Hollywood Sees Quiet Immigration of British Actors


Author: Cordelia Kenney

If you watch the extra features and backstage interviews with cast members of movies, you may have noticed an emerging trend: Once the camera stops rolling, the actors start speaking with a British accent. It seems that more and more filmmakers are importing performers from across the pond.

Most of us consider Keira Knightley, Robert Pattinson and Emma Watson to be household names, and most of us are aware of their British roots. But a growing number of Hollywood faces are British, and their nationality often slips under the radar. Andrew Garfield, for example, who played Eduardo in “The Social Network,” and who will be the new face of the new Spiderman franchise, has lived in Surrey, England since he was three.

English concepts are beginning to dominate the big and small screens as well. “The Office” and “Skins” are just two television series modeled from U.K. shows. Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” a film based on King George VI of Britain and produced by British actors and filmmakers, is likely to sweep this year’s Oscars as well. Cinephiles and critics alike have begun to wonder why America is not keeping up.

One possible explanation to what some speculate as a decrease in the quality of American actors in Hollywood is the plummeting funding for the arts in the U.S., a trend exacerbated by the economic recession. In a report published on giarts.org, funding for the arts has indeed significantly decreased. The report summarized that “in inflation-adjusted dollars per capita, funding from local, state and federal sources has decreased by 31 percent since 1986,” and state art agencies are expecting an additional 12.9 percent decline in funding in the upcoming year.

Hollywood has always been known for its exceptional quality of actors and has historically served as a benchmark for success, but with decreasing financial investment to support such a costly enterprise as film-making, studios may find it easier to cut corners. A BBC article points to financial reasons as the primary deciding factor for casting Garfield as Spiderman and Henry Cavill, also from the U.K., as Superman. Both actors are virtually unknown stateside, so casting them costs significantly less than casting bigger American names.

In a recent article from nymag.com discussing the trend of British actors playing superheroes, agent Louise Ward points to stigmatization of acting in America as the culprit. “Kids who want to do theater or study acting … are immediately labeled ‘wimps’ or worse, ‘fags.’ Whereas in the U.K. … it’s not considered weird to act and play soccer,” Ward said.

Ward also points to the minimal length and discipline of training American actors put in as a distinguishing feature between them and actors from the United Kingdom. In addition to having a greater quantity of intensive training, British actors “know how to act with their entire bodies. And there’s a lot less work there [for the director],” Ward said.

Then, of course, there is the simple element of possessing unequivocal talent. Total Film writer Todd Wales said in a BBC article that Garfield and friends’ success in landing roles in the U.S. “is because they’re among the most talented actors on the scene at the moment. The fact that they’re of British origin is neither here nor there.”

JP Allen, an adjunct instructor in the film department and a professional actor and film director, offers an alternative insight. Not only has there been a “long standing relationship between British theatre and Hollywood,” but there are also enormous incentives for British actors to walk this way. Despite any recent criticisms, Hollywood still is unquestionably the center for commercial film. Winning a role in a film in Hollywood not only ushers in prestige and opportunity but also more income. Financial incentives and practical reasons alone provide enough motivation to seek an American role.

And drawing from the pool of foreign actors is nothing new, Allen adds. American film has been starring British actors for decades, from Christian Bale, who has made his career from American film, to Michael Caine. If anything, Allen would argue, it simply means that the “relationship has grown stronger” as a result of the “natural affinity between actors and directors” of the U.S. and the U.K.

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