Is Rihanna a bad actor, or has she been choosing the wrong roles?


The RnB superstar’s acting debut landed her a ‘Worst Supporting Actress’ Razzie in 2012. Her next role sees her in Ocean’s 8 – but is it the right move for Rihanna?


“What’s wrong with you, drama queen?”

As opening lines in film debuts go, Rihanna‘s first utterance in Peter Berg’s big, dumb and kind of fun Battleship isn’t one for the ages, and unfortunately the film doesn’t get much better from there either.

One thing the line does illustrate though, is that as much as Rihanna struggled with her acting debut, she was hardly helped by Joel and Erich Hoeber’s lamentable script which, itself, comes with the caveat that the pair were writing a $220 million blockbuster based on a board game.

And while Rihanna did ultimately walk away with the Razzie Award for ‘Worst Supporting Actress’ for her troubles, the nagging doubt remains – is Ri-Ri actually a bad actor, or simply making bad choices when it comes to her film projects?

Moviegoers may well find out soon enough, with Rihanna set to play a part in the upcoming all-female Ocean’s 11 entry, Ocean’s Eight, alongside Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchet among others. She hasn’t been in many films (nine acting roles at the time of writing), but this could be the one where she earns her stripes.

Rihanna’s role in Battleship

The very man responsible for casting Rihanna in Battleship professes to be the one that spotted her acting potential. Battleship director Peter Berg went as far as writing an article for GQ to explain his decision to cast the singer in the blockbuster. The piece sheds some light on where he feels Rihanna’s strengths lie and where she may actually be going wrong.

Berg told GQ:

“It [Casting Rihanna] clicked for me though after she got assaulted and she went on Diane Sawyer’s show and talked very frankly about that night and what happened. She was so intelligent and articulate. She was sat there in a very conservative dress and just came across as very, very real. I remember thinking, “Wow. There’s much more to this woman than I’d thought.” I then saw her do this stupid little skit on Saturday Night Live where she was in a classroom giving a hard time to these boys. She was funny as all hell! I knew in that moment that the girl could act. No question.”

Let’s start with the obvious: as anyone who saw the above SNL skit or Rihanna’s knowing cameo in This Is The End knows already, when it comes to comedy the 29-year-old does in fact possess all the necessary comic timing and screen presence to hold her own. There are even occasions in Battleship when Rihanna is able to wring laughs out of a so-so script.

But if Rihanna is serious about first and foremost proving herself as a talented screen actor then she needs to opt out of the comedic roles in favour of something a little more… dramatic.

As Berg outlines in the comments above, it was Rihanna’s articulate nature and raw honesty that first caught his eye, yet strangely these same qualities have been largely overlooked in her burgeoning acting career to date.

At another point in the GQ piece, Berg also recalls Rihanna’s words to him on set:

“‘Please protect me and make sure I’m good. I will do anything to be good. Don’t go easy on me. Don’t stop until you feel like you’ve got it.'”

Battleship may not have been the time or place to do it, but to all intents and purposes it feels as though the kind of role Rihanna needs is the exact opposite of what she’s currently involved in. Forget knockabout comedies or light-hearted action flicks – she needs a dramatic role that pushes her abilities to the very limit.

Lessons from former bad actors

And if there was ever a singer turned actor to follow the example of, Rihanna would be wise to turn to none other than Mariah Carey.

A surprising source to be sure, but like Rihanna, Carey was also a Razzie award recipient in the wake of her first film, the semi-autobiographical mess Glitter. But then Carey did something no one expected: she took a supporting role in Lee Daniels’ hard-hitting low budget drama Precious.

Carey, so long regarded as the pop siren and demanding diva, took herself out of her comfort zone to play a character she herself described to Rolling Stone as “not really a likable person” who wore dowdy clothes and no make-up. Now, there’s a lot less people who would consider her a ‘bad actor’.

But it did the trick, with Variety describing the singer, once a laughing stock in Hollywood circles, as “pitch perfect” for the role while Entertainment Weekly noted how her performance had “an authentically deglammed compassion”.

Rihanna needs to be taken out of her comfort zone and given a meaty, dramatic role that allows her to draw on her own difficult life experiences.

There is some room for optimism here, too. A guest stint on the final season of Bates Motel has seen Rihanna earn praise for her portrayal of the iconic Marion Crane, first seen in Hitchcock’s Psycho, an adulterous, thieving and generally conniving character that, by all accounts, the pop superstar is excelling in. It’s not exactly the kind of heavyweight drama we may have hoped for but it’s definitely a start.

Rihanna plays the iconic Marion Crane in Bates Motel

And yet for all the positivity presented by that particular performance, the prospect of Rihanna emerging as an excellent actor is tempered by the potential problem that could lie ahead with Ocean’s Eight. It’s not that the film itself is doomed to fail; you’ll find no Ghostbusters style foreboding of doom here. No, it’s more that, while details remain scarce, the casting of Rihanna as a character named Nine Ball points to the kind of lightweight, secondary role she needs to move on from; a jokey character with a name reminiscent of “The Amazing” Yen from the first Ocean’s film.

Rihanna is a capable comedy actor who could easily carve out a niche in animated movies and whatever the latest blockbuster action comedy or gross out frat boy adventure may be.

But if she really wants to be a “drama queen”, she needs to think outside the box and fast.

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Jack Beresford

Jack has written for Lad Bible, loaded and Sick Chirpse among others. A lover of any and all films, big and small, Jack's tastes range from the sublime to the ridiculous. That said, his perfect night in remains a Nicolas Cage double bill of Con Air and Face/Off.