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A dual role (also known as a double role) refers to one actor playing two roles in a single production. Dual roles (or a larger number of roles for an actor) may be deliberately written into a script, or may instead be a choice made during production, often due to a low budget. In film and television, dual roles are often used for comic effect, or to depict identical twins. In a theatrical production where more than one actor plays multiple characters, it is sometimes referred to as an "Ironman" cast.
In theatre, the use of multiple roles may be budget-related, may be intended to give an accomplished actor more stage time or a greater challenge, or may be of thematic significance to the story. The combination of factors leading to such a decision may often remain unknown. For example, debate exists over the significance of William Shakespeare's use of dual roles, with a notable example being whether the characters of Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear were intended to be one and the same.
More recent examples include:
- In stage productions of Peter Pan, it is a tradition for Mr. Darling and Captain Hook to be played by the same actor, a tradition often continued in film adaptations with the actors playing dual roles.
- In the works of absurdists such as Tom Stoppard, characters played by the same actor are often of thematic significance.
- In Tony Kushner's Angels in America, a cast of eight actors are each assigned multiple roles for reasons that may include encouraging the audience to consider the elasticity of gender and sexual identities.
- In the musical Hamilton, four actors/actresses are cast in dual roles, each a major supporting character, with a change of roles between the first and second acts. The actors who play John Laurens/Philip Hamilton, Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, and Hercules Mulligan/James Madison wear identical white costumes in the opening song, "Alexander Hamilton", and were given lines with intentional double meanings that would fit either of their dual roles. The actress who plays Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds is also double cast.
The Prisoner of Zenda, based on a book about a lookalike who assumes the identity of a king, includes a dual role that has been played by Lewis Stone (1922 version), Ronald Colman (1937 version), Stewart Granger (1952 version), and Peter Sellers (1979 version).
An early and unusual example of double casting was the 1925 silent film Lady of the Night, in which two women were portrayed by Norma Shearer to spotlight their very different social classes, and nobody took any notice of their identical appearance.
In The Wizard of Oz (1939), the actors who played the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow also played farmhands in scenes set in Kansas. Margaret Hamilton played both the roles of Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, and Frank Morgan played multiple characters in addition to the title role of the Wizard.
In some low-budget films, actors have been cast in more than one role to save money. For example, in one of Peter Jackson's early films, Bad Taste, Jackson played two characters; in one scene, one of them tortures the other.
Multiple casting has been used for comic effect in film, with notable examples that include:
- Peter Sellers in movies such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1979)
- Mike Myers in the Austin Powers film series (1997–2002)
- Buster Keaton in his 1921 film The Playhouse, playing nearly every part
Particularly in comedies, multiple casting has often included the casting of an actor as multiple members of the same family. For example:
- In the Back to the Future franchise, actor Michael J. Fox played Marty McFly and McFly's son and daughter, including an appearance as all three characters at the same time in a dinner scene, while Thomas F. Wilson played Biff Tannen, his grandson Griff Tannen, and his great-grandfather Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen.
- Alec Guinness played all eight members of one family in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
- Eddie Murphy played the title character and almost every member of his family in The Nutty Professor (1996) and its sequel (2000).
India and Bollywood
Prior to Bollywood, the first double role in Indian cinema was played by Ashok Kumar in his film Kismet in 1943. Tamil film actor M. N. Nambiar played eleven parts in the early 1950s film Digambara Samiyar, as a sage using nine disguises to defeat an evil lawyer.
Starting in the 1970s, having a living double in a Bollywood film became "almost a genre in itself," according to filmmaker Govind Nihalani. The first double role in Bollywood, played by Amitabh Bachchan, was in the film Bandhe Haath in 1973. Angoor (1982) featured two pairs of identical twins, played by Sanjeev Kumar and Deven Verma. Another Tamil actor, Kamal Hassan, had ten roles in the 2008 film Dasavathaaram (The Ten Avatars). Sivaji Ganesan played nine roles in the Tamil film Navarathiri. Priyanka Chopra played the roles of twelve eligible girls in the movie What's Your Raashee?, and Mehmood Ali portrayed three generations of the Kapoor family (Prithviraj, Raj, and Randhir) in the movie Humjoli.
In television, soap operas commonly use the technique to either portray twins (or even similar looking relatives), or to bring an actor back whose character has been killed. This technique is uncommon, although not unheard of, in primetime television. In Friends, Lisa Kudrow plays Phoebe and her twin sister Ursula. David Schwimmer played a character in heavy make-up named Russ, who was a parody of Ross (played by Schwimmer), both of whom appear on screen together.
In the 1967 Star Trek episode titled "Mirror, Mirror", as well as its sequels in episodes of three later Star Trek series (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Enterprise, and Star Trek: Discovery), several of the regular characters visited or switched places with morally-inverted counterparts from a parallel Mirror Universe, with the actors playing dual roles.
The Vampire Diaries franchise features Nina Dobrev playing four roles (doppelgangers Elena Gilbert, Katerina Petrova, Tatia, and their progenitor Amara) and Paul Wesley playing three roles (doppelgangers Stefan Salvatore, Tom Avery, and their progenitor Silas).