Musically Inclined: Actors Who Rock…Verse 2

January 9, 2020
In this follow up to our recent feature, we look at another group of performers who have sidelined – with varying degrees of commitment and success – in the heady world of music.

“People like to put you in this slot or that slot,” Oscar winning 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.

ROBERT PATTINSON Though he’s certainly upped his credibility with roles in the likes of Cosmopolis, The Rover, High Life, The Lighthouse and Good Time, breakout Twilight star, Robert Pattinson’s initial artistic outlet was music, which he still pursues today. “I was in this band,” he told FilmInk upon the release of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse in 2010. “It wasn’t a proper band; it was just roll-on musicians. I still try and play. I like playing in bars and stuff; that’s when I feel free. I did a couple of gigs in LA, but people put them on the internet, and it just ruins the whole experience. I’ll wait until this hysteria dies down before I start doing live gigs again.” Despite the reticence, Pattinson has had his songs featured on the soundtracks to his films, How To Be and Twilight. “That was a folly of thoughtlessness,” he sighed to FilmInk. “A friend and I wrote a few songs a year ago when we were trying to put an album together. It had nothing to do with Twilight. But [director] Catherine Hardwicke heard a CD of my stuff, and she put my songs in a cut of the movie, and liked it. It fitted with the movie, but I never thought about it in terms of launching a music career. I didn’t even think that it was going to be on the soundtrack.” And despite his status as a teen dream, Pattinson’s music tastes run to the decidedly classic. “I listen to a lot of old blues,” he told FilmInk. “I like John Lee Hooker and Elmore James. I was obsessed with Van Morrison. I went to see him play Astral Weeks, and just spent the entire night crying.” More recently, Pattinson performed the song “Honeybun” in 2018’s Damsel and recorded the song “Willow” for the High Life soundtrack.

JULIE DELPY “I picked up a guitar and starting writing song after song,” Julie Delpy told IGN in 2004. “And by accident, someone heard me sing on French TV. It was a live show where someone made a joke, and I said, ‘Oh, I can sing.’ Then I picked up a guitar, and started singing. And then this small label in France just signed me. Then I waited almost a year because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make an album. I was enjoying the process of just playing music and writing songs so much that I was scared that it was going to take something away from me. And it did, in a way, but I gained something also.” What the charmingly outspoken actress/writer/director got was her 2003 debut album, Julie Delpy (“I didn’t want to call it that, but the label wanted my name on it,” she told Movies About. “They thought it was easier to promote”), a lovely, lissome collection of folk-pop tunes that she wrote and produced. Three of the songs were featured on the soundtrack to 2004’s Delpy-starring Before Sunset, but with a penchant for time-draining cinematic multi-tasking, the actress’ second album might be a long time coming. “I like to explore so many different things,” Delpy told IGN. “I’ll definitely do another album if somebody wants to put it out. I’ve had offers. But I like to take my time, you know? Because I’m doing so many different things, it won’t happen in the next two months, but it will definitely happen. I’ve already written many more songs, and I probably have enough to do another album, but I want to look for new sounds before I do another one.”

JARED LETO As well as winning praise for his performances in Dallas Buyers Club and Blade Runner 2049, Jared Leto has also kept himself busy recording five studio albums and packing out stadiums around the world with his band, Thirty Seconds To Mars. “I’ve been creating music since when I was a child,” Leto told Lime Magazine. “It’s an inseparable part of my life. There have always been lots of people around me who love music, even in my childhood.” Leto (who performs lead vocals, guitar, bass, and keyboards) formed the band with his drummer brother, Shannon, in 1998, and Thirty Seconds To Mars (“It’s a phrase that is lyrical, suggestive, cinematic, and filled with immediacy,” Leto has said of the name) – who have been compared to Pink Floyd, The Cure, Tool, and U2 – eventually became the performer’s primary focus, with Leto prioritising the band over the acting career that he’d established with roles in Requiem For A Dream, Fight Club, Alexander, Lord Of War, Panic Room, and the TV series, My So-Called Life. Though he’s had his fair share of rock’n’roll ups-and-downs (including a bitter contract dispute with record company, EMI, which is tracked in the 2012 Leto-directed documentary, Artifact), music is a constant source of creative nourishment for Jared Leto, and he stands as one of the most successful and credible music-and-movies crossover artists currently straddling both mediums. “I recommend it for anybody in any profession – go pursue something else,” Leto told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I think that it made me a better person, but it certainly made me a better actor.”

LIV TYLER “My whole life, since I was a little girl, all I ever thought that I would do is be a singer,” Liv Tyler told People. “My mom [Bebe Buell] and stepdad [Todd Rundgren], and my dad [Steven Tyler], are all musicians and singers, but somehow I started modelling and acting instead.” Despite not being a musician herself, Liv Tyler has certainly gravitated toward music: she first grabbed attention in “Crazy”, a music video for her father’s band, Aerosmith; starred opposite indie rock hero, Evan Dando, in 1995’s Heavy; featured in the music-themed flicks, Empire Records and That Thing You Do!; was married to Spacehog frontman, Royston Langdon; and reteamed with Dando to duet on the Leonard Cohen cover, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, on his band, The Lemonheads’ 2009 album, Varshons. But Liv Tyler didn’t get in front of the mic all by herself until 2012, when Givenchy – the perfume brand for which she had been the longtime face – asked her to record a cover version of the INXS classic, “Need You Tonight”, for the ad for their new fragrance, Electric Rose. Though Tyler’s soft, plaintive singing voice is buried beneath a wall of effects and double-tracking, the moody, intense, semi-industrial deconstruction of the song is truly striking, and the actress certainly cuts a fine figure in the arty, black-and-white video directed by Johan Renck and choreographed by Bianca Li. “It was incredibly challenging to perform like that,” Tyler told People. “I couldn’t hide behind a character, but I kept thinking about Madonna, Debbie Harry, and the other amazing performers that I grew up watching. We shot until 4:00am, and I was covered in bruises by the end, but it was really fun.”

KEVIN COSTNER “Once the drums start, nobody stops you,” actor, Kevin Costner, told FilmInk in 2013. “Nobody’s getting a picture, and nobody’s going to get that autograph; we can all relate to a great evening with someone where you just had great conversation. You talked all night. Somehow, musically, I feel like I can talk all night through the music, and there are no interruptions. Celebrity, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t get in the way once the music starts; I have really appreciated those nights when I’ve been able to play.” A top-tier movie star (Bull Durham, The Untouchables, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves) and multiple Oscar winner (his directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, was a surprise smash hit and awards season triumph), Kevin Costner is also an accomplished country music performer, touring America with his band, Kevin Costner And Modern West, since 2007. The group have released three studio albums (Untold Truths, Turn It On, and From Where I Stand), and also recorded Famous For Killing Each Other: Music From And Inspired By Hatfields & McCoys, which served as the soundtrack to the 2012 award-winning Costner-produced and starring western TV mini-series. “We wrote a concept album, which was music inspired by going to work every day,” Costner told FilmInk. “It’s half orchestral and half lyrical.” For the actor, this current musical sideline is merely a continuation of a love for the medium that began when he was a child. “Music was always a part of our home, and I was trained classically on piano,” Costner told Country Stars Central. “I actually performed in a lot of traveling choirs before I was ever an actor. I like the exchange between the audience and myself.”

ROBERT MITCHUM “I got on well with Robert Mitchum,” Australian author, Jon Cleary, told FilmInk’s Stephen Vagg of the notorious boozing, brawling American legend, who had starred in the 1960 Aussie-shot adaptation of the scribe’s novel, The Sundowners. “Mitchum was a contradiction – he played the slouching lover, but he was a gentleman: he’d sleep with a girl, and then the next morning, there’d be a huge bunch of flowers delivered to her. He always fell in love with his leading ladies, but he didn’t sleep with them. He wrote poetry, and he’d written two scripts. There was this other side to him.” Also part of this other side was Mitchum’s rarely celebrated music career. As well as singing in several of his films (River Of No Return, The Night Of The Hunter), he co-wrote and performed the country tinged “The Ballad Of Thunder Road”, the theme song of the 1958 bootlegging thriller, Thunder Road, which Mitchum also co-scripted. The actor also released two albums, the first of which was 1957’s Calypso — is like so, an unlikely salute to calypso music, which Mitchum had fallen in love with after meeting artists such as Mighty Sparrow and Lord Invader while filming the WW2 drama, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, on the Caribbean island of Tobago. Mitchum’s belated musical follow-up – 1967’s That Man, Robert Mitchum, Sings – was a more in-character affair, with the actor’s famous baritone applied to a collection of country songs, including “Little Old Wine Drinker Me”, which even went Top Ten on the US Country charts. “He liked to get drunk and sing,” said George Hamilton, who co-starred with Mitchum in 1960’s Home From The Hill. “He’d sing sea shanties, cockney ditties, Australian football songs…anything!”

CLINT EASTWOOD “I love jazz so much, and it’s given me a lot of pleasure over the years,” Clint Eastwood once said of the essential American musical genre that has been a source element of his creative DNA since childhood, when he grew up listening to the likes of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Mead Lux Lewis. The veteran actor/director’s love affair hit full bloom with 1988’s Bird, his biopic about legendarily troubled saxophonist, Charlie Parker, starring Forest Whitaker. Furthermore, Eastwood also directed the 2001 documentary, Piano Blues, produced the portrait film, Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (actually coming to director, Charlotte Zwerin’s rescue when funds had run dry), and has regularly worked with jazz-backgrounded composers like Michael Legrand, Lennie Niehaus, and Lalo Schifrin on the scores to his films. Eastwood, however, is no mere fan, with the director even taking to scoring films himself, often using piano-led, jazz-infused cues in movies like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, Hereafter, Flags Of Our Fathers, and Grace Is Gone, directed by James C. Strouse. The American icon also took to the stage for the 1996 TV special, Eastwood After Hours: Live At Carnegie Hall, which saw him share performance time with the likes of Jay McShann, Thelonious Monk Jr., Phil Ramone, and Joshua Redman. “I play every day,” says Eastwood, who also did his own country crooning in the 1982 drama, Honkytonk Man. “I’m usually writing something every day. I don’t play to perform, although I suppose that I could work out some things if I needed to. It’s usually just for my own satisfaction, and to get material. If I’ve had any regret in life, it’s not paying more attention to it, and not practicing, practicing, practicing.”

RICHARD HARRIS “I was a sinner,” actor, Richard Harris, once said. “I slugged some people. I hurt many people. And it’s true, I never looked back to see the casualties.” One of cinema’s great brawlers, this brusque, commanding Irishman made his name as an on-screen tough guy in films like The Guns Of Navarone, Mutiny On The Bounty, This Sporting Life, Major Dundee, and The Heroes Of Telemark, before finding late-career fame in Gladiator and the Harry Potter films. Richard Harris also had a character-rich and compelling singing voice, which he showcased to great effect in the 1967 musical, Camelot, in which he commandingly played King Arthur. Encouraged by the warm response to the film, Harris recorded his debut album, A Tramp Shining, the following year. Written, arranged, and produced by legendary American singer/songwriter, Jimmy Webb, the album was a roaring success, and even scored a Grammy nomination for Album Of The Year. A Tramp Shining, however, is best known for its epic, seven-minute first single, “MacArthur Park”, which became a monster hit (the trippy, metaphorical lyrics of which still prompt debate amongst music enthusiasts), and has subsequently been covered by everyone from Waylon Jennings to Donna Summer. “When I played it, Richard slapped the piano,” Jimmy Webb told The Guardian of the then-groundbreaking song. “He said, ‘I love that! I’ll make a hit out of that!’ At first, we felt like the guys who’d created the A-bomb: we were a bit afraid of what we’d done. I didn’t know that I could write something like that.” The pair would reunite later in 1968 for Harris’ second album, The Yard Went On Forever, which the actor then followed up with a handful of records of varying quality and eccentricity.

MOLLY RINGWALD “Back in The Golden Age Of Hollywood, performers were expected to do it all: sing, dance, act, and other things,” actress, Molly Ringwald, told Jazz Monthly in 2013. “But when I was making movies in the eighties, there was no place for a musical career as well.” In the modern era, creative multitasking is indeed an easy way for an actor to buy themselves a whole batch of derision, with critics and fans often deeply suspicious and sceptical about a performer’s desire to jump into a new field. But though she found fame as the awkward, flame-haired muse for writer/producer/director, John Hughes, in his seminal collection of eighties teen movies (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink), Ringwald has always been surrounded by music. Her father is highly accomplished jazz pianist, Bob Ringwald, and the actress has been a longtime proponent of the genre herself. “There was always jazz being played in the house, we were always going to festivals, and I remember singing and performing all the time with him,” Ringwald told Jazz Monthly. “I would come home from school to rehearse, and it was the way that Dad and I bonded.” Ringwald didn’t go fully public with her talents until 2013, when she released her well received debut album, Except Sometimes, a collection of classic American songs, along with a jazzy lounge cover of eighties pop rockers, Simple Minds’ anthemic belter, “Don’t You Forget About Me”, which was, of course, the much loved theme song from The Breakfast Club…and the only song on the album that Ringwald’s father didn’t like! “I chose it as a possibility for obvious reasons, and as a wink towards my previous life,” Ringwald told Jazz Monthly.

RAQUEL WELCH “There’s less subtlety today,” Raquel Welch told Men’s Health in 2012. “You see it the most in the music business. It used to be about a great song, great lyrics and a great voice. And now, everybody is more concerned with being cutting edge and pushing the envelope. You have to be funkier, and you have to be more audacious and more provocative than anybody else. When there’s somebody like Adele, it seems revolutionary because she’s not out there in a G-string and pasties. You forget that all music, all art, isn’t about T&A and girls spreading their legs for the camera.” Mmmm, is that the pot calling the kettle black? In the sixties and seventies, Raquel Welch was the sex symbol of the day, a ravishingly beautiful movie starlet rarely called upon to actually act. Her eye-popping turns in Bedazzled and One Million Years BC would make her famous, but she also dabbled in music, and wasn’t above incorporating a little of the T&A that she decries today. In the 1970 television special, Raquel!, the actress featured (alongside Tom Jones and Bob Hope) in a series of ultra-kitsch musical numbers, boogying away in, amongst other things, Mayan ruins and outer space in a series of impressively skimpy outfits, belting out classics like “California Dreamin’” and “Here Comes The Sun” in her average-at-best singing voice. As well as later appearing on Broadway in Victor/Victoria and Woman Of The Year, and performing in a one-woman nightclub musical act in Las Vegas, Welch also released the synth-heavy dance pop track, “This Girl’s Back In Town”, in 1987, the true musical horror of which was only eclipsed by the song’s cheesy Marilyn Monroe-meets-Pat Benatar music video.

SISSY SPACEK “I’m grateful for my love of music,” actress, Sissy Spacek, told Coming Soon in 2012. “I love that fearlessness of being able to play for anybody. When I first came to New York, it really opened doors for me, and I owe my film career to my fledgling music career that never really took off.” Though now the recipient of six Oscar nominations and one win, and the star of classics like Badlands, Carrie, 3 Women, and Missing, Sissy Spacek initially set out to become a singer. After graduating from high school in Texas, she moved to New York, hauling a guitar case and a head full of musical dreams. Living with her cousin, actor Rip Torn, and his wife, actress Geraldine Page, Spacek sang and played guitar on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse set, eventually landing work singing commercial jingles. In late 1968, under the pseudonym of “Rainbo”, Spacek recorded a novelty song titled “John, You Went Too Far This Time”, in which she amusingly registered her shock over John Lennon appearing naked with his wife, Yoko Ono, on the cover of his new album, Two Virgins. The single tanked, however, and Spacek was promptly dropped by her record company. When her movie career took off with 1973’s Badlands, Spacek put her musical aspirations aside, but found her rhythm again when she played country music queen, Loretta Lynn, in the 1980 biopic, Coal Miner’s Daughter. Spacek did her own singing in the film, and even picked up a Grammy nomination for her work on the soundtrack. Spacek followed this in 1983 with her own country album, Hangin’ Up My Heart, which was produced by critics’ darling, Rodney Crowell, and spawned the hit single, “Lonely But Only For You.”

ROBERT DOWNEY JR. Though he’s currently counting his money and sitting pretty after bowing out of The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr has experienced a career-spanning succession of thrilling highs and devastating lows. In the middle of one of his less productive periods on screen, the actor – who had bounced back from a number of drug related problems – released his 2004 debut solo album, The Futurist (after appearing on a couple of compilations and soundtracks) which included eight Downey-penned tunes, and two covers. With its jazzy notes and orchestral flourishes, the album reverberates with the influences of seventies-era singer-songwriters like Billy Joel, Elton John and Joni Mitchell, and Downey Jr. proved himself an appealing crooner and challenging lyricist. “I was aware of being seen by the engineers working at the studio as a celebrity wannabe singer-songwriter banging out tracks,” Downey Jr. told The Guardian. “I could feel the resentment from them. I didn’t think that I was a pain in the ass to work with, but by the time the record was finished, I’m pretty sure that they were happy that there was no reason for me to be calling them at half-midnight anymore.” The actor is also amusingly aware when it comes to the role that his celebrity status played in the profile accorded The Futurist. “There’s no way that I would ever get to express myself musically if I wasn’t an actor of ill repute,” Downey Jr. told The New York Times. “You don’t get on Oprah if you leave a gleaming life, and then just happen to cross over into music. I wouldn’t be getting on Oprah without Weird Science and the penitentiary. I’m a little bit uncomfortable about it.”

To read about twelve more musically inclined actors and actresses, click here.  

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