30 Famous Actors Who Appeared in Indie Music Videos
Music videos were originally a novelty, low budget affairs with groups miming their songs in a white studio with perhaps a smoke machine. But with the launch of MTV, music video got more sophisticated quick, with bigger budgets and sometimes big stars. Would Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" have been as big a hit without Chevy Chase in the music video? Maybe, but it no doubt helped. A famous face showing up in a video by an alternative or indie artist, though, is much more valuable, adding production value and hopefully a reason for people who didn't know the musician to watch the whole thing.
There have been many videos by indie and alt-rock artists over the years to feature notable actors, and we've rounded up over 30 here. (Some actors have appeared in more than one video, for different musicians.) For this list we stuck to actors who are known primarily for drama (or at least were at the time of the video). Comedians in Music Videos would be a much, much longer list. Many of these thespians, however, do show their funny side.
This list stars Bruce Willis, Phoebe Bridgers, Kate Bush, Jon Hamm, Ian McKellan, Natalie Portman, Jenny Lewis, Brie Larson, Christopher Walken, Tilda Swinton, Smog, David Thewlis, Fontaines DC, Daniel Radcliffe, Jake Gyllenhaal, many Game of Thrones cast members, Jason Statham in a speedo, and many more. Dig in....
MUSIC VIDEOS BY INDIE ARTISTS STARRING FAMOUS ACTORS
Donald Sutherland in Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting" (1985)
"Cloudbusting," the second single from Kate Bush's 1985 album The Hounds of Love, is based on Peter Reich's memoir A Book of Dreams, and the sweetly moving video was based on it too. In particular Kate drew from recollections of Reich as a boy working with his father -- Freud acolyte Wilhelm Reich who fled Germany during the rise of the Third Reich -- as they worked on his "cloudbuster" machine that could supposedly bring rain. Kate conceived of the video with Terry Gilliam, but it was directed by Julian Doyle who worked on Gilliam's films Brazil and Time Bandits. Kate played young Peter, and she convinced Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H*, Don't Look Now) to portray Peter's father after he initially turned down the role. "Cloudbusting" actually showed in some movie theaters in the UK. "I remember the first morning on set seeing [Kate] coming out of her trailer smoking a joint and I cautioned her, saying she shouldn’t smoke that, it’d affect her work," Donald Sutherland told Dazed Digital. "She looked at me for a second and said she hadn’t been straight for nine years and I loved her.”
Tilda Swinton in Orbital's "The Box" (1996)
English actress Tilda Swinton was an indie star thanks to roles in Derek Jarman films and her breakout role in 1992's Orlando when she starred in Orbital's video for "The Box," playing "The Traveler" who exists unmoored from time as East London races memorably around her. Directors Jes Benstock and Luke Losey used time-lapse photography and stop motion animation to striking effect -- it won Video of the Year at the 1997 Brit Awards.
Tilda Swinton in David Bowie's "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" (2013)
Tilda had won an Oscar for Michael Clayton by the time she played David Bowie's doting wife in the Floria Sigismondi video for "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" where the mild-mannered couple are disrupted by partying neighbors -- including Norwegian model Iselin Steiro as a younger version of Bowie. Time-lapse photography comes into play in this one, too. Watch at YouTube.
David Thewlis in Yard Act's "100% Endurance" (2022)
Yard Act have made a string of fantastic videos with director James Slater, but it feels like a coup that for "100% Endurance" they somehow nabbed acclaimed British thespian David Thewlis to star in it. Thewlis has appeared in everything from gritty Mike Leigh dramas and surreal Charlie Kaufman film I'm Thinking of Ending Things to the Harry Potter franchise, a season of FX's Fargo and Netflix's The Sandman. He makes a great avatar for Yard Act frontman James Smith, lip-synching lines like "It's hippie bullshit but it's true." Apparently Thewlis approached them. “I’ve told my agent I’m only doing Yard Act videos from now on," Thewlis said, "though next time on a tropical island or a big yacht."
Michael Sheen in Kelly Lee Owens' "Corner of My Sky" (2020)
"Corner of My Sky" was already a very Welsh affair, with Kelly Lee Owens collaborating with The Velvet Underground's John Cale on one of the standouts from her 2020 album Inner Song. But for the song's fantastic video, they made it a trifecta with great Welsh actor Michael Sheen as a man who is having trouble with his breakfast (specifically, the bread keeps disappearing from the toaster). You may know him from The Queen, Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock (he played Liz' soulmate "Wesley Snipes") or from singing Silver Jews songs on The Good Fight. Said Sheen at the time, "I’ve loved Kelly’s music for a while now and the opportunity to be part of a Kelly-John Cale-magic toaster holy Welsh trinity was too good to miss!"
Paul Mescal in Phoebe Bridgers' "Savior Complex" (directed by Phoebe Waller Bridge) (2020)
People had already been making jokes about the similarity between rising indie musician Phoebe Bridgers and Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge's names, so perhaps the video for "Savior Complex" was willed into existence. But that's not where the shipping ends: Bridgers and actor Paul Mescal, fresh off his acclaimed turn in Hulu's Normal People, had been having a pandemic online Mutual Appreciation Society going for a while when he was cast in the video as a conman who has the tables turned on him by a very cute dog named Charlotte. That friendship has since blossomed into romance -- and supposedly engagement -- so please enjoy this well directed meet cute:
Sophie Thatcher in Pavement's "Harness Your Hopes" (2022)
One of Pavement's most popular songs, at least on Spotify, is "Harness Your Hopes," a b-side to Terror Twilight single "Spit on a Stranger." Thanks to the service's algorithm (and to being very catchy), it became the indie rock band's most-streamed song. With Terror Twilight recently getting a deluxe reissue, they made a video for it in 2022 that was directed by Alex Ross Perry, who made the very intense 2018 film Her Smell. It stars Yellowjackets' Sophie Thatcher as a very obsessed Pavement fan who, trying to decode the band's famously obtuse lyrics, finds herself teleported into thier '90s videos, including "Cut Your Hair," "Stereo," "Shady Lane," and more. Perry does a great job of matching the new footage with the original and Thatcher is clearly having blast. Best Pavement video ever?
Sissy Spacek & David Strathairn in LCD Soundsystem's "Oh Baby" (2018)
Few music videos have had this much talent in front of and behind the camera. Filmmaker Rian Johnson, who was fresh off the divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi and also made Brick, Knives Out, Looper and more, directed this clip for the melancholic opening track from LCD Soundsystem's 2017 album, American Dream. It stars Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek and Oscar nominee David Strathairn as married scientists who think they've figured out a way to build a teleportation device and end up “on a devastatingly romantic journey of discovery, tragedy and eternal love.” Spacek and Strathairn give knockout performances and it's more of a short film than a music video. "My goal would be that it works as a video for the song and the song works as a good soundtrack of the film," James Murphy said. "Rather than a video that serves the song."
Christopher Walken in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" (2001)
Anyone who saw Christopher Walken in 1981 musical Pennies From Heaven knew that he could dance, but in the 20 years in between that and Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" video, he had become an esteemed, if eccentric, actor best known for intense performances in gritty dramas. Director Spike Jonze used all of that history to brilliant effect for one of the great pieces of casting in all of music video. "Weapon of Choice," which won Best Video at the VMAs and the Grammys, also incorporates a little Matrix-style wire-work to help Walken's choreography take flight but it's the actor's charisma that really soars.
Chloë Sevigny in Smog's “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” (2005)
Since she was a teenager visiting NYC from CT in the early-'90s, Chloë Sevigny has been adjacent to the downtown music scene and has appeared in a few music videos over the years, including ones for the Beastie Boys and Beck. But nowhere does she give a better performance than in Smog's 2005 single “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” where she plays a put-upon motel maid who is barely hanging on, while having to clean up after thoughtless guests. Bill Callahan appears on the motel room's TVs as a political talk show pundit.
Jon Hamm in Eels' "We Are Alright Again" (2020)
Jon Hamm became famous playing advertising exec Don Draper on Mad Men, but he clearly loved comedy just as much as drama with appearances on Saturday Night Live, Children's Hospital, 30 Rock and more. He's also a big indie rock fan and all that led to him being cast in this terrific and very funny Eels video directed by Greg Barnes that also stars Doughboys' Mike Mitchell and more. In it, Hamm enjoys a quiet evening at home, sipping on scotch while listening to "We Are Alright Again" on headphones, lost in the music and not realizing what's going on behind him. Shot in a single take on 35mm film, it's a showcase for Hamm and the rest of the cast's comic timing and ability not to break.
Christina Hendricks in Broken Bells' "The Ghost Inside" (2010)
At the height of Mad Men's popularity, the show's Christina Hendricks went from the secretary pool to swimming pool in this sci-fi video for Broken Bells' "The Ghost Inside," playing a space traveler who dreams of sipping martinis at a tropical resort. Those dreams may also be of electric sheep, as we learn by videos end. "Usually, music videos will have a cameo by some famous person and it'll be like, 'Isn't it cute that this famous person is in this video,'" director Jacob Gentry told Pitchfork at the time, saying he wanted more of an Aerosmith "Jamie's Got a Gun" level of drama and emotion. "To see her breaking down and being emotionally vulnerable in this piece is unlikely. It's also unlikely to see that in a music video at all."
Natalie Portman in Devendra Banhart's “Carmensita” (2008)
Natalie Portman and Devendra Banhart were a couple in 2008 when they starred together in his "Carmensita" video. Even though the song is sung in Spanish, the video is an homage/parody of Bollywood films, complete with dodgy subtitles. This one hasn't aged all that well and now feels like a Diesel ad from the early '00s, but Natalie and Devendra seem to be having fun, at least, and the video also features Kat Dennings and Lukas Haas.
For a slightly more successful video starring Portman, check out indie musician Paul McCartney's "Dance Tonight" which was directed by master of the form Michel Gondry (thought it's not his best work).
Daniel Radcliffe in Slow Club's "Beginners" (2011)
Daniel Radcliffe had just put the Harry Potter series to bed when he starred in the video for "Beginners" by one of his favorite bands, UK duo Slow Club. "After meeting him for the first time we were pretty blown away by how much he knew about our songs," Slow Club's Charlie Watson told The Guardian at the time. "When the time came to make a video, the director Lucy Needs had the script ready and thought it couldn't hurt to ask." Radcliffe jumped at the chance to play a guy who wakes up after passing out at a bar, now empty, and proceeds to finish off the dregs left in other people's glasses. It's a one man show as he lip-synchs, plays air guitar and falls off a table in this single-shot video.
Winona Ryder in Mojo Nixon's “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child”
Elvis-loving novelty rockabilly singer Mojo Nixon never had the most nuanced sense of humor and this dig at '80s teen star Debbie Gibson was definitely a cheap shot -- the song also takes easy swipes at Rick Astley -- but give it up for Winona Ryder (who had acted alongside Nixon the same year in Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire) who is clearly going for broke in the title role. The video ended up being banned from MTV but, according to MOJO, she said it was her favorite role to date.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Vampire Weekend's “Giving Up the Gun” (2010)
In the mid-'00s Jake Gyllenhaal was known for dramatic roles in such Oscar-nominated films as Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac, but the actor had always had a comedic side which he got to show off in the video for "Giving Up the Gun," the second single from Vampire Weekend's 2010 album, Contra. In it, he plays an arrogant tennis bad boy who takes swigs from a flask on court and is prone to temper tantrums. Jake is one of a few opponents the video's heroine must face off against, including Joe Jonas and a couple Daft Punk looking dudes in motorcycle helmets. The video also features RZA as the umpire and Lil Jon as a helpful fan. If you need more Jake Gyllenhaal in music videos, he's also in Jay-Z's "Part Li (On the Run," The Shoes' "Time to Dance" and, alongside Samuel L Jackson and Forest Whitaker, in Jamie Foxx's "Blame It."
Lena Headey in Kasabian's "Ill Ray (The King)" (2017)
Mostly known for her role as the ruthless Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones, Lena Headey also has a wicked sense of humor and is not afraid to look silly on camera. Case in point: Kasabian's "Ill Ray (The King)" video where she plays a history-obsessed nerd who performs an ancient mystic ritual in hopes of resurrecting king Richard III in a parking lot. Spoiler alert: it works and she takes him on a pub crawl. It's an all-in performance by Headey with some great moments of physical humor.
Paddy Considine in Moloko's "Familiar Feeling" (2003)
Irish actor Paddy Considine burst on the scene in 2002 with back-to-back roles in heartwarming drama In America and Michael Winterbottom's wildly entertaining Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People. The next year, he also co-starred in Moloko's fantastic video for "Familiar Feeling" from their final album, Statues. Directed by fashion photographer Elaine Constantine, the video is set at a Northern Soul club where Considine and Roisin Murphy meet up for a night of dancing. Considine more than holds his own on the dancefloor and he and Murphy have great chemistry, eyeing each other across the dancefloor and spinning around each other.
Paddy also appeared in videos for Arctic Monkeys' "Leave Before The Lights Come On" and Coldplay's "God Put A Smile Upon Your Face" and will soon star in Game of Thrones spin-off prequel House of the Dragons.
Aidan Gillen in Fontaines DC's "A Hero's Death" (2020)
HBO subscribers probably know Aidan Gillen from The Wire (Tommy Carcetti), Game of Thrones (Littlefinger), and Mare of Easttown (Milo), among many other roles. He took a smaller part a couple years ago for fellow Dubliners Fontaines DC's video for the title track to 2020's A Hero's Death. Gillen plays Georgie Barnes, the very smarmy host of a very surreal talk show. "We weren’t on a Duran Duran-type budget," Gillen told Hot Press, "but it was still pulled off with a real panache I thought. Everyone did their job right – and who doesn’t want to wear a claret coloured polo neck with a blue suit and have a voodoo doll version of yourself get pecked apart by a papier-mâché crow?"
Gillen also features in Sigur Rós' "Ekki múkk."
Hannah Murray in Belle and Sebastian's "Your Cover's Blown (Miaoux Miaoux Mix)" (2013)
Belle & Sebastian's 2013 compilation Third Eye Centre rounded up stray non-LP singles, b-sides and even a few remixes, including this dancefloor version of what is one of their greatest non-LP songs, "Your Cover's Blown," by Glaswegian producer Miaoux Miaoux. They made a video for it to promote the comp and got Hannah Murray, of Skins and Game of Thrones fame, to star as a girl whose apartment gets magically, mysteriously renovated before her very eyes.
Kate Dickey and Emma Stansfield in Sleaford Mods' "Second" (2020)
Completing our five-part subgrouping of Game of Thrones actors -- alongside Lena Headey, Aidan Gillen, Hannah Murray and Paddy Considine -- is Kate Dickey who played Lysa Arryn, Lady Regent of the Vale, breastfeeding advocate and keeper of the Moon Door. In the video for "Seconds," she and Emma Stansfield play a shouty UK post-punk duo that show up at an open mic night in a "post-industrial town, United Kingdom, 2012." Watching them spit out bile-laden lyrics, Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn are clearly inspired and not above a little creative theft. From the end of the video title card: "In 2017 Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn paid an undisclosed amount to the 'original' sleaford mods following a claim for intellectual property infringement." Dickey gives an intense performance and is clearly not someone you'd want to mess with if she came up and accused you of stealing their act.
Evan Rachel Wood and Terence Stamp in Bright Eyes' "At the Bottom of Everything" (2005)
Bright Eyes' 2005 album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning opens with Conor Oberst telling a story before launching into the song "At the Bottom of Everything." "So there was this woman and she was on an airplane, and she was flying to meet her fiance. Sailing high above the, the largest ocean on planet earth, and she was seated next to this man, who you know, she had tried to start conversations. And the only, really the only thing she heard him say was to order his Bloody Mary." This story of a doomed flight becomes the basis for the "At the Bottom of Everything" music video with Evan Rachel Wood (who had just starred in Thirteen) as the woman, and the great Terence Stamp (Priscilla Queen of The Desert, General Zod in the Christopher Reeves Superman films) as the man in the next seat. Director Cat Solen takes things into whimsical, fantastical stop-motion animated territory once the song kicks in in this still affecting video.
The same year, Evan Rachel Wood also starred in Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" video, while Terence Stamp also appears in Hot Chip's 2012 video for "Night & Day."
Kristen Stewart, Anne Hathaway, Brie Larson In Jenny Lewis' "Just One Of The Guys" (2014)
Brie Larson, Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart sounds like the cast of an Oscar nominated film, but they actually all appeared together -- in drag -- in Jenny Lewis' video for "Just One of the Guys" from 2014's Voyager. The video, directed by Lewis, is not a remake of the '80s teen film of the same name, but there is just a little of its flavor in there. "We screamed with laughter all day, huddled behind the monitor," Lewis told GQ, "I haven’t laughed that hard since What About Bob? came out on LaserDisc."
Bruce Willis in Gorillaz' "Stylo" (2010)
Need a little gravitas and action movie cool for your music video? Hire Bruce Willis. While his peak Movie Star days were beginning to wane, it was still quite a get for Die Hard's John McClane to be in your video. "Stylo," the lead single from Gorillaz's third album Plastic Beach, was directed by Gorillaz co-founder and art director Jamie Hewlett and features the band's Murdoc, 2-D, and Cyborg Noodle outrunning the cops on a lonely stretch of desert highway only to be outpaced and outgunned by Willis in a '69 Camaro before a Thelma & Louise-like ending.
Ian Mckellen in Guillemots' "Falling Out Of Reach" (2008)
Getting one of the most acclaimed British actors alive to star in your video would be impressive for superstars like Madonna or U2. For a relatively small band like UK group Guillemots to get Sir Ian McKellen -- who has played everyone from King Lear to Gandalf -- would almost seem to require a wizard's spell. Yet here he is in "Falling Out of Reach," poignantly playing an aging office worker watching the world pass by at an alarmingly fast rate. How'd they score hiim? He was a fan. "I heard about this video for the new song, which I really like," McKellen told The Guardian. "I happened to have nothing better to do, so I dropped in."
McKellen also played a vampire/butler in Pet Shop Boys' 1988 video for "Heart."
Stellan Skarsgård In Lykke Li's "Sadness Is A Blessing" (2011)
Swedish indiepop artist Lykke Li enlisted Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, Mama Mia, many Lars Von Trier films) to costar in her video for "Sadness is a Blessing." Running three minutes longer than the actual song, this is another video that hits short film territory, with Skarsgård watching silently as Lykke throws back vodka shots at a fancy restaurant, much to the disdain of the other diners, before she gets up and starts dancing. It's as uncomfortable and tense as any scene in Von Trier's Melancholia from the same year, all without a line of dialogue.
Jason Statham in The Shamen's "Comin' On"
Before Jason Statham became an action star with Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, The Transporter (and later the Fast & Furious series), he was a competitive diver in the late-'80s. He didn't make the Olympics but that swimmer's bod got him work in a few music videos, the first of which is this inexplicable clip from UK rave casualties The Shamen. Best known for their hit "Ebeneezer Goode," The Shamen were not exactly subtle with their drug references and "Comin' On" has Statham dancing in a speedo amongst a mountain of magic mushrooms. Drugs probably did not make this song any better (it's terrible) but the video is pure camp gold. What does he remember about "Comin' On"? Not much. "I was a bit short on rent," he joked to Empire. This one is kind of a cheat for this list -- he wasn't famous when he made it -- but it's too good not to include.
Around the same time, Statham was similarly featured in Erasure's "Run��to the Sun."