In days gone past, a British actor made it big in the US by playing the villain. Ian McKellan in X-Men, Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Jeremy Irons in Die Hard: With a Vengeance and most of the Imperial Starfleet in the original Star Wars trilogy consisted of British actors. But in TV it seemed harder for British actors to make their mark. There were British stars in supporting roles, such as Anthony Stewart Head as Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Alex Kingston in ER, but rarely did a British actor make it to that starring TV lead role.
But things have changed. We’re arguably in a golden age, with everything from Game Of Thrones to The Americans to The Walking Dead. And, more significantly, there has been a change in leading TV roles. No longer do you have to be American to headline an American show… us Brits have shown we’ve got more than enough talent to take centre stage. Here are some of the big British players that have made it successfully across the pond…
15. Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel)
Newport-born Michael Sheen is one of several Welsh actors on the list to make it big on the US. After years on the London stage and several appearances in films, he made an impact overseas playing David Frost in Frost / Nixon and then more recently as pioneer Dr. William Masters in Masters Of Sex.
With the show entering its fourth year, Sheen continues to make his mark in US television, receiving an Emmy nomination for his portrayal. He also delivers great voice roles with everything from House in Doctor Who to McTwisp in this year’s Alice Through The Looking Glass. One of the classiest and underrated actors on TV, Sheen is finally making his mark among his US contemporaries.
13. Hugh Dancy (Hannibal)
The British actor and husband of US actress Claire Danes started out on gritty British TV drama Trial And Retribution, and other homegrown dramas from Cold Feet to Dangerfield. Hollywood film Ella Enchanted started his exposure over in the States, but after further appearances in TV and film it was critically-acclaimed US horror drama Hannibal that showed the world just how good an actor Hugh Dancy could be.
For three series, Dancy played the latest version of Will Graham, going head to head with the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen. He was nominated for and won awards for his complex portrayal of a man drawn to the dark side of humanity in order to solve the terrible murders that occurred and was mesmerizing throughout. Since Hannibal‘s cancellation Dancy has joined new TV show The Path and has a role in… er… Fifty Shades Darker, but with Hannibal under his belt, Dancy has shown that he is up to conquering more great US TV roles… well until we get more Hannibal that is…
12. Ruth Wilson (The Affair)
Idris Elba might be synonymous with Luther, but his co-star over the first three seasons was just as essential. Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan was a chilling serial killer with a strange but alluring connection to John Luther and her absence in last year’s fourth series was notable. But there was a reason Wilson was AWOL; she was busy working on The Affair.
Wilson one a golden globe for her portrayal of grieving mother and waitress Alison who encounters Dominic West’s Noah and begins the titular affair. By playing Alison from two perspectives – hers and Noah’s – Wilson gets to deliver two incredible performances, one a femme fatale, the other a subdued, broken woman recovering from her trauma. Both roles are mesmerizing and it is clear that Wilson has started to make her mark in US television…
11. Dominic West (The Affair, The Wire)
On the flip side is Ruth Wilson’s co-star and fellow brit Dominic West. The Wire was his first big TV role, playing Detective James “Jimmy” McNulty for 60 episodes of the acclaimed drama. He then went on to start in a number of movies including 300 and (briefly) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
After playing Hector Madden in two series of British Cold War espionage thriller The Hour, West returned to the US, where he took the starring role alongside Ruth Wilson in The Affair. He has been nominated for a Golden Globe for playing Noah Solloway, cementing himself as a leading British TV actor in the US.
10. Ioan Gruffudd (Forever, UnREAL)
Ioan Gruffudd is one British actor who certainly made his mark in the US, moving on from a regular British TV role as Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower to star in films such as 102 Dalmatians and, of course, the first two Fantastic Four movies. And while keeping his very British charm, Gruffudd as also made his mark – like many movie actors as of late – on US TV.
He first bigUS television role was starring alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar in the short-lived Ringer, but his own series Forever really put him centre stage, playing the immortal Henry Morgan. And while that was sadly cancelled after one season, he’s now taking a recurring role in hit US series UnREAL. He would probably be higher on the list if his own US TV shows had last more than one season. But with a string of high profile US shows and films under his belt, there is no denying the impact this British actor has made across the pond.
9. Charlie Hunnam (Sons Of Anarchy)
Newcastle-born Charlie Hunnam first shot to fame playing innocent 16-year-old Nathan Maloney in Queer As Folk. With the focus on Russell T Davies’ acclaimed drama about a group of gay men in Manchester, Hunnam found himself in the spotlight and gaining roles from Nicholas Nickleby to films Cold Mountain and Children of Men. But it was with Sons Of Anarchy that he really made his mark in America.
It was a far cry from Queer As Folk, this Hamlet-inspired drama that saw Hunnam play motorcycle club member Jackson “Jax” Teller for 92 episodes. By the time the show ended, Hunnam had his choice of roles, nearly taking the starring role in Fifty Shades of Grey and with Pacific Rim under his belt, he’ll be playing King Arthur next in an exciting new movie franchise.
8. Damian Lewis (Homeland, Billions)
From Band Of Brothers to Life, London-born Damian Lewis had already done incredibly over in the States. But it was Homeland that cemented him as a leading TV actor in the US, portraying prisoner of war-turned traitor-turned spy Nicholas Brody over three seasons.
While his story-line wavered after the first season (it should be argued that he should have blown himself up in the finale of the first year), Lewis continued to deliver a tortured, mesmerizing performance, holding his own against the brilliant Claire Danes. And after this three-year stint on that show he moved on to play King Henry VIII in Wolf Blood, before taking another leading role as Bobby Axelrod in slick corporate drama Billions.
7. Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter)
Hayley Atwell had been acting long before Captain America: The First Avenger came along, but it was playing the kickass, confident love interest to Steve Rogers – Peggy Carter – that stuck her firmly in the limelight. Carter has become the biggest of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s female supporting stars and it was only a matter of time before she was given her own TV series.
Atwell shone in Agent Carter, showing that Peggy Carter could work outside the trappings of Captain America. In fact, not only did she front the first successful female-led superhero comic TV show since Wonder Woman, she also proved that she could deliver a talented performance, flitting between drama, comedy and action and have just the right amount of gusto to outshine all her co-stars. It is a tragedy that Agent Carter ended after just two short series, but with a lead role in new show Conviction, Atwell is proving she is well and truly here to stay.
6. Charlie Cox (Daredevil)
Sticking with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is one British actor who has firmly cemented himself as a leading superhero on the TV screen. Charlie Cox has become the very successful Man Without Fear Daredevil. Like Atwell, he had a good career before the Netflix / Marvel show, appearing in movies such as Stardust and having a recurring role in Boardwalk Empire. But after his debut last year in Daredevil there is no turning back.
With his intense performance and perfect ability to mimic a blind hero on screen, Cox has washed away all thoughts of the less-than-well-received Ben Affleck movie of the same name. While it isn’t just down to Cox’s performance, Daredevil had proven so popular that a third season has been ordered and he’ll be suiting up again for The Avengers-style street level superhero team up The Defenders in 2017.
5. Tom Ellis (Lucifer)
Cardiff-born Tom Ellis has had a number of significant roles in British TV, from Miranda to Merlin with some presence over in the US. But it is in Lucifer, that Ellis has really made his mark, playing the Devil himself in this US TV loose adaptation of the Vertigo Comics series of the same name.
It might not be completely true to the source material, but the series which sees Lucifer take a vacation from Hell and help the LA police department solve crime is a lot of fun. Ellis brings a load of charisma to the role, outshining everyone else of the show and it was quickly renewed for a second series, due to start shortly. No matter how long Lucifer lasts, this is surely the beginning of Tom Ellis’ dominance in US television.
4. Matthew Rhys (The Americans)
Like his co-star Keri Russell, The Americans star and another Cardiff-born Matthew Rhys was nominated for an Emmy this year for his role as Phillip Jennings. And it’s not the only award he has been nominated for, such is the gripping performance by Rhys as the Soviet intelligence spy posing as an American married couple in the 1980s.
He had already had a significant role in US drama Brothers and Sisters, but with The Americans he has dazzled audiences in one the current most intense dramas on TV. The show might be coming to an end this year, but he has cemented himself as a major US TV actor.
3. Lena Headey (Game Of Thrones, The Sarah Connor Chronicles)
Lena Headey is one the biggest cult actresses on TV and film. She’s been the small screen Sarah Connor, Queen Gorgo of Sparta in the 300 movies, Ma-Ma in the big screen remake of Dredd and, of course, Queen Cersei Lannister in Game Of Thrones.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles really showed this brilliant British actress could take on a leading US television role and Game Of Thrones has made her a star globally. Her ability to make audiences sympathize and hate her in equal measure is phenomenal and given how the last season ended, she is certain to take centre stage in the eagerly anticipated seventh season in 2017…
2. Hugh Laurie (House)
If House was still on the air, Hugh Laurie would probably be at number 1. Executive producer Bryan Singer famously said only an American could play Dr Gregory House and when he saw Laurie’s audition tape he turned to his crew and said “See, this is what I want: an American guy” – not realizing, of course, that Laurie was a British actor mustering the perfect American accent.
Since House ended, Laurie has continued to dazzle on TV screens, most notably as the villain Richard Roper in the stunning adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager, while remaining a regular guest star on Veep. But it is through House that Laurie made it big on American television, leading the way for many other actors on this list.
1. Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead)
Andrew Lincoln might be known as the grizzled leader of human survivors with a Southern drawl in The Waking Dead, but it is a far cry from his early days playing neurotic Edgar “Egg” Cook in This Life. This British look at a group of 20 somethings in 90’s London launched the careers of Lincoln and co-star Jack Davenport.
From there he went on to headline the brilliant British comedy series Teachers, had a major role in gritty British drama Afterlife and was part of the star-studded ensemble in Robin Curtis’ Love Actually. But it was playing sheriff Morgan Grimes that really allowed Lincoln to make his mark in the US. And while there is always a chance he’ll become zombie fodder, hopefully he’ll be around to the very grim end. And after that, surely Lincoln will have his pick of roles.