Weekend Roundtable: Just the Two of Us

The technology for doing it keeps improving, but casting one actor to play multiple characters in the same movie is a trick that goes back at least as far as the days of Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks. This week’s Roundtable looks at some of our favorite examples that pulled it off.

TV shows are allowed too.

David Krauss

Many actors have played dual roles, but how many performers have played eight – that’s right, eight! – separate parts in the same movie? Anyone able to accomplish that Herculean feat would have to be one of the greatest actors of all time… and he is. Sir Alec Guinness played eight different roles in the 1949 comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, a gloriously dark British romp about an aristocrat (Dennis Price) who’s been disowned by his wealthy family because his mother married a man well below her social standing. Her dying wish is to be buried in her family’s crypt, but when the request is denied, her outraged son decides to become the Duke of D’Ascoyne (a.k.a. head of the family) so he can honor it. The only trouble is that there are eight eccentric family members ahead of him in the succession line. What’s a devoted and bitter son to do? Why, kill them all, of course!

Guinness plays all the unfortunate victims, including one woman, in a gimmick that’s both uproarious and inspired. Mass murder was never this much fun, and Guinness gives one of the great comic performances in cinema history. Kind Hearts and Coronets has remained a film favorite over the years, even spawning a recent Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. See it if you get a chance; it’s hilarious! Better yet, see the film!

Shannon Nutt

It’s rare that our Roundtable topic gives us a chance to pay homage to a daytime television actor, but this week’s does exactly that. I hope I’m not the only one who remembers the late, great David Canary’s dual role as twin brothers on the now-defunct ABC soap opera All My Children.

Canary joined the cast back in 1983, and just a year later it was revealed that his character Adam Chandler had a meeker, innocent twin named Stuart. Canary would play the hard-edged Adam and the much softer Stuart for the next 25 years and won five Emmys for his portrayals.

He may not be the best actor in this week’s Roundtable, but few other actors can claim playing two characters over such a long period of time.

Brian Hoss

Outside of some obvious bests (Dr. Strangelove) and worsts (Alien: Covenant), rewatching Jumanji recently slightly blew my mind. I watched the movie a ton on VHS as a kid, but I think I had only seen it maybe once since the early 2000s. Watching it again earlier this year with the family, I must have been at least halfway through before I realized that the same actor, Jonathan Hyde, plays Sam Parrish (featured early) and Van Pelt (pretty much the chief antagonist). It’s not very in-your-face casting, but the way that I missed it for all those years and only just noticed it still has me a little shocked.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

When you think of the romantic comedy as a genre, there’s an excellent chance that the first two faces you picture are those of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. And while your thoughts almost certainly turn towards the colossally successful likes of Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail, their first time co-starring together didn’t exactly set the box office on fire.

As polarizing as it is wonderfully weird, no one’s likely to mistake Joe Versus the Volcano as being just another romantic comedy. I love every last thing about it: the deliberate artificiality of its production design, its off-kilter and infectiously quotable dialogue, and storytelling that unspools more like a surreal fever dream rather than a paint-by-numbers rom-com. Chief among the film’s many strengths is Meg Ryan pulling triple duty.

We first see her as DeDe, Joe’s office crush. As sickly as DeDe is, she’s still the one bright spot in a soul-crushing, monochromatic, thoroughly pointless job where every day – every minute – is indistinguishable from the one before it.

After Joe gets the good news that there’s an upside to his impending death, Ryan pops up again as Angelica, a chain-smoking poet/artist/flibbertigibbet toying with thoughts of suicide. (Remember! Romantic comedy.)

The third and meatiest part that Ryan plays is sailor Patricia, who’s stuck coming to grips with the fact that her wealthy industrialist father finally figured out what her price is. Patricia is the Nega-Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl. She’s not there to fall hopelessly in love with Joe. She’s not the missing puzzle piece to fill in all the gaps in his existence. Patricia has her own issues to work through. She’s soul-sick, and you’re going to see that. Even the big, triumphant decision that Patricia makes at the very end isn’t about Joe; it’s about herself.

These are three profoundly different characters who I would say are unrecognizable from one another, if not for the fact that they all look a whole lot like Meg Ryan. If you groaned at Joe Versus the Volcano decades ago or have just never gotten around to seeing it, be sure to pick up the recent Blu-ray reissue from Warner Archive.

Josh Zyber

Nicolas Cage’s career hadn’t gone fully off the rails yet by 2002, but it was starting to. Once a quirky but respected actor who’d won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, Cage spent most of the 1990s cashing in on his indie cred by headlining dumb (if fun) action flicks like The Rock and Con Air that didn’t exactly tax his thespian skills.

Adaptation united the actor with up-and-coming screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, the pair who’d made Being John Malkovich, for another project that’s somehow even more deliriously weird. Cage plays a tormented screenwriter named… Charlie Kaufman… who’s struggling to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s non-fiction bestseller The Orchid Thief. He also plays Charlie’s (fictional) identical twin brother, Donald, who may or may not be a figment of Charlie’s imagination. Donald is a screenwriter too, and he’s having no trouble at all churning out a hackwork thriller about a serial killer with multiple personalities. Donald’s easy success drives the pretentious Charlie a little nuts.

As it dives into crazy flights of imagination that literally take us from the dawn of time up through to the second that the script for the very movie we’re watching is being written, the film becomes a wild meta-textual nightmare in which real screenwriter Kaufman purges his own personal demons by writing a screenplay about himself writing a screenplay. Through all this insanity, Cage delivers two of the best performances of his career as the self-loathing, cynical Charlie and the haplessly naïve Donald.

Sadly, Cage would follow this up by making movies like The Wicker Man and Ghost Rider.

Your Turn

Gives us your favorite picks for one actor playing multiple roles in the same project.


  1. cardpetree

    Eddie Murphy has done it a few times pretty well. I think his best work doing it was in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor.

  2. Bolo

    The ‘Kill Bill’ movies have Michael Parks and Gordon Liu appearing in two very different roles each. Parks’s work definitely makes you appreciate his ability as an actor. He manages to be incredibly captivating in both roles without most people realizing it’s the same actor. Liu is really funny as Pai Mei, but his other role as the yakuza bodyguard chief is more just a background guy.

  3. It’s been a long time but I recall an actress in LIQUID SKY playing male and female roles who had distinctly different looks. They had a sex scene together.

    And Sarah Snook in PREDESTINATION.

  4. I was really impressed by how Armie Hammer, David Fincher, and the FX crew pulled off the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Being that Hammer was a no-name actor at that point, like everyone else, I believed that his characters were played by equally striking and handsome twins.

    I’m pretty sure that Hammer’s portrayal of the twins created a new fantasy for my wife.

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