33 Real-Life People and the Actors Who Earned Accolades for Playing Them
When actors play real-life people, they truly embody the characters — just look at these side-by-side images (and the number of Oscar nominations!) for proof
Andra Day as Billie Holiday
The latest actress to take on the role of the famed singer stars in Lee Daniels' The United States vs. Billie Holiday — and in early 2021, earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work.
At a 2021 Sundance Film Festival virtual panel hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, Day opened up about her fears in taking on the iconic singer as her first-ever starring role.
"I didn't anticipate I would go into acting this soon or start with a role like this," she said, via USA Today. "I didn't want to do this when it was first brought to my attention – because I love Billie Holiday ... I was nervous, I was terrified. I said 'no' multiple times."
Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke
Not only did Odom Jr. earn a 2021 Golden Globe nomination for his role as Cooke in One Night in Miami ..., he scored a second for penning the music and lyrics to one of its tunes, "Speak Now."
"I did not see Sam Cooke in me," Odom Jr. told EW of initially considering the role. "I was not inclined to pick up those very large shoes and fail."
Eventually, however, "I gave the script a second look, and I saw beyond that. I saw beyond my fear ... I was willing to take the leap."
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
In 2020's star-studded Mrs. America, Blanchett played Schlafly, a conservative author of A Choice Not an Echo full of political ambitions who started the movement to stop the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 (and succeeded). The ERA would have granted legal equality to all people regardless of sex.
Blanchett — who led the FX miniseries — is nominated for a Golden Globe in 2021 for her work on the show.
Jim Parsons as Henry Wilson
The late Wilson started out in Hollywood in the 1930s as a journalist reporting on rising stars. He went on to discover Lana Turner, Joan Fontaine and Natalie Wood. Like in the series Hollywood, Wilson also dabbled in producing, but he was most known as an agent. Hollywood also highlights his troubling relationship with his clients, specifically Rock Hudson.
In the series, Parsons is shown sexually harassing Hudson's character as well as threatening to out him as gay. Of Wilson's reputation, Hollywood's creator Ryan Murphy told Vanity Fair, "He had dirt on everybody that he would weaponize. And he would find these young guys who almost all came from horrible home situations — with broken marriages and absent fathers — and take them on as clients … He was a tormented gay man who preyed on tormented gay men."
Parsons earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Wilson in 2021.
Tom Hardy as Al Capone
Hardy is nearly unrecognizable as notorious mobster Al Capone in the Josh Trank-directed film, Capone.
Capone is a biopic that chronicles the final chapter of the infamous gangster's life, and Hardy takes on the man himself, donning old-age makeup, a receeding hairline and scars on his face to transform into the role.
Taron Egerton as Elton John
Egerton tackled the role of the living legend that is Elton John in Rocketman. His performance earned him the Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy.
Egerton told PEOPLE that the part was not an easy one to tackle. "The transformation he goes through, the character in that story, in the script, from shy, retiring plump teenager to Rock God, to midlife addict and someone who was incredibly jaded and angry… it was just such a great acting challenge because he has three or four versions of who he is in the first half of his life."
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
Though Respect isn't slated to be released until August 2021, we've already gotten a glimpse of Hudson playing the late Queen of Soul.
"Those are huge shoes to fill," she told Sunday Today. "I am just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time. All I want to do is pay tribute to her and meet her requests, you know? Like, 'Aretha said do this?'— "Yes, ma'am.'"
“We were in talks a long time about me playing her,” she added, “so I just hope I make her proud [and] do her justice."
Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland
They may not seem like an obvious pairing, but Renée Zellweger's portrayal of the late icon towards the end of her life in Judy earned her raves for embodying the star's talent and fragility.
Her take on the star was so successful that Zellweger swept the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards in 2020.
Emma Corrin as Princess Diana
Though many actresses have taken on the complex part of the Princess of Wales, Corrin received a Golden Globe nomination in 2021 for her work on The Crown. The British starlet is just one of a handful of The Crown cast members who've completely transformed into their counterparts — and scored awards recognition because of it.
During a 2020 appearance on the Tamron Hall Show, the actress reacted to reports that the royal family and even members of British Parliament are unhappy with the Netflix drama's characterization of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in the fourth season.
"I understand why people would be upset because this is history. And even with Diana, it's still very much fresh, everything that happens," Corrin said. "So I do really understand if people would be upset."
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
This transformation will rock you. Malek won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his portrayal of the late Queen frontman in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film itself won the Golden Globe for best picture in 2019.
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding
Margot Robbie went for gold when she portrayed disgraced professional figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Her ability to somehow pull off those fluffy bangs alone should have earned Robbie the Golden Globe and Oscar nominations she got for her role.
Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy
Portman was hardly the first to portray the First Lady, though she is among the most recent. And in 2016, she scored an Oscar nod for her performance in Jackie.
“Her voice and her accent and her movements are very, very specific,” Portman said of her transformation into the icon. “I was reading everything I could find and then I was working with a great dialect coach, Tanya Blumstein. We just listened and watched the White House tour specifically, but also some of her audio tapes of her interviews, over and over and over again. I was really learning exactly the way she said it, with the pauses in the same places and the breaths in the same places and the hesitations and all of that.”
Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg
In Seberg, the Charlie's Angels star played Breathless actress Jean Seberg who, because of her connections with the Black Panther Party, became a target of the FBI.
Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez
In a role that secured her a Golden Globe nomination — and catapulted her to superstardom — Lopez played the late Selena Quintanilla-Pérez.
Lopez told Billboard in 2015, "It was about portraying her as best I could, to where people weren’t thinking of anybody but her when they were watching. You have to think of the whole story and how you fit into that story and at the same time, who is that character, what makes them tick, all the way down to their mannerisms and what drove them emotionally. I remember trying to inundate myself with all the information I could find from her family and also by watching tapes of her and seeing her speak and seeing her in interviews."
Since Lopez's turn, a slew of stars have followed suit.
Meryl Streep as Julia Child
In 2010, Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe for her performance of the famous chef in Julie & Julia, the Nora Ephron film. Streep gained fifteen pounds to play Child and was also nominated for an Academy Award and a SAG Award for her transformation.
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X
The powerful 1992 film earned Washington a NAACP Image Award for his portrayal of the human rights activist in Malcolm X.
Diana Ross as Billie Holiday
For Diana Ross's acting debut in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, the singer took on the role of Holiday and was rewarded for her efforts with an Academy Awards nomination in 1973.
Reese Witherspoon & Joaquin Phoenix as June Carter & Johnny Cash
Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix stepped into the shoes of famed couple June Carter and Johnny Cash for the 2005 film, Walk the Line. Witherspoon won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for her performance, while her costar won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar.
The film itself won the Golden Globe for best motion picture — musical or comedy.
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
Oldman made a chameleon-like transformation into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
Becoming the former British prime minister took 200 hours of make-up work, according to Deadline. The sinewy actor also told the outlet he “carried around half my body weight” in prosthetics to look more like the heavier Churchill.
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney
Bale is well known for the lengths he'll go when it comes to physical transformation for a role. (He infamously lost 60 lbs. to play an insomniac in The Machinist.) But his latest may be his most unrecognizable yet: He played the former vice president in Vice, a 2018 movie about Cheney's life, and the makeover was so drastic that even the on-set photos had us doing a double-take.
Benjamin Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi
In the epic three-hour-plus biopic of the life of Indian leader Gandhi, who stood against British rule without violence, Kingsley won an Oscar, as did the film itself, for Best Picture.
Emma Stone as Billie Jean King
Stone put on 15 lbs. of pure muscle to play tennis superstar King in this fall’s Battle of the Sexes. The hard work was worth it: She received a Golden Globe nomination for the role.
Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh
The actor earned raves — and chills — for his work as cult leader Koresh in Waco.
Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
Williams is all '50s bombshell in My Week with Marilyn, in which she played Monroe (like many a star!) during the filming of Laurence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl.
Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
In an Oscar-winning portrayal, Theron played real-life serial killer Wuornos — and went through quite a makeover to do so. She gained weight and had her face transformed (through makeup and prosthetics) for the role, and was practically unrecognizable in Monster.
Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark
In American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, Paulson played prosecutor Clark, a role that won her an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Paulson bonded with the real-life Clark while filming, and even took her as her date to the Emmys and thanked Clark in her acceptance speech.
Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden
Just before This Is Us catapulted him to fame, Brown stunned as attorney American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, winning an Emmy for his portrayal.
"I watched so much footage of the trial," Brown, who was in college when the verdict was announced, told Deadline of his prep for the role. "Even when we were on set, if I wasn’t shooting, I would just go hook up my iPhone or my computer and just watch as much as I could. I would watch interviews of Darden’s — two in particular, one from Charlie Rose and one from Oprah Winfrey — and just try to get his cadences down, speech patterns, etc."
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
Redmayne won an Oscar for The Theory of Everything, in which he played Hawking as he made his way to the top of his field, despite the fact that he was increasingly unable to use his body while battling ALS.
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
Foxx shined as Charles in Ray, a movie about his life and domination of the genre of soul music. And, oh yeah: He won an Oscar.
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
Streep’s long-awaited third Oscar came for her portrayal of Britain’s first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher, both during her tenure in office and near the end of her life as she was dealing with dementia, in The Iron Lady.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
Seemingly every role Day-Lewis touches turns to (Oscar) gold, including his turn as the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln, which focused on the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes
DiCaprio has played several real-life figures, from fur trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant to conman Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. But one of the best-known people he played is aviator, filmmaker and businessman Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Also not to be missed in the film: Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning portrayal of Katharine Hepburn.
Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs
As the late black turtleneck-wearing Apple innovator Jobs, Fassbender earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.