Portraying a well-known historical or iconic figure on the silver screen is no small feat.
However, there are a number of Hollywood stars who’ve aptly done just that throughout their careers—often to great acclaim.
And while their acting prowess and a careful study of the real people they intended to embody certainly made up a large part of the equation, credit should also be given to the makeup artists, prosthetics makers, hairstylists and costume designers who were hard at work behind the scenes, making their transformation an uncanny reality.
Here, we look at 18 such actors who, through the help of movie magic, bore an uncanny resemblance to the real-life people they portrayed on screen.
From Salma Hayek in Frida to Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, scroll on to see them all.
Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida (2002)
Salma Hayek garnered attention not only for her portrayal of famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, but for closely resembling her onscreen, right down to her famous monobrow. Hayek’s depiction of Kahlo earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 2003.
Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)
A passion project that produced one of her best-ever performances, Halle Berry actually fought quite hard to have Introducing Dorothy Dandridge made. The film told the story of the titular icon, who became the first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar in 1955. Incidentally, a few years later, Berry would go on to be the first black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress.
Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell (2020)
To fully embody former Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly in the true story-inspired Bombshell, Theron altered not only her speaking voice and hair, but wore subtle prosthetics (including eyelid pieces), specifically constructed fake eyelashes to reshape her eyes and coloured contact lenses.
Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003)
Widely considered one of the best onscreen transformations of all time, Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning portrayal as Aileen Wuornos, a Florida sex worker and serial killer, was lauded by film critic Roger Egbert as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema”.
Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf in La Via en Rose (2007)
Starring in the biographical musical film about the life of singer Édith Piaf, Marion Cotillard received widespread acclaim for playing the famed French icon, which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2007.
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004)
Despite what looked like an effortlessly unreal transformation, Jamie Foxx undertook intensive measures to more accurately portray soul legend Ray Charles on screen. To embody the blind pianist, Foxx lost nearly 15kg and had his eyes glued shut every day on set. The extreme commitment paid off, with his incredible performance earning Foxx the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2004.
Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004)
Leading Australian actress Cate Blanchett caused viewers to do a double take when she embodied old Hollywood star Katharine Hepburn in 2004.
Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007)
One of six actors to embody Bob Dylan in the biopic I’m Not There, Blanchett delivered an eerily transfixing performance as the singer-songwriter during the mid-’60s. The role earned Blanchett a number of accolades, along with the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and an Academy Award nomination for the same category.
Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in The Aviator (2005)
Channelling her distinctive voice and carefully coiffed hair aside, Kate Beckinsale had to gain around 10kg for her role as old Hollywood star Ava Gardner, something she did by eating mainly chocolates. “It was quite fun,” she said of gaining the weight. “It was a shame to lose it, really.”
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in Selena (1997)
While Jennifer Lopez has made a number of movies in recent years, many forget that she had her breakout role playing Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in 1997’s Selena. The role earned Lopez a Golden Globe nomination, and made her the first Latina actress to earn over US $1 million for a movie.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Not only did Margot Robbie play the late ’60s actress onscreen in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but she garnered significant attention for channelling Sharon Tate’s beauty looks throughout her 2019 press tour for the film as well.
Nicole Kidman as Virgina Woolf in The Hours (2003)
Like Theron in Bombshell, Nicole Kidman was rendered virtually unrecognisable through the use of prosthetics and makeup for her role as novelist Virginia Woolf in The Hours. In addition to the prosthetics, Kidman reportedly spent three hours a day in makeup prior to filming. In 2003, she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Woolf.
Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn (2011)
In addition to adopting Marilyn Monroe’s famous platinum ‘do, Michelle Williams embodied the former icon through her unique mannerisms, citing “how she positions her mouth” and “raises her eyebrows”, along with the evolution of her famously breathy voice, as part of her transformation.
James Franco as James Dean in James Dean (2001)
Along with nailing his signature hair and half smile, James Franco undertook extensive research to play the Rebel Without a Cause star. Besides speaking to people who knew Dean and studiously watching his movies, Franco went from being a non-smoker to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day (but has since quit the habit), and learned how to ride a motorcycle, play guitar, as well as the conga and bongo drums.
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011)
Delivering an Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep wore pliant silicone prosthetics, dentures and expert makeup to enhance her transformation as the former British Prime Minister.