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British Actors Aren't Better Than Our Own

March 24, 2007

It's just that mainstream vehicles sell American performers short

There’s an old yarn concerning the collaboration between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the film “Marathon Man.” It goes like this: To prepare to play a torture victim kept awake for days on end, Mr. Hoffman forced himself to stay up for two straight nights. When the actor loped into the studio the next day looking disheveled, his Lordship is alleged to have said to him, “Dear boy, you look absolutely awful. Why don’t you try acting? It’s so much easier.”

Mr. Hoffman himself debunked the story, telling Neal Conan in a 2003 National Public Radio interview that he’d stayed up all night not to prepare for his role, but to party at Studio 54. But that hardly matters. People love to tell this story because it serves to uphold the widely held belief that not only are British actors different from their American counterparts, but they are better.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The conspicuous presence of British actors at the Academy Awards a few weeks ago marks the latest episode in a long history of adulation for U.K. performers at the expense of their American counterparts. Granted, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet and Peter O’Toole all deserved recognition for their fine work last year. Yet seemingly oblivious to the serious shortcomings of the Oscars as a barometer of thespian talent, the media have been trumpeting claims about the superiority of British actors.

Recently in the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty saluted Britain’s Oscar nominees for combining “the best of American naturalism with a rich theatrical and literary heritage that recognizes drama as something more than a slice of life.” Writing in the Guardian, American columnist George Saunders barely disguised a bad attack of anglophilia with a tongue-in-cheek tutorial aimed at persuading British Oscar winners to stop being “too articulate and grammatical” during acceptance speeches (“the way we Americans prepare for a speech is, we don’t”).

History may be partly to blame for the unfavorable comparison of American actors and what’s come to be known as the quintessential American acting system—the Method—with British performers and their performance techniques. Consider the vast influence of English playwrights and actors on the American stage over the centuries. From the early 1700s, professional performers began to migrate from England to the American colonies in search of new audiences, bringing with them English plays. American audiences were weaned on Shakespeare and embraced touring British stars like William Macready and Charles Kean.

Despite the fact that 20th-century acting in the U.S. had been closely associated with the Method—a naturalistic style of performance adapted from the teachings of the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky by Lee Strasberg in the 1940s—American acting professionals continue to look up to the English tradition to this day. Since the end of World War II, many young American actors have considered traveling to London to attend summer programs at major British acting schools to be a rite of passage. But very few British actors train at American institutions. Many American actors yearn for what they perceive to be a strong, subsidized acting culture in the U.K. and wish they could be as “steeped in the classics” and “immersed in the theater tradition” as their British counterparts.

There is indeed a strong case to be made for developing a solid background in the theater as an actor. The stage nurtures such qualities as projection, character arc and stamina more deeply than the fragmented media of television and film. Many great actors—both British and American—boast formidable stage careers. Some, like Marlon Brando and Maggie Smith, were able to adapt their skills to the screen. Yet to suggest that an immersion in classical literature and the theater is a prerequisite for good acting is preposterous. Johnny Depp and Renée Zellweger consistently display impressive powers of transformation in film without the benefit of a theater background.

There are as many different approaches to the art and craft of acting in the U.S. as there are in the U.K., and British and American actor training reflects this diversity. Different approaches are better suited to different kinds of genres and roles, and no single, rigid system equips the actor for all potentialities. Whether an actor attends Yale Drama School or the London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Art, he or she will take the same kinds of wide-ranging courses—from textual analysis and movement to voice and stage combat.

In so far as one can delineate distinct British and American acting styles (which isn’t really possible anymore), the so-called “British style” of acting, with its focus on technical proficiency, is not without its critics. As Royal Shakespeare Company member Hugh Quarshie puts it in “On Acting,” a book of interviews with U.K. and U.S. actors, “The British have a reputation for their facility for speaking from the neck upwards. But restrained passion is clearly not the only path to be followed.”

If perceptions of American acting are low, it’s because the public is generally exposed only to American actors’ performances in mass-market, commercial movies and TV series that rarely exercise their range and talent. The bland scripts, stock characters and emphasis on special effects do more to mask an actor’s abilities than to display them. Performing in generally smaller films with more carefully crafted scripts and deeply developed characters, British actors prevailed at the Oscars this year for good reason. Unlike many U.S. performers, they actually got to act. To see a true performance by a great American actor often requires looking beyond the mainstream: Seeing Willem Dafoe do his Green Goblin impersonation in the “Spider-Man” franchise is one thing; watching him embody Smithers in the Wooster Group’s production of “The Emperor Jones” is quite another. I don’t have to tell you which is the more satisfying experience.

It’s unfortunate that Hollywood and Broadway have come to stand for American acting, when much of the real talent lies beyond, in nonprofit theaters like Berkeley Rep and Chicago’s Steppenwolf. From Liev Schreiber’s careening Hamlet at New York’s Public Theater to Steven Epps’s deliciously vile Harpagon in the Minneapolis-based Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s “The Miser,” American actors consistently match their British counterparts in the classics. Meanwhile, experimental and new play companies like New York’s Mabou Mines and San Francisco’s Campo Santo continue to nurture bold performance talent.

When, in a recent poll, the Guardian asked, “Do the Oscar nominations mean British actors now outclass their U.S. counterparts?” 66% of respondents unsurprisingly answered “yes.” Britain brags about its superiority in the acting stakes, but let’s face facts: Ms. Mirren didn’t win the Best Actress prize simply for delivering a nuanced, vulnerable performance as Elizabeth II. America’s apparently endless fascination with British royalty doubtless had something to do with it. U.S. actors, for their part, should stop bowing and scraping at the monarch’s feet.



  • Chloe,

    Awesome article. Not only did I leave sunny California to study acting on the East Coast which I figured was more serious and classically rooted but then I went to RADA in London which I thought had even more acting credibility. So I can relate to the instinct to think the British are better but agree with your point and support of Americans.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 1, 2007 at 12:36 PM  

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