15 Great Films That Practically Stars A Single Actor - @asifahsankhan

15 Great Films That Practically Stars A Single Actor

15 Great Films That Practically Stars A Single Actor - @asifahsankhan

The concept of “ONEACTOR” carrying a full-feature-film has long been thought to be a stunt, an experiment – just to see how well the actor could act and how good everything else in production must be to counterbalance the lack of characters.

However, this idea: “Single-Actor-Films” —has become more common and proves that it’s the quality of the actor that counts, not the quantity.

Films may be in general, a visual medium, but it’s through dialogue that we tend to get to know characters and grasp plots. So having an actor alone on screen is a tricky proposition, one that often requires gimmicks, games or just letting go of any traditional narrative.

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Actors can make or break a movie, whether there are huge star-studded ensemble casts, or just a couple of quality actors who let the script shine for itself. There are not many films that manage to thrive on one actor carrying the entire film alone.

Andy Warhol experimented with the concept in his 1964 anti-film “Sleep”, which consists of 321 minutes of long take footage of a close friend, John Giorno sleeping for five hours and allow me to reiterate this one more time: the man is sleeping for the entirety of the film.

These days though, “CAST” keeps getting bigger and action sequences keep getting louder, from blowing apart whole cities to watching at least twenty badass-Superheroes in a punch-up. Keeping such a movie from turning into a jumble of noise and undeveloped characters is a huge task for a director, but that doesn’t mean that the small films, the ones with very few characters, are easier to make. And one of the great challenges must be to make a film with only one character for most, or all, of the running time.

Now, who would wanna’ see a man, stuck on the far side of the Moon, experiencing a personal crisis as he nears the end of a three-year solitary stint mining helium-3, out in space where no one else around?

And his only companion (other than his clones) is an artificial intelligence named GERTY, who assists with the base’s automation and provides comfort for him?

Sam Rockwell in Moon (2009)

Hint: I was talking about the 2009 movie: “Moon.”

So how do you keep an audience interested in one person’s struggle, a “one-man-show” for ninety minutes or longer in an age when we’re all about more bangs for more bucks?

If it’s going to be a “ONE-Man-SHOW” — it has to be both engaging to watch and hear. When I talk about visuals, it doesn’t have to be a million dollar project on creating them, efficient use of angles and lighting are any day more effective and also capture emotions with subtlety. While audio doesn’t have to be an orchestral soundtrack by John Williams, it can be the emphasis laid on every object that reverberates or the crisp of the words. But these are tools for enhancement as the foundation lies on the script and the performance.

The premise could be anything, but how you manage to build it up by keeping the pacing in sync matters. The performance on the other hand is your primary medium to convey the story and hence the acting has to be very precise. The bravery to take up a challenge such as this is commendable, and the will to take it to the end without any support on-screen is what sets a great actor apart from a good one.

Now, I’ll be tossing it on, at those films in particular that either have the physical presence of only one actor or even if there are more than one actor, others have negligible roles.

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15 Great Films That Practically Stars A Single Actor

Here’s a look at the whole “Single-Actor-Films” genre with 15 great and exciting films, some released recently, that have offered significant solo or full time for just one character or played entirely, by a single actor only.

Including a few “Honourable Mentions” at the botom.

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15. Gravity (2013)

“Gravity” (2013) stars Sandra Bullock as Doctor Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski are sent on a mission to Earth orbit. Everything is going well, until a catastrophe occurs and their shuttle is destroyed. They are left alone in open space, tethered together but without any line to Earth.

Alfonso Cuarón’s acclaimed drama “Gravity” featured Sandra Bullock as the latest star in an outer-Space-sci-fi-thriller to find herself lost in, what else? Space. (if you don’t count Matt Damon in The Martian two years later and two year’s back– but his crewmates and colleagues in mission control get a lot of screen time as they try to figure out a way to help him, which means it is not a solo movie in the strictest sense, but still it made it into my ‘honourable mention’ list at the botom of this page anyway).

During production of the film, Bullock endured long hours of being maneuvered around a sound stage on a remote-controlled rig, a process she described as “lonely” and “frustrating,” but “in the best way.” Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress, and “Gravity” became a huge box-office hit, collecting more than GB £560 million (USD $750 million) worldwide against production budget just over GB £100 million (USD $130 million).

Though Bullock begins the mission alongside George Clooney’s wisecracking veteran astronaut, the movie soon becomes hers as she embarks on a harrowing journey through the bleak expanse of space.

So begins her struggle to survive and find an alternative way to return to Earth. Initially helped by her mission commander (played by George Clooney), they are soon separated and Bullock finds herself on her own.

“Gravity” is regarded as one of the greatest “British Films of All Time” —Produced by David Heyman, the founder of Heyday Films, and was produced/shot/edited entirely in the United Kingdom.

⇒ (Incase you didn’t know: That young British producer who set up his company Heyday Films in London in 1997, David Heyman, became and nearly 20 years on, still remains, thanks largely to the Harry Potter franchise, the most successful Film Producer of all time).⇐

The British visual effects company: Framestore —spent more than three years creating most of the film’s visual effects, which make up over 80 of its 91 minutes, including the uninterrupted 13 minute opening scene, which started with a clear view of brightly lit Earth and ended with (Spoiler Alert!) the destruction of the Explorer. CG elements were shot at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios in London and Surrey, England, respectively.

GRAVITY (2013 Film) — Taglines: "Don't Let Go" — Director: Alfonso Cuarón — Stars: Sandra Bullock with George Clooney — GIF — @asifahsankhan

Upon its release, Gravity was met with critical acclaim, and has been regarded as one of the best films of the 2010s. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, Steven Price’s musical score, Cuarón’s direction, Bullock’s performance, Framestore’s visual effects, and its use of 3D were all particularly praised by numerous critics.

The film was nominated for eleven (11) BAFTA Awards, more than any other films of 2013, and was awarded Six including “Outstanding British Film” and Best Director, the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, seven Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and a Bradbury Award.

Furthermore, the film received a total ten (10) nominations at the 86th Academy Awards and won the most of the night with seven awards, including best director (for Cuarón).

14. Secret Honor (1984)

Philip Baker Hall as “Richard Nixon” in Secret Honor (1984 Film, USA)
Philip Baker Hall as “Richard Nixon” in Secret Honor (1984 Film, USA)

Directed by Robert Altman, this underrated hidden gem follows a drunk, ranting, potentially suicidal Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) in a singular room, is based on a fictionalised play written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone.

The President monologues his thoughts about his entire career to a tape recorder. He exposes his soul with fierce intensity as he allows his scandalous secrets that have been repressed for too long to pour out of him in rushed, disorganised sentences.

What he says may or may not be true. He makes shocking speculative revelations – Watergate was staged to draw attention away from more serious activities, Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the CIA, and so on. Altman interweaves these theories with official facts and truths from Nixon’s biography.

While not practically the “best film” on this list, however, you just can’t beat this over-the-top final scene with Philip Baker Hall as drunk Richard Nixon. One of the great “f— you’s” in cinema history! From the 1984 movie by Robert Altman.

(Spoiler Alert!)

Baker Hall doesn’t imitate the president, but simply takes on the role of a man who has done so much and cannot handle anymore. While it is warned in the beginning that what has been written is mainly fiction, the question about what is true and what is for dramatic effect is lost behind Baker Hall’s furious steam as he exposes Nixon’s possible emotional turmoil.

13. Silent Running (1972)

The director is Douglas Trumbull, a Canadian who designed many of the special effects for Stanley Kubrick's
The director is Douglas Trumbull, a Canadian who designed many of the special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Trumbull also did the computers and the underground laboratory for “The Andromeda Strain,” and is one of the best science-fiction special-effects men. “Silent Running,” which has deep space effects every bit the equal of those in “2001,” also introduces him as an intelligent, if not sensational, director.

Cult sci-fi post-apocalyptic movie “Silent Running” is set in the not very distant future, when man has completely depleted all of Earth’s sources and there are no growing plants left. Instead, they use interplanetary greenhouses – a couple of lonesome spaceships with a limited crew out around the rings of Saturn, always pointed towards the sun.

Here, plants grow, small animals breathe and Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a greenhouse keeper laments over the dead soil on Earth. He is confused and angry at his crewmates and people in general since they do not understand how important these plants are and how ignorant they have become. One day, the Earth sends them an order – destroy the greenhouses and return – leaving Freeman to calmly take the situation into his own hands and resist.

Unlike “Gravity,” the film features a few actors at the beginning of the movie, but soon only Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is left to carry the film. His only companions are Huey, Louie, and Dewey, who are small robots who help with the gardening.

Bruce Dern in Silent Running (1972 Film, USA)
The weight of the movie falls on the shoulders of Bruce Dern, who plays the only man in sight during most of the picture. His only companions are Huey, Louie, and Dewey, who are small and uncannily human robots who help with the gardening. They’re OK with a trowel but no good at playing poker, as their human boss discovers during a period of boredom.
Image: Bruce Dern in Silent Running (1972)

This is one of the earliest examples of a Hollywood feature film that relies on a singular actor in a high-concept situation.

The director, Douglas Trumbull, a Canadian who designed many of the special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, as well as “The Andromeda Strain”.

12. All is Lost (2013)

J. C. Chandor’s follow up to his Academy Award nominated debut feature, “Margin Call” is contrasting in theme and style but does not sacrifice quality. While “Margin Call” was had a huge ensemble cast full of fast-paced dialogue and a claustrophobic feel of impending financial doom – “All is Lost” also follows a story in which the character knows his imminent fate.

However, Chandor swaps for one legendary actor, Robert Redford a.k.a “The Sundance Kid”, a few economised lines and a whole lot of technical abilities.

The survival drama follows an unnamed man (Redford) who wakes to find water flooding his boat after a collision with a wayward shipping container. He tries to patch the hole and manages to get rid of the water from the cabin – but the damage has already been done. The boat’s navigational and communications systems have been damaged by saltwater intrusion.

When he climbs the mast to repair an antenna lead, he sees an oncoming tropical storm. There is no great traumatic backstory, no flashbacks to easier times, no nonsense – just cool determination, a strong will to survive and an acceptance to let go. The film score is composed by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ frontman Alex Ebert.

11. Un homme qui dort (1974) / The Man Who Sleeps (1974)

This critically-acclaimed French drama directed by Bernard Queysanne and Georges Perec is based on Perec’s own 1967 novel “A Man Asleep”. The premise is simplistic – probably even more so than the others since not only does it show only one actor – but the single protagonist is silent.

The film follows an alienated young student (Jacques Spiesser) who decides to abandon the world he has come to know, and wanders the streets of Paris instead, all whilst a random woman (Ludmila Mikaël) narrates his inner most thoughts. The minimalist cinematography focuses on the protagonist’s daily rituals as the audience follows him in real time to wherever he may wander off to.

The preference for the utilisation of black-and-white rather than colour emphasises Queysanne’s love for overexposure and contrast. Nothing in the film brings attention to itself, so as to make the audience focus on Speisser’s calm voice as she relates the silent man’s thoughts and life.

10. Wrecked (2010)

Adrien Brody as "Man" in Wrecked (2010 Film, Canada)
Adrien Brody as “Man” in Wrecked (2010 Film, Canada)

Directed by Michael Greenspan, with a soloist: Adrien Brody—”Wrecked” unfolds a story-line that goes to show: A man wakes up in a wrecked car in the middle of the woods. His leg is pinned under the dash and there’s a dead body in the back seat. Also, he’s Adrien Brody, so we know some serious emoting is going to be going on in this Canadian indie, the feature debut of director Michael Greenspan.

Aside from a few flashbacks and the sporadic appearances of a woman (Wonderfalls actress, Caroline Dhavernas) and a dog who may or may not be real, Brody spends most of this film alone, telegraphing his pain, frustration and confusion (he doesn’t remember anything about who he is or how he ended up in the car) through the kind of half-muttered interjections you make to keep yourself company when you’re sure you’re totally alone.

“Wrecked” is intriguing when it keeps to the unprotected confines of the car and the mystery of who its passengers are, but eventually it has to open up to the larger woods and a somewhat silly threat to our hero.

9. 127 Hours (2010)

An adventurous mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) becomes trapped under a boulder while canyoneering alone near Moab, Utah and resorts to desperate measures in order to survive. | Director: Danny Boyle | Writers: Danny Boyle (screenplay), Simon Beaufoy (screenplay) | Stars: James Franco.
An adventurous mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) becomes trapped under a boulder while canyoneering alone near Moab, Utah and resorts to desperate measures in order to survive.| Director: Danny Boyle | Writers: Danny Boyle (screenplay), Simon Beaufoy (screenplay) | Stars: James Franco. | Producers: Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, and John Smithson | Country: United Kingdom.

The Academy Award winning acclaimed English Director, Danny Boyle’s biographical survival drama is based on the real life story of Aron Ralston’s ill-fated trip to the chasm of an isolated slot canyon in Blue John Canyon, south eastern Utah and more specifically from his memoir “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”.

Set in April, 2003 – It follows adventurer Ralston (James Franco) as he hikes through a slot canyon.

While climbing down it, he accidentally slips and falls. A boulder pins his arm against the canyon wall and he is stuck. His several attempts at removing the boulder and calling for help are to no avail. He begins recording a video diary on his camera (so as to keep a running dialogue with the audience) and rations his food and water. He then starts using his pocketknife to carve away parts of the boulder so as to unlock his arm.

“127 Hours” is purely a James Franco show — there are other people in the cast, like a couple of hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) he briefly meets, and flashbacks to his sister (Lizzy Caplan) and his girlfriend (Clémence Poésy), all glimpsed in memories, but for the majority of the runtime of Danny Boyle’s film Franco is alone on screen, doing a remarkable job of holding our attention with no one to talk to but his camera and his own increasingly desperate self.

The Film was well received by critics and audiences, and was nominated for NINE (9) BAFTAs, including Outstanding British Film, Best Direction, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Film Music and for SIX (6) Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Franco and Best Picture for it’s All-Brit-Producers: Boyle, Colson and Smithson.

8. Shinboru (2009) / Symbol (2010)

SHINBORU, (aka SYMBOL), Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009. © Shochiku Company; Country: Japan.
SHINBORU, (aka SYMBOL), Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009. © Shochiku Company; Country: Japan.

Japanese Actor/Comedian and filmmaker Hitoshi Matsumoto (of “Big Man Japan”) pits two seemingly unrelated storylines against each other in his second feature. In one, the patriarch of a Mexican family prepares for a lucha libre match against intimidating opponents.

In the other, a man (played by Matsumoto) awakens by himself in a white room with no doors or windows, just switches that are actually the genitalia of snickering cherubim hiding in the walls.

Alone, Matsumoto displays his gift for physical comedy — the unnamed man he plays, clad in bright pajamas and sporting a bowl cut, isn’t terribly bright but is amusing prone to burst of loud frustration. His exploration into what the switches do is a prolonged, and very funny, absurdist journey.

7. Buried (2010)

Shot in a time period of over 16 days in Barcelona, the plot of this English language Spanish thriller is brilliantly simplistic – one coffin, one man stuck inside and a fistful of items which could save his life if his air doesn’t run out first.

The main problem with this basic plot would be the feature length – it would make a great short film – but Rodrigo Cortés’ talent is showcased through the 95 minute running time which never ceases to let go of the audiences’ attention. The movie begins and ends inside a coffin, and no one besides the dedicated Ryan Reynolds shows up onscreen.

Paul Conroy is a truck driver working for a private contractor in Iraq. After his truck was ambushed, he wakes up in complete blackness, stuck inside a coffin. He finds a cell phone and realizes that he has been kidnapped and is a hostage. His captors want him to use the phone, to make a video, to contact the embassy and demand ransom.

The cell phone allows him to speak to other characters besides his captors, most of whom are out, busy or pass him along to another person who he has to re-explain his entire situation again and again, wasting his breath – literally. The calls are ridiculously frustrating as he has to shuffle through the bureaucratic necessities, being put on hold and listen to voice mail messages.

There are no shots of the people answering the phone or any flashbacks – the only person the audience truly knows is Paul, as we witness his private hell as no one else seems to fully comprehend the urgency.

Cortés’ utilisation of various kinds of light dictates the frustration, the immediacy and the fear of the situation. Paul manages to see through constantly draining sources like his oxygen competitor zippo, the cellophane screen, a couple of green glow sticks and a torch that barely works.

One minute he’s shouting, screaming for help in an intense close-up – his face lit by fire, the next he is trying to control himself and think logically with the cool blue glaze of his cellphone screen – trying to collect his thoughts and act kind to whoever he is speaking despite his impending death. Ryan Reynolds has limited space to work in, but makes his character convincing and so holds up this movie.

6. Gray’s Anatomy (1996)

Steven Soderbergh doesn’t make the same movie twice, and that is an uncommon trait to find among the generation of contemporary directors. He’s the guy who wouldn’t give two cents to what you perceive of him, and has always been experimenting with his work. In the period from 1993 to ’98, he directed a lot of low budget films which weren’t solid but gathered him the experience he needed for his smashing start to the 21st century.

One of them was this British Comedy-Drama, ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ that featured Spalding Gray delivering his trademark monologue performance. It works out as a very witty dark comedy, as Spalding Gray talks about suffering from a rare condition called macular pucker and the ridiculous methods he has tried to cure it. If you are stressed out and tired of all the mishappenings in life, just sit back, relax and let Gray entertain you.

5. I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend (2007 Film, USA) - Stars: Will Smith

A deadly virus turns everyone on Earth into vampire-like beasts, which can’t endure sunlight and only hunt at night. In New York, lone survivor Robert Neville becomes their prey. Neville, who has been hunting the creatures themselves for three years, goes on a journey in search of an antidote to the virus.

Did you know? This film was an original concept of Sir Ridley Scott and supposed to be an epic before it was sold to WB and Francis Lawrence came to take over.

Sir Ridley signed on in early 1997, working with the script by Protosevich, with Schwarzenegger set to star as the resourceful, lone survivor Robert Neville. By July 1997, production was slated for a September start date with locations lined up, and everything was going swimmingly but… this was not the case. Scott, never truly impressed by Protosevich’s original script, hired John Logan. Logan, who would eventually follow Scott onto Gladiator, had spent months providing ideas and creating several drafts of a dystopian LA destroyed by the virus.

I Am Legend (2007 Film, USA)

When asked by Empire in the media tour for Prometheus about the failed project, he said “I Am Legend was taken right to the wire and it was only brought down because the budget was too high at the time. It was a mere $106 million, which to me now seems a medium-sized film, but it was shot down because I said I couldn’t reduce it any further. So I crossed the street and made Gladiator instead. It was a good move.” The director has never come across as a sentimental fellow, and he’s definitely lost no sleep over this one.

Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version of I Am Legend was a box office smash taking just shy of $600 million dollars worldwide, with Will Smith proving the Fresh Prince was the King of Hollywood for a reason.

The film itself is good but suffers from a godawful third act collapse when the focus detracts from Big Will, resulting in the most formulaic of gung-ho endings plus the strangest dues ex machina explanation. The alternative ending on the DVD is a much closer representation of Matheson’s original text, by the way.

I An Legend (2007 Film, USA) - Directed by Francis Lawrence; Starring Will Smith.

The Scott/Logan version of I Am Legend was a bold, artistic mash of sci-fi action and psychological thriller, without dialogue in the first hour and with a somber ending.” They’re actually right y’know. The script is delightfully dark and thoughtful. The dialogue is taut, and intense.

I can’t truly imagine Schwarzenegger getting his chops around some of it, yet I visualize this as a present day horror version of Blade Runner. The shocks are definitely there, and there is plenty of opportunity for Scott to deliver his wide, expansive awe-inspiring shots.

Do check it out for yourself. Here’s the link.

4. Cast Away (2000)

Now, there are many other actors besides Tom Hanks within Cast Away, but the film has landed its place on to the list since he is alone for approximately two-thirds of its running time, and the additional characters hardly contribute to the plot. Hanks plays time-obsessed FedEx executive Chuck Noland, who flies all over the world and fixes everybody’s problems.

Noland hitches a ride on a FedEx flight across the Pacific, which is blown off course before crashing after an on-board explosion. Noland is the only one who survives the crash, and floats on a life raft to a deserted, unknown island.

Alone and stranded, the clock-ran man slows down and finds himself suspended in time where his future barely exists and all notion of time is lost. Chuck splits coconuts, traps fish, builds fires, and tries to utilise the contents of washed-up FedEx boxes in order to survive. He finds a volleyball and paints a face on a volleyball and names it Wilson – a genius plot device which gives the movie a reason to include dialogue segments and to illustrate Chuck’s alienation and need for companionship.

Here’s a Clip where Chuck is seen heartbroken when he loses his only friend, Wilson (a volleyball) out at sea.

The film was not shot consecutively. Hanks gained 50 pounds (23 kg) during pre-production to make him look like a pudgy, middle-aged man and after the majority of the film was shot, production went on a yearlong hiatus so that Hanks could lose the weight, grow his hair and beard and so Zemeckis could make another film, “What Lies Beneath”.

3. Man Push Cart (2005)

The film follows Ahmad (Ahmad Razui) as he earns his living by pushing his stainless steel wagon down the lonely Manhattan streets and selling bagels, cigarettes, snacks and coffee to his loyal customers.

He once was a Pakistani rock star, but now his life revolves around his pushcart.Not much is said about why he came to America and what happened to his music career, but it is revealed that his wife died and that his in-laws will not allow him to see his son. His life is fuelled by his need to make a living. He is too busy and exhausted for anything else. The simplicity of the story is refreshing and moving. It focuses on hard work and daily struggles and does not try to become some melodramatic tale of him trying to regain what was lost.

The writer-director Ramin Bahrani shot his low-budget debut film on the streets of Manhattan in less than three weeks. He often used a concealed camera and managed to capture the spontaneity of the city. His film was accepted into Sundance and captured Roger Ebert’s attention and was on his list for top 10 films of 2006 and the two struck up a friendship.

Bahrani was inspired by “The Myth of Sisyphus,” by Albert Camus, the story of a man who spends his life pushing a rock up a hill, only to see it roll down again, and only push it back up again.

2. Moon (2009)

In the not so distant future, the Earth’s pollution crisis is solved by Helium-3, which provides Earth with pollution-free power from nuclear fusion. It is extracted and processed from lunar rock by automated minors overseen and maintained by one crew member who is stationed alone in the Moon for a three year period.

The film follows this single crew member, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) in the final days of his three-year contract. The only companionship he has is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a well-mannered robot companion similar to 2001’s HAL 9000 and delayed video messages from his wife back home.

Besides Spacey’s voice, a couple of hallucinations and some video footage of his wife, Rockwell acts alone. He carries the film with his intense individualistic dialogues and his confusion as he slowly cracks from the loneliness and seclusion of the last three years. A carefully crafted sci-fi yarn that hints at Lunar Industries’ authoritarian control, there are also thematic and visual references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running.

Sam Rockwell is as heartbreaking as it can get as astronaut Sam Bell, a man approaching the end of his lonely (there’s that word again) three year work detail on the moon. He can’t wait to get home to earth, but it soon becomes apparent there are some obstacles to that return trip and something or someone he was hoping to see upon returning doesn’t really exist. . .  

Sam Rockwell with his only companion: an artificial intelligence named GERTY, who assists with the base's automation and provides comfort for him in Moon (2009, FILM UK).

Alone in space, Sam’s actions and need for communication are low on Lunar Industries’ list of concerns. Indifferent to his struggles, the cold place and intensely grim realisations of the truth are dramatized and heightened by Clint Mansell’s solid suspenseful score.

Duncan Jones’ directorial debut amazed critics and audiences alike. The sci-fi drama was modestly budgeted at approximately GBP £3.8 million (USD $5 million), and made roughly double that worldwide. Rockwell’s performance found praise as did the film’s scientific realism and plausibility.

The film garnered nominations and awards across multiple festivals as well as a BAFTA win for Jones for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer and was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for “Outstanding British Film.”

1. Locke (2013)

Taut, tense, and terrific, "Locke" is a textbook example of fine acting by the very talented Hardy. A man's (Tom Hardy) life unravels after he leaves a construction site at a critical time and drives to London to be present for the birth of a child conceived during a one-night stand.
Taut, tense, and terrific, “Locke” is a textbook example of fine acting by the very talented Tom Hardy. Plot: A man’s (Tom Hardy) life unravels after he leaves a construction site at a critical time and drives to London to be present for the birth of a child conceived during a one-night stand.

This list wouldn’t be complete without this British Cinema landmark from 2013, “Locke.” —A great chance to admire a close-up: Tom Hardy, and the reason why he’s “Britain’s finest actor at the moment”.

Quoting D.W. Griffith, Jean-Luc Godard once famously proposed that “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.”

While “a Guy and a CAR” doesn’t have quite the same zip, that combination worked wonders for the suspense drama such as “Locke,” in which only one and only one actor appears on screen and stays cloistered inside a speeding BMW for 85 minutes. 

Seriously, this film doesn’t have a single soul other than Hardy!

One man drives from the Midlands to south London alone. On the way he spends an hour and a half on his hands-free set, talking to friends and loved ones. As movie pitches go it’s not exactly the Star Wars Sequel you were looking for, but Tom Hardy’s one man thriller Locke is a minimalist masterpiece that reminds you compelling filmmaking, first and foremost, is about script and performance.

It has been called ‘Hamlet On The Highway’, a riveting film and a ‘Tour de Force’ for the actor Tom Hardy. What it isn’t is a tent pole movie, like “Thor” or “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” shot by the same DoP, Haris Zambarloukos, who happens to be on the Board of Governors of the British Society of Cinematographers (B.S.C.).

Haris has always looked to do smaller independent films and this one struck a chord with him exactly because it wasn’t full of big budget moments. If you read the reviews he also gets plenty of mentions, something he relishes but not as an ego boost. 

⇒ Sine Qua Non: When an A list actor is only available for eight days for a road movie, you’ve got to either have a very short road or an exceptional crew.⇐

For your imaginative benefits, here’s a shot of the car: 

Think about the challenges of shooting car scenes, multi-camera set-ups and working through the entire script every night of the shoot.

Or watch this if you’re stuck in a bit of pickle:

Though the hyper-minimalist “Locke” could have come off as dull or gimmicky, film critics have overwhelmingly praised Hardy’s absorbing acting, Steven Knight’s sure-handed direction (he also wrote the film) and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ inventive camera angles. The Times’ Kenneth Turan called the movie “more minute-to-minute involving than this year’s more costly extravaganzas.”

Zambarloukos walked us through the special lighting rigs that could be manipulated, working with street lights and comparing natural and artificial lighting effects.


“Locke” — The title itself is stripped-down. It refers to Hardy’s character, Ivan Locke, a construction foreman/superviser. Over the course of the two-hour drive from Birmingham to London, Locke holds a total of 36 phone calls with his boss and a colleague, Donal, to ensure the pour is successful, with his wife Katrina to confess his infidelity, his son, and with Bethan to reassure her during her labour.

During these calls, he is fired from his job, kicked out of his house by his wife, and asked by his older son to return home. He coaches his assistant Donal through preparing the pour despite several major setbacks, and has imaginary conversations with his father, whom he envisions as a passenger in the back seat of his car. When he is close to the hospital, Locke learns of the successful birth of his new baby.

Within an hour and a half we get to see how the life of Ivan Locke, breaks into pieces and descends into chaos. Despite the fact that the only person we can see is Tom Hardy, there are lots of plotlines weaving together.

LOCKE (2013 Film, UK) - Tom Hardy Is a Multilayered Man of Mystery named Ivan Locke.

Now, the film’s trailer might look somewhat underwhelming or the “Longest BMW commercial ever” but trust me: the film is a ‘must see’ for anybody who loves moves and the ones who want to make moves. Trust me: “Locke” is probably the most fascinating film I’d seen in years and yet to see one with similar deapthysity. 

Written and directed by Steven Knight, this drama follows construction foreman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) as he drops everything and drives to London. Even though he has to supervise a large concrete pour in Birmingham, and his son and wife are currently at home waiting for him to watch an important football match – what awaits for him in London is imminent and hard to explain to the people counting on him.

Locke takes the important decision to take the long and fateful drive to London because a colleague, Bethan, with whom he had a one night stand with seven months before has gone into premature labour – with his kid.

Knowing what it’s like to grow up without a father, he is determined not to repeat what has been done to him – which means he has to tell the truth, reassure Bethan that nothing will go wrong despite the baby being a month premature and ensure that the Birmingham pour goes well and does not screw up his career too.

Tom Hardy as "Ivan Locke" in LOCKE (2013 Film UK) - Written and directed by Steven Knight

With the exception of its opening shot, where Locke gets into his BMW, the movie is a one-man show, but is not alone.

His situation is slowly exposed through the faceless voices over his speaker phone conversations – and even these voices were strongly cast with the likes of Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, The Night Manager), Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther), Andrew Scott (Sherlock), Ben Daniels (House Of Cards, Flesh and Bone) and so on.

Most the film takes place within a BMW X5, which was driven down the M6 motorway on a flatbed truck. Shooting took place in real time, and the filmmakers only took breaks to change the cameras’ memory cards.

The self-imposed minimalism of the exposition of his situation conveys the suffocating pressure of confessions and responsibility.

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The recent flowering of one-actor set pieces join a tiny but diverse sub-genre exploring, mostly, the sad gnaw of solitude. 

If you’d like to see how moving a film with just one actor and a phone can be in dealing with small affairs of the heart, then try Ingrid Bergman’s performance in the 1966 television movie The Human Voice. Based on a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau, Bergman talks on the phone to her ex-lover, rehashing the details of their relationship, blaming and flirting and pleading in turn. We don’t get to hear the other side of the conversation; Bergman does all the hard work, and makes us believe every moment. She is a woman on a mission – to find some way to escape her own despair. It’s just as tense as watching someone trying to escape death.

Here’s a whole bunch of films I’ve seen so far that almost fits the bill:

“Honourable Mentions”

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The Obvious Complexities of a tiny Sub-Genre

Duncan Jones’ “Source Code (2011)” has the perfect profile for a spirit-sapping let down, a CGI-laden kick in the shins. But in fact, the only small disappointment I felt about it was how its four leading actors represented a departure from the makeup of Jones’s debut, “Moon (2009)” –which was essentially a one-man show (the tireless Sam Rockwell).

Not that Jones has completely abandoned the single-character motif – amid Source Code’s exploding trains and homages to “The Manchurian Candidate,” chunks of the story find a lone Jake Gyllenhaal hunched in a dingy airtight receptacle, that image at least providing a link to Moon’s scenes of a lunar-marooned Rockwell. And, as such, also to the unlikely flowering of the other one-actor set pieces that have sprung up in recent months – Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours (2010)” and the much talked-abouts “Buried (2010)” and “Locke (2013)” each being de facto solo performances, joining a tiny, but madly diverse sub-genre along with the likes of the late Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Andy Warhol’s five-hour “anti-film” from 1964, “Sleep.”

Of course, were we to nitpick, then only “Buried” and “Locke” of the recent batch genuinely features just one actor from opening to closing credits, but in all cases nothing about the story relies on the dramatic spark provided by another human being.

It’s a neat party piece, conjuring up incident without even the modest support of, say, the unseen, but endlessly menacing truck driver that gave Steven Spielberg‘s 1971 debut “Duel (1971)” a jolting adrenal charge despite Dennis Weaver almost always being the only face on screen.

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The endless possibilities of obvious complexities even of a tiny “Sub-Genre,” therefore, remain undisclosed, given the new economics of the film industry, we may have plenty more one and two-actor movies to discuss – in our age of empty pockets, minimalist casting may yet prove the budget-stretching shape of things to come…

The box office in the UK in recent years has been relatively muscular for the top OSCAR contenders, compared to US. If you expand the net to include titles that missed out on best picture but picked up at least one acting nomination, the UK outperforms in all cases. A reason why you see all these frequent UK/US co-productions in which cases both parties benefit brightly, along with an increased box office profits, overall. 

Going by the rule of thumb that a film in the UK should gross One-10th of its US number, with the US Dollar sign switched to British Sterling Denominations. “The Martian” (UK: £23.5m) long ago exceeded that target.

Speaking of which, Sir Ridley Scott’s 2015 British-American Space-Drama is the “SUPER—POTATO—Growing” reminiscent of the genre: 

The Martian (2015)

Matt Damon in The Martian (2015 Film UK/US); Image Credit: @asifahsankhan.

“The Martian,” given the fact that it’s a UK/US co-production, was already a hot topic—but it surpassed the two industries’ past ventures together when it was narrowly voted in as a Comedy by a Globes eligibility committee to the award for “Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy,” while star Matt Damon rather compounded the controversy by also getting a nod for “Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.”

Furthermore, the Golden Globes community had to change their whole “Comedy Film eligibility rules” (all of it) after the eventual win for both Scott’s film and his leading star, who portrayed the Space-Coloniser/Pirate-Botanist, Matt Damon.

The Martian (2015 film UK/US) - Matt Damon - Gif by @asifahsankhan

And as for it’s “White-Washing” issues (as the lead of a what should be a Chinese story, “It shouldn’t get any awards for casting,” said MANAA founding president Guy Aoki): Color-blind casting has been a hot-button issue for several years now. The Martian may have made the wrong decision, but it made the right casting choice for the Character itself. And also it doesn’t mean that every film that employs the tactic has made a mess of things, every time. The certain country-based-casting stratagems can lead to certain annihilations as well: it can went on to stink up the whole place, and give every other actors from that particular nation a not-so-great rap.

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Obviously, if there’s only going to be one person on your screen, the audience is going to have to want to spend time in his/her company. That’s not to say that such roles are only for huge stars with likeable personas; casting a big star with a well-established persona can sometimes detrimentally affect how an audience relates to the story.

Ninety minutes (90min) is a long time to spend with anyone alone, particularly if they don’t have anything much to do or say. Perhaps that’s why a lot of one-actor films are about what appears to be an impossible situation, in which the odds of survival are ridiculously low.

The Martian (2015) - Matt Damon - gif - @asifahsankhan

There are two ways to approach such a film: either you tell us in advance whether the protagonist survives, or you don’t.

Very few films choose to have only one actor and then also give them very little dialogue as well, even if it’s closer to the truth that people on their own don’t usually spend much time talking to themselves.

British biographical survival drama 127 Hours (2010) gave us James Franco trapped in a canyon, pinned by a boulder that left him with an unimaginable choice, but nobody went into that film without knowing what choice he made. 

On the other side of the coin and in the same year, there’s Buried (2010) from Spain,
in which Ryan Reynolds finds himself trapped underground in a coffin in Iraq, with only a mobile phone to try and arrange payment of a ransom to those responsible. Boyle’s description could easily apply to this film too; director Rodrigo Cortés does a brilliant job of keeping adrenaline levels high even though no movement is possible.

All Is Lost (2013) is brave enough to go down a risky route, and uses the silence incredibly well, helped by the fact that Robert Redford has one of the great changing faces of cinema – from handsome to craggy, we see him as he was and is when he appears on screen, which brings its own running commentary about time and the changes it brings. His character fights the elements when his boat is damaged at sea with little more than occasional expletive when things get really bad.

There’s no facility to give us a past, or a future; we live in the moment with the character. It’s a brave approach and a brilliant film.

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GRAVITY (2013 FILM UK) - Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney - Gif by @asifahsankhan

Just like the sea, the utter vast silence of space makes a great backdrop for the personal one-actor story; Gravity (2013) gave Sandra Bullock a chance to be alone with her thoughts (with the occasional interruption from George Clooney) and to come to terms with her desire to go on living even when terrible events have happened to her.

The film attracted praise as much for its technical achievements, but the truth is the advances in technology only allow her character’s story to be presented with clarity and truth – her performance, and our engagement with it, is only enhanced by the excellence of the special effects.

Moon (2009) came at the same issue from an entirely different direction. Approaching the end of his three year stint working on the moon, an accident makes him discover that he’s not entirely who he thought he was.

Questions about personality and uniqueness run through the film; the moon, appealing to director Duncan Jones because of its “desolation and emptiness”, provides a reminder that we need to fill our own emotional landscapes with light and colour to be truly human.

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The Martian (2015 Film UK/US) - Starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney - Directed by Sir Ridley Scott - Gif by @asifahsankhan

Still in space — well, on MARS actually, Matt Damon’s performance in The Martian (2015) as Mark Watney a.k.a “The Martian” a.k.a “the Greatest Space Pirate—Botanist” to ever step foot on the “RED Planet: MARS,” and COLONISE it by growing fresh—POTATOES, harvesting his own S%it! —was a generally upbeat, positive affair. The film utilised music, disco tracks in particular, to provide drive.

And back on Earth, Wild (2014) uses music to do the opposite and provide gravitas to the story, this time picking the Simon and Garfunkel song El Condor Pasa (If I Could) as a recurring sound, cropping up in key moments of Cheryl Strayed’s (played by Reese Witherspoon) hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in order to come to terms with problems in her life.

But both of those films take a plot that could well have centred entirely on one character and add in many others along the way. I do wonder how different they might have been if they had spent more time focusing on the main character alone – well, I can’t complain, loving both of those films as they are. It does demonstrate, though, that making a one-actor film is always a stylistic choice rather than a necessity of the script. And many directors choose not to attempt it. 

Perhaps there’s one more thing that’s needed to make a one-actor movie work, and that’s the belief that it’s the best way to tell that story. Finding a crew and an actor who have the guts to commit to such a film, knowing what a risky and intense process it will be – maybe that’s the hardest part of all.

As if the utter premise isn’t as risky or hard enough: It’s a ONE Man SHOW!

It's a ONE Man SHOW! — @asifahsankhan

© 2017 Asif Ahsan Khan. ® All Rights Reserved.


3 thoughts on “15 Great Films That Practically Stars A Single Actor

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