ByMike DiGirolamo, writer at
I'm a writer, and runner.
Mike DiGirolamo

To be fair, I am writing this from the perspective of a legally caucasian 28-year-old male (I say "legally" because if you saw me in person you would question if I am from the United States or if I had an ethnicity at all). So, while I have not had the experience of living the life of a schizophrenic, a paraplegic or transgender woman, or Cambodian war refugee, I know real and relatable human emotions when I see them. These roles go beyond "entertainment," into uncomfortably accurate depictions that make more people upset than enthralled.

The following list delves into performances that unearthed these characters for us. Do NOT mistake this as a list of the best performances or the most oscar worthy performances. While many of the performances on this list won their artist an oscar--and some of them are examples of the highest caliber of acting--this is not a comprehenisve list of that. Yes, making us feel real feelings of hurt, and inciting empathy within us are marks of great performances, but this list isn't about qunatifying those paritcular performances. So, I won't go there for now.

So, without further adieu, the 10 most painfully real movie characters of all time.

10. Christy Brown - My Left Foot

The least "tear drop" inducing photo I could find.
The least "tear drop" inducing photo I could find.

I wish I could tell you that life was a constant romp through happy land. It would be pretty swell if that were the case.

I'll put this as lightly as possible. In life, you invariably encounter obstacles along your way. Certain things will frustrate or impede your "progress," making things difficult, and sometimes unbearable. In the words of Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, "life is tough."

While I have not dealt with the very obstacles Christy Brown has (and possibly neither have you) you can still relate to the emotions he feels.

Thanks to the best acting a man has ever done on screen, we can see that pain as clear as day. I'd prefer not to spoil the exact spots in the movie My Left Foot where these moments occur. I'd rather just say "all of them," but there are particular moments that will make you think "yeah, I think I can feel this man's pain."

In summation, if you've ever been teased, bullied, loved someone who didn't love you back, had your dreams crushed, were addicted to a substance, or had to put up with people you didn't like, saying "you will relate to this character" is a laughably gigantic understatement.

If your life was perfect and you never had any of these problems, good for you, you must be 2 years old or have lived inside a bubble for your entire existence.

9. John Forbes Nash, Jr - A Beautiful Mind

Nice to have someone to comfort you--WAIT A MINUTE.
Nice to have someone to comfort you--WAIT A MINUTE.

Ever have any setbacks in your life? Ever experience something beyond your control that pretty much ruined everything for you? This is the character for you. The trouble is, he isn't a character. He actually lived.

John Forbes Nash saw the disintegration of his life due to a debilitating mental illness. This is something we can't all relate to, but the experience of having to cope with setbacks and climb out of them is.

Nash was a brilliant man with many flaws. I put this on the list because I found that Crowe's performance was SO REAL, I was internally disturbed by it. I wanted very much to discontinue watching the movie because I found the character to be so upsetting. When this happens, I always know it's because the truth of something is being told. Boring two-dimensional characters don't do this.

Take this performance and couple it with the fact that Nash's wife divorced him for nearly 40 years until the release of this film, and you have a hurricane of emotion punching you to the face.

Nash and his wife Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Larde died tragically this year in a car crash in New Jersey. Both of them are acted brilliantly in this film. I believe Crowe's performance is particularly painful to watch in the best way possible.

8. Johnny Cash - Walk the Line

Is this Phoenix or Cash? I CANNOT tell.
Is this Phoenix or Cash? I CANNOT tell.

It is funny how every character I've named so far is based off a real person. I wanted to avoid including him on the list, and that is exactly why I included him. As I said before, any character that upsets me, is a character I have to include.

This character believes in himself. He is, at his core, a beautifully strong willed human. He falls prey to temptations, vices, and forces of darkness we all are vulnerable too. He falls to them in a particularly horrifyingly real way that will make you shudder and cringe.

At various times in life, we all need help with something. Whether it's shoveling snow off our driveway or making up with our loved ones, we all could use a little help. Johnny Cash was no exception.

In an interview he gave with the Academy of Achievement he stated that he dressed in black because black is the color of the "common man." Cash was a common man in more ways than one might realize. He made incredible music, but his personal battles were all too real.

If there was anyone bat-shit crazy enough to do a very real interpretation of Johnny Cash, it's Joaquin Phoenix. He's undeniably one of the best living actors working today.

7. Travis Bickle - Taxi Driver

...ugh...this just looks too real.
...ugh...this just looks too real.

Yeah. This is the one I wish I could say was absolutely NOT real, but I think the following anecdote speaks for itself: sometime after the release of this film, Paul Schrader (the writer) was sitting in his office when he was paid a visit by a troubled looking somewhat youngish man. The man came into his office and said, "How did you know about me?"

That actually happened. Apparently Schrader had to calm the man down and explain that the pain that he was going through is "not unique."


If that doesn't tell you how real this performance was. I don't know what will. In one of the scariest performances I have ever seen by Robert deNiro we, oddly enough, can understand what he is going through to a certain extent. We wouldn't react in the same he does necessarily, but the sheer loneliness and lack of personal direction that Travis lacks comes to us all in one form or another throughout our lives. He deals with it in the unhealthiest, and least recommended of ways. Don't be like this guy.

To be fair. The character commits some violent acts in this film that are, in my opinion, unrealistic to the majority of people (thankfully). But, the human element of Travis in the first three-fourths of this movie is hauntingly real. Tragically, it is also real in the last fourth of the film to a troubled few. This movie leaves you thankful that you are not this character.

6. Zofia "Sophie" Zawistowsk - Sophie's Choice

I won't...go into detail...just read the article.
I won't...go into detail...just read the article.

This is an obvious entry. If you haven't seen the film you should probably watch it, but make sure you have plenty of stuffed animals, cinnamon toast crunch, and hot cocoa to cheer you up. You'll need it. This is a depressing film.

Now is this character 100% relatable? Probably not, but no character really utterly is at all times. Again, we should be able to empathize with what we are seeing on the screen, and Meryl's performance as Sophie brings you right to that very uncomfortable place of pain and realism. You almost don't even care that an "actor" is playing this part.

It's unfortunate that this film has to be lauded as one of the greatest performances of all time. I think that cheapens and takes away from the fact that you are witnessing real human emotions on screen. When you wipe away the prestige, this move is so much more than oscar history. It's a great story about a real (fictional) person.

Spoiler alert.

Yes. The "choice" scene is that infamous scene that we all think about and for good reason. You are witnessing intense guilt, horror, and sheer sadness on a grand scale. I cannot say, I've had to endure giving my child away to a fascist military officer who only wants to kill me and my family, but we all deal with sudden trauma in our lives, and you can see it in Sophies face and body in this most unfortunate of scenes.

5. Mary Lee Johnston - Precious

Why did they make this movie so real? Why?
Why did they make this movie so real? Why?

This is one of those performances that is so strong, it's almost comedic how intensely real it is (you know the scene I'm talking about).

I try to not remember this movie. It's too real. It's too, too real. Mary is a character that is so real, that it dances on the edge of being unrealistic, but not quite. Mo'Nique has stated in interviews that she drew on real trauma to bring the edge that she brandished in this performance. I don't know, I hope that nothing in this movie is real. That's how real it is. It's tragic to its very core, but like with the other films on this list, it unfortunately probably is real to many people out there.

Is her character relatable? I personally don't relate to the experiences Mary has been through. How could I? What people can relate to universally in her character is the sense of HURT. There is a trampled upon soul we see here that I believe is done so well, I didn't actually think Mo'Nique was an actress. I thought this is actually who she was.

4. Chris Chambers - Stand By Me

Me and my best friend--I MEAN River and Wil Wheaton
Me and my best friend--I MEAN River and Wil Wheaton

This is the only one on the list I think some of you might harangue me for. How could I put this higher that Sophie's Choice?! I will tell you.

I intended this list to be of characters you could relate to, on the most basic of all levels. While I don't think River Phoenix's performance is among the best on this list by a long shot. In my opinion, it's not much of a stretch for him. It's a lot closer to the actor than Christy Brown was to Day-Lewis that's for sure. While it might not be an acting feat (again this is not a list of best performances), I think it is one of the realest and most relatable characters on the list.

Growing up is terrible in many ways. It also can be wonderful, but the pain of childhood is more pronounced in some than others. This character allows us to see that. I don't know River's childhood. I've only read biographies which tell me other people's viewpoints. We can't know what his experience was like. We can only feel or see what he brings to the screen. What we do see here is unquestionably authentic.

Have you ever wished you could have a fresh start? Wish that you weren't so weak? Wish that your friends could stay with you forever? Want so much to find the path in life that is most righteous? That is what Chris wishes. It is one of the most vulnerable and real characters I've seen on screen and one which I think the majority of people can empathize with man or woman.

3. Brandon Teena - Boys Don't Cry

A picture of Brandon Teena. Hillary Swank? Who?
A picture of Brandon Teena. Hillary Swank? Who?

As far as painfully real characters go, this one is literally right up there. Brandon Teena was a real person who was the victim of a horrendous hate crime. No human should be subjected to that kind of treatment, but tragically, it happened to this person. This movie hits you over the head with a steel sledgehammer of reality. This is the anti-movie. While movies were initially creations of entertainment to let people escape to fantastical worlds that aren't possible in real life, this film brings you right back to....1993.

I don't think I need to dissect and tell you how real Swank's performance is. It speaks for itself and makes my gut wrench when I see it. In terms of me explaining this to you, less is more.

2. Rayon and Ron Woodroof - Dallas Buyer's Club

A picture I took in Dallas back in the early 90's.
A picture I took in Dallas back in the early 90's.

I had to put these two characters together in the same category. I know it's cheating, but can you blame me?

I did not know that Rayon was not a real person while watching this film. Arguably the character is more real than Woodroof is, but they are still very close.

This is one of those inconveniently real performance duos. Stuff like this actually happens. All the time. It's not pretty by any stretch, and it certainly, certainly fits the criteria of being horrendously painful.

We can't all relate to AIDS victims. I have known or met very few AIDS patients. One of them was a public speaker who came to my class my freshman year of college to speak with us about protecting ourselves, reminding us to live life, but to do it responsibly. He died a few months later. I'll never forget that man.

I've unfortunately watched many people deal with terminal illnesses, and it only makes me more grateful for what I have. This is a very personal film which is the opposite of polite. It takes no prisoners as they say. Whether you support homosexuality or not, it will not change the human element of these two characters.

1. Dith Pran - The Killing Fields

Respect. Mad respect for this performance.
Respect. Mad respect for this performance.

Again. Not a stretch. You have a Cambodian refugee doctor playing a Cambodian refugee photojournalist. It's different but only mildly so. Dr. Haing S. Ngor was not, and really never became a career actor. I don't even know if you can really categorize his performance as acting. On a professional level, yes, you can say that this is just acting, but only to a degree.

The life Dr. Ngor lived was so interesting and oddly similar to the character he played that it's just painfully real. The real Dith Pran actually lived a longer, and seemingly more prosperous life than the actor who played him (who was tragically murdered on February 25, 1996, in Los Angeles). Pran lived until 2008 in relative peace within the United States.

Ngor plays a "journalist," but at the same time he is a journalist in his own right by telling this story that actually happened. While the real Pran endured years of torture, Ngor was also imprisoned in a concentration camp and witnessed the death of his wife during childbirth during this time. Hard to say the actor is different than the character or the real human being played.

This is heavy material, but it's so real it almost isn't even a movie. I don't know why more people don't know about it. Like most millennials, I was shielded from knowing about anything horrible in history, except for the civil rights hate crimes throughout the twentieth century, and everything surrounding WWII (I'm exaggerating obviously, but these were the big two that were hammered home).

No one teaches about Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in any school that I've attended, and I went to one of the top five school systems in the state of Ohio. How could they miss teaching people about this? Is it too graphic? I really don't know, but there's no excuse for ignorance.

I think the real Dith Pran said it best though as a testament to this character upon hearing the news of Dr. Ngor's death in Los Angeles. He said; "He is like a twin with me. He is like a co-messenger and right now I am alone."


What performances have you watched that just got you right there? Right in the heart. These don't have to be performances where you thought the acting was amazing, but where you were really feeling the character's pain. Substantially. Be honest. Don't be ashamed to say like White Fang or something. Could even be some mediocre film. Just say it. What's a role that cut you to the quick? Sound off in the comments below.


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