Portraying a real person in a movie can create a good amount of pressure for actors, but that pressure is even more intense when the person they're portraying is literally sitting there on the set watching them. Some actors are cast in biopics about living people because there's a physical resemblance, especially when viewed side by side. Others are cast due to their abilities as an actor, dancer, or singer. But either way, actors playing living or very-recently-living public figures are faced with the added dilemma of choosing between doing a direct impression of that person or doing some interpretation of their essence, and either one of those choices can be extremely difficult if they're 'pretending' to be a living legend.
Plus, if they don't do a great job, they'll have to hear about it from the literal person they're pretending to be. It's not something that actors playing Batman or Harry Potter characters will ever have to deal with.
At a 1994 press conference for his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela told reporters he wanted Morgan Freeman to play him if a movie should ever be made. "It sounds arrogant, but my thinking was, 'Of course. Who else?'" Freeman remembered. "And I can do it. I know I can do it." He purchased the film rights to Mandela's book, and proposed they spend time together in order to fully understand him and do the part justice. Unfortunately, they didn't succeed in turning it into a movie. The two men continued to meet, however, and Freeman and Mandela formed a friendship. "When you meet Mandela, you know you are in the presence of greatness," Freeman recalled. "It is something that just emanates from him." Years later, Mandela's story came together as Invictus, and Freeman had his chance to play his friend on screen.
Playing Mandela, however, was no easy task, even for an actor who has played God more than once. "Playing God is not a challenge at all," Freeman said. "And playing the president, who's the president? He's just a guy. Mandela's not just a guy." Luckily, Freeman had his friendship with Mandela to draw from, and watched footage of him interacting with people in public and in private. "You have to have watched him - closely," he remembered. "Walk, talk, nuances of character, things like that." Freeman felt added pressure as he sat beside Mandela when the South African leader watched the movie for the first time. "I was sitting right next to him," Freeman remembered. "He pointed at the screen and said 'I know that fella.' So, yeah, I think he liked it."
Tom Hanks became involved in Charlie Wilson's War after he purchased the screen rights to the book that served as its basis. Although the real Wilson didn't have any input on the film or serve as an advisor, he did hang out on set. When Hanks and Wilson met in person for the first time, Hanks was fascinated. "Charlie walks in, and he's wearing cowboy boots, a brown pair of slacks, a purple shirt, and mismatching suspenders with little Spitfire airplanes on them that he's run under the epaulets of his shirt," Hanks recalled. "Half my work was done right there." Despite his over-the-top appearance, Hanks claimed Wilson's presence was "intimidating off the bat." He remembered:
He's much taller than I am - than anybody is. He's like 6 feet 4 inches and he's got this incredibly deep voice and this incredibly square jaw, although he does wear braces and he does wear purple cowboy boots. So, it's an odd kind of mixture. But he was so thoroughly charming that every one of the women in the office said: "Oh, oh, he's got something..." I said: "Well, can you please explain to me what it is so I can have a little bit of it." And they looked back at me and said: "Oh Tom, you're never going to have this..." So, I said I'd fake it when the time comes.
The real Wilson underwent a heart transplant just before the film premiered, but attended the Los Angeles screening despite his condition. "I really wasn't able to enjoy all the hoopla... over the film because I had come to the premiere against my doctor's wishes..." Wilson said. He enjoyed the movie and believed Hanks and the other actors did a good job. It was a bit unnerving seeing another person playing him on screen, however, and Wilson remembered, "It just put me in a fog of wonder and disbelief."
An accomplished musician and pianist, Jamie Foxx shared some talent with Ray Charles, whom he played in Ray. Although Charles passed shortly after Foxx completed filming, they met as Foxx prepared for the role and Charles gave his approval. "The first words he said to me were, 'C'mere, boy,'" Foxx remembered. "He grabs me, checks out my hands and says, 'Oh yeah, I love this. Got those strong fingers.'" Foxx joined Charles at his piano as the two played blues songs. "...He says, 'Jamie, if you can sing the blues, you can do anything,'" Foxx recalled. When Charles began playing Thelonius Monk, however, Foxx had difficulty keeping up. Foxx remembered:
Monk is complex and intricate, and I remember I hit a wrong note and he stopped and said, "Now why the hell would you do that? The notes are right underneath your fingers. You just got to take a second and find them." I knew he was talking about more than music, and I used that metaphor through the whole film: the notes in life for us are right underneath our fingers as long as we take the time to find the right ones. I think that with this movie we took the time to find the right notes to make it come together.
Foxx decided not to spend time with Charles since he felt he'd be able to deliver a better performance as young Charles without influence from the older version. Instead, Foxx watched old footage and used prosthetics to limit his vision. "It's like diving into a cold pool and then you get used to it," he remembered. "My hearing intensified. Sometimes I take playing the piano for granted because I'm a showy person and I'm looking at other people, but when you don't have sight you get more into the music. It's more intense so you can understand why Ray was moving that way." Although Charles didn't live to see the film's success, Foxx felt he would have approved. "He got a chance to see a rough cut of it, so in a sense he got his flowers before he left," Foxx recalled. "If he was here, he'd probably be saying, 'What's all the hubbub about? Let's get on with everything.'"
For Joaquin Phoenix, the role of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line was "the most work that I've ever done for a film. It's been the greatest obligation that I've had." Phoenix claimed he didn't know much about Cash before the film. "To me Johnny Cash, what I first knew of Johnny Cash, it's the Johnny Cash from the late '60s," he said. "Here I was kind of discovering Johnny Cash from the early '50s so I really didn't know anything about him. I really didn't know about the music or his personal life, so it was an interesting process. With any character, any time, you learn so much about them." Not only did Phoenix have to portray the legendary musician through acting, but he also had to sing. "It was terrifying," he recalled. "The music was such a big part of their lives and while I'm a fan of music, the actual performing or the writing of music is not anything that I was familiar with at all." Luckily, producer T-Bone Burnett had confidence in the actor's singing ability. Phoenix remembered:
...At some point I stopped thinking about it, I stopped thinking about ego and all of the exercises that I had done and releasing this part of my voice and breathing this way and thinking about the lyrics and all of that. I think that that was just really about a week before we started shooting. I had been rehearsing with the band for about two weeks in LA and we went to Memphis and I had this space setup where I was staying and we rehearsed. I remember that we went through the entire set one night, and we were done and I went "Whoa. We made it through every song and I knew all the lyrics."
Unfortunately, Cash passed two years before Walk the Line premiered; however, Phoenix had the chance to meet him long before he stepped into his shoes. Cash was a big fan of Gladiator, and he and June invited Phoenix to their house for dinner. "It was pretty amazing," Phoenix recalled. "They were totally unpretentious, down to earth..." After dinner, Cash played guitar for his guests despite being shaky. "He felt obligated to play and yet he couldn't play anymore but he was going to try to," Phoenix said. "The moment he touched the guitar, the shaking stopped. I couldn't believe it. I had never seen anything like that and he just started strumming a little bit."