Actor Benedict Cumberbatch on a 2018 episode [vid] of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:
I think England is the only place that makes people named Benedict Cumberbatch.
How Amandla Stenberg was named:
Actress Amandla Stenberg was named after a 1989 Miles Davis album — a lush, African-tinged funk fusion that takes its name from the Zulu and Xhosa word for “power.”
In South Africa under apartheid, “amandla” was — and still is — a rallying cry against oppression. It’s a lot for Stenberg to live up to.
“You think?” she asks, laughing and thanking her mother for the heavy responsibility. Then she turns more serious. “It’s something I keep very close to my heart.”
From a 2006 interview with Blake Lively:
Q: I’ve got to say, “Blake Lively” sounds almost too cool to not be a stage name…
A: People are always like, “Blake Lively! Okay, what’s your real name?” It’s kind of embarrassing to tell people, because it sounds like a really cheesy stage name.
Q: Is there a story behind the first part?
A: Actually, my grandma’s brother’s name was Blake, and my sister wrote it down when she was reading a family tree. And they said, “If it’s a boy, we’ll name him Blake, and if it’s a girl, we’ll name her Blakely.” And everybody thought I was going to be a boy, and then I came out and I was a girl. And they had already been calling me Blake for months because they were positive I was going to be a boy. And they had been calling me Blake for so long, they just [kept it].
[The surname “Lively” came from Blake’s mother’s first husband. Blake’s mother kept it after the divorce, and Blake’s father — her mother’s second husband — liked it enough to take as his own when they married.]
Actress Camila Mendes [vid] talking about her name on The Late Late Show With James Corden in 2017:
So my name is Camila Mendes, and there’s a singer called Camila Cabello, and a singer called Shawn Mendes. And people seem to think my Twitter is a fan account for that relationship.
In a 2013 interview with OK! magazine, actress Charisma Carpenter was asked whether or not she was named after an Avon fragrance:
That is absolutely true! I don’t know if you’ve smelled it, it’s awful. I was born in an era where Avon was very much the thing. My grandmother brought my mother, as a gift, this perfume. The story is I went without a name for about a week and then my grandmother brought this perfume (named Charisma) and my mom and my dad settled on that name. They had met me, they had heard the name of the perfume and I guess it just clicked.
From a 2012 interview with actor Crispin Glover, who goes by his full name, Crispin Hellion Glover, as a filmmaker:
SP: When did you begin using ‘Hellion’ as part of your name? Why the addition?
CHG: I began using “Hellion” as my middle name at birth. I was born in New York. Not too long before I was born, my parents went to see an off-Broadway production of Henry V, by Shakespeare and liked the production very much, and liked the name [Crispin, from the St. Crispin’s Day Speech] so [they] gave it to me. My father’s middle name is Herbert. He never liked his middle name Herbert. So as a young struggling actor in New York he would say to himself, “I am Bruce H. Glover, Bruce Hellion Glover. I am a hellion, a troublemaker.” And that would make him feel good. He told my mother this was his real middle name. When they were married she saw him writing on the marriage certificate Bruce Herbert Glover and she thought, “Who am I marrying?” They gave Hellion to me as my real middle name. I had always written and drawn as a child and I would always sign my drawing and writing with my whole name Crispin Hellion Glover. When I started acting professionally at 13, which was something I had decided on my own I could do as a profession at a relatively young age, it became apparent that I had to choose a professional acting name for SAG. I thought my whole name was too long for acting and just used my first and last name. When I started publishing my books I simply continued using the name I had always used for writing and drawing and had put in my books. This is also why I use my whole name for my own films.
From a Pitchfork interview with The Good Place actress D’Arcy Carden:
I put an apostrophe in my name that wasn’t there before, like Smashing Pumpkins bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, because of how influential this band was to me. D’Arcy was just the epitome of cool to me. In 1993, I was really into alternative and grunge music, and whereas the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams felt so masculine, there was something sweeter and lighter about Smashing Pumpkins. The fact that they had a girl in their band was huge for me and my friends. I learned the guitar part to “Today,” and it made me feel like such a badass. It was like, “Wow, I can play guitar!” But, of course, anybody can play the beginning of “Today.”
(Name quotes #73 mentioned another Good Place actress…)
From a 2012 interview with Dax Shepard in Elle magazine:
There was a best-selling book in the late ’60s and ’70s called The Adventurers by Harold Robbins. The lead character’s name was Dax. Anyone that’s roughly my age that’s named Dax is named from that book. I’ve met probably five other [men named] Dax.
(The character’s full name is Diogenes Alejandro Xenos. His nickname was derived from his initials, D.A.X.)
From a write-up of Demi Moore‘s 2017 Tonight Show appearance:
“[Demi Lovato is] from Texas and I’m from New Mexico, so our families say our names the same but we each individually pronounce it differently,” Moore said, noting she pronounces it “Deh-mee” while Lovato says “Dem-ee.”
So what are the origins of Moore’s name?
“In my case, my mother just found it on a cosmetic carton,” she told Fallon. “It means ‘half,’ and she didn’t know that, but she just liked it.”
From a biography of English actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928):
“Ellen Terry is the most beautiful name in the world; it rings like a chime through the last quarter of the nineteenth century,” George Bernard Shaw wrote of the Dame when she was at the height of her career.
From a recent Instagram post by actor Elliot Page (formerly called Ellen Page):
Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life.
Actor Emilio Estevez — who pronounces his surname ESS-teh-vez, instead of the Spanish way, ess-TEH-vez — discussing his name [vid] on Talk Stoop with Nessa in 2019:
So I was born on 203rd Street in South Bronx. And, at the time, my father had this very Hispanic-sounding last name. […] A lot people, a lot of these agents, and folks said, if you wanna work in this business, you gotta have a more Anglo-sounding name. Of course times have changed, but there was that moment where he was finally on Broadway — 1965, ’66 — and his father came from Dayton (he was from Spain, of course) and looked up on the marquee, and saw the three names that were starring in the play, and one of them was “Martin Sheen” and not his real name, Ramón Estévez. And my grandfather just looked up, and he just shook his head, and he was so disappointed. And my father saw that. And so when I began to get into this business, we had that conversation. And he said, don’t make the same mistake I did.
…A few sentences later, Estevez added:
I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me on the street and said, you know, just seeing your name on a poster, just seeing your name on screen, meant so much to me, you have no idea.
(Martin Sheen’s stage name was created from the names of CBS casting director Robert Dale Martin and televangelist archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.)
From a video in which Emma Thompson talks about “posh” English slang [vid]:
“Pip pip” is “bye-bye.” […] Like, for instance, when I was born, yonks ago [in 1959], on the BBC, on the world service, there would be the pip, pip, pip. So that’s the “pips.” And you say pip, pip. And I was known as “pip Emma” because I was born as the pips were sounding.
From a short item about Halle Berry in a March 1995 issue of Jet:
“My mother was shopping in Halle Brothers in Cleveland,” she recently revealed in the New York Daily News. “She saw the bags and thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to name my child.’ I thought it was the coolest name until I got into this business. No one ever says it right, it’s Halle, like Sally.”
From the 2005 Seattle Times obituary of Hildegarde:
Hildegarde, the “incomparable” cabaret singer whose career spanned almost seven decades and who was credited with starting the single-name vogue among entertainers, has died. She was 99.
From a 2013 article about actress Honeysuckle Weeks in the Independent:
With the names Honeysuckle Weeks and Charity Wakefield starring in the UK premiere production of These Shining Lives directed by Loveday Ingram, you can only imagine what rehearsals are like. It sounds as if they should all be in a Jilly Cooper novel – not a hard-hitting play about employees’ rights in the workplace.
From a 1997 article in Jet magazine about how Jamie Foxx (born Eric Bishop) found success in comedy after changing his name:
Foxx, who was determined to make it as a stand-up comedian, went to Santa Monica “where nobody really knew who I was,” he reveals, “and changed my name to Jamie Foxx.” He remembers, “Three girls would show up and 22 guys would show up [at Amateur Night]. They had to put all the girls on who were on the list to break up the monotony. So when they look up and they see Tracey Green, Tracey Brown, and these unisex names I had written on the list, they picked Jamie Foxx. ‘Is she here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, Brother, right over here man,'” Foxx said in a deep, macho voice. “I’d go up and do my thing with the Cosby and Tyson (impersonations), and they were like ‘Who is this Jamie Foxx kid?'”
From an interview with Keira Knightley in Elle (UK):
Keira also revealed that she was never intended to be called Keira.
‘I was meant to be named “Kiera”, after a Russian ice skater who was on the TV one day. My dad fancied her and nicked her name for me. But it was my mum who went to register my birth, and she accidentally spelled “ei” instead of “ie” because my mum’s crap at spelling.
‘Apparently, when she came back he said: “WHAT THE F*CK? You’ve spelt her name wrong!” What were they going to do, though? Once it’s on the piece of paper, it’s on the piece of paper. And that’s me. A spelling error.’
[The skater was likely Kira Ivanova, who won a bronze medal for the USSR at the 1984 Winter Olympics.]
It was very strange, I went to school, and I remember that you had to do these tests to find out what set you’re in — how clever you are. I put down “Kit Harington,” and they looked at me like I was completely stupid, and they said, “No, you’re Christopher Harington, I’m afraid.” It was only then I learnt my actual name. That was kind of a bizarre existential crisis for an 11-year-old to have, but in the end I always stuck with Kit, because I felt that’s who I was. I’m not really a “Chris.”
From the 1970 obituary of actress Lenore Ulric in the New York Times:
Born in the little town of New Ulm, Minn., in 1892, the daughter of Franz Xavier Ulrich, an Army hospital steward, Miss Ulric (she dropped the H from her last name) used to say that she was predestined for the stage. Her father gave her the name of Lenore because of his fondness for Poe‘s poem, “The Raven,” and her childhood was devoted to theatrical yearnings.
(She played Wetona on stage in 1916.)
From a 2014 NPR interview with Leonardo DiCaprio:
My father tells me that they were on their honeymoon at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I believe. They were looking at a da Vinci painting, and allegedly I started kicking furiously while my mother was pregnant. And my father took that as a sign, and I suppose DiCaprio wasn’t that far from da Vinci. And so, my dad, being the artist that he is, said, “That’s our boy’s name.”
You know, unconsciously, you go, “No, just call me Lin,” cause I can’t deal with manual. […] I learned at a very young age how to just make people comfortable, and I learned to adapt at such a young age, that I didn’t realize the power of bringing all of myself into a room until much later.
(Manual, MAN-yoo-ul, is a common mispronunciation of the Spanish name Manuel, man-WEHL.)
From an obituary of actress Lina Basquette (formerly Lena Baskette) in The Independent:
In 1923, she and her mother went to New York, where Lena danced for John Murray Anderson – it was he who altered her name to Basquette, and the producer Charles Dillingham who changed Lena to Lina (‘Lena is a cook’, he explained, ‘Lina is an artiste’).
From an interview with Lou Diamond Phillips at Cowboys & Indians:
The story of his own life began on the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, where he was born Louis Diamond Upchurch in 1962. His interesting name has an interesting back story: His father, Gerald, named him after U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Leland “Lou” Diamond (known as “Mr. Leatherneck,” he is considered one of the finest Marines of all time); after his dad died, Phillips took his stepfather, George’s last name.
(Phillips’ co-star in the movie La Bamba was Esai Morales.)
From an interview with Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o (pronounced loo-PEE-ta NYONG-oh) on Jimmy Kimmel Live:
Jimmy: I love that they gave you a traditional Mexican name even though they were just there for a short time.
Lupita: Well, in our tradition, it’s custom to name your child after the events of the day. So, I was born in Mexico, so they thought it would be fit to give me a Mexican name.
From an Us Magazine article about Matthew McConaughey‘s 2020 book Greenlights:
The Texas native also revealed that when he was born his father wasn’t there. Instead, he explained that James “called my mom and said, ‘Only thing I have to say is if it’s a boy, don’t name him Kelly.’”
From “Michael Caine’s Name Is Now Officially Michael Caine” by Jackson McHenry at Vulture:
Maurice Micklewhite is dead; long live Michael Caine. The legendary British actor has officially adopted the name you know and impersonate him by after getting fed up with increased airport security checks. “I changed my name when all the stuff started with ISIS and all that,” Caine told The Sun, going on to describe his experiences with security guards thusly: “He would say, ‘Hi Michael Caine,’ and suddenly I’d be giving him a passport with a different name on it. I could stand there for an hour. So I changed my name.”
From an interview with Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che:
I was named after Che Guevara. My name is Michael Che Campbell. My dad is a huge history buff, and he named me after Che Guevara cause he loved Che Guevera for whatever reason. Which is a very polarizing figure, because when I tell people I was named after Che, they’re either like, “Oh, wow that’s cool,” or they’re like, “You know, Che killed people.” I’m like, I didn’t pick my name.
From a 2011 interview with former child actor Meeno Peluce:
My parents split the country when I was conceived. They traveled across Europe looking for the perfect place to have their perfect child. It was 1969, a voice had spoken to my mom. It said, “Go to India.” Then a short time later it said, “You’re pregnant.” They had been married 10 years and my mom was not supposed to be able to have kids. But the voice spoke and so they left America behind and headed for the world. They made great friends in Yugoslavia, one had the perfect name. Miroslav, Man of Peace. So I was named after him, but not in Yugoslavia.
My folks pulled into Amsterdam on a snowy night with all the lights glistening and my mom knew it was the perfect place and that’s where I was born, their little man of peace, Miro.
A couple years later we were in Katmandu at the foot of Swayambhunath where Buddha had come to make his last speeches. A monk came over, picked me up, and asked my name. “Miro,” my mother told him. “No,” I corrected her. “No more Miro, only Meeno, only Meeno.” And I wouldn’t answer to anything else.
From a 2001 article about actress O-Lan Jones in the Los Angeles Times:
Jones’ mother, Scarlett Dark, named her after the character O-lan in Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel, “The Good Earth.” The “O” part, Jones said, means “profound,” and the “lan” means “wildflower.” Her mother, ever an original, chose to celebrate the wildflower part with a capital L.
From Piper Laurie‘s 2011 memoir Learning to Live Out Loud:
It never occurred to me that I didn’t have to change my name. For the last twenty or thirty years, I’ve admired and envied all the performers who have proudly used their real names. The longer and harder to pronounce, the better.
(Was Mädchen Amick one of the performers she had in mind? They worked together on Twin Peaks in the early 1990s…)
From an 2005 interview with Portia de Rossi in The Advocate:
Advocate: When did you become Portia?
Portia: When I was 15, I changed it legally. In retrospect, I think it was largely due to my struggle about being gay. Everything just didn’t fit, and I was trying to find things I could identify myself with, and it started with my name.
I picked Portia because I was a Shakespeare fan [Portia is the character in The Merchant of Venice who famously declaims, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”]. De Rossi because I was Australian and I thought that an exotic Italian name would somehow suit me more than Amanda Rogers. When you live in Australia, Europe is so far away and so fascinating, so stylish and cultured and sophisticated.
From a Deadline Hollywood article about Quvenshané Wallis:
In a way, however, both of Quvenzhané’s parents are with her every time someone speaks her unusual first name (pronounced Kwe-VAWN-zhan-ay). The first part combines elements of her teacher mother’s first name, Qulyndreia, and her truck driver father’s first name, Venjie. Her mother says that Zhané is the Swahili word for “fairy,” although no direct translation can be found on an Internet search. Qulyndreia Wallis says her own name means “to you with love.” The rest of the kids include Venjie Jr., 15; brother Vejon, 13; and sister Qunyquekya, 19.
(According to several sources, the Swahili word for “fairy” is jini — reasonably close to Zhané, actually.)
From a 2015 Indian Express article in which actress and comedian Rebel Wilson talks about her name:
A little girl named Rebel sang at my parents’ wedding. My mum is really big on theme names like that – my sisters are called Liberty and Annachi, and my brother is Ryot. I did pretty well in comparison. I love it.
You can’t be a shrinking violet if you have a name like Rebel. It gives me an edge and helps me not give in to my fears. I try to live that way.
From a 2015 obituary of movie star Rex Reason:
Contrary to what one might think, Rex Reason was his birth name, not one dreamed up by a Hollywood executive. Universal Pictures, in fact, had billed him as “Bart Roberts” in a couple of films before he insisted on being credited with his real name.
River Phoenix, as quoted in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1995:
When I was in first grade everyone made fun of my name, of course. I think it’s kind of a big name to hold up when you’re nine years old. It seemed goofy.
[His birth name? River Bottom.]
From a 2009 interview with Sigourney Weaver (born Susan Weaver) in Esquire magazine:
I changed my name when I was about twelve because I didn’t like being called Sue or Susie. I felt I needed a longer name because I was so tall. So what happened? Now everyone calls me Sig or Siggy.
(In another interview, Sigourney mentioned that she was nearly named Flavia.)
From a mid-2022 episode [vid] of The Kelly Clarkson Show in which actor Taylor Lautner talks about his fiancée Taylor Dome, who was planning to legally change her last name to Lautner:
We already share one name. So it’s going to be extra complicated. […] We’re literally going to be the same person. Ridiculous.
(The Taylors — who do indeed share the same first and last name now — married in November.)
From an interview with Thandiwe Newton (formerly called Thandie Newton) in Vogue (UK):
Meanwhile Thandiwe and her younger brother attended a Catholic primary school run by joyless nuns […] where the W of her name drifted inward, out of sight and earshot, in a futile hope to make her feel less different.
No longer is Newton afraid of the red carpet because of how much it reminded her of her invisibility, and she looks forward to a future where the illusion of race will no longer narrow who we are. […] All her future films will be credited with Thandiwe Newton, after the W was carelessly missed out from her first credit. Now she’s in control. Many lives lived and she’s come out triumphant, preserved in the magic of the mist and sun that made her, and wanted her to shine. “That’s my name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.”
(The name Thandiwe means “beloved” in Zulu.)
From the 2007 New York Times obituary of actor Tiger “Tige” Andrews:
Tiger Andrews was born on March 19, 1920, in Brooklyn; he was named after a strong animal to ensure good health, following a Syrian custom.
(He was one of the stars of The Mod Squad, which started airing on TV in 1968. His nickname, Tige, was one of the top debut names of 1969.)
From an amNewYork article about Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh (born Terri Sue Feldshuh in 1952):
What ever happened to Terri Sue Feldshuh?
“I fell in love with a Christian boy, Michael Fairchild, who didn’t want to kiss a Terri Sue. He said: ‘Terri Sue doesn’t fit you at all. What’s that other name of yours? Tovah? Now that’s a name!'”
(Her stage name was initially “Terri Fairchild,” according to Wikipedia.)
From “The Eyes Have It,” an interview with Orange Is the New Black actress Uzoamaka “Uzo” Aduba, who was asked whether she ever considered changing her name:
When I started as an actor? No, and I’ll tell you why. I had already gone through that. My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka, which means “The road is good.” Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
[Incidentally, there’s a Tchaikovsky in Brazil.]
From a 2011 interview with Val Kilmer in Interview Magazine:
I don’t think of my life as a cliché, but I’m a cliché eccentric. Complete with a strange name — I mean, who’s named Val? How many Vals do you know? I mean, really?
From the book The Making of Cabaret (1999) by Keith Garebian, regarding the name of English actress Valerie Jill Haworth, who was born on Victory over Japan Day (Aug. 15, 1945):
The initials of her baptismal names (Valerie Jill) were in honor of her birth on VJ Day.
[Related: American actress Robin Vee Strasser was born on Victory in Europe (“VE”) Day.]
From a 1936 article about movie actress Veda Ann Borg in the Wilkes-Barre Record:
Miss Borg was given a new tag almost the minute she stepped into the studio. It was “Ann Noble.” […] Miss Borg contended that her own name is more descriptive of her personality than Ann Noble. The former model’s argument was convincing. She will be billed as Veda Ann Borg.
Viggo Mortensen, as quoted in TIME Magazine in 2005:
I met someone last night who showed me a picture of a baby, and they had named the kid Viggo. You know, Viggo is a pretty dorky name in Denmark. It’s like Oswald or something. It’s a very old Scandinavian name, at least 1,000 years old.
From a 2008 interview with actor Vince Vaughn in Parade magazine:
My dad’s name is Vernon and my mom liked the initials, VV. My sisters and I got named Victoria, Valeri and Vincent so we’d be VV’s, too. But, then when you start getting pets’ names that start with a ‘v,’ it’s a little embarrassing. When you are Vince Vaughn, and you go out to scream for ‘Viking’ the dog to come home, that’s a little much. Then, Mom started looking in a dictionary for names and we ended up with a female Chihuahua, named Vanadis after some mythological goddess. So Victoria, Valeri and Vince were out playing with Vanadis. When I finally got a dog, I named him Rowdy. I had to break the chain.
[Vaughn’s first daughter, like Rowdy, was given a non-V name: Locklyn.]
From a 2014 interview with actress Winona Ryder in The Telegraph:
Ryder’s unconventional childhood has been exhaustively documented and occasionally used to explain the more disturbing events in her life, but the actress — christened Winona Laura Horowitz and named after the Minnesota city in which she was born — speaks fondly of the four years she spent in a commune in Elk, Northern California, from the age of seven.
[Winona’s younger brother Uri, born in the 1970s, was named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.]
From a 2017 Teen Vogue interview with Zendaya, who explains how her name is pronounced:
Zendaya decided to break it down for viewers with a simple step-by-step guide: “Zen is the first syllable, then day, and then a.”
“I think a lot of people see my name and think it’s more fancy than it is,” she explained. “They think Zendaya like papaya. It’s just day.“
From a Life article (Jan. 18, 1943) about actor and comedian Zero Mostel:
Back in 1941 Zero was a struggling New York painter who specialized in portraits of strong-muscled workmen. He went by the name of Sam, which was his own (“Zero” is a press agent’s inspiration). […] On Feb. 16, 1942, the day that news of the fall of Singapore reached the U.S., “Zero” Mostel made his professional debut as a night-club funny man.
(When Zero appeared on Dick Cavett‘s talk show in early 1971, Dick told the audience: “I’ve tried shows with three guests and with two guests and with one guest, but never with Zero.”)
From the 2012 obituary of Mouseketeer Bonita Lynn Fields Elder at U.S. News:
Elder always went by the name Lynn, but she adopted the stage name “Bonnie” — a shortened version of her real first name — at the suggestion of the show’s producers because there was already a cast member, a boy, with the first name Lynn, her cousin said.
(That said, Bonnie’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times told a different story: “Fields’ given name was Bonita, but soon after joining the cast Disney himself asked her to change it because a two-syllable name harmonized better with those of the other Mouseketeers.”)
Images: Screenshots of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Talk Stoop with Nessa Diab, and The Kelly Clarkson Show
[Latest update: Sept. 2023]