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Actor Musicians: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Donald Glover, who performs under the stage name Childish Gambino, at Lollapalooza in 2014.
Donald Glover, who performs under the stage name Childish Gambino, at Lollapalooza in 2014.

Excelling at acting or music alone is hard enough, but some are bold enough to pursue both domains professionally.  For every successful transition, there is one that reminds people why being an actor-musician is so difficult.  Here’s a list — by no means exhaustive — that shines light on some of the impressive successes and head-shaking failures of double threat superstars. 

The Good 

Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx has a mixed record on the acting front.. His acting career’s staple performance in “Ray,” the biopic about Ray Charles, earned him the Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy and the Academy Award for best actor. Additionally, he has had critically acclaimed performances in “Collateral,” “Django Unchained” and “Baby Driver.” However, he has put forward critically panned performances in movies such as “Annie” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Musically, Foxx’s career has been far more consistent, with four albums charting in the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a Grammy award win.  

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake is one of the most recognizable faces in the music industry, now a solo artist after achieving notoriety as a boyband icon in NSYNC.  He has won ten Grammys and been nominated a whopping 38 times. However, his time as a actor has not been as fruitful, so he barely squeezes into the “Good” category of this list. He has received praise for his role in David Fincher’s critical darling, “The Social Network,” and his work as the co-star of solidly reviewed comedy “Friends With Benefits.”  These standout performances can be juxtaposed with his truly horrible performances in movies such as “Bad Teacher” and “In Time.”  

Mark Wahlberg

Mark Wahlberg is a unique name on this list, since he has fully transitioned from music to acting. Wahlberg and his band Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch released two albums in the early 1990s, achieving considerable commercial success. Wahlberg continued with music even after the band broke up, though this stage in his career resulted in nothing particularly impactful. Wahlberg later successfully made his way into the acting world with his first role in "The Basketball Diaries."  His now extensive acting career includes well-regarded roles in “Boogie Nights,” “The Italian Job,” “The Departed" and “Lone Survivor.”  More recently, he gave compelling performances in “Deepwater Horizon,” “Patriots Day” and “All the Money in the World.” However, Wahlberg has had his fair share of misfires as well, including his infamous role in M. Night Shyamalan's “The Happening,” as well as becoming the star of the dreadful “Transformers” series.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto has shined in both his role as an actor and a musician, making him one of the most deserving to land on this part of the list. His performances in “Requiem for a Dream” and “Dallas Buyers Club” were simply magnetic, the latter earning him an Academy Award and Golden Globe for best supporting actor. Musically, Leto is the frontman of prolific rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars. The band has released five albums since 2002, all but the first achieving commercial success, and all but the most recent receiving critical success. 

Donald Glover/Childish Gambino

Donald Glover, whose music stage name is Childish Gambino, is both a prolific actor and musician. He started as an actor, landing his first prominent role as a supporting character on the critically beloved comedy, “Community.”  His new show, “Atlanta” is exceedingly popular and has won two Golden Globes for best TV series (musical or comedy).  Glover has won two Golden Globes for best actor in a musical or comedy, as well as two Emmy Awards for Outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for the show. His three studio albums have all been increasingly commercially successful. His latest two albums, “Because the Internet” and “Awaken, My Love!,” received especially warm welcomes.    

Will Smith

Will Smith is now known mainly for his wildly successful acting career, but before that, he was known as the Fresh Prince, releasing five studio albums with collaborator DJ Jazzy Jeff. Both this collaboration and his his solo work scored Smith numerous Top 10 hits on the Billboard 200, as well as a couple Grammy awards during each project. He broke onto the acting scene with the hit sitcom “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in the early '90s. Since then, he has evolved into a capable leading man and one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, with hit movies such as the “Men in Black” franchise, “Bad Boys” films one and two, “Independence Day,” “I, Robot” and “I Am Legend.” Additionally, his star performances in critical hits “Ali” and “Concussion” show that his perceived talent extends beyond his devoted fanbase. 

The Bad


Rihanna has been a powerhouse pop star for over a decade now. She has sold more digital tracks than any other artist in history and holds nine Grammy Award wins. She is even an ambassador for Barbados, her home country. Although it may seem like there is nothing she cannot do, that unfortunately is not the case. Her acting career has been rocky at best, with mixed reviews of her most recent performance in “Ocean’s 8” and abysmal reviews of her role in “Battleship.” The jury is still out on her talent as an actress, but it seems she should stick to music.

Miley Cyrus 

Miley Cyrus is an accomplished, well-known pop star, but she clearly struggles with acting. Her rise to fame actually began with her acting career, playing the lead character in the Disney Channel smash hit show, “Hannah Montana.” Her work on the show was not groundbreaking or even particularly good, but it is undeniable that the show had a massive following, largely due to its themes of teen stardom and ability to connect with a target audience of mainly elementary school students.  The popularity of the show is frankly the only reason she avoided the “Ugly” part of this list.  Once stepping into a real acting role outside of the Disney Channel, Cyrus’s work did not improve. Her performance as the co-star of “The Last Song” was dreadful, and she was unsurprisingly eviscerated by critics.  As far as her music goes, three of her albums topped the Billboard 200 and impressively, nine of her singles have topped the Billboard 100 singles chart.  She continues to make music, even as her acting career has dwindled, with her most recent release, “Younger Now,” being praised for its sense of maturity and return to her country-twinged pop roots.  

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez has been a dynamic star on the music scene for most of the 21st century. She has charted multiple number one albums and singles, and this year she was listed on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. She has demonstrated strong vocal and performative talent in the music field and deserves to be recognized as a leader in the industry. Her time in acting has been far more dicey. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in the film “Selena.” However, her role a few years later in “Gigli,” considered by many as one of the worst movies ever made, will remain a permanent stain on her acting legacy. More recently, she has received some positive traction for her role on the crime drama “Shades of Blue,” but was again criticized for a miserable appearance in “The Boy Next Door.”  

The Ugly

Robert Downey Jr.  

The current face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr. is has become a household name. However, this certainly is not due to his music. Although Downey apparently has a capable voice, his career in this field failed to take off. He produced just one album, “The Futurist,” that received dismal critical reception.   

Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis has had a fruitful career with standout performances in films including “Unbreakable,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Looper.” He was also the lead man in the “Die Hard” franchise, which featured five widely popular action films. Although his acting career has been long-spanning, his music career was short-lived. He released one jazz album under an alter ego, and one under his own name in the late '80s, neither of which garnered much attention. Willis apparently did not have the voice for singing, dooming his foray into the music scene from the very beginning.  

Joaquin Phoenix 

Shockingly, Joaquin Phoenix decided to drop his highly regarded career in acting for rapping in 2010. However, it was later revealed this was just a stunt for a documentary called “I’m Still Here”.  It is unclear whether Phoenix took his brief rap career seriously, or whether it was all a big joke. Regardless, Phoenix was abhorrently bad at rapping, with a complete lack of flow or lyricism,  which is why he finds himself on this part of the list.  


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