Creative chameleons: Musicians turned actors

Jack Whitehead 27 January 2016

Rita Ora is a very busy woman. Originally shooting to fame as a singer in 2012, she has now held judging positions on both The Voice and The X Factor, as well as designing a line for Adidas, being an honorary ambassador for Kosovo and portraying Mia in the Fifty Shades of Grey film. One might look at this rather random collection of achievements and conclude that Rita is just fame hungry; she has made a foray into almost every section of the entertainment industry, not content with being known purely for her singing, and has no doubt made a large sum of money along the way (her net worth is estimated to be $145million).

You would be forgiven for making a similar judgement about Justin Timberlake, J-Lo or Rihanna, who have all starred in films despite enjoying great success in their musical careers. It is easy to explain popstars’ roles in films as nothing more than a clever marketing ploy; if we see Justin Timberlake’s face on the side of a bus we are more likely to pay attention than if we saw Mr Up-and-Coming Actor on a promotional poster. But are Hollywood big wigs really so money-oriented that they cast people according to how famous they are as opposed to how well they can act?

Let’s pause for a moment to make an important distinction. There is acting, and then there is performing. The difference between the two skills may be slight, but there is a difference nonetheless. A performer, for example Rita Ora, is talented when it comes to entertaining an audience, whether that audience be a field full of music festival goers or a cinema of film fans. The focus of a performer is on the audience; they are eager to provoke a reaction and will adapt their performance according to who is watching.

An actor, for example Eddie Redmayne, is focused not on the audience but on their own work. This is why we often hear actors talking about the difficulty they have getting out of a role after leaving the set; they are absorbed in their character and the roles of the other actors, as opposed to directing their focus outwards. Acting training cultivates this focus, and it is this skill that allows actors such as Anne Hathaway and Daniel Day-Lewis to give Oscar-winning performances on screen. A film needs actors in order to please critics, but skilled performers are essential to secure box office success. 

The most successful film stars, therefore, are those who are able to act and perform. Good examples include Will Smith, Johnny Depp and the iconic David Bowie. Bowie will be remembered primarily for his music, but his foray into film is regarded as an achievement rather than an embarrassing career blip. Individuals who are able to focus on their own performance and the reaction of the audience simultaneously are few and far between, but they do exist and ought to be highly treasured by the entertainment industry.