Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
Amazon

25 Actors Who Absolutely Nailed the Icons They Portrayed

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Bradley Cooper in Maestro
Netflix

They Were Meant for These Roles

Taking on the role of a real person — especially someone as iconic as Freddie Mercury, Queen Elizabeth, Martin Luther King Jr., or Leonard Bernstein — can be overwhelming. But many actors have stepped up to the plate, including Bradley Cooper, who has created quite a buzz after photos of the 40-something actor playing a much-older Bernstein in an upcoming Netflix biopic, "Maestro," made their way online. Thanks to extensive research, makeup, and even weight loss and weight gain efforts, here are the actors who absolutely nailed their roles as icons.


Related: Movie Character Deaths That Were Devastating

Lily James as Pamela Anderson
Hulu

Lily James as Pamela Anderson

Sure, it's easy enough to put on a blonde wig and slather on some makeup, but Lily James went the extra mile as "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson in Hulu's "Pam & Tommy" — it took four hours a day to perfect James' physical transformation, including the addition of a prosthetic forehead and, yes, a prosthetic chest. The actress also went the distance playing Anderson. While the role isn't imitation, James embodied the '90s icon as she is exposed (literally) when a graphic honeymoon tape of her and ex-husband Tommy Lee Jones went public. James received kudos for a "nuanced" performance from USA Today and other outlets — even as the series overall got panned.


Related: Worst Reboots of Beloved TV Shows

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers
Amazon

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers

While Tom Hanks never met Mister Rogers, he did watch plenty of episodes to prepare for his role in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Hanks wore a wig, but he also found that the cardigan significantly helped transform him into the icon.



Related: Tom Hanks’ Most Regrettable Movies

Ray
Ray by (None)

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

Jamie Foxx depicted Ray Charles in the 2004 film, “Ray,” and he lost nearly 30 pounds for the role. He also had his eyelids glued shut for filming and wore prosthetics to replicate Charles’s eyelids. As a result, Foxx had panic attacks during the first two weeks of filming, but he portrayed Charles with incredible accuracy, winning the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
Amazon

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Actors often lose or gain weight for roles, but Meryl Streep changed her appearance in a different way to better resemble Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Streep wore a prosthetic nose during the entire movie, and with the help of a talented makeup team, she looked incredibly like Thatcher. Another actress who brought Thatcher alive, but on the small screen? Gillian Anderson in “The Crown.”

Johnny Cash
Amazon

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash

Before Joaquin Phoenix was cast as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” the actor met Cash at a friend’s house. Cash fully supported Phoenix’s casting, and Phoenix not only visually looked just like the musician, but he also powerfully acted out Cash’s performances, down to the musician’s nuances and overall stage presence. Phoenix won a Golden Globe Award and earned an Oscar nod for the portrayal.


Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla
Amazon

Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla

Jennifer Lopez deeply prepared for her role as Selena Quintanilla in the 1997 movie, “Selena.” Lopez watched interviews, slept in Quintanilla’s bed, and slept at Quintanilla’s sister’s house. She spent time with Quintanilla’s family, and the role even inspired Lopez to start her own music career.

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy Onassis
Amazon

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy Onassis

Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in “Jackie” is spot-on, and that’s partially thanks to a talented wardrobe team. The film’s design team often replicated specific garments that Onassis wore, going so far as to source the same fabric those garments were made out of.


Related: Jackie Kennedy's Most Stunning Looks


Taron Egerton as Elton John
Amazon

Taron Egerton as Elton John

Taron Egerton received help from Elton John himself when preparing for his role as the iconic musician in “Rocketman.” John provided singing tips while Egerton was recording tracks for the film, and he also shared stories about his life when he had Egerton to his house for dinner. The pair continue to talk monthly.

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
Amazon

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

When Eddie Redmayne was cast as Professor Stephen Hawking in the 2014 film, “The Theory of Everything,” the actor performed extensive research and approached portraying Hawking’s motor neuron disease as a dance, training his body to mimic the movements (and the lack of movement) of the disease. Even Hawking admitted that when he watched the movie, he thought he was seeing himself in the scenes. 

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding
Amazon

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Margot Robbie underwent quite the transformation to play Tonya Harding in the 2017 film, “I, Tonya.” Much of that transformation was done with makeup, since a tight filming schedule meant Robbie couldn’t wear prosthetics. She also nailed Harding’s accent and was nominated for an Oscar.

Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly
Jon Kopaloff/Getty

Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly

To transform into Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell,” Charlize Theron wore prosthetics and makeup to get the right look. The makeup team made a 3D body scan and life cast of Theron, then they created prosthetics that they applied daily in a three-hour process. The team even used lash strips to reshape Theron’s eyes, as well as colored contact lenses and prosthetic eyelid pieces. The result was an uncanny resemblance.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
Amazon

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

When Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln in the 2012 film, “Lincoln,” he prepared for the role by reading Lincoln’s writing as well as biographies about the president. He studied Lincoln for a year and relied on that research to make decisions about how he played Lincoln, including how he depicted Lincoln’s voice. 


Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II
Amazon

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

Helen Mirren was cast as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” and it’s easy to see why — the resemblance is stunning. To prepare for the role, Mirren researched Queen Elizabeth, including watching videos of the Queen as a child in England to better understand her private life.

Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela
Amazon

Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela

When Jennifer Hudson was hired to play Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s wife, in the 2011 biopic “Winnie Mandela,” she was intimidated. Hudson had to lose weight and learn Mandela’s accent, which she did by immersing herself in South African culture and spending time where the Mandela family lived. The result was a highly realistic portrayal. Hudson later went on to play another real-life icon, Aretha Franklin, in the 2021 film “Respect.”

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
Amazon

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney

Before playing Walt Disney in the 2013 movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” Tom Hanks did plenty of research to get to know the iconic figure. Hanks studied Disney’s vocal cadence and rhythm by listening to audio and video. He also talked to people who knew Disney and shared stories about him. 

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort
Amazon

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

When Leonardo DiCaprio was preparing to play Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” there was one major problem: DiCaprio hadn’t done drugs and wasn’t sure of how to depict the scenes where Belfort was on drugs. So, Belfort himself showed DiCaprio, teaching him how to act as if he were on quaaludes. The strategy evidently worked, given DiCaprio’s highly realistic portrayal. 

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs
Amazon

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs

Ashton Kutcher portrayed Steve Jobs in the 2013 movie, “Jobs,” and he looked incredibly like the Apple founder. Kutcher even Tweeted a split screen photo of himself and Jobs, and when you study it closely, it’s difficult to tell who the real Jobs is.

Kristin Stewart as Joan Jett
Amazon

Kristin Stewart as Joan Jett

Stewart did plenty of research prior to playing Joan Jett in “The Runaways.” She flew out to see Jett play a concert and then spent the night talking with the rock icon. Stewart also reviewed Jett’s tape-recorded letters that she made as a teenager to study and reproduce her voice. 

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
Amazon

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

Sometimes actors seem meant to play certain roles, and that’s the case when Sean Penn played Harvey Milk in the 2008 film, "Milk." Not only did Penn physically resemble Milk, he also replicated the politician’s charm. Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal.

Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin
Amazon

Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin

Forest Whitaker started preparing for his role as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” months before the film started shooting. He studied the history of the Ugandan president and dictator, and also had to learn Kiswahili. Whitaker described the role as all-encompassing and said that Amin’s character stayed with him long after shooting ended.


Christian Bale as Dick Cheney
Amazon

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney

Christian Bale underwent a tremendous physical transformation to portray Dick Cheney in “Vice.” Bale gained weight for the role, and the makeup team made Bale’s head bigger while also giving him a receding hairline and jowls. In addition to spending eight hours a day in makeup, Bale also studied footage of Cheney to capture his persona.

Angela Bassett as Tina Turner
Amazon

Angela Bassett as Tina Turner

Playing an icon as distinctive as Tina Turner is no small undertaking, and Angela Bassett describes her role in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” as the most challenging role of her career. Bassett worked out to recreate Turner’s muscular form and completed hours of dance rehearsals to learn her mannerisms. The effort she put in resulted in a stunning portrayal, earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress as well as a Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award.


Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
Amazon

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury

Rami Malek was stunning as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but the transformation was the result of plenty of hard work. Malek worked with a movement teacher for hours each day to learn how to replicate Mercury’s performances and mannerisms. He wore prosthetic teeth to resemble Mercury’s, and he sang during every performance. Malek’s voice was blended into Mercury’s recordings for the film. He won an Oscar for the role, too.


Denzel Washington as Malcom X
Amazon

Denzel Washington as Malcom X

To prepare for his role as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee 1992 film, “Malcolm X,” Denzel Washington did extensive research. Washington researched Malcom X so thoroughly that he was able to deliver unscripted speeches while remaining in character during filming.


David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.
Amazon

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.

David Oyelowo believes that God wanted him to play the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” and he focused on portraying King as a human, rather than as an icon. Oyelowo believes that King’s iconic status takes away from the significance of the work and achievements he made, so he sought to portray him accurately. Oyelowo also credits his experience researching for his roles in “The Butler” and “Lincoln” with his ability to prepare for this monumental role.