We often hear about actors undergoing major physical transformations for roles, often drastically changing their appearance over a short period of time so that they can fit their role better, or using method acting techniques where they fully immerse themselves into their role and don’t break character through production. The challenge of acting can often be hard enough alone without the layers of additional preparation on top.
Sometimes, when a film is musical in its nature, actors who have no prior knowledge of playing instruments must learn an instrument that would usually take years to master in an extremely short space of time. This is obviously a very impressive feat, so let’s take a look at ten movies actors learned instruments for their films.
Update February 7, 2024: This article has been updated with even more great stars who learned to play instruments for their films and where each title is currently available to watch.
Jamie Foxx in The Soloist
Jamie Foxx is no stranger to the world of music. The actor has famously featured on songs with the controversial hip-hop legend Kanye West, as well as releasing five albums of his own. While Foxx could already play the piano before signing on to portray Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic Ray, he had to learn to play the cello for his performance in The Soloist five years later.
As Tough Mentally as It Was Physically
During the press tour for the film, in which Foxx portrays Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician, Jamie Fox was very vocal about the mental tole the role took. Foxx asked the character’s story to his own life, with Ayers studying at Julliard to perform the cello and moving to LA before his mental health declined and being diagnosed with schizophrenia. During filming, Foxx would repeatedly call his agent about his fear of becoming Ayer, partly through their shared connection with music and from Foxx’s childhood fear of ‘going crazy.’ Stream on Max.
Rachel Weisz in The Brothers Bloom
When Rachel Weisz took on the role of Penelope Stamp in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, she had a lot of preparation to undertake. The film is a comedy-drama in which Weisz’s character ends up becoming involved in a romance with Stephen (Mark Ruffalo). The film is not necessarily musical in nature; however, Weisz’s character possesses a variety of talents, including several instruments, for which she spent several months taking lessons in order to prepare for the role.
Weisz Became a Multi-Instrumentalist
Weisz’s character wasn’t content with just one instrument, and, as a result, the actress had to learn four different instruments for the role. In Brothers Bloom, Weisz can be seen playing the guitar, the banjo, the piano, and even an accordion across the film. According to Weisz, the accordion was the hardest to learn, especially considering her Serbian teacher didn’t speak any English. Stream on Prime Video.
Sound of Metal
Release Date November 20, 2020
Director Darius Marder
In the 2019 drama The Sound of Metal, British star Riz Ahmed presented musicians across the world with the embodiment of their greatest fear: becoming deaf. In the Oscar-winning film, Ahmed portrays a drummer in an up-and-coming metal band before his life is turned upside down by rupturing his eardrums. To portray the talented drummer, Ahmed spent seven months learning the drums with the help of musicians Guy Licata and Sean Powell and would be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards.
Based on a ‘Somewhat” True Story
Some might not know that The Sound of Metal is loosely based on a true story. The fictional band in the film is inspired by the real-life husband and wife duo Jucifer. The couple had actually begun producing a movie called Metalhead, which featured the pair portraying fictionalized versions of themselves, with the story being very similar to The Sound of Metal‘s. However, Metalhead eventually fell through and was the inspiration for director Darius Marder’s film. Stream on Prime Video.
Keira Knightley in Begin Again
Keira Knightley is widely known for her period drama roles. After gaining mainstream recognition for her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, she easily fit the aesthetic of a period drama and performed these roles with excellence. In 2014, she was cast in John Carney’s Begin Again, which was a different direction for her as an actor as this involved full musical numbers and instrument playing. Knightley had to learn how to sing and play guitar, which she said did not come naturally to her.
Married to a Musician
While many actors seek out world-class musicians to help them learn instruments for roles, Keira Knightley didn’t have to look very far for a tutor. Knightley has been married to James Righton – a British singer, guitarist, and keyboard player for the band Klaxxons – for over ten years. Her husband taught her to play the guitar for the role; however, the experience made Knightley definitively rule out a musical career. Stream on Prime Video.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line
James Mangold’s Walk the Line centers around Johnny Cash, a figure who defined American music and had a huge career as well as a turbulent personal life. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash and gives an incredible performance. Reese Witherspoon also stars alongside Phoenix as June Carter, the singer he embarked on a tour with, which ended up taking a big toll on his personal life and marriage. Both Witherspoon and Phoenix had to take several months of singing and guitar lessons to perfect their roles, resulting in convincing performances that were highly praised.
Both Actors Became ‘Triple Threats’
A common practice in musical biopics is for the actors to lip-sync to original recordings of their character’s performances to ensure the musical scenes are a perfect match. However, Phoenix and Witherspoon both opted against this. In Walk the Line, every live performance involving Phoenix and Witherspoon features them singing Cash’s iconic hits alongside playing the guitar and harp, respectively. Both actors were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, at the Academy Awards, with Witherspoon winning for Walk the Line. Stream on Max.
Taron Edgerton in Rocketman
Release Date May 22, 2019
Dexter Fletcher took on the task of directing Rocketman, which portrays the life of Elton John. Elton John is one of the most famous faces in the musical world, and the casting and performance had to be perfect. Taron Edgerton was selected to bring the star to the big screen, thanks in part to his impressive vocals in the 2016 animated hit Sing where he sang Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing”. Edgerton also appeared alongside John in 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
Explosive Vocals and Electrifying Piano
To prepare for the role, Edgerton took on months of singing and piano lessons, which received approval from Elton John himself. Much like Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, mentioned before, Edgerton provided his own vocals for the musical sequences in the film. Rocketman was a huge success both critically and commercially, but Edgerton was sadly looked over at the Academy Awards and failed to receive a nomination, one many see as a major snub that year, particularly following Rami Malek’s controversial win as Freddie Mercury for Bohemian Rhapsody. Rent on AppleTV+, Vudu, and Prime Video.
Adrien Brody in The Pianist
Release Date September 17, 2002
The Pianist was released in 2002 to massive critical acclaim and commercial success. It tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman in German-occupied Poland and how he managed to survive the Holocaust and the destruction of Warsaw. The film was directed by Roman Polanski, who wanted to make the haunting rendition of World War II as realistic as possible. The film is a harrowing look into the atrocities of the Holocaust, and Adrien Brody’s performance respects the legacy of Szpilman.
A Titular Performance
As the film’s title might suggest, Brody had to learn the piano to accurately portray Szpilman in the movie. However, no audio recordings of Brody playing the instrument make it into the movie. Instead, Brody’s lessons were simply to understand the body movement of a pianist so he could mime the movements to pre-recorded tracks. Brody would later go on to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards, becoming the youngest actor to win the Best Actor prize at the time. Rent on AppleTV+, Vudu, and Prime Video.
Ryan Gosling In La La Land
La La Land
Release Date November 29, 2016
La La Land was a huge success when it was released in 2016. The huge musical blockbuster was directed by Damien Chazelle and features showstopping performances by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. They both had to undergo intense musical training for the film, as it featured several musical numbers that were also heavily choreographed. For Gosling’s character, he played piano, and this was an integral part to his character, so Gosling had to undergo intense training to ensure he fit the role.
Gosling’s Surprising Musical History
What may come as a surprise to many is that Gosling actually has a long history in the world of music. Alongside film producer Zach Shields, the two make up the group Dead Mans Bones, who have been together since 2007. Gosling is primarily known for playing the guitar in the band, but this musical background meant the piano wasn’t too alien to the Canadian star. Gosling did pretty well on piano and even brought some of those skills on a keyboard over to Barbie. Like many actors on this list, Gosling would be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his role in La La Land. Rent on AppleTV+, Vudu, and Prime Video.
Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born
Bradley Cooper took on a huge role with the remake of A Star Is Born in 2018. Not only did he star and direct the award-winning blockbuster success, but he also had to undergo intense musical lessons in order to play Rockstar Jackson, Maine convincingly. Cooper took guitar and piano lessons for six months and eventually would perform on stage with Lady Gaga in 2017 all in preparation for the film’s release. This paid off as the final product was hugely successful and generated multiple hit singles.
A Lot of Comparisons
We currently live in the age of remakes and reboots, with new versions frequently being compared to their predecessors, and A Star is Born is one of the best examples of this. Cooper’s version is actually the fourth iteration of the story on the big screen. As a result, their performances, alongside the film as a whole, are constantly being compared to the older re-tellings, most notably the acclaimed 1954 version. Cooper would push himself again with his follow-up musical film, Maestro, where he learned to conduct an orchestra. While not the same thing as learning to play an instrument, instructing an entire orchestra is equally impressive. Rent on AppleTV+, Vudu, and Prime Video.