Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dead ringers: 21 pairs of cinematic twins

Illustration by Nick Wanserski
Illustration by Nick Wanserski

In upcoming movie release Legend, Tom Hardy portrays both villainous Kray brothers. In doing so, he tackles that favorite high-wire feat of those in the acting profession: playing two separate characters in the same movie who happen to be identical twins. A variety of actors have gone before Hardy to take on this type of double role, in movies that stray far past good twin/bad twin as the inflection, the expression, and the personalities of these two individuals must be conveyed onscreen to get these different personas across. Our list below contains sets of twins that range from conjoined to stigmatic, half-fictional to all-murderous. And some of these twin attempts are definitely more successful (Jeremy Irons) than others (Jackie Chan).


1. Jean-Claude Van Damme, Double Impact (1991) / Maximum Risk (1996)

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s acting got a heck of a lot better as he got older; over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, he matured from a high-kicking accented hunk into an offbeat character actor. Actually, it’s possible to track Van Damme’s development just by looking at all of the movies where had to play dual roles, beginning with the 1991 cheesefest Double Impact, which cast the Muscles From Brussels as a pair of long-lost twins (one of them very unconvincingly named Chad), and is now mostly remembered for its gratuitous close-ups of the star’s ass. Van Damme would play a pair of brothers separated at birth again in Maximum Risk, the first of three fruitful collaborations with Hong Kong director Ringo Lam. Here, the Belgian martial artist is cast—somewhat more credibly—as a French cop avenging the death of the Russian mobster twin he never knew he had. And though none of his subsequent dual roles or transformations cast him as identical twins, it’s not hard to draw a line from Double Impact and Maximum Risk to the Lam-directed Replicant, in which JCVD finally got to showcase a long-buried talent for purely physical performance, playing both a serial killer and his childlike clone. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

2. Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers (1988)

If there’s a gold standard for a single actor playing twins, it’s Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers. Drawing from both a fictional novel and a bizarre true story, David Cronenberg’s disturbing psychodrama casts Irons as identical twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, whose fragile symbiotic relationship is threatened by a twisted love triangle with an actress (Geneviève Bujold). To distinguish his two characters—the dominant, charismatic Elliot and his nervous, introverted brother, Beverly—Irons mastered the Alexander technique, which granted him control of minute muscle movements and seemingly involuntary mannerisms. The result is that it’s usually possible to identify on sight which twin Irons is playing, even though the two are so similar in appearance that they can masquerade as each other. Scenes of Beverly imitating Elliot take on layers of mastery, as they find Irons filtering one performance through another. Cronenberg uses subtle, elegant split-screen technology to put the twins next to each other in a single shot. But his true special effect is Irons himself, who lends the Mantle boys two separate, radically different identities, no visual trickery required. [A.A. Dowd]

3. Armie Hammer, The Social Network (2010)

In the world of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is somehow the ultimate underdog, even though the audience knows for a fact that he comes out of this story sitting on the top of the world. A lot of that accrued sympathy stems from Jesse Eisenberg’s prickly, wounded performance, but it helps that he has 200 years of Yalie privilege to push against, as embodied by twin aristocratic monoliths Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss. It’s not just the Winklevii are physically perfect, massively wealthy, and charming; it’s that there’s two of them, presenting the illusion (literally) that there’s a whole world of handsome haves working to keep Eisenberg’s geeky have-not down. Played with perfect smarm by Armie Hammer (with assistance from body double Josh Pence and some fancy CGI), the Winklevoss twins look for all the world like some sort of win-prone master race, which makes it all the more satisfying every time their nerdy rival kicks their collective ass. [William Hughes]

4-5. Bette Davis, A Stolen Life (1946)/Dead Ringer (1964)

Magnificent scenery-chewer Bette Davis was a natural to pull off the ultimate good twin/bad twin combo in 1946’s soapy A Stolen Life. Vivacious Patricia blatantly steals her twin Kate’s lighthouse-keeper boyfriend, played by Glenn Ford. When the sisters are in a sailing accident, and only one survives, who can blame the lovelorn Kate for pretending to be her sister to be close to her former beau? A mild and weepie post-war “women’s picture,” perhaps A Stolen Life whet Davis’ appetite for pulling off two roles, which would explain why she ran back to the twin well several years later. Edith and Margaret in 1964’s Dead Ringer are a pair of homicidal misfits, offhandedly offing each other’s spouses and paramours, until the categories of twindom morph from good/bad to unhinged/slightly less unhinged. Both black-and-white films remain immensely enjoyable, for entirely different reasons, and it’s fun to see how the directors and editors pulled off Davis’ duality in the pre-special-effects era. And Davis gleefully mugs so much in both movies, she’s practically daring the camera to throw a triplet into the mix. [Gwen Ihnat]

6. Nicolas Cage, Adaptation. (2002)

Nicolas Cage’s most recent actorly stunts have included a startling run of low-grade, barely released thrillers, and the occasional respite from those kinds of movies with something inspired, like Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans or Joe. But in a career full of audacious acting choices, his work as actual screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald Kaufman stands out as especially impressive, not least because these aren’t especially showy performances. Cage’s Charlie Kaufman, as written by the real screenwriter, is nervous, depressive, sweaty in his attempts to turn a Susan Orlean book into a Hollywood screenplay; Donald, who happily embraces hackwork with his thriller The Three, has more of the goofball bravado often associated with Cage, but he doesn’t go over the top. In a movie that calls attention to the watery territory where fact turns into fiction and vice versa, both Kaufman brothers remain grounded and believable characters grappling with their limitations, very possibly the last thing anyone might have expected from the logline “Nicolas Cage plays twins.” [Jesse Hassenger]

7. Edward Norton, Leaves Of Grass (2009)

Given his serious-business actor bona fides, it’s not surprising Ed Norton was eventually selected to pull double duty as identical twin brothers in the pot-centric comedy Leaves Of Grass. Writer-director Tim Blake Nelson tapped his Incredible Hulk co-star to play Bill and Brady Kincaid, the former a philosophy professor at Brown, the latter an amiable Oklahoman growing hydroponic weed. After hearing his brother was felled by a crossbow bolt, Bill travels down South, only to learn his brother is still alive, and in debt to a shady drug kingpin named Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). Soon enough, the story goes for the time-tested “twin switcheroo” move, as Bill assumes Brady’s identity while his brother embarks on a mission to take out Rothbaum. Surprisingly funny, the movie deftly balances the comedy-drama ratio with almost uniformly great performances and some sharp dialogue by Nelson. It’s the rare Ed Norton film that leaves you with a smile on your face, rather than concern about the difficult nature of existence. [Alex McCown]

8. Matt Lucas, Alice In Wonderland (2010)

It’s almost a stretch to say that British comedian Matt Lucas played anything in Alice In Wonderland, given how much of his body and face were replaced by ghastly CGI to make him into the globular, cartoonishly inhuman Tweedledee and Tweedledum. But he did actually act out both roles separately, with a stunt double jumping into the green screen motion-capture suit of whichever Tweedle he wasn’t playing during a given shoot. And his actual eyeballs and mouth were eventually pasted onto the hideous, identical computer-generated baby-bodies that replaced his own on screen. It’s sort of like acting! It’s also sort of like vivisection, with Tim Burton as the enthusiastic Ed Gein, hacking out the few parts of an actor he actually wants to keep. In this case, he really got his money’s worth, because he got to use Lucas’ popped-out eyeballs and hacked-out mouth twice instead of just once. [Tasha Robinson]

9. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Man In The Iron Mask (1998)

Alexandre Dumas got a little studlier when Leonardo DiCaprio, at the height of his teen-idol powers, donned a long wig to play both Louis and Phillipe. The former is the ruthless king of France, the latter a country boy who is scooped up and thrown in the Bastille, forced to wear the titular iron mask. Based on Dumas’ D’Artagnan Romances, including The Vicomte De Bragelonne, The Man In Iron Mask brings back the familiar names of the Three Musketeers to play soap-opera politics. Athos (John Malkovich), Porthos (Gerard Depardieu), and Aramis (Jeremy Irons) come out of Musketeer retirement to depose the evil Louis and replace him with the identical Phillipe. But DiCaprio was still years away from his prestige performances in Scorcese dramas; he took home the Golden Raspberry for Worst Screen Couple. [Molly Eichel]

10. Chris Rock, Bad Company (2002)

The comedy of Chris Rock is defined by a signature energy, one that’s frequently punctuated with disbelief leading to outrage. This vibe made him a reliable lead to tackle the impossible circumstances of Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Schumacher’s Bad Company, where New Jersey hustler Jake Hayes learns that he had a twin brother named Kevin Pope who grew up to work for the CIA. Once said brother meets an unfortunate demise, his CIA handlers (Anthony Hopkins, John Slattery) need to call in Hayes as a replacement, which he responds to in a typically opportunistic manner: “Unless my mother had triplets, you’re gonna give me $50,000.” Rock plays up the comedic element of this Trading Places scenario in his appreciation for the finer things secret-agent life provides him, but also manages to mine some pathos out of Hayes’s predicament as he considers how his life could have been different if he and Pope had been on the other side of the coin flip. The film itself is largely forgettable, but Rock’s energy of an everyman who in a different life was James Bond keeps everything afloat with a few choice rants. [Les Chappell]

11-12. Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, Big Business (1988)

Originally written with Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn in mind, Big Business eventually went to another singer-songwriter and comedian pairing—Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as Sadie Shelton/Sadie Ratliff and Rose Ratliff/Rose Shelton, respectively. Yes, both women play a set of identical twins who were mismatched at birth, leaving one Midler and one Tomlin with each duo. The cause of the mismatch is simple: After the wealthy Sheltons are stranded in Virginia, they are forced to give birth in a small-town hospital, the same one that the more provincial Ratliff family goes to. Add a nurse that can’t keep the babies in order—which isn’t helped by the Ratliffs’ decision to use the names Sadie and Rose after overhearing the Sheltons use them—and you’ve got one zany comedy of errors. The Shelton sisters, of course, go on to become just as wealthy as those who raised them, as 40-year-old co-chairpeople of Moramax, their father’s giant conglomerate. The Ratliffs manage to find themselves in a line of work that Moramax is looking to buy, which prompts a trip to New York City to stop the sale. Eventually they discover their true identities, both biologically and intrinsically, and are allowed to follow their true passions in life. And then there’s a gag about triplets, because come on, this movie isn’t holding back. [Becca James]

13. Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood (2007)

Contrary to popular belief, twins Paul and Eli Sunday are not supposed to be the same character. While the theory potentially gives There Will Be Blood even more complexity in its commentary on American greed, rendering oilman Daniel Plainview as much a victim as he is a perpetrator, it also holds no water when you look at the casting process. The Sundays were originally supposed to be different ages, with Dano playing the younger, smaller role of Paul. When the actor playing Eli quit, director P.T. Anderson had little time to find a replacement, so he just made the siblings twins and cast Dano in both parts. The fact that Anderson didn’t give Paul more scenes—or even a single scene with his brother—ends up making Paul the savviest of the three con men, a young entrepreneur who takes his money and gets the hell out of Dodge (or more accurately, Little Boston, California) to start his own oil company. He doesn’t stick around to siphon more wealth like Plainview (he prefers to do it from afar) or plunge down a rabbit hole of religious opportunism via religious fanaticism like Eli. As Daniel and Eli both experience especially ugly falls from grace, it’s Paul who has the last laugh. And as played by Dano, it’s a quiet, perfectly subdued laugh that contrasts with his more zealous portrayal of Eli (also perfect). [Dan Caffrey]

14-15. Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan, The Parent Trap (1961/1998)

There have actually been two successful version of this Disney staple, in which an actress of an extremely young age manages to pull off the tricky twin hat trick. In the original, Hayley Mills nails the differences between laid-back Californian Susan and snootier Bostonian Sharon, who improbably meet up at a summer camp after being separated as babies. Years later, young Lindsay Lohan even added an extra accent to the mix, as Annie is a Londoner who meets West-coaster Hallie at camp. Both sets of twins lose these differences and basically morph into each other as the parental match-making scheme of the title kicks off. But even in 1961, the Disney special effects were so effective that it’s difficult to remember that you’re not actually watching two different actresses playing these parts. And this is certainly Lohan’s far-more-successful effort of the two times she portrayed a set of twins. [Gwen Ihnat]

16. Lindsay Lohan, I Know Who Killed Me (2007)

The career of Lindsay Lohan was heading into its downward spiral in 2007, as her legal troubles and substance abuse began to fully eclipse whatever performance abilities she possessed. Given that, it makes sense that Lohan would return to her Parent Trap comfort zone, once again playing twins separated at birth. Only this time, it added the twist of “stigmatic twins,” meaning that both sisters—honors student Aubrey Fleming and hard-luck stripper Dakota Moss—are able to feel each other’s pain and experiences, even losing limbs when the other one does. This nonsensical reveal is the nadir of I Know Who Killed Me, a film that’s a nigh-incomprehensible mashup of robot prosthetics, a terrifying hairless cat, and an embarrassing faux-Lynchian fetish for the color blue. Lohan, who, in addition to other issues, had her appendix removed during production, is unable to save the film and even drags it further down with her now-signature inability to engage with any of her material on screen. The film was so bad, in fact, that rather than saving Lohan’s career it netted her a hat trick of three Razzies: one for playing Aubrey, one for playing Dakota, and one for the two as the Worst Screen Couple of that year. [Les Chappell]

17. Adam Sandler, Jack And Jill (2011)

One of the most notorious films in Adam Sandler’s recent filmography has become an instant punchline, and not because anyone fondly recalls its hilariousness. In something of a high-concept nightmare, Sandler plays both Jack, the kind of well-to-do family man with a much-younger wife, and his Bronx-residing, less-worldly twin sister Jill, who screws up and then (naturally) sort of improves her brother’s life by imposing on him with an extended, unwanted visit. It’s the kind of stunt that brings to mind the fake Sandler-style comedies that Judd Apatow and company dreamed up for Funny People, brought to terrifying life by Happy Madison Productions. But as unpleasant and gross as much of Jack And Jill is, and as many of the laughs that are ceded to a bonkers Al Pacino playing himself, Sandler is actually far more engaging than usual as the shrill, clueless Jill, and not just because she’s supposed to be annoying. There’s an oddball humanity to the character notably absent from Sandler’s late-period collection of grumpy, rich, passively bullying versions of what are inevitably supposed to be nice, regular dudes. He gives a broadly caricatured performance as Jill, but at least it is a performance; it’s too bad he’s giving it in such a crude, lazy movie. [Jesse Hassenger]

18. Margot Kidder, Sisters (1973)

A professed homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Sisters starred Margot Kidder in her pre-Superman days as formerly conjoined twins Danielle Breton and Dominique Blanchion. The two women lead very different lives: Danielle has a bustling modeling career, while Dominique is sleeping in when we first (think) we meet her. The twins turn femmes fatale after Dominique kills Danielle’s lover in a morning-after scene that can ruin birthday cakes for the viewer. They hide the body, but not before a neighbor witnesses his plea for help in a nod to Rear Window. Danielle struggles to conceal the crime and her sister while also wrestling with her sexuality. As the twins, Kidder is both repressed and unleashed, violent and vulnerable. Director Brian De Palma claimed he wrote the part(s) for his then-girlfriend, which casts a whole new light on Danielle’s lover’s wounds. Sisters is an effective psychological horror flick, deftly switching from blatant scares to lingering shots of Danielle’s face that capture her inner turmoil. The use of split screens captures the action from multiple perspectives, but also serves as a metaphor for the sisters’ split. [Danette Chavez]

19. Jackie Chan, Twin Dragons (1992)

Jackie Chan plays brothers separated at birth in Twin Dragons, an uneven attempt at incorporating the mixed-up twins plot device into a martial-arts film. One is a gifted kung-fu fighter, the other a virtuoso concert pianist! One has a wispy little ponytail. The other doesn’t! Having two Jackie Chans effectively splits his usual onscreen persona in two, with one handling all the copious ass-kicking while the other focuses on the flailing and mugging. The movie then indulges in the most worn-out mistaken-identity hijinks. What happens when the street-smart but uncultured brother has to conduct an orchestra? How about when the musical genius with no kung-fu skills has to defend himself against a mob goon? And what about when the two brothers swap girlfriends, lying to the two women and even coercing one to bed under false pretenses? Mister, that’s a recipe for hilarity, complete with startled reaction shots! As is most often the case with Jackie Chan movies, wit is best demonstrated in the fight scenes. An early encounter in a mobster’s karaoke den takes great advantage of the attack power of a feedback-prone speaker system. A climactic battle in a car factory has a real sense of danger as Chan avoids out-of-control cars and flying wrenches. Two Jackie Chans may be one more than a movie needs, but Twin Dragons still has a few startling set pieces worth watching. [Nick Wanserksi]

20. Freddie Highmore, The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

The twin brothers portrayed by Freddie Highmore form a familiar dichotomy: Jared is the adventure seeker, while Simon is a bookish pacifist. When Jared discovers a fairy world hidden in their new New England home, Simon is forced into the action when an ogre (voiced by Nick Nolte) and his minions take his brother hostage. He and Jared eventually escape in order to fight of the evil ogre together, saving their family with both smarts and courage. Highmore handles his double roles well, although he wasn’t a green actor by that point (Spiderwick was his 10th movie). He creates two separate kids out of Jared and Simon, a tough task even for the most veteran actor. [Molly Eichel]


21. Kevin Heffernan, Beerfest (2006)

When you think about it, the conceit of the same actor playing twins is kind of silly (and also kind of awesome). Beerfest comments on this by killing off Kevin Heffernan’s human drinking machine, Phil “Landfill” Krundle, halfway through the film. When it seems like all hope is lost and the Broken Lizard team no longer has a shot at winning the titular drinking tournament, Krundle’s twin brother Gil—also dubbed “Landfill”—shows up to save the day. Outside of the Texas getup, he’s exactly like his deceased sibling—he looks like him, smells like him, can chug a can of beer in five seconds flat, and even makes a superior partner to Landfill’s widow. As his teammate Fink observes, having Gil on the team “will be like we never lost Landfill,” thus surmounting a plot obstacle and making fun of the entire one-actor-playing-twins subgenre. [Dan Caffrey]