Top 15 Actors Who Powerfully Portrayed Real People

Updated on September 22, 2019
Rachel M Johnson profile image

Rachel M. Johnson is a lover of all things pop culture. She's been writing about music and entertainment online for over two years.

It can be extremely difficult and often intimidating for actors to portray real-life people. There are so many facets to an individual, and effectively bringing them to life can be a tall-order for even the most talented of actors. Here is a list of the top 15 actors who powerfully portrayed real life people.

Actress Charlize Theron (left) and serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
Actress Charlize Theron (left) and serial killer Aileen Wuornos. | Source

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wournos

Charlize Theron's jaw-dropping transformation into serial killer Aileen Wournos is truly outstanding. The actress gained 30 pounds, had her eyebrows bleached and partially shaven, had her hair thinned and skin aged in order to take on the role. She spent hours watching documentaries about Wournos in order to effectively capture her mannerisms and personality. Theron wanted to get into the mind-frame of the killer, who suffered from body issues.

Of her transformation and role, film critic Roger Ebert called it, "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema." Monster focuses on Wournos' killing spree of 6 men in the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with her girlfriend Tyria Moore. Theron won a much deserved Oscar for her role, as well as a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award.

Eddie Redmayne & Stephen Hawking.
Eddie Redmayne & Stephen Hawking. | Source

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Perhaps the most well-known physicist in the world, Stephen Hawking made huge contributions to the scientific community with his studies of quantum gravity, cosmology and general relativity. Portraying the highly-respected Hawking would be big shoes for anyone to fill, but Eddie Redmayne took on the challenge head-on. The 2014 biographical drama The Theory of Everything explores Hawking's early-life, and the relationship between him and his wife. The film takes a personal and intimate look at the scientist's life, and represents the complexity of motor neuron disease.

Redmayne spent six months researching Hawking's life, and diligently studied his accent and speech patterns. Director James Marsh said they received Hawking's blessing, and revealed his response to the film was, "very positive, so much so that he offered to lend his voice, the real voice that he uses." Upon seeing Redmayne's Academy Award winning performance at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was revealed that a nurse had wiped a tear from Hawking's face.

Leigh Anne Tuohy & Sandra Bullock.
Leigh Anne Tuohy & Sandra Bullock. | Source

Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy

Sandra Bullock's portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy in 2009's The Blind Side not only earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress, but also the praise of the woman she was playing. Bullock was able to powerfully recreate an emotional time during Tuohy's life, when she took in a young homeless boy named Michael Oher who was attending school with her daughter. The mother would help raise Oher, who would eventually go on to play for the NFL and be a first-round draft pick.

Tuohy was impressed with Bullock's honest performance, and felt she captured her inner strength as well as calm, cool and collected demeanor all at the same time. Of the casing, Tuohy had said, "I was pleasantly surprised. I fell in love with her. She did a great job."

Jamie Foxx & Ray Charles.
Jamie Foxx & Ray Charles. | Source

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

Jamie Foxx not only beautifully acted in the role of Ray Charles, but he also sang for the 2004 film Ray. It depicted the life of the soul-singer as he managed to break into rock music in the 1960s. Not only was the movie a massive success at the box office, earning an impressive $124.7 million, but lead Foxx received an Academy Award for his performance. Charles was hands on during production, and was given a Braille copy of the original script in order to over-see authenticity.

Director Taylor Hackford recalls when Foxx and Charles first met up, and when the crooner challenged the actor at the piano. Ray was testing him and Jamie managed to pass, therefore earning his blessing. Sadly, the singer died of liver disease before he was able to see the finished product.

Abraham Lincoln and Daniel-Day Lewis.
Abraham Lincoln and Daniel-Day Lewis. | Source

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

One of the most famous method actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis truly immerses himself in every role he portrays, and is extremely selective in his films. In the 2012 historical drama Lincoln, the actor yet again rises to the occasion and crafted an inspiring performance. The film covers the final four months of the president's life, especially focusing on his struggle to the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the United States House of Representatives.

To prepare for the role, Day-Lewis spent a year preparing and read over 100 books on Lincoln. For his outstanding performance, the actor became the first three-time recipient of the Best Actor Oscar.

Helen Mirren & Queen Elizabeth II.
Helen Mirren & Queen Elizabeth II. | Source

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

One of Britain's most acclaimed actresses, Helen Mirren became an obvious choice to play Queen Elizabeth II in 2006's The Queen. Playing someone as important and influential as the Queen must have been extremely intimidating, but Mirren took on the role with self-assurance and ease. The film is set during the time directly after Princess Diana's death, and focuses on her coping methods throughout the tragic period.

Not only was Mirren's portrayal applauded by critics (the actress was also nominated for an Academy Award), but the Queen herself praised the performance and even invited Mirren to have dinner at Buckingham Palace.

Johnny Cash & Joaquin Phoenix.
Johnny Cash & Joaquin Phoenix. | Source

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash

Joaquin Phoenix starred as the late and great Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line. The film focuses on Cash's early years, his romance with June Carter and his rise to fame in country music. Of Phoenix's casting, director James Mangold had said Cash, "was thrilled. John was a very trusting man. He was very easygoing, a very cool guy. When you've got someone like Joaquin who, frankly, is very similar, a very cool actor, John knew that we were moving in the right direction."

Not only did Phoenix nail the country icon's mannerisms and accent, but he also managed to rock Cash's vocals and learn to play the guitar. The film received 5 Oscar nominations (including Best Actor for Phoenix), with Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of June Carter nabbing her a Best Actress win. Sadly, Cash passed away before the film was released.

Walt Disney and Tom Hanks.
Walt Disney and Tom Hanks. | Source

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney

Tom Hanks' portrayal of the iconic Walt Disney in the 2013 drama Saving Mr. Banks was applauded by critics and movie-goers. Many were in awe over the actor's ability to accurately convey Walt Disney's Midwestern dialect. Hanks listened to archival recordings of Disney and practiced the voice while reading the newspaper. He also grew his own mustache for the role, and interviewed some of Disney's former employees and his daughter Diane Disney Miller.

The film itself centers on author P.L. Travers (who wrote Mary Poppins) as she continuously meets with Walt Disney, who is hoping to obtain the screen rights to her novel. Hanks perfectly captures the man behind the empire that is Disney.

Frida Kahlo & Salma Hayek.
Frida Kahlo & Salma Hayek. | Source

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

The 2002 biopic Frida stars Salma Hayek in the titular role, and depicts both the private and professional life of surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Hayek's performance was praised by critics, and the actress earned her first and only Academy Award nomination for her portrayal. The film became a box-office success, earning more than $56 million.

Prior to her nabbing the part, it was reported there had been more than 12 screenplays on Kahlo's life, and at one point Madonna had wanted to star. Of her role as the famous painter, Hayek has expressed, "What I respond to with Frida is her courage to be unique; her courage to be different. She lived her life exactly as she wanted and never apologized."

King George VI & Colin Firth.
King George VI & Colin Firth. | Source

Colin Firth as King George VI

Colin Firth's Oscar-winning performance as King George VI in 2010's The King's Speech, focused on the King's efforts to cope with a stammer, as he worked with a speech and language therapist in order to prepare for his new royal role. The film was met with widespread critical acclaim, and made an astounding $414.2 million against a $15 million budget.

The British Stammering Association praised the movie, congratulating the film makers on their "realistic depiction of the frustration and the fear of speaking faced by people who stammer on a daily basis." It was reported that Queen Elizabeth II watched the film in a private screening, and he reaction was described as being "touched by a moving portrayal of her father."

Marilyn Monroe and Michelle Williams.
Marilyn Monroe and Michelle Williams. | Source

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

Michelle Williams starred as the blonde bombshell icon Marilyn Monroe in the critically praised My Week With Marilyn in 2011. The movie focuses on the week during shooting of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, opposite Laurence Olivier. It highlighted the starlet's relationship with Colin Clark and her marriage at the time to Arthur Miller. Upon its release, the film and Williams received rave reviews. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus was, "Michelle Williams shines in My Week With Marilyn, capturing the magnetism and vulnerability of Marilyn Monroe."

In order to play such an iconic figure, Williams spent six months reading biographies, letters, diaries, and poems from Monroe. She watched her films and listened to recordings, in addition to gaining wait and perfecting the famous Marilyn walk. For the performance, Williams earned a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar.

Idi Amin and Forest Whitaker.
Idi Amin and Forest Whitaker. | Source

Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin

In the 2006 film The Last King Of Scotland, actor Forest Whitaker had an absolutely stellar performance as Idi Amin, the dictator of Uganda. Set in the 1970s, the historical drama highlights Amin's horrendous reign through the eyes of a young physician, played by James McAvoy. Whitakers portrayal was applauded by critics, and he won a whopping 23 major awards, including an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award.

The film itself was also well received in Uganda, having premiered just prior to the actor's Oscar win. Whitaker amazing performance managed to bring a level of humanity to an extremely hated figure.

Meryl Streep & Margaret Thatcher.
Meryl Streep & Margaret Thatcher. | Source

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Arguably one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood, Meryl Streep has had a slew of outstanding performances, and her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is no exception. Thatcher was the first and only female Prime Minister of England, who during her tenure would make powerful and often controversial decisions (she cut welfare and trade union power). The film follows Thatcher in her later years, as she struggles with the death of her husband and recounts her life to him as if he were there.

While the film itself received mixed reviews, Streep's performance was widely acclaimed and she won an Oscar and Golden Globe Award for her role.

Sean Penn and Harvey Milk.
Sean Penn and Harvey Milk. | Source

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

Gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk was powerfully represented by Sean Penn in the 2008 film Milk. The film documented Milk's life and centers on his romantic life, political campaigns and relationship with Supervisor Dan White. It concludes with the double homicide of Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The film was released to much critical acclaim and went on to receive an impressive eight Academy Award nominations.

Sean Penn won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his representation of Harvey Milk, and the film was praised by many. Rotten Tomatoes analysis reads, "Anchored by Sean Penn's powerhouse performance, Milk is a triumphant account of America's first openly gay man elected to public office."

Cate Blanchett & Bob Dylan.
Cate Blanchett & Bob Dylan. | Source

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

The 2007 musical drama I'm Not There was inspired by the life and music of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The film features six actors depicting different facets of Dyan's public personas. Actress Cate Blanchett took on one of these personas, portraying Jude Quinn, one of the six incarnations of the musician. Dylan himself gave permission to director Todd Haynes to continue with the film, and allowed him to use his music.

Blanchett won the Volpi Cup Best Actress Award and a Golden Globe, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role. The film would appear in several top ten film lists in 2007.

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    © 2018 Rachel M Johnson

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