Even though Donald Glover is actually an actor turned musician, we at LxL decided to put together a list of the Top Ten Musicians Turned Actors. This is clearly incongruous with Glover’s career path, but being the definition of iconoclastic, we do whatever we damn well please. As always, feel free to comment with concurrences, dissents, and passionate arguments of why you think your favorite musician turned actor should have made the list. Enjoy.
1. Mark Wahlberg
You thought The Fighter was an underdog story, how about the story of Mark Wahlberg’s transition from juvenile delinquent (charged with attempted murder among other incidents) to ringleader of Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch to Hollywood A-List (actor and producer). Here is what we know about Wahlberg the actor: If you give him good material and good direction, he has the ability to absolutely slaughter a role (The Departed, Boogie Nights, Four Brothers). But when he has taken the easy paycheck, Wahlberg looks like a complete dullard on-screen (Rock Star, The Happening, Max Payne). There was a real dog-fight for who would get the top spot between Wahlberg and Will Smith, but it eventually came down to who takes chances, and who plays it safe.
Definitive Role: I am really torn here because Boogie Nights is one of my all-time favorite movies and Wahlberg kills the role. But when removing the performance from the movie itself, Wahlberg’s unfiltered performance as Dignam in The Departed takes the cake.
Underrated Role: Wahlberg’s role as Bob Lee Swagger in Shooter helps elevate this movie into the realm of “better than average”. What is certainly a formulaic “innocent guy on the run trying to prove his innocence” type of movie, is also very entertaining and does the sub-genre proud.
Unfortunate Career Decision: Deciding to play Elliot Moore in The Happening was beyond unfortunate; it was a disaster. Wahlberg’s performance is probably the worst mentioned in this list, and M. Night Shyamalan’s epic failure of a film is definitively the worst movie mentioned.
2. Will Smith
From his inauspicious beginnings as one half of rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Will Smith has gone on to get jiggy with his role as the preeminent big budget actor in Hollywood. Bold career moves have not been the name of the game for Big Willie (he apparently turned down the opportunity to play the lead role in Tarantino’s next film), but he has been a mainstay at the top of the box office for going on 15 years.
Definitive Role: Playing the legendary Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s Ali, Will Smith got the opportunity of a lifetime. The movie itself may be a bit meandering, but Smith’s performance kept me engrossed all the way through.
Underrated Role: Playing a gay con artist in Six Degrees of Separation (see Bill Simmon’s article here for great take on Smith’s movie career).
Unfortunate Career Decision: If you have ever seen me do an impression of Will Smith electrocuting himself with jellyfish in the bathtub from Seven Pounds, then you know my hatred for this movie. Complete melodramatic trash, not even Woody Harrelson could save it.
3. Mos Def
One half of hip-hop duo Black Star (along with Talib Kweli), as well as a successful solo artist, Mos Def may just be scratching the surface of his acting career. He has consistently had roles since the late 90’s, but something tells me that his latest work as Brother Sam on the sixth season of Dexter will open many doors. The question is really whether Mos Def decides to pursue acting to a fuller extent. Only time will tell, but Mos Def has the chops to be a true two-way star.
Definitive Role: As mentioned above, Mos Def’s role as Brother Sam in Dexter was up there with some of the best multi-episode character arcs I have ever seen on television (right along with Steve Buscemi on The Sopranos and Zeljko Ivanek in Damages).
Underrated Role: While on spring break in 2006, me and Wes ended up seeing a little movie with my parents called 16 Blocks. Considering it starred Bruce Willis, this movie was not particularly well-hyped, and I wasn’t expecting much. Fortunately, Willis maintained his crusty persona (this is a complement), and Mos Def was able to steal the show as Eddie Bunker, an eccentric savant who is a witness in need of protection by Willis’ cop character.
Unfortunate Career Decision: There is a lot of TV guest spot and made-for-TV movie muck on Mos Def’s Resume, but none more damning than MTV’s ill-conceived Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Writing those previous two words almost made me vomit.
4. Tom Waits
I’m just going to quote Todd’s recent review. “It’s hard to not know who Tom Waits is at this point. If you haven’t heard his music, or seen him perform on some late night show, you have probably at least seen him in a peculiar role in some peculiar movie somewhere. In any case, he probably caught your attention in whatever he was doing. It’s hard for him not too. He is completely unique, captivating, funny, and entertaining at everything he does. He has been described as “THE drunken-master of lyrical poetry”, with a voice that sounds like it has been finely aged in a bourbon barrel”
Definitive Role: This is a tough one because Waits’ roles are often very small, but still leave a distinct impression. So I’m gonna go with Waits’ role in Coffee & Cigarettes. In this role, Waits and Iggy pop make awkward but hilarious conversation while ironically smoking cigarettes to celebrate quitting smoking. Too good.
Underrated Role: Admittedly, Tom Waits’ bit part in Domino is a very part in a very strange scene in a overwhelmingly-maligned movie. But, for all its flaws, I love this disjointed film and Tom Waits only adds to the weird as traveling preacher.
Unfortunate Career Decision: Everyone who was within the vicinity of The Cotton Club seems to have had their career scarred by this debacle. Luckily, Tom Waits collects scars like a proud hooker collects STD’s.
5. David Bowie
No musical introduction really needed for David Bowie. He pretty much wrote the book on drug-induced pop epics, and like many musicians decided to take his talents to Tinseltown. From his role as judge of the “walk-off” in Zoolander to Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Bowie has done it all.
Definitive Role: Bowie’s strange turn as Jareth the Goblin King in George Lucas’ Labyrinth is a treat for all the senses, in particular the eyes. The ridiculous costuming and prevalence of Bowie’s package throughout the film makes Todd light up like a slot machine at Bally’s.
Underrated Role: The Prestige once was a movie that was so underrated that it has now become overrated, but Bowie’s performance as Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla adds another interesting layer to the film as a whole.
Unfortunate Career Decision: I have never seen the movie by the name The Linguine Incident, but I can’t imagine it adds much to Bowie’s resume as an actor. Feel free to let me know that this film is actually good and I will retract.
6. Justin Timberlake
J.T. can be a bit of a one-trick pony in the pictures, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do that one trick extremely well. I imagine most directors get Timberlake in front of the cameras and say, “just be your normal, charming, slightly-douchey self”. It was always apparent that J.T. would end up the cream of the N’Sync crop, no matter how much Joey Fatone pressed for the top spot (The Singing Bee anyone).
Definitive Role: Perfectly exemplifying what I wrote above about Timberlake’s acting skills, his role in The Social Network as Sean Parker is pitch-perfect. Not many people could have played such a self-absorbed, pompous a-hole. J.T. shines in his short time on-screen, and in particular the restaurant scene where he first meets Mark Zuckerberg.
Underrated Role: Alpha Dog was a pretty good movie, and Timberlake shows more range than normal as one of a crew of kidnappers that is more sensitive than the others to the plight of the kidnapped victim. It should also be noted that he plays a similar character in Black Snake Moan, one of the most intriguing films I have ever seen. (Further, Further Note: Me and Wes once had a conversation about actresses that we don’t normally find attractive being extremely hot in one particular role. Near the top of the list was Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan)
Unfortunate Career Decision: A decent amount of options here, but I’m going to go with the role of Boo Boo opposite Dan Aykroyd’s Yogi in Yogi Bear. Has there ever been a more unnecessary cartoon adaptation?
7. Dwight Yoakam
I pushed hard for Dwight Yoakam to make the list, and was very pleased to get him up to the seventh spot. This ass-ugly country singer has released over 20 albums, and began working in TV and film in 1991. Supporting Roles have been the name of the game for Yoakam, ranging from his SAG-nominated role as Doyle Hargraves (the abusive boyfriend) in Slingblade to the hysterically-named Brentwood Glasscock in The Newton Boys.
Definitive Role: Panic Room has often been said to be the David Fincher film with the least depth. And while I agree, damn does that movie hit hard in the style and suspense departments. Dwight Yoakam only adds to the fun as one of the three burglars (along with the also excellent Jared Leto and Forest Whitaker). Yoakam turns out to be the most deranged and heartless out of the three, and therefore stealing the show from Whitaker, an almost impossible feat.
Underrated Role: The interplay between Dwight Yoakam and Rebecca De Mornay as the Kroegers at the beginning of Wedding Crashers sets the tone for the entire movie. Yoakam and De Mornay immediately gift us with several quotable lines, not the least of which is “Hey, I’ve got an idea, how bout you just kiss my left nut”.
Unfortunate Career Decision: Hollywood Homicide is just one of many unsuccessful Harrison Ford vehicles in the past 10 years or so. Yoakam can do nothing in his supporting role to save it.
With a rap career marked by pure, unadulterated entertainment, it is no wonder that Luda decided to take the next logical step to the big screen. This dirty south lyricist also managed to make the transition to acting without utilizing the typical bridge of rap artists transitioning into acting: “The Urban Comedy” (not that there haven’t been a few). For this amazing feat, we put Luda as #8 on the list.
Definitive Role: Playing carjacker Anthony, who has a social conscience and moral compass despite his occupation, Ludacris picked up his first meaty role in Paul Haggis’ Crash. Luda didn’t exactly steal the show in this star-studded affair, but he held his own next to Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillipe, Terrence Howard, Don Cheadle, and Michael Peña.
Underrated Role: Playing rapper Skinny Black in Hustle & Flow was not exactly a huge stretch for Luda, but he expertly permeates of arrogance and entitlement. While not a huge role, Luda’s performance is certainly an important one, leading to the climax of this film. (Note: Todd claims to think this movie is overrated/just bad, but I remember him raving about it when leaving the theater). (Further Note: Todd thinks he is ghetto, but if you can’t appreciate Hustle & Flow, you can’t make any claim on that adjective).
Unfortunate Career Decision: I suppose it would have to be Luda’s role as DJ Donnie in Fred Claus. Nothing good came of this film.
9. Meat Loaf
From his overly dramatic rock opera’s and music videos, the world knew that Meatloaf was more than just a musician. The form his acting career has taken though, has been quite an interesting ride. From cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to under-the-radar flicks like The Salton Sea, Meatloaf has spanned all genres during his sometimes-illustrious acting career.
Definitive Role: Meat Loaf’s supporting role as Eddie, ex-delivery boy and partial brain donor, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show may not be as iconic as the film itself, but is still a role to remember.
Underrated Role: The part of Tyler Durden in Fight Club is not a role that can be topped, but Meat Loaf leaves an indelible mark as Bitch-Tits Bob. Bob is burdened with man-boobs by his rampant steroid use, meeting Ed Norton’s character in a support group and eventually joining the fight club. A giant man-child with a heart of gold, the part could not have been more expertly played.
Unfortunate Career Decision: BloodRayne is another in a long line of misguided videogame turned feature film. Meat Loaf should have just said “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that”.
10. Courtney Love
Certainly more famous for her marriage to the late Kurt Cobain and her membership in 90’s band Hole, Love has managed to carve out a few juicy roles in film. Free association leads people to first say the phrases “wife”, “musician”, and “crack-whore” well before “actress”, but Courtney deserves a fair shake.
Definitive Role: Love co-starred alongside Woody Harrelson (Larry Flynt) as his wife Althea in The People vs. Larry Flynt, showing that in the right setting she can put on a hell of a performance. She didn’t have to stray far from real life, playing a drug-addled wife of a person much more famous than herself, but her performance of a unrepentant commitment to the man she loves is one to remember.
Underrated Role: Trapped is not a terribly great movie, but it is not terrible. Love’s role as one of a set of kidnapper’s proves that she belongs onscreen with Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon, even if the material is not completely ripe.
Unfortunate Career Decision: I can’t really put a finger on any awful decisions in the pictures for Miss Love. Her catalogue of acting experience is not all that extensive, and there is no glaring piece of trash to select.
Wes – Weird Al Yankovic
UHF is about all I’ve got on Weird Al, but his role as a new radio station owner has hit my funny-bone from the first time I saw this movie until this very day. If you have never seen UHF, you can eat it.
Todd – Shaq
A real triple-threat, Shaquille O’Neal has been a staple in the music industry, film industry, and the NBA for nearly 20 years. We can only hope now that he is retired from basketball, Shaq will focus again on his movie career bringing us gems such as Kazaam and Steel. Anything less than Kazaam 2 is unacceptable. Come on, big guy.
Austin – Henry Rollins
Sons of Anarchy filled a much-needed void of gritty crime-drama with The Sopranos and The Shield off the air. Who better to play the lead enforcer of a white supremacist group than horror-punk god, Henry Rollins. I hope to see Rollins in many more roles in the future.