By Patrick F. Cannon
There was an interesting piece in a recent edition of that bastion of intellectual inquiry, Parade Magazine, about the actor, Damian Lewis. I first saw Lewis in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.” If you missed it, it followed a company of soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division from D-Day to the end of the war in Europe. Lewis played the company commander, Dick Winters, based on a real soldier. More recently, he has appeared in the series “Homeland” as a Marine Gunnery Sergeant who is suspected of being turned by Al Qaeda; and in “Billions,” in which he plays a ruthless hedge fund manager.
These characters are, of course, Americans; Lewis happens to be British. And not only British, but really British, a graduate of Eton College and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Like most British actors, he served an apprenticeship with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and has returned to the stage regularly, as recently as last year. Oh, and despite his distinguished career, the Parade article focused mostly on the fact that he shares his red hair with Prince Harry, Julianne Moore and a singer named Ed Sheeran (I guess they forgot about Carrot Top).
Lewis is only one of many Brits who have played Americans on television and in the movies. To mention only a few others: Hugh Laurie, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Garfield, Alfred Molina, Jonny Lee Miller, Jason Isaacs, Dominic West and Tom Hiddleston. From other generations we can summon up Anthony Hopkins and even Lawrence Olivier. And how about the Australians? Russell Crowe, the late Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce and Anthony LaPaglia have all played Americans.
One skill their dramatic training has provided is the ability to do accents, beginning with the many regional accents in Britain. Transferring that skill to American accents isn’t that much of a stretch. Tom Hiddleson (Eton, Cambridge, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) was chosen to play country legend Hank Williams because he could not only speak like Williams, but sing like him too. Oh, and by the way, Hiddleston appeared as Hamlet last year in London, directed by Kenneth Branaugh, the actor/director who has also played American characters.
The British invasion has not gone unnoticed. Samuel L. Jackson complained that a black British actor could not credibly play an African-American part. To extend this logic, you would have to find a Dane to play Hamlet, or a Russian to play Uncle Vanya. What is needed for any part is a trained actor, and this is where many Americans fall short. For example, neither George Clooney nor Leonardo DiCaprio has had any formal training, or even graduated from college. Nevertheless, both have done good work in films. As far as I can determine, however, neither has ever set foot on a stage.
While DiCaprio is more talented than Clooney, it’s hard to imagine either of them playing Macbeth or King Lear, or a part in any play by Eugene O’Neill. But a serious actor will want to play such roles, just as a serious pianist will want to attempt the Beethoven sonatas. It’s what professionals want to do, and should do. It’s what Kevin Spacey did before his career was halted by sexual transgressions; and perhaps will again after a period of penance. A talent like his should not be wasted.
I mentioned that Damian Lewis returns to the stage from time to time. One of our greatest American actors, Marlon Brando, never returned to the stage after he started making movies. He always seemed a bit embarrassed to be an actor, as if it wasn’t a worthy profession. Yet, he did nothing else worthwhile with his life. He also claimed that playing the same role night after night was boring. Frankly, I think he was lazy. After all, it was a lot easier to play the Godfather than Hamlet or King Lear.
We do have trained actors, just not enough to go around. To fill the void created by the ever-increasing demands for “content” in the hundreds of channels of television – not to mention the movies and even the countless theatres thriving in New York, Chicago and other cities – actors are needed, no matter where they’re from. But inevitably the cream will rise to the top; and at the moment, the cream comes from Britain.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon