It’s fairly uncommon to see one character played by different actors in the same movie. It’s more common across a series, where one movie might follow a character at one point in their life, with a sequel jumping forward by enough years to necessitate a recasting. However, when a single film does it, it’s usually a sign that it covers a significant portion of time, or otherwise features multiple actors in the same role for artistic/symbolic reasons.
The following movies all pull off this ambitious task of getting multiple actors for a single character. Additionally, they go a step further by having three or more different actors portray a single character, which put these beyond the decent number of films out there that might feature one additional actor playing a significant character at a younger or older age in a flashback or flash-forward, respectively.
1 ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ (2009)
One of many strange fantastical comedies from the mind of Terry Gilliam, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is notable for being the last film to feature the late Heath Ledger. He passed away while the movie was still filming, but its fantastical nature allowed for the film to be altered in a way that allowed different actors to portray his character.
Heath Ledger played a man named Tony Shepard, whose appearance changes whenever he enters the titular Imaginarium, a magical mirror that can alter reality and let visitors explore their imaginations. With this plot device, Tony ended up being portrayed by a total of four actors: Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
2 ‘I’m Not There’ (2007)
While I’m Not There is sort of about Bob Dylan, it’s also not exactly a Dylan biopic in the traditional sense. Director Todd Haynes takes a unique approach to depicting the (sort of) life story of the enigmatic folk-rock icon on-screen by having six different actors depict one aspect of Dylan’s personality and/or history each, and at different stages of the musician’s life.
These actors include big names like Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and even Cate Blanchett, and it all makes for an unusual but interesting look at the life and influence of Bob Dylan. There are plans for an upcoming Dylan biopic to feature only Timothée Chalamet in the lead role, so chances are that will be a far more traditional affair.
3 ‘The Godfather Saga’ (1977)
In 1977, the first two Oscar-winning movies in The Godfather trilogy were re-edited to form one miniseries known as The Godfather Saga. The biggest change made was that all the scenes were shuffled around so that the movie now played out chronologically, with the flashback scenes from The Godfather: Part II being shown first, followed by The Godfather: Part I, and then the remaining scenes from The Godfather: Part II.
Condensing the two bleak crime movies into one had the effect of making Vito Corleone a character who was played by three different actors. He’s played by Marlon Brando in the first movie, then Robert De Niro plays him as a young man in the second, and Italian actor Oreste Baldini briefly portrays him as a child in the second movie too. Seeing Vito at various stages of his life helps contrast the character to his son, Michael, and the different ways they function as Dons of the Corleone family.
4 ‘The Butterfly Effect’ (2004)
As would be expected from the title, The Butterfly Effect does indeed deal with the idea of the butterfly effect, which theorizes that seemingly inconsequential actions could well have dramatic consequences in the future… even something as inconspicuous as a butterfly flapping its wings at one time rather than another time.
The film uses this concept to explore a science-fiction/psychological thriller premise that also features time travel, given the protagonist can go to different points in time to try and change certain things for the future. Because of all the jumping backward and forwards in time, the main character and some supporting characters end up being played by multiple actors at different ages: during childhood, teenage years, and as young adults.
5 ‘Atonement’ (2007)
Atonement is a fairly grim drama that also functions as a romance and war film. It follows two lovers – Robbie and Cecilia – whose blossoming romance is damaged by Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony. It’s Briony who arguably becomes the film’s central character, and she’s played at three different ages by three different actors.
Saoirse Ronan, in her first film role, plays Briony as a child, while Romola Garai plays her as a young adult, and Vanessa Redgrave briefly plays her in old age towards the end of the film. As the film explores how she changes as a person, and how she felt a deep sense of regret for much of her life, the way it features three people playing the character at the story’s center works well.
6 ‘Man of Steel’ (2013)
Visionary director and slow motion enthusiast Zack Snyder mounted an ambitious Superman reboot in 2013, only seven years after Superman Returns attempted to do the same. That movie was Man of Steel, and it once again detailed the origins of Superman, as well as a major conflict he had with fellow Kryptonian General Zod.
Given Kal-El – later named Clark Kent and eventually Superman – arrives on Earth as an infant, and the movie spends time on his upbringing, there’s a need to have multiple actors play the part. There are two actors who briefly play Clark Kent as a child and then a teenager respectively, with Henry Cavill portraying the character as an adult for the majority of the film’s runtime.
7 ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (2008)
It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used multiple actors to play the same character, given it’s a movie that spans decades, telling a cradle-to-grave fantastical story about a unique man who ages backward.
While digital de-aging was used to enable Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett to portray the two main characters for most of the runtime, several younger actors were used for each character when they were depicted as being younger… well, younger when it came to Blanchett’s character, but technically older for Pitt’s character, given the whole aging backward thing.
8 ‘Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi’ (1983)
The sixth Star Wars episode, Return of the Jedi, is the rare film where multiple actors are used for the same character despite the story playing out chronologically, and having no dramatic flashbacks or flash-forwards. That character is Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, the central character of the Original and Prequel trilogies, whose character arc is brought to a close in Return of the Jedi.
David Prowse was the actor in the iconic suit, while James Earl Jones provided his voice. When Darth Vader has his mask removed revealing Anakin Skywalker’s face, a third actor portrayed him: Sebastian Shaw. Additionally, if you watch the special edition of the film, Hayden Christensen is added to the film at the very end, replacing Shaw who originally also played Anakin’s force ghost, meaning there were technically four actors portraying the same character.
9 ‘Austin Powers in Goldmember’ (2002)
Generally speaking, the Austin Powers series is one where one actor plays multiple characters, instead of multiple actors playing one character. That’s because it’s a showcase for Mike Myers‘ talents when it comes to accents and physical comedy, and by the third movie, Goldmember, Myers was playing four different characters.
Thanks to flashbacks and time travel shenanigans, it ends up being a supporting character who gets played by three actors, though. That character’s one of Dr. Evil’s associates, known as Number Two, who’s played at different points by Robert Wagner, Rob Lowe, and Evan Farmer.
10 ‘Moonlight’ (2016)
Moonlight is split into three distinct thirds, and is a coming-of-age movie about Chiron, who’s first seen as a child, then a teenager, and then as a young adult. The film details how much he changes as a person as he grows older, and also focuses on his bond with Kevin, a close friend who becomes something more as the two grow older.
It uses three different actors for both Chiron and Kevin to properly explore the characters over the different stages of their lives, and this is one thing that helps Moonlight strike a hard-hitting emotional chord. It’s also interesting to compare to another critically-acclaimed coming-of-age movie from the mid-2010s, Boyhood, which also shows a character growing from a child into a young adult, but does so by using the same actors throughout, and having its scenes filmed over 12 years.
NEXT: Movie Characters Who Have Less Than a Minute of Screen Time, But Are Still Memorable