Envisioning the music that will play key elements in a movie is no small feat for writers, producers, directors and composers. Composing a score for a feature-length film, as well as assembling artists and musicians for an original soundtrack requires a lot of coordination, planning and experience. When “live” music also plays a key role in a film, and songs need to be performed on camera, another challenge has to be overcome—this time, by the actors. Acting is challenging on its own, but the idea of learning to play a musical instrument for a role can make the job that much harder for the actor.
Mastering an instrument can take years of dedication, but sometimes actors are expected to learn to play the piano, guitar or drums in only 6 months. This takes countless hours of work and perseverance, and actors are often put through harsh practice sessions just to have them prepared for several key scenes. However, the final result is usually astonishing, and tremendously enhances the authenticity of the film. At Cutting Room Music, we decided to take a look at several of our favorite actors who went above and beyond to learn an instrument and make their movies as authentic as possible.
Our favorite six actors who learned to play a musical instruments for their roles
We all love listening to music, but the ones who understand its craft or play an instrument themselves appreciate it tenfold. The actors mentioned below have no doubt gone to cherish music even more after the credits rolled on their movies, reminiscing the rigorous training sessions they withstood in order to get here.
Adrian Brody – The Pianist
The Pianist centers around Polish virtuoso Wladyslaw Szpilman in German-occupied Poland during World War II, who manages to survive both the Holocaust and the destruction of Warsaw. For this role, Brody was expected to learn to play the piano to a high standard. Director Roman Polanski insisted he practice the instrument every day, both before the shoot and during, to portray the most authentic Szpilman ever to be seen on screen. The hard work paid off, earning Adrian Brody an Oscar in 2003 for his incredible performance.
Miles Teller – Whiplash
Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer with dreams of greatness who enrolls to a harsh conservatory where he is mentored by a relentless instructor. Andrew, played by Teller, is subject to endure pure cruelty by instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who will stop at nothing to realize Andrew’s full potential. They both deliver stunning performances, and Miles Teller’s drumming skills add enormous value to the project. Although Miles has been playing the drums since he was 15 years old, he took additional lessons to prepare for the film with Nate Lang.
Joaquin Phoenix & Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line
Portraying Johnny Cash and June Carter, the two actors were rumored to nearly quit over the sheer difficulty of learning to both sing and play the guitar for Walk the Line. Learning, then unlearning and then relearning Cash’s iconic strumming style was excruciatingly difficult for Joaquin. Reese Witherspoon also told MTV in an interview that the rehearsals, learning to play the autoharp, learning to sing and recording an album were the most challenging and horrifying experiences of her life. Nonetheless, they both prevailed, and Joaquin Phoenix got himself an Oscar nomination for the role, while Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress. Roger Love prepped the two actors for Walk the Line.
Keira Knightley – Begin Again
Begin Again is a musical-comedy directed by John Carney that follows the bond between struggling record label executive Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) and talented indie musician Gretta James (Keira Knightley). Although having no previous experience with any instrument or singing, Knightley delivers a stunning performance. She fell in love with singing and the guitar, and managed to stun everybody in the final musical performance of the movie, where Knightley seamlessly blends her soft voice and fragile persona with upbeat and stylish strumming.
Samuel L. Jackson – Black Snake Moan
In Black Snake Moan, Samuel L. Jackson embodied his inner blues artist and delivered a formidable performance. Lazarus is arguably one of the most underrated roles of Jackson, the actor stating that playing him was far more complex than any other character he had portrayed up until then. Samuel L. Jackson practiced up to six or seven hours a day in a span of seven months and learned the guitar by the time shooting had started. He often practiced during the production of Snakes on a Plane.
These are just some of our favorite performances, however, countless other incredible actors learned to play a musical instrument for their roles, including Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet, Taron Egerton in Rocketman, Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born, and so on. It’s fascinating to see how an actor is willing to go to such great lengths to nail a performance, which ultimately makes them and the audience appreciate musicians, composers and songwriters even more.
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