state of the arts

From Ed Sheeran to Elton John – why do celebrities find it so hard to play themselves?

In our weekly arts column, Alexandra Pollard dissects Ed Sheeran’s woeful appearance in ‘Yesterday’, and asks why so few celebs can pull off the role that should come naturally to them

Friday 28 June 2019 00:24 BST
‘The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me’: Himesh Patel and an unconvincing Ed Sheeran in ‘Yesterday’
‘The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me’: Himesh Patel and an unconvincing Ed Sheeran in ‘Yesterday’ (Universal Pictures)

Gordon Ramsay playing Gordon Ramsay is a sight to behold,” declared film critic Mark Kermode, reviewing the overcooked chef drama Love’s Kitchen back in 2011. “It’s like he’s not actually human. It is quite the worst cameo acting I think I have ever seen.” Enter Ed Sheeran.

The scruffy pop behemoth is rather woeful playing himself in Danny Boyle’s new film Yesterday, which stars Himesh Patel as a struggling musician who wakes up in a world in which The Beatles never existed. Even if you set aside the film’s suggestion that Sheeran is the greatest singer-songwriter of all time, and that he alone is capable of spotting a (fellow) genius, the fact remains that he is, frankly, not a very good actor. It’s not his fault. Granted, you’d think he’d have learnt from his equally disastrous cameos in Game of Thrones, People Just Do Nothing and Bridget Jones’s Baby, but the people truly to blame are those who decided to cast him. Sheeran tries his best, and is game for sending himself up – when his phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone – but it is all just stilted and uncomfortable.

To be fair to Sheeran – and to Gordon Ramsey, I suppose – it is surprisingly difficult to play yourself on screen. Many a celebrity has tried and failed to do so. Some are unbearably wooden (think Elton John’s bizarre, overlong cameo in Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle), some are gratuitous, dating the movie before it’s even got a DVD release (2016’s Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie was bafflingly swamped with C-list guest spots – Abbey Clancy, Nick Grimshaw… Perez Hilton?), and others show the celebrity in such a glowing light that it is feels akin to product placement.

Celebrity cameos can even, at times, border on offensive. What was supposed to be funny, exactly, about Eminem coming out as gay in Seth Rogen’s catastrophic King Jong-un satire The Interview (2014)? Is the “joke” that the rapper is homophobic? Four years after that film came out, he was still using the word “faggot” in his music. Some people just haven’t earned the right to send themselves up.

Occasionally, though, celebrities nail playing themselves. Ant and Dec – or should I say “Ant or Dec”? – did a good job playing themselves alongside Bill Nighy’s outrageous fictional popstar Billy Mack in Love Actually. But almost always, unsurprisingly, the best celebrities for the job are actually actors. Kate Winslet’s un-PC cameo in Extras was not only painfully funny, but strangely prescient. “Do a film about the Holocaust – guaranteed Oscar,” she announced glibly to Ricky Gervais’s struggling movie extra Andy. Three years later, she won an Oscar for doing just that. Michael Cera as a cocaine-fuelled nightmare version of himself in This Is the End was inspired; so, too, was Bill Murray as one of the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse in the vastly underrated Zombieland (2009).

More recently, Keanu Reeves’s extended cameo as himself on the Netflix comedy film Always Be My Maybe further cemented the cult of Keanu that is currently picking up speed (or should I say Speed?). As the unexpected lover of Ali Wong’s Sasha, Reeves manages to stay just the right side of self-parody. Arriving at an upscale restaurant to the melodramatic strains of Awolnation’s “Sail”, Reeves shakes hands with practically ever diner before greeting Sasha with a flurry of inappropriate kisses and declarations that he has “missed your soul, missed your spirit”. When Sasha’s friend professes to being starstruck, he tells her, “The only stars that matter are the ones you look at when you dream.” If you’ve watched an interview with Reeves, you’ll know that this is just a whisper away from something he would actually say – and yet it is delivered with enough self-awareness that the joke lands brilliantly.

Ali Wong and Keanu Reeves in ‘Aways Be My Maybe’
Ali Wong and Keanu Reeves in ‘Aways Be My Maybe’ (Netflix)

Surely the ultimate, though, is John Malkovich in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s 1999 fantasy comedy-drama Being John Malkovich. To explain the plot would be to ruin the weird and wonderful (literal) rabbit hole through which the film takes you, but Malkovich is absolutely pitch-perfect. “Turn it up,” he told Jonze and Kaufman when they first started filming. “Who better to make fun of yourself – your impotence, your vanity, your ridiculousness – and say it’s OK? I am ridiculous – I mean, I am a celebrity. It’s sort of like human sacrifice. To offer yourself up as a subject of ridicule and scorn to make a point about the society we live in, which has this celebrity obsession.”

That’s the best approach a celebrity can have to playing themselves – self-aware, undaunted, but without winking at the camera so blatantly that it all starts to feel a bit desperate. Oh, and being able to act helps.

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