Career Transitions: Musicians as Actors in Hollywood

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox
April 2nd, 2012

When it comes to entertainment, there is a long history of singers and musicians transitioning to acting and vice versa. Singers and dancers would take on acting roles and become even more famous. As skills like tap dancing declined in popularity and musicals became scarce, it was no longer necessary for people to be a 'triple threat,' meaning they sang, danced and acted. Skills became more specialized and entertainers started to focus on only one skill instead of multiple ones.

In recent years, entertainers have started to embrace multiple genres once again. Many famous musicians have begun to act, with varying degrees of success. Some make a complete transition and rarely go back to music, while others only occasionally act and mostly stick to singing.

The most successful transition from music to acting is arguably Will Smith. He had great success as one half of D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and the television show Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire. It didn't take long before he was acting in movies with blockbusters such as Men in Black, Independence Day and Ali, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. So successful is Smith's movie career that he never needs to release an album again.

Justin Timberlake has also made the jump into movies successfully, though unlike Smith he still regularly puts out albums. He was one part of mega boy-band *NSYNC, and then went solo. His first few forays into acting were fairly modest, though he received generally positive reviews. Then he hosted Saturday Night Live and became an instant acting sensation. Since then he has put out two to three films per year, including the much-heralded The Social Network.

Rapper P-Diddy (Sean Combs) has experienced success in acting on a much smaller scale. He has received some fairly positive reviews for his work in such movies as 2001's Monster's Ball and had some of the funniest lines in Get Him to the Greek. Other than these roles, he has mostly opted for guest spots on crime shows like CSI: Miami and Hawaii Five-0. It is unclear if he does this by choice or because nobody will hire him. Either way, his music career and other business ventures have certainly not suffered.

Pop superstar Madonna has no trouble being casted in movies. Her star status means legions of loyal fans will go to see her movies, even if they are awful. Unfortunately, plenty of them have been awful. Her acting in Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl were universally criticized as awful. Despite these huge missteps, she manages to come across well in films like A League of Their Own and Evita, for which she won a Golden Globe award.

For every success story, there are ones that are much less so. Alicia Keys is the perfect example of this. The piano-playing singer and songwriter has achieved big success with her ballads. Her acting career has completely stalled, though. After making small splashes in the critically-maligned Smoking Aces and The Nanny Diaries, she has only made one little-seen indie drama since then. This could be by choice since she is now a wife and mother, or it could be that she picked the wrong roles and now has troubled getting parts. Her music career is still on fire though, so she doesn't necessarily have to continue acting.

In the end, the transition from singing to acting can be a tricky one. The results are often mixed, with some achieving stratospheric success like Will Smith, while others quietly return to music like Alicia Keys. Being able to do both is good work if you can get it. But the level of success once you do get the work can vary.