Musically Inclined: Actors Who Rock

July 23, 2019
In this special feature, we look at a group of performers who have sidelined – with various degrees of commitment and success – in the often heady world of music.

“PEOPLE like to put you in this slot or that slot,” actor, Jeff Bridges, once told Music Radar. “Everybody likes to assume that you can only do one thing, and that you can’t possibly be good at two things.” Despite what the media often likes to think, actors are usually highly creative animals, not content to express themselves through one medium alone. “Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t,” actor – and rocker – Johnny Depp once said.

JOHNNY DEPP “Puberty was very vague,” Johnny Depp once said. “I literally locked myself in a room and played guitar.” With his long hair, gypsy-junky wardrobe, and rogue’s gallery of music industry pals, Depp has always felt (and looked) like a movie star who really wanted to be a rock star. And that was his initial dream, with the young Depp playing guitar in a rock group called The Kids (later changing their moniker to Six Gun Method), who made a serious grab for stardom in Los Angeles in the late eighties. When that crashed and burned, Depp shifted his focus to acting, and became an overnight sensation on the television series, 21 Jump Street. All through his long and winding acting career, however, Depp has maintained his ties to the music world: he directed videos for The Lemonheads and Shane MacGowan; played guitar on Iggy Pop’s Avenue B album; played lead slide on “Fade In-Out” for Oasis’ album, Be Here Now; teamed with indie band, Come, for the track, “Madroad Driving”, on the Jack Kerouac tribute album, Kicks Joy Darkness; played lead guitar and drums on a cover of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” with Marilyn Manson; and co-wrote songs for his ex-wife, Vanessa Paradis. He also formed the band, P, in early 1993, alongside Butthole Surfers frontman, Gibby Haynes; his former 21 Jump Street co-star, Sal Jenco; and singer/songwriter, Bill Carter. P recorded an album in 1995 with hot-shot side musicians including The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea; ex-Sex Pistol, Steve Jones; Ruth Ellsworth; and blues-roots pioneer, Chuck E. Weiss, all under the guidance of legendary producer, Andrew Weiss. Still rocking hard, Depp currently plays guitar in the super-group, Hollywood Vampires (who have released two albums), alongside Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (pictured above).

ZOOEY DESCHANEL “I try to avoid it,” Zooey Deschanel replied in 2009 when FilmInk asked her about the fact that she often sings in her movies. “I’m sceptical about it, because it’s happened a lot of times like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could sing?’ They always feel that they need to figure out an opportunity for me to sing. Unless it’s a musical, it gets complicated because you have to sing in character, and somebody has something to say about how you sing.” Deschanel (now perhaps best known for the quirky sitcom, New Girl) has sung sweetly and delightfully in the comedy, Elf, with Will Ferrell, and more amusingly in the Jim Carrey vehicle, Yes Man, where she fronted a fictional art-rock-pop group called Munchausen By Proxy. The actress also sings off screen, forming one half of the duo, She & Him, with singer/songwriter, M. Ward (pictured above). Boasting a sultry yet angelic singing voice, Deschanel has written and sung on six albums of retro-tinged pop with the group: She & Him: Volume One, She & Him: Volume Two, A Very She & Him Christmas, She & Him: Volume Three, Classics and Christmas Party. Unlike most actors who sideline in music, Deschanel’s two career streams have always coalesced happily, with the usual questions of credibility and “vanity projects” rarely raised. “I love being a part of the whole film experience,” Deschanel told Pitchfork in 2008. “But being an actor, you often have a narrow palette for expressing yourself. That can be fun, but with making music, there’s more of myself in it. I’ve always loved music, ever since I was really little. I just loved to sing.”

JEFF BRIDGES “It used to upset me when I’d be working on a [movie] role, and I’d get an idea for a song, and find myself on the guitar for an hour when I should be working on my lines,” Jeff Bridges told Mother Jones in 2011. “But I’ve discovered that when I start to shake up my creativity, it wants to be expressed in all kinds of different ways. They all inform each other.” Though Bridges also has a keen interest in photography (gifting a beautiful hard-bound book of on-set photos to every crew member on every film in which he appears), this perennially underrated Hollywood veteran’s second best career choice is undoubtedly music. For many filmgoers, however, this predilection didn’t come into the light until 2009, when Bridges played a busted-up country singer in the bruising drama, Crazy Heart, and won a long overdue Oscar. Bridges did his own singing in the film too, and proved himself a soulful, passionate, and wholly credible crooner. Though Bridges released his own richly evocative, self-titled solo album soon after the release of Crazy Heart, it was no debut. A longtime music sideliner (“Jeff was a lot of fun to have around,” said his Jagged Edge co-star, Glenn Close. “He’s a fabulous musician, so he always had a guitar with him on set”), Bridges has been playing since childhood, and actually released his first album, Be Here Soon, in 2000. “I dug what an actor did, but it took me a while to feel it,” Bridges once said of his younger years. “Plus, I was still playing music a lot, and I had a hard time choosing: was I an actor or a musician, or could I be both?”

RUSSELL CROWE No major actor in recent years has copped as much flack for a sideline music career than Russell Crowe. The media (particularly in Australia) has been ruthless in its assessment of his musical ability, while public jokes have been made at his expense by Sacha Baron Cohen (“Russell had four months of vocal training in preparation for Les Miserables…that was money well spent,” he said with jesting sarcasm at The Golden Globes), George Clooney (who intimated that Crowe’s music career was a “bad use of celebrity” when Rusty questioned the practice of Hollywood stars avariciously doing TV commercials in foreign markets), and many others. One of the best things about Russell Crowe, however, is that he has never given much of a shit about what other people think of him. He’s been into music since he was a kid, and he bravely opted to continue to record and tour even after he’d become famous as an actor. “I did my first TV show when I was six, and that’s also when I got my first guitar,” he told a Portland radio station in 2001. “You’ve gotta be able to do everything. You take any opportunity that you can, whether it be in musical theatre or whatever. So this current trend of denying the fact that most actors are also musical performers as well is kinda silly.” With a number of full-length albums to his credit of passionate rock recorded under the monikers of 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts and The Ordinary Fear Of God – including Gaslight (1998), Bastard Life Or Clarity (2001), Other Ways Of Speaking (2003) and My Hand, My Heart (2006) – Russell Crowe (who has also performed with the likes of Keith Urban, pictured) has proven both his commitment to, and facility for, making honest, unpretentious music.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON “I’ve always loved to sing,” Scarlett Johansson told Interview in 2008. “When I was little, I wanted to be in musicals and all that kind of stuff.” With her deep, husky voice and combustible sex appeal, Johansson might seem like a behind-the-mic natural, which is exactly what the execs at Rhino Records thought when they asked her to appear on the benefit album, Unexpected Dreams: Songs From The Stars, in which a host of film and TV actors were invited to sing “dream themed” songs for charity. The folks at Rhino were so impressed with Johansson’s rendition of “Summertime” that they asked the actress if she wanted to record an entire album, and she jumped at the opportunity, with the longtime Tom Waits fan opting to record an entire album of the gloriously rumpled troubadour’s classics. With no less a figure than David Bowie featuring on two tracks, Johansson eventually delivered the strange and spacy Anywhere I Lay My Head. Tom Waits himself, meanwhile, had no problems with the whole idea. “I’ve seen her in movies,” he told Pitchfork. “When you get a hold of somebody else’s song, you make it your own. That’s all you can do. And that usually requires a certain amount of tailoring. Cut the sleeves off, lay some buttons. Everybody does something different to a song; that’s the tradition. More power to her.” In 2009, Johansson continued her musical journey by teaming with singer/songwriter Pete Yorn for the album, Break Up, which was inspired by French legend Serge Gainsbourg’s duets with actress Brigitte Bardot. Now more known for her work with Marvel Studios than anything else, Johansson received minimal attention in 2015 when she formed a band called The Singles with Este Haim from HAIM, Holly Miranda, Kendra Morris, and Julia Haltigan.

EDDIE MURPHY It might be hard to believe now, but the decidedly tarnished Eddie Murphy was once a sky-splitting superstar, an explosive stand-up comedian who parlayed his on-stage success first into a slot on Saturday Night Live, and then as the leading man of hit films like 48 Hrs., Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. At the pinnacle of his fame in the eighties, Murphy was also a well-noted egotist flying way too high on the excesses of movie stardom. It was around this time that the comic turned actor decided to spread his wings once again, announcing that he would be branching out into music. Then an uber-cool and often controversial figure, rumours quickly started to circulate that Murphy had roped in the impressive likes of Prince and Stevie Wonder to help him produce the album, though these blue ribbon collaborations never fully materialised. When asked by Interview in 1987 what happened to these big names, Murphy’s response was brief but self-explanatory. “Egos, man,” he replied. Though Stevie Wonder ended up playing harmonica on one track, the only significant star appearance on what would eventually become Murphy’s 1985 musical debut, How Could It Be, came from late and loopy funk-master, Rick James, most famous for his hit song, “Super Freak.” James co-wrote and sang on the album’s lead single, “Party All The Time”, a now flatly hilarious synth-pop track (with an equally hilarious music video) far divorced from the rest of the album’s soft-boiled R’n’B and romantic crooning. Though it charted surprisingly well, How Could It Be was enthusiastically panned, and even Eddie Murphy himself was painfully aware of the album’s shortcomings. “A lot of it turned out bad,” he admitted to Interview in 1987. Obviously bruised, it took Murphy until 2013 to return to music proper (he’d sung in the Shrek movies, amongst other things) when he released the reggae-tinged single “Red Light”, which also featured superstar MC, Snoop Dogg.

STEVEN SEAGAL “Steven can play, man,” late and legendary blues guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, told All Out Guitar. “If you watch his fingers, his fingers are just like mine. We not only got ways alike…we plays alike! That’s my son. He’s my brother.” From the man ranked number 43 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time”, that is high, heady praise indeed, and it was aimed directly at a very unlikely source: Steven Seagal. On screen, this intense, hulking brute has made his name by kicking the shit out of bad guys, but the 7th-dan black belt in Aikido has indulged in far less violent activity off it, working publicly as an environmentalist, an animal rights activist, and a vocal supporter of the Tibetan independence movement. An accomplished moonlighter (he’s worked as a cop, and in 2018 was inexplicably appointed Russia’s special envoy to the US), Seagal is also an accomplished guitarist and songwriter, with two albums of traditional blues music (2005’s Songs From The Crystal Cave and 2006’s Mojo Priest) to his credit. Seagal has also joined such luminaries as Bo Didley, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King on stage, and boasts players of the calibre of Stevie Wonder, Ruth Brown, Willie “Pine Top” Perkins, and the aforementioned Didley and Hubert Sumlin on his albums. “I played in bands when I was a kid, but life got in the way,” Seagal told All Out Guitar. “I was studying martial arts extensively. I sold everything that I owned except for one guitar when I moved to Japan. And after practicing martial arts every day, I’d pick up my guitar and practice that. I’d play first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. I’d spent many years as a bedroom guitarist, but I wanted to get out there and play.”

MICKEY ROURKE “My biggest up was when I met Mickey Rourke,” the late David Bowie told Q in 1989. “He said, ‘Oh, man, in 1973, I was dressing just like you! I had green hair and stack-heeled boots and leather trousers.’ And I’m trying to see Mickey Rourke wearing all this gear. I said, ‘You were a glam-rocker?’ He said, ‘Yeah, man! In Florida, nobody had seen anything like it!’ I found that absolutely great. A guy like that, and it was a major part of his life.” Like Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke has always felt like a rock star trapped in a movie star’s body. He’s got a large collection of music industry friends (it was his personal connection with Bruce Springsteen that led to The Boss recording a song especially for Rourke’s 2010 comeback, The Wrestler), and a notorious streak of rebellion running right through the middle of his often discordant personality. And while Rourke has never strapped on a guitar and recorded his own album, he did enjoy a one-off collaboration with the aforementioned David Bowie. The two met in London where Rourke was based while filming 1987’s A Prayer For The Dying. Bowie intriguingly had the actor perform the mid-song rap on “Shining Star” from his much maligned Never Let Me Down album. Bowie jokingly referred to Rourke’s performance as “method rapping”; the actor’s rhymes were, well, largely unintelligible, and hardly pointed to a second career as an MC. It did, however, represent something of a dream come true. “He admired rock’n’roll stars,” said Rourke’s Angel Heart director, Alan Parker. “He didn’t want to be a movie star. To him, movie stars were Harrison Ford and people that he didn’t like. He wanted to be David Bowie.”

RYAN GOSLING “I wasn’t in any way as talented as those kids were,” Ryan Gosling told FilmInk in 2004. “They were like prodigies.” The actor was referring to Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, who he basically played second fiddle to during his early-adolescence tenure on the all-singing, all-dancing The Mickey Mouse Club. “It was depressing, because they realised that I wasn’t really up to snuff with the other kids,” Gosling told Interview. Despite failing to crack it musically as a youngster, the in-demand star of The Notebook, Drive, La La Land and First Man never let go of that initial yearning. While garnering praise for his performances, Gosling has also been quietly plying his trade as a musician. After releasing a solo track in 2007, Gosling and Zach Shields formed Dead Man’s Bones, after initially discussing the possibility of creating a horror-themed stage musical together. Instead, they recorded an album with The Silverlake Conservatory’s Children’s Choir (pictured), with Gosling contributing vocals, piano, guitar, bass and cello. The result was an album of moody, brooding Gothic rock-pop, which received generally positive reviews, and did nothing to dent Gosling’s iron-cast credibility. Dead Man’s Bones toured behind the album in 2009, and a second recording is in the pipeline. “It’s an interesting time to come into music, because it seems like everybody’s leaving,” Gosling told Pitchfork in 2009. “Every office that we go into, the guy’s packing up, and pulling all the final things from his desk in a box. It’s good creatively, but you also have to figure out how you want to present your music, because the old model doesn’t work anymore.”

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG Though now most famous for her staggering acts of on-screen emotional dissolution in such dark works as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre, and the confronting drama, The Cement Garden, actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg, was born into music. The daughter of iconic French singer, Serge Gainsbourg, and English singer/actress, Jane Birkin (who lit a Gallic fuse with their sinfully sexy 1969 duet, “Je T’Aime”), Charlotte Gainsbourg was a celebrity from the moment that she was born. She released her first album – the Serge-penned Charlotte Forever – in 1986, when she was a teenager, before making a detour into acting. Naturally shy and reserved (“I’m sure that I learned to protect myself very soon,” she told FilmInk in 2007 of her parents’ blinding fame. “That was my way of dealing with it. It’s part of my character to be secret”), Gainsbourg suppressed her natural – genetic even – leanings toward music until 2003, when a backstage meeting with French pop duo, Air, at a Radiohead concert led to the creation of her 2006 album, 5:55. Her first recording in twenty years (boasting songs written by Jarvis Cocker and the aforementioned inspirational Air), the album saw the shy Gainsbourg taking on more of a directorial role. “When I started, I was really shy, and it took me a long time to feel a little freer,” she told FilmInk. “On the album, I had the impression that it was really my project. I had to say what I wanted to say. It meant giving away very personal and secret stuff.” The result was stunning, and Gainsbourg followed it up with 2009’s IRM and 2011’s Stage Whisper (two dreamily emotive works produced in collaboration with Beck), and 2017’s Rest, on which she bravely deals with the death of her famous father, and the suicide of her half-sister, Kate Barry.

BILLY BOB THORNTON “I was in a band from the time that I was a kid,” Billy Bob Thornton told Pure Music. “In my first band, we played a lot of songs by The Dave Clark Five, Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Beatles, that kind of stuff. I played drums, and drummed in quite a few bands through the years. Once I got into high school, I branched out a little bit and started playing in my uncle’s country band for a while, and I was a singer in a soul group. That was in the early seventies.” Though kicking off with music, Arkansas-born Billy Bob Thornton would eventually cruise down a different artistic highway, first making his name as a writer (with the taut 1992 thriller, One False Move), and then as a writer/director/actor (with 1996’s acclaimed Sling Blade), before settling into a prolific career as a Hollywood character actor and unconventional leading man (Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Bad Santa). Thornton publicly reignited his passion for music in 2001 with the release of Private Radio, a country album released on the hip and respected Lost Highway label, and boasting high-calibre collaborators like Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Scruggs. Though favourably reviewed in the music press, the mainstream media was more interested in the fact that there was a track on the album, “Angelina”, written in honour of Thornton’s then-wife, Angelina Jolie. The actor-singer has since quietly released three more albums (2003’s The Edge Of The World, 2005’s Hobo and 2007’s Beautiful Door) while plugging away at his more well recognised acting career. “It all boils down to storytelling,” Thornton told Pure Music of his creative multi-tasking. “Songwriting, script writing, acting, directing…it’s all about telling a story.”

JULIETTE LEWIS “In the last decade, I have written songs with various friends of mine, and I was always putting off the music thing, even though I knew that I needed to express myself that way,” Juliette Lewis told The Guardian in 2006. “I was putting it off out of fear. I had no balls yet. But the desire became so huge that it outweighed the fear. I’ve done movies for fifteen years. There is a security in it. The trouble is, it was never fulfilling to me. Making movies can be really boring. I have friends that live and breathe their parts, but that was not me. It was not stimulating enough.” Unconventional looking but eminently charismatic and strangely beautiful, Juliette Lewis has long been Hollywood’s proverbial dark horse, an actress of prodigious gifts with a barrage of eccentricities to match. After storming performances in Natural Born Killers, Husbands And Wives, From Dusk Till Dawn, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Lewis unleashed her musical side in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1996 sci-fi thriller, Strange Days, playing a futuristic rock singer, and performing on the film’s soundtrack. The actress got more serious about music in 2003 when she formed the proto-punk rock group, The Licks. With four releases (2004’s Like A Bolt Of Lightning, 2005’s You’re Speaking My Language, and 2006’s Four On The Floor, along with 2009’s solo album, Terra Incognita) to her credit, and a host of tours under her belt, Juliette Lewis is a full blown rocker. “What I get in rock’n’roll that I don’t get in movies is that connection with people,” she once said. “With music, it’s instantaneous. Just to watch people light up is really amazing. I love that connection.”

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