Actors Talk About What It Was Like Portraying Famous Musicians

Voting Rules
Vote up the most interesting stories about the actors getting into character.

What does it take to play a renowned, celebrated musical artist like Jim Morrison, Judy Garland, or Ray Charles? Biopics are among the most popular genres in the movies. Film spectators love to see how musicians defied the odds and rose to the top of the music charts. Read what these actors had to say about what it was like to portray a famous musician.

Which actor needed to go to therapy after his film wrapped? Which Academy Award-winning actor found his character after putting fake teeth in?  Which actress learned how to play the piano?

Make your voice heard. Vote up the most interesting stories about how these actors got into character.

  • Rami Malek Felt Like It Clicked When He Put In The Fake Teeth
    Photo: Bohemian Rhapsody / 20th Century Fox

    Freddie Mercury is widely considered one of the best frontmen in rock history. It isn't just his pitch-perfect arena vocals that impress - it's also his signature stage presence. 

    When Rami Malek agreed to play the Queen singer, the Mr. Robot actor knew he had to find a way to channel Mercury's larger-than-life stage personality. Thankfully, Malek and Mercury look alike. They are also both children of immigrant parents who grew up with similar hardships. 

    Malek, who would go on to win the Academy Award for best actor, spent endless hours studying the way Mercury moved on stage. But what really helped the actor capture the true essence of Mercury was the prosthetic teeth. Malek explained:

    The teeth were difficult to get used to in the beginning. Initially, I put them in my mouth a year prior to shooting and I immediately felt insecure. I felt like I was on my back foot, in a way. I didn't feel like myself...

    It was a feeling of insecurity that I had to cover them up as well. I had been watching so much footage of him. You see him covering up his teeth so often that I thought, “How am I ever going to do that?” Well, as soon as those teeth went in, it was second nature. I found myself covering them up so often. My lips would dry up, so I found myself licking my lips as he did.

    But another thing happened: I started to compensate physically by holding my posture better, elongating my body, sitting up very straight, and that's something you also see him do. And I don't know if that was something that affected him, or he was born with the elegance that he has, but it did give me a way into understanding a little bit more about him.

    209 votes
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    71 VOTES

    Chadwick Boseman Compared Dancing Like James Brown To A Freight Train Barreling Down The Tracks

    Chadwick Boseman Compared Dancing Like James Brown To A Freight Train Barreling Down The Tracks
    Photo: Get on Up / Universal Pictures

    Chadwick Boseman initially turned down the opportunity to play James Brown in the biopic Get on Up. “I’d just played Jackie Robinson, so there was no way to even think about playing another real person, let alone an iconic character,” admitted Boseman.

    However, director Tate Taylor was persistent. He eventually convinced Boseman to sign on. One of the main issues would be making Boseman look like the Godfather of Soul. The Black Panther actor is much taller and his facial features are different. Boseman needed to spend three hours in a makeup chair every day to transform into Brown.

    “It was a combination of a bust James had done of himself, and then they scanned a bust of me using a 3D scanner, and they synced them together to create my James Brown face," said Boseman. 

    With the look down, Boseman had to try on his dancing shoes. “During the test, we tried all the dances and I nailed none of them,” said Boseman. “My ‘Mashed Potatoes’ were uncooked, my ‘Good Foot’ was a bad foot, and my ‘Get Up’ was a fall-down. Everything was messed up. But it was good enough for me to see what it would be like to work with everybody, and I saw how crazy it was all going to look.” 

    Boseman worked endlessly with a choreographer to master Brown's unique dance moves. He said:

    His feet are constantly moving and that’s the groove - the shoulders are moving one way, the head is moving another, the pelvis and feet are moving, too. It’s all keeping the pace for the band and hitting different parts of the beat, so out of that, he’s able to give signals. It’s like a freight train barreling down the tracks. Once you nail that down, you realize that all the dance steps emerge from that. The Camel Walk comes out of that, which is one of the hardest dances, along with the splits. But the dancing in the movie is all me.

    71 votes
  • Joaquin Phoenix Was Surprised Just To Be Able To Get Through A Johnny Cash Song
    Photo: Walk the Line / 20th Century Fox

    Joaquin Phoenix didn't even know he could sing before taking the role of legendary baritone country music star Johnny Cash. Yet, the method actor not only agreed to star as Cash in the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, but he also did all his own singing and guitar playing. 

    “I was surprised just to get through a song,” Phoenix admitted. “I never sang before, but if I had tried to sing along to something it was to John Lennon and David Bowie, who both sing quite high. So to suddenly go to John was so odd to me. It was very strange to have to use a part of my voice that I didn’t know existed."

    Despite his greenness, Phoenix trusted the movie's crew to help him capture Cash's signature sound and performance style. “Of course I had doubts. It was completely foreign to me,” Phoenix said. “But I felt confidence in the people I was working with and their judgment. To have someone like T-Bone Burnett (the film’s music producer) guiding you through the process obviously gives you a great deal of confidence.”

    Walk the Line went on to become a huge box-office hit. Phoenix earned an Academy Award nod and took home the Golden Globe for his performance.

    102 votes
  • Jamie Foxx Auditioned And Was Chosen By Ray Charles Himself
    Photo: Ray / Universal Pictures

    Jamie Foxx was still widely known as a comedic actor when he landed the role of Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic Ray. The In Living Color star began playing the piano at just 5 years old. Additionally, Foxx earned a college scholarship to study music theory and classical piano. 

    He would need all the musical training he could muster in order to impress rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles. Foxx talked about how he first had to win over Charles in order to earn the right to play him. Foxx said:

    It was like waiting in a doctor's office. Do I have it, or do I not have it? Ray walks in and says, “You know what, man, if you can play the blues, baby, you can do anything. Don't worry about playing me.” So he gets on one piano, I get on the other, and we start playing the blues back and forth.

    He's like, “Yeah, that's it,” and all of a sudden out of nowhere he moves into Thelonious Monk and I'm trying to catch on to the lick. I hit a note and Ray stops playing, says, “Now why the hell would you hit that note?” You feel him testing you, like, “OK, I'm in the band and it's the gig on Friday night in Poughkeepsie and I hit a bad note and he heard it, so he's on me.” And then he makes the simplest comment: He says, “The notes is right underneath your fingers. All you got to do is take time out to find out which note it is to play.” So I finally played it, and he claps his hands: "The kid's got it.' 

    Once Foxx landed the titular role that would earn him the Academy Award for best actor, he decided he should not see Charles anymore while filming. 

    "Jamie had scaled the wall and could show up any time he wanted and hang out with Ray, but he didn't," said director Taylor Hackford. “I thought, 'Something's weird.' Jamie said, 'If I spend time with him, I'm going to imprint a 73-year-old man, and that's not who I'm playing.'”

    80 votes
  • Jennifer Hudson Sang Live And Learned To Play The Piano To Honor Aretha
    Photo: Respect / United Artists Releasing

    Aretha Franklin did not want other singers opening for her in concert. However, the Queen of Soul had a soft spot for Jennifer Hudson after seeing her undeniable talent when she was a contestant on American Idol. Hudson not only went on to open for Aretha, but the two powerhouse vocalists also became close friends. When it was time for Aretha to have her own biopic, she asked Hudson to play her. 

    Hudson took her preparation to play one of her idols in the 2021 biographical drama Respect seriously. The Academy Award winner did her homework by researching Aretha's whole life. Hudson even learned how to play the piano, because that's what Aretha did on stage.

    “I wanted to experience it as she did in her life,” Hudson said. “Whatever we were re-enacting and recreating that she did in her life, if it was live, it’s like, ‘Well, let’s do it live.’ ‘Amazing Grace’ was live. ‘Ain’t No Way’ was live. ‘Natural Woman,’ we’re going to sing it live. So it could be authentic to what really was in her life.”

    Respect is not just the life story of one of the most celebrated female vocalists in music history; it's filled with Aretha's music. “Everybody is, like, ‘We’ve never seen a biopic with this much music, where you get to hear the songs,’” Hudson said. “This is not a musical. It’s a biopic about artists, musicians. But I can’t think of any biopic or musical that has been done this way.”

    The Dream Girls actress discovered that Aretha had her own way of communicating - through her music. Hudson added:

    Aretha wasn’t a person who verbalized too much unless it was through music. I know from my experiences of being around her, I used to be like, I can’t really tell where I stand. She didn’t give you much. It wasn’t for me until literally in the middle of scenes that I realized, the things she had been saying to me, she was speaking from experience. Her greatest expression was through her music - and that was real.

    77 votes
  • Jennifer Lopez Spent Time With Selena’s Family And Even Slept In Her Bed
    Photo: Selena / Warmer Bros.

    Selena Quintanilla Pérez was one of the most renowned Latina artists of all time. The Mexican-American singer, AKA the Queen of Tejano, became a Billboard staple with seven No. 1 singles on Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks. She also influenced the success of the Tejano music genre. 

    In 1995, Selena's friend and former manager shot and killed the artist. Selena was just 23 years old at the time of her passing. Her incredible success, cultural prominence, and untimely demise have made Selena the topic of several different documentaries and biopics. 

    The 1997 biography titled Selena, which was authorized by her family, starred a then-unknown entertainer by the name of Jennifer Lopez.  It would be the dancer/singer's breakout role.

    Lopez, who is a Latina American, immersed herself in all things Selena in order to prepare for the role. She even slept in Selena's bed. Lopez revealed:

    Right after I got the part, I knew I would be traveling to Corpus Christi and spending time with her family, but that wasn't going to be for a few weeks, so they sent me tons of tapes to watch. I sat on my couch watching them for days and all of a sudden, the tape cut off on me. I was shocked. And I thought to myself, “That's what happened.” This amazing, beautiful spirit, full of joy and music and so much feeling, was just cut off in the middle of being. It affected me so much and made me realize the importance of what I was doing.

    I soaked up everything. I slept in her bed at home. I talked to the whole family. I spent time with them. It can be melancholy and beautiful at the same time.

    78 votes