It’s always hard for an actor to play a well-known real-life person. Even if they look just like their subject (which isn’t always the case), audiences have expectations and want to see a great performance that goes beyond mimicry. And rarely are those stakes higher than when an actor plays a president. They’re the ultimate celebs — presidents stay super famous even hundreds of years after they kick it. Some actors can pull it off though, and so, here are ten actors who totally disappeared into their roles as presidents.
1) Bill Murray – Franklin Delano Roosevelt
It’s hard for Bill Murray to be anything besides Bill Murray anymore, but in 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson, he took on one of America’s most famous, beloved, and unique presidents – FDR. The movie itself didn’t get great reviews, but audiences loved Murray’s human portrayal of one of history’s greatest presidents.
2) Paul Giamatti – John Adams
I’ll admit it, I don’t like Paul Giamatti. I have no good reason, so please don’t fight me on this, because I admit that it’s an irrational dislike. So imagine my surprise when I absolutely loved the John Adams miniseries and even sometimes forgot I was watching Paul “Sideways” Giamatti. (I really hated Sideways). Giamatti made John Adams, an old dead guy people usually forget about, into a very real and empathetic character.
3) Daniel Day Lewis – Abraham Lincoln
Hot damn, Daniel Day Lewis did it again. I honestly left the theater after seeing Lincoln feeling like I’d just hung out with Honest Abe for a couple hours. I read “Team of Rivals”, the fantastic book the movie was based on, and Lewis absolutely did the man justice. He was complicated, melancholy, and the GOAT (president-wise).
4) Nigel Hawthorne – Martin Van Buren
Hawthorne played Martin Van Buren in the 1997 movie Amistad. Just look at that. He got the sideburns perfect, and those burns are Van Buren’s greatest legacy.
5) Brian Keith- Theodore Roosevelt
I haven’t seen the 1975 action/adventure film The Wind and the Lion and honestly, the Wikipedia description makes it sound kinda racist, but I’ll be goddamned if Brian Keith doesn’t look just like Teddy Roosevelt. And it’s not just the tiny glasses and huge mustache (although those certainly help).
6) Gary Sinise – Harry S. Truman
Gary Sinise melted into his role as Harry S. Truman in the 1995 HBO film Truman. He won a best actor Golden Globe and SAG Award for the role and was nominated for an Emmy. Once again, I think tiny glasses did help him a bit, but his acting pushed it the rest of the way.
7) Dan Hedaya – Richard Nixon
I really liked the cheesy movie Dick as a kid and watched it enough times that Dan Hedaya pretty much is Nixon for me. Nixon is an easy person to make into a caricature, as many actors have done (especially if they put on a prosthetic nose), but Hedaya’s Nixon is juuuuust greasy and campy enough.
8) Darrell Hammond – Bill Clinton
Darrell Hammond’s impression on Saturday Night Live IS Bill Clinton. There is probably no greater presidential portrayal in history than the Hammond Clinton. This one you can feel free to fight me on.
9) Will Ferrell – George W. Bush
Try and hear George W. Bush’s voice in your head. Now are you sure it’s his voice? Or is it Will Ferrell doing the voice of his George W. Bush SNL impression? Bush was such a caricature of himself that sometimes it felt hard to distinguish which person was the joke.
10) Meryl Streep – Margaret Thatcher – The Iron Lady
Okay, so Thatcher wasn’t a president but a Prime Minister is close enough. And look at Meryl! Which one’s Meryl? Which one’s Margaret? Who can even tell?
Any good presidential portrayals I missed on this list? Tweet me @erikaheidewald!