Martin Luther King Jr., is a celebrated American icon. His wife, Coretta, was a beloved American public figure. President Lyndon Johnson was a colorful Texan, and Governor George Wallace was a good ol’ boy son of the South from Alabama.
In director Ava DuVernay’s Best Picture nominee about the 1965 Selma civil-rights march, however, they’re portrayed by David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth, respectively, who share at least one thing in common: They’re British.
Selma isn’t an exception—rather, the Brits seem to be everywhere lately. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, about a 19th-century free black man tricked and trafficked into Southern bondage, starred multiple British actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and German-born, Irish-raised Michael Fassbender. (The biggest American star in the film, Brad Pitt, played a Canadian.)
12 Years was directed by a Brit—Steve McQueen—which could be one possible explanation for his film’s British-heavy cast. But the same can’t be said for several other high-profile recent and upcoming films. The American hero in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, for example, is played by Jack O’Connell, an Englishman. David Fincher selected English actress Rosamund Pike as his Amazing Amy in Gone Girl. Fifty Shades‘ Christian Grey was initially going to be played by Charlie Hunnam, an Englishman; when he dropped out, he was quickly replaced by Jamie Dornan, an Irishman. “I went to see a movie,” says Richard Hicks, president of the Casting Society of America, “and four casting directors were sitting around talking about, ‘What’s up with all the Brits and Australian actors snagging all the leads?'”
Of course, no one’s entitled to a role because of their accent or where they’re born. That’s always been true, even before Vivien Leigh won the role of Scarlett O’Hara. But recently, there’s been a visible surge in the number of British—and the occasional Aussie—actors and actresses winning plum roles in many of Hollywood’s most prestigious films (as well as many of the biggest franchise blockbusters). In 2011, British director Stephen Frears (The Queen) told an interviewer, “There is some sort of crisis in American acting“—and suggested this could be due to a lack of proper training, specifically theater training. Calling it a “crisis” might be a bit drastic, but with an English Superman, a British-bred Spider-Man, an English Daisy Buchanan, a British Mad Max, a German-Irish Steve Jobs—to say nothing of the current British invasion that’s raised the quality of American television—it seems like a good time to at least contemplate whether the roots of this recent trend can be found in how both sides of the Atlantic are prepping its talent for Hollywood casting calls.
For decades, there were two major schools of thought when it came to acting: the Classical, which was best epitomized by Laurence Olivier, and the Method, which revolutionized the art form in America once James Dean and Marlon Brando brought it to the big screen. Classical was more of an outside-in approach, which emphasized a more presentational style associated with the stage. Method, rooted in Constantin Stanislavski’s theories, was more naturalistic, more inside-out. “For many years, there was a schism,” says James Lipton, a pupil of Stella Adler’s teachings and the longtime host of Inside the Actors Studio. “The British stressed training in voice and posture and the physical attributes, whereas the American training is deep rooted in the actor’s emotions.”
But in 2015, what was once a contentious rivalry is no longer an either/or proposition, as both schools implement elements of the other’s philosophies into their own training. Why then, do the Brits seem to have an edge? “There is a lot of stage work in a lot of British drama school training, but I think it’s more to do with how we ask them to think about characters, how we ask them to be imaginative, and to change themselves,” says Joanna Read, describing the dramatic skills that current students are taught at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which counts Cumberbatch, Ejiofor, and Oyelowo among its scores of famous alums and where she has been principal since 2010. “Our training will ask an actor to really play against type at times, to play a role that they wouldn’t necessarily be cast in in the profession, in order to work out and transform how they move towards that character. It’s almost like putting on a second skin.”
That academic challenge of portraying characters that aren’t obviously suited to an actor might be an essential building block that pays off down the road. “If you look at these English actors—David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth—they’re accustomed to playing character-actor roles,” says Lipton. “Which is to say, they are very good at playing roles that are quite distant from themselves, physically, even emotionally. They are able to find, in those strangers, a core that resonated with themselves, so they are just as truthful playing that as they would be playing someone just like themselves on screen.”
Avy Kaufman, the casting director who discovered Andrew Garfield for Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs and recruited Oyelowo to play the eloquent Union soldier who recites the Gettysburg Address to Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, thinks a shrinking world has opened the doors for all sorts of international talent. “It’s not that all these actors are better than the American actors, but I think we’re just opening up to more—and we’re all excited to find something new and different,” she says. “Lincoln was a very American story, but I just felt like I should say, ‘This guy’s the best for this.’ It doesn’t matter that he’s not American. He’s got the accent down. May the best man win.”
Nowadays, the best man doesn’t even have to be in Los Angeles to audition. “Instead of meeting an actor or having to see the actor audition in the room, I can audition them via Skype and have nearly the same experience,” says Hicks. “Quality acting is quality acting, and you can recognize that even when you’re thousands of miles away.”
Lipton believes, however, that the Brits do enjoy at least one built-in advantage—one that’s also a product of geography. While American actors generally have to chose between going to New York to work in the theater or settling in Los Angeles to find fame on television and the movies, the British dramatic community—film/TV/theater—is mostly centrally located around London. “The English have the advantage of being able to go back and forth, from Downton Abbey to a stage production,” he says.
But perhaps the biggest factor leading to the perception that American actors are falling behind is that the path to Hollywood fame in this country doesn’t necessarily go through the Actors Studio or Juilliard or the Yale School of Drama. Though Hollywood has its share of Jessica Chastains and Mark Ruffalos, well-trained professionals who studied at revered dramatic institutions, the difference might lie in the other cases, in which actors get a break in Hollywood with limited training or acting background. “I think our culture, in which we take reality-show fame as a measure of success, means that we feel like, ‘Oh, it just happens to you and then you’re famous,” says Hicks.
It might be even more subtle and widespread than the reality-show mentality Hicks mentions. In a Hollywood that feeds on young stars—many of which are groomed as kids on television—early success can stunt artistic growth. “The kids that start out as stars when they’re 19 or 20, they never had a chance to learn their craft, and because they become stars, there’s never a chance to catch up,” says Lipton. “They’re not going to knock off for a year and study. They’re going to keep on making movies, as many as they can, as fast as they can. Some learn on the job. Some are geniuses, so they figure it out.”
But for every Jennifer Lawrence or Leonardo DiCaprio—instinctual wunderkinds whose talent and work ethic keep them at the top—there is a huge middle class of popular American actors who reach the age of 30 and suddenly find themselves overmatched by more disciplined foreign-educated artists. Actors who spent three years in their early twenties, for example, just learning how to properly speak and move while their American counterparts were auditioning for a Coke commercial and the new fall pilot. Cumberbatch was 30 before anyone in America knew who he was. Tom Hiddleston, a 2005 graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was about the same age when he landed the role of Loki. “The demand for what we’re offering is something that is universally wanted,” says Read. “Their skills are very good technically, so that whether they’re on set, on location, or stage, they’re ready and able to hit the ground running.”
In other words, the British are coming… because Hollywood needs them.
[Correction: An early version of this story erroneously referred to Jack O’Connell as Irish. His father is Irish, but he was born and raised in England.]