When you’re a young artist, it’s easy to be driven by your passion and ideals. When you’re a bit older, eh, sometimes a job is a job. The kids are in college, the roof needs repairs, so why not take a gig in a genre project and pick up a few bucks? Sure, if you pick wrong you might have a miserable time, and if you pick really wrong you might appear in one of the worst movies ever, but either way, it’ll all be over in a few months. And after that, you can do as these 12 stars did and let everyone know what you really thought of it. Note, though, that these aren’t all bad performances — far from it. After all, when you’re an experienced thespian like the ones below, a paycheck performance doesn’t necessarily have to mean low-effort.
Alec Guinness, Star Wars
The crowning example of this trend is Sir Alec Guinness, who apparently loathed every moment he spent as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Though Guinness’s profit-sharing agreement meant that the film eventually made him a very rich man, he spent much of its production moaning and groaning about Obi-Wan’s “ropy” dialogue and unclear motivation. As he wrote in his diary, “Apart from the money, I regret having embarked on the film. I like them well enough, but it’s not an acting job, the dialogue — which is lamentable — keeps being changed and only slightly improved, and I find myself old and out of touch with the young.” A recently unearthed letter from the set reports the same sentiments. “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper,” Guinness told a friend. “None of it makes my character clear or even bearable.” Time did not make him more sentimental about the experience: In a memoir, Guinness told a jolly story about bringing a child to tears by asking him to never watch Star Wars again. As he summed up the incident: “I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.”
Ian McShane, Game of Thrones
Ian McShane is bringing his swaggering charm to the upcoming season of Game of Thrones, playing a character whose identity has been kept officially under wraps. But in an interview with the BBC, the Deadwood star gave a few hints about his role, and ended up dropping a medium-size spoiler about events to come. Don’t yell at him about it; he really didn’t care. “I was accused of giving the plot away,” McShane told the Telegraph afterward. “But I just think, get a f—ing life. It’s only tits and dragons.” Still, he seems to have taken the part on a lark: “They said it would only be for one episode, so I said, ‘So that means I must die at the end of it. Great, I’m in.’” But will he be killed by a tit or a dragon?
Stephen Dillane, Game of Thrones
Part of McShane’s initial interest in Game of Thrones came from what he thought was the opportunity to act alongside his old pal Stephen Dillane. Sadly, that was not to be, as Dillane’s Stannis Baratheon was killed off at the end of season five. But what a coincidence! That same week, Dillane gave an interview to Radio Times, in which he admitted that he didn’t watch the show — too “brutal” — and also revealed that he mostly took the gig for the money. “Money is the main thing I got out of it,” he explained. “It’s an odd situation. There is a kind of etiquette around these things.” Still, Dillane was adamant that he didn’t want to trash the fantasy series, which he called “an amazing phenomenon.” And besides, he had some good times on the set, praising “the nice people, the craic [Irish for fun] … hanging out in Belfast with [Liam] Cunningham and Carice [van Houten] and the guys from Castle Black.” Learning that Stannis had a jolly good time filming GoT just makes you appreciate Dillane’s acting even more, doesn’t it?
Sally Field, The Amazing Spider-Man
Unlike most of the people on this list, Sally Field didn’t take the role as Aunt May in the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films for mercenary reasons; instead, she did it as a favor for her old producing partner, Laura Ziskin, who was dying of cancer. That didn’t mean she thought it was good, mind you. As Field told Howard Stern, “It’s really hard to find a three-dimensional character in it, and you work it as much as you can, but you can’t put ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag.” In other words: She didn’t like it, she really didn’t like it.
Joan Crawford, Trog
Joan Crawford appeared in nearly 100 films in her career, but of all those, only one was Trog, a terrible monster movie about a caveman rampaging around the British countryside. It would be the last film she ever did. She took the job as a favor to its producer, and negotiated a killer wardrobe budget besides, but that wasn’t enough to get her to treasure the experience. Afterward, Crawford joked that only her Christian Scientist faith kept her from committing suicide after seeing her name on the marquee. “I hate being asked to discuss those dreadful horror pictures I made the mistake of starring in,” she said later. “They were all just so disappointing to me … Now you can understand why I retired from making motion pictures.”
Orson Welles, Transformers: The Movie
Not to be outdone by Crawford, Orson Welles’s own final film was 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, in which he voiced Unicron, a malevolent mechanical moon. Shortly before his death, Welles described the job to his biographer Barbara Leaming, his voice apparently “dripping with contempt.” “I played the voice of a toy,” he reported. “Some terrible robot toys from Japan that change from one thing to another … I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed.” But if that quote gives you the impression he was bitter, well, Welles’s friends say that’s the one word you shouldn’t use. As Leaming recalled later, the director tried to have a healthy attitude about his late-in-life paycheck gigs: “The thing he used to always say to me was, ‘The one thing that’s helped me to survive is that I’m not bitter.’” This impression was seconded by Peter Bogdanovich, who told a Reddit AMA, “Orson wasn’t really bitter. He was very acerbic. He could be rather cutting. But I wouldn’t say he was bitter.”
Laurence Olivier, Inchon
How did Laurence Olivier, the finest actor of his generation, end up starring in Inchon, a war movie funded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon that’s widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time? We don’t have to guess, as Olivier gave a very candid answer in an interview on the film’s set. “People ask me why I’m playing in this picture,” he explained. “The answer is simple. Money, dear boy.” The 73-year-old Olivier, who was paid $1 million (delivered by helicopter) to play Douglas MacArthur in the film, compared himself to a vintage wine: “You have to drink me quickly before I turn sour. I’m almost used up now and I can feel the end coming.” With the void approaching, the only thing that mattered was making as much money for his family as possible. “Nothing is beneath me if it pays well,” he concluded. “I’ve earned the right to damn well grab whatever I can in the time I’ve got left.” Olivier would live another eight years, taking 15 more screen roles; his answer went on to inspire an entire TV Tropes page.
Michael Caine, Jaws: The Revenge
During his 50-year career, Michael Caine has been in dozens of films that, in his own diplomatic words, were not “very well made.” But only one of these required him to skip the Oscars: Jaws: The Revenge, which was filming in the Bahamas the day Caine won his Academy Award for Hannah and Her Sisters. He has no regrets about taking part in the Jaws sequel, in part because he famously never saw it. “’I have never seen it but by all accounts it is terrible,” he wrote in a memoir. “However, I have seen the house that it built and it is terrific.”
Michael Madsen, Species II
By his own reckoning, Michael Madsen has only made a handful of good films in his career. As of 2009, the count was up to six: Kill Bill, Species, Free Willy, Thelma & Louise, Reservoir Dogs, and Donnie Brasco. What about the rest? “’I’ve made some crap,” he admitted, “but you’ve got to pay the bills.” Chief among the trash is Species II, which Madsen calls “a crock of s–t.” The veteran character sees this shit-talking as part of his appeal. “I’m honest,” he says. “If I’ve made a bad movie, I want my fans to know what they’re letting themselves in for.”
Billy Bob Thornton, Armageddon
As Billy Bob Thornton recalled, he took the role of a NASA chief in Armageddon for two reasons: One, he was going through a divorce and needed a lot of money very quickly. Two, his manager told him, every actor — even very serious ones — should “be on a bus stop” every once in a while. Unlike some other actors on this list, Thornton thought it indelicate to criticize the film afterward. “I got to wear a suit and tie and spout off a bunch of lingo that I didn’t know what it meant, and it was great, you know?” he remembered. “The movie did a lot for me so I can never knock that movie … Nobody should ever knock anything you get to do in your entire business because it’s not [like] workin’ in a saw mill.”
Charles Dance, Space Truckers, etc.
Before becoming Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, Charles Dance’s patrician good looks gave him a profitable side career as the baddie in Hollywood dross like the leaden detective film China Moon, the erotic drama The Blood Oranges, and the Dennis Hopper sci-fi vehicle Space Truckers. Speaking to the Evening Standard in 1999, Dance agreed with his interviewer that his film career was full of “junk.” (Imagine accidentally insulting Charles Dance, and then having him agree with you.) “I’ve done some appalling films,” he said. “You do what you can with the stuff you’re given. It’s a misconception that actors make choices. For all but the most privileged few, the only choice is to work or not to work.”
Bob Hoskins, Super Mario Bros.
When Bob Hoskins died in 2014, the world remembered something it had long forgotten about the beloved actor — he absolutely hated being in the Super Mario Bros. movie. In an interview with the Guardian in 2007, Hoskins remembered the “fucking nightmare” that was the film’s troubled production. “It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent,” he recalled. “After so many weeks their own agent told them to get off the set! … Fucking idiots.” It was, he swore, “the worst thing I ever did.” Four years later, his opinion of the film remained unchanged. In a Guardian Q&A in 2011, Hoskins said the video-game adaptation was both his “worst job” and “biggest disappointment.” When asked what he would change about his past, he replied, “I wouldn’t do Super Mario Brothers.”