What’s wrong with American actors? In particular, what’s wrong with male American actors? Why are so many of the great male performers in movies or on television foreign, mostly British actors? Worse yet, why are these British actors playing so many American roles?
Terrence Rafferty raises the question in a thoughtful article in the Atlantic.
He opens by quoting Michael Douglas and Spike Lee:
Douglas and Lee, just like the rest of us who go to the movies, are a tad puzzled about why so many good American roles have been going to English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Australian, and Canadian actors. The phenomenon may have reached its unignorable peak in last year’s docudrama Selma: the parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Governor George Wallace, and President Lyndon B. Johnson were all played by Brits.
Rafferty notes the increasing presence of British actors playing American characters:
On any given night of channel surfing or Netflix browsing in the past few seasons, you’re likely to have happened upon an English actor or two playing a 100 percent born-and-bred American: Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey, and Lennie James on The Walking Dead, Hugh Dancy on Hannibal, Charlie Cox on Daredevil, Freddie Highmore and Olivia Cooke on Bates Motel, Damian Lewis and Rupert Friend on Homeland, Eddie Marsan on Ray Donovan, Janet McTeer on Battle Creek, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson on The Affair, or Hugh Laurie on House. You might also have come across the odd Welshman (Michael Sheen on Masters of Sex), Scot (Alan Cumming on The Good Wife), Irishman (Colin Farrell on True Detective), Canadian (Taylor Kitsch on Friday Night Lights), or Australian (Robert Taylor on Longmire), each of them with an eerily undetectable accent. Crisis or not, this is getting embarrassing.
I have occasionally opined on this subject. I have tended to affix blame on the quasi-therapeutic enterprise called Method acting. British actors learn their craft by perfecting their diction to the point where they can play Shakespeare. Many of them are so good that they can easily speak with an American accent. Method actors get in touch with their feelings.
Not only does method acting ignore diction. It does not seem to teach actors how to become vehicles for the text. Knowing how you feel or felt is not the same as understanding the text. You cannot be in touch with your own jealousy and portray Othello’s well. It's not what you feel but how it comes across to the audience. The more you are in touch with your feelings the less you will be able to communicate Shakespeare’s vision.
Rafferty disagrees, and his point is well worth considering:
In the Godfather we actually have, Marlon Brando, the greatest Method actor of them all, presided over a kind of coming-out party for younger Americans whom he had inspired, and who had trained more or less as he had, with rigorous teachers such as Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg.
The current generation of American actors did not even have training in the Method. They learned on the job:
Sweating out improvisations and emotional-memory exercises at the Actors Studio or the Neighborhood Playhouse doesn’t seem the best way to get noticed anymore. The actors of the current generation mostly started going before the camera as kids, and got their training on the job: in commercials, then on TV shows, and then, for the lucky and/or unusually talented, in movies.
One can find many reasons to find on-the-job training deficient. Among them is that a child actor will probably have missed out on the kind of education needed to understand complex dramatic texts. He might well be capable of playing a cartoonish character that emotes and commits acts of violence. Without an advanced education in literature he will have far more trouble playing a subtle character from a complex play.
Rafferty notes that British actors learn their craft by doing Shakespeare. That is, they are trained to act, not to be stars:
The British send their actors to school for the sound reason that playing Shakespeare well takes a ton of technique, and Shakespearean actors are what English theatrical culture is designed to produce. American culture is in the business of making stars, which is more a matter of finding people who are able to be themselves—or some likable, reasonably plausible version of themselves—onscreen. Everything else, the Bard included, is gravy.
Dare I mention that a great actor must be able to do more than to play himself.
Acting in the theatre and acting in the movies are not the same thing. In the movies an actor can do multiple takes. He can spend all day on three lines. He does not, strictly speaking, need to memorize the entire script and play it without interruption before a live audience. Any errors will be edited out. Movies are more forgiving and in some ways less demanding.
It takes more work to memorize a role from Shakespeare and it takes more intelligence to understand what the lines mean. When American actors play Shakespeare they too often slur their speech or lard over the words with excessive emotion. They rarely give you the impression that they know what the lines mean.
In movies the image of the actor’s face and body is enlarged. It captivates the audience and draws so much attention that it forgives bad diction. In theatre, especially in Shakespeare it’s all in the words. Bodily movements certainly count in the theatre, but facial expressions count for less. Most of the audience cannot see them anyway.
For English actors, there’s always the stage: at any given time there’s going to be somebody, somewhere, putting on Shakespeare—or Chekhov or Ibsen or Strindberg or Osborne or Stoppard—and even if it means hauling your weary carcass out to some godforsaken provincial repertory theater, it’s a chance to act.
But, Rafferty issues a caveat. Young American women actors are largely more talented than their male counterparts.
He offers a list:
If you’re a producer or director looking for an actress under 40 and can’t find one you like among Williams, Russell, Chastain, Acker, Stewart, FitzGerald, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Reese Witherspoon, Elisabeth Moss, Dakota Fanning, Shailene Woodley, Rosario Dawson, Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, and Zoe Saldana, you’re being, I’d say, way too picky.
In just about every TV series in which there’s a young son and a young daughter—Mad Men, Homeland, The Americans, Ray Donovan—the girl’s story line is stronger and deeper than the boy’s, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The girl’s a better actor.
Perhaps this is symptomatic of a culture that tends to diminish boys in favor of girls.
If women are better actors, perhaps they work harder at their craft. Perhaps they read more and work harder at studying literature. They know better than to think that they can get away with emoting on cue and chewing the scenery.