Sometimes a person you recognize pops up for a brief moment in a movie to make a single joke, or to show us the type of person who would be at the place or event we’re watching.
Other times an actor will take on the challenge of a long-form performance, playing a skewed version of themselves as part of a fictional story.
When putting these things on the page, the idea can get tricky to justify if the execution doesn’t back it up.
Let’s take a look at some examples and break down ways real public figures get used in telling fictional stories.
It’s a quick appearance. They show up, you recognize them, they may say a line or two of dialogue, and then they’re out.
It can be a joke just for the audience, like Alfred Hitchcock or Stan Lee popping up in a scene.
But sometimes it’s a person who shows up as themselves that’s the point of the cameo, often planting them in a situation that leverages their star power for a few moments:
- David Bowie showing up in Zoolander as a judge for a fashion model walk-off
- Buster Keaton as Himself playing bridge in Sunset Boulevard as one of several silent film stars
- Louis Armstrong as himself, leading a band in High Society
How It Helps: A quick injection of surprise and/or humor for the audience. It keeps them on their toes.
How It Distracts: The moment of recall disrupts the natural flow of the narrative, especially if filmmakers go out of their way to call attention to the cameo the moment it’s revealed.
Unintended Consequences: If an audience doesn’t recognize the person, or catch the reference, the focus on this person who hasn’t been part of the story up until this point can feel confusing.
If you’re going to have a part of your story show up on the news, why not have an actual newscaster in the movie?
Or if your main character is going to be the butt of late night jokes, why not have an actual late night host show up on screen to deliver them?
It feels natural to have characters in a story told in the present, recent past, or future engage with other media as part of their everyday life. When writing those moments, you need to decide how important it is to have this story connect to our real, lived experience.
Why It Helps: Using a recognizable public figure to lend some realism to your story. Also, you avoid the hokeyness of creating a fake network to go along with your fake broadcast personality.
Why It Can Distract: It can remind the audience that the rest of the story around it is a fiction, especially if the person acting as themself isn’t convincing as part of the world.
Unintended Consequences: You can choose to include someone who becomes a dated reference. It can make the movie feel “of its time,” in both good and bad ways.
Sometimes a performer will play a fictionalized version of themselves as a primary or secondary character in a story.
- Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Tristram Shandy and The Trip movies
- John Malcovich in Being John Malcovich
- Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold & Kumar series
- Arguably Julia Roberts playing another woman, Tess, pretending to be Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Twelve
These versions of themselves play between the margins of what the audience knows and expects about the actors themselves and what the story requires of them. It leverages what people already know (or think they know) about these people as a springboard for absurdity, comedy, or twists that play against type.
Something to bear in mind with this trope: You need the goodwill of the person you’re writing to make it happen. It doesn’t matter how great the inclusion of this real person works for your story if they decide they’re not interested in participating.
Why It Helps: Under the right circumstances, audiences are drawn in by feeling like they’re getting to see a previously hidden side of a real person.
Why It Can Distract: The audience’s urge to unpack what’s real and what’s not about the person and their persona can overpower their interest in the rest of the story.
Unintended Consequences: The parody replaces the person. If people don’t see enough of the divide, or don’t get the joke, the story can seem more like a documentary and erases the rest of the work that went into it.
The Use of Real People Should Be Necessary and Justified
John McPhee wrote about the pitfalls of referential or jargon-heavy writing, using an allusion to an actor as an example:
“You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness. If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise — and you let it go at that — you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is.”
Cameos and writing in public figures relies on that notion of borrowed vividness — letting someone else’s presence due the heavy lifting to make the story moment land.
But if including a known actor as a character adds value in a way that strengthens what surrounds it (instead of outshining it), a well-written cameo can be more than a playful wink to the audience.