Bloody Hell, Mate

British Actors and Why We Love Them

Is it the accent? Perhaps some Stockholm Syndrome-like attachment to the crown? Aristocracy nostalgia?

Probably the accent.

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Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown.

But that doesn’t explain Charlie Chaplin, now does it? Or British siren Vivien Leigh, who played both Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, iconic (and Southern) American characters straight from our literary canon.

Today, look at another American not-so-literary canon, comic books, and many of the major superheroes — Spider-Man, Batman (the Christian Bale version), Superman, Doctor Strange, and of course, Professor X — reveal U.K. actors under the masks and capes of these good ol’American crusaders.

So, we love them without the accent. But with it?

We really love them.

Cast members of Downton Abbey read a scene from the show using American accents on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Laurence Olivier, Julie Andrews, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggi Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, Hugh Grant, Idris Elba, the entire cast of the Harry Potter franchise … We can argue we accept their colonization of our Hollywood empire based on the number of British actors taking over major film roles, especially in recent years. (Though not everyone loves this change, especially as uniquely American stories, like 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln and Selma starred British actors and the upcoming roles of Steve Jobs, Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville will all go to Englishmen).

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Another reason — outside of the accent — that Americans love British actors nestles in the subconscious appreciation of artistic craft. British actors train in theater (there’s a reason why we jokingly refer to the “THEA-tah” when we talk about stage acting) and screen techniques, and American actors who studied craft are often penned into Strasberg or Meisner molds. Critics of acting craft often cite that a Briton’s flexibility in a role ties back to learning how to physically and vocally master Shakespeare and Noel Coward, so balancing the absurdities of superhero popcorn films with seriousness of intent works well for someone who has classical training and a lifetime of watching American TV and films. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s joke-theory, which is that British actors aren’t better, “they’re just cheaper than we are.”

So, going back to the source — British actors doing theater — we arrive at the pinnacle of audience experience. We get the execution of master craft delivered by that accent. (Would we love Benedict Cumberbatch as much if he talked like he was from Tarpon Springs or Carbondale, Ill.? Hm. Yes. We probably would.)

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If you’re someone who loves British actors doing theater, remember that our National Theatre Live series continues with Game of Thrones’ Salladhor Saan actor Lucian Msamati playing Mozart in Amadeus. Then you can see a passel of British actors (with some Yanks thrown in for good measure) tackle American epic Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2.