Top 20 Musicians Who Successfully Transitioned Into Acting

Whenever a celebrity wants to transition into music or acting, we never give them the benefit of the doubt. “Oh, they just got the part because they’re famous” is how we usually scoff at these choices. Sure, not every celebrity can be a double or triple threat. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea for Robert Downey Jr. to release an album or for Jessica Simpson to help carry a film. It’s easy to point fingers and say “I told you so” when actor and musicians fail at crossing over to the other side, but we rarely praise those who have success.

Over the years, there have been plenty of great acting performances by celebrities who started out in the music industry. Many of these celebrities have been not only nominated for major acting awards, but have won them. Some have been so successful that it’s easy to forget about their music career altogether. Here are some of our favorites.

20. Mark Wahlberg

To people born after 1995, “Mark Wahlberg” and “Marky Mark” might as well be two separate people. Mark transitioned from music to acting so long ago, that we sometimes forget that he sang about good vibrations with a whole Funky Bunch. And even BEFORE then, he was an underwear model for Calvin Klein. Our boy Mark has done it all – that includes dabbling in the burger industry.

19. Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez is one of those “which came first” mysteries. Her big break was a dancer on In Living Color, which ushered her into acting. But we often forget her pre-J.Lo acting career because of the astronomical success she’s had as a singer. She’s had many acting credits throughout her career – Maid in Manhattan, Jersey Girl and Monster in Law to name a few — but most recently Jennifer was Harlee Santos on Shades of Blue. Still, we will forever know her as “Jenny from the block.”

18. Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga is your quintessential theater kid. While music is what she’s best known for, she spent a significant time onstage leading up to becoming the pop icon we know today. Her first role was at 15 years old as an extra on The Sopranos. After almost a decade focusing on her music career, she started popping up in films like Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Her first big starring role was as The Countess in American Horror Story, for which she won a Golden Globe award. Her next performance is with Bradley Cooper in 2018’s A Star Is Born.

17. LL Cool J

LL Cool J has built his career up to be a full-on entertainment entity. He started out as a hip-hop artist in the mid-‘80s and hit the Billboard 200 top 10 by 1987. Around that time, he started nabbing small roles in film before getting his own sitcom in 1995 called in the House. He simultaneously focused on his music and acting careers, working steadily into present day. He has been a series regular on NCIS: Los Angeles since 2009 and the host of Lip Sync Battle since 2015. He’s also released four studio albums since 2004.

16. Beyoncé

Who didn’t lose their minds when The Lion King cast was announced only a couple weeks ago? Beyoncé giving Nala her angelic voice? It’s all too much to handle. The fact is, we’ve been waiting a while to see another film starring the Queen. Her last was 2009’s critically panned Obsessed. It’s okay, though, because her lack of screen time brought us her 2013 self-titled album and the masterpiece, Lemonade. We have to admit, though, that her best performances are probably the ones in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records.

15. Cher

Cher became a household name with her 1965 hit with Sonny Bono, “I Got You Babe.” The duo became famous for their music in the 1960s and went on to host two popular variety shows in the ‘70s, where Cher showed off her acting and comedy chops. She racked up more acting roles in the 1980s, getting into drama with 1985’s Mask and winning an Oscar for her performance in Moonstruck. She’s currently on board to star in 2018’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. We’re here for it.

14. Justin Timberlake

For a while, we thought Justin Timberlake caught the acting bug for good and would never release music ever again. Those were dark times. As many know, however, Justin has an acting background. He was a cast member on The Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling. While his ~serious~ acting roles have been FINE, it’s his hilarious roles on Saturday Night Live that prove the guy’s got some real talent.

13. Madonna

This may ruffle some feathers, but Madonna was easily the best part in A League of Their Own. Not an easy task, as the film is basically perfect in every way. But it was Madonna who brought sex appeal, grit and tons of personality to her role of “All the Way Mae” Mordabito. By that time, Madonna had racked up plenty of credits, including the titular role in Desperately Seeking Susan, Gloria Tatlock in Shanghai Surprise, Nikki Finn in Who’s That Girl (also an extremely underrated Madonna single, BTW) and Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy. The pop queen hasn’t acted much since 2002’s Swept Away, which is okay, because we’ll always have Mae to watch over and over.

12. Tom Waits

Tom Waits’s movie roles are just as entertaining, delightful and strange as his discography. Mostly staying under the acting radar, Tom’s films of choice are usually quirky indies like Wristcutters: A Love Story, Coffee and Cigarettes and Down By Law. If he decides to go big budget, he usually picks something left-of-center like Mystery Men or Seven Psychopaths. He’s currently set to star in the Robert Redford-led Old Man and the Gun.

11. Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson is one of entertainment’s best underdog stories. In 2004, she was a contestant on American Idol and ended up in seventh place. Seriously. Who remembers the seventh-place-winner in ANYTHING? Only Jennifer Hudson could take that and turn it into success. In the years since her appearance on American Idol, she released a Grammy-winning album and starred alongside Beyoncé in Dreamgirls. Homegirl is one of the few people ON THIS EARTH who can upstage Bey. Jennifer’s performance in the film won her a Screen Actors Guild award, a BAFTA award, a Golden Globe award and an Oscar. Damn, girl.

10. Dolly Parton

The multi-hyphenate entertainer made her debut in 1967, with the appropriately titled album, Hello, I’m Dolly. She quickly became a country-music queen, and to date, she is the most decorated female country singer, with 25 songs that hit No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, 47 Grammy nominations and 25 certified gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards. She started out her acting career with a few guest appearances and leapt into two variety shows. Her best-known acting role is in 1980’s 9 to 5, where she played a secretary and performed the movie’s title song, for which she won an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe.

9. Lenny Kravitz

The rocker broke our hearts in The Hunger Games series, playing Katniss Everdeen’s stylist, Cinna. He gave the character his notoriously Lenny rock edge, but brought warmth, heart and compassion to the role. The Hunger Games isn’t the only time we’ve had a “Holy $h*!, Lenny Kravitz can act!” moment. He’s had roles in two awards-show darlings, 2009’s Precious and 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Most recently, Lenny had a guest star appearance as Roland Crane on Star.

8. Courtney Love

Courtney Love started out her acting career in the most Courtney Love way. In a video audition for 1986’s Sid & Nancy, she said “I am Nancy Spungen!” referring to the starring role and the tragic 1970s punk figure. The director was so impressed by Courtney that he wrote a character just for her. The role was before she formed her now-famous rock band, Hole, but Courtney had dabbled in a few music projects leading up to Sid & Nancy’s release. While she’s mostly focused on her music career, she received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in The People Vs. Larry Flint and has three upcoming film projects in the works.

7. David Bowie

Many know him as the legendary musician gone too soon. It’s easy to name five David Bowie songs off the top of your head, but could you name five Bowie films? Obviously, we all know his iconic role as Jareth the Goblin King in 1986’s Labyrinth, but the man has dozens of acting credits, including a one-time voice appearance in a SpongeBob episode. In 1996, he did a convincing Andy Warhol interpretation in the film Basquiat. He is also part of the Twin Peaks universe, playing Phillip Jeffries. Like Bowie himself, the films he chooses are a little eccentric, incredibly creative, and always memorable.

6. Ludacris

Ludacris is a staple in The Fast & the Furious franchise, but his acting goes much deeper than fast cars. In 2001, right after he released his debut album, he had a brief part in Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s The Wash. As his music career soared, he started picking up more acting gigs along the way, beginning his years-long Fast & the Furious stint as Tej in 2003. He’s been in two Academy Award-winning films: 2004’s Crash and 2005’s Hustle & Flow. But he’ll always be Tej to us.

5. Ice T

Ice T has become such a pop-culture figurehead that it’s easy to forget he was the first hip-hop artist to receive an “explicit content” sticker. That’s not the only controversy Ice T caused in his rap career. In 1992, his band Body Count released the song “Cop Killer,” which got the attention of then-president George H. Bush and prompted boycotts of the album. His acting career goes just as far back as his music career, with a role in 1984’s Breakin’. Since 2000, he has played Odafin Tutola in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and has appeared in 397 episodes since his casting.

4. Aaliyah

By the time of her tragic death at age 22, Aaliyah had built up a career someone twice her age would be jealous of. By age 15, she was a double-platinum-selling artist with her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. She outdid herself with her sophomore album, One in a Million, in 1996. Toward the aughts, Aaliyah started picking up acting roles, her first starring opposite Jet Li in Romeo Must Die. Immediately after the release, she started work on her last film, Queen of the Damned, which she shot while she recorded her third and final album, Aaliyah.

3. Brandy

Brandy is one of those few musicians whose acting careers are what pop-culture dreams are made of. Moesha, which ran from 1996 to 2001, was picked up two years after Brandy released her debut album at 15 years old. Before that, she honed her TV chops on Thea, which ran for one season. And then 1997 happened and Whitney Houston chose Brandy to play opposite her fairy godmother in the made-for-television film, Cinderella. The film is 20 years old and is still more diverse than what we’re getting out of Hollywood to this day. Thank you, Whitney and Brandy.

2. Alicia Keys

While she’s better known for her music career than her acting career, Alicia Keys has had some decent acting credits over the past 10 years. Her film debut was in 2007’s Smokin’ Aces and shortly after, she starred alongside Scarlett Johansson in The Nanny Diaries. In 2008, she appeared in The Secret Life of Bees, took a little break and got back into acting by guest-starring on Empire and snagging a starring role in the short film, Let Me In. Her next film is The Ninth Wave, which is currently in development.

1. Mandy Moore

Mandy Moore’s acting career took off quickly after her music career. She was 15 years old when she released her debut album, So Real in 1999. Two years later, she had roles in Dr. Dolitte 2 and The Princess Diaries. It was her starring role in 2002’s A Walk to Remember where she blurred the lines between singer and actress. She flip-flopped between music and acting up until her last album release in 2009. She’s since focused on her acting career and is currently starring in TV’s most tear-jerking show, This Is Us.

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