11 actors who learned to play a musical instrument for films (and one who definitely didn’t)

19 February 2021, 12:14 | Updated: 19 February 2021, 12:28

Adrien Brody and Nicholas Cage playing musical instruments in films
Adrien Brody and Nicholas Cage playing musical instruments in films. Picture: Focus Features/StudioCanal/Universal Pictures

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Among the annals of actors who have made uncomfortable attempts to mime playing an instrument (we’re looking at you, Jeremy Irons), here are a few who did it for themselves…

  1. Ryan Gosling – La La Land

    It’s a huge compliment to Gosling that most people assume his piano close-ups were played by a jazz double – but while the music was recorded separately by veteran pianist Randy Kerber, the keyboard work you see in the film is all Gosling.

    He said: “I had to play ‘City of Stars’ for six months, for hours every day. It’s a lot of time alone, and you become a bit anti-social. Every time I tried to have a conversation with someone during that rehearsal period, I felt like Bambi on ice.”

    Read more: The best cover versions of the La La Land soundtrack >

    Mia and Sebastian's Theme (La La Land Scene)

  2. Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody

    Malek gives a sterling performance as Freddie Mercury, considering he had little to no musical experience. Determined not to fake it with cutaway shots to another pianist’s hands, he started the process by learning the intro to the first verse of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

    The Oscar-winning actor told iNews: “There were moments when I thought, ‘This is not my bag. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this part of it.”

    Bohemian Rhapsody piano scene Rami malek Freddie Mercury

  3. Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born

    To inhabit the role of country singer Jackson Maine, Bradley Cooper took guitar, vocal and piano lessons for 18 months. He even made a surprise appearance at Glastonbury on Kris Kristofferson’s set (who played Cooper’s character in the 1969 film version of A Star Is Born) in preparation for the role.

    And it was all thanks to his co-star, Lady Gaga. “Because she’s so confident and supportive I felt pretty comfortable once I got there. It gave me the guts to go out,” Cooper said in an interview with Barbara Walters.

    In the final cut, the guitar playing we hear was recorded by composer and musician, Lukas Nelson, who dubbed over Cooper’s lines. The actor’s vocals, meanwhile, were live and untampered with.

  4. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line

    Joaquin and Reese's performance as country-singing duo Johnny Cash and June Carter was ridiculously impressive. Trained by Roger Love, the actors were rumoured to have nearly quit over the difficulty of learning to sing and play the guitar at the same time. But just watch them together in ‘Time’s a Wastin’’ – their musicality is perfect, and their chemistry? Through the roof.

    Joaquin and Reese - Time's A Wastin

  5. Adrien Brody – The Pianist

    To prepare for his role as Chopin virtuoso Szpilman, Roman Polanski forced Adrien Brody to practise piano for a gruelling four hours a day. Plus, in order to truly inhabit a man who had lost everything, Brody also left his girlfriend, gave up his apartment, sold his car, starved himself and lived in solitary confinement in Europe. Yay acting!

    It all (sort of) paid off in 2003, when Brody became the youngest person to win an Oscar for Best actor in a leading role. Here he is, playing Chopin’s beautiful Ballade in G minor with no dubbing whatsoever.

    Read more: The Pianist: what’s the music, is it a true story and did Adrien Brody really play the piano? >

    Chopin Ballade in G Minor Scene- The Pianist

  6. Matt Damon and Jude Law – The Talented Mr Ripley

    Damon and Law learned to play piano and saxophone respectively to create this memorable jazz club scene. However, although Damon’s piano training enabled him to play all the proper fingering, the music we hear is actually played by pianist Sally Heath and Gabriel Yared, who composed The Talented Mr Ripley soundtrack.

    My Funny Valentine

  7. Robert Downey Jr – Chaplin

    To channel Charlie Chaplin, the silent film legend who always carried his violin with him, Downey Jr learned to play the violin (and tennis, for that matter) with his left hand – just as Chaplin did. 10/10 for effort.

    Robert Downey Jr as Charlie Chaplin
    Robert Downey Jr as Charlie Chaplin. Picture: TriStar Pictures
  8. Bill Murray – Groundhog Day

    Despite using a double for the close-ups, Bill Murray learned just enough piano to play some of Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini’. Some of the miming looks a tad questionable, but in the wider shots, it was apparently all Bill.

    Groundhog Day scene - Bill Murray - Phil's Piano solo

  9. Hugh Grant – About a Boy

    Grant had guitar lessons from British composer Paul Englishby to create this cringey scene from About a Boy. Sure, the actor’s playing and singing are musically questionable, but we want this scene to be horribly awkward – and that’s exactly what Grant gives us.

    Hugh Grant - "Killing me softly" in About a boy

  10. Rachel Weisz – The Brothers Bloom

    Weisz’s role in The Brothers Bloom required her to play accordion, violin, guitar and banjo in the space of 10 seconds – so she had lessons in all four instruments. It isn’t totally clear whether the music we hear in the film is actually played by Weisz, but the accuracy of her fingering certainly gives a good impression of it.

    Rachel Weisz showing off

  11. Nicholas Cage – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

    Before Paul Englishby taught guitar to Hugh Grant, he was busy making sure Nicholas Cage’s mandolin skills were in ship-shape for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

    “Cage actually played it and there is lots of footage of him doing that. It was incredible,” said Englishby. “He really is very talented. Nicolas used to go away for the weekend. He had a private jet and one weekend he asked me to go to Venice with him so he could have his music lessons.”

    Captain Corelli's Mandolin ''Palegia's Song''

But not all actors have braved the real deal…

Christopher Walken – A Late Quartet

Despite his lovability, there’s no way Walken could have passed off this illogical cello-bowing action as authentic. We’d suggest a direct line to Yo-Yo Ma for the sequel…

A Late Quartet 2012, Casals scene