5 Actors who Learned a Musical Instrument to Perfection for their Role
Last month, Cate Blanchett received her fourth Golden Globe win for her lead role in “Tár.” In this film, Blanchett portrays Lydia Tár, a conductor with a severe, iron-fisted, and frequently cruel disposition. Without any prior conducting experience, Blanchett impressed many with her authentic conducting performance and skill at the piano. And as Blanchett continues her grab for more recognition this awards season, it may be interesting to look into other actors who learned musical instruments for their roles, blowing audiences away with their performances.
Cate Blanchett – Conducting and Piano
In preparation for her role, Blanchett worked with Australian conductor Natalie Murray Beale. Beale has conducted many world-famous orchestras such as BBC Concert Orchestra, Presidential Orchestra of Turkey, Philharmonia Orchestra, and Chamber Orchestra of London, to name a few on the long list of her impressive conducting resume. For the film “Tár,” she worked as musical consultant and conductor supervisor. Read more about Beale on her portfolio website here.
Image from Focus Features
Blanchett did play piano as a little girl, but had to dust off what rusty skills she did have and dedicate herself once again to practicing the instrument for her role. According to the Wall Street Journal, she took her preparation as a fictional conductor very seriously. Blanchett’s process for studying conducting was a mix of viewing video recordings of master conductors, Zoom sessions with Beale for hand gesture basics, and practicing wherever she was in her free time. After weeks of practice and guidance from Beale, Blanchett figured out how to conduct with her own style and amazed everyone with her mastery of the skill.
Jenna Ortega – Cello
Jenna Ortega took the world by storm this past fall with her portrayal of Wednesday Addams in Tim Burton’s latest television series on Netflix. For the series titled Wednesday, Ortega began practicing the cello 2 months before filming. In one of the most iconic scenes in the show, Ortega’s character, Wednesday, performs the first movement “Winter. Allegro Non Molto” from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as everyone from her high school, Nevermore, flees from the town center as a statue burns and melts into grotesque deformity.
According to Screen Rant, Ortega plays all the cello scenes herself. Some of the other pieces she performs include “Cello Concerto” by Edward Elgar, “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones, and “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac.
As explained by Variety, between practicing cello with her instructor, filming, and Zoom calls learning whatever other talent the character Wednesday possessed, Ortega felt immense stress and pressure to perform to perfection. She constantly worried about how she would be perceived by professional cellists and die hard Addams Family fans. It turns out her worry was for naught as the show and her acting had amazing reception from audiences everywhere. “Wednesday” is Netfltix’s second most watched English-language series of all time.
Miles Teller – Drums
In 2022, Miles Teller was hailed by many as heartthrob of the year with his compelling performance as Rooster in the much awaited Top Gun sequel. In this film, Teller portrays a dedicated fighter pilot constantly trying to prove himself to his mentor, Maverick. And although Maverick was very hard to please, nothing can compare to the tyrannical and mentally abusive Terrence Fletcher, the fictional jazz instructor that Teller’s drummer character, Andrew, pushes himself painfully to satisfy in the 2014 film Whiplash.
Teller’s character, Andrew, goes through literal blood, sweat, and tears to perform. Similarly, Teller also found himself with bloodied hands as he practiced the drums leading up to filming. Miles told W Magazine that he practiced 4 hours a day and would bandage up his bloody blisters to continue practicing. They filmed the entire movie in just 19 days with intense drumming scenes almost every day.
Jamie Foxx – Violin and Cello
Based on a true story, the 2009 film The Soloist follows a divorced mid-life crisis reporter, Robert Downey Jr., and a talented musician suffering from a severe mental illness, Jamie Foxx. Nathaniel Ayers, Foxx’s character, was once a child prodigy and studied at Juilliard. However, during his second year at the prestigious school, Ayers developed some signs of schizophrenia. This ultimately led him to drop out of the school and disconnect with his family leaving him homeless on the streets.
Not just an actor, Foxx is widely known as a famous singer and musician as well. He has been playing piano since the age of five, but had to learn a whole new set of musical chops for The Soloist. Los Angeles Times reported Foxx practiced with L.A. Philharmonic’s Ben Hong, the assistant principal cellist at the time, who was extremely involved in the production process. Foxx studied the cello with Hong for four months straight, sometimes 10 hours a day.
Adrien Brody – Piano
In 2003, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist garnered recognition across the world’s film festivals and award shows. Actor Adrien Brody won an Oscar for “Best Actor in a Leading Role” at the Academy Awards; the film also pulled in “Best Director” and “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.” This World War II film follows Brody’s character, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a famous Polish Jewish musician who faces extreme hardship while losing friends, family, belongings, and his piano.
Image from Encyclopedia Britannica
Pushing his mental state and physical capabilities to an almost breaking point, Brody committed himself entirely to his role. In order to get into a similar mindset and body build of his 1940s character, the method actor practically starved himself for weeks and broke up with his girlfriend, according to Classic Fm. Brody began to isolate himself from the world and drained his energy levels to a bare minimum, just enough for his rigorous piano lessons. With his dedication to the role and instrument, Brody soon was able to master and play Chopin pieces such as Nocturne in C sharp minor, his Ballade No. 2 in F major, and Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante.