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British actors are arguably one of the UK’s greatest exports. It’s rare that an awards season passes without a nod for a British lead in a prestige drama – often nailing an American accent while they’re at it. Indeed, from Oscar-bait like Daniel Day Lewis and Olivia Colman to big budget stars like Idris Elba […]
British actors are arguably one of the UK’s greatest exports. It’s rare that an awards season passes without a nod for a British lead in a prestige drama – often nailing an American accent while they’re at it.
Indeed, from Oscar-bait like Daniel Day Lewis and Olivia Colman to big budget stars like Idris Elba and Sophie Turner, no genre is safe from the British invasion. We’ve even had two English Spidermen in a row!
So why can’t Hollywood get enough of British actors and their mastery of American accents – and how have they become such an integral part of Hollywood’s cultural landscape? Let’s delve into this phenomenon, starting with a brief history of British acting traditions, then getting into some of the biggest British actors working today (and whether their accents are up to snuff).
Some argue that Brits are looked upon favourably in the casting offices of Hollywood because of the UK’s theatrical heritage. Without a doubt, the UK has a theatrical history that stretches back over centuries and has nurtured generations of creative talent.
In the UK, aspiring actors tend to audition for the National Youth Theatre and then attend drama school before embarking on a professional career. Even those Brits who haven’t gone to LAMDA or RADA can ride on the assumption that they are classically trained, whether or not they’ve ever set foot onstage. (Needless to say, it’s a slightly more prestigious path than, say, finding fame and fortune through Eurovision.)
In America, on the other hand, most wannabe performers try to get acting jobs as early as possible so that they can earn their Equity card, meaning that many of them begin working professionally from their teens or even younger. In other words: less formal training, more learning on the job.
Because of this, Brits have a unique reputation for acting excellence that translates into long, respected careers. Consider the likes of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, both of whom were acclaimed theatre performers in the UK long before their roles in Lord of the Rings or the Bond movies brought them mainstream success.
That rigorous training might also be part of why British actors seem to be unusually good at adopting different accents. So many shows now seem to have a Brit playing an American so convincingly that viewers will only realise the actor’s true nationality when they’re being interviewed!
From Damien Lewis on Homeland to Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things, there’s no shortage of actors who have given us all a shocking “Wait, they’re British?!” moment upon watching their interviews. Even the Mother of Dragons herself can do a credible Valley Girl accent!
Then there are those actors who can nail an accent, but suffer from ‘resting Brit face’: think Bella Ramsey, Tom Holland or Florence Pugh, none of whom can fully hide their Britishness, no matter how American they sound. And of course, there’s also the likes of Harry Styles, who can’t even seem to master his own English accent in Don’t Worry Darling.
It can go the other way, of course. Everyone from Anna Kendrick to TikTok star Mary Elizabeth Kelly (otherwise known as the “mouth acting” girl) have done stellar impressions of British accents. But you’re still far less likely to see American actors starring in British films than the reverse.
There are a few reasons why Hollywood still has a powerful draw on British actors. Firstly, simple maths: America makes more films and TV shows every year, meaning more opportunities for working actors.
Secondly, American productions tend to have much bigger budgets than their British counterparts, partly because of their greater reach. For an ambitious newcomer, the combination of more parts and better pay can be – understandably – irresistible.
The third reason is more outright shameful for the British entertainment industry: America has a better reputation when it comes to colour-blind casting. British actors of colour, such as Daniel Kaluuya, have spoken out about being stereotyped or passed over by casting directors in the UK – and the industry as a whole has been criticised for a lack of diversity at every level.
While Hollywood is far from perfect, the fact remains that the UK still lags behind when it comes to diversity both in front of and behind the camera. A 2018 analysis of the BAFTAs found that white performers have made up 94% of nominees across categories since the awards began in 1969. Even in the past five years, it seems little has changed: at the 2023 BAFTAs, every single winner was white. Is it any wonder that actors of colour are heading overseas?
Nowadays, blockbuster movies hardly feel complete without at least one Brit headlining the cast. But with recent Oscar nominations and wins dominated by people of Irish, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Australian and, yes, even American descent, are Brits in Hollywood about to be pushed off the top spot?
If the cast lists of the 2023’s most exciting upcoming films are anything to go by, probably not. With rising stars like Florence Pugh, Riz Ahmed and Andrew Garfield winning hearts and dominating the box office – not to mention the incredible Bella Ramsey stealing scenes from her famous co-stars in Game of Thrones and The Last of Us – the British star seems unlikely to fall any time soon.
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