Thursday, November 20, 1997
The arrival of Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER set me thinking about the fate of English actors in US mainstream film and tv. Firstly, Corday is about as un-English a name as I’ve come across, which isn’t a great start.
Secondly, poor Alex Kingston is hidebound by playing a jolly hockey sticks plummy stereotype. She’s all pearls and spunk, and acts like she’s stepped out of a 1930s film.
Her character is a (worrying) representation of what American tv seems to think English people are like. Likewise, Hugh Grant’s limited success in Hollywood is because he always plays himself – a floppy-haired, Oxford-educated, well-meaning, slightly awkward Brit. Rupert Everett’s return to favour with My Best Friend’s Wedding was based on an entertainingly hammed up portrayal of ultimate English campness.
Most other English actors in the States end up playing these posh twits or villains with funny accents. From Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice to Alan Rickman in Die Hard, it seems English actors are largely denied the right to be the hero. (Daniel Day Lewis is an honourable exception, but round here they’ll tell you he’s Irish.)
Or they’re shunted into period drama. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen and E M Forster, it seems you can’t do better than classically trained English actors. But for anything after 1930, you can forget it.
However, on reflection, they might deserve everything they get, because while English people might be able to act, they can’t do action. When Englishmen try to get tough it just comes across as misplaced sexual frustration – Jeremy Irons with blond crop and singlet in Die Hard III will live long in the memory.
Compare and contrast the fortunes of Australian actors in America. Mel Gibson gets to destroy whole city blocks with wilful abandon, and Sam Neill gets chased by dinosaurs.
The deeply good LA Confidential boasts two antipodean actors among the major roles. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe punch and shoot their way through the film in a way that would make Hugh Grant green with envy.
The English inability to strip down to undershirts and jump around is so acute that even when it comes to playing English heroes, such as James Bond, they have to look to their Celtic cousins to supply the necessary brio. Sean Connery, the best Bond, is Scottish, and the current incumbent Pierce Brosnan is Irish. They even miss out as extraterrestrial characters – Ewan McGregor worked at sounding like Alec Guinness to make sure that there are no English Jedi Knights in the forthcoming Star Wars movies.
So if the men are reduced to playing toffs or deranged Central European villains, how do English women fare in Hollywood?
Not much better, unfortunately. As better actors but with fewer surgical enhancements than their US colleagues, most end up in supporting roles, where they get the good lines but not the attention they deserve. In the same way as you can’t imagine an English Brad Pitt, Sly Stallone or John Travolta, similarly we see to be lacking the odd Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts or Demi Moore.
However, Kate Winslett is going to be huge after Titanic, and it’s to their credit that English actresses tend not to come from the shallow decoration school of acting – even Liz Hurley has the nous to laugh at herself in Austin Powers.
So if you’re going to be an English actor you can either don tights, develop a floppy haircut or practice a manic laugh. Or stay at home and make your big break in the States on Masterpiece Theater.
(first published as a Modest Proposal newsletter, 20th November 1997)