In “Gemini Man,” Will Smith does double duty. He plays a hit man who’s being chased by — get ready — a younger version of himself. The younger version is a clone of Smith’s character.
Cloning is new. Hello, “Orphan Black.” Or at least newish. “Multiplicity,” with its one-man Michael Keaton rep company, came out in 1996. But the idea of one actor playing two or more characters who appear very similar, or even identical, is an old one. Consider it characterological CGI. It’s a challenge guaranteed to test an actor’s mettle, assuming an actor has mettle to be tested. There’s a reason you likely haven’t seen “Double Impact” (1991). Jean-Claude Van Damme plays twins.
It’s easy enough in print to get away with two characters who are identical in appearance, since what they look like is in the reader’s head. Think of the 19th-century interest in the doppelgänger, or double. When a character encounters his doppelgänger, watch out! Or there are several classic novels where identical appearance drives the plot, such as Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” and Alexandre Dumas’s “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
Things get trickier when readers become viewers and the character can actually be seen. “The Man in the Iron Mask” offers a bit of a dodge, since the face of the lookalike to King Louis XIV is hidden in the device mentioned in the title. There have been several movie versions. Leonardo DiCaprio plays both characters in the most recent (1998). DiCaprio has a further advantage: Neither of his characters is on screen as much as D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) or the three musketeers (Gérard Depardieu, John Malkovich, and Jeremy Irons).
Note that last name. In “Dead Ringers” (1988), Irons plays twin brothers, Canadian gynecologists, no less: Beverly and Elliot Mantle. The performance is a marvel. Or, rather the performances are. Irons really does make viewers believe they’re seeing different characters. That he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is one of the more egregious among the many indictments to be lodged against the Academy. Presumably, members were put off by the . . . Cronenberg-ishness . . . of the David Cronenberg-directed movie. Let’s just say that the medical specialty the Mantles practice is of more than passing relevance. Good as Irons is playing Claus von Bülow in “Reversal of Fortune,” two years later, might his winning an Oscar for that performance have been something of a makeup call?
Twins have long held a special fascination. Think of Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux. Those last two are stars in the constellation Gemini, hence the title of “Gemini Man.” That fascination extends to Silicon Valley. Armie Hammer had his breakout role, or roles, as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss — the Winklevii — in “The Social Network” (2010). Jesse Eisenberg, as Mark Zuckerberg, has enough tics and mannerisms to be three characters. Hammer does just fine playing two.
It makes sense that a budding movie star like Hammer would play the Winklevii, who in real-life were movie star-smooth, movie star-handsome, movie star-arrogant, and well on their way to being movie-star rich. The twins Nicolas Cage plays in “Adaptation” (2002) are screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his aspiring screenwriter brother, Donald. Screenwriting twins aren’t as strange as you might think. One of the greatest Studio Era screenwriting teams consisted of the Epstein twins, Philip and Julius (Philip being the father of novelist Leslie and grandfather of baseball executive Theo). What is odd is that the script that Charlie and Donald are struggling with is the one for . . . “Adaptation.”
Presumably, the Kaufmans would have done a better job of scripting the twins played by Woody Harrelson in “Now You See Me 2” (2016). You can bet the Epsteins would have. Woody 1 wears a . . . hat. Woody 2 wears a . . . wig.
“The Parent Trap” is itself twinsly, with a 1961 original, starring Hayley Mills, and a 1998 remake, starring Lindsay Lohan. Or maybe it’s tripletsly. In between the movies came TV’s “The Patty Duke Show.” The lookalikes are cousins, not sisters; but as in “The Parent Trap,” they’re adolescent females. It’s hard to watch the 1998 version without reflecting on the freshness and promise of Lohan then and how very different things would become: same person, very different characters.
Twins aren’t the only type of same-actor roles. In “There Will Be Blood” (2007), Paul and Eli Sunday are brothers, yes, but not twins. This makes the fact that Paul Dano plays both of them a source of confusion. When Daniel Day-Lewis famously bellows, “I will drink your milkshake!” a viewer can be forgiven for wondering exactly whose straw is going to be sucked.
The most famous example in movie history of the same actor playing different characters who are identical in appearance takes us back to “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Like them, “The Great Dictator” (1940) is about the intersection of political power and the power of appearance. It has nothing to do with monarchy, though everything to do with absolute rule. The actor is Charlie Chaplin. The ruler is the title character, Adenoid Hynkel. The other character is simply identified as A Jewish Barber. Chaplin, who wrote and directed, took the long-noted resemblance between himself and Adolf Hitler — a very different and profoundly sinister form of twinship — and sent it through the looking-glass. The difference between looking alike and behaving alike has never been greater.