66 Side-By-Side Shots Of Biopic Stars And The Real People They Portrayed

Published October 13, 2018
Updated October 15, 2018

Side-by-side with the real people who inspired their roles, it's clear which biopic stars were perfectly cast - and which were total duds.

Emile Hirsch As Chris McCandless In Into the Wild

Emile Hirsch And Chris Mccandless
2007's Into the Wild follows Christopher McCandless after he graduates from Emory University, donates his $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Emile Hirsch plays McCandless in the film and wore the real-life McCandless' watch while filming. McCandless was an ambitious young man who after graduating college left his old life behind and trekked through the wilds of Alaska on his own. Unfortunately, McCandless was found dead in the wilderness and the circumstances surrounding his death are still mysterious.Instagram/Wikimedia Commons

Ray Liotta As Henry Hill In Goodfellas

Ray Liotta And Henry Hill
Ray Liotta played mobster Henry Hill in the 1990 film Goodfellas. Hill was an associate of the Lucchese crime family and played a major role in the infamous Lufthansa heist in 1978.Left: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Right: Wikimedia Commons

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde in Theory of Everything

Eddie Felicity Stephen Jane
The Theory of Everything is a 2014 film that takes a deep look at the relationship between renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane Wilde. Stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne attended Hawking’s funeral in 2018.Left: Working Title Films, Right: telegraph.co.uk

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn

Michelle Williams As Marilyn Monroe
2011’s My Week With Marilyn focuses on the week author Colin Clark spent with Marilyn Monroe as she filmed the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl. Michelle Williams played the “Blonde Bombshell”, reenacting parts of the original film on the same soundstage Monroe used in 1957.Left: The Weinstein Company, Right: Getty Images

John Travolta as John Gotti in Gotti

John Travolta As John Gotti
Gotti is a 2018 film depicting the life of New York City crime boss John Gotti and his son John Jr. The Gotti family personally asked for John Travolta to play the legendary mobster.Left: Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films, Right: John Pedin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett Plays Bob Dylan
I’m Not There is a 2007 film that features six actors playing different aspects of musician Bob Dylan’s public personas. Cate Blanchett, the only woman to play the songwriter, kept a sock in her pants while filming. She says it helped her walk like a man. Left: Endgame Entertainment, Right: Getty Images Express Newspapers

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown

Claire Foy As Queen Elizabeth
Netflix’s The Crown debuted in 2016 and follows the life of Queen Elizabeth and the major events that shaped world history in the 20th century. While Claire Foy starred as Queen Elizabeth for the first two seasons, new actors will be brought in as the characters age in the show.Left: Left Bank Pictures/Sony Pictures Television, Right: Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life

Kirk Douglas Portrays Van Gogh
1956’s Lust For Life stars Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. Reportedly, Douglas’s children ran out of the theater screaming when they saw their father, as Van Gogh, cut off his ear on the screen.Left: Photo Archives/Getty Images, Right: Wikimedia Commons

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep Margaret Thatcher
The Iron Lady stars Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom’s first female Prime Minister. Streep, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Thatcher, donated her entire salary for the film to charity.Left: Alex Bailey, Right: Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Robert De Niro as James Burke/Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas

Robert Deniro Jimmy Conway
Goodfellas follows the life of mobster Henry Hill and his associates. Robert Deniro plays Jimmy Conway, a character based on Hill’s associate James Burke. The real-life Henry Hill claims that DeNiro would call him seven to eight times a day to discuss Burke’s mannerisms.Left: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Right: Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in Jobs

Ashton Kutcher Steve Jobs
Jobs tells the story of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ life from dropping out of college to creating one of the world’s most profitable technology companies. Most of the scenes in the film involving Jobs’ parents’ home and garage were filmed in the home and garage that Jobs actually grew up in.Left: Open Road Films, Right: Tom Munnecke/Getty Images

Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass

Johnny Depp As Whitey Bulger
Johnny Depp played Boston mobster Whitey Bulger in 2015’s Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass. The film tells the story of Bulger’s life as the head of a major mob family and his eventual flip to become an FBI informant. 10 percent of the film’s $23 million opening weekend gross came from Bulger’s home of Boston alone.Left: Warner Bros. Picture, Right: FBI/Wikimedia Commons

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman Winston Churchill
2017's Darkest Hour showcases the critical decision Winston Churchill was forced to make in May 1940 of whether to negotiate with Adolf Hitler or to fight. For the year leading up to filming, Gary Oldman studied all aspects of Churchill in order to nail his portrayal of the Prime Minister.Left: Jack English/Focus Features, Right: British Government/Wikimedia Commons

Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali in Midnight In Paris

Adrien Brody As Salvador Dali
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris follows a man who visits his fiancé’s parents in Paris and mysteriously finds himself travelling back to the 1920s every night, where he meets famous figures of the Lost Generation. Adrien Brody play Salvador Dali, the surrealist artist whose eccentric persona became an extension of his art.Left: Gravier Productions, Right: Library of Congress

Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla-Perez in Selena

Jennifer Lopez Plays Selena
Selena features Jennifer Lopez as Selena, the pop star who was tragically murdered by the president of her fan club in March, 1995, at 23-years-old. To prepare for her role in the film, Lopez spent time living with Selena’s real family.Left: Q-Productions, Right: AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, John Everett

Naomi Watts as Princess Diana in Diana

Naomi Watts Princess Diana
2013’s Diana shows the last two years of Princess Diana’s life, focusing on her romance with Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, and her tragic death in Aug. 1997 in a car crash while being chased by paparazzi. Universally panned by critics, the film’s star Naomi Watts has described it as a ”sinking ship”.Left: Ecosse Films, Right: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln

Daniel Day Lewis Portrays Abraham Lincoln
Daniel-Day Lewis won an Oscar for his performance as Civil War President Abraham Lincoln in 2012’s Lincoln. Day-Lewis was initially reluctant to take on such an iconic figure, but was convinced to take the role by Leonardo DiCaprio.Left: DreamWorks Pictures, Right: Wikimedia Commons

Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi

Ben Kingsley Gandhi
1982’s Gandhi follows the life of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian social activist who peacefully protested British rule in India. Star Ben Kingsley resembled Gandhi so closely that some locals believed that he was the ghost of Gandhi.Left: Columbia Pictures, Right: Wikimedia Commons

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray

Jamie Foxx Ray Charles
The 2004 film Ray chronicles the life of Ray Charles, the blind musician who combined gospel and blues to create soul music. Charles died before the film was officially finished, but was able to see an early version of the film before passing away.Left: Bristol Bay Productions, Right: Billboard/Wikimedia Commons

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender Steve Jobs
2015’s Steve Jobs stars Michael Fassbender as the Apple CEO. The film follows Steve Jobs through some of Apple’s biggest moments, ending in 1998 with the debut of the Mac computer.Left: Legendary Pictures, Right: Matthew Yohe/Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in The Revenant.

Leonardo Dicaprio As Hugh Glass
2015’s The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass, the fur-trader who trekked over 200 miles back to camp after being mauled by a bear and left for dead. The film rewrites Glass’s story, adding in the murder of his son as what motivates him to exact his revenge. Left: Regency Enterprises, Right: Bruce Bradley

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors

Val Kilmer As Jim Morrison
1991’s The Doors tells the story of rocker Jim Morrison, the poet and singer who tragically died in 1971 at the young age of 27. Val Kilmer was reportedly so consumed with his portrayal of Morrison that he had to seek professional help to shake off “Jim.”Left: Bill Graham Films, Right: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin

Robert Downey Charlie Chaplin
1992's Chaplin stars Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin, one of the most celebrated comedians from the era of silent films. In the film, Chaplin's daughter Geraldine played her real-life paternal grandmother.Left: Carolco Pictures, Right: Fred Chess/Wikimedia Commons

Philip Seymour Hoffman – Truman Capote in Capote

Philip Seymour Hoffman Plays Truman Capote
2005’s Capote stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as American author Truman Capote, following him through the journey of writing and researching his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. The film opened on Sept. 30, 2005, which would have been Capote's 81st birthday.Left: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Right: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall

Bruno Ganz Adolf Hitler
Downfall is a 2004 film in which Adolf Hitler's secretary details the final days of the dictator's life spent in a bunker in Berlin as World War II came to a close. To prepare for his role as Adolf Hitler, Bruno Ganz studied Parkinson's disease patients.Left: Newmarket Films, Right: German Federal Archives

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus

Morgan Freeman Nelson Mandela
2009's Invictus follows Nelson Mandela through his journey to use the 1995 national rugby team to bring the apartheid-torn South Africa together. Morgan Freeman was the first choice for the role. Mandela himself said that Freeman was the only person who could portray him.Left: Warner Bros. Pictures, Right: Louise Gubb/Corbis/Getty Images

Gary Oldman as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved

Gary Oldman Beethoven
Immortal Beloved follows Ludwig van Beethoven’s assistant as he tries to identify the "immortal beloved" to whom Beethoven left his estate, music, and affairs. The year before the film was released, in 1994, Gary Oldman played a character in Léon: The Professional who was obsessed with Beethoven.Left: Columbia Pictures, Right: Joseph Karl Stieler

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida

Salma Hayek Frida Kahlo
Frida is a 2002 biopic depicting the life of Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. The movie explores her turbulent marriage to artist Diego Rivera as well as her artistic achievements. Impressed with Salma Hayek's portrayal, Kahlo's real-life niece gifted the actress one of her aunt's necklaces.Left: Miramax Films, Right: Sotheby's/Guillermo Kahlo

Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in Ali

Will Smith Muhammad Ali
Will Smith was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 2001's Ali. The film focuses on legendary boxer Muhammad Ali's life from 1964 to 1974, including his first heavyweight title win and his criticism of the Vietnam War.Left: Getty Images, Right: AFP/Getty Images

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock

Anthony Hopkins Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock is a 2012 film that follows the relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville while he films 1960's Psycho. To physically transform himself into Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins donned a fat suit and latex makeup.Left: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Right: Dr. Macro/Wikimedia Commons

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster

Charlize Theron Aileen Wuornos
2003's Monsterfollows the life of Aileen Wuornos, the American serial killer who murdered seven men between 1989 and 1990. Charlize Theron completely changed her appearance for the role and gained 30 pounds to transform herself into Wuornos.Left: Newmarket Films, Right: Florida Department of Corrections

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Malcolm X

Denzel Washington Malcolm X
Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X dramatizes the key events in the life of African-American civil rights activist and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X. To prepare for the film's titular role, Denzel Washington avoided pork and attended Fruit of Islam classes.Left: Warner Bros., Right: Library of Congress/New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection

Anthony Hopkins as Pablo Picasso in Surviving Picasso

Anthony Hopkins Pablo Picasso
The 1996 film Surviving Picasso tells the story of Francoise Gilot, one of artist Pablo Picasso’s lovers and the mother to two of his children. While Anthony Hopkins was filming his scenes as the artist, he ate the same diet as Picasso.Left: Warner Bros., Right: George Stroud/Getty Images

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex

Felicity Jones Rbg
The upcoming 2018 film On the Basis of Sex tells the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s road to becoming the second woman ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Natalie Portman was originally signed on to play Ginsburg, but had to drop out and was replaced with Felicity Jones.Left: Participant Media, Right: CNN

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen

Helen Mirren Queen Elizabeth
2006’s The Queen follows Queen Elizabeth II in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s untimely death. This was the first of two times that Helen Mirren portrayed the Queen, alongside the 2013 Broadway play “The Audience.”Left: Granada Productions, Right: JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

AnnaSophia Robb – Bethany Hamilton in Soul Surfer

Annasophia Robb Bethany Hamilton
Soul Surfer is a 2011 film that tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm to a tiger shark attack when she was just 13-years-old. Hamilton asked for AnnaSophia Robb to play her after seeing her in 2007's Bridge To Terabithia.TriStar Pictures

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar

Leonardo Dicaprio J Edgar
2011's J. Edgar takes a look at the professional and personal life of F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, including the rumors that he was gay. Star Leonardo DiCaprio and director Clint Eastwood had a falling out while shooting after Eastwood refused DiCaprio’s request to retake a scene.Left: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Right: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac Shakur in All Eyez on Me

Demetrius Shipp Tupac Shakur
2017's All Eyez On Me tells the story of rapper Tupac Shakur, who was tragically murdered in 1996 at the age of 25. Star Demetrius Shipp Jr. resembled the Shakur so closely that, when director Benny Boom first saw a photo of him, he thought it was Shakur.Left: Quantrell Colbert, Right: Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg As Mark Zuckerberg
2010’s The Social Network tells the story of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Star Jesse Eisenberg, who has obsessive compulsive disorder, says he found it difficult, when playing Zuckerberg, to deliberately behave in ways that he had spent his own life struggling against.Left: Merrick Morton/Columbia TriStar, Right: Mark Zuckerberg/Wikimedia Commons

Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham in The Post

Meryl Streep Katharine Graham
The Post is a 2017 film that follows Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and her difficult decision over whether to publish the leaked Pentagon Papers. The film marks the first time Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks appeared onscreen together.Left: Twentieth Century Fox, Right: Der Angemeldete/Wikimedia Commons

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya

Margot Robbie As Tonya Harding
I, Tonya is a 2017 biopic that tells the story of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and her role in the 1994 attack on her competitor Nancy Kerrigan. To recreate Harding's hair for the film, Margot Robbie wore wigs, which were styled using beer to achieve the "crunchy" look.Left: Neon/30 West, Right: David Madison/Getty Images

Saorise Ronan as Mary Stuart in Mary, Queen of Scots

Saorise Ronan Mary Stuart
The upcoming 2018 film Mary, Queen of Scots depicts Mary Stuart's ill-fated attempt to overthrow her cousin, Queen of England Elizabeth I. Saoirse Ronan has been attached to the film to play Mary since Aug. 2012.Left: John Mathieson/Focus Features, Right: National Portrait Gallery

Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I in Mary, Queen of Scots

Margot Robbie Queen Elizabeth
Margot Robbie plays Queen of England Elizabeth I in the upcoming film Mary, Queen of Scots. Robbie and co-star Saoirse Ronan, who plays Mary, were not allowed to meet until they filmed their single shared scene in the film.Left: Focus Features, Right: National Portrait Gallery

Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World

Christopher Plummer Jpaul Getty
2017’s All the Money in the World shows the period in 1973 when billionaire Jean Paul Getty refused to pay a ransom to save the life of his grandson, John Paul Getty III. After sexual assault allegations came out against the original star, Kevin Spacey, the film was reshot with Christopher Plummer in his role.Left: TriStar Pictures/STXInternational, Right: Los Angeles Daily News

Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes

Stone Carrell King Riggs
2017's Battle of the Sexes tells the story Billie Jean King, the American tennis player who beat self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. Emma Stone put on 15 pounds of muscle while training to play King.Left: Melinda Sue Gordon/Fox Searchlight, Right: Wikimedia Commons

Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul

Judi Dench Queen Victoria
2017's Victoria & Abdul depicts the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian clerk named Abdul. This was the second time that Judi Dench had played Queen Victoria, whom she first portrayed in 1997's Mrs. Brown.Left: Universal Pictures UK, RIght: Alexander Bassano

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in Waco

Taylor Kitsch As David Koresh
Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in Waco> is a 2018 miniseries that depicts the FBI and ATF's 51-day siege of cult leader David Koresh's compound near Waco, T.X. in 1993. Star Taylor Kitsch had to lose 30 pounds to physically transform himself into his Koresh character.Left: Brothers Dowdle Productions, Right: McLennan County Sheriff's Office

Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall in Marshall

Chadwick Boseman Thurgood Marshall
2017’s Marshall follows lawyer Thurgood Marshall through one of his most career-defining cases: the defense of Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur accused of raping a white woman. Both actor Chadwick Boseman and the real-life Thurgood Marshall attended Howard University.Left: Barry Wetcher, Right: Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma

David Oyelowo Mlk Jr
2014's Selma focuses on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights Movement leaders. David Oyelowo fought for seven years to get cast in the role of Dr. King.Left: Paramount Pictures, Right: Phil Stanziola/New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Library of Congress

Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer

Ross Lynch As Jeffrey Dahmer
2017's My Friend Dahmer is adapted from a graphic novel by John Backderf, who was friends with serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. To get into character, star Ross Lynch would watch an interview with Dahmer each day before filming began.Left: Ibid Filmworks, Right: Revere Senior High School

Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman

Hugh Jackman Pt Barnum
2017's The Greatest Showman tells the story of Barnum & Bailey Circus founder P.T. Barnum and his journey to turn his show into a worldwide spectacle. Hugh Jackman read three dozen books on the showman to prepare to take on the role of Barnum.Left: 20th Century Fox, Right: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein in Genius

Geoffrey Rush Albert Einstein
The first season of Genius, a TV series chronicling the lives of brilliants minds throughout history, follows the life of physicist Albert Einstein. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, who play husband and wife Albert and Else Einstein respectively, previously played a married couple in 2013's The Book Thief.Left: Dusan Martincek/National Geographic, Right: Oren Jack Turner/Library of Congress

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours

Nicole Kidman Virginia Woolf
2002's The Hours follows three different women in three different times, connected through Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. Nicole Kidman, who is left-handed in real life, learned how to write with her right hand in order to portray modernist writer Virginia Woolf.Left: Paramount Pictures, Right: Harvard Theater Collection

Michael Douglas as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas Liberace
2013’s Behind the Candelabra depicts the last decade of pianist Liberace's life, including his tumultuous relationship with his much-younger lover Scott Thorson. Actor Robin Williams was originally slated to portray Liberace, but the role ultimately went to Michael Douglas.Left: HBO Films, Right: Allan Warren

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie

Natalie Portman Jakcie Kennedy
2016's Jackie follows the life of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy. In the film, one of Natalie Portman's shoes gets stuck in the mud. Because this was an unscripted goof, Portman improvised and reacted as she thought Kennedy would have.Left: Pablo Larrains, Right: Robert Knudsen/JFK Library and Museum

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures

Taraji Henson Katherine Johnson
2016's Hidden Figures follows Katherine Johnson and two other female African-American NASA mathematicians who contributed to the space program in the 1960s. When Taraji P. Henson signed onto the film, she was able to meet the real-life Johnson, who was 98-years-old at the time.Left: Hopper Stone/Hopper Stone, SMPSP, Right: NASA

Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is By My Side

Andre 3000 Jimi Hendrix
2013's Jimi: All Is By My Side follows rocker Jimi Hendrix during his decision to leave New York City and move to London in 1966-67. Hendrix was 27-years-old when he died, but Andre 3000 was almost 40 when he portrayed Hendrix in the film.Left: Darko Entertainment, Right: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in Sid and Nancy

Webb Oldman Sid Nancy
Sid and Nancy is a 1986 movie depicting the ill-fated love story of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. To achieve the emaciated look that Vicious had due to drug use, Gary Oldman lived on a diet of fish and melon, but had to stop after he went too far and was hospitalized.Left: Palace Pictures/The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Right: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk

Sean Penn Harvey Milk
2008's Milk follows the life of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in American history. To transform himself into Milk, Sean Penn wore a prosthetic nose and teeth, contact lenses, as well as a redesigned hair line.Left: Focus Features, Right: Ted Sahl/Wikimedia Commons

Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart in Amelia

Hilary Swank Amelia Earhart
Amelia is a 2009 film showing the life of aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared during an ill-fated flight in 1937. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, released the same year, also featured Earhart, this time played by Amy Adams.Left: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Right: Wikimedia Commons

Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Che: Part One

Benecio Deltoro Che Guevara
Che: Part One is a 2008 film that follows Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara through the fight overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1956. Benicio del Toro spent seven years researching Guevara's life as preparation for the role.Left: Warner Bros./IFC Films, Right: Alberto Korda

John Hurt as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man

John Hurt Joseph Merrick
1980's The Elephant Man shows the life of Joseph Merrick, the so-called “half man, half elephant” freak show performer who was rescued and studied by surgeon Frederick Treves. It took seven to eight hours to apply the Elephant Man makeup onto John Hurt and two hours to remove.Left: Paramount Pictures/EMI Films, Right: Wikimedia Commons

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix as June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash in Walk The Line

Phoenix Witherspoon Carter Cash
2005's Walk the Line tells the story of musician Johnny Cash, focusing on his relationship with his wife June Carter. For their roles as Cash and Carter, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon performed all of the songs themselves.Left: 20th Century Fox, Right: Look Magazine/Joel Baldwin

Colin Firth as King George VI in The King’s Speech

Colin Firth King George
2010's The King's Speech showcases the relationship between British King George VI and Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who helped him overcome his stammer. Colin Firth was the second choice to play King George VI. Paul Bettany was the first choice, but turned down the role.Left: Momentum Pictures, Right: Matson Collection/Library of Congress

John Goodman as Babe Ruth in The Babe

John Goodman Babe Ruth
The Babe is a 1992 film depicting the life of famed baseball player Babe Ruth, star slugger of the New York Yankees in the 1920s. Star John Goodman lost 40 pounds to play Ruth.Left: Universal Pictures, Right: George Grantham Bain/Library of Congress

Bill Hader as Andy Warhol in Men in Black 3

Bill Hader Andy Warhol
In 2012's Men in Black 3, pop art pioneer Andy Warhol is depicted as a member of the secret Men in Black agency. The studio where Agents J and K meet Warhol in the film was his real-life studio.Left: Columbia Pictures, Right: Santi Visalli/Getty Images

The star of a biopic has a daunting task. Their job is to bring the dead to life; to step into the skin and clothes of a historical figure and bring all of their quirks and mannerisms to the screen.

In most films, actors can draw their roles out from their imaginations however they will; but in a biopic, they have to prepare for an audience brimming with their own ideas about who these people were — and accurately portray a person who actually existed.

We all have our own ideas and our images of the people who make up history. We’ve seen their pictures or their videos, and we've heard them speak or read their work. We have a vision of who they are; and any performance that doesn’t fit that idea, no matter how brilliant, will fall flat.

It takes incredible work to transform the star of a biopic into the figure from history they are meant to portray. Sometimes, it’s the casting that does it. Holywood experts spend months or years seeking out the perfect actors; mirror images of historical figures who can bring them to life.

But for some roles, there is no perfect actor. Sometimes, the only way to bring a character to life is to have the star spend hours in make-up, reshaping their faces into the mold of a real person. Like John Hurt, who spent 8 hours having his face reshaped in the image of John Merrick for The Elephant Man.

For all the struggles involved in making a biopic really work, though, the genre only gets more popular each year. Three of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year were biopics, while six of the Golden Globes nominations for Best Actress went to women playing figures from real-life.

It’s a difficult job, bringing the dead to life, but it’s a rewarding one. And the results – as the 66 side-by-side comparison shots in the gallery above show – can be nothing short of incredible.


Next, figure out what happened to some of the living, famous descendants of historical figures. Then check out these awesome celebrity school photos.

Caroline Redmond
Caroline is a writer and Florida-transplant currently living in New York City.