Whether some musicians break away from the stage to act in a film as a side project, or whether they leave their singing careers behind completely in order to start on a totally new career path, some of the biggest stars have been able to reinvent themselves from music to acting. Here’s a chance to glimpse your favorite stars in a totally new light you may never have expected.
1. Bruce Willis
Most people might be under the impression that Bruce Willis made his big debut when he starred in his first breakout role as John McClane in the movie Die Hard in 1988. But a year before, Willis had been already working on another project in an entirely different field.
In fact, in 1987, Willis released his first album, titled The Return of Bruno. The debut record featured a collection of R&B covers, and even included musical backing by Booker T. Jones and The Temptations. The album reached moderate success in the United Kingdom, where it reached number 7 on the UK Singles Chart, and his cover of “Respect Yourself” made it to the Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles list.
2. Mark Wahlberg
It can be easy to forget while watching Mark Wahlberg don a collared shirt and tie on our movie theater big screens that the actor once made a name for himself for being a constantly shirtless rapper. But before Wahlberg was collecting critical acclaim for his acting, he was known as Marky Mark, the frontman of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
Marky Mark’s first album Music for the People featured breakout hits like “Good Vibrations” and “Wildside” and quickly went platinum. But years later, when he booked his acting debut on the made-for-television film The Substitute, Marky Mark dropped his stage name and became the Mark Wahlberg we know today.
Actress Awkwafina, whose real name is Nora Lum, seemed to burst onto the silver screen in 2018 and 2019, seemingly coming from obscurity and into casts of huge films like Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, Jumanji: The Next Level, and The Farewell. But it was not that Awkwafina hadn’t been performing before then; she was just on a much different kind of stage.
Instead of acting, Awkwafina started her career rapping way back at the tender age of 13. Her first album, Yellow Ranger, debuted in 2014 after she had already been steadily gaining attention on YouTube. In 2018, she released her second album, called In Fina We Trust.
4. Gwen Stefani
Gwen Stefani has become a household name, first as the lead vocalist for the band No Doubt, then for her wildly successful solo career, and later on television screens as a judge for the singing competition show The Voice. But there was a time when Stefani chased after some slightly different dreams.
In 2004, Stefani had made her solo debut with the album when she started expressing interest in acting. She auditioned for the film Mr. & Mrs. Smith. But it was not until Martin Scorsese’s daughter, a huge No Doubt fan, saw her in a Marilyn Monroe-inspired Teen Vogue cover that she was asked to audition for The Aviator. She landed the part, playing 1930s blonde bombshell actress Jean Harlow, and called her first movie role a “dream come true”.
5. Johnny Depp
We were never supposed to see Johnny Depp on the big screen. In Depp’s mind, at least early on, he was meant to be a musician. That’s why he dropped out of high school: to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star (only to come back and be denied enrollment just two weeks later, but that’s besides the point).
Depp went on to join a band called The Kids, which broke up after 4 years. Years later, he briefly joined another band, where he met his ex-wife Lori Anne Allison. Allison went on to introduce Depp to none other than Nicolas Cage, who encouraged Depp to drop his musical career and try out acting. We’d say that advice worked out pretty well, in the long run.
There are some musicians who delve into acting and leave audiences thinking to themselves “they should probably stick to their day job”. But for Madonna, through branching out into acting, this superstar was able to find yet another vehicle to brandish her incredible range of talents.
Sure, plenty of singers can say they tried acting. But it is not every day that one of the most famous female musicians in the world is also given the Golden Globe for Best Actress, which Madonna did when she won the statuette for her role as iconic Argentinean first lady Eva Perón in the 1997 musical Evita. Now that is what we call a double threat.
7. Dolly Parton
From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Dolly Parton enjoyed an astronomical wave of success in the country music industry. And later, into the 1980s, Parton reinvented herself by smoothly transitioning into the pop music world for a more mainstream audience. But then, Parton decided she wanted to reinvent herself once again.
In hopes of further expanding her audience, Parton tried acting on for size. It started with a TV variety show called Dolly!, which ended after one season. Parton finally landed her first movie role in the hit comedy film 9 to 5, followed later by a role in Steel Magnolias. After that, most of Parton’s other acting gigs came in the form of TV shows, most recently playing Aunt Dolly in Hannah Montana.
8. Russell Crowe
Audiences around the world got a peek into what life would be like if Russell Crowe was a singer when they saw him perform in the film adaption of the musical Les Misérables. But while some fans may have dismissed his singing as a one-off, the truth is that Crowe surprisingly started his career as a musician.
Before Russell Crowe was known for such iconic film roles as Maximus in Gladiator, he was known as “Russ Le Roq”. His early songs in the 1980s included singles like “I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando”. And, if that was really the goal, Oscar and all, we’d say he achieved it.
9. Harry Styles
Harry Styles rose to fame and became a household name as a leading member of the boy band One Direction. But the “Story of [His] Life” took a turn from musician to actor for the massive World War II epic film Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan.
And while Styles’ fans might have been surprised to see him act in a movie, Nolan certainly was not. Nolan said that he cast Styles not because of his fame; in fact, Nolan had barely ever heard of Styles. Instead, he told Entertainment Tonight he thought that “Harry was perfect for this part”, and the movie reviewers seemed to agree.
10. Lenny Kravitz
For a while, musician Lenny Kravitz avoided making the transition into an acting career. “In the last 22 years, while I was making music, I was offered a lot of films,” Kravitz told Rolling Stone. “I just didn’t find the roles very interesting — a lot of clichéd type of stuff and really obvious things.”
“I didn’t want to make films because I can,” he added. “There’s not point in that.” But that all changed when Kravitz was offered a role in the gritty 2009 movie Precious, and later a role in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. “When I’m acting, I get to leave myself behind, which is a relief,” Kravitz said after acting in these two films.
11. Cardi B
Cardi B is best known as the loud, zany, totally-out-there rapper who says anything that is on her mind, and we really mean anything. So it is no wonder that directors would want to take that attitude off stage and adapt it onto the big screen.
And director Lorene Scafaria did just that in the movie Hustlers, which featured Cardi B along with other, usually more musically-oriented acts like Lizzo and Usher. But what some might not know is that Cardi B was also cast in a television role. She was on the reality show Love and Hip Hop way before she was a chart-topping rapper.
12. Justin Timberlake
Maybe it was his very young stint on the television series The Mickey Mouse Club, or maybe it was his unexpectedly hysterical guest hosting stints on Saturday Night Live. But somehow, Justin Timberlake was able to shift gears from being a leading member of a boy band into a leading member of a Hollywood movie marquee.
Shortly after Timberlake was given negative reviews for his now-infamous Super Bowl performance alongside Janet Jackson, Timberlake reportedly decided to try to rebrand himself as an actor. And through taking on surprising roles in movies like The Social Network, Alpha Dog, and Friends With Benefits, we’d say he made a successful effort.
13. Meat Loaf
Almost everyone knows Michael Lee Aday as Meat Loaf, the highly theatrical singer who brought us such hits as “I’d Do Anything For Love” and created one of the best-selling albums of all time with his 1977 debut Bat Out of Hell. But some might forget the Meat Loaf who not only sang on stage, but acted in Hollywood films.
For Meat Loaf’s Hollywood debut, he stayed true to his brand, roaring out of a freezer on a motorcycle as the psychobilly-inspired Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The singer also appeared on Wayne’s World and Fight Club. But by far our favorite Meat Loaf movie performance would have to be when the musician-turned-actor was cast as the bus driver in Spice World.
14. Tim McGraw
Tim McGraw has become a name almost synonymous with country music itself. He is so big in the country music world that superstar Taylor Swift even has a song titled “Tim McGraw”. But there is another star that McGraw has lent his name to, and this time, it is sitting on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
McGraw made his first real Hollywood debut playing a father in the sports film Friday Night Lights, but he had taken on other smaller acting gigs before that. Over the years, McGraw has shown up in a few other films, like The Blind Side, where he once again played the role of an overbearing father.
Is there anything that Beyoncé Knowles can’t do? Apparently, if she does have an Achilles heel, it’s certainly not going to be acting. Not only has Knowles made a name for herself as one of the most famous musicians on the planet, she has also managed to land some pretty enviable acting gigs throughout her career.
Knowles got her start in Hollywood by lending her skills to another big name: Austin Powers. In 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember, Knowles played groovy ’70s sidekick Foxxy Cleopatra, a self-proclaimed “whole lotta woman”. Over the years, Knowles went on to play in movies like The Pink Panther, Dreamgirls, and Obsessed. She even forayed into voice acting as Nala in the remake of The Lion King.
16. Jared Leto
Film fanatics will know that actor Jared Leto won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his controversial role in Dallas Buyers Club. But what they might not know is that Leto also holds the title of Record Holder in the Guinness Book of World Records for performing in the most concerts during a single album cycle.
That is because Leto was the lead vocalist and main songwriter for the band Thirty Seconds To Mars. Somehow, while he was still leading the band, he was able to play in films like Fight Club, American Psycho, Requiem for a Dream, and Girl, Interrupted. Still, he refused to use his rising star status as a way to promote his band, saying that the music spoke for itself.
Poet Tupac Shakur changed the world of rap music, and long after his death he continues to be the main source of inspiration for many of the rappers who are topping the charts today. But there was much more to 2Pac than his music career. According to Vanity Fair, “Everyone knows Tupac the rapper was great. But what about Tupac the actor?”
While 2Pac acted in films like Poetic Justice, Bullet, Gridlock’d, and Gang Related, it was his role as Roland Bishop in Juice that earned him critical acclaim. Rolling Stone referred to 2Pac as “the film’s most magnetic figure”, and Vanity Fair went so far with their accolades as to claim that 2Pac had a “Marlon Brando-level presence” on screen.
18. Dave Matthews
What was the late 1990s and early 2000s without a little Dave Matthews Band blasting at a cookout? The South African-born Matthews and his band carved out a place for themselves in music history, and he has two Grammy awards to prove it. But little is actually known about Matthews’ semi-successful acting career.
While his acting clearly did not take off in the same way as his music has, Dave Matthews made it onto the big screen on a number of occasions. In fact, Matthews started his career by acting in several on-stage productions. But since making it big, he can be seen in films like Because of Winn-Dixie, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
Throughout Rihanna’s career, the musician has taken on a number of other roles beyond singing, from being the head of a fashion house to the founder of a cosmetics brand. But somehow, despite juggling the act of wearing all those hats, Rihanna has also found time to take on some roles in Hollywood films.
Rihanna first delved into acting the way many other musicians do: by playing herself in a cameo role. While that movie, Bring It On: All Or Nothing, went straight to DVD, Rihanna had plenty of other chances to make it onto the big screen. Those chances even included appearing alongside some of the most sought-after women in Hollywood when she played Nine Ball in Ocean’s 8.
20. David Bowie
The late legendary rocker David Bowie is known for not only his music, but for the characters he has taken on as part of his artistic voice, such as the polished Thin White Duke or the glam extraterrestrial Ziggy Stardust. So it should be no surprise that Bowie decided to expand upon the idea of taking on a character, and parlayed that into acting, both on stage and in film.
While Bowie was skyrocketing in the music charts, he was also taking on tons of television and movie roles. He appeared in over 30 movies, television shows, and theatrical productions, including Just a Gigolo with Marlene Dietrich, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and an appearance as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. But who can forget his memorably bizarre role as Jareth, the Goblin King in Labyrinth?
21. Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson attracted attention from around the world for his practically unmatched skills when it came to singing, dancing, and performing. But while he picked up roles in films like The Wiz and Men in Black II, he never reached the level of acting fame that he had dreamed of, according to those close with him.
In an interview with MovieFone, Marvel Comics mastermind Stan Lee revealed that Jackson had his eyes set on doing more movies. “I knew Michael Jackson,” Lee said. “And with the things he discussed with me, I felt he wanted to be Spider-Man” in the 2002 movie adaption. Jackson reportedly also wished he could have been the phantom in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera.
22. Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift has gained a “reputation” over the years as one of the most successful and best-selling musicians of all time. She has won ten Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, and even holds several Guinness World Records to boot. But for someone so successful on stage, she has not seen the same kind of opportunities on screen.
Before she signed on to play in the semi-animated film Cats, which was quickly and vehemently panned by just about every film critic, Swift’s movie and film reel came in at about 10 minutes of screen time. All ten minutes include small roles in films like Valentine’s Day and The Giver, along with small parts on an episode of New Girl and, surprisingly enough, a 2009 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Ludacris officially took home his first Grammy Award for his work on the single “Yeah!”, featuring Usher and Lil Jon. But, apparently, this rapper is not afraid to say yes to multiple film roles, sometimes under his legal name, Chris Bridges.
Throughout the years, Ludacris has appeared in several films, including Crash in 2004, Gamer in 2009, and the movie New Year’s Eve in 2011. But he is by far best known for his role as Tej Parker in The Fast and the Furious. His character first appeared in 2 Fast 2 Furious, and he has since appeared in a number of the subsequent sequels.
24. Tom Waits
While gravel-voiced Tom Waits is predominantly known as a singer and songwriter, one definitely should not think that those are his only talents. In fact, Waits has showed that he is also pretty impressive when it comes to his acting skills.
In 1978, Waits had his big debut in the film Paradise Alley before he married his wife, screenwriter Kathleen Brennan. From there, he found love while he delved into a new love of his own: acting. His connections through Brennan helped him land roles in films like playing the madman Renfield in famed director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Over the years, Waits has appeared in a number of cameos in other movies.
25. Ice Cube
When Ice Cube decided to leave the influential rap powerhouse N.W.A. — his group alongside Dr. Dre and Eazy-E — he was hoping to start a solo career. What he might not have been expecting was that this move would eventually lead him into the Hollywood spotlight.
But starting in 1991 with his acting debut as Doughboy in the Oscar-nominated film Boyz n the Hood, Ice Cube, whose real name is O’Shea Jackson, began a film career that would land him roles in over 40 films. His resume now includes movies like 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, Are We There Yet?, and Barbershop.
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