It’s difficult enough for an actor to be tasked with transforming into a new person — in aspect, personality, movement and spirit — from role to role. But when double duty (or more) is required within the same project, that’s when the real challenge kicks in, because the viewer must be convinced that the same actor is distinctly different when they’re playing both parts in rapid succession, sometimes even side-by side or interacting with each other.
Dating back to shows like “The Patty Duke Show,” “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” the dual role usually allowed for storylines involving twins, cousins or other lookalikes. Even “Knight Rider” stuck a mustache and goatee on David Hasselhoff to give him an evil twin. Over time though, these performances became less campy and more convincing, going beyond the fake hair, goofy costuming or “evil” shortcut trappings. These days, dual roles can be so eerily distinct and nuanced that sometimes it’s difficult to remember that it’s the same actor delivering both performances.
With the return of “Fargo,” starring Ewan McGregor playing twin brothers, we thought it was time to check in with best dual roles for actors on current TV shows. But before we dive into that list, a couple exceptions:
1. No animated series – We want to judge the physical and visual performance, so cartoons are out. Besides, “The Simpsons” would require a list in itself.
2. No sketch/variety series – Like animation, this is its own beast distinct from scripted narrative shows, and therefore should be judged on separate merits.
Check out the best dual/multiple roles on TV, ranked in order of ascending greatness:
6. Yael Grobglas on “Jane the Virgin”
Roles: Petra and Anezka Natalia
Physical Differences: Petra is a perfectly coiffed blonde with a sexy, effortless sense of Miami style, while Anezka has dull and frizzy brown hair and leans towards more comfy or modest clothes.
Performance: While Grobglas first introduced us to Petra as a duplicitous, manipulative bitch, the actress has been able to evolve the character into someone who is softer, yet determined. In contrast, with the introduction of Petra’s long-lost sister Anezka, Grobglas had to tap into a sweeter, more innocent side, in addition to giving her a Czech accent. While the physical differences make for an easy separation between the two characters, Grobglas is also able to convey, without uttering a word, Petra’s controlling intensity and Anezka’s gentle nature, even when one is masquerading as the other. Sneaky!
Degree of Difficulty (1-10): 7
5. Tom Cavanagh on “The Flash”
Roles: Eobard Thawne/Reverse Flash masquerading as Dr. Harrison Wells, Harrison “Harry” Wells (Earth 2), Harrison “HR” Wells (Earth 19); Briefly: Harrison Wells (Earth 1), Harrison Wells (French-speaking), Harrison Wells (Earth 17)
Physical Differences: As Eobard, he wears glasses and is in a wheelchair (though he can actually walk, as he’s secretly also Reverse Flash). As Harry, Cavanagh’s hair mostly stays the same but he ditches the glasses. As HR, the look is the most obviously different. with a bit of a side part and a penchant for wearing a hat.
Performance: Over the course of “The Flash’s” three seasons, Cavanagh has had the opportunity to slip into the skin of a number of different characters thanks to the multiverse, but he’s really only played three characters for any length of time: Eobard (Season 1), Harry (Season 2), and HR (Season 3). All three men are distinct in personality: The Reverse Flash was a remorseless villain who killed Barry’s mother; Harry turned out to be a gruff jerk who not only thought he was the smartest man in the room, but actually was the smartest man in the room, which sometimes made him a little unbearable (but we loved him anyway); and HR is a complete departure from the first two characters. A writer of science romances (whatever those are), he’s an innocent goof who helps others to realize their potential. While Cavanagh’s had to take on three separate but major roles, he very rarely has had to play them within the same episode.
Degree of Difficulty (1-10): 7 .5
4. Tobias Menzies, “Outlander”
Roles: Frank Randall and Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall
Physical Differences: Frank is the epitome of a learned historian in England 1945, clean-cut and wearing twee three-piece suits and fedoras. His ancestor Black Jack has a ponytail and wears the red coated uniform and tricorn hat of an English soldier from 1745.
Performance: Erudite and mild-mannered, Frank is distraught after losing his wife Claire for unknown reasons. Menzies flips the switch to play Black Jack, who is a sadistic and tormented soul who spreads his toxicity wherever he goes. While Frank doesn’t appear on the show that often, Menzies deserves full credit for giving him enough heart that when he’s on screen, we’re somehow able to forget Black Jack’s completely contemptible and brutal ways.
Degree of Difficulty (1-10): 8
3. Ewan McGregor on “Fargo”
Roles: Emmit and Ray Stussy
Physical Differences: Emmit is the Parking Lot King of Minnesota and has the clean-shaven face and sharp suits befitting of that moniker. His slightly younger twin brother Ray’s hairline is receding, which he makes up for in overall length and upper-lip adornment.
Performance: McGregor dropped his Scottish brogue to tackle the equally distinctive Minnesotan dialect, which is present but less pronounced in the more controlled, self-assured Emmit (McGregor wears Spanx to appear slimmer). In contrast, Ray is looser and slouchier, and yet still has that spark of hope in his eye. That’s love for ya. The two are completely unlike each other — to the point of being regular siblings or even cousins, not even twins. McGregor is that good.
Degree of Difficulty (1-10): 9
2. Zach Galifianakis on “Baskets”
Roles: Chip and Dale Baskets
Physical Differences: Dale fancies himself a businessman, and thus he generally blow-dries his hair and wears colorful dress shirts with suspenders and slacks. In contrast, when Chip isn’t in clown costume, he’s much more slovenly, wearing loose t-shirts and jeans, with his curly hair crowding his face.
Performance: Galifianakis brings out the pathos in Chip, a dreamer sad sack who snipes at his best friend and seems to always find ways to fail. And while we first met Dale as a really loud and obnoxious braggart who constantly picked on his twin, the actor has also given him a tender side. In Season 2, the deep-seated sibling rivalry and pain that the two have built up over decades came to a head, and the resulting combustion brought out new sides to them both. Despite the characters’ physical similarities, Galifianakis has gone beyond the sort of performance where it looks like he’s talking to himself to developing a fully realized pair of brothers who do what brothers do best: fight. In a scene where the two are grappling with each together, even though it’s Dale who is wearing Chip’s clown costume, it’s still clear who is who from the hair and speech.
Degree of Difficulty (1-10): 9.5
1. Tatiana Maslany on “Orphan Black”
Roles: Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, Helena, Rachel Duncan, Tony Sawicki, Krystal Goderitch, M.K. and various other dead Leda clones
Physical Differences: Each has a distinct hair style and wardrobe: Sarah is punk; Alison is suburban housewife chic; Cosima is a bohemian with glasses and dreds; Helena is wild with frizzy blonde hair and pinkness around her eyes; Rachel is cold and calculated with a sleek blonde bob; Tony is a transgender clone with short hair; Krystal is the ultimate blonde spa girl; and M.K. has a messy bob, bangs and a habit of wearing a sheep mask.
Performance: Ranging from uptight and prissy to wild and violent, Maslany delivers performances so distinct and yet all so vibrant that even her own castmates forget that in a scene with a new clone that they’ve already acted with Maslany before. The sheer number of transformations she has to make, not to mention playing opposite herself for multi-clone scenes, is not just impressive, it’s downright unbelievable at times. The four-clone dance party in the Season 2 finale was a marvelous thing of beauty. (Despite making-of videos, we still suspect actual cloning was involved.) It’s no wonder Maslany took home an Emmy for her performance last year.
Degree of Difficulty (1-10): 13