Most performers have a hard enough time finding the voice, stature, and presence of the fictional characters they portray. But when an actor or actress takes on a biographical role — that is, one of a real person – they face an even bigger challenge. Can they live up to the legacy of the person they’re portraying? Will they tell their story truthfully? When biopics are bad, they’re awful (see: The Runaways, a film about Joan Jett and her first band). But some stars have really shone in their biographical portrayals of people, both famous and non-famous alike. Here are four who really captured their non-fiction personas.
1. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland (2006)
This British film mixes fact and fiction, telling the story of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s personal physician (James McAvoy). By showing how easily the young doctor comes into Amin’s fold, The Last King of Scotland shows how powerfully persuasive the violent and oppressive president could be. But the true praise for the film’s heart-stopping glimpse into Amin’s regime goes to Whitaker, who effortlessly embodied the elusive politician. His chilling portrayal won him universal acclaim, including an Academy Award for Best Actor.
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Capote (2005)
Some say the real challenge, when portraying a real person, is avoiding imitation. But in this 2005 drama, which tells the story of the true crime writer as he wrote and released In Cold Blood, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman managed to replicate the writer’s every mannerism without his performance ever feeling false. Capote was known for his affected style of speech and eccentric personality, and Hoffman won an Academy Award for bringing those traits flawlessly to life.
3. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
While it’s undeniably difficult to bring a well-known person to life on screen, it’s just as challenging to tell the remarkable stories of those who aren’t always household names. That was Hilary Swank’s challenge in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, a film about a transgendered man in a small Nebraska town who was murdered when his friends realized his true identity. Swank’s task was especially hard, since Teena identified as a man, so Swank had to accurately portray his mannerisms and more masculine vocal pitch. The young actress more than succeeded — she managed to create a rich, layered, and haunting performance that earned her the first of two Academy Awards for Best Actress.
4. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Unlike the other actors on this list, Lupita Nyong’o had very little to go on when she created the role of Patsey, a young slave that suffers despicably harsh punishment by her master. She was never caught on film — only through the memories of Solomon Northup, the man whose story is at the heart of 12 Years a Slave. Still, she manages to infuse the young girl with such passion, despair, and humanity that you can’t help but feel that you know her. Nyongo’s performance in 12 Years a Slave was so powerful, it not only won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress — it catapulted her into worldwide fame.