One of the essential skills of a successful actor is the ability to shape-shift into characters far removed from oneself. Sometimes, that character has been meticulously crafted by the screenwriter — but other times, it’s pulled directly from the pages of history. Perfecting a portrayal of a real person is no easy feat, however. While there’s certainly a set of guidelines to follow, embodying someone from recent (or not so recent) history comes with all sorts of pitfalls and expectations.

An actor’s main challenge when playing a real-life person on screen is avoiding mimicry. Obviously, the audience is supposed to suspend disbelief and imagine that the actor is that historical figure. But simply copying one’s mannerisms and vocal inflections isn’t enough to craft a compelling performance. It’s one thing to coincidentally look like someone from history, and it’s another to embody them from the inside out. There needs to be an element of surprise, a revelation of the iconic figure’s spirit. It’s not all about striking every pose or hitting every mark. When the actor is feeling the essence of the character, we can tell.

READ MORE: The Most Historically Inaccurate Movies Ever

Throughout the years, there have been countless biopics and dramas that bring some of history’s most famous figures to life. While many are serviceable, few stand out as truly extraordinary. And with talks of Cillian Murphy’s groundbreaking performance in Oppenheimer — which hits theaters July 21 — let’s take the time to review 10 of the best portrayals of real-life people to ever grace the silver screen.

The Best Onscreen Portrayals Of Real-Life People

These actors pulled off incredible transformations to play real-life figures from history.
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