6 Actors to Play David Bowie (All At Once)


In this series, we speculate on what actors would be the perfect choice to play an upcoming character, or what type of character a particular actor is best suited for. Feel free to unilaterally agree with all our picks voice your opinion in the comments!

I’m still having a hard time processing the death of David Bowie. Even if the music and the costumes and the crazy personas were not your thing, you at least have to stand back and acknowledge the scope with which this brilliantly deranged person spend forty years personifying different genres of music and changing with the medium… sometimes even acting as the catalyst for change and new subgenres. Would glam rock exist without him? Would new wave have caught on without him there?

Let’s just cut the thesis of this article out and paste it on my forehead: David Bowie was such a presence that the only actor who could really do him justice is David Bowie. And I would have watched the hell out of that biopic, with a 70-year-old man portraying himself at ages 20, 25, 30, etc. It is not to be.

Though Hollywood might be licking their chops at the prospect of a proper Bowie film (and politely ignoring that one film buff who keeps bringing up Velvet Goldmine), I have an alternative idea. It’s been done before with Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, with several skilled performers bringing different facets of the legendary musician to life. Only with Bowie, there are clear personas from his career that each actor could inhabit. But here’s where I get really radical… let’s not make this a movie. Let Bowie be honored theatrically, as he was so theatrical. Grab these actors and put on the greatest live performance extravaganza ever created. And film it, you know. For posterity.

Tilda Swinton at the Deauville Film Festival

1. Tilda Swinton (as Ziggy Stardust)

This seems obvious and kind of a grab at her film A Bigger Splash as well as Cate Blanchett’s talked-about performance in the Dylan movie, but it would be so appropriate. During the Ziggy years, Bowie created a cult of personality around the androgynous alter ego while struggling to differentiate himself between the role and his own identity. In similar fashion, the music was a strange two-sided coin of early ’70s hard rock and the more pop-inspired fare to come later in the decade.

Swinton has made an entire career off of being an otherworldly, androgynous cipher. It would be amazing to watch her struggle, as Bowie, with the much more seductive and accessible identity of Ziggy. It would also make for a fantastic opening thesis on Bowie and how his shifting identity led his musical style throughout his life.

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Cillian Murphy 2010

2. Cillian Murphy (as the Thin White Duke)

When the mid-’70s reared up to swallow Ziggy Stardust, Bowie moved to LA and developed a prodigious cocaine addiction. While this new incarnation of the musician led to some disturbing pro-fascist rhetoric, it also marked his experimentation with soul and funk, and his injection of both into the pop sound he had cultivated.

Murphy, a gaunt and wild-eyed performer with roles including psycho killers and petulant criminals dotting his CV, would fill out the monochromatic ensemble of the Thin White Duke nicely and could channel the blow-fueled mindset that caused him to drown in his own self-mythologizing.

Eddie Redmayne (15033887819)

3. Eddie Redmayne (as The Man Who Fell to Earth)

While Redmayne has already shown us what a dreadful Ziggy he would be in Jupiter Ascending, he did recently win an Oscar for his honest portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne’s performance was refreshingly subtle, and the transformations that ALS have gripped Hawking’s body were less impressive than how the brilliant mind reacted to them.

Having said all of that, Redmayne would absolutely crush the period of Bowie’s life spent in Berlin, where he pursued visual arts, minimalism and expressionism in his music, and attempted to kick cocaine. This era would make for a fascinating film in itself. The picture of a grand personality brought low and allowed to explore himself would be a great use of Redmayne’s talents.

Jemaine Clement

4. Jemaine Clement (as the Goblin King)

This one is kinda just for fun. Many folks my age chiefly identify Bowie as the codpiece-sporting Jareth from the Jim Henson film Labyrinth. Bowie was not merely a musician who appeared in film. He was an actor, in the greatest sense. He was so talented as an actor that he could have quit music and focused solely on movies. Thank goodness he didn’t, but still.

Clement, meanwhile, has had a similar symbiotic relationship between his oddball musicianship and his captivating work on camera in both “Flight of the Conchords” and some other crazy projects like the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. He’s also a big enough Bowie fan to write and perform his spin on the “spaceman” era. We could have a lot of fun with a vignette of Clement as Bowie, suiting up to act opposite some muppets dressed as a weird subterranean sex-lord-thing.

Tom Hiddleston by Gage Skidmore 2

5. Tom Hiddleston (as one part of Tin Machine)

Hiddleston might be Loki to most moviegoers, but his magnetic and altogether different performance as Hank Williams shows the depth of his acting ability and his musical ability. He’d easily be on the shortlist of actors who could acceptably recreate that Bowie essence. And I would love to see him do so during an era of the music icon’s career that is always unfairly overlooked: the days of Bowie as one fourth of the hard rock group Tin Machine.

The public, the record label, and even Bowie himself had so much trouble accepting his new role in a democratically-organized group with simplistic hard rock sound that it barely went beyond one album. Hiddleston’s Bowie would be captivating to watch as he argues over album cover art, tries to balance solo work with group appearances, and ultimately fail to blend in because Bowie could never just blend in.

Willem Dafoe The Hunter (6184921184)

6. Willem Dafoe (as the Elder Statesman)

The later years of Bowie have been called many things. I’ve seen it referred to as his “neoclassicist” period. Which I feel Bowie would smirk at. This era is marked by Bowie’s status as a living legend who enjoyed collaborating with eclectic musicians and singers, including Arcade Fire, Kashmir, and (no fooling) Scarlett Johansson. Of course, this era is also marked by his declining health due to cancer and a heart attack that prematurely ended his 2004 tour.

Now, we all know Dafoe. He’s that guy who always goes big. And Bowie is another guy who knows his way around over-the-top spectacles. The pairing fits like a glove, as the last years of Bowie were marked as the strangest, the least interested in everyone’s expectations, and the most wildly confident. It would be a perfect send-off for Dafoe to portray the “spirit is willing, flesh is weak” dilemma of the heart attack and finish off the Ballad of Bowie with a triumphant reveal of the man’s last album, Blackstar.

Agree? Disagree? More ideas? Let us know in the comments.


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Daniel Epstein
Father, filmmaker, and writer. Once he won an Emmy, but it wasn't for being a father or writing.