There’s plenty of brilliant things about the arrival of Ali Wong and Randall Park’s lovely Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe. The predominantly Asian American cast, the subtle balance of humor and heart, and, of course, Keanu Reeves playing a very hyper-ridiculous version of himself. This example of a meta-celebrity cameo feels particularly brave and funny with the notoriously private actor crafting a ridiculous version of himself that mocks the very idea of the dark and enigmatic celebrity bad boy.
Reeves’ awesome performance matched with Wong, Park, and Michael Golamco’s super-smart screenplay got us thinking about other times celebrities played themselves. The satirical self-cameo is nothing less than a Hollywood tradition and there are plenty of examples of some of the biggest names to have graced the silver screen taking on roles that parody their public personas and lives both off and on screen.
To celebrate Reeves’ radical turn, let’s look back at some of our favorite instances of this phenomenon in Hollywood history. From zom-coms to stoner smashes to heist hilarity to auteur arthouse, these are our 12 favorite meta-celebrity cameos.
Neil Patrick Harris – The Harold & Kumar Films
This is almost cheating seeing as Harris’ role was far more than a cameo and, as the franchise went on, he became a core character alongside John Cho and Kal Penn. The stoner-comedy hit centered on two hungry boys who just had to get their favorite small burgers from the titular fast food joint but happen across the out-of-control former child star on their adventures. Throughout the films, Harris is ironically portrayed as a drug-addled womanizer.
Bill Murray – Zombieland
This zombie comedy was already winning fans over as they followed Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, and Woody Harrelson through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But it really achieved cult status when the characters stumbled across Bill Murray’s mansion… and the actor himself inside. After getting thoroughly stoned with the star, they accidentally kill him after one of the party mistakes his zombie costume for the real thing.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck – Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
During Kevin Smith’s Hollywood homage to the characters that he first introduced in Clerks, viewers were treated to a very meta-masterclass in celebrity cameos. Affleck and Damon showed up in a sequence that played on their clean-cut pretty boy images while also implying that the only reason they showed up at all was because Smith called in a favor.
Emma Watson – This Is the End
This ridiculous rapture comedy stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and many, many of their celebrity friends. Due to the nature of the film, in which multiple celebrities play themselves during the apocalypse, it’s hard to pick one iconic cameo. But Emma Watson as an ax-wielding badass who briefly teams up with the boys before robbing them has to be up there with the best.
Julia Roberts – Ocean’s 12
In an exceedingly meta moment during the Ocean’s 11 sequel, Julia Roberts’ character Tess has to pretend to be herself as part of one of the film’s many scams. It’s a pretty smart way of sneaking in a very unexpected celebrity cameo that knowingly nods at the star-studded cast without feeling out of place in the world of the movie.
Cate Blanchett – Coffee and Cigarettes
During Jim Jarmusch’s beloved black and white indie flick, Cate Blanchett showcased why she’s one of the best actresses of her generation. This brilliant bit has Blanchett playing a squeaky clean version of herself against her coarse (and completely fictional) cousin Shelly (also played by Blanchett) who doesn’t seem too happy about the family reunion.
Tobey Maguire – Tropic Thunder
Tropic Thunder has a very famous celebrity cameo in the form of Tom Cruise as an outrageous film exec. But the cameo we’ve picked here focuses on Tobey Maguire in the fake trailer for the very homoerotic priest movie “Satan’s Alley” alongside Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus.
Daniel Radcliffe – Extras
One of the most hilarious cameos on our list. Daniel Radcliffe has always excelled in not taking himself too seriously and proved that here with a starring turn in the Ricky Gervais series Extras (which is in itself a treasure trove of meta-celeb cameos). The episode sees Gervais’ Andy come across the one-time child star who’s apparently a complete creep utterly obsessed with hitting on women, bad pickup lines, and sex.
Margot Robbie – The Big Short
The Big Short does a great job of explaining some of the more complex aspects of finance, trading, and the markets which crashed in 2007 after much dodgy dealing. In one of the most memorable moments from the flick, Margot Robbie appears drinking champagne in a bubble bath to breakdown some of the financial terminology that features in the film.
Tom Cruise – Austin Powers: Goldmember
By the third Mike Myers-starring James Bond parody, the film series was beginning to satirize itself, and this fake trailer for Austinpussy literally put Tom Cruise in the driver’s seat. Cruise starred as a more Mission: Impossible-style action hero who was revealed at the end of a very over-the-top stunt sequence.
Stan Lee – Mallrats
Stan Lee has obviously had a lot of cameos in his time, but this one in Mallrats stands out as one of the few instances that he actually played himself in live-action. During a sequence in the famed mall of the title, Lee happens upon Jason Lee’s Brodie and gives him some questionable romantic advice relating to his comics career, his lothario nature, and true love.
Elisabeth Shue – Hamlet 2
The ’80s icon popped up in this Steve Coogan comedy vehicle playing herself as a retired actress who has left Hollywood and become a nurse. It’s a heartfelt turn which, though short, manages to say a lot about the nature of fame, acting, and Hollywood.
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