The similarities between acting and politics are obvious. Someone stands on a stage, wearing makeup and an appropriate costume. With suitable gravitas, they read out a speech that someone else has written. If it goes well, there is applause. (If not, there can be booing, or a riot.)

If they are good at their job, they can continue at a high-profile level for a considerable time, and arouse great public affection. If they are not, they are either swiftly forgotten or, at worst, become a figure of public loathing, a status that they might never live...

The similarities between acting and politics are obvious. Someone stands on a stage, wearing makeup and an appropriate costume. With suitable gravitas, they read out a speech that someone else has written. If it goes well, there is applause. (If not, there can be booing, or a riot.)

If they are good at their job, they can continue at a high-profile level for a considerable time, and arouse great public affection. If they are not, they are either swiftly forgotten or, at worst, become a figure of public loathing, a status that they might never live down for their rest of their lives.

The sudden rise of Volodymyr Zelensky on the worldwide stage, in circumstances that he would rather not have encountered, is notable for any number of reasons, but it is his background as an actor and comedian that fascinates many. Zelensky rose to prominence in Ukraine as the star and creator of the satirical show Servant of the People, in which he played a frustrated history teacher who inadvertently found himself becoming president after a rant of his about government corruption went viral. Art imitated life — or simply embraced a degree of meta-reality — and Zelensky became president in April 2019, on a similar platform to his character Vasyl Holoborodko.

After being written off as a lightweight — an actor playing a part still, rather than a proper politician — Zelensky’s courage and inspirational leadership in dire circumstances has seen him rightly lionized in the US, Europe and beyond. But it is undeniably true that his thespian experience has given him the ability to project gravitas and sincerity.

Like the only American president who came from an acting background, Ronald Reagan, Zelensky has found himself involved in a war against Russia; unlike Reagan, Zelensky is in the rare position that, while the world is on his side and willing him to succeed, it is widely believed that the odds are not in his favor in the long term. And no amount of emotional speechifying, alas, will change that.

He can draw some temporary comfort from looking at the careers of other actors-turned-politicians. Reagan was a largely undistinguished film star, with the exception of his villainous appearance in 1964’s film noir The Killers, in which he played a gangster moonlighting as a legitimate businessman. When he became president in 1980, he was mocked for being too old and too lightweight, but soon established himself as a conservative bulwark to the dangers posed by the Soviet Union, and became instrumental in bringing the Cold War to a close.

Arnold Schwarzenegger served two terms as governor of California — the “Governator” — which were either a wasted opportunity or brave attempt to embrace the center ground, depending on political perspectives. And there are many others, from Britain’s Glenda Jackson and Laurence Fox to the legendary Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, who briefly served in Indian politics before being ousted in a financial scandal. All have benefited from the high profile that their acting careers gave them, even if their public service has ended up being a more mixed affair. And the recent death of the director Ivan Reitman reminded many of his film Dave, which saw a hapless double drafted in to impersonate the indisposed American president — with both hilarious and heart-warming consequences.

Yet the increased fame that actor-politicians enjoy is a double-edged sword. Although it is certain that the squads of assassins trying to kill Zelensky would have been after him with or without Servant of the People, John Hinckley Jr’s attempt to kill Reagan in 1981 was done ostensibly to impress Jodie Foster, with whom he had become obsessed after seeing her in Taxi Driver. And, of course, the successful assassin of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, was himself an actor. Perhaps he was frustrated by Lincoln’s ability to win the applause; like many second-string performers, he wished to drag himself into the limelight.

In any case, his actions showed that, sometimes, actors would be better off sticking to the script — even if Zelensky seems to have torn his up, with momentous consequences.