Real-Life People And The Actors Who Played Them
Do you recognize these famous faces?
Some people’s lives are even more interesting than fiction. Those lucky few get their life’s story turned into a movie — and they get to see a glamorous Hollywood star portray them on the big screen.
We’ve rounded up photos of actual people who have been portrayed in films and photos of the actors who brought their stories to life. In some cases, it’s easy to see why certain actors were chosen to play their real-life counterparts, because of a strong physical resemblance. Meanwhile, in other cases, some serious imagination — or makeup transformation — was needed to help them pull off the part.
The Real Person: Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger
Best known by his nickname, “Sully” was just a normal, unknown US Airways pilot until Jan. 15, 2009, when he became a national hero for doing his job in an incredibly tense situation. On that day, the flight Sullenberger was captaining had to make an emergency landing after both of the plane’s engines were disabled by birds the plane hit. Sullenberger expertly used his training — and a knack for staying calm under duress — to safely land the plane atop New York’s Hudson River, saving every passenger’s life.
The Actor: Tom Hanks
The Movie: “Sully” (2016)
Oscar winner Tom Hanks is no stranger to playing real people on screen — he’s done it in movies like “Captain Phillips” and “The Post,” just to name a couple of examples — and his performance as Chesley Sullenberger in 2016’s “Sully” was strong and dignified. The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood, and its script was based on Sullenberger’s own memoir, “Highest Duty.” After he saw the movie, Sullenberger himself complimented Hanks’ performance, telling the New York Daily News, “it seems genuine; it seems like me.”
The Real Person: Julian Assange
As controversial a figure as there has been in media over the past few decades, Julian Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks, the organization that has published high-profile secret, leaked documents online since 2006. Assange, an Australian, has been living in Ecuador’s London embassy since at least 2012, where he was granted political asylum while waiting out an arrest warrant in Sweden related to sexual assault allegations. Assange and WikiLeaks have made many international headlines over the years, including for the publication of private emails related to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch
The Movie: “The Fifth Estate” (2013)
British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on PBS and Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, brought Julian Assange to life in the Disney-released thriller “The Fifth Estate.” The movie dramatized the founding of WikiLeaks and its release of classified documents related to the war in Afghanistan. “The Fifth Estate” was a flop with audiences, but Cumberbatch was praised for his take on Assange. Another person who wasn’t a fan of the film? Assange himself, who claimed it was a dishonest attack on his organization.
The Real Person: Mark Zuckerberg
One of the world’s richest and most influential people, Mark Zuckerberg made his name by founding Facebook in 2004, while he was a student at Harvard University. Since then, he’s been a lightning rod for controversy, first by being sued by fellow Harvard students who claimed he cut them out of the business, and more recently for the constant questions of personal privacy issues with Facebook. Zuckerberg is also well known as a philanthropist, regularly landing on lists of the most charitable celebrities.
The Actor: Jesse Eisenberg
The Movie: “The Social Network” (2010)
When he was just 26 years old, Mark Zuckerberg had a major Hollywood movie made about his life. In 2010’s “The Social Network,” Zuckerberg was played by Jesse Eisenberg. The film followed the founding of Facebook and the subsequent lawsuits that Zuckerberg was dragged into. It wasn’t exactly a flattering portrait of Zuckerberg, but Eisenberg’s performance was nominated for an Oscar. After the film’s release, Zuckerberg surprised Eisenberg by showing up on an episode of “Saturday Night Live” that the actor was hosting. He seemed to have a good sense of humor about it.
The Real Person: Temple Grandin
A pioneering representative for people with autism, Temple Grandin is also a leading expert on animal behavior. For decades, Grandin has been revered in the field of animal studies, fighting for safer conditions for livestock and for a deeper public understanding of how they think and feel. Grandin, who also has autism, is one of the most recognizable advocates for people on the spectrum. Grandin also invented a device, known as the hug machine, which is designed to calm people who have autism by applying soothing pressure.
The Actor: Claire Danes
The Movie: “Temple Grandin” (2010)
In 2010, HBO made a film about Grandin’s life, called “Temple Grandin,” that was based in part on two autobiographies by the woman herself. “Homeland” star Claire Danes played Grandin in the film, which was critically acclaimed and would win five Emmy Awards, including one for Danes’ performance. Grandin apparently enjoyed the movie and was a big supporter of it, appearing with Danes at several promotional events and even appearing onstage at the Emmys as the actor accepted her prize.
The Real Person: Billy Beane
A lifer in the world of professional baseball, Billy Beane spent several seasons playing in the MLB before retiring and working behind the scenes in the league. He made his name in the 2000s as general manager of the Oakland Athletics, changing the way baseball scouts evaluate players by focusing on advanced stats instead of the typical metrics that were used for decades. Beane has been the executive vice president of baseball operations and a minority owner of the Athletics since 2015.
The Actor: Brad Pitt
The Movie: “Moneyball” (2011)
If you asked many men who they’d like to see play them in a movie, Brad Pitt would be at the top of a lot of lists. In 2011’s “Moneyball,” Pitt played Billy Beane in an acclaimed performance that earned him an Oscar nomination. The movie was based on a 2003 book of the same name that followed Beane’s unique methods of putting together a team. The movie was beloved by critics, but some of the people depicted in it took issue with how they were portrayed. Beane himself seemed to enjoy the film, telling Diablo magazine in 2011 that he was “certainly not going to complain about being played by Brad Pitt.”
The Real Person: Christopher Gardner
One of the most inspiring stories in the world of finance, Christopher Gardner went from being homeless to running his own stock brokerage firm, earning a reported net worth of $60 million. While Gardner was working full-time in San Francisco and raising his young son, he was secretly homeless, spending nights wherever he could find safe shelter. He eventually made enough money to found his own firm in his mid-30s. Gardner still runs his own company and also works as a motivational speaker.
The Actor: Will Smith
The Movie: “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006)
Christopher Gardner’s success story was brought to life by Will Smith, another actor who has to be at the top of many lists of dream actors to play you on-screen. This heartwarming movie saw Smith and his real-life son, Jaden Smith, play the father-son duo of Christopher Gardner and Christopher Gardner Jr. The film was based on Gardner’s own memoir of the same title and was acclaimed, earning Will Smith an Oscar nomination for his performance. Gardner seemed pleased with Smith’s inspiring performance of him, helping promote the movie when it came out.
The Real Person: Joy Mangano
Another person with an inspiring story of self-made success is inventor Joy Mangano. She’s come up with dozens of creative products in her life, most notably the Miracle Mop, which has sold millions of units since the 1990s. Other notable products she’s invented include Huggable Hangers, Performance Platforms and Forever Fragrant, all of which have been featured heavily on Home Shopping Network, where Mangano is a mainstay. She found all of her success after holding a variety of jobs, including working as a waitress.
The Actor: Jennifer Lawrence
The Movie: “Joy” (2015)
In 2015, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence brought Joy Mangano to life on the big screen in the acclaimed movie “Joy.” The movie was produced by Mangano herself and was based partly on her own autobiography, so Lawrence’s performance must have met her expectations. Lawrence was praised by critics for her portrayal of Mangano and even earned an Academy Award nomination. The impressive cast of “Joy” also included Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd and Robert De Niro, who played Mangano’s father.
The Real Person: Alexis Neiers
When Alexis Neiers was just a teenager, she made international headlines for her role in a burglary ring, dubbed the “Bling Ring,” which targeted celebrity homes in California. Neiers and her partners in crime broke into the homes of stars including Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan. Neiers served a short jail sentence for her involvement in the crimes in 2010. She was also the star of an E! reality series called “Pretty Wild,” which was nixed after she got arrested.
The Actor: Emma Watson
The Movie: “The Bling Ring” (2013)
When casting a dream movie about their life, many young women would probably dream of Emma Watson stepping into the starring role. Watson played a character that had a different name but was clearly based on Alexis Neiers in the 2013 film “The Bling Ring.” The vibrant film followed the exploits of the teens who were members of the “Bling Ring,” including their crimes and eventual downfall. Watson was praised for her performance, which was one of her first outside the Harry Potter movie series. Watson has said she watched “Pretty Wild” as research for her performance, while Neiers was a vocal critic of the film, calling it “inaccurate and trashy.”
The Real People: Ed & Lorraine Warren
Arguably the most famous ghost hunters in American history, the husband-wife duo of Ed and Lorraine Warren made their names investigating hauntings around the world. Some of their most famous work happened when they looked into the Amityville hauntings in the mid-1970s, which inspired the movie, “The Amityville Horror.” Ed Warren died in 2006, but Lorraine Warren is still active as a speaker at the age of 92. The couple’s findings have been scrutinized by scientists but have inspired many ghost stories to be told on screen and in books.
The Actors: Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga
The Movies: “The Conjuring” Franchise
The work the Warrens did around the world has inspired the massively successful “Conjuring” series of horror movies. Since 2013, the series has spawned five hit movies, including two “Annabelle” films, based on a real case investigated by the Warrens that involved a supposedly haunted doll. In the movies, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have played the couple, being praised for their performances. Unfortunately, Ed Warren didn’t live to see himself brought to life on the big screen but Lorraine Warren has been a big fan of the series and has become friends with Farmiga.
The Real Person: John du Pont
The heir to the Du Pont family fortune, John du Pont threw away his incredible fortune and, effectively, his life, when he shot and killed U.S. Olympian Dave Schultz in 1996. Du Pont was heavily involved in amateur wrestling, supporting Americans involved in the sport at his own training facility, Foxcatcher Farms. It’s believed that du Pont was suffering from mental illness when he murdered Schultz, who had worked as a trainer for the Foxcatcher wrestling team. Du Pont died in prison in 2010 at the age of 72, never seeing his own story on the big screen.
The Actor: Steve Carell
The Movie: “Foxcatcher” (2014)
Most people know Steve Carell as the well-meaning but bumbling boss Michael Scott from NBC’s “The Office.” But his performance as John du Pont in 2014’s “Foxcatcher” was much more intense and frightening. Carell used makeup prosthetics to transform his face to look more like Du Pont’s, and his work in the movie earned Carell his only Oscar nomination so far. Mark Ruffalo played Du Pont’s victim, Dave Schultz, and he was also nominated for an Oscar. The sad story has also been told in true-crime documentaries from ESPN and Netflix.
The Real Person: Margaret Keane
Artist Margaret Keane’s true story is one of overcoming abuse and finding satisfying redemption. The painter was responsible for creating a hugely popular series of works that showed people with huge eyes, starting in the 1950s. Her husband at the time, Walter Keane, took credit for all of her work and became famous as the creator of the works while Margaret sat in the background and continued to make the pieces. She eventually divorced him and proved in court that the paintings were her creations and not his. At 91 years old, she still runs her own gallery of her work today.
The Actor: Amy Adams
The Movie: “Big Eyes” (2014)
One thing Margaret Keane shares with the actor who played her on-screen is a beautiful pair of green eyes. Adams brought Keane’s story to life in the 2014 film, “Big Eyes,” which followed her career and her ex-husband’s efforts to take credit for her work. The movie didn’t earn any Oscar nominations, but it was a hit with audiences and earned praise from critics, including for Adams’ performance as Keane. The movie’s success also gave a boost in popularity to Keane’s work. Keane was reportedly a fan of “Big Eyes,” praising Adams’ performance and appearing with the actor at several promotional events.
The Real People: Ice Cube & Dr. Dre
Two founding members of the pioneering hip-hop group N.W.A., Ice Cube and Dr. Dre go back decades as friends and collaborators and have had hugely successful careers in and out of music. They formed the group in 1986, when Ice Cube was just a teen and Dr. Dre was in his early 20s and have continued to work together off and on since then. Both have also had outstanding solo careers and, outside of music, Ice Cube has worked as an actor and film producer while Dr. Dre has made billions from the sales of his Beats by Dre headphones.
The Actors: O’Shea Jackson Jr. & Corey Hawkins
The Movie: “Straight Outta Compton” (2015)
Named after N.W.A.’s groundbreaking hit album, 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which followed the group’s career, proved to be a massive hit with audiences and critics. The movie was co-produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and the actors chosen to play all the group’s members were praised for their work, especially the two who played that duo. If you think O’Shea Jackson Jr. (shown at left below) looks a lot like Ice Cube, you’d be right, because he’s his real-life son. Jackson was a natural playing his father on the big screen, winning an NAACP Image Award for his performance. Corey Hawkins, while not related to Dr. Dre, was also heavily praised for his performance as the legendary record producer.
The Real Person: Sacha Pfeiffer
Renowned a tough investigative journalist, Sacha Pfeiffer won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for her work at The Boston Globe that helped uncover child sex abuse happening inside the Catholic church. In addition to working at The Boston Globe for more than a decade, Pfeiffer has also worked as a correspondent for NPR, for which she received a prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for her work behind the microphone. In addition to those jobs, Pfeiffer has also spent time working as a teacher and adjunct professor.
The Actor: Rachel McAdams
The Movie: “Spotlight” (2015)
Pfeiffer and several of her co-workers at The Boston Globe were lucky enough to have her true story told in the acclaimed 2015 film “Spotlight,” which won best picture honors at the Academy Awards. Pfeiffer was played in the film by Rachel McAdams, whose performance was heavily praised and earned her an Oscar nomination. The movie told the story of Pfeiffer’s Spotlight team and its work on the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal. McAdams often consulted Pfeiffer during the making of the movie, and Pfeiffer was reportedly a big fan of “Spotlight.”
The Real Person: Katherine Johnson
A true trailblazer in science history, Katherine Johnson has an entire building named for her at NASA’s Langley Research Center. She fought racism and sexism while helping NASA complete the calculations necessary for the initial space shuttle launches in the 1950s and ’60s. Johnson worked at NASA for more than 30 years, and her work earned her the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, which was awarded to her by President Obama. In August 2018, Johnson celebrated her 100th birthday.
The Actor: Taraji P. Henson
The Movie: “Hidden Figures” (2016)
In 2016, many people got to know the inspirational story of Katherine Johnson and her unheralded NASA co-workers for the first time in the movie “Hidden Figures.” The movie told the story of Johnson and other black female mathematicians who helped NASA make it into outer space in the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson played Johnson, and the great performances of the entire cast won the movie a Screen Actors Guild Award for best cast in a motion picture. When Henson appeared at the Oscars in 2017 to present an award, she brought Johnson on stage with her and praised her.
The Real Person: Dick Cheney
One of the most controversial figures in recent American history, Dick Cheney served as vice president from 2001 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. Cheney held a number of high-powered political positions in Washington during his career, including as secretary of defense and White House chief of staff. He was heavily criticized during his tenure as vice president because of his involvement in getting America into the Iraq War and his tenure as ex-CEO of the oil company Halliburton, which was viewed by many as presenting a conflict of interest.
The Actor: Christian Bale
The Movie: “Vice” (2018)
One of the most unpredictable selections for an actor to represent a real person has to be British powerhouse Christian Bale playing Dick Cheney. Cheney was played by Richard Dreyfuss in the 2008 movie “W,” but for 2018’s “Vice,” he was brought to life by the former Batman actor. “Vice” was a big hit with audiences and critics, with Bale earning an Oscar nomination for his work as Cheney. Bale, who is famous for the total physical transformations he’s undergone for roles, reportedly gained 40 pounds to play the ex-veep. Cheney himself hasn’t publicly commented on the film and he was not consulted in its making.