, Jesse Eisenberg pulls double duty as a man at war with his doppelgänger. On its surface, the trope of the doppelgänger features a person confronting his or her evil twin; but the implications run much deeper than fraternal flesh and blood.
The double which appears is often meant to represent one’s darker nature, which has received energy and taken form as the result of being denied through pride or sublimation.
In The Double, the identical twin of a meek office worker storms into his life, threatening to wreck it in the process. The physically indistinguishable newcomer is psychologically everything that the introverted protagonist is not, but often wishes he could be. He is popular with women, adored by his boss, and antagonistic toward his prototype, who can only watch in horror as his quiet life unravels before his eyes. Eisenberg channels both contrasting personalities with skill, creating two equally believable characters in this darkly comic horror story.
9. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)
One of the most acclaimed executions of multiple roles belongs to Jeremy Irons in this twisted tale from the mind of David Cronenberg. In Dead Ringers, Irons plays twins who jointly run a medical clinic specializing in female fertility problems. We’re not led to believe that either one of these identical brothers are figments of anyone’s imagination, and they seem to be actual siblings. But, intriguingly, their personalities are starkly contrasted in almost every aspect.
When the more confident and outgoing brother begins a romantic relationship with one of their patients, he encourages his introverted twin to take advantage of the situation and start spending time with her. But when the imposter develops an emotional attachment to the woman, fraternal tensions begin to surface.
When the unsuspecting patient starts harboring suspicions about the game being played on her, the lives of all three are threatened with devastation. Jeremy Irons is given an ideal vehicle to showcase his considerable skills as the Dead Ringers.
8. Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror (1946)
Robert Siodmak, one of the great unsung masters of suspense, is the director of this psychological thriller. Olivia de Havilland immerses herself in two roles as “Twins! One who loves…and one who loves to kill!”, as an original advertisement described it. Siodmak made a number of great films with a unique stamp of noir horror that put him on the map, and The Dark Mirror carries on that tradition in fine style.
Olivia de Havilland plays the identical twins who have a strange lifestyle that includes sharing the same job and frequently changing places with each other whenever they please. But when they both become entangled in a murder mystery, their perfectly planned lives begin to fall apart under scrutiny. A persistent detective and an expert in the study of twins delve into the case determined to find if, and which one of, the twins may have done the unthinkable and perhaps ruined the lives of them both.
7. Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (2002)
Nicolas Cage has taken on an astonishing range of roles over the years, but rarely has he been better than as the identical twins in Adaptation. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, this film is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and a surprisingly profound philosophical reflection.
While it flirts with the danger of its self-aware artistic commentary distracting from the film’s potential, Adaptation manages to stay within the lanes and avoid a collision with itself. The result is a truly touching story with brilliant acting from the legendary Meryl Streep and the always underrated Chris Cooper which more than matches Cage’s own performances.
Cage’s twins are technically identical, though their lifestyles and mindsets have led to differences in their appearance and attitudes. Charlie is a struggling but brilliant screenplay writer who is jealous of his brother Donald’s boundless positivity which is not matched by his seemingly meager talent.
When Charlie is hired to write the screenplay for a famous writer’s book, he asks his more social brother to conduct the interview with the author. But when Donald suspects that the book may not be entirely true to life, they being a wild journey into the Florida Everglades to discover the truth.
6. Tatsuya Nakadai in Kagemusha (1980)
Kagemusha doesn’t seem to be mentioned quite as often as some of the great Akira Kurosawa’s other works, but it’s a colorful epic that thoroughly deserves your time. It features two stunning performances by Tatsuya Nakadai; this great Japanese actor’s name may not be quite as ubiquitous as that of some of Kurosawa’s other frequent collaborators, but Nakadai never turned in a performance that fails to impress. In this film, he plays two characters who are neither twins nor doppelgängers.
Kagemusha means “shadow warrior,” and its story is about a lookalike who becomes used as a political decoy. A condemned criminal is spared execution due to his uncanny resemblance to a dying lord, and he is trained to impersonate the ruler in order to project an image of strength for the clan. The criminal’s ascent to power proves to be a complex journey which Nakadai navigates with the skill of a master. Discover this fascinating film if you haven’t already.