The 7 Best Actors Who Became Artists

Artwork: © James Franco, courtesy of Treason Gallery

Talent flows through Hollywood like freshly opened bottles of champagne. It is not unusual for great artists to have skills in more than one craft, so it’s not surprising that a great many actors are driven to express their passion for the visual arts.

Also: Discover Dennis Hopper’s “Lost Album” of Classic 1960s Photos

Crave rounds up 7 of the best actors who became artists, taking a look at the work they’ve done and touching on the inherent interplay between disciplines.

Adrien Brody, Ultra Subliminal, Mixed media on canvas, 48 × 48 in, 121.9 × 121.9 cm. Courtesy of David Benrimon Fine Art, New York.

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody has always been surrounded by art. His father was a painter and his mother, Sylvia Plachy, is a celebrated photographer who had a regular column in The Village Voice while the actor was growing up in Queens and studying acting at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School alongside folks like Marlon Wayans.

As the youngest person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor at the age of 29 for his role in The Pianist, Brody hit a career milestone early, and has had the pick of the litter ever since. But it wasn’t blockbusters that called to him—it was the artist studio, where he has since immersed himself in the creation of a series of paintings that he has shown with David Benrimon at Art Miami as part of Miami Art Week last year.

Brody told Artsy, “I had been working a lot as an actor and producer, and had just been really immersed in all that. I was bursting with desire to express myself independently. Painting lets me do that without the burden of having a screenwriter, a conversation about a script to make it suit me a bit more, finding a filmmaker that elevates me, and having an editor, and the producers, and the marketing team change the work that I go into doing and then it becoming something else, yet with my name on it. This is my doing.”

Brad Pitt, GQ Cover Photos by Ryan McGinley exclusively for GQ Style, 2017.

Brad Pitt

This month, Brad Pitt reveals the latest incarnation of his legendary career in a cover story for GQ Style, where he discusses his calling to art, which he has felt for the past ten years. Since splitting with Angelina Jolie, the actor has found himself inside the studio making art.

“I’m making everything. I’m working with clay, plaster, rebar, wood. Just trying to learn the materials. You know, I surprise myself. But it’s a very, very lonely occupation. There’s a lot of manual labor, which is good for me right now. A lot of lugging clay around, chopping and moving and cleaning up after yourself. But I surprise myself,” Pitt reveals.

It sounds as though art gives him a therapeutic release to the massive changes in his life, now that he has quit drugs and alcohol at the age of 53. In the interview, he explains, “Yesterday I wasn’t settled. I had a lotta chaotic thoughts—trying to make sense of where we are at this time—and the thing I was doing wasn’t controlled and balanced and perfect. It came out chaotic. I find vernacular in what you can make, rather than giving a speech. I find voice there, that I need.”

Paintings. © James Franco, courtesy of Treason Gallery

James Franco

James Franco does it all, so it should hardly come as any surprise that the young upstart would find himself inside the world of art. But can the art world take James Franco seriously? That’s the question Jerry Saltz asked when the two sat down together last year for New York Magazine. “People get weird when actors go into the art world. They get weird when actors go into politics. Not that it keeps actors from doing it, or running for president,” Franco observed.

Franco acknowledged that it can be annoying to watch celebrities do certain things, but that doesn’t stop him from testing the boundaries in any medium of his choice. He explains that the allure of making art is, “the freedom of making something that doesn’t need to entertain, that isn’t going to be tallied up in the box-office tolls. And it’s something that, frankly, I’ve done longer than I’ve been making films.”

So what is the art like? You might say it looks like the inside of Franco’s head. Hop on over to Treason Gallery and check it out for yourself.

© Dennis Hopper, Hells Angel Girl, 1961-67.

Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper (1949-2010) is best known to the world as an actor and director whose films sharpened the cutting edge, whether appearing in Rebel Without a Cause (1954), Easy Rider (1969), or Blue Velvet (1986). Hopper didn’t play by the rules that Hollywood wrote, and quickly earned the reputation of being “difficult.” Finding himself ostracized by a studio system that loved to sell rebellion but couldn’t tolerate it within its own ranks, Hopper turned to photography.

His first wife Brooke Howard gave him a Nikon, and he began documenting the world in which he lived—and he lived hard. He attended the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma to Montogmery March in 1955, hanging out with outlaw biker gangs, art stars, musicians, and actors. He created the cover art for the Ike & Tina Turner classic “River Deep – Mountain High,” released in 1966, and was described as an up-and-coming photographer by Terry Sothern in Better Homes and Gardens (of all places).

After his death, a collection of 400 photographs were rediscovered and published as Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album (Prestel), providing an incredible look at the actor’s view of life from the other side of the camera. Here were see Hopper as he saw himself: an artist, auteur, outsider, insider, renegade, romantic, and idealist who understood the photograph’s power to transform the way we look at the world.

Jim Carrey. Photo courtesy of Signature Galleries

Jim Carrey

This Fall, Signature Galleries in Los Angeles will host Jim Carrey: Sunshower, a an exhibition of paintings and limited editions opening September 23. Tickets to the event are priced at $10,000 per couple, which will include entrance to the event along with a Carrey artwork of your choosing. Jim Carrey’s paintings could be described as Pop Expressionism, with works like Electric Jesus and Hooray We Are All Broken. The images infuse bright colors, bold graphics, and a freeflowing style that is reminiscent of his on-screen persona.

In the short documentary film, Jim Carrey: I Needed Color, the famed funnyman observes, ““What you do in life chooses you. You can choose not to do it. You can choose to try do something safer. Your vocation chooses you. When I really started painting a lot I had become so obsessed that there was nowhere to move in my home. Paintings were everywhere. They were becoming part of the furniture. I was eating on them. I found myself looking around at on point at really bleak winter in New York, and it was so depressing. And I think I needed color.”

Johnny Depp, CD cover art for Bliss, released November 7, 2000

Johnny Depp

Best known for his searing portrayals and character roles, Johnny Depp’s love of personality extends to the canvas as well. Throughout his career, he’s been painting portraits of seminal figures like Bob Dylan, Patti Smtih, and Marlon Brando, explaining to Vanity Fair in 2009, “What I love to do is paint people’s faces, y’know, their eyes. Because you want to find the emotion, see what’s going on behind their eyes.”

We can see this in the painting he made of then-wife Vanessa Paradis, for the cover of her 2009 album, Bliss. In retrospect, the work is even more telling and personal now than it was then.

Depp’s other works are showcased at Depp Impact, and include everything from a self-portrait made from an Annie Leibovitz photograph of Depp hanging upside down to a painting of his boot, which he describes as, “like an old girlfriend. We are always together and we lived so many things together! I just wanted to give her an homage for its loyalty and being there.”

© Sir Anthony Hopkins, Opera Ball

Sir Anthony Hopkins

Sir Anthony Hopkins gets down to brass tacks on his website dedicated exclusively to his paintings: “I don’t think there’s any meaning in it. I just paint. I discover as I go along and I don’t analyze, I just go for it.”

Here, the actor, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, does as he chooses. Employing various types of paints, pens, markers, and brushes, Hopkins lets loose, fearlessly creating without restraint. “I do not feel afraid. I don’t feel that I have to prove anything,” Hopkins observes. “I’ve never had that kind of academic discipline to work by rules. I work by trial and error. I guess I am purely instinct.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all be this free? Truly, Hopkins has lived life on his terms, and leading by example is nothing short of pure poetry. He acknowledges, “I don’t know where this one is going. But I find that very satisfying. Everything is utter madness. It’s a reflection of what is in my mind. I tell younger people to be it. Enjoy it. This is it. It’s the way we are made. It’s the way I’m made.”

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.