We have made it so that actors are playing themselves as the ultimate fictional character. My Dinner with Andre famously did this in 1981. Being John Malkovich (1999) was self propelled by having the notable actor play himself, despite the already original script. Neil Patrick Harris reignited his career playing a bad boy version of himself in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004), while Mike Tyson tries for the same thing in The Hangover (2009) franchise, but just further becomes a parody of himself. A perfect example of this phenomenon may be James Franco, who is in the forthcoming This is the End (2013) as himself, had a cameo as himself both in Knocked Up (2007) and an episode of 30 Rock (2010). To complicate matters, his reoccurring role on the soap opera General Hospital is as a performance artist, which is another “self” in his real life, and the role was treated this way by the actor; not as an acting job, but as performance art. Fiction becomes confused as reality, while reality is fabricated via the democratizing of cultural production on the web.

From left: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride play themselves during the Apocalypse in "This is the End" (2013)

From left: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride play themselves during the Apocalypse in “This is the End” (2013)


Thanks to reality TV, YouTube, Facebook and countless other social media sites, the best character to play is the self, as our selves are now divided into two or more incarnations, real and fictional. Perhaps thats why James Franco was accused of playing real life rapper Riff Raff in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013) as a version of identity theft. If there is anyone who should capitalize from our constructed selves, it should be ourselves, right?  In My Dinner with Andre, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (who both wrote the script and based it from their own lives), refer to the essence of viewing and perceiving as reality and action itself, while having a conversation over dinner about our loss of understanding of reality.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in Louis Malee's "My Dinner with Andre" (1981)

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” (1981)

What does it mean, then, when Steve Coogan plays himself — Steve Coogan, actor — traveling and eating with his actor friend, Rob Brydon, played by Rob Brydon in The Trip (2010)? Every conversation deteriorates into celebrity impressions, endlessly repeating in a loop throughout the movie. This revamp of My Dinner with Andre might be brilliant if it wasn’t so painful to watch. Has meaningful content eroded into emotion deprived tweets and retweets, and continuously recycled ideas, so that only content itself is important? It only seems logical that our consumer culture obsession of quantity over quality would extend into cultural production, information and identity.


Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in "The Trip" (2010), directed by Michael Winterbottom

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in “The Trip” (2010), directed by Michael Winterbottom

Reality TV and YouTube are now established parts of our entertainment culture, providing instant celebrity status or notoriety. By always trying to make reality, how are we actually interacting with it? We are constantly posting and reposting, recycling videos, content, news; in essence, information we are trying to process as reality. This blends in with all the fictional stuff. How do movies become the stand in for experiences not personally had, influencing our actions and their expected outcome?  Do we envision our lives cinematically, possibly as a result of our experiencing through media?


Where does this leave the creator? Is it that creation becomes, through instantaneous and never ending reposting and fractured retelling of actual events, a nuanced evolution of the event itself? A more immediate reaction of trying to make sense of the information thrown into our faces like bugs hitting the windshield of a speeding car on the highway. Collecting and throwing in all these mashed up bits on our palette that are equalized in their desiccated state, stuck on a slab of glass in front of our faces, blocking our view of the real world. Creation becomes commenting, and commenting becomes an affirmation of existence.


James Franco, left as the fictional chacter Alien in Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" (2013). Right,  real life rapper Riff Raff.

James Franco, left as the fictional character Alien in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2013). Right, real life rapper Riff Raff.

By playing versions of themselves, actors and the culture industry are acknowledging that the construct of fiction is also reality; that reality is just as intangible as anything else provided to us while we sit and watch something from a screen. As My Dinner with Andre proclaimed over thirty years ago, our perception of reality has grown false in our modern lives. The question remains if we are getting even further from reality by our inclusion of the digital world into the physical, or if we are colliding the worlds together for a fuller picture of all that is real, that “real” is just a state of mind.



Film dates were found through IMDB.com.

Thomas Friel

Tom Friel is an artist and writer currently based outside of Detroit. He works within the cracks of performance, video, sculpture, sound and drawing, and has shown his work both nationally and internationally.