BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—This coming season on network television, the sun will never set on what remains of the British empire.
While English, Irish, Scottish and Australian actors working in Hollywood is hardly new—it dates all the way back to the days of silent films and Charlie Chaplin—the upcoming TV season will see a flood of British performers in lead roles on such high-profile new series as NBC’s “Bionic Woman,” ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” and CBS’s “Viva Laughlin.” Chances are good you won’t be able to tell they’re from across the pond—their “American” accents are too impeccable—but they are.
“It’s an organized invasion and, pretty soon, everybody is going to be speaking like me,” laughs Lennie James, a breakout star on CBS’s “Jericho” last season who was born in south London of Trinidadian parents.
Helen Mirren, one of the grand dames of the British acting world, added in a recent interview that “what is happening more and more is that the American TV industry is looking to British actors, because they’ve realized that they’re very good, they speak the same language—and they are cheap.”
To a certain extent, you can blame much of what’s taking place on Hugh Laurie, the English-born actor who has made a big splash on Fox’s “House.” His success as the lead in a very American series has increased interest in Brit actors (on the part of the networks and studios) and in doing U.S. television on the part of performers in the United Kingdom.
“You have to give Hugh a lot of credit,” says Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly. “People realized, `Oh, actors act. They play all sorts of different characters.’ Nobody would know Hugh Laurie was English if he didn’t tell them.
“There’s also a growing belief in the network TV business that, for characters of a certain age, with real gravitas and charisma, anyone in America who could play that part already has it,” he adds. “That’s particularly true for male leads. Casting no aspersions against the American male acting pool, but somehow it’s easier to find that guy in Europe.”
Part of the recent attraction to British actors is the result of the increased exposure they are receiving in this country, thanks to cable television.
“With the advent of `Rome’ and other HBO series made with British actors and the series on BBC America, these skilled actors are getting more notice,” says David Nutter, a veteran TV director and producer of Fox’s “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which has British actress Lena Headey (“300”) in its title role.
“People in our business are able to say, `Oh, look at this person. ... Let’s try to get them on this show.’”
Yet, the actors don’t have too much exposure when it comes to American audiences and a television industry in which “everyone is looking for new faces. Everyone is looking for people they haven’t seen,” says David Eick, the executive producer of “Bionic Woman,” which stars long-time British soap star actress Michelle Ryan.
Ben Silverman, the new co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, concurs, suggesting that “these British actors have tremendous experience and talent, but they aren’t yet famous. So they fall in a great space for television.”
“You don’t have to pick the 21-year-old kid who just fell off the bus as he entered L.A. And the fact that they’re not really known by the audience allows them to be discovered by the audience.”
The stars of “Rome”—Scotsman Kevin McKidd and Irishman Ray Stevenson—were two of the hottest properties during casting for new series. (McKidd’s “Journeyman” made the NBC lineup; Stevenson’s pilot was not picked up.) English-born Zuleikha Robinson also made a splash “Rome” as a slave girl. Lloyd Owen, the star of “Viva Laughlin,” got a lot of exposure on the BBC America series “Monarch of the Glen” and “The Innocence Project.”
Then there is the matter of accents—or, more precisely, the seemingly unerring ability of actors from the United Kingdom to drop into unaffected, region-specific American accents.
“British performers have really nailed the craft of an American accent, and they are sounding effortlessly American,” Eick says. “That makes it much easier for American casting and casting directors and producers to take that leap of faith” and cast them in lead roles.
The actors themselves are bemused by the discussion of accents and, largely, don’t consider it a big deal, just something they picked up during their training.
“My indigenous accent is completely impenetrable. Even I don’t understand it sometimes,” McKidd says. When he “went to drama school in Edinburgh, they said, `You know, you’re never going to work with a voice like that.’”
So, McKidd had to develop more “generic, neutral” accents from the very beginning.
Damian Lewis, the star of NBC’s new “Life,” says that after establishing the accent he wants for a role, he “finds it’s very easy. I just stay in it. I feel confident. I stay in my American accent when I’m surrounded by American people.”
And Laurie adds that after a while, you just don’t think about it. “Television moves at such a pace that there simply is no time to reflect on how you would say `encephalopathy’ as an American,” he says. “You’ve said it and it’s gone, cut, and we’re going on to the next set-up.”
What the actors also agree on is the appeal of working in American television. Brought up in an acting world where TV is seen as simply another venue for your craft and not a poor cousin to stage and film, they come for the work.
“As an actor, you have to travel where the work is,” says Sophia Myles, co-star of CBS’ new “Moonlight.” “In England, at the moment, our government isn’t putting any money into the film business. And American television, especially in the last few years, is on a par, if not better than, a lot of movies out there.”
Laurie says that “if it’s anything like my experience, what draws the other actors, what drew me, was an absolutely stunning script. It could have been a Latvian circus piece—or it could have been a piece of American television. For an actor, a good script is like sprinkling bread crumbs.”
Or, as Lewis says, “Why are there a lot of Brits over here? Because you keep asking us.
“Thank you very much.”