At first, it seemed like a fluke. No actor from “overseas” was going to displace the American thesp as the leading cinematic staple in films. After all, we had Bogart and Cagney, Nicholson and Newman. But slowly, over time, the English have retaken their colonial territory, if only in the Cineplex sense. It began back when a certain Sir Lawrence introduced the Bard and his bad boy, Hamlet, to unsuspecting ’40s audiences. Throughout the rest of the century, the UK produced one amazing male actor after another (though the ladies found their fortunes earlier — more on that next time). By the time the ’80s rolled around, there was even a bit of a backlash among American performers, arguing that, every year it seemed, another English newcomer was walking away with the praise (and prizes).
In 2013, it’s now a glorified given that, when you want true Method quality and international savvy, you go with a guy from Blighty. Even in minor movies like Frankie Go Boom (new to DVD and Blu-ray from Universal), newcomers like Chris O’Dowd and Charlie Hunnam are proving that UK names mean quality — or the suggestion of same. With that in mind, here is our list of the 10 Greatest British (and we use that term very lightly, not literally) Actors Working Today. Sure, some of them may have gotten their start far away from Her Majesty, but as with the Queen herself, they’ve proved durable and determined, all in the name of English pride and performance. Naturally, we may have missed your favorite, so let us know what you think. With a subject as vast as this, someone significant is bound to fall through the compilation cracks.
Let’s start with an obvious choice at number ten…
Though he’s been spending more time in Middle Earth and in X-Men garb than he has doing other, less commercial work, what Sir Ian has offered to the cinematic world, performance wise, is without peer. He is that perfect combination of aging nobility and naughty schoolboy that manages to overcome even the most mediocre material. While he spent most of his early years on the British stage, occasionally taking minor roles in equally forgettable films, his 40s saw a career crossroads, his work in commercial properties like The Last Action Hero and Six Degrees of Separation leading to his current trek through Tolkien territory. The very definition of class.
In his early to mid-20s, the actor who would go on to be the villain in one of the biggest box office smashes of all time was addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine. Getting his life back in order, he concentrated on his craft and the rest has been admiration and accolades. While he simmered around the fringes of mainstream movies for years, it was his work in 2008’s Bronson (about a famed UK bare knuckled brawler and convict) that got the most attention. With the one-two punch of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy has quickly risen to the top of his chosen profession.
Few remember that Bale began life as a child actor. Before he became the definitive Batman for a post-post modern millennial generation, he starred in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, as well as Newsies, Swing Kids, and Little Women. By the time he was in his 20s, many wondered if he’d make a successful transition to more adult roles. American Psycho and his subsequent choices proved he was more than just a cute kid with some performance chops. His recent work in The Dark Knight trilogy may offer some online farce fodder (oh…that gruff, raspy voice) but it highlights the smoldering intensity that the actor has excelled in.
Considered a ‘pretty boy’ and little more, Law has always had a hard time getting the recognition, and the roles, he deserves. Way back in the early ’90s, he left the stage and small screen at a shot at film stardom. Sadly, it was a role in Paul W. S. Anderson’s oddball crime flick, Shopping. In quick succession, roles in Gattaca, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Talented Mr. Ripley rejuvenated his status. After starring in Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. , Law more or less meandered until the role of Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes returned him to prominence.
When it comes to villains, no one out evils this amazing actor. After all, he’s been the nemesis of Harry Potter and one of the most ruthless Nazi Concentration Camp commandants of all time. But there is a lighter side to Fiennes, one few see outside his constant commercial push. He’s even taken a turn behind the lens, releasing his adaptation of Shakespeare’s little seen Coriolanus to immediate acclaim. Fiennes may find himself lost among his fellow UK showboaters, but his quiet intensity packs a powerful punch. Just remember not to speak his name less you want his serpentine evil destroying your wizard world.
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Don’t think this aging icon still has “it?” Just watch him during the scenes where he believes that his ward, Bruce Wayne, is dead. No actor cries that realistically. It is straight from the character’s intensely broken heart. With nearly 60 years in the business, no one is better. Of course, there have been a few flubs along the way (like the time he couldn’t pick up his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters because he was busy filming… Jaws: The Revenge?) but for the most part, he’s turned a stellar career into an example for any up and coming British thesp.
He’s played everyone from the Master of Suspense to the only US president ever to resign from office. He’s best known for his turn as a slick, sadistic cannibal psychiatrist and yet many of his roles showcase a softer, more introspective side. For many, he is the Richard Burton of the post-modern age, a deeply intense (and, in the past, hard drinking) performer who digs deep into his roles without losing his own unique presence.He’s also one of those rare performers who can command true commercial appeal without losing any of his amazing acting prowess.
Having finally won an Oscar for his work as the stuttering statesman, King George VI, it seems like Firth has/had finally arrived. Of course, the sharp eyed cineaste will argue that the man has been doing amazing work since 1984 (!)…and they’d be right. Indeed, this actor has one of the most impressive resumes of all the names listed, associated with everything from definitive dramas (The English Patient) to daft comedies (the original, soccer-ccentric version of Fever Pitch). He’s even showcased his vocal range (?) in the awkward ABBA musical Mamma Mia! . After finally earning the Academy’s highest honor, Firth gets to take his place along his equally admired countrymen.
We give Gary a lot of guff, especially when he turns up in turds like Tiptoes, but few names, by merely appearing on a marquee, can get our interest up quicker than this engaging UK maverick. The fact that he doesn’t have an Oscar is an omission that makes the Academy look stupider every single year it goes unaddressed. Even if his work has been hit (Sid and Nancy, State of Grace, Nil by Mouth) or miss (Lost in Space, Lawless) he remains a force of film performance nature. Oldman may be long remember as the long suffering and stoic Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s comic book epics, but he’s much more than that.
He has three well-earned Oscars, more than any other actor for leading roles (remember, Jack Nicholson has the same number, but one is for supporting). His turns have often redefined the artform, giving new life to both is amazing Method intensity and his dedication to precise detail. For My Left Foot, he actually lived like Christy Brown. For his interpretation of a turn of the century oil tycoon in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, he worked tirelessly on his accent. Even his most recent turn as our 16th President argued for meticulous research and recreation. He is, without question, the greatest living actor today.