12 Times Good Actors Played Struggling Actors - And Nailed It

List Rules
Vote up the performances that made you feel like the acting struggle was real.

Movies about acting are often fun to watch. That's because they feature performers telling stories about a subject they know everything about. It's often very apparent that these stories have a special meaning for the stars - a personal angle, so to speak. Consequently, there can be a lot of passion and creativity in them.

One particularly riveting subset of this type of film involves good actors playing struggling actors. Since no one achieves fame and acclaim overnight, all actors know what it feels like to struggle. Every single one of them has paid their dues in some way, shape, or form. The following stars have achieved the kind of success every aspiring thespian dreams of. They've also reached into their own pasts to find the inspiration needed to play characters who are trying to get to that same place or characters who were there once and lost it.


  • Martin Landau had a long career that found him working continually. That said, there were a lot of ups and downs. Despite successes like the hit TV series Mission: Impossible and movies such as Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, there were stretches of time when Landau couldn't get an A-list gig, despite his massive talent. His filmography contains a fair amount of schlock as a result. 

    Things improved dramatically when Tim Burton hired him for Ed Wood. Landau played Bela Lugosi, the horror icon whose final days were spent working for the titular director on his notoriously awful science fiction/horror film Plan 9 From Outer Space. To play the aging, past-his-prime Lugosi, Landau drew on his own memories of worrying that he was washed up. He told Entertainment Weekly, "Lugosi was fascinating to watch. He had a palpable intensity and a presence that you can’t buy. But this f**kin’ town s**t on him. And I can relate to that. I’ve seen it happen a lot. I’ve seen it happen to me.”

    Landau's turn as a once-popular thespian desperate to prove himself again was so convincing and heartfelt that it earned him a best supporting actor Academy Award. 

  • Throughout his stellar but ultimately too short career, Philip Seymour Hoffman could seemingly do no wrong. Every single performance he gave, no matter the overall quality of the movie, was interesting and fully committed. That's certainly true of his work in the comedy Along Came Polly. He plays Sandy Lyle, the best friend to Ben Stiller's lead character. Sandy is a washed-up former child star continually plotting to make a comeback. 

    Whereas many stars have empathy toward the struggling actors they portray, Hoffman went a different route, emphasizing how pathetic Sandy is. The guy is the worst imaginable stereotype of a child actor gone to seed. We've all seen real-life Sandy Lyles struggling to remain relevant after the kiddie cuteness has worn off and adulthood has taken over. Hoffman understands the particular type of denial that leads people like that to delude themselves into thinking the ride isn't over. As a result, his hilarious performance steals Along Came Polly right out from under Stiller and co-star Jennifer Aniston. 

  • Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood finds Leonardo DiCaprio playing Rick Dalton, a former television star whose career is on a downward trajectory thanks to his alcohol problem. He's desperately trying to revitalize his career, but nervousness and over-thinking cause dumb mistakes, like forgetting his lines. Rick even takes a pep talk from a far less-experienced child performer at one point. 

    Although DiCaprio's career has been top-tier ever since he first broke out with What's Eating Gilbert Grape, he understood the mindset of people like Rick Dalton, thanks to having been in the business since childhood. "I grew up in this town, tried a lot to get into this industry when I was younger. I know who these guys are," he told Deadline. "I got my one lucky shot, and knock on wood, it went very well for me. But I know inherently the psychology because I am one of them."

    Incidentally, a scene in which Rick gets so excited seeing himself on television that he points to the set has become a popular meme. That's how potent DiCaprio's work here is.

  • In Soapdish, Kevin Kline plays Jeffrey Anderson, an aspiring Shakespearean actor who yearns to play Hamlet. That isn't happening, leaving him reduced to starring on a soap opera - a gig he feels is beneath him. Humor in the movie is mined from his anguish over having to act out material he thinks is beneath his talents. Kline brings to life Jeffrey's defining characteristic, a weird mixture of egotism and frustration.

    No other actor could have played Jeffrey as well because Kline understood the scenario first-hand. He told Entertainment Weekly that as a young actor trained in Shakespeare, he "moved to New York and vowed never to do commercials or soaps." He then ended up spending a full year on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow and appearing in an ad for Thom McAn shoe stores. Understanding the character's experience personally allowed him to fill his performance with a sense of authenticity that's hilarious and fun to watch.

  • Bill Murray received an Oscar nomination as best actor for Lost in Translation. He plays Bob Harris, a faded movie star in Tokyo shooting a series of liquor advertisements. The whole experience is humiliating for him, given that he used to be a big deal. Life begins to look up after he forms a connection to a young woman also visiting the city, played by Scarlett Johansson.

    There is a profound sadness to Murray's performance. He makes Bob a guy who has become depressed by how much his fame has fallen. He misses working on big productions, as well as the satisfaction that comes from doing work that is meaningful. He's reached a phase where he has to take whatever he can get - and what he can get is real bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Thanks to Murray's emotionally precise interpretation of the character, Lost in Translation hits home for anyone who feels past their prime, regardless of their profession. 

  • Michael Keaton burst onto the movie scene like a firecracker with the 1982 comedy Night Shift. A string of hits followed - Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Beetlejuice, and, of course, Batman. Then came a dry period where the films he made didn't work. One Good Cop, My Life, White Noise, and Desperate Measures all failed to connect with audiences. That made Keaton's casting in Birdman absolutely perfect. His character, Riggan Thomson, is an actor who was once extremely popular because of starring in a superhero movie, only to find himself struggling to maintain relevance. 

    Keaton earned an Oscar nomination for his performance, which deftly brings to life the conflict between Riggan's heart, which tells him that he can make a comeback, and his head, which tells him the odds are too far stacked against him. It's a sly turn in a movie that takes the character on a complete arc over the course of two short hours in his life.

    Without a doubt, Keaton related to Riggan's dry spell, as he told the New York Times. "You hear yourself speaking, you’re in a scene, and it doesn’t necessarily not ring true, it’s just kind of a sound you’re doing that’s too familiar. I can’t explain it." he said. "I think there was a little overall boredom but not with the business - bored with me. Then the next level of that is are you having any fun or are you even really any good right now? So you’d stop, step back and reassess."