Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Tuesday, 27 April 2010 12:20 UK

Why are British actors playing Americans?

British actors in US dramas, clockwise from left: Joseph Fiennes, Minnie Driver, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis, Michelle Ryan, Anna Friel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Archie Panjabi, Idris Elba.
There is a new wave of thespian invasion

By Clare Spencer

Oscar-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren has complained about British actors being typecast as villains. But in US TV dramas, Brits are everywhere - you just wouldn't know it from their accents.

The Wire has garnered much praise for its gritty portrayal of social ills and crime in urban American, with cynical Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty at its centre. But how many American viewers know that he is being played by an old Etonian, Dominic West?

We are often referred to in Los Angeles as white Mexicans
James Purefoy on the attitude towards British actors

The same goes for gangland kingpin Stringer Bell. He's played, with an apparently-convincing accent, by Londoner Idris Elba.

You can also spot British actors in Lost. Naveen Andrews and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje play an Iraqi and a Nigerian respectively.

But perhaps more eyebrow-raising is the regularity with which Britons are recruited to play American characters.

Oldman surprise

House is the best example. Hugh Laurie - perhaps previously best-known for hare-brained, posh dissolution in Jeeves and Wooster - is now Gregory House, the irascible, eccentric diagnostician.

The show is one of the most popular on US television.

BRITS AS AMERICANS
Dominic West as The Wire's Jimmy McNulty
Idris Elba as The Wire's Stringer Bell
Hugh Laurie as House's Gregory House
Minnie Driver as The Riches' Dahlia Malloy
Eddie Izzard as The Riches' Wayne Malloy
Ian Hart as Dirt's Don Konkey
Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Without a Trace's Vivian Johnson
Anna Friel as Pushing Daisies' Charlotte "Chuck" Charles
Michelle Ryan as Bionic Woman's Jaime Sommers
Damian Lewis as Life's Charlie Crews
Joely Richardson as Nip/Tuck's Julia McNamara
Ian McShane as Deadwood's Al Swearengen
Joseph Fiennes as FlashForward's Mark Benford

On the big screen, there's always been a place for British actors. How many Americans would be surprised to discover that Gary Oldman is not American? And Cary Grant blazed a path many moons ago.

Moreover, anything with a sword-and-sandals theme offers employment opportunities to British thespians. It has often been suggested that American audiences expect their Romans to speak like the English. So the HBO/BBC mini-series Rome was peopled by British and Irish stars.

But the current wave is, anecdotally at least, something more. Well-informed audiences might be wondering why.

Speak to some producers working in US television and they will admit cost is an issue.

West is happy to put this forward for the explanation for his break alongside Elba on The Wire.

Cheap labour

"More value-for-money, that's really what it is. If they wanted someone experienced and I was American, they'd pay a lot of money - and I'd be better known, I suppose. We're cheaper."

English actor James Purefoy, who played Mark Antony in Rome, believes the network of British actors is perceived by American colleagues as cheap labour.

"We are often referred to in Los Angeles as white Mexicans," he told an audience of British hopefuls at a seminar on how to make it in America.

Cary Grant and Gary Oldman
British stars have always found a place on the big screen

British producer Andrea Calderwood, who worked on Generation Kill for HBO, agrees that cost is an issue.

"American producers are going for the best talent. Obviously there is an element of cost involved.

"Once you become an established actor in the US, you can command huge prices - so people are looking for fresh talent that doesn't cost that much."

And the accent is not a problem for most trained British actors.

"The advantage that English people have and that I have is that we grow up with so much American television," says West. "We're all used to hearing it all the time and the other advantage is Americans are not used to growing up with television from anywhere else or hearing any other accent so they assume, they are much more forgiving of someone's bad accent."

He believes his turn as McNulty was an illustration of this.

British training

"Everyone was convinced I was American even though my accent - it was alright, but it wasn't perfect. Most people don't know anything other than the American accent, so they are more forgiving when it comes to people doing their accent. Whereas an American coming here and doing an English accent, we're much more affronted if it's not right.

"I grew up with Starsky and Hutch and all that, so it's much easier for us to learn an American accent. We've grown up with it."

Of course, it would be nice to think that British actors are called in because of their training and their solid experience in theatre, television and films.

Dominic West as the Wire's Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty and as himself
There's maybe a readiness to be part of an ensemble which goes slightly against the grain of how the Americans view celebrity and show business
Dominic West on British actors in ensemble casts

"Genuinely it's about an acting craft - that British actors have a particular level of training they have, a particular level of technique that they have that American producers and directors are delighted to find," says Ms Calderwood.

There may also be an attitudinal issue. Television operates to tight turnarounds and the perception is that British actors are well-behaved and unstarry.

"There's a possibility that we are possibly better in an ensemble or less geared to being a huge star or more resigned to not being a huge star," says West

"Because in America, it seems to me that everything is 'you've got your one shot at the top and you've got to make it there, you've got to get there'. In England, I think we're more philosophical about that because there's less chance of it here.

"In The Wire, there was no star actor. It was an ensemble serving the writing and maybe in America agents have become more involved in trying to make a star in whoever was acting in it.

"There's maybe a readiness to be part of an ensemble which goes slightly against the grain of how the Americans view celebrity and show business."

Authenticity broken

But there is an unexpected factor in the casting of British actors on television, and it's all to do with the way characters are built up from scratch.

When casting for Generation Kill, Ms Calderwood searched across the globe. After much time spent convincing HBO head office, she cast a Swedish actor, Alexander Skarsgard, to play US marine Sgt Brad "Iceman" Colbert.

She believes using a high-status actor from the US not only would have been costly, but also could have been less convincing for viewers.

"They didn't actually want known actors in the role because it would have broken the authenticity."

To take the example of House, if an actor already big in US television had taken the lead role, or if it had gone to an established movie star, the audience would have viewed the new character through the prism of the star's previous characters. Instead, with Hugh Laurie in the lead, they just see Gregory House.

It's a particularly important point in ensemble dramas. The point here is that the actors could be from anywhere as long as they're not already familiar, but the British actors have a head start.

Of course, once they're televisual megastars like Laurie, the effect will no longer apply.


Below is a selection of your comments

Or maybe it's because we have a fantastic supply of talented actors and unless they want to play villains it could be the best career move they can make. Laurie's comic timing has always been great, and House's scathing sarcasm benefits from it. I also think that it was a big risk for the studio, since he wasn't a megastar over there before, meaning the writing and acting are what have kept people watching.
Paul, London, UK

Very interesting article - although the point is made that less well known actors are cast to increase authenticity, the result is opposite over here in Britain. I'm not sure about anyone else but don't you just expect Hugh Laurie to call in Jeeves!
Mike S, Rotherham

I'm sad to see no mention of Matthew Rhys, who plays Kevin in Brothers and Sisters. Not only is that one of the most natural and convincing accents I have ever heard, but also one of the most natural performances in a different culture. I was shocked when I first heard Matthew Rhys speak in his own accent, which is a very strong Welsh accent. Hats off, say I.
Steve Doran, Medway

In Band of Brothers, a vast number of the cast were actually British actors. They did a sterling job (no pun intended) and at times seemed more convincingly American than their genuinely American colleagues.
Rosie, Brighton

Look at Christian Bale. Born in Wales but has had a successful career across the Pond, and even does some interviews in an American accent so as not to confuse viewers.
Steve Renshaw, London, UK

As a public television fan -- I recognized Bertie Wooster in the first teasers for HOUSE & tuned in because of that - was pleasantly surprised by the show and have been a fan ever since.
House Fan, USA

I don't mind Brits being cast as villains, per see, but I do have a problem with Brits being cast as half-wits, viz the Travelocity and Geico ads on TV. A stupid, and probably false, upper class or cockney accent seems to be de rigeur for most advertisement punch lines.
Gordon Clifford, Susquehanna, PA, USA

British actors and production staff in ROME was because it was an HBO/BBC co-production. That it was funded in large part by the British public. It is also interesting to note that this is a two-way street. A couple of recent examples spring to mind of foreign actors playing ironically British roles: An American playing Sherlock Holmes and an Australian playing Robin Hood. On British actors adopting American accents, this seems to be purely driven by the U.S. production companies. As a Brit living in the US, it is obvious a stereotypical English accent goes down well here. For example, when conversation has turned to the recent Sherlock Holmes movie, it has been mentioned to me numerous times that Americans wanted to see a British actor playing such a typically British role. Also removing the British accents on children's TV shows like Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, appears to be totally unnecessary.
Lee, SFC, California



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