Anthony Hopkins in Westworld. The colossal megastar cast of Big Little Lies. Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in Netflix’s Ozark. It seems that nearly every second TV show being released stars actors that have gained major success in films. Rewind to fifteen years ago when Hollywood actors found television roles more repellant than cellulite and this phenomenon seems wholly bizarre. Think a little deeper, however, and it makes perfect sense; with the ability to develop a character over 6+ hours rather than just two, television is allowing actors to really showcase their talents and go deeper into more layered and more complex characters. TV is where actors prove their stamina.
A lot of people think Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were the first movie stars to take the plunge into TV from movies with True Detective, but if you do your homework you’ll know that it actually began in the 1970s with English actor Alec Guinness. A lot of people will know Guinness as the original Obi-Wan Kenobi, winning an Oscar for his performance in the 1957 picture The Bridge on the River Kwai and starring opposite Peter O’ Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Guinness was one of the most prolific film actors of his time and surprised audiences when he turned to television and took on what became an iconic role in his career, George Smiley in the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Guinness proved that television did not limit an actor’s talent but extended it and allowed them to delve deeper into a character.
“Rewind to fifteen years ago when Hollywood actors found television roles more repellANT than cellulite”
Fast-forward to the 2010s and there is a new television programme with a superstar lead popping up every second day. With so many being released from the BBC, Sky Atlantic, HBO and predominantly Netflix, it can be hard to dig out the best ones. A Netflix show you might have scrolled past is Fargo, based on the 1996 film of the same name. The show indulges in the anthology conceit with new actors, characters and settings in each season but still following the general format of one crime causing a domino effect of events that sucks everyone into heightened and mind-boggling conflict. So far so Netflix, but from Martin Freeman to Kirsten Dunst, Hollywood actors from both sides of the pond have starred in the show’s three seasons, with Ewan McGregor stealing the show in his dual performance as twin brothers in the third season. His bizarre accent and ability to fit perfectly into two completely contrasting characters demonstrates just how versatile an actor he is. The only performance that can match it is that of David Thewlis who stars as the bulimic, villainous businessman Varga, who completely disrupts the world of McGregor’s Stussy and those around him. McGregor and Thewlis have established themselves as talented film stars in the likes of Trainspotting, Moulin Rouge and the Harry Potter franchise respectively. However, in Fargo we see a quirky range to their talent that film inhibits.
Big Little Lies is a new development in the star vehicle TV show phenomenon as it reaches a new level of both critical acclaim (not foreign to actors in prestige TV drama) and cultural ubiquity. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are two of the most famous actresses in the world, both starring in a wide spectrum of genres from thrillers to rom-coms and casually winning Oscars as they go. Both endorse beauty brands and have high-publicised marriages and tabloid exploitation in their past. They definitely fall under the old-fashioned definition of a movie star. And yet, their best roles were arguably in the 2017 HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. Kidman stars as Californian housewife Celeste Wright, a victim of extreme physical and mental abuse from her husband. Her terror, fear and vulnerability, which transform to strength and bravery by the end, make for an unforgettable performance that offers a deep insight into domestic abuse.
Opposite her is the sassy, loud-mouthed yet loyal and compassionate Madeline Mackenzie, arguably one of the greatest television characters of recent years by Witherspoon in a career-best performance. With films such as The Hours, Moulin Rouge! and Walk the Line under their belts, their transition to TV is a truly exceptional one as they bring together a whole cast of actors who have had major success in films, such as Jurassic Park star Laura Dern, teenage icon Shailene Woodley and Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. This is television acting at its very finest, delving into every character attribute imaginable and discussing relevant and important issues from sexual assault to bullying. The only thing that could make it better is the addition of Meryl Streep, which we’ll see shortly in season two, set to be released in 2019.
As the year goes on, the demand for television roles doesn’t stop. Star of Oscar-favourite The Shape of Water’s Michael Shannon is currently taking on another BBC Le Carré adaptation with The Little Drummer Girl and film icon John Malkovich is set to be the next actor to take on the role of Hercule Poirot in the BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders this Christmas.
From indie stars to teen icons to Oscar winners, movie actors across all genres are making the leap to television. Maybe they’re chasing prestige, maybe they’re realising that ten one-hour slow-burn episodes allow them to explore their character to a degree that movies don’t allow, and they are finally able to see whether the grass, if not the money, is greener on the other side.