Rock Icon David Bowie Was Also a Really Good Actor, and Here’s Proof
These 10 standout roles, from ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ to ‘Zoolander,’ have us craving a Bowie film festival
Moonage Daydream, filmmaker Brett Morgen’s highly anticipated documentary exploring rock legend David Bowie’s creative journey, hits theaters September 16. Featuring 40 remastered songs and never-before-seen footage provided by the Bowie estate, it offers a mind-bending trip through the artist’s 54-year career.
But it’s far from the first time Bowie has appeared in a feature film. He was a talented actor who worked with prominent directors, including Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch, and played many real-life figures, such as Andy Warhol and Nikola Tesla. Scorsese, who cast Bowie as Pontius Pilate in his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, said of Bowie’s presence as an actor: “He was just a very disarming man with such power ... a kind of charismatic power, a beauty and extraordinary talent and genius at what he did.” As Bowie lights up the silver screen once again, here’s a look back at some of his best acting roles.
As an alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
The role: In Bowie’s big-screen debut, the 28-year-old rock star brings his Ziggy Stardust persona to the role of a humanoid alien visiting Earth in order to save his home planet.
Best Bowie moment: After Bowie’s character shows one of his earthling friends his spaceship, the friend inquires about the strange newcomer’s origins: “Are you Lithuanian?” Bowie quips, “I come from England.”
Watch it: The Man Who Fell to Earth on Amazon Prime, YouTube
As a vampire’s lover in The Hunger (1983)
The role: In this erotic horror flick that’s become a cult classic, Bowie goes full goth as the cellist boyfriend of a vampire (Catherine Denueve) who finds himself part of a love triangle along with a young scientist (Susan Sarandon).
Best Bowie moment: The opening sequence features Bowie and Deneuve looking impossibly chic in sunglasses in a smoky nightclub, as they pick up a trendy couple so that Deneuve can feed on them.
Watch it: The Hunger on Amazon Prime, HBO Max
As a goblin king in Labyrinth (1986)
The role: In this zany musical fantasy directed by Jim Henson, Bowie plays the villain, a goblin king with a taste for outrageous wigs and bejeweled clothing who kidnaps the baby brother of the young protagonist, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly).
Best Bowie moment: After taking the baby, Bowie leads his fellow goblins (played by Muppets) in a romp through “Magic Dance” — one of the five songs he wrote and recorded for the film.
Watch it: Labyrinth on Amazon Prime
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As Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The role: In Martin Scorcese’s exploration of Jesus’ spiritual journey, Bowie plays Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who condemned Jesus (Willem Dafoe) to die on the cross.
Best Bowie moment: While Bowie’s screen time in the film is short, his role is pivotal. As the aloof Pilate, he questions Dafoe’s Jesus: “It is also said that you do miracles. Is this good magic or bad magic?”
Watch it: The Last Temptation of Christ on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Hulu
As an FBI agent in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
The role: In this film prequel to David Lynch’s surreal TV drama series Twin Peaks, Bowie plays FBI agent Philip Jeffries, who shows up at the office two years after he disappeared while on assignment in Argentina.
Best Bowie moment: When his character suddenly appears at the FBI office, Bowie delivers a perfectly unhinged performance, adopting an American twang as he talks nonsensically about someone named Judy.
Watch it: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on Amazon Prime, HBO Max
As a WWII soldier in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1993)
The role: Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers, a British World War II officer who is taken by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. He’s not the only famous musician in the film; Japanese composer and singer Ryuichi Sakamoto plays the commander of the camp, who develops feelings for Celliers.
Best Bowie moment: During the film’s climax, Bowie’s character breaks rank and kisses the camp commander on the cheeks in a moment that is equally tense and tender.
Watch it: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence on the Criterion Channel
As Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996)
The role: In Julian Schnabel’s Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic, Bowie plays one of his personal heroes, Andy Warhol, even wearing one of Warhol’s wigs and his leather jacket.
Best Bowie moment: During a scene in which Warhol and Basquiat discuss Warhol’s oxidation paintings, which used a coat of urine to oxidize copper paint, Bowie dryly chides Basquiat: “Not piss paint, Jean — oxidation art!”
Watch it: Basquiat on YouTube
As a fashion judge in Zoolander (2001)
The role: Bowie appears as himself in this iconic Ben Stiller comedy, judging the runway “walk-off” between Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and Owen Wilson’s Hansel.
Best Bowie moment: As the models search for a judge, Bowie pops out of the crowd, whipping off his sunglasses to declare, “I might be of service,” and “Let’s Dance” begins to play.
Watch it: Zoolander on Amazon Prime, Paramount+
As himself, in Extras, season 2, episode 2 (2006)
The role: Bowie makes a hilarious cameo in the second season of Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Extras. In the episode, he meets Gervais’ bumbling actor character in the VIP area of a pub.
Best Bowie moment: After Gervais introduces himself to Bowie and tries to commiserate with him about the pitfalls of fame, Bowie bursts into an insulting song, “Little Fat Man,” and gets the whole pub to sing along.
Watch it: Extras on BritBox
As Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006)
The role: In this Christopher Nolan thriller about a rivalry between two 19th-century magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman), Bowie took on his last movie role as the real-life inventor Nikola Tesla, who reluctantly agrees to build a teleportation machine for one of the magicians.
Best Bowie moment: Over a mountainside lunch, Bowie channels the enigmatic Tesla as he offers Hugh Jackman’s character some warning words on the danger of obsession.
Watch it: The Prestige on Amazon Prime, Apple TV
Lauren Vespoli is a Brooklyn-based freelance culture writer and audio producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine and Vox.