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As a viewer from a non-Anglophone country, I noticed that there is a quite high proportion of British actors in American films and TV shows.

They often portray British characters: a handful of agents in Agents of SHIELD, both the main character and Jarvis in Agent Carter, so many villains opposing an American lead and so on.

I have heard the suggestion that “Americans like British accent” (is that even true?), but this can be easily opposed by the large number of British actors interpreting American characters (and using an American accent): Hugh Laurie as Dr House, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, some of the main actors in Selma, half a dozen of actors in The Book of Eli, Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, Henry Cavill as Superman (well, technically an alien but...), Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Jason Isaacs as an American officer in Fury, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange and so forth.

Is this a recent phenomenon (but James Mason, Leslie Howard, Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier... come to mind)? Is there some marketing (or other) reason?

(I know a question like this might give rise to opinion-based answers, so I'd like sourced answers.)

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    Do you have any statistical data or is it just a feeling? – his Jun 27 '15 at 13:56
  • Your question suggests that they were picked for their roles because they're British (at least in part), and not simply as native speakers fitting those roles. Can you further elaborate why you think that this is the case or, if you don't think so, how is their nationality relevant? – Vedran Šego Jun 27 '15 at 15:30
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    @his: It's a feeling, indeed. But I could even ask separate questions for most of those example: why was a quintessentially American character such as Lincoln (Superman, WWII soldier...) played by a British actor. Not that I complain, of course. It just seems like picking a black-haired actor to play a fair-headed character, and put them a wig (not an unheard-of thing, at that). – DaG Jun 27 '15 at 19:09
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    We don't think of ourselves as regions of the same country... but it's not like there's a language barrier. We all speak English. – Catija Jun 27 '15 at 21:39
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    @DaG: In the Chinese world (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Chinese populations of Singapore and Malaysia), actors regularly act outside their countries. I imagine in the German-speaking world (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), actors also venture outside their national borders. Similarly in the Francophone world. Or in the Spanish-speaking world. Etc. Etc. There is nothing special about the English-speaking world, except that (1) Hollywood is dominant and is English-speaking; and (2) the English-speaking world is geographically more dispersed. – Kenny LJ Jun 28 '15 at 0:31
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The simple answer is that the production wants the best actor for the job, regardless of their native accent and actors want the best paychecks, so they audition (and get) jobs in Hollywood.

Also, because the American film industry is the leading film industry in the world (though others produce more films), it is appropriate for non-American talent to have a place in American film. They're native English speakers and part of learning to act is learning dialects. And even if they're not native English speakers, that doesn't make them unworthy as actors.

This happens in every dialect for every possible mix of characters, not just British.

Australians play Wolverine and Thor and The Hulk, and The Joker.

Irish play Magneto and Steve Jobs (the former is supposed to be German but played by a British actor in other versions),

But what about Americans playing quintessentially British characters... like Sherlock Holmes, Margaret Thatcher, and Lara Croft.

And, above all of that, America is a country of foreigners and, particularly in big cities, it's common to work and go to school with people who aren't native to the US.

I think the better question is: "Why shouldn't they play these roles?"

  • Thanks, but I am not saying they should not, nor that they should. It is just a – possibly misguided – curiosity. Assume I am asking why so many young action actors are called Chris (Pratt, Hemsworth, Evans...). One might answer: 1) that this is false, since numbers are statistically non significant; 2) that it is true, and there is indeed a so-and-so reason; 3) that it is true, but irrelevant. In all cases, it would not be a question of whether they should or should not be called like this or play such roles. – DaG Jun 27 '15 at 22:04
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    @DaG That isn't what Catija assumed about you either, though, I think. It is clear that you are not against them playing those roles and nobody assumed anything along those lines. I don't think that's what that answer's last sentence is supposed to say. It just says "there's not really a reason why they would not play those roles". – Napoleon Wilson Jun 27 '15 at 22:07
  • I think it's not "Why are there any" but "Why are there so many" - and there does seem to be more than might be expected. I was expecting answers talking about, for example, famous British acting schools like RADA, institutions like the RSC, funding schemes for aspiring actors, etc - institutions in Britain that are acclaimed for preparing people for certain types of acting (and therefore certain types of role). – user568458 Jan 29 '16 at 14:01
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In terms of English speaking nations that are likely to have, per-capita, a larger than normal number of talented actors, Great Britain has an immense theater history that still thrives today.

Combine that with the fact that the US has a giant media industry hungry for talent, it's only natural to see a lot of British talent over here.

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It's possible that you've underestimated the cultural relationship when you say in a comment "I see two different nations, in different continents, with an ocean in the middle, with different histories, customs, linguistic traditions (even without invoking Wilde), uses, laws etc."

It's not just acting: in several aspects of culture (I'd say especially literature and music as well as film/TV), the UK and the US are highly influential on one another. This also includes some other English-speaking countries such as Ireland, Australia, NZ.

So The Beatles (English), The Rolling Stones (English), U2 (Irish), AC/DC (Australian), J. K. Rowling (English/Scottish), Dylan Thomas (Welsh), Arthur Conan Doyle (Scottish), Charles Dickens (English), Jane Austen (English), Monty Python (English, Welsh and American) have all been very well-regarded in the US in their time. Still are. Coldplay (English) are doing the Super Bowl half-time show this year. The Who did it in 2010, The Stones in 2006, Paul McCartney in 2005, U2 in 2002. Sting and MIA have both appeared in recent years although they weren't headlining it. Simply, there's a mass-market audience in America for British (and Irish) stuff.

Even so I wouldn't say the US is clamouring for British culture (and actors) as such. For example, they maybe don't pick up top UK TV shows with quite the frequency they do top UK actors, and you can see that the US version of The Office has made a lot of cultural adaptations from the original. But the barriers to "breaking America" aren't all that high, provided what you're doing is something the American audiences find worthwhile.

In this context, I don't think it's at all anomalous that a lot of British actors find work in the US. It's much the same as the way that a lot of British musicians and writers find work and sales in the US (or at any rate consider it worth trying even if many are unsuccessful). As long as we don't deliberately use a difficult accent, the Americans understand us.

Brits in American movies are a less recent phenomenon, but I would say that since around the time Hugh Laurie got "House", there's pronounced trend for UK actors starring in top US TV shows. You could add "The Wire" to your list, with two British actors among an admittedly larger-than-average lead cast. Those 12 years or so it's become enough to be remarked on here in the UK, so it's not just you who thinks there's more than there used to be. When I say "what there used to be", it's possible that I mean "Star Trek: TNG, Frasier, and, um...". I can't account for that particular upswell of US appreciation of Brits on TV, but I suspect it combines "this seems to be working, let's do more of it" on the American side, with "this is a big opportunity in a much larger market than home" on our side, and "globalisation keeps getting easier" in general.

Maybe there is in addition a general trend for US TV to be less parochial than it was up to, say, the 80's and early 90's, while US movies were more international earlier on. If as an American you're going to look abroad then Britain is an obvious early place to look (large English-speaking country, strong cultural, historic and business connections). That would account for a big influx of Brits once the doors open. But perhaps that's unfair to 1980's US TV, I really don't know all that much about it.

One special case is "Game of Thrones", which for sensible reasons is filmed in Northern Ireland among other places, in a pseudo-British-history setting. Therefore it makes all sorts of sense to fill it with British actors, which contributes to the recent trend.

Since I possess one, I can say it is true that many Americans do enjoy the sound of a British accent, especially when they encounter it in their own country. And it's not just that they personally like it when they hear it, it's that "liking British accents" is recognised among Americans as a thing. Many aren't bothered one way or the other, though, so it's not a universal characteristic of the nation.

Specifically on acting, I think that to some extent the Shakespearean and performance focus of British styles might throw something different into the mix that helps some British actors find certain roles. I'm thinking of the Patrick Stewart / Ian McKellen / Judi Dench kind of thing, where sometimes it really is a case of "let's get a Brit in", and the reason is in part that US film-makers admire a particular thing that Britain does well. Obviously those three are very talented to begin with, which does them no harm at all, but it's a niche that as far as I know the US dramatic tradition isn't quite so focussed on filling as the British tradition is (or used to be). Since the US considers Shakespeare to be a vital part of the literary/dramatic canon of their language, if not their country directly, maybe a British actor is no great shock for them even in non-Shakespearean roles.

This is enough of a trend that there's a TV Trope of the "Shakespearean actor". OK, I admit, that's not a high bar for strength of trend, and some American actors fall within it too. But no doubt the recognition of that kind of acting does help get a foot in the door for many British actors on first crossing the Atlantic.

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Catija's answer already suffices. However, I do want to point out that the accent can help paint a particular character.

  • Someone disconnected from local (US) culture
  • Someone considered raised in an exceedingly upper class environment
  • Someone who has excessively refined taste (subverted or not)
  • The villain to an American hero, due to the stereotype that arose from US freeing itself from the (then considered oppressive- British empire

These all adhere to a particular British stereotype (as perceived by Americans). I'm not saying the stereotype is correct, but it has become a cliché.

While none of these role particularly require a British accent, you can consider a British accent as an additional benefit. This is the same principle as hiring an actor because of their looks.


As to the references you make for British actors who hide their accent, the role generally would be negatively impacted by a British accent

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln,
Anthony Hopkins as Nixon,

American historical figures

Hugh Laurie as Dr House,

If he had used his British accent, House/Laurie would've been dismissed by viewers as a British twit (not unlike Laurie's characters in Blackadder). The character would be interpreted very differently, less heavy on the drama and more comical.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne,
Henry Cavill as Superman,
Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil,
Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

They are all American super heroes, and with the exception of Dr Strange, their backstory specifically entails being raised locally, thus implicitly requiring their accent to be localized.

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    @downvoter: care to elaborate? – Flater Aug 7 '18 at 10:04
  • Useful as this elaboration may be, I am not sure how it answers the question. The fact about accents is already mentioned in the question itself, and is in fact one of its premises. – DaG Aug 7 '18 at 15:22

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