Last year, The Guardian reported that a growing anger was emerging in the US about the number of lead roles on American TV that were going to the British instead of homegrown American talent*. This wasn’t an anti-British notion, more an anger about America seemingly not producing enough suitably talented actors to take on these roles. In fact, Spike Lee thought it all came down to the training actors receive in the UK compared to the US (he argues that British training focuses more on character acting). Another theory is that British actors are possibly cheaper. The savvy American TV industry is not going to pass by an opportunity to save a bob or two (or should that be a buck or two?). It is also suggested that by casting directors going “across the pond” they are provided with a fresh pool of talent.
Whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that there are quite a lot of us Brits on American TV pretending to be American. It is safe to assume that a lot of the time the American audience may not even realise they are watching British actors and not in fact, American actors. Whenever Idris Elba met a fan in America, he had to resort to his Stringer Bell Baltimore accent, as apparently it would freak out his American fans if they heard him speak in his native London accent. Now that’s dedication to a role. In fact, I even think some British actors have fooled the British that they are American.
However, I think it is interesting that it is quite rare for a Brit to play an American in a sitcom. In fact, I can only think of Idris Elba as the hunky Charles Miner in the American version of The Office (there are probably others, but I struggled to think of any more). It’s not because we’re not funny, we all know we’re fucking hilarious. It’s just that when we do appear in sitcoms we tend to just play Brits.
When an American plays someone British, either they are absolutely crucified for their attempt at a British accent (think Dick Van Dyke, Don Cheadle or Kevin Costner) or they are lauded for achieving the seemingly impossible- an American doing a convincing British accent (think Gwyneth Paltrow, Rennee Zellwegger or Angelina Jolie- hold on is there a pattern here?) . The point is an American cannot play someone British without it going unnoticed. The British however can happily play someone American without even an eyebrow being raised.
So, here is a list of all those many Brits convincingly playing Americans on American TV.
- House MD. Starting with one of the most obvious, the Oxford-born Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House. The very British Laurie played House with such esteem that he won numerous awards for his performance over the years including two Golden Globes and two Screen Actors Guild Award. Also, along with delivering this outstanding performance, he also became something of sex symbol. In fact, in 2008 he was voted the second sexiest TV doctor ever (second of course to Clooney). What an accolade, something that not many Cambridge graduates** could claim.
- Sons Of Anarchy. OK so not only would Charlie Hunnam have fooled lots of Americans that he was American, but he actually fooled me. I remember perusing IMDb after watching several episodes of the fantastic Sons of Anarchy, and exclaiming to my husband that I couldn’t believe he was British. Then as I read on through his profile, I exclaimed again “OH MY GOD IT’S LITTLE NATHAN FROM QUEER AS FOLK“. Oh yes, in case you’re as slow as me, the very ruggedly handsome Hunnam once played the very sweet, but naive 15 year old Nathan who had a penchant for banging Aidan Gillen. His turn as American biker gang leader Jackson Teller is quite different from his days on Canal Street.
It’s worth noting that Dayton Callie who played the hapless Wayne (and also played Charlie in Deadwood) was born in Scotland, but was brought up in the USA.
- The Wire. Two of the main leads and rivals from the opposite sides of the law are played by two rather excellent British actors, Dominic West and Idris Elba (it also featured the above mentioned Irish actor Aidan Gillen). Apparently, most fans of the show were completely unaware of West & Elba being British because of their perfect Baltimore accents. The logistics of being British working in America became apparent when West required to spend more time back in the UK with his family, so his role was reduced despite McNulty being arguably the main character in the show. Also, Michael Hyatt who played D’Angelo Barkside’s Mum was born in the UK and was brought up there until her family migrated to the US when she was 10.
- The Affair. Man, I LOVE the Affair. It’s like a slightly more credible Dynasty, but with much better acting and much less shoulder pad action. Again, the two main leads are played by British actors and again one of them is Dominic West (gets about a bit, doesn’t he?). The other one is played by the brilliant Ruth Wilson, who incidentally starred alongside Idris Elba in British detective drama Luther.
- The Walking Dead. Right, so we may as well just call this a British drama with all the British folk in it, right? Oh I’m only teasing America. Of COURSE it’s not, but you can see my point. Four of the main characters are British. Andrew Lincoln (who the British of a certain age will fondly remember as Egg from This Life and as Simon from Teachers) plays the show’s protagonist Rick Grimes, then there’s Lauren Cohan who plays Maggie (though she was born in the US, she was brought up in the UK), Lennie James as Morgan and David Morrissey as the villainous Governor. Also, there are the fairly new characters Jesus (played by Tom Payne) and Jadis (Pollyanna MacIntosh) that are also British. Who knew we’d make such great zombie slayers?
Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan) – The Walking Dead _ Season 4, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
- Homeland. So, much like The Walking Dead, four of the characters are played by British actors. Damian Lewis played everyone’s favourite ginger terrorist Nicholas Brody, David Harewood who played the director of the Counter-terrorism Center David Estes (Harewood has now gone on to star in the new TV version of Supergirl), Rupert Friend (from Oxfordshire) played Quinn and Sarita Choudhury who played Saul’s long-suffering wife Mira. British actors are all over the place.
- Deadwood. Let’s just get this straight Ian McShane, who’s most successful role in the UK was that of a mullet wielding antiques dealer set in sexy East Anglia, then went on to play the sheriff of and brothel owner in the corrupt and crime riddled town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Set in the 1800s, Deadwood was critically acclaimed and was, as some say, cancelled far too early after three seasons. McShane won a Golden Globe for his performance as well as the show winning numerous Emmys and other awards. All a bit different from his Lovejoy days (though I think I can still spot a small trace of mullet).
- The Good Wife. The marvellous Good Wife has two of its main American characters played by British actors. Archie Panjabi as the well-loved Kalinda and Alan Cumming as the charismatic, but highly-strung Eli Gold. In the final season, a new best friend for Alicia was introduced, Lucca Quinn. Lucca is played by British actress Cush Jumbo (brilliant name). As well as Panjabi, Cumming and Jumbo, British actor David Oyelowo (from Oxfordshire) played the part of a judge in one episode. Oyelowo as we know went on to play one of the greatest Americans ever, Martin Luther King in the bloody brilliant film Selma.
- Without a Trace stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as special agent Viv Johnson and was set in New York. Jean-Baptiste was nominated for several awards for her part in Without a Trace. Interestingly, she was the first Black British actress to be nominated for an Oscar (for her role in Secret and Lies). Marianne can now be seen in the British detective thriller Broadchurch as the terrifying lawyer Sharon Bishop.
- The Riches starred two of my favourite British famouses. The glorious Eddie Izzard and the lovely Minnie Driver. They played two travelling crooks who pretended they were rich. Ironically, the tagline for this show was “They’re stealing the American dream”. Just like all those other British actors coming over to America, EH? I loved this show and was very disappointed that it was cancelled after just two seasons.
- Flashforward. Oh you know the one where everyone was suddenly in their future for a few seconds and it caused all kinds mayhem. It starred Joseph Fiennes and Sonya Walger pretending to be Americans. Sonya Walger was also in Lost, but played a Brit. Also, British actor Jack Daveport (who starred in This Life with Rick Grimes and Ultraviolet with Stringer Bell) was in Flashforward, but he was playing a Brit. Are you keeping up?
- Oz. Gruesome US prison drama Oz stars two London boys, Eamonn Walker and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. British people may remember Walker in In Sickness and in Health (less said about that the better, yeah?) and The Bill (what British actor with any worth hasn’t been in The Bill?). He has gone on to work quite successfully in the US and is currently in Chicago Fire. Akinnuoye-Agbaje also played Mr. Eko in Lost, has appeared in Game of Thrones and appears in the Oscar nominated film Trumbo.
- Boardwalk Empire. In my personal opinion, currently one of the best British actors we have, stars in Boardwalk Empire. Stephen Graham hails from Liverpool, but plays the American Italian gangster Al Capone and quite frankly he is terrifying in it. If you want to see more examples of his fine (but terrifying) acting you must check out This is England, both the film and the TV series. Boardwalk Empire also stars the handsome British actor Jack Huston (though we only get to appreciate half of his handsomeness in the show). The show also features Brits Kelly Macdonald and Charlie Cox. However, they’re both playing Irish characters. Cox has since gone on to play the American lead character in Daredevil.
- How to Get Away with Murder. If you think you’ve seen Alfred Enoch who plays character Wes Gibbons before, then you probably have. Enoch played the young wizard Dean Thomas in 7 of the Harry Potter films. He is the son of English actor William Russell and has grown somewhat from a cute wizard into a man quite easy on the eye trying to get away with murder. These things happen.
- Masters of Sex. Michael Sheen is not shy about playing the odd autobiographical role. The Welsh actor has played Tony Blair. Twice. He’s also played other real-life British figures including Brian Clough, Kenneth Williams and David Frost. However, here in Masters of Sex he plays the American scientist Dr. William Masters who pioneered research into human sexual behavior and sexual dysfunction. He’s been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role as the sexpert, but he is one British actor that because of his previous repertoire, I’d be surprised if Americans weren’t already aware that he was British.
- The Night Of was one of the best TV programmes of 2016 and features a plethora of British stars (ok 3). We have the show’s main protagonist Naz played by Riz Ahmed (known for his role in the unforgettable Four Lions), his rather hot, but slightly unethical lawyer Chandra played by Amara Karan (who was in the Darjeeling Limited and oh yes- tick!- The Bill) and Nabil Elouahabi who played taxi driver Yusuf and is best known in the UK for playing Tariq in cheerful Eastenders.
- Fargo. Aaw lovely, little Martin Freeman played the rather unfortunate Lester in the award winning TV show Fargo, inspired by the Coen brothers film by the same name. We know Freeman mainly from the original British version of The Office as Tim (that’s Jim to anyone reading from America). Martin went from this to starring in a rubbish sitcom about a hardware store, then he was Sherlock‘s assistance, then he grew large furry feet and became a Hobbit for what felt like forever and then he was nominated for multiple awards for being ace in this brilliant American TV show. Well done Tim. Dawn would be proud. And not forgetting that the lovely (and I mean luuuuuuurvely) Scottish actor Ewan McGregor played the American Stussy twins in the latest season of Fargo too.
- Breaking Bad It’s also worth mentioning Laura Fraser as business executive turned meth supplier Lydia in one of (in my humble opinion) the best American dramas of all time. Born and brought up in Glasgow, her American accent was apparently so convincing in Breaking Bad that many of her co-stars had no idea that she wasn’t actually American.
There is no doubt that there are many, many more that I haven’t listed (plus I haven’t even mentioned the Australians and Jim Robinson), but I’d be here all night if I tried to list everyone and I’ve got wine to drink and more The Walking Dead to watch. However, if I’ve missed someone obvious out, please feel free to comment below. Nevertheless, I don’t believe America should really feel under threat from us British. Even though there are quite a few of us popping up on American TV, the vast majority of characters are played by Americans, by quite a long way. Rest easy America.
*There was also an article written about this concern in American magazine The Atlantic .
**None apart from Laurie, in fact.