Tom Hanks and Other Actors Who Love to Play Real People

The best actors disappear into the roles they play on stage and screen. And even if they have familiar faces and voices, they make it easy for us to forget we are watching stars. They make it look easy, but it’s anything but. And that’s especially true when actors portray real-life characters.

Whether they’re iconic public figures, or hidden figures that changed the world, these biographical roles are often even more important. And some actors love these types of roles — so much so that these portrayals help define their careers.

Here are 15 actors that regularly play real people, including one who’s played the same real person three times (page 10), and the actor who’s played more real people than any other (page 15).

1. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks in Sully

Tom Hanks in Sully | Warner Bros.

In so many ways, Tom Hanks is one of the most celebrated and beloved actors of his generation. And that’s thanks, in no small part, to the care he’s put into playing so many brave, complicated, and sometimes troubled men, especially in the latter half of his career.

Hanks portrayed astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, the titular congressman in Charlie Wilson’s War, and heroic pilot Charles Sullenberg in Sully. Most recently, he played famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the Oscar-nominated film, The Post.

But he’s also played lesser-known figures, like OSS counsel James Donovan in Bridge of Spies, and hijacked merchant mariner Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips.

And soon, he’ll button himself into the cardigan of one of America’s most cherished public figures when he portrays Fred Rogers in the upcoming biopic You Are My Friend.

Next: This Dame has had the honor of playing three iconic queens.

2. Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren in The Queen

Helen Mirren in The Queen | Granada Productions

She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen. And all told, Dame Helen Mirren has portrayed almost a dozen women throughout her magnificent career.

From Caesonia in Caligula, to the titular controversial author in The Passion of Ayn Rand and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in Trumbo, she’s given us her take on a range of complicated, intelligent and legendary women to life. And she’s had the distinct honor to portray more than one member of the royal family.

Mirren played Queen Charlotte in the acclaimed film The Madness of King George. And she breathed new life into the first Queen Elizabeth in the 2005 BBC miniseries Elizabeth I.

Next: It’s no mystery why this Sherlock star would love the challenge of bringing so many real people to life on screen.

2. Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game | Black Bear Pictures

He’s probably best known for his work in Sherlock and Marvel’s Doctor Strange. But many of Benedict Cumberbatch’s best performances have resulted when he’s taken on real-life roles.

Two of his breakout roles were as salesman William Pitt in Amazing Grace and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker in Creation. But he’s also raised his profile after turning in compelling performances of well-known figures like Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

He played slave-owning Baptist preacher William Prince Ford in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. And he brought Thomas Edison to life in The Current War.

Next: This actor definitely doesn’t think of biographical films as the Bane of his existence.

3. Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy in Legend

Tom Hardy in Legend | Cross Creek Pictures

These days, he’s a global superstar, thanks to show-stopping performances in films like The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max: Fury Road. But since the very beginning of his career, Tom Hardy has also made it clear he has a passion for stepping into biographical dramas, too.

His very first film role was as SPC Lance Twombly in Black Hawk Down. In the years since, he’s tackled a handful of challenging real-life roles, from John Janovec in Band of Brothers to criminal Charles Bronson in Bronson.

He’s even pulled double duty, playing twin mobsters Ronald and Reginald Cray in Legend. And he’s stepped into the shoes of one of the most notorious criminals in the world, Al Capone, in 2018’s Fonzo.

Next: Hardy isn’t the first actor to bring Capone back to life, though.

4. Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull | Chartoff-Winkler Productions

There are few actors who’ve earned more global recognition for their body of work than Robert De Niro. And many of his most iconic performances have been based on real men — many of whom have, well, complicated relationships with the law.

There’s Jake LaMotta, who he won an Oscar playing in Raging Bull. There’s mobster Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, Las Vegas mogul Frank Rosenthal in Casino, and The Irishman’s Frank Sheeran, a labor rep with mafia ties.

And in 1987, he gave an unforgettable performance as Al Capone in The Untouchables. At least he got a chance to be on the other side of the law for once when he spoofed Robert Mueller on Saturday Night Live.

Next: This beloved actor has completely disappeared into many of his real-life roles.

5. Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington in American Gangster

Denzel Washington in American Gangster | Imagine Entertainment

He’s given many of the 20th and 21st century’s most captivating screen performances. And while Denzel Washington has played dozens of memorable fictional characters, some of his absolute best performances have occurred when he tackled real-life roles.

He played Malcolm X through decades of his life in Spike Lee’s titular biopic. He earned universal praise for his portrayal of wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane.

Washington also took a mesmerizing turn as mobster Frank Lucas in American Gangster. And he’s given a voice to everyday heroes, like football coach Herman Boone (Remember the Titans), poet and debate coach Melvin B. Tolson (The Great Debaters), and psychologist Dr. Jerome Davenport (Antwone Fisher).

Next: This Oscar-nominated star has played real working-class women and a famous pilot.

6. Amy Adams

Amy Adams in Big Eyes

Amy Adams in Big Eyes | The Weinstein Company

Some historical figures are so legendary, it’s hard for any actor to do them justice on screen. But Amy Adams managed to do that when she played Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum 2.

The actress has also proven she has a knack for bringing famous people and ordinary folks to life with equal aplomb. She earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of blue-collar Bostonian Charlene Fleming in The Fighter. And she delighted audiences as author Julie Powell in Julie & Julia and artist Margaret Keane in Big Eyes.

Adams also took on controversial former second lady Lynne Cheney in the Dick Cheney biopic, Backseat.

Next: This actor has played real men on both sides of the law.

7. Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner in JFK

Kevin Costner in JFK | Warner Bros.

Not many actors have the ability to play real-life outlaws and lawmen with the same gravitas. But Kevin Costner has not only shown a talent for both kinds of roles.

He played prohibition agent Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, District Attorney Jim Garrison in JFK, and the infamous titular O.K. Coral-er in Wyatt Earp. But he also played famed family feud-er Devil Anse Hatfield in the 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.

Next: This actor was so convincing as an iconic American leader that it almost felt as though he’d brought him back to life.

8. David Oyelowo

David Oyelowo in Selma

David Oyelowo in Selma | Paramount

There’s taking on a real-life role, and then there’s absolutely smashing it out of the park. That’s what David Oyelowo did when he played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

The British actor has also turned in captivating performances in several other biographical and historical dramas. He played escaped convict Brian Nichols in Captive, and Blues artist Muddy Waters in Who Do You Love?

And he earned rave reviews for his portrayal of chess coach Robert Katende in Queen of Katwe. Most recently, he played the first president of Botswana, Seretse Khama, in A United Kingdom.

Next: This multi-multi Oscar-winner has played so many real people, it’s hard to keep count.

9. Meryl Streep

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post

Meryl Streep in The Post | Dreamworks Pictures

By now, we all know that Meryl Streep can play pretty much anyone. And over the years, she has — including more than 10 real women. Some are infamous leaders, like The Post’s Kay Graham, Karen Silkwood in Silkwood, and The Iron Lady’s Margaret Thatcher.

Others made history, like Suffragette’s Emmeline Pankhurst and Julie & Julia’s Julia Child. She’s played writers Susan Orlean (Adaptation) and Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and a wrongly convicted mother (A Cry in the Dark).

And, of course, she’s even played a fabulously flamboyant performer in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Next: This prolific actor has played the same real-life role three times.

10. Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen in The Queen

Michael Sheen in The Queen | Granada Productions

There’s something to be said for an actor who’s so good at playing a real person that they’re asked to play him more than once. So, kudos are in order for Michael Sheen, who portrayed Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003’s The Deal, and 2010’s The Queen and The Special Relationship.

That’s not even the only real-life role that Sheen has taken on. He also played journalist David Frost in Frost/Nixon, writer Robbie Ross in Wilde, and author Jeremy Dyson in The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.

And in keeping with his long-standing ties to real-life roles, he played sexuality researcher William H. Masters on the Showtime series Masters of Sex.

Next: This actor chased his Oscar for years by trying on plenty of real-life roles.

11. Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street | Red Granite Pictures

He started as a heartthrob and has evolved into one of the most respected actors of his generation. But one thing Leonardo DiCaprio has always consistently done in his career is tackle real-life roles.

There are his early portrayals of writer Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life and poet Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries. There was con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me if You Can and mogul Howard Hughes in The Aviator.

More recently, there’s his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. And, of course, there is his (finally) Oscar-winning performance as trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant.

Next: This actor has been fearless in his portrayal of sometimes controversial real-life figures.

13. Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs | Universal Pictures

It can’t be easy to play one of the most easily recognizable men in American history. But Michael Fassbender dove into his portrayal of Apple founder Steve Jobs when he played him in Steve Jobs.

And throughout his prolific career, he’s never shied away from taking on other real-life personas. He played activist Bobby Sands in Hunger, and rebel Guy Fawkes in Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.

He’s also appeared in several historical miniseries, including Band of Brothers, A Bear Named Winnie, and The Devil’s Whore.

Next: This actress won an Oscar for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it real-life role.

14. Judi Dench

Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love

Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love | Universal Pictures

In so many ways, Judi Dench has become an icon of both stage and screen. Her knack for Shakespearean dialogue is second to none, so it wasn’t a surprise when she appeared in Shakespeare in Love.

What was surprising was how flawlessly she portrayed Queen Elizabeth I, even though she was on screen for less than ten minutes. Dench won an Oscar for that portrayal.

And throughout her career, she’s portrayed other real-world figures, like Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, Iris Murdoch in Iris, Laura Henderson in Mrs. Henderson Presents, and the titular inexhaustible mother in Philomena.

Next: This actor has likely played more real-life roles than anyone else.

15. Anthony Hopkins

Anthony Hopkins in Nixon

Anthony Hopkins in Nixon | Cinergi Pictures Entertainment

In his illustrious film and TV career, Anthony Hopkins has taken on two dozen real-life roles. The men he’s played range from heroic (Richard I in The Lion in Winter) to detestable (Adolf Hitler in The Bunker).

He’s played infamous filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock), writers (Charles Dickens and C.S. Lewis), and artists (Pablo Picasso). He’s played two U.S. presidents (John Quincy Adams and Richard Nixon), and even the man who invented cornflakes (Dr. John Harvey Kellogg).

And his tenure of playing real men spans five decades, since the most recent role he took on was 2015’s Kidnapping Freddy Heinekein.

Read morePopular celebrities who never seem to age.

Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox.

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!