Friday, October 19, 2012

Where Are All the American Actors?

Jon Lovitz, the last of the great American actors
In the last month I've seen Looper, Dredd 3D and The Bourne Legacy. What they all have in common, aside from being slick and violent, is that they offer proof that while the Brits managed to lose America over 200 years ago, in the last 20 or so years they've mounted a determined campaign, with the aid of their Commonwealth allies and some Irish mercenaries, to retake the American colonies via the entertainment industry, one movie and TV series at a time. Brits Emily Blunt and Rachel Weisz are in, respectively, Looper and Bourne, and Kiwi Karl Urban stars in Dredd. All three play American characters, and the question has to be asked, why weren't Yanks picked for the roles? There's nothing special about any of these roles, especially in the case of Judge Dredd, a part which doesn't ask an actor to do anything except growl his lines and hide his face behind a helmet. You'd think a director or producer's natural inclination would be to hire an American actor to play an American character, but increasingly that's not the case. The list I've assembled below is, in a very non-scientific way, a guide showing how non-US actors have been scooping up roles that once upon a time would only have been given to Americans. I've listed the actors by country and then the films in which they play American characters.


Jude Law: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Cold Mountain, Road to Perdition, The Talented Mr. Ripley, All the King's Men
Ewan McGregor: Black Hawk Down, Big Fish, Down With Love, The Island, Amelia, I Love You Philip Morris
Gerard Butler: The Ugly Truth, Gamer, Law Abiding Citizen, The Bounty Hunter, Machine Gun Preacher
Daniel Craig: Infamous, The Invasion, Cowboys & Aliens
Kate Winslet: The Life of David Gale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children, Revolutionary Road
Rachel Weisz: The Shape of Things, Dream House, Confidence, Runaway Jury
Liam Neeson: Battleship, Taken, Unknown, The A-Team

The Irish

Colin Farrell: Uh, virtually everything he's done.
Colm Meaney: Con Air, Law Abiding Citizen
Brendan Gleason: Lake Placid, Green Zone, Safe House, The Company You Keep
Michael Fassbender: Inglourious Basterds, Jonah Hex, 


Ryan Gosling, Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves and Ryan Reynolds: Every role you can think of.

Aussies and Kiwis

Like the Canadians, Down Under actors snag American roles virtually every time they get a call from their agents: Russell Crowe, Eric Bana, Sam Neill, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Sam Worthington, Hugh Jackman, and Nicole Kidman have all played Americans in more films than I can be bothered to mention.

The above lists barely scratch the surface. I haven't even mentioned Brits on American TV like Idris Elba, Hugh Laurie, Dominic West and Damian Lewis, and then there are all the supporting actors like Tom Wilkinson. And I also forgot Daniel Day-Lewis. D'oh!

This phenomenon is definitely of recent vintage. In the 1970s and '80s  American films were filled with American actors playing American characters. There were odd exceptions, like Robert Shaw in Jaws, but for the most part non-US actors only played roles that were nationality-appropriate. In the '90s things began to change, but the symbolic turning point may have been Batman Begins in 2005. Batman is an iconic red, white and blue comic book character and had been played by a succession of  American actors, but when the time came for a reboot the reins were handed over to an English actor, Christian Bale, and, for good measure, Englishman Christoper Nolan was given the directing job. That seemed to open the floodgates. American actors are still dominant in comedies (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller) and as voice actors in animated films, but in other genres they compete for, and often lose out on, roles that a generation ago would not even have been offered to non-Americans.

Why has this come about? I see three possible reasons. The first is that the US doesn't have the minor league system, as it were, that the UK does. Look through the bios of any of the Brit actors I listed above and you'll find that they did lots of theatre work, both pro and amateur, as well as stints in drama schools, before getting their big breaks. As well, Brit TV has traditionally produced dramatic programming that asks a lot of its actors. Broadway and off-Broadway theatre produced a lot of the great American actors of the '70s (Pacino, Hoffman, Hackman), but that incubator has been almost wiped out by the dominance of mega-musicals and high real estate prices pushing out small theatres. Check out the bios of major American actors and it often seems that they simply drifted into acting when another career choice didn't pan out. Johnny Depp started out in punk bands and Shia LaBeouf began as a standup comic. Simply put, American actors don't have the training and experience foreign actors do.

Another reason for the shortage of American actors is that US producers seem to favour finding domestic actors, on the male side, who embody innocence and naivety, and who as part of that image have a pretty, baby-faced look. Depp, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, and Leonardo DiCaprio began their careers as toy boys, typically playing the newbie, the neophyte, the young hotshot who challenges an older male (Cruise vs Nicholson in A Few Good Men) or learns the ropes from a veteran (Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game). By comparison, Russell Crowe, who is slightly younger than both Cruise and Pitt, has never played a raw rookie in a major film, and the same could be said of Liam Neeson or Daniel Craig. Cruise and DiCaprio's respective careers were built on playing the cute new kid on the block. This kind of typecasting of American actors has meant that looks and a specific acting skill-set has taken precedence over overall acting ability. To put it another way, non-Americans get the mature roles, Americans get the immature parts.

Finally, American TV deserves part of the blame for reducing the depth of homegrown acting talent. In the 1990s the primetime network schedules started filling up with sitcoms, sitcoms and more sitcoms, and by 2000 reality television (Big Brother, Survivor) was added to the mix. All this meant a reduction in primetime dramatic programming, one of the traditional breeding grounds for new actors. Iconic stars like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin all got their starts on TV in the '50s and early '60s.

Is this trend likely to continue? Yes, but probably more slowly. Dramatic TV programming is falling off in all English-speaking countries thanks to reality television, and the mega-musical is a noxious weed infesting theatre districts all over the world. So it would seem that any rebirth of American acting talent must begin with the assassination of Simon Cowell...just kidding...I think.


Anonymous said...

I would argue that the directors cast the people they did because they are superior actors and actresses to those who also auditioned. That's generally how it works.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Michael Fassbender was playing an American in Jonah Hex.

Cary Watson said...

Anon #1,
True, but why is it non-U.S. actors are winning those auditions more often than in the past?