There’s something inherently zaney and strange about celebrities taking a break from their kush existences to pursue side careers in music. I mean, if you’re already rich and have more money than you know what to do with, trying to make it in music comes off as being a little greedy. But whether you think it’s indulgent, admirable or just downright funny, there’s some interesting stories to be found when celebrities or actors try to become rock stars.
From banjo-wielding comedians to massive stars who’ve turned down big roles to play music instead, today we’re profiling eight actors who are also musicians.
#1: Macaulay Culkin got a little cheesy with his pizza / Velvet Underground-themed band ‘The Pizza Underground’
Affectionately described by Culkin as “one of those good ideas you have when you’re drunk, and you wake up and forget about it,” the Pizza Underground was born in 2013. The former child star famous for starring in the Home Alone movies actively toured the US playing Velvet Underground/pizza themed cover songs until the band was pelted with beer and booed off stage a year later. After the incident which the band cleverly (not) described as a “cheesemergency,” the Pizza Underground canceled the rest of their tour and haven’t performed since.
But if you’re a fan of extremely odd tribute bands like Culkin’s, don’t despair. In 2016, the band announced they were still active and hard at work on an album featuring a children’s choir and symphony orchestra, so that’s, uh, something to look forward to.
#2: Keanu Reeves dogged the Speed 2 crew when he turned down a major role in the movie to tour with his band Dogstar instead
Our next celebrity gave up millions of dollars to tour with his band instead. Disbanded back in 2002, no matter what you think of Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar, you’ve gotta give the guy credit for putting a lot on the line for the sake of his passion. Also, it’s a universal fact that the Speed sequel was a disaster, so Reeves might’ve made a good call turning down the role.
Believe it or not, the band did enjoy some success with opening slots for David Bowie and Bon Jovi. Fun fact: Before the name Dogstar, Reeves’ band was briefly called Small Fecal Matter. Feel free to share that little tidbit with your friends and family.
Check out Keauu in action here. He’s not actually do that much (ahem, I mean playing bass). It amuses me how much the camera focuses on the bass player! Just cos it’s Mr Matrix himself. It’s actually a pretty good song!
#3: We think Juliette Lewis got a tad bit exploitative with her band The Licks
Academy Award nominee Juliette Lewis drew confusion and a decent amount of criticism for the music she made with her band The Licks. From 2003-2009, the star of movies like Cape Fear, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Natural Born Killers fully pursued a musical career that had her opening for bands at venues as big as Red Rocks Amphitheater in the United States.
Earning mixed reviews, the Lewis drew controversy and condemnation for exploiting Native American communities for performing with a traditional Indian headdress, imagery she also supported on one of the band’s album covers. “In an attempt to appear strong, raw, and unapologetic,” Native American writer Jessica Yee wrote describing Lewis, “people, and in this case, a woman, feels like she has to appropriate Native culture to a pretty extreme extent in order to do a good job of it.” Ouch.
Here’s a video of her in action, with aforementioned Indian headdress.
#4: Steven Seagal’s music gives us the blues
Action movie star turned major weirdo Steven Seagal has been all over the news lately for everything from being accused of sexually harassing women to his bewildering association with a cryptocurrency Bitcoin knockoff. What’s hugely funny but isn’t very newsworthy about Seagal though is that this jack of all trades and, um, real gem of a human being is also a blues guitarist.
Don’t believe me? Just read this quote from his website:
“Steven is an accomplished guitar player and his style of classic and modern blues is personified in a way that only Steven Seagal can accomplish.”
As a writer, I can tell you with some authority that that sentence is designed to sound profound but in reality means literally nothing. Oh, Steven. Why can’t you go back to making awful action movies?
Here’s the action hero, in a modestly titled ‘Guitar Master’ video. You gotta hand it to the guy, he’s pretty handy on the old six string.
#5: Johnny Depp dropped out of high school for his music
Believe it or not, Johnny Depp’s life in music long predates his work in movies. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Depp was so into music as a teen that he dropped out of highschool to play with a band called The Kids. The band reunited in 2008 for a benefit concert and Depp speaks fondly about his love for music to this day.
But unlike some of the celebrities mentioned here, Depp has had some real success in music. He’s collaborated with bands as famous as Oasis and The Pogues. Also, he played a pirate in a few movies that folks seem to like.
Here’s a pretty cool video of him jamming a blues with no other than Paul McCartney.
#6: Hipster actor Jason Schwartzman’s music is pretty dang hip
Jason Schwartzman is a rare case in the fact that the development of his acting career closely coincided with his musical one. As a teenager, Schwartzman acted in movies like Rushmore around the same time he developed his musical chops. The drummer for Phantom Planet, he was a musician who helped write and record the song “California” which went on to be the iconic theme song of the hit show The O.C.
The extremely hip actor later started his own extremely hip band called Coconut Records which produced music that critics described as sounding “extremely hip.”
#7: Steve Martin is actually really good at music
It’s no secret that Steve Martin is an extremely talented comedian and actor, but you might be surprised to learn that the dude has won multiple grammys for his banjo skills. With a successful solo career and through collaborations with critically acclaimed bands like The Steep Canyon Rangers, Steve Martin isn’t a wannabe rock star, but he’s so likable that he’s on this list anyway.
Martin has been notably absent from film and comedy over the past decade, and music might be one of the reasons why. The iconic funnyman hasn’t been in a major movie since 2009’s It’s Complicated, but he is making time to go on tour with the Rangers across North America this fall.
#8: People have had some pretty extreme reactions to Jared Leto’s music
Launching his acting career with a role on the 90’s teen drama My So Called Life, Jared Leto developed his rock star ambitions the same year the show was canceled when he founded a rock outfit called Thirty Seconds To Mars. Similar to other celebrities like Jack Johnson who’ve managed to find fame and notoriety by working in two insanely successful careers simultaneously, Leto’s band has done surprisingly well. With releases that have gone platinum during the same time Leto acted in movies that earned widespread acclaim for his acting work, Leto and his band are now household names. How many people on this planet have won an academy award who’ve also made a record that went platinum? Jared Leto and like, maybe a few others.
But unlike Martin, Leto’s life as a rock star might not live up to his acting achievements in the long-run. A brutal 2014 live New York Daily concert review claimed that Leto’s band sounded like “U2 with a serious brain injury.” Well, like it or not, the band is slated to release a new album this year. Good luck, Jared!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.