Music and Drama: The Best (and Worst) Singer-Actors

singer-actors

Watching a well-known musician or singer move into the acting world of film and TV offers fans plenty of fun. The worlds of music and acting were always nebulous, especially during Hollywood’s golden age when the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley easily moved between the two art forms. The rise of MTV in the 1980s blurred the lines even further, allowing pop and rock stars to test their thespian skills in elaborate music videos.

Listed below is a collection of singing sensations who moved into the world of screen acting. A few cracked the Hollywood code and created a full-fledged acting career. Others planted their feet in both worlds, doing both with equal aplomb. And many more flirted with the dramatic arts but couldn’t commit. Meet the best and worst singer-actors in Hollywood and beyond.

Cher

Cher
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Who knew that the better half of Sonny & Cher both would carve out a talented acting career? In the 1970s, the then-married singing duo hosted a popular variety show that consisted of skits and musical numbers. The format allowed Cher to let loose and play with different personas as an example of her acting potential.

In 1983, Cher showed her chops as a dramatic actress, co-starring with Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell in Silkwood. Her Oscar-nominated role as Streep’s lesbian co-worker stunned Hollywood, and she would turn in other acclaimed performances in Mask and Suspect.

Cher’s apex as an actress came in 1987 when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her charming turn in the romantic comedy Moonstruck. Her gracious acceptance speech at the Oscars showed her pride in becoming a legitimate actress in the eyes of Hollywood. For the next several decades, Cher became the rare entertainer to move seamlessly between the film and music worlds.

Beyonce

Beyonce
Image Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

In the early 2000s, Queen Bey started to explore the world of film acting. She showed she had a sense of humor, starring in Austin Powers in Goldmember, the third entry of the popular spy parody franchise as Foxxy Cleopatra.

But the 2006 film version of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls showed Beyonce's potential as a viable actor. While the critics praised co-stars Jennifer Hudson’s supporting role and Eddie Murphy’s rare dramatic turn, Beyonce more than held her own against her more seasoned co-stars.

She gave a raw and passionate performance as legendary blues singer Etta James in the little-seen Cadillac Records, by far her best film role. Beyonce sheds her graceful persona as she swears, curses, and gets in drunken fights with co-star Adrian Brody.

Beyonce never capitalized on her well-reviewed performances, now turning her attention to directing, like the Disney + visual album Black is King. And, of course, continuing her legendary musical career.

David Bowie

David Bowie as Jareth
Image Credit: Tri-Star Pictures.

Bowie’s unique musical identity always had a visual element, so his move into acting became a natural extension of his brand.  The singer built a filmography as experimental as his music, becoming one of Hollywood’s standout character actors.

Bowie made his film debut in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, playing…what else…an alien visiting Earth from a drought-stricken planet. Many Gen Xers remember his campy turn as The Goblin King in Jim Henson’s fantasy Labyrinth. And he flirted with leading man status as a seductive vampire in the stylish horror drama The Hunger.

The iconoclast performer continued his dramatic career by taking minor supporting roles like Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s uber-controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. In 2006, Bowie gave his final formal performance in The Prestige, playing real-life engineer Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s period epic focused on dueling magicians.

Tina Turner

Tina (2021) Tina Turner
Image Credit: HBO.

The “Queen of Rock n Roll” radiated a charisma perfect for the silver screen, and it’s a shame she didn’t do more formal acting. In 1975, Turner made her film debut as The Acid Queen in The Who’s surreal rock opera Tommy. Even though she appeared in one number, the small part showed that Turner could strut her stuff on the big screen.

But in 1985, Turner made quite a splash as the villainous Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the third film in Mel Gibson’s post-apocalyptic franchise. Turner towers over co-star Gibson, bringing real menace and a theatrical flair to the flawed, uneven actioner.

While Turner expressed interest in more film work, Mad Max would be her only legitimate screen role. She did meet with Steven Spielberg about playing Shug Avery in The Color Purple, creating one of the great “what ifs” in Hollywood casting lore. Not to take anything away from Margret Avery’s Oscar-nominated performance, but Turner’s rendition of the gospel number “God’s Trying to Tell You Something” would’ve blown the roof off every movie theatre in the country.

Madonna

Madonna
Image Credit: Chris Weger – CC BY-SA 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Since the dawn of her music career, the material girl made it clear she had ambitions as a film actress. Her dozens of groundbreaking videos show a performer at ease before the camera, playing to her chameleon-like marketing sensibilities.

Madonna's first screen role was a single scene as a nightclub singer (not much of a stretch) in the wrestling drama Vision Quest. But that was just a warm-up for the 80s screwball comedy Desperately Seeking Susan, a film built around her 1985 “boy toy” image. Madonna essentially played a heightened version of herself and launched her 80s club staple “Get into the Groove.”

In the 1990s, Madge moved into more substantial roles that played to her bold, bombshell persona. Her role as the vampy Breathless Mahoney in Warren Beatty’s live-action Dick Tracy caper perfectly showcases the singer-actress. The pop diva followed that up with a supporting turn in the charming baseball comedy A League of Their Own, playing the team’s flirty center fielder.

But her portrayal of Eva Peron in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s controversial rock opera Evita wowed Hollywood. Madonna threw herself into the role, taking voice lessons to sing the difficult operatic score and imitating Peron’s unique fashion sense. The hard work paid off as Madonna gave a haunted performance that showed the fascist-leaning Peron as neither saint nor sinner, perfectly matching the duality of the lyrics.

Sadly, Madonna’s limited range as an actress became apparent in her following two pictures, the gay dramedy The Next Best Thing and the romantic comedy Swept Away. Both movies became huge bombs, and the savage notices Madonna received allegedly killed her acting career.

Whitney Houston

Sparkle (2012) Whitney Houston
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Hollywood long courted powerhouse singer Whitney Houston, whose voice was described as the “eighth wonder of the world.” After flirting with an early film version of Dreamgirls (in the role that Beyonce would eventually play), Kevin Costner signed Houston to co-star in the romantic thriller The Bodyguard. Houston’s role as an R&B singer/actress being stalked by a deranged fan wasn’t far removed from her own career, but she shared sizzling chemistry with Costner, and the soundtrack spawned her signature tune, “I Will Always Love You.”

Houston showed solid potential as an actress, appearing in a string of hit films like Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife. She’s at her most charming in the TV remake of the Broadway musical Cinderella, infusing the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein score with her trademark powerhouse pipes.

But Houston’s well-documented struggle with drug addiction derailed both her music and acting careers. Houston gave her last screen performance in the 2012 remake of Sparkle, released mere months after her tragic death.

Justin Timberlake

The Social Network (2010) Justin Timberlake
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Before breaking out with the boyband NSYNC, Timberlake dabbled in acting as a Mouseketeer on the All-New Mickey Mouse Club for Disney. In the early 2000s, Timberlake appeared in films like Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moanthat, which earned decent notices. His first leading man role was the romantic comedy Friends with Benefits, co-starring Mila Kunis, a movie that showcases his easy-going charisma.

Timberlake’s best film work remains The Social Network, the brilliant docu-drama chronicling the rise of Mark Zuckerberg as he created social media giant Facebook. Timberlake plays Sean Parker, the mastermind behind Napster, in a great piece of stunt casting. There’s an irony in watching Timberlake deconstruct Parker, who forced the music industry to embrace digital distribution, of which Timberlake’s music greatly benefited.

Britney Spears

Crossroads (2002) Britney Spears, Anson Mount
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Like her ex-paramour Timberlake, Britney Spears also rose to fame in Disney’s All-New Mickey Mouse Club. Spears took a detour into the acting world at the height of her teen pop stardom in 2002.

The road trip dramedy Crossroads would be Spears' only legitimate acting credit, playing a teenager looking to meet her birth mother. The Shonda Rhimes scripted picture features Spears, giving a comfortable, easygoing performance and early appearances by Zoe Saldana and Anson Mount. Sadly, even though the film earned decent reviews, Spears moved back into the music world, where her erratic behavior led to her controversial conservatorship years.

Christina Aguilera

Burlesque e1696003442706
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Another All-New Mickey Mouse Club graduate and eventual Spears pop rival, Christina Aguilera, briefly flirted with screen stardom. In 2011, Aguilera was paired with Cher in the musical Burlesque, where the teen diva plays a small-town girl pursuing her dreams in Los Angeles. This is a case where Aguilera shows serious acting talent in a bad, run-of-the-mill movie. It’s a shame as the film features musical sequences that highlight Aguilera’s incredible vocal talent and a stacked cast including Kristen Bell, and Stanley Tucci.

In 2015, Aguilera guest starred on the TV series Nashville for a three-episode stint, radiating real dramatic potential. But the pop diva left the acting world for that big chair on the reality singing competition The Voice, where she would reign for many seasons.

Jon Bon Jovi

New Year's Eve (2011) Jon Bon Jovi, Katherine Heigl
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

The New Jersey-bred frontman of the 80s rock band Bon Jovi dabbled in a few minor acting roles in the 1990s. In his screen debut, he plays a seductive housepainter who romances Elizabeth Perkins in Moonlight & Valentino. Next, the rocker cut his long locks as a submarine crewmember in the War World II actioner U-571. Bon Jovi showed skills as a leading man in the appropriate titled The Leading Man, playing a handsome Hollywood actor hired to seduce a playwright's wife.

Bon Jovi also turned in memorable stints on the small screen, including an appearance in The West Wing. Despite brimming with decent acting talent, the rock and roll frontman retired from his drama side gig to perform with his band full-time.

Gwen Stefani

The Aviator (2004) Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwen Stefani
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

The stylish lead singer of 90’s ska band No Doubt briefly dipped her toe in the acting waters. While Gwen Stefani’s music videos highlighted her baby doll charisma, they also showed budding acting abilities.

In 2005, Martin Scorsese hand-picked the platinum blonde singer to play the OG platinum blond starlet Jean Harlow in The Aviator, the biographical drama chronicling the rise and fall of Howard Hughes. Co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, Stefani bears an uncanny resemblance to the silver screen beauty, perfectly capturing her classic Hollywood glamour. Yet her brief role amounts to a single scene with a few lines of dialogue, not enough time to show off any acting range.

The Aviator remains Stefani’s only on-screen acting credit. She has since stayed put in the music world, eventually joining the reality singing competition The Voice as one of the show’s longtime judges.

Cyndi Lauper

The Horror of Dolores Roach - I Never Don't Find 'Em (2023)
Image Credit: Amazon Studios.

Who knew that Cyndi Lauper, the quirky punk pixie behind 80’s pop hits “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time,” would become an Emmy-winning actress? Lauper made her acting debut starring with Jeff Goldblum in the (better than you remember) action-comedy Vibes. While the movie came and went without much fanfare, many critics singled out Lauper’s latent acting talent.

But Lauper truly shined on a guest stint for the 90s TV sitcom Mad About You, showing natural comedic flair and winning an Emmy for guest actress in a comedy series. Lauper still pops up unexpectedly in guest roles, but in recent years, she’s focused exclusively on her music.

Mark Wahlberg

Planet of the Apes (2001) Mark Wahlberg
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

In 1991, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch made their infamous debut with their 90s club anthem, “Good Vibrations.”  Many critics snickered when the band’s constantly shirtless frontman, Mark Wahlberg, transitioned into an acting career. But Wahlberg got the last laugh when he turned in strong performances in a string of hit films, including Renaissance Man, The Basketball Diaries, and Fear.

When Leonardo DiCaprio dropped out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Wahlberg stepped in as his unlikely replacement. The star-studded and controversial film explores the rise and fall of the adult industry in the 1980s. Wahlberg turns in an astonishingly confident performance as Dirk Diggler, a “gifted” adult star whose career implodes. The role proved a good fit for the actor, satirizing the former underwear model’s sculpted body to great effect. And Wahlberg more than holds his own against co-stars Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, and John C. Reilly.

Far from his Funky Bunch days, Wahlberg became one of Hollywood’s most prolific actors/producers. He even earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Today, Wahlberg ranks as one of the most successful singer-actors working.

Lady Gaga

American Horror Story (2011) Lady Gaga
Image Credit: 20th Television.

When the singular musician/songwriter first appeared in 2008 with her mega-hit “Poker Face,” music critics made favorable comparisons to David Bowie. So, it was natural that Lady Gaga would transition as an actress. The “Mother Monster” first appeared in the fifth season of the American Horror Story anthology TV series titled Hotel. There, she played a seductive, cruel vampire inspired by the 1983 cult classic The Hunger, which starred…David Bowie.

In 2018, Lady G hit the acting bullseye, starring in Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, following in the footsteps of Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand. Not only was the film a huge box office hit, but critics also hailed Gaga’s grounded and naturalistic performance. Lady Gaga earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination, a rarity for acting musicians (just ask Madonna).

The multi-hyphenate performer shows no sign of stopping. She recently headlined Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, giving a strong performance in an otherwise uneven movie. Next, she plays Harley Quinn opposite Joaquin Phoenix in Joker: Folie a Deux.

Mariah Carey 

Mariah Carey
Image Credit: Done and Dusted.

The chart-topping R&B songstress seemed an unlikely candidate to move into acting. Mariah Carey’s first dramatic role in the mega bomb Glitter did her no favors with harsh reviews that almost ended her thespian ambitions.

Yet director/producer Lee Daniels saw dramatic potential in Carey and cast her in his next film, Tennessee, where critics warmed to her understated performance. Carey stripped away the diva glamour for her next role as a stern guidance counselor in the Daniels-helmed Precious. The radical transformation renders the singer unrecognizable, and Carey earned rave reviews, positioning her as a legitimate actress.

In 2016, Carey made a much-hyped appearance on the soapy TV show Empire, playing a sultry vocalist. Recently, the gifted singer has toned down her acting ambitions in favor of her music and focusing on her family.

Pink

Thanks for Sharing Pink, Josh Gad
Image Credit: Lionsgate.

The punk-pop diva showed enormous acting potential in her many bold music videos. Pink eschewed her stage persona and used her real name, Alecia Moore when she made her acting debut in the indie horror picture Catacombs. The 2007 film didn’t make a dent at the box office but proved that Pink had solid acting chops as a potential actress.

Moore stepped up her game for her role in Thanks for Sharing, a comical exploration of the perils of sexual addiction. In her sweet turn, Moore shows a natural flair for comedy as an addict struggling to live a chaste life. Sadly, this would be Pink’s last screen performance despite voicing ambitions to do more acting.

Queen Latifah

The Tiger Rising (2022) Queen Latifah
Image Credit: The Avenue.

Queen Latifah, one of the first groundbreaking female rappers, carved out a successful acting and producing career. Her first role on the Fox sitcom Living Single led to a leading role in the 1996 action film Set it Off. Critics noticed her charming screen presence in the romantic comedy Living Out Loud, co-starring Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito.

In 2002, Queen Latifah gave a scene-stealing performance in the Oscar-winning screen version of the musical Chicago. Playing the Matron Mama Morton, the former rapper displayed her fantastic singing ability and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Latifah recently returned to the small screen, starring in a reimagined version of the classic TV series The Equalizer on CBS.

Dolly Parton

Steel Magnolias (1989) Dolly Parton
Image Credit: Tri-Star Pictures.

The iconic country singer surprised the music world when she transitioned successfully as a film actress. In 1980, Dolly Parton made her screen debut in the workplace comedy 9 to 5, appearing with seasoned pros Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The film follows a trio of female employees who turn the tables on their lying, misogynist boss. Parton blends into the ensemble and gives a warm, charismatic performance. The comedy smash also yielded her mega-hit of the movie’s title track. Critic Roger Ebert declared Parton one of the most stunning debuts in movie history, positioning her to become one of the most successful singer-actors around.

A few years later, Parton appeared in a movie musical alongside Burt Reynolds. The film combined Parton’s acting and music talents and featured the original version of the song “I Will Always Love You.”

Parton also charms in the ensemble drama Steel Magnolias, appearing with Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts. The southern set film follows a close group of friends framed around the Parton’s character beauty salon.

Author: Chad Rebmann

Title: Freelance Writer

Expertise: Movies, Television, Comic Books, Geek Culture, Music Videos

Bio:

Chad Rebmann is a freelance writer and comic book creator whose credits include “Relics of Youth” and “The Odyssey.” He’s also contributed to Mutant Reviews-A Cult of Movies and writes for his website the-projection-booth.com. As a proud member of Gen X, Chad enjoys collecting physical media and has an undying love of Star Wars, 80’s comics, and music videos.