Stardom is a funny thing. There's something about an actor's face, or voice, or something that just makes us like them. Studios have whole systems designed to find these people and, once they do, they transform them into megastars. There's a clear chain, where you start them in small roles alongside more established stars and watch the audience begin to clamor for more of them, listen to them wish they'd focus on them more. Then you start giving them their own leads, and build on it from there, striking while the iron is hot.
They don't always get it right, though. Sometimes, they'll misidentify an actor's strong points or they'll mistake a comic relief for a leading man. Sometimes, they'll put an actor in everything, thinking they've got a range that they really don't. Other times, they'll keep putting them in stuff long after the audience has become tired of them. There are also those for whom it doesn't happen, actors whose abilities go unrecognized, don't get the big push they deserve, and languish in relative obscurity. Below are 8 examples of each.
16 Overrated: Chris Pratt
Yeah, he was Andy way back in the day on Parks and Recreation, and he was terrific at it, as was everyone else on the show. However, those days are long gone. If Chris Pratt was just playing Andy over and over, a big loveable doofus, that’d be fine. He’s not even doing that. He’s somehow got it into his head that he’s a rugged leading man and that he’s someone who can sell a movie just with how they sit and scowl. He also thinks that his serious face is an asset he should use. He’s not though, and it isn’t. He plays bland, underwritten characters running away from CGI things in movies.. He’s pretty good at sit-ups, though, so he’s got that going for him.
15 Underrated: Aubrey Plaza
The other half of a couple of Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza, has yet to blow up, despite being reliable in a lot of small roles in bigger movies and tv shows. It’s ridiculous that it hasn’t happened since she’s the sort of person that actually can just riff and have it be hilarious. We keep pretending that Will Ferrell can improvise and that watching him muck around in front of the camera is a good use of two hours, meanwhile, Plaza actually can. The bizarre, deadpan character of April was written for her since she was described as "the weirdest girl I’ve ever met" by one of the show’s writers. As she prepares art exhibits made from meat and threatens to lock people underground, you get a sense of what that writer was probably talking about.
14 Overrated: Tom Hiddleston
There’s this idea in TV circles of "flanderisation" that, the longer a character is in a series, the more they stop being a character with distinguishing features, and just become those distinguishing features. Tom Hiddleston has done exactly that during his time in the Marvel movies. Loki started out as a clever schemer who'd flash a big grin when he succeeded. His schemes got less clever and his grins happened more often and were less earned. He’s heading into the Johnny Depp territory of basing his characters around recycled mannerisms. And as the series puts the mysteriously popular character (probably based on old memories) into as many of its films as he’ll fit into, those mannerisms just get more and more grating, and he’s not doing much to shake that off.
13 Underrated: Cillian Murphy
The existence of Peaky Blinders, a Netflix original show about Irish Gypsy gangsters in the 1920's, nearly bumps Cillian Murphy off this list. He plays the crime family’s boss, a cool customer who’s never, ever flummoxed. It’s a great use of his talents and a way to get your Cillian Murphy fix whenever you’re wondering why he isn’t a huge star. He first burst onto the scene with 28 Days Later back in 2002, but, despite roles in Batman Begins and Inception, he’s basically never had the lead. Something about him makes people always cast him as the shady dude who calmly watches from the shadows, or the calm dude you just know is going to burst at any moment. I mean, he’s really good at it, but you can’t help but think he could be doing more
12 Overrated: Benedict Cumberbatch
I truly don’t think Benedict Cumberbatch exists. He’s every joke that Australians, Scots, New Zealanders and the Irish make about the English turned into a gangly, awkward guy with a cartoonish accent, who is perpetually stuffed into a suit made by someone who’s never seen a human. You watch him in movies and think, "he’s laying on all these English stereotypes a little thick" and then see an interview and realize that’s really how he talks. He actually is the posh villain in some movie about breakdancing kids trying to save their rec center from being turned into a polo club. It could be worse, though. He could be trying to do an American accent. Of all the strange movie accent choices, hiring the most British man alive and then having him do an American accent is right up there.
11 Underrated: JK Simmons
Yeah, sure, JK Simmons has never been short of work or respect as an actor. He helped make HBO a big deal with his turn as a white supremacist on OZ a long time ago. He's working less consistently now. It’s sad that he isn’t still JJ Jameson in the Spiderman movies, and we have to watch other people play the role and pretend Simmons wasn’t perfect in a way that cannot be replaced. The real crime is when you see him in Whiplash and realize how underused he often is. Yes, he can talk gruff and fast, but his character in Whiplash is one of the most despicable screen creations, and it’s pretty much all down to Simmons. He’s settled into a character actor role now, always doing fine work in secondary roles, but he can do so much more.
10 Overrated: Cameron Diaz
A lot of actors have a high point— a point where they were firing on all cylinders and it’s been downhill ever since. Cameron Diaz may have the shortest one on this list. It’s the run time of There’s Something About Mary, which she is great in. The film rests on her, and she’s infinitely fun and likable, which makes all the insanity around her work well. Unfortunately, there’s the rest of her career, playing the same character in even worse movies. There were the endless Shrek sequels, a bunch of forgettable comedies, and a couple of underwhelming forays into serious roles like in Vanilla Sky. In none of them does she play anything more challenging than Cameron Diaz. Just to completely throw off averages, though, she was really good in The Counselor.
9 Underrated: Idris Elba
Yeah, Idris Elba’s got a fair amount going on. He’s got the TV show, Luther, at least a couple of movies a year, and the Heimdall gig in the MCU when he feels like it. But when you consider how ridiculously talented he is, it’s hard to look at him in, say, Molly’s Game or The Dark Tower, and see him as anything other than utterly wasted. I mean, even films that are built around him don’t use him to his full potential. Despite being British, he played a Baltimore gangster on The Wire without anyone questioning it, and, at the age of 45, had a contacted kickboxing fight against a guy from the infamously crazy Mike’s Gym in the Netherlands and won in the first round. That’d be a feat for someone 20 years younger.
8 Overrated: Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart was *gasp* the lead in the mysteriously *gasp* popular Twilight movies, playing author insert, Bella, *gasp* where, aside from looking very sleepy, all she did was occasionally *gasp*. Someone also thought she’d be a good fit for a dark, gritty reboot of Snow White, and if you think that’s weird, someone also thought a dark, gritty reboot of Snow White was something that should exist. She got booted from that series (yes, it became a series) and has actually done some really good work since, so she gets credit for ducking back out of the limelight that she never seemed comfortable with anyway, but it was really weird having to know who she was and what films she was doing for so many years, without it ever being clear how she was getting work.
7 Underrated: Michael Shannon
The most surprising thing about Michael Shannon is how much of a regular guy he is once the cameras are off. Despite playing really scary villains in a lot of films and characters of horrifying intensity, he’s a chill dude who views acting as nothing more than a job. Despite being able to sound legitimately enthusiastic about genocide in Man of Steel, or the psycho in The Shape of Water, he’s a nice guy who openly laughs at the idea of method acting or the length others will go to get in character, which is sort of amazing. Other actors will put themselves through the ringer to achieve what is, in Shannon’s mind, a day job. That has to be dispiriting for his fellow actors. It’s the equivalent of a hobbyist showing up and beating you on their first day.
6 Overrated: Johnny Depp
In 2003, it was a huge deal that Disney managed to land Johnny Depp for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (remember when there was only one?) Despite being a huge teen star on the massively popular 21 Jump Street show, Depp had abandoned the big time and worked with weird auteur directors like John Waters, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton, back when Burton was good. Now, 15 years later, it’s hard to believe that was ever true, as Depp is seemingly in one terrible, bloated movie after another, limiting his once excellent acting skills to "a slightly different funny cockney accent." It might be time to hang it up. His massively expensive lifestyle, including massive entourages and multiple houses, does help explain why the man who once played Hunter S. Thompson completely forgot how to pick scripts.
5 Underrated: Timothy Olyphant
Olyphant was great for a long time before he ended up on Justified, the long-running crime series set in Kentucky. It was a perfect meeting of actor and role. Nobody in the world is better at drawling while leaning on things than Timothy Olyphant is, and the show was built around that. I’d known how good he was before the series started, and, as it ended, I was waiting for him to land some big movie roles I was sure were coming from him but they never came. There have been small roles here and there, like a cameo on Archer. Despite being the perfect cool dude cowpoke actor, big roles have kept evading Olyphant. At least we’ve got Justified.
4 Overrated: Bradley Cooper
It’s sort of just by chance that certain people become big stars. It often seems arbitrary, but there’s one kind that there always has to be a few examples of— the leading man. It’s always some tall dude with a strong chin and perfect teeth. They must have a fair few lying around spare because there’s always a bunch of them they’re trying to make happen. Bradley Cooper is just the current one (until they forget about him and turn to Joel Kinnamon or something) and it’s a pity since his early career showed that, like Brad Pitt, he might look like a leading man, but he’s much better as virtually anything else. He most recently turned up in Aloha, a film so terrible I honestly thought it was a satire for the first 20 minutes. I’m still not sure.
3 Underrated: Lena Headey
This is a predictive entry. Lena Headey’s been around for a while and has been doing good work, playing Queen Gorgo in 300 and the villainous Ma-Ma in 2012’s criminally underrated, Dredd. It was great to see her leap into the complex role of Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones because it’s exactly the sort of role someone as talented as Headey can sink her teeth into. Is Cersei a villain? Is she just the product of her circumstances? Does one change the other? However, the show is bad now, changing from the morally ambiguous twist-laden show it was for the first four seasons into Lord of the Rings, except everyone is bad and stupid. Regardless, the show has blown up. As such, Headey is going to be typecast forever, the fate of everyone who’s on a really big tv show too early in their career (oh, hi Michael Cera and the guy from How I Met Your Mother).
2 Overrated: Scarlett Johansson
If you could time travel back to 2001 and tell the promising young stars of that year’s, Ghost World, how their careers were going to go, I wonder who’d be more surprised. Thora Birch stopped getting work because of her creepy dad (not a joke or an exaggeration, just sad) but Scarlett Johansson just became a full-on movie star. The concept of selling out is a tricky one. Every person has their own definition, but to go from Terry Zwigoff movies to yet another Marvel movie to go along with your latest perfume line, it’s hard to call that anything else. Yeah, she might do something challenging like Under the Skin, but that can’t stem the avalanche of films where she turns up dramatically, dressed in leather before her stunt-person beats up some other stunt-people.
1 Underrated: CCH Pounder
As fantastic as Viola Davis is, and as great as her version of Amanda Waller was in the otherwise confused, Suicide Squad, it’s hard to imagine anyone who fits any comic character better than CCH Pounder fits Waller. I mean, the clue is in the name. I joke, but she has voiced her in a couple of animated features, and always topped fan castings, because she’s perfect for the role. She was on The Shield for years playing the character of someone who thinks they’re the good guy, will do anything for that idea, but slowly becomes compromised. She’s still working, but NCIS: Whatever Place is a far cry from the great work Pounder has repeatedly shown she’s capable of.